Jonas Zdanys (b. 1950), a bilingual poet and translator, is the author of fifty-seven books: collections of his poetry, written in English or in Lithuanian; volumes of his translations into English of Lithuanian poetry and fiction; and edited anthologies.

Zdanys was born in New Britain, Connecticut a few months after his parents arrived as displaced persons from a United Nations camp in Germany for Lithuanian refugees. He is a graduate of Yale University and earned a PhD in English Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied with Robert Creeley.

He has received many prizes, book awards, writing and travel grants, and public recognition for his poetry and his translations. They include Lithuania’s Jotvingiai Prize and the National Prize for Literary Translation given by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture; and grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Research and Exchanges Board/National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. He has taught at the State University of New York and at Yale University, where he held a number of administrative positions, and served for more than a decade as the state of Connecticut’s Chief Academic Officer. Jonas Zdanys is Poet in Residence and Professor Emeritus at Sacred Heart University.

In 2023, Zdanys was nominated for the Lithuanian National Prize in Culture and the Arts.

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Interview by Laima Vincė



Lithuania Is My Spiritual Home

A Conversation with Jonas Zdanys


Laima Vincė: Tell me about your Lithuanian heritage.

Jonas Zdanys: I’m the child of Lithuanians who came to the United States in 1949. My father was from Kybartai and my mother was from Kaunas. They met in a refugee camp in Germany. They were married there, and my older sister was born there. I was born here in Connecticut.

Laima Vincė: Was there anything in your upbringing growing up in a Lithuanian displaced persons family that set you on the road to literature?

Jonas Zdanys: I grew up in New Britain, Connecticut. The community was centered around the Lithuanian church, which has since dissolved. I attended Lithuanian school on Saturdays. My Lithuanian literature teacher was Kotrytė Mariošiūtė Vaišnienė, whose husband was a conductor. She was an encourager of literature. My mother was a fanatical reader. My mother would say that because she was reading a lot when she was expecting me, literature was absorbed into me.

Laima Vincė: So for you Lithuanian Saturday school was a positive experience that brought you into the world of literature. How did that experience contrast with your everyday life growing up in America?

Jonas Zdanys: We were the DPs on the block. We ate our main meal in the afternoon rather than in the evening. We found ourselves to be different than those people in the neighborhood. They thought of us as different also. I’ve always been a reader. Reading Lithuanian made me feel special because I could read those books the other kids in the neighborhood could not. Our stories were different. Both our daughters can speak Lithuanian. My wife’s mother was born here, so she is one-and-a-half first generation. Our granddaughters go to Lithuanian school. We speak Lithuanian with them.

Laima Vincė: You are one of the first Lithuanian Americans to have the vision to translate Lithuanian poetry into English. Can you talk about your first publication and what inspired you to translate Lithuanian poetry into English?

Jonas Zdanys: I was a junior at Yale, and I was in a poetry writing seminar run by a man named Hugh Seidman, who was a Yale Younger Poet.[1] One day, he brought in Louise Glück,[2] who won the Nobel Prize recently. She came to our seminar, and we were talking about poetry in other languages. I said to myself, “I could do this.” So, I translated a poem by Marcelijus Martinaitis, whom you have translated as well.

Laima Vincė: Yes, that’s right. I translated Martinaitis’s Kukučio Baladės (The Ballads of Kukutis) and K. B. Įtariamas (K. B., The Supect).

Jonas Zdanys: Yes, you translated those books very, very well.

Laima Vincė: Thank you. Which poem by Marcelijus Martinaitis did you translate?

Jonas Zdanys: The poem was called “Meška.”

Laima Vincė: It is interesting that such a wonderful American poet, Louise Glück, inspired you to begin translating Lithuanian poetry. What were some of your challenges with those first early translations?

Jonas Zdanys: I grew up speaking Lithuanian as my first language, English as my second. But the problem was that English was my day-to-day language, my scholarly language, my creative language mostly. So I had to figure out what the Lithuanian was saying, and it wasn’t a question of transliteration. It was a question of “How do I create a new poem that resonates with and is parallel to the existing poem?”

Laima Vincė: When you translated your first poem in 1971, translators were relying on paper dictionaries and their own linguistic knowledge. There was no internet. There was no way to reach out to Marcelijus Martinaitis to ask questions because he was behind the Iron Curtain. How did you overcome those challenges of limited resources that all translators had back then?

Jonas Zdanys: I actually sent the translation to Martinaitis in Vilnius. Not directly, but I sent it through a group called Tėviškės Draugija, which was a KGB structure. They forwarded the translation to him. Then, eventually, in the early 1980s he came to Yale. Tomas Venclova had just come to Yale. Martinaitis came to visit, and he and I talked about the translation. He was very pleased that I’d taken it up.

Laima Vincė: What was your first book of poetry in translation?

Jonas Zdanys: When I was a senior at Yale, I had to write a senior essay. I did a volume of translations of Lithuanian poetry that included Lithuanian émigré poetry and Lithuanian poetry from Lithuania. That work was published as a book in the early 1980s by Many Land Books in New York. Stepas Zobarskas ran that press back then.

Laima Vincė: Many Land Books was a wonderful endeavor.

Jonas Zdanys: Yes, he was a good man.

Laima Vincė: We really need a publisher like Many Land Books right now. He published so many of the émigré writers and English translations of Lithuanian literature. He really gave the émigré writers a voice.

Jonas Zdanys: The manuscript was called Selected Lithuanian Poetry. It was my first book. It was a big anthology. I can’t remember how many poets were in it. It came out in either 1979 or 1980.

Laima Vincė: Of all your poetry translations, is there one that is your favorite?

Jonas Zdanys: I’m the principal translator of Kornelijus Platelis. I have a book called Alternating Masks that we published a few years ago. I really like that book.

Laima Vincė: You and Kornelijus Platelis are good friends as well.

Jonas Zdanys: Very good friends, yes.

Laima Vincė: You are both poets of the same generation. Did you become friends through your poetry?

Jonas Zdanys: Yes. It was interesting how we met. Tėviškės Draugija would send me books all the time, and I would read them, of course. They would send me lots of poetry, but also communist propaganda shit. I discovered a poet among those books named Nijolė Miliauskaitė.

Laima Vincė: I love her work.

Jonas Zdanys: I love her work too. So, I wrote to Petronis at Tėviškės Draugija, and I said that I wanted to send Nijolė Miliauskaitė a letter. I asked for her address. He refused. He said that if I wanted to write to her, I had to send the letter to him, and he would send it on to her. So I did that. I don’t know what he did to my letter, whether he crossed stuff out or not. I’d written to her that I wanted to translate her poetry. I thought she was the best poet writing in Lithuania at that time. She said to me in her letter, “Don’t translate me, translate Kornelijus.” So, I asked for his address, and she sent it to me. I wrote him a letter and he actually came to New York, and he stayed with us for about a week. We had a wonderful time then getting to know each other at our house.

Laima Vincė: Why do you think Nijolė said not to translate her poetry?

Jonas Zdanys: Because she was very modest, and she did not feel worthy. Of course, being married to Vytautas Bložė was a hard thing.

Laima Vincė: In what way?

Jonas Zdanys: Bložė always imagined himself to be the greatest bard of all time. He was a wonderful poet. I translated lots of Bložė. I translated Nijolė as well. My next book is going to be a translation of her poetry.

Laima Vincė: Is that the project you are working on now?

Jonas Zdanys: Yes. Those translations are not done yet.

Laima Vincė: I’ve translated her poems as well. She became a friend.

Jonas Zdanys: She was a good friend of ours too until she got sick and died of metastasized cancer. She used to be a doll maker. She gave our daughters dolls she had made. I published a small book of her poetry in translation called Silk. That book was featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2002. There was a poem in Silk about going to a shop and touching silk and realizing she could not afford it. When she got sick, I sent her a silk scarf. I did that so that she would have something from me. When she died, her friends were thinking of burying her with the silk scarf because she loved silk, but then they didn’t because they were conscious of the fact that the scarf was not from her husband. I said, “I’m her literary translator, that makes me her literary husband.”

 Jonas Zdanys Lithuania Is My Spiritual Home 02A doll given to Jonas by the poet Nijolė Miliauskaitė, and the first book of translations of Lithuanian poetry prepared by Jonas.

Laima Vincė: You are a poet in your own right. Were you writing poetry before you embarked on this path of poetry translation, or did the poems come after?

Jonas Zdanys: The poems came first.

Laima Vincė: Tell me about yourself as a poet. When did you first start writing poetry?

Jonas Zdanys: I think I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. I just loved language. I loved words. So I just started writing then. I write in two languages: in English and in Lithuanian. My poems are not translations. When I write in Lithuanian, I write in Lithuanian.

Laima Vincė: When do you know, when a poem is just being born, whether you should write that poem in Lithuanian or in English?

Jonas Zdanys: That’s a wonderful question. You have an image in your head or some sort of thematic focus. You know the two languages are so different, English being a syntactical, logical language that is very structured. Lithuanian is much freer, I think. So, when I want a certain kind of freedom of expression, I write in Lithuanian.

Laima Vincė: I find that when writing in Lithuanian you can par down the language to this finer sensibility of self-expression. You can get into shades of emotion that the English languages is not equipped to express.

Jonas Zdanys: There is a certain rhythm, a certain musicality in Lithuanian that English does not have. So when you want to have that thematic flow, that linguistic flow, that melodic flow, Lithuanian is very appealing.

Laima Vincė: Lithuanian has all these beautiful ancient Indo-European words. Sometimes, even in day-to-day situations there will be a Lithuanian word that is the perfect word to describe a certain emotion or situation that just does not have an English equivalent. You are a writer who has always lived inside of two languages.

Jonas Zdanys: Always. Ivar Ivask used to be editor in chief of World Literature Today. He and I were friends. We maintained a lovely correspondence for many years. He and I would talk about poetry and language. His theory was that you could only write in the language of your birth. I said to him, “I don’t know which one that is.” I remember going to kindergarten and the teacher speaking to me slowly and loudly because I did not know English when I went to school. I used to joke that I earned a PhD in English to prove to my kindergarten teacher that I could do it.

Laima Vincė: For my generation, I went to Lithuania for the first time as a teenager in 1983, and then Lithuania became free and that whole world opened up to me. But for your generation, in your twenties and thirties, Lithuania was closed to you because of the Cold War. With your love for language and your love for poetry, how did you facilitate having that literary conversation with Lithuania?

Jonas Zdanys: I wrote to Nijolė and Bložė. The three of us would exchange letters.I would write to Kornelijus, and we would communicate through letters or in person in Druskininkai or here in America. We spent a lot of time talking. Kornelijus has been my godfather in Lithuania. He is like a brother to me. When I have a new manuscript, I often send it to him, and he writes back with comments. He will say stuff to me like, “You can’t say it this way,” and I’ll say to him, “It’s a poem. I can say it any way I want.”

Laima Vincė: Then there is that added advantage that Kornelijus’s English is excellent. Did he study English?

Jonas Zdanys: He was a construction engineer. He used to build highways and bridges. He speaks English, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Latvian too, I think. I don’t send him the poems I write in English, but I send him the poems I write in Lithuanian.

Laima Vincė: In your career as a poet, as a literary translator, does your poetry and your poetry translation exist side by side in a parallel endeavor, or are they two separate entities?

Jonas Zdanys: They are one and the same. The creation of a translation is a work of poetry. I saw in The New York Times recently an advertisement for some sort of handheld translation device. That makes me sad.

Laima Vincė: As a poetry translator myself, I read the poem in Lithuanian, and then I see it and feel it and hear it, and then the poem in English emerges.

Jonas Zdanys: That’s exactly right.

Laima Vincė: Then I might tweak a word or two. But there has to be some sort of a connection, a meeting of the minds between me and the poet. Otherwise, the translation doesn’t quite work.

Jonas Zdanys: That’s very well said.

Laima Vincė: If there is a poet who may be a perfectly fine poet, but they’re not your poet, you cannot bridge that gap.

Jonas Zdanys: That’s right.

Laima Vincė: My most recent poetry translations are the poems of the Litvak poet Matilda Olkinaitė. You must have some sort of spiritual or intellectual connection with the poet you wish to translate.

Jonas Zdanys: It’s as you say. You have to absorb the poem before you can translate it. Translation is not rendering a poem word for word. It’s about creating a new poem that exists freely in the new language.

Laima Vincė: Have you ever been inspired to write a poem in response to a poetry translation you’ve done?

Jonas Zdanys: Yes. Bložė particularly because he has this sense of surrealism in his work that resonates with me. One of my most recent books is an anthology of surrealist and magical realist poetry. I’ve included 130 poets from 35 countries. I put Greta Ambrazaitė in there. Rimas Užgiris did the translation of Greta’s poem.

Laima Vincė: That is an important aspect of these conversations between writers and poets. Everyone is referencing each other’s work, and it makes me feel that there is a community between North American writers of Lithuanian descent. What are your feelings about that? Do you think that there is a community of North American Lithuanian writers or the possibility of community? Or does that feel like a stretch?

Jonas Zdanys: I feel that there is a necessity of community. I don’t know if it exists yet or not, but I do feel that through your book you may develop that community. The book may give it some sort of substance and balance.

Laima Vincė: Maybe give it legitimacy?

Jonas Zdanys: Yes, that’s a wonderful word.

Laima Vincė: I’ve been realizing through this process that there is this need for community. I’ve experienced how excited the writers themselves are about these conversations and the connections they discover with one another. That’s a big part of literary translation—that thrill of discovery. Are there any recent Lithuanian poets you’ve discovered whose work you feel is exciting?

Jonas Zdanys: I still feel an obligation to my generation. My principal translations are of Kornelijus Platelis, Sigitas Geda, Nijolė Miliauskaitė, Vytautas Bložė, [and] Antanas A. Jonynas.

Laima Vincė: You’ve hosted a lot of Lithuanian poets over the years.

Jonas Zdanys: I’ve tried to. I invited Vytautas and Nijolė to come and visit, but they could not afford the plane tickets, and I could not afford to buy the tickets for them.

Laima Vincė: Your 57th book is being published in Vilnius this summer. Is your 57th book written in Lithuanian?

Jonas Zdanys: Yes, it’s called Išeivystės fragmentai.

Laima Vincė: Having published 57 books of poetry, are your predominant themes Lithuanian? Or are there other themes as well?

Jonas Zdanys: I’ve been accused of being a nature poet. We exist in the natural world, and it absorbs us just as we absorb it.

Laima Vincė: Who are your favorite nature poets?

Jonas Zdanys: I love Wordsworth. I’m not worthy of Wordsworth obviously. I don’t compare myself to him. I’m also one of those poets who loves Robert Frost. Then there’s Theodore Roethke from Washington State. I’m not a big fan of Wallace Stevens, even though I write intellectual poetry the way he did. But there’s a sterility to that. I think that writing some sort of thematic connection to the natural world moves us beyond the separation of the human from the rest of the world in which we live.

Laima Vincė: Love of nature as a literary topic has been coming up over and over again in these interviews. Many of the writers talk about how their love for nature is a gift from their Lithuanian parents and grandparents. That sense of being one with nature is key to their identity. Do you feel that is a uniquely Baltic characteristic?

Jonas Zdanys: I don’t know if it’s uniquely that, but it’s certainly essentially that.There are lots of other poetry streams out in the world. The Romantic poets are nature poets.

Laima Vincė: You’ve had the best of both worlds. You’ve had the inheritance of Lithuanian literature come down to you from the Lithuanian émigré intellectuals, but at the same time you’ve had exposure to the best American poets of your generation.

Jonas Zdanys: I taught literature at Yale and Sacred Heart. I graduated from Yale, and then studied with Robert Creely at Buffalo. He was quite supportive of my work. I would sit in Creely’s office and read my translations to him. He thought it was bizarre because he’d never heard of Lithuania before. He asked if this little country really has poetry? I said, “Yes, of course.”

Laima Vincė: What has been the American critics’ reaction to your Lithuanian poetry translations?

Jonas Zdanys: The reviews have been very good. I’ve received good reviews both generally and in World Literature Today.

Laima Vincė: Did it take a long time to get your translations published?

Jonas Zdanys: I would send my manuscripts to several publishers at once and wait for a response. My translation of Icchokas Meras’s novel, Stalemate, was published by Random House. I wish I’d gone to Israel to meet Meras before he died. So you just keep trying until you find the right publisher.

Laima Vincė: How do you feel about advocating for Baltic literature to be read as a subcategory of American multicultural literature?

Jonas Zdanys: Well, I think it’s a very important subcategory, but I would argue that it is part of mainstream American literature because most of us are writing in English. Our work falls into the basket of American poetry.

Laima Vincė: When did you first travel to Lithuania?

Jonas Zdanys: I was in my early forties. I would write to the Russian Embassy in Washington DC, and they would keep denying me visas. They said I was too anti-Communist. It’s funny because they would publish these little essays about me in their newspapers. They would write, “Zdanys, come to Vilnius.” But they never let me. I finally went when I was 41 in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Laima Vincė: When you went to Lithuania for the first time in 1991, what were your strongest impressions?

Jonas Zdanys: I felt as if I’d come home. We grew up thinking Lithuania was this magical place that was forbidden to us. We got there and I was just listening to people on the sidewalks astonished that they were speaking the language I grew up with.

Laima Vincė: How many times have you been to Lithuania?

Jonas Zdanys: I think 16 times. I would stay three weeks at a time.

Laima Vincė: Isn’t it strange – that sense of homecoming?

Jonas Zdanys: It actually scared me a little bit.

Laima Vincė: Why did it scare you?

Jonas Zdanys: I felt like Lithuania is not my actual home but my spiritual home. I felt it was a foundation for an intellectual home, a cultural home. I knew that I lived in the United States, but I loved going there. Now, given my situation, it’s too hard to travel. Otherwise, I’d go there.

Laima Vincė: What was it like for you when Lithuania declared independence?

Jonas Zdanys: We were crying.



Wallingford, Connecticut

June 16, 2024



1. Poet Hugh Seidman was born in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of several collections, including Collecting Evidence (1970), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize; Selected Poems: 1965–1995 (1995); People Live, They Have Lives (1992), which won the Camden Poetry Award; and Somebody Stand Up and Sing (2005), which won the New Issues Press Green Rose Prize. His poetry has been featured in The Best American Poetry (2002) and Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn (2007).

2. Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. Considered by many to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets, Glück was known for her poetry’s technical precision, sensitivity, and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death. The poet Robert Hass called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.” In 2020, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Glück authored 13 books of poetry, including the collections Winter Recipes from the Collective (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), Faithful and Virtuous Night (FSG, 2014), winner of the National Book Award, and Poems 1962–2012 (FSG, 2013), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as American Originality: Essays on Poetry (FSG, 2017).







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