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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Dominykas (29), Greta (29), and Dorotėja (1) in front of the Cologne Cathedral,  Germany, 2022. Photo credits: personal archive.

Interview by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

Dominykas Norkūnas, poet, translator, and contributor to the cultural press, recently published his long-anticipated debut poetry book titled Tamsa yra aštuonkojis (Darkness is an Octopus, Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House, 2021). Poet and translator Greta Ambrazaitė made her poetic debut in 2018 by winning first place in the LWU’s First Book Contest and publishing her book Trapūs daiktai (Fragile Things) to critical acclaim. Her second poetry book Adela (2022) was also published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House.

On Poetry and Poetic Ambassadorship 02Chapbooks handed out by Dominykas and Greta at PDR in 2019. Photo credits: M. A. Piesinas

 

There are two images stuck in my mind when I think about Dominykas and Greta. The first is the two of them standing at one of the tables lined up along the wall of a big room in the Dainava center during the 2019 Poetic Druskininkai Fall, where publishers sold their books to the festival’s attendants. Only Dominykas and Greta weren’t selling anything; they were handing out copies of chapbooks they had printed themselves. These were designed by Greta and contained translations of niche poets, most of which were done by Dominykas. On the back cover of each petite chapbook was a giddy logo of a reptile wearing black sunglasses with the words BAZILISKO AMBASADA (Basilisk’s Embassy) printed beside it.

On Poetry and Poetic Ambassadorship 03Photo credits: M. A. Piesinas

 

What began as a DIY publishing project rapidly grew into a bespoke publishing house and cultural association that Greta and Dominykas co-founded together with poet and translator Simonas Bernotas in 2020. They now publish alternative and pioneering literature. Examples include poetry collections by Ukrainian poet Viktor Neborak and Austrian poet Hans Carl Artmann, Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s seminal Antipoems, the trailblazing debut of Lithuanian poet Ramūnas Liutkevičius, and works by the younger generation of Lithuanian poets.

The second image is that of Greta and Dominykas’s wedding. I first thought that the priest who presided over the ceremony had a lisp, but they later told me that he is a Spaniard who speaks Lithuanian. I now realize the pure irony of a Spanish Jesuit officiating a wedding in Lithuanian for two translators.

 

I met with the young power couple of the Lithuanian literary scene at a bar in Vilnius that flies under a Caribbean flag to discuss their work and entry into the publishing sphere. It was Thursday, and each Thursday is a jam night, but the bartender informed me there was still some time before the musicians would start playing. We sat in the establishment’s inner courtyard, and since Dominykas and Greta not only write poetry but also publish it, I began the conversation by exploring their own literary influences.

 

Who were some of the writers that influenced your taste in literature?

G: I recently recalled from my childhood that one of my grandmother’s neighbors was a lady who published her own books. She was quite the literary person, although I wouldn’t say she was much of a poet, perhaps more of a graphomaniac. Every time she came over to have a chat or bring us some onions from her garden, she also read her newest poems to us. And you know how children try on different professions as a form of play? She might have inspired me to write something of my own more than any famous poet. Talking about neighbors, the house of my childhood best friend’s grandparents in Skersinė was located right near the summer house that belonged to Marcelijus Martinaitis. And we both read Martinaitis. So my friend would occasionally tell me all kinds of stories about their poet neighbor, mostly the occasional bits of conversation between them when she was a child.

I got my hands on Antanas A. Jonynas’s book Krioklys po ledu (A Waterfall under Ice) in my early teenage years – in fact, Jonynas later became the editor of both my poetry books.  I used to borrow books from the library to read during the summers at my grandmother’s home in Žiežmariai, and Krioklys was one of the first books that I took from the adult poetry section. That book was my key to poetry, although I had tried writing much earlier: my mother and grandmother have saved up books that I wrote and sewed together, “published,” in 2002 and 2003 – at that time I was 8 or 9 years old.

On Poetry and Poetic Ambassadorship 04One Day: The Story of How a True Event Happened, Greta Ambrazaitė, ~2003. Photo credits: personal archive.

 

Later, at a more mature age, I discovered poets like Algimantas Mackus, Sigitas Parulskis, Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas, Mantas Gimžauskas, Bruno K. Öijer, Allen Ginsberg, and some of the classical writers like André Gide, Georges Bataille, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, and so on, whom I wasn’t necessarily influenced by because I chose to read them in particular but because theirs were the books that had a stamp of quality and which someone my age naturally had access to. But my key influences were the German-Austrian expressionists, like Georg Trakl and Paul Celan, and the good translations of their work by Sigitas Geda and Vytautas Karalius. Now thinking about it, I’m not sure whether, say, an adolescent, 16-year-old poet would naturally stumble upon these old, Soviet-published books that made such an impression on me.

D: I think they would. Sooner or later, an adolescent, 16-year-old poet learns of a place in Vilnius called Mint Vinetu and comes to browse their poetry section; they have everything.

G: Oh yeah, that’s your story.

D: Well, as a child, I was a big fan of Tolkien’s work and Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series. As for poetry, I thought that all of it was nonsense, probably because the only poets I had encountered by then were on the school curriculum, and I considered them sterile and boring. But when I was fourteen, my father bought me a Lithuanian edition of Jaan Kaplinski’s Evening Brings Everything Back. It was translated by Geda, so there’s a question of how much of it was Geda’s own reading and how much of it was true Kaplinski, but that book was really good. It was a mind-blowing realization that poetry could also be that.

A plainly written biography of Adam Mickiewicz then fell into my hands. Also, during that same period, I went to the Vilnius Book Fair and happened upon a reading by some poet, and I remember thinking that they were reading pretty funny stuff. It turns out that the poet was Kęstutis Navakas, who was doing the book launch for his satire collection Iš gyvenimo garstyčių bei krienų (From the Mustard and Horseradish of Life). So after Kaplinski, Mickiewicz’s biography, which contained some excerpts of his work, and my chance encounter with Navakas at the Book Fair, I realized that poetry can be good, interesting, and even humorous.

I then read Henrikas Radauskas, Zbigniew Herbert, Trakl, and Celan. Speaking of Celan, I recently edited a collection of his poetry that was published by Hieronymus Press, titled Kalbos grotos (The Prison of Language, 2022, translated by Linas Rybelis). For some time I was also fairly Eurocentric in my literary taste, but I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong to shun American poetry when I discovered Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens.

G: I just remembered this – around 2011 or 2012, two of my classmates went to an evening poetry reading. I think it must have been a reading of translations by Navakas, where he read texts by Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Carl Artmann. It turns out that after the reading, my classmates walked up to Navakas and asked him for the sheets of paper that he read from, which he gave them. And which they passed on to me, since they liked those poems so much and wanted me to read them as well. I still have those papers somewhere. The translations in them were particularly important in terms of my taste, too.

 

And in terms of your own poetry, is it accurate to say that you’re both inspired by dark subject matter?

G: I used to have depressive episodes as a teenager, so for me, “darker” literature had always been a kind of a remedy or salvation.

D: Ever since my first attempts at writing, many people told me that my texts are quite dark, but I never thought of them that way. To me, that “darkness” is like the gentle chill that you feel descending into a cellar on a hot summer’s day.

 

Speaking of darkness – you’ve recently published your debut poetry book titled Tamsa yra aštuonkojis. How long did it take you to finish it?

D: The book itself I put together in under a year, but the poems published in it span a period of 10 years. Those poems were quite different when I began working on the book, so my goal was to edit them in terms of style to establish more of a connection between the texts. During this time I remember reading a lot of Celan and Trakl and listening to a lot of Nick Cave’s music.

In terms of my book’s title, I consider darkness as a condition, likening it more to an organism than a natural phenomenon. It is a pulsating, undulating, living being, and what is more – it is an intelligent being. You can speak to it and even appreciate it.

Time stops during the holidays

I observe the cat with blue fur
its eyes fixed on a single spot
it freezes
like the minutes
on the clock during the holidays.
Dead relatives flock
to the table
swearing
cursing
their tongues
tintinnabulating
like clappers
torn from a bell.
They never
liked cats
mice lurk
in the shadows
of their gravestones.
Time stops
during the holidays.
The pet with blue fur
ceases chasing
ghosts.
The dead speak
in bovine tongues.
The tiny feline carcass
Freezes under the fir tree.
Mice lurk
in its little skull.

 

Greta, you’ve just recently published your second poetry book. Have you been writing it for some time now?

G: It’s been 4 years since my first book Trapūs daiktai. Since then my writing has changed in the way that I began doing it in bursts rather than consistently working on a book. With my first one, I had submitted the manuscript a couple of times before it was published, so I already saw that collection of texts as a single work for some time. But it has been somewhat different with my second book: the common theme that first emerged in these poems was that of memory, expressed through the history of my family, which over time became naturally intertwined with motifs of water. So there’s two thematic elements – water and memory, with memory expressed like flowing water, or the course of time as a current. After reviewing those poems, I realized that they’re similar and can probably be turned into a book.

Why is the book titled Adela?

G: It’s my great-great-grandmother’s name. She shares her last name with the famous Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, and based on this coincidence, some meta-poetic references were inevitable.

Adela Różewicz

            to my great-great-grandmother

behind the front door Adela
Różewicz leaves a bag of bones
on a day like this Adela
Różewicz picks tobacco leaves

reclining her head Adela takes apart
the stadium of celestial rays
as the earth’s interim governor
becomes the good lord’s goalkeeper

restless Adela
searches for ominous signs
and today Adela Różewicz keeps looking
irritatingly over my shoulder

a hundred and some years she lives within earshot
frozen into a first and last name
like the sound of sizzling fish that brings to mind
an old crackling radio

like the crust of the earth that steams
as booted meteors hiss
Adela Różewicz prickles her finger
stringing a rosary from bitsy skulls

a steel thorn under the nail
a hot syringe of anesthesia
her body, the net thrown over her
is dissolved by the acid of cancer

Adela Różewicz rises
above the operating table
while drips of her memory
trickle down my umbilical cord

Adela slides down the railing
through burrows of nerves into a tunnel of five generations
that ends here, behind the front door
where tobacco smolders in isolation

in the green thicket of margins
Adela Różewicz rests
and even if the words come together:
          Mam dwadzieścia cztery lata

the second line: ocalałem / prowadzony na rzeź[1]
doesn’t yield itself to be written

no fruit rises to breathe
from the broken water of roses

 

You’re both translators. Do you agree that there is some synergy between writing and translating poetry?

D: Yes – translation helps you maintain your form as a writer during the periods when you’re not writing. It is also an opportunity to learn how to write in different styles, so it’s a process that rewards you professionally.

G: I’d say it provides you with a closer look into an author’s mind, since reading a translation is not the same as doing it yourself. But it’s important to distinguish translation as a job and translation of literature as a matter of personal interest, especially if you’re a writer.

D: We’ve received complete translation manuscripts from various poets asking us to consider publishing them. It’s true that many poets in Lithuania shelve their translations because they have a hard time finding willing publishers, especially for translated poetry. For example, Gytis Norvilas sent us a full translation of H. C. Artmann’s book, which in fact he had done long before offering it to us.

On Poetry and Poetic Ambassadorship 05Books published by Bazilisko Ambasada. Photo credits: personal archive, Vaiva Žukauskaitė.

 

Right! Please talk me through the origin story of Bazilisko Ambasada (The Basilisk Embassy). Did you seek to fill a gap in Lithuanian literature or to simply become independent from other publishers?

D: Both are true.

G: We had found ourselves in a situation where we were already doing various jobs in publishing, from translation to editing and even book design, but for someone else. So on the one hand, we felt like we could use the freedom of doing what we want, since we already have the skillset required for putting a book into print. It was primarily our personal wish – if we’re doing this ourselves, let’s do it from start to finish.

On the other hand, we always spoke to other translators and writers in the Lithuanian literary scene who would tell us that no one would agree to publish the stuff they’ve been working on. It’s true that translated poetry is not a commercially successful genre. But the way it has works for us now is that we don’t usually put out requests. Instead, more often than not, we receive finished manuscripts from translators – and really established ones, well-known people – who simply don’t have the means to publish them.

 

In the beginning you only made chapbooks. Was this a strategic move?

G: No, at that point we didn’t have any strategy, because we didn’t think that we could turn this into a publishing house. It began with a similar situation for us: Dominykas had translated some authors and instead of sending them to a cultural periodical, we both decided that we could turn those translations into chapbooks. I had already started learning book design, so it wasn’t hard for us to give those texts a physical form. Among them were Dominykas’s translations of American poet Jerome Rothenberg, later published in the book Khurbn (Versus, 2020), for which he received the Dominykas Urbas Prize for debut translators. As time passed, a year later we realized that we should probably found an association. And here we are.

 

Why the basilisk though?

D: As we thought about the name for the association, we knew that we want to connect ourselves to Vilnius. The city has had a lovely legend from the Middle Ages about the basilisk of Vilnius – with time, the basilisk became known as a friend of the city’s residents rather than a dangerous beast, and seeing it was known to be a sign of good fortune. Thus, we interpreted the basilisk in our own way as a patron of literature, writers, and translators, while in our view every poet and translator became the basilisk’s ambassador.

 

What was the turning point that made you go from making these DIY chapbooks to publishing books with an ISBN code?

G: Our reasons were primarily pragmatic because we wanted to make these books more visible. We felt like we could still go to festivals and hand them out for free – like we used to – but we realized that in a way, books without an ISBN code still don’t exist. And you need to be a legal person to register books with ISBNs.

But it was also a change in perspective. When Simonas translated the whole of Nicanor Parra’s Antipoezija and found himself in a similar predicament of publishing translated poetry, this was another impulse for us to step up and publish the book ourselves.

 

I find it interesting that since the inception of the Basilisk Embassy, it has positioned itself not only as a publishing house but also as a promoter of culture. Can you speak to that?

D: Our principal work is and will remain publishing, but we also do cultural events. For example, we organized Viktor Neborak’s poetry readings that were hosted by poet Mantas Balakauskas and actors’ readings of Lithuanian interwar avant-garde poetry in partnership with the Oskaras Koršunovas Theater. Actually, one of the actors that performed in those readings is a school buddy of mine – we used to participate in reading competitions together.

G: And he probably won them all?

D: Yes… But one year, I came in second after him. [Both laughing.]

I think another mission of ours, alongside publishing, is to bring together a community of individuals, not only translators, authors, and actors, but also artists interested in illustrating poetry.

G: We really try to reach out to talented artists and encourage them to illustrate our books, like the work done by Austėja Jakas for Parra’s Antipoezija or by Dovilė Bagdonaitė for Richard Brautigan’s poetry collection. For our books we’ve also used visual work by Upė Pilitauskaitė, Algimantas Rokas Černiauskas, Goda Gurinskaitė, and other artists.

As the evening progressed, the courtyard filled up with people bearing musical instruments. Eventually they started jamming – I was concerned about the quality of the recording and so suggested we move to a table inside to finish the conversation. We did. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought looking at the TV on the wall across the room, blasting basketball news and deodorant advertisements full volume. I felt like the Hesburger jingle was my cue to ask the next question.

On Poetry and Poetic Ambassadorship 06Photo credits: Vladas Braziūnas.

 

How did you two meet?

D: We met at one of the poetry readings for the Poetry Spring festival in 2012. Greta was participating in the readings, and I was there only to support Simonas Bernotas, who was reading too. We were all still in school then. After the readings were over and everybody went out for a cigarette, I pretended that I didn’t have a lighter and approached Greta.

G: Initially I went there just to support one of my classmates. She was quite serious about herself as a poet and really wanted to participate in the readings, but I had already written some poems too, so she dragged me there and told me that I should read them.

The same evening after we met, I googled his name and found that Dominykas had already published some work in the cultural press, and I never envisioned myself publishing anything or being a poet, so I think I felt a little anxious about being approached by a “serious” poet. [Dominykas starts laughing.]

 

Since poetry was already a shared hobby, did it have an important role in your relationship?

G: It was a common topic for us. But it’s not like we exchanged poems.

D: Sometimes we did. We didn’t practice it though. As we shared our work more, and since it was never the axis of our relationship, we became painfully honest with each other over time. We’ll tell each other if it’s bad writing. Every artist deserves honesty.

And if you’re in a relationship, you need to be all the more honest.

G: It’s really good to share the same field of work with your other half.

 

The most recent books published by the Basilisk Embassy are an anthology of contemporary Belarusian poetry titled Baltai raudonai baltai edited by Marius Burokas and Vytas Dekšnys and translated by several notable Lithuanian poets; H. C. Artmann’s Neužgimusi žinia. 90 sapnų (The Unborn Message. 90 Dreams) translated by Gytis Norvilas; Alejandra Pizarnik’s Darbai ir naktys (Works and Nights) translated by Greta Ambrazaitė; and Sylva Fischerová’s Kruvinas kelis (The Bloody Knee) translated by Almis Grybauskas. The Basilisk Embassy’s upcoming poetry collections include a posthumous collection of poetry and artwork by Auris Radzevičius-Radzius compiled by the publishing house’s three founders – Greta, Dominykas, and Simonas – and edited by poet Alvydas Šlepikas; Monta Kroma’s Lūpos. Tu. Lūpos. Aš (Lips. You. Lips. Me) translated by Dominykas Norkūnas; Dovilė Bagdonaitė’s second book Takeliai žolėje (Tracks in the Grass); and three bilingual poetry collections. These are Rein Raud’s selected verses translated by Antanas A. Jonynas and Agnė Bernotaitė-Jakubčionienė; Richard Brautigan’s Tabletė prieš katastrofą Springhilo šachtoje (The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster) translated by Dominykas Norkūnas and Julius Keleras; and Zbigniew Herbert’s Šviesos styga ir kiti eilėraščiai (Chord of Light and Other Poems) translated by Žilvinas Norkūnas, with a foreword by Tomas Venclova.

 

1. “I am twenty-four years old / I was saved / from the path to the slaughter,” Tadeusz Różewicz, Ocalony. Translated from the Polish by Anna Maria Nowak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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