/ 4 October 2018

Sound and Fury in Druskininkai

Drinking poetry by the river

‘Seasons are the real reason behind poetry’, this writer once said. It’s especially evident in Lithuania, where seasons are as vivid as their illustrations in children’s books, while the temperature fluctuates from thirty below to thirty above zero. This even applies to the names of the literary festivals: Panevėžys Winter, Poetry Spring, Nordic Summer and Druskininkai Poetic Fall.

Druskininkai reminds me of childhood. I’d go there with my parents sometimes, and my grandparents would spend long weeks at the sanatoriums. A lodge called The Forest Echo, decorated with carved sculptures of animals and fable creatures. Čiurlionis, whose paintings seemed pale to me as a child, and this year I brought a box of chocolates to my friends in Italy, showing them a painting on top of it – Čiurlionis, Lithuania. The resort was founded back in the Tsarist period. Nemunas, mineral water, wooden architecture and bulky buildings of Soviet sanatoriums, mud baths, pinewoods. Once, a swan nipped me by the lake. It was truly in deep childhood still, because I seem to remember a couple of slides from Druskininkai instead of actual events. The ritual of watching the slides was festive: Spreading a white screen on the wall (before we owned it, mother would hang a sheet), father would turn on a mechanical projector, while my sister and I would jostle for the task of changing the slides. You put a slide in and push the little drawer. This was before the era of point-and-shoot cameras (nobody even dreamed of digital cameras). Father had a FED camera; he’d develop the film and make slides. A white box of slides, Druskininkai pencilled on it, is still lying around somewhere in my parents’ home. But the ritual of slide watching is long gone.

I heard of Druskininkai Poetic Fall when I became interested in modern poetry, at around sixteen. I found an extract from a text about the festival in my Lithuanian textbook once. The commas were to be added to it, or punctuation explained, or maybe it was a task of text interpretation. Back then, I used to idolise writers and poets as if they were rock stars. If teenage magazines had issued posters with their faces, my room would have been fully covered with them. At one point, I made a copy of a picture featuring an early 20th century Lithuanian poet, Vytautas Mačernis, from my school textbook and I hung it on my wall. It made me sad that Mačernis and I didn’t happen to live in the same era. He was such a handsome man. And his poems! And all those languages he knew!

I first went to the so-called DPF at eighteen, to read my poems in the young poets’ readings. I prepared and prepared. I was disappointed not to receive the readings prize. I would cling to every occasion that my name appeared in press. Have they heard? Have they understood? Will they approve?

It was only later, as I was writing my bachelor’s thesis in literature on Lithuanian poet Nijolė Miliauskaitė that I found out how Druskininkai Poetic Fall had been established. The festival started in 1990, as Lithuania regained its independence. To some extent, it was an alternative to the more formal Poetry Spring that was founded during the Soviet period – the festival that would once attract stadiums full of people, and the winner would have an oak leaf wreath put around his neck. Druskininkai Poetic Fall was different, deriving from informal gatherings of poets who lived in Druskininkai.

Listening to poetry was not what interested me most in Druskininkai. Talking to real poets was more important. Wandering around with the not-real-ones-yet, ones like me. Drinking wine by the river, wrapped in coats and scarves, looking at the maple trees flaming in the colours of the Lithuanian flag on the other side of Nemunas, trying, there and then, to improvise a haiku or to speak in hexameter. Discovering and strolling around the abandoned sanatoriums. Collecting leaves and chestnuts by the lake. Druskininkai in the fall was in perfect tune with my romantic idea of poetry.

What I expect from poetry and Druskininkai now is sound. I prefer exclamation points to suspension points. A saying about the holocaust comes to mind – the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Poetry with birch trees in it is not the thing anymore. Poetry that’s foaming from the mouth with fury is the thing.

It would be right for us not to be silent anymore, not to be agreeable, not to try to please and to be liked, not to give in to the small country syndrome, to drop the victim identity and to make sound, sound, sound until we are heard.

The topic of last year’s festival made a fuss. The discussion was about men and women in the poetic context. It was indicated that the festival’s first prize had been received by 31 men and 2 women; sexism – common among writers but often unrecognized – was discussed, disputes happened, truths were being contended. Meanwhile, a tabloid TV show showed Russian poet Dmitry Kuzmin reading poems with swear words in them. ‘How could the Minister of Culture, taking part in Druskininkai Poetic Fall, allow this kind of obscenity’? the hosts of the show were asking. As I recall, I spoke to my 95-year-old grandmother who watched the show that time. After our conversation, grandmother said – and really, why can’t poetry speak about sex?

The topic of this year’s festival is ‘Poetry: Sound and fury’. What are we going to talk about? What are we going to do in Druskininkai this year? How are our sound and fury going to pour? What will I remember about this festival in ten or twenty years of time, what will I put in the slides of my memory?

Translated from the Lithuanian by Kotryna Garanašvili