Gintaras Grajauskas (b. 1966) is a poet, playwright, prose writer, and musician. His poems are ironic and precise, re-thinking our everyday domestic lives and emphasizing certain clichés in our actions and thoughts. His experience as a musician can be felt in his poems, which are jazz-like and exhibit light-hearted attitudes. The poet is no stranger to pop-culture elements as well, though these are not the most important thing in his work. His is a rare Lithuanian poetic voice that does not put on airs, does not impose on you, does not suggest or elevate anything, does not have a national agenda, and does not moralize the reader. In the words of a policeman from one of his own poems, the goal behind Gintaras Grajauskas' poetry is to “write down exactly what happened.”

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas



We met with poet, playwright, and translator Gintaras Grajauskas in the Klaipėda Drama Theater, where Gintaras works as artistic director, and sat down in his office filled with papers and props of all sorts. The fact that Grajauskas had a difficult time making coffee for himself (after successfully brewing a cup for me) is a properly ironic introduction to a conversation with perhaps the most famous (auto)ironist in Lithuanian literature. Finally, each with a cup of coffee in our hands, we spoke of serious matters, like living further away from the cultural center, literature and family, irony and naivete, and music and theater.

You have spent the most of your life in Klaipėda, on the country’s seacoast. How did you feel about the city when you came here, and what changes have you seen over the years in its urban environment or its cultural climate?

I first came to Klaipėda when I was seven. We had moved here with my parents from Marijampolė (at that time it was called Kapsukas), moving out of a private house with our own backyard into a five-story building with many neighbors and a shared yard where all of the kids spoke either Samogitian or Russian – communication was difficult.

Having lived here for a couple of months, I remember returning home with my sister when we looked in our window and saw an unfamiliar bald man in the apartment. But then we realized that that’s not our house. Identical to the rest, only one “box” further down the street.

Speaking of culture… As I recall from my childhood, Klaipėda was a city of sailors and bandits, which only a handful of government officials attempted to civilize later on. When the State Conservatory opened some its departments in Klaipėda, the government began to invite artists to live and work in the city, especially painters, who were granted apartments in exchange for moving here. That’s when things began to change. Until then the prevailing atmosphere was that of a port city, a proletarian city, with aggression and ceaseless fighting between the different neighborhoods. Belonging to a particular clique was a given. You could expect to get a beating for merely walking through somebody else’s “turf.”


And did you participate in giving out beatings?

I did my best to avoid it, but sometimes I did. But I was still quite young back then, an “assistant gunner” so to speak.

I recently understood the effects that my childhood experiences had on me; it was dark, I was on my way home when I saw a group of young men approaching me on the same side of the road. I immediately started thinking to myself: “Right, that’s the big guy, I should take him out first, the other two are not as bad. Should I cross the street? Maybe I can walk past them?” Schooling of the ghetto.

The situation in Klaipėda did improve over time, but again things changed after the independence. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call this city “big” (although it is the third largest city in Lithuania) – it is rather a mix between a small town and a respectable port, which I enjoy a lot. Not very provincial, protestant in attitude, perhaps a little more Scandinavian, more “severe.” The people here are not talkative, concerned less with speaking pleasantries and more with doing their jobs. This city, simply put, grabbed hold of me, and I don’t bother thinking of living anywhere else but here.


If I were to ask you to retrospectively assess your development as a writer, your process of becoming an artist, would you distinguish any particular moments, people, or incidents?

Trick question. It reminds me of that popular formula found in old literary textbooks: “What events of the writer’s life had determined his decision to write prose?” But indeed there were some such signposts in my life. First, I began to read at a very early age, at three years old. I basically taught that myself to read: my sister would be doing her homework while I’d come and ask her questions. I began with children’s books but moved on to adult literature pretty quickly. I came upon many strange things there. I read Cervantes, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and many others. How much I understood back then is an entirely different question. I remember that I threw Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into the trashcan at least twice. I would become so infuriated with how kind and yet helpless Myshkin was that I would just throw the book in the can, but I always took it out later.

All of my childhood friends – not sure whether this was a conscious decision or not – were “bad kids,” often kids from poor families, not the kind of company my parents were happy to see me keep. I never wanted to be in the center of attention. I would much rather go on a trip to the outskirts of town with one of my “bad” friends, on a children’s expedition of sorts, like going swimming with a raft in a bog or something like that.

This gradually led me to become an observer rather than an active participant. Becoming an observer naturally leads you to become an artist: photographer, painter, director, writer – there is no difference. This is the craft of “observing people” as I would call it.


Perhaps living in Klaipėda, further away from the city center in Vilnius, allows you to observe the development of our literary field and our community with a certain level of detachment, and with a degree of irony?

Perhaps yes, but the irony is not only reserved to Vilnius. When you observe the world from a distance, sooner or later you begin to find some irony in it. Auto-irony follows soon – you are, after all, one of the many, not different in any way. This reminds me of Chekhov’s gaze: he was able to describe people with a very great love, yet there’s also a grin there, a mockery with sympathy.


Having read your previous interviews it seems to me that (1) you view poetry as an attentive and intense observation of the environment (and only later the act of capturing an observation in writing) and that (2) you are a social writer, meaning that the social dimension is principal for you as an artist. How would you react if someone called you a “poet-anthropologist”?

[laughing – S.V.] Well, an anthropologist is perhaps more of an objective observer, but I am a subjective one. By the way, my t-shirt says, “Anti Social Social Club,” so perhaps I could belong to one such club.


Do you consider your work in terms of periods, or more as a unified whole, with variations on a particular style?

More as a whole. There were no radical changes, or switches, or leaps. All of this is a walk down the same road, only at the beginning I was less privy to what it led to. You later realize that this is, rationally, not a very promising road, it gets narrower as you progress it, it becomes a fine line, a razor’s edge, with only a little of you left to balance. There are many ways to write, but I prefer the following: to begin with a gigantic personal ego and move further away from it, further toward the Other, yes, perhaps the other human being. I wouldn’t say this way is very convenient, but, in my opinion, it is a correct way, and an interesting one.

I don’t concern myself with poetry purely for its own sake or for the sake of aesthetics. What was it that Brodsky said? “Aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” Aesthetics is important and essential, but it is not limited to playing with embellishment or using charming, self-serving phrases.


You are an exceptionally ironic and auto-ironic artist. Would you agree that irony frees us from banality? And whether irony itself can be banal?

Sadly, irony can help you only up to a certain point. In the end you’ll see that irony itself changes nothing – you risk becoming stuck in a bitter world, the bitterness will grow and consume you, filling you with bile and turning you into a disgruntled old man, like so many others. One must avoid griping somehow, and the only way to do that is through auto-irony.

As a phenomenon, irony is neither promising nor should be encouraged. It is merely a form of self-defense.


Last year philosopher Ruslanas Baranovas published a notable essay titled “Prieš ironiją” (“Against Irony”) in the cultural weekly Šiaurės Atėnai, where he sought to show the weakness of irony and its superfluity in the public sphere and on social networks. In his words, “the decisive argument against irony is that when a particular situation becomes important, irony is disregarded and loses its power over the world. Ironists believe that they show the absurd and the inconsistent in the object under discussion. But for a long time now, power has not cared about irony. Irony has been commercialized; irony can be subscribed to. While we ironically expose power, organizing ironic movements or basking in ironic discussions on Facebook about how bad everything is, nothing changes. The world continues to rotate around its orbit of concern without any regard to the princes of irony.”[1]

I wholly agree. But usually these “existential ironists” do not seek any such positions of power in the first place. Indeed as one persists in irony, one must think: does irony change anything? You only get more bitter. On the other hand, I reckon that perhaps naivete is an attractive trait, too. But it’s very difficult for an old ironist to find naivete in him. But it’s worth a try.

I remember one individual who had the God’s gift of being naive. They would approach a stranger, greet them, and let’s say they need something, so they would ask that stranger whether there was any way of obtaining said item, as they need it for some particular purpose. Everyone would be quite astonished, to the point of saying: “here you go, take it, free of charge!”

Irony can easily be confused with a position of power, when the ironist is all-knowing and belittles the ignorant. But naivete is much more effective: you approach somebody on equal footing, perhaps even humbling yourself. Good journalists have a rule: never appear smarter than the person you’re talking to. Be informed, be prepared, but don’t be too smart.


Yet is it not easier to see naiveté in someone else rather than yourself? And in observing the naivete of others and describing it in literature, is there no risk of appearing like an elitist or a snob? In your writing, do you have a set boundary between satire and mockery or outright condemnation, or even indirect forms of didacticism and moralization?

It all depends on the poem that you’re writing and the specific subject you’re using. Mockery, severe mockery, even, is an absolutely appropriate method of work. Perhaps we speak of daily interaction, which has little place for irony. But in poetry it does no harm.

Concerning the naivete… One rarely admires instances of it in one’s own behavior – it is very easy to confuse naivete with folly and thus consider yourself a fool. Quite often I find myself being naive in the most primitive of situations. Earlier, I’d be petrified to acknowledge this, but now I see there’s nothing bad about it.


One of the poems found in your most recent book Nykstamai menkų dydžių poveikis megastruktūroms (“Effects of Exceedingly Small Sizes on Megastructures,” 2021), titled Pats geriausias eilėraštis (Best Poem Ever), portrays the scene of a father feeding borscht to his daughter. The subject of the poem thinks that this is an excellent idea for a poem, but also states that there is no poem to be found (this is a paradox, as the poem is already there, it is published). In referencing this poem of yours, I’d like to ask you the somewhat banal question on the relationship between poetry and the domestic sphere and family life. Do you find it difficult to reconcile these two domains? Perhaps poetry is convenient for its lack of daily commitment to a single manuscript and the freedom it leaves for the writer to observe and capture the fleeting moment?

Of course, writing a novel involves more time spent sitting down at a desk, but in terms of thinking, in terms of working and operating in “observation mode” – the poet is usually always in this state. For example, you might be discussing a particular matter with someone when you suddenly feel as if you’re speaking automatically, while thinking of something completely different, like the beginning of a poem.

As to the poem you’ve mentioned, that’s exactly how it happened: I had thought of a poem, but I forgot it before writing it down. Since I forgot it, I replaced it with another one. I might’ve not written it down at all if it were not for my daughter, who is now becoming old enough to frequent my book launches, so I must read this specific poem. Because she likes it a lot.


Your son Dovydas is also a poet. How does that influence the father-son relationship? When Dovydas published his first poems, I recall him being criticized for “following in his father’s footsteps”. Despite that, you both recently gave a joint poetry reading, not even the first of its kind.

There are known dynasties where father and son – both writers – acted like sworn enemies, and rebellion against the father was expressed in very plain terms. Maybe I wasn’t so much of a villain, so rebelling against me was not necessary.

Regarding following in someone’s footsteps… I think that young people will always find someone to follow. And if he chooses to follow his father, who is a writer, then that’s just fine. Especially since Dovydas has his own way of observing things, completely different from mine. Perhaps his forms of expression, perhaps even the characters of his poems might seem similar, but his method of observation is wholly different. And it is very fun to read poetry together with him. We’ve already done several of these readings: he reads one poem, I read another etc. The whole thing results in one improvised mega-poem.

It was strange in the beginning though: I never saw a single poem of his until he was 15 or 16. He only showed them to his mother and made her swear she wouldn’t tell me. When I finally saw these texts myself, I was in awe – we have a poet! Dovydas is also a drummer. When he was 8, he told me: “Dad, I think I could be good at playing drums!” I told him: “Fine, maybe you could. Here are some pan lids and pillows, go ahead and play.” In a year he was already practicing on a real drum set, and he was good, too! My other son Rokas has not strayed far from the family either. [Rokas Grajauskas, known by the pseudonym Jama, is a hip-hop artist – S.V.]


Since we’ve broached the topic of music: you were one of the leading members of the bands Kontrabanda (Contraband) and Rokfeleriai (The Rockefellers). How did practicing music, and your genre of blues-rock, influence you as a person? Do you miss it? Have you tried to supplement it with anything else?

In my opinion, anyone interested in writing poetry must learn the basics of music and composition. I have majored as a jazz bassist and as a choral conductor, so music has been a large part of my life. It is the perfect school of form – very practical, with little in the way of theoretical deliberation. You listen to a work of music, then you listen to another one, and gradually you begin to understand how they’re made. The underlying principle and structure are always the same, whether you listen to classical, jazz, or contemporary music. The same can be said of all forms of art.

I would not describe myself as a leading member in those bands. My concept – my biggest wish – was for a band to be a band, so that everyone contributes in their own way. During the Kontrabanda period, we spent a lot of time together, all of our music coming from shared experience and improvisation. All of us were the authors. We all, of course, had our differences and our peculiarities.


But you wrote the lyrics?

I wrote the lyrics. I did my best to separate song lyrics from poems. I think them to be very different genres of text: a poem must function on its own, while lyrics become meaningless without the song.


What were your thoughts on Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature?

It’s alright. To be fair, I’ve always viewed the Nobel Prize with a calm detachment. It can get quite peculiar.


So you are of the opinion that song lyrics are not part of literature?

Yes. Surely, not all songs are the same, and anything is possible. There is a genre of music that for some reason we call sung poetry, where they first choose a poem and write the music for it afterward. But for a band, the primary stage is usually musical in nature, with text following later. I even had my own method of writing lyrics for songs: a system of visual markings that I used to take note of every rhythm line and every accent (unintelligible “cardiograms” for anyone else, I’m sure) and then write lyrics based on it.


We are currently sitting in the Klaipėda Drama Theater, where you work as its artistic director (you previously headed the theater’s literary department from 2008 to 2018). Are there any parts of your job that you particularly enjoy doing?

Fortunately, I am no traditional artistic director, just like our theater manager, who is probably the youngest in his field in Lithuanian theater. He comes from a different background, has excellent managerial skills, and is someone who enjoys theater and knows his way around it – there aren’t many people like that in Lithuania. We work in a tandem of sorts, without any major disputes rising between us. We used to speak on what our theater needs even before he became manager. These conversations bore a logical strategy that we are currently implementing in practice, the fruit of which are the international theater festival TheATRIUM as well as the names of foreign European directors that come to our theater to stage their plays here. We have an excellent troupe of actors, but they are limited in their opportunities within the Lithuanian theater scene: we don’t have many good directors here, so other theaters are very eager to give them work. Given this shortage, we have decided to invite foreign directors to our theater. And we already see the results: our actors have become freer and more confident and have expanded their artistic range.

My  role in the process is specific. I do not favor an authoritarian approach in curating the repertoire. I always consult Tomas. [Tomas Juočys, manager at the Klaipėda Drama Theater – S.V.] We are trying to remain flexible and to divide a large theater into smaller segments and make sure that each is doing its work. It also involves going to other theater festivals and seeking out the most interesting directors ourselves.


As an amateur viewer of Lithuanian theater, I am often bothered by the overly pathetical style of acting and the excessive dramatism that the actors seem to favor. I always believed that a successful role comes not from acting but the actor’s ability to inhabit it.

Yes, good directors like to repeat the same formula to their actors: “Stop acting!” But what separates a good theater director from an average one is the former’s ability to make every actor, even the less capable, look good on stage, meaning that each actor gets a role that fits them best. So instead of doing their solo parts, the actors work together like an orchestra.


In 2019, you published a collection of plays titled Kas prieš mus (Who’s Against Us). It seems to me that collected plays, as rare a sight in bookstores as they are, haven’t enjoyed a wide readership: they are still considered a part of theater rather than pure literature, meaning that such titles will not attract the same readership as novels or poetry collections do. Is it possible – and is it necessary – to include plays in a wider circulation of reading?

Plays do occupy an ambiguous role in literature. I couldn’t tell whether they are read by anybody not associated with theater. Perhaps one or two such readers do exist. I myself used to read plays since I was a child, it’s great literature, given how much freedom it leaves to the reader’s imagination. I don’t think it’s important at all what genre we ascribe to it.


It was on behalf of your initiative that Tiras “Biblio,” a collection of Lithuanian translations of poems written by poet and journalist Sabina Brilo, was published in 2019. It is interesting to note that all of the funds for publishing the book were raised through social media – this is a rare occurrence for our literary scene. Do you feel that such methods of crowdfunding may become more popular in the future, especially in publishing niche and less commercial titles?

You know, I was always fascinated by small, mobile structures that are able to operate swiftly and effectively. In this particular case, I followed an impulse: I like Sabina’s work, I had previously translated and prepared some publications of her poems, so I merely thought about cutting out all the funding and official sponsorships. The people’s reaction was lightning-fast – we had raised the full sum within several hours. Moreover, in the times of the pandemic, while everyone was glued to their Zoom calls and The Muppet Show, we had this crazy idea of doing it again and publishing another book – a collection of verse by Solveiga Masteikaitė. And we did it again.

Sure, if the major publishers would not chase profits as much as they do, they could make money off of the less clever bestselling novels and allocate a portion of the proceeds to publishing a book by their favorite poet or prose author. This might be a form of patronage, founded on the concern for contemporary literature.


In one of your plays – Pašaliniams draudžiama (“No Trespassers”) – there is a scene where an old beekeeper has an argument with a romantic poet. The beekeeper says that people are doing everything in their power not to contemplate their lives, effectively avoiding any means of reflection, while the poet expresses his wish that “people are not afraid to be good.” The beekeeper then retorts by stating that people have no wish to be good, as goodness is equal to weakness. This argument (as well as the whole play) satirizes the role and attitude of the poet in society. Moving away from the play, what do you make of this role of the poet? Can poetry somehow influence a wider circle of people?

There’s a nuance here: the beekeeper is the same poet, only in old age. I would now be on the beekeeper’s side; a young and naive poet only elicits pleasant memories and brings a smile to my face.

But then again, why do we think that poetry must influence the majority? The majority is influenced only by very foolish and implausible things. Surely we remember the last couple of years, with all that talk about 5G, the pandemic madness, and all the conspiracy theories. One insane theory is replaced by an even madder one. These theories are what influence large numbers, even masses of people. All the while the sphere of poetry, however small, I think, still holds sway over its people, perhaps even exercising its ability to change them. The poet has no need to have an effect over stadiums or whole social networks. It is not the poet’s job to sow mass insanity. If you can really influence five or ten people with your poems, then such is the expected result, and one worthy to be happy for.





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