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Antanas Šimkus (1977) was born in Vilnius, where he finished secondary school and graduated with a degree in Lithuanian studies. Šimkus has published three poetry collections (Skradžiai [1999], Sezonas baigtas [2010], Vakaras dega [2022]), and the children’s poetry book Vaizdai iš gyvenimo bobulytės ir kt. (2012). For his second poetry book, Šimkus received the Young Yotvingian Prize (2010) and the Vilnius City Mayor’s Prize (2012). His poetry has been translated into English, Latvian, Russian, Chinese, and Ukrainian. Šimkus has has also held the position of department editor at the weekly Literatūra ir menas, culture editor at Bernardinai.lt, and chief editor at the journal Metai. Since 2021, Šimkus has also worked as a teacher at a gymnasium in Vilnius.

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Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

I met Antanas Šimkus – poet, literary scholar, and editor-in-chief of the cultural monthly Metai – more than ten years ago, when we established a society for young poets and writers at the Faculty of Lithuanian Studies of Vilnius Pedagogical University. At that time, Antanas agreed to support the initiative and be the society’s curator, a mentor for the young writers. I remember him as an especially tactful, subtle, responsible person who was very invested in literature. Perhaps this is the reason why our conversation naturally covers not only poetry and writing but also the attitude and personal choices of a writer as well as the topic of passing time.

 

Your poetic attitude separates you from your contemporaries (especially the younger writers). You maintain a close relationship to the literary tradition without seeking novel or (post)postmodern means of expression. Would you agree to be called a poet-lyricist? Does poetry mean encoding and transmitting personal thoughts, experiences, and observations?

Poetry means being myself. The form that the poem fits is not that important. The existing means of expression are enough for me. At least for now. I respect those who seek and discover novelties in this field, but perhaps I’m more interested in other things.

Speaking of “poet-lyricist” – I’m not particularly sensitive to names and titles. I suppose I could be a lyricist, but I don’t consider myself among the pure ones, because I still see some traces of irony or cynicism in my work. Just like I was never a pure-blooded “avant-gardist” or “bard of the absurd,” as some critics offered to describe me.

 

The frequent motifs in your most recent book, Evening on Fire – wind, rain, sun, shadows, seasons and months, solitude, love, death, memory, mother/father/child, birds – testify to your commitment to traditional poetry and the universal blueprints associated with nature and humanity. Is this a conscious or intuitive choice?

Yes, these junctures with the tradition are frequent. Do I plan them? Perhaps not words, but their repetitions and reiterations are part of some category of the conscious. Maybe there’s nothing more to it. Perhaps I’m a person who essentially writes only a handful poems throughout their life. I would vote for the intuitive path. It is not a very smooth path, and I can’t say where it’ll take me, but then again, all our paths are clear only on a map for tourists.

 

The tropes found in your poems are often melancholic, at times even gloomy, for example: “the voice of the soul silenced by laceration” (p. 10); “the stallions of light gallop to nowhere” (p. 15); “shadows gather to shoot away their solitude” (p. 50). It seems that your earlier poetry collections were more ironic and playful. Do you think that the metaphors and the imagery of a poem are directly influenced by the writer’s state of mind or a particular stage in life? If so, what stage(s) were you going through when writing this book?

Well, I suppose it’s a question of how many ironic poems have made it to the collection. I consider them to be too easy, too easily written, so I don’t take them seriously. I could associate them with stages in my life, but I wouldn’t want to generalize – I’d say that everything revolves around a particular direction in life. I’m less interested in playing, outplaying others, or entertaining; perhaps in life, too, I seek genuine presence, authenticity. Whether I achieve it or not is a wholly different question.

 

It is difficult to write poetry about love and feelings without being trivial or vulgar. Your poetry deals with love. Aren’t you afraid to bare yourself or be criticized for being too decorative in your lyricism? (“I like lofty words, / They’re so funny, so bare, / So little before the light flies away.” p. 58).

You don’t always pick the themes for poems like you were at some warehouse – like, you just take it from a shelf and now you’re bringing this meaningful, this precious, this envisaged thing to the people. So I write it as it comes to me. I understand the risk of being viewed in a bad way, but I’ve been like this since school – I don’t pursue the perfect expression of theme or language – my books are made from what’s important to me. I can’t run from myself. I’m becoming more aware of this as time goes on. On the other hand, what else should I write about, if not love? I would bare myself even more by not writing about it.

 

You write in one of your poems: “My home is in the internal city, / on that almost vanished by-road. / I remember its sun in the fall, / when children’s hours pitter-pattered through rooms.” (p. 33). Do you remember yourself as a child? Does the internal city retain any traits from the past? Do the children’s hours leave an imprint on poetry?

Perhaps we shouldn’t identify the child in the poem with me in childhood. In other words, the childhood in these lines is not only mine.

Speaking of personal things – as a child I felt quite lonely, even though I grew up with a brother. I liked to wander outside and explore the world, and I had a good environment for that – a field, a forest, a river. I liked ball games and reading books. So the periods when I wouldn’t come home on time were replaced by the periods when I wouldn’t leave the house all day, since I read from morning to evening. I believe that the trees, birds, and twilight that stumble into my poetry are largely the legacy of my childhood. Now I think that maybe the abstractness of their imagery comes from a time when you already knew that it’s tree, that it’s a living being, but haven’t fully grasped the term itself.

 

I would venture to say that you are a diplomatic, tactful, modest person, and a listener. Your poetry, too, does not contain many instances of rebellion (compare with the position of Gytis Norvilas, who says that “poetry should be bitter, uncomfortable, it should irritate and constantly harass both the reader and the language itself”). If I understand correctly, earlier you were more of a rebel (both in poetry and in life). How do you see your attitude changing over the years – if that’s not too intimate of a question? Were there certain events that proved to have the greatest influence on you?

I don’t know of a way to define poetry. Surely the writer’s temperament has something to do with it. People are different – their worlds, including poetry, or the thing that we define as poetry, are different too.

It’s true that I was more demonstrative in adolescence or in early adulthood; back then it seemed like yelling and being provocative could do more than having a calm discussion. I suppose that as time went on, I reached the conclusion that both yelling and being silent can be equally ineffective.  I saw myself as somebody who wants to be more moderate in speech and in presence.

The changes in my attitude (if there were any) were natural – the wish to lead a slower life was more or less determined by lifestyle changes or a desire for introspection. But I can’t think of any turning points in particular. In terms of my inner world, its intensity or tension, I’ve stayed the same (for better or worse). What’s changed is that I now realize that there are other things as important as these.

 

How would you define the relationship between poetry and faith? In your case, are these “communicating vessels,” or are they separate dimensions altogether?

That’s a difficult question. To an extent, I agree that writing poetry can be traced back to sacred rites, so some texts may be considered expressions of a relationship with the Creator or forms of prayer, and so on. What’s also true is that faith and religious practice are two different things. And writing, too, shouldn’t necessarily represent acts or symbols of faith, even if the writer is a believer. Although imagery associated with churches, angels, or demons does occasionally come up in my writing, I doubt whether it speaks to religion or faith more than merely a desire to explore sacred themes.

 

It is no secret that Valdemaras Kukulas – a Lithuanian poet and literary critic – was, and probably still is, a very important figure for you (you even dedicated your dissertation to him). This might be a banal question, but is it important to have a figure of authority in literature?

Valdas was one of the people who showed me that friendship in literature is possible. I wouldn’t say it’s worthwhile to seek authority on purpose, but if it comes naturally – why not? I consider myself lucky to have had older friends who gave me books and shared their ideas with me without wanting anything in exchange. In one way or another, we all acquire figures of authority in literature, seen through the books we read, and sometimes we don’t even notice how certain adopted ideas grow to influence our own thinking.

 

You are the editor-in-chief of the journal Metai, which has always been regarded as the most-respected literary periodical in Lithuania. How would you describe its readership today? As the chief editor, do you feel a certain pressure to maintain the journal’s prestige within the literary community?

The readership is mostly writers, members of the literary community, and literary enthusiasts. I don’t feel pressure, but rather an obligation to maintain the same level of quality that was created by the people who worked here before me. It is also an obligation to fight the feelings of despair or helplessness when you realize that the journal manages to stay afloat in the market by means of a miracle rather than the laws of the economy or when you can’t pay your colleagues the amount of money that they deserve for their work and effort. On the other hand, Metai is not an exception – all cultural periodicals are more or less going through the same thing.

 

A complete spectrum of literary genres can be found lying on your editor’s table (or at least in your email inbox) – poetry, fiction, essays, literary criticism, and interviews. You’ve also been an editor for the annual Poetry Spring anthology for three years. Reading such a varied corpus of texts, do you see in them any trends or common attributes?

It’s true that there is no shortage of texts in my environment. On the table, under the table, in other places… It seems like there’s no lack of variety, but over time, you do notice that these texts are quite fragmentary and devoid of a consistent narrative. What’s also common is the dominance of formal concerns, narcissistic introspection, and speaking about nothing. The concept of the “collective author” was already discussed by Kukulas in his critical essays. And it truly does seem that in some cases, switching the names of the authors would hardly be noticed by anyone. So perhaps this is the most depressing trend. Another thing – sometimes the most excellent texts have a way of ending up in your inbox, even those written by someone you’ve never heard of before.

 

I suppose there is no mistake in calling you an introvert. In terms of personality types, the literary field seems to be overwhelmingly dominated by introverts rather than extroverts (the latter are more abundant in prose than poetry). Do you think that the writer’s personality has an effect on their literary attitude, their work, or their opportunities (of recognition) in the literary community?

Someone’s personality type can possibly affect their attitude as much as in any other professional field, and all fields attract various personalities. Extroverts are more visible, especially if they’re prone to publicity, but in my mind the value of literature is not limited to the writer’s attitude. Writing acquires its real value after the writer is gone. Recognition in the literary community is great, but it’s also no final indicator of quality in literature.

 

More than ten years ago, you contributed to an initiative, based at the Department of Lithuanian Studies of what was then the Vilnius Pedagogical University, that brought together young literati to share their work and seek more appropriate arguments for defining the quality and worth of literature. As a graduate yourself (at that time I was a student at the department and member of the society), to us you were akin to a guide, a consultant, or –  and perhaps this is the most accurate word – a curator. Although the history of literature has seen many and all kinds of literary assemblies and societies, the writer is still often seen as an individualist, one with an inherent capacity or talent for pursuing creative work. Keeping in mind the literary society that I’ve mentioned, as well as any other similar initiatives, what role, in your opinion, does belonging to such communities have on a writer’s growth?

One of my fondest memories from that period is the Arc of Literati society. It brought great personal joy for me to see young writers discuss their work. I believe that at least for some of the students that was a meaningful endeavor.

Generally speaking, I think that schools and universities as well as other educational institutions need societies like that – not to cultivate some higher level of artistry but to develop a humanitarian environment – where people learn to discuss, be silent, listen, and talk about important things. In other words, where they can get that sense of community that every lover of literature, or any true individualist, secretly thinks about. We write in solitude, but the sense of being in a safe environment for showing and discussing our work is equally important.

And societies like these are great for doing just that.

 

In addition to all your professional and personal responsibilities, you’re also a father. How do the joys and worries of fatherhood impact your daily routine? What effect do they have on your reading and writing habits?

Fatherhood adds another dimension to life. You move some of your work (including writing) to a different timeframe, usually to nighttime. You change your habits of writing to spend more time with the kids. I think that spending time with your children is as important as writing. Having a balance is best, but if the children’s world takes up more of your time, that isn’t so bad either. Because it is a world of meaning. Your children will grow up and leave you alone – then you can write your brilliant books. If that’s meant to be, it’ll surely happen.

 

I quote one of your poems “On a Date”: “My son / Takes a girl by the hand, // Utters gentle words. // Yes, she is pretty, / His mother in her smile, / Her father in him.” So, my question is about the poem, not poetry in general: in your view, what impact do our parents have on our choices in significant others? Are we “free” to choose in this sense, or do we inherit a particular direction for our choices?

That’s too hard of a question, to which I can’t give a straight answer. I’d say it’s true that our parents have direct or indirect influence over our choices. Almost all choices related to relationships, and more. Because we learned (or failed to learn something) by watching them. And perhaps not only parents, but also the other people in our close environment. Can we change that? Sure, but only if we consciously see who we are and what’re we intent on changing about ourselves.

 

You’ve published a children’s book with artist Ieva Babilaitė called Scenes from the Life of Granny and Co., where you describe old age and the daily lives of (un)usual grandmothers in an amusing way. Do you plan to write more children’s books in the future? How different is writing for adults vs. writing for children?

I think I haven’t yet written everything for children that I’d like to. I’m not yet sure how soon I can return to that, but I plan to.

You must be a child yourself when writing for children, so you have to find a way to preserve those paths that lead from your present time to that period. And it’s true that a lot of it comes back when you’re observing your own children.

Also (this is not my idea, but I agree with it) – you cannot lie when you’re writing for children, because a text like that will never reach them. Adults are more used to it though.

 

One of your hobbies is running and participating in marathons. What does overcoming a long distance give you?

Sadly, it’s been half a year since the last time I went running. I have a limp because of a knee injury, and I’m not sure whether the pain will ever allow me to run again. But judging from the yearning I feel for exercise, I realize that running a long distance (not overcoming it as much as the process itself) gave me great opportunities for contemplation, meditation, and even decision-making. The breathing and rhythm in running – like in writing – helped me arrange some of the imagery or even arranged it for me. That’s why I like running. Overcoming a distance – say, a marathon – is surely a test of willpower and a matter of psychological determination. It’s great to think that you, too, could deliver the good news from Marathon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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