Antanas A. Jonynas (b. 1953) is one of the best-known Lithuanian poets. He made his debut in 1977 and since then has published a collection of poems approximately every three years. Jonynas is also one of the most distinguished translators of poetry in Lithuania and has translated Goethe’s Faust. Until recently, he was the chairperson of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. He is the recipient of many literary awards, including the Lithuanian National Award for Literature and Arts. His new poetry book New Sonnets was published in 2020.

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Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas


Writer and literary scholar Saulius Vasiliauskas talks with Antanas A. Jonynas, a poet, translator, and recipient of the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts.


Since after the release of your latest book you have been frequently interviewed, I’ve been wondering how to begin our conversation. I am interested in your habits, rituals, and daily life as a poet. Is your usual schedule structured and shaped, like a sonnet, or is there room left for improvisation and spontaneity?

To be honest, my daily life is somewhat scattered. I haven’t created a structure to my schedule. Everything flows according to my mood, or sometimes according to circumstance. The day can start and end in all kinds of ways (laughs). I don’t even have set working hours. When I was young, I used to work at night, then I got into the habit of working first thing in the morning, and now everything is muddled up and no longer fits into the rigid form of a sonnet.

While I was preparing for this conversation, I remembered how, after her first visit to Druskininkai Poetic Fall, a woman I know told me, “After I saw Jonynas dancing, I completely forgot he wrote poems.” Is music and dance an important part of your life? And how much dance is there in poetry?

That’s an unexpected question. I suppose dancing doesn’t really have any significant meaning to me apart from being a fun way to relax. I know next to nothing about the art of dance, even though I do occasionally find it charming or surprising. Music is, of course, much more meaningful. Various music. However, only rarely do I let myself fully indulge in it. I can’t listen to music as a sort of background noise, and it distracts me when I am working. It’s important to me to hear music, to follow it, and to read it like a piece of writing. Only then do I see the meaning in it.

Rhythm is the basis of both music and poetry. It’s the main connection between the two. However, the substance of the text in music is somewhat debatable, I mean, the verbal language of a song. Whereas in poetry, language is fundamental: poetry chases words, is born from words, and then, once it has turned into words, it dies... Or not.

The sonnet has always been a key part of your work. It was the foundation of some of your previous books as well—54 sonetai (54 Sonnets, 2013), Sonetai ir kiti eilėraščiai (Sonnets and Other Poems, 2014), and Paskutinės dienos Itakėje (The Last Days in Ithaca, 2007). Do you see your latest sonnets as a continuation of your earlier work, or as suggested by the word “new” in the title, is novelty and variation essential here?

To some extent, what is novel here is that the book was consciously composed as a book of sonnets. In other books, sonnets were mixed in with other poems, whereas here the sonnet is the structural basis of the work.

In this book, the sonnets are removed from personal sensitivities and the lyrical hero, and lean towards the epic arc, personage, and an ironic relationship with the mundane instead.

Would you say, then, that the form of the sonnet helps to create a distance from the sentimentality and to avoid pathos? 

It may help, or it might not (laughs). One can write very emotional sonnets. In fact, in my earliest books, there really were some like that, very romantic. Though, on the other hand, the sonnet is a rational form oriented towards restrained feelings, and I like that.

In your new book, the reader can feel the lyrical subject’s ostensible indifference to the world, his ironic and playful disposition. Should we see this as stemming from the disappointment of an experienced author who has seen recurrent tendencies in life and social models, or on the contrary, from curiosity and the ability to spot authenticity and be surprised by it?

I think my book holds a bit of both. I cannot escape my age and my experience, of course. Those experiences determine what you talk about and how you talk about it. As you go through life, you see the world repeating itself. We learn that the things that seemed novel and magical in our youth have actually been well known for a long time. We watch the changes in the world, the technology of the twenty-first century, but in the end all that doesn’t really alter our existence and our relation to it. You see that all those joys, and the discoveries of civilization and technology, are slightly naïve. You become more skeptical, but you can still remain inquisitive and even enjoy your discoveries.

In one of your sonnets, you write, “so let’s relax as the night arrives./I already know the world survives/as long as poetry exists, or its lack.” (p. 27) These are beautiful lines, but at the same time, they appear to romanticize and even overstate poetry. Whereas the sonnet “Poeto kambarys” (The Poet’s Room) creates a self-ironical distance: “A shabby lamp-shade –/what an eerie light it made! –/collected dust galore.//The picture was not ruined/by a goblet of red vermouth,/only the skeleton of a youth/in the corner was cause for rue.” Even though these are just two unrelated examples, I would say that your work both idolizes poetry and makes fun of the “poetry-centric” approach. How about reality? Would you say that poetry is your main priority, the central axis of your life? Or do your many years of experience mean you are now looking at poetry from a distance, from the double perspective of both an insider and an observer?

Sometimes you can view things ironically, or from a distance, but that quotation, “so let’s relax as the night arrives./I already know the world survives/as long as poetry exists, or its lack,” is not exactly mine. I was paraphrasing someone. I don’t remember who it was. In a way, that is how I see it. My whole life is tied to poetry. If I tried to deny it, I would be denying my whole life and its meaning. If we were to look further, seeing poetry not just as a poem, but as an aspect of existence—which is how I define it for myself—then it is poetry that imparts meaning to the world. Without this poetic meaning, the world becomes rather insignificant, just a series of consecutive events.

Let us move back in time and discuss becoming a poet. You made your debut with the collection Metai kaip strazdas (A Year Like a Mockingbird, 1977) which brought you the Zigmas Gėlė Literary Prize for the best poetry debut. Even before that, your writing had already been published and reviewed in the press. One of the earliest publications that appeared in a 1974 issue of the Tarybinis studentas[1] (The Soviet Student) was written by a fourth-year student of Lithuanian philology, with an afterword by Saulius Žukas (I produce a copy of the paper S.V.) How do you remember your early years as a poet, the first opinions and reviews? Were they important to you at the time, and did they help you become stronger emotionally?

Any criticism is of great importance to any young individual, especially positive feedback, as it markedly boosts self-confidence. I believe that had my early work been harshly judged by someone whom I trusted and valued, I may not have continued writing. If you see you can’t do something, then why keep doing it? It’s all well and good to have blind faith in yourself (laughs), but I think the world would benefit from fewer such “unreserved self-believers.”

Were there many overconfident people in your university environment?

Not just in literature, but the literary world does see people who are poor writers, who write poorly their whole lives, and yet they keep writing and get published under the impression that they are just unappreciated. Were you actually any good, someone would inevitably notice and appreciate your work. A confirmation that you did a good job always lends self-confidence and desire to keep working, improve, believe, and search for new things.

At that time, Saulius Žukas and I were close friends. He was critical of my work, but his feedback was well-meaning. It was a great support to me; I found it both important and useful. Actually, I don’t think he understood my second book, Atminties laivas (The Ship of Memory). It was different, multifaceted, and maybe a little uneven, but it was the cornerstone of all of my later texts.

Was the literary circle at the university important to you, or was it the informal connections and a bohemian lifestyle that left a deeper impression?

To be honest, my involvement with literary groups was sporadic. I would drop in occasionally, and even Elena Bukelienė[2], it was a little later, after graduation, that I would visit her. For me, friendships with some of the people who were studying at the university at the time were more important. Our group was completely informal. Of course, there were psychology students Saulius Tomas Kondrotas, Liutauras Degėsys, and Romas Daugirdas, who was slightly older, and a few others. A group of us that included Rolandas Rastauskas, Josifas Josadė, Antanas Gailius, and Aivaras Mockus used to release the Pegasas (Pegasus), a placard newspaper. As it was not censored, it would be promptly taken down. These groups had a stronger influence on me. There also were university literature competitions. In the third year, I won first prize, which was also very important; it was recognition by professionals. The friendships I had forged with some of my course mates—Juozas Erlickas, the accomplished writer Kazys Jonušas, and Kęstutis Kaminskas—were of great importance to me. We formed the Eclectic Association: we published single-copy newspapers, poetry almanacs, and various brochures; we wrote and made tape recordings of plays and operas. There was a lot of humor, satire, and parody, but we also learned our craft and experimented with different forms, styles, and genres.

I kept slightly different but no less important company outside the university, in the former cafes in Gorkynė[3], who included Edmondas Kelmickas and even Rimas Burokas.

In one interview you mentioned your friendships with composers Mindaugas Urbaitis and Onutė Narbutaitė.

The composers did have a close-knit community: Algirdas Martinaitis, Vidmantas Bartulis, Onutė Narbutaitė, Faustas Latėnas, and others. Most of them also wrote poetry. We used to organize various events, with students from both the conservatoire and the Art Institute. At the time, it was natural for artists to forge connections with peers from other genres—composers, musicians, painters, thespians. A little later, this dynamic was merrily bolstered in camps for creative young people organized by the Komsomol. All kinds of young artists from across Lithuania would gather together and, contrary to the intentions of the organizers, would foster a bohemian environment of a rather opposite sentiment.

During the Soviet occupation, you travelled far and wide in the Soviet Union, and it only takes a glance at your Facebook page to realize that you are still a keen traveler. I would like to hear your thoughts on the state of the traveler and travel. Does it interact with creativity? How important is travel to you?

Travel is truly important to me. I don’t know, maybe it is part of my nature. I’m curious. I want to experience the world, see different sights, and meet and get to know various people. You may not become close friends with them, but you can still strike an acquaintance of some sort or another. I want to see how different people live in different environments.

I wouldn’t say that travelling directly inspires my writing. Getting to know the world as much as possible is important in its own right. At a later time, all those experiences, sights, and people, already forgotten, naturally resurface in memory and settle in my writing.

In the last decade, numerous studies into the literature of the Soviet era have been carried out. I’ve noticed that you are quite active when such books are launched: you argue and contribute to the debate. Does it imply that the way this multifaceted period is decoded and the aspects accentuated are important to you? Are you willing to question the interpretations?

There was a time in the past when I wanted to argue much more, but I’ve mostly come to terms with it now (laughs). It is just strange to see how differently the new generation of scholars and the living witnesses interpret the same events. It was this discord that annoyed and disturbed me. For example, my peers’ opinions on the political, cultural, and social issues of the inter-war period would, inevitably, differ from the opinions of those who witnessed those events. Our judgement is based on our own experiences and some ideological values or other, whereas the contemporaries of the events in question see things slightly differently. But that’s just how it is.

So there is no “one truth,” just different viewpoints and arguments to support them?

Yes, everyone is both right and wrong. I fully accept that. It’s just that any definitive statements are always one-sided, while reality is made up of various perspectives, ones which we are not necessarily capable of discerning if we haven’t lived through the events in question.

Let us return to the present day. Druskininkai Poetic Fall is around the corner. One of the main events is an evening of poetry reading by young poets during which you pick your favorite, who then receives the Pushkin Prize you established. When you listen to the work of young writers, how important is the form of their work?

Once I found a porcelain figurine of Pushkin in a flea market, which inspired me to establish the Pushkin Prize; later the prizes kept changing, and now it can probably be called just the Jonynas Prize. In terms of form, what do we see as form? How poetic substance is expressed is, of course, important. It is possible that the “how” is more important than the substance. Maybe it’s not form that is paramount, but the relationship with language: the extent to which a young poet remains in control of the poetic language, how lively, authentic, and cultivated the feeling of the poetic language is. Although it is possible that it is an innate skill: either you feel this language or… As for whether the writing is traditional or non-traditional, the forms used and, after all, even the content— all that is a secondary matter.

Among your more recent projects, you have taken on the role of an editor. In 2017, you and Palmira Mikėnaitė compiled an extensive poetry collection by Jurgis Kunčinas. I read it with great pleasure; I had missed this kind of text, self-directed irony, and playfulness in the field of contemporary Lithuanian literature. The collection of Ramūnas Kasparavičius’s poetry that appeared last year was also notable: it was different, paradoxical, and authentic. What sort of an editor are you, I wonder?  Are you strict and demanding, or do you try to convey the full range of the author’s creative output?

I don’t have a lot of experience as an editor. As for these two books, my aim was to offer a general overview of the authors’ work and the diversity of their poetic output as opposed to just selecting their best works. I believe that these two poets were undeservedly shunned in the context of contemporary poetry: their work is not as well known, or even acknowledged, as it should be. Thus, some of the texts I selected may appear weaker or peripheral, but they help to showcase the multifaceted nature of the authors.

Still, neither collection resonated well with the public. I think they deserved better. Why do you think that was the case? Are we prone to sorting our literary figures into somewhat unambiguous little drawers, viewing them with inertia, and only rarely—too rarely—revisiting and reinterpreting other aspects of their work, which leads to refusing to accept Kunčinas, for example, as a poet?

I believe everything lacks resonance these days: not just the outstanding literary writing and prominent figures who remain on the sidelines, but also those positioned very close to the “mainstream.”

In our contemporary culture and in literature, more extensive and commanding contemplation is missing. A book is released, someone is momentarily dazzled, some praise is handed out, and then it all fades away. I don’t know if there needs to be some sort of a hierarchy or a canon, but I miss a comprehensive picture. Sometimes even very good texts drift out of sight. Contemporary literary criticism is almost non-existent, or there is way too little of it. The literary criticism that does exist is woefully under-analyzed. A critic pens a review and no one questions their verdict.

How do you view the literary field from the organizational or administrative viewpoint? I mean, of course, your former role as the chairman of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. Was it difficult to be in charge and work with your colleagues? Is it a myth that writers are not the most organized of people?

It’s difficult to say (laughs). If you look at the wide variety of literary festivals in Lithuania, it’s hard to suggest that the writers are a disorganized crowd. They are organized enough. They even supervise and structure most of the festivals themselves.

Druskininkai Poetic Fall is curated by Rūta Elijošaitytė, though.

It is now, but originally it was the creation of Kornelijus Platelis and his environment. It goes without saying that today it would be very difficult to organize an event without, say, a manager. However, without the active participation of the writers themselves, not just as participants but also as organizers, these festivals would be very difficult to put together.

The Writers’ Union is in a complicated situation: it fulfils certain functions, but much like other creative unions, it still struggles to secure a place in the modern world. Such institutions are vital, but they could do so much more to enrich our culture. At the very least, they unite art creators into a cohesive community.

Quite recently, you published a novella in the journal Literatūra ir menas (Literature and Art). With more and more Lithuanian poets releasing novels and collections of essays, do you ever feel the urge to turn to prose?

I don’t know, with my nature, writing prose is hard work (laughs).

But you have done it, haven’t you?

Just a short novella. I have, of course, had pipe dreams about writing a novel, and I even came up with some ideas for a novel. But just the thought of writing it all down dispels such fancies.

When I was working on my short story, I realized that writing prose can be enjoyable, too. Because to me, writing a poem is an adventure, an enterprise. I enjoy the process. Writing helps me discover things I would not otherwise know about. So does translating.

When you translate a text, are you ever tempted to improve on the original and iron out some perceived flaws?

I don’t know. Usually I choose to translate texts that I can learn from, not ones that I can improve. Though, on the other hand, there are always many options in translating, so in a way, choosing the best equivalent could potentially improve the text.

To conclude our conversation, I would like to quote from your essay “Eilėraščio veidrodis” (The Mirror of a Poem), published in the magazine Moksleivis (The Pupil) in 1983.  In it, you asked rhetorically, “Why do we write? What is it that pushes us to a sheet of paper, hands us a pencil, and dooms us to a sleepless night, ecstatic inspiration, or torturous doubt over a single written word? Is it the innate desire for beauty and harmony that we so often miss in our everyday life? Is it the aspiration to build a more perfect and nobler world, accompanied by the painful realization that it is not art that changes it? Or is it just a vain pursuit of fleeting fame and the desire to see one’s poem in print?” You were thirty when you raised the question. How would you answer it today?

Oh, I didn’t understand my question very well (laughs). Why do you write? Today it’s even harder to answer. You write because at this point it would be difficult to take up something else. I need writing because I discover things through it. Not necessarily only in myself. Possibly in the world as well.


1. Žukas, S., ‘Antanas Jonynas’, Tarybinis studentas, 13 December 1974.
2. Elena Nijolė Bukelienė (1934-2006) - Lithuanian literature researcher, doctor of humanities.
3. Gorkynė – now it is Pilies street in Vilnius Old Town. In Soviet time this street was a favourite gathering place for artists, hippies and other non-conformists.




Translated by Gabija Barnard

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