/ 30 September 2019

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Poetry Like a SPA

Poet Giedrė Kazlauskaitė talks with Vaiva Grainytė – a writer and libretto author of this year Venice Biennale Golden Lion winner – opera, Sun & Sea (Marina).

GK: I don’t even know what to begin with – it has been a shining year for you. Before people in Lithuania knew you as a writer, an author of opera librettos and radio plays, a playwright and a poet. But this year, in the Venice Biennale, together with Lina Lapelytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, you received a Golden Lion for the opera Sun & Sea (Marina). It is a very important and visible international award. How do you feel about it – does recognition change anything for you? The belief in what you do, your social status, the ‘artist’s’ stigma (or the aura, I don’t know, but perhaps socially it’s more of a stigma)?

VG: I, too, don’t know what to begin with – there’s a surplus of everything, everything’s in turmoil. The Golden Lion brings not only new possibilities, visibility, attention, the feeling that nothing is impossible, but also a much bigger sense of responsibility and a constant feeling of stress. Belief in what I do (in the case of our trio – what wedo) is what I’ve always had since the beginning, we wouldn’t have made our way to the Venice Biennale if not for that passion. As for the stigma/aura – I’m not sure what you mean by that.

GK: What I have in mind is that it is not easy for artists to get by through ‘artistic things’ – one must freelance and rack one’s brains over whether another project will come along – there is no social or financial safety involved. People around you and sometimes even family members think of you as a scrounger, and you’re too embarrassed to answer strangers when they ask what you do in life. That’s what I call a stigma. But maybe I’m wrong?

VG: Yeah, I understand. It is true that an artist devoid of permanent employment must always be vigilant, must always navigate, overwork, experience anxiety. Freelancing and freedom have their own cost. I myself have only a preliminary plan for the coming year and I don’t always know what’s in store for me. Part of me likes this adrenaline, this change. In life I have experienced various periods: I know privation, I know abundance. If struck by a crisis, I’m confident I would find a job anyway. Of course, the Golden Lion opens new contexts and horizons – we will be touring, and we have received various invitations and offers. It would be unfair of me to lament the period before the Venice Biennale, either – the cashiers’ opera Have a Good Day!rotated within the orbit of international festivals, I received a couple of residency grants, and I would constantly work on some interdisciplinary project that gave me financial assurance. Perhaps it’s easier for me since I have no children, so I’m responsible only for my own well-being. If not for the performing arts, though, I could barely survive on writing alone. As for the aura or stigma – immediately after the opening of the Biennale I flew to Lithuania to attend my grandmother’s 80thbirthday. At some point, I got confused as to whether it’s my or my grandmother’s jubilee – my relatives, who had previously regarded me as perhaps a bit of a strange individual, kept congratulating me, expressing their admiration, thanking me for ‘putting Lithuania on the map’ and such. Yes, I receive plenty of attention, to which I usually react reservedly, with gratitude. I don’t know if this already signifies an aura.

GK: I don’t often see you in pictures taken at literary events, cafés, salons, and similar forms of socialization. I suppose you don’t feel quite comfortable being there?

VG: Well, pictures can be filtered on a social profile, so I’m not sure that they’re representative of real life. I attend cultural events, festivals, lectures, fairs, etc., sometimes I even check in at some underground concert, provided my evenings are not swallowed up by rehearsals, during which I overindulge in interacting and people. The cafés for a long time already I don’t know what to do with – perhaps only as places for business meetings or to have a quick lunch. But you are right about one thing – for some reason I miss the literary evenings. I’m more likely to frequent visual arts events and film screenings. Maybe because I like to experience texts head on? Huh, you really got me thinking now, why though…

GK: The literati have a particularly nasty trait – they are incredibly suspicious of all authors, especially if they’re not from the same ‘native’ circle. Do you sense such judgment on your behalf? On the other hand, I’ve heard quite a lot of favourable responses to your new poetry book. People see it as something new and fresh.

VG: Judgments of such kind do not reach me personally because I do not thrive in the circles you’ve mentioned, and even if somebody does judge me – Godspeed. That’s a very strange trait, I don’t understand it – Lithuania is such a small country, one common circle with many little rancid circles within it… I believe it’s unhealthy for artists of all fields to lock themselves up in their sectors; there should be diffusion, circulation. I don’t regard myself as belonging to any particular clan – I participate in everything a little, I express my interest in many things, I interact, but I do not get involved in anything completely, I’m probably unable to seriously align myself with one field – ‘I’m a writer,’ ‘oh, theatre, dramaturgy.’ But I’m not saying that’s what you’re supposed to do. Maybe it’s great that a person can completely immerse themselves in one field or thrive in some particular environment, and is terribly concerned for it, but closedness and a lack of curiosity result in a foolish separation of usand them. As for Gorilla’s Archives, I’ve heard some positive reviews, too – it’s very interesting to know how this book appears to others within the context of contemporary Lithuanian poetry.

GK: Since we got closer to poetry now – Ieva Rudžianskaitė notes, in her review, that your worldview is not anthropocentric. I recently gave thought to the idea (by the way, from the TV series Legion) that humans are not part of nature, that they’re quite alien to it. Animals live according to nature’s rhythm quite instinctively, but humans must always rationalize and culturize everything and use their rational mind. For this reason, nature does not need them. Do you feel like that under the sun?

VG: My position may not be anthropocentric, but I do live in an anthropocentric world. I function according to its laws. I consume. Humans do have an intellect of sorts, but they are still the same part of nature as is a cheetah or a snail. Our bodies are the clearest manifestations of nature, which function according to a program installed by nature. Humans are the greatest predators, evolutionary parasites of the whole animal kingdom and the whole world, but they are able to reflect on that and make decisions using their mind. I believe that nature does not operate on such concepts as ‘needed’, ‘not needed’, these, too, are the constructs of homo sapiens. I feel needed under the sun, but how can I know whether such a feeling is anthropocentric, or pantheistic in nature?

GK: Now we’re talking! It’s no wonder people told me to ask you as little about literature as possible. Seriously, though, I remember that, in your radio play Nuo ašies(From the Axis), you were concerned with the issue of climate change. How do you feel about the Green movement? I think you’ve mentioned somewhere that your position is individual, that you steer clear of collective forms of protest.

VG: I recently saw Ohman’s film about Saulius Gricius – I haven’t heard of this Green movement that was parallel to the Sąjūdis. I was snivelling nearly throughout the whole movie – there is nothing more beautiful to me than pure idealism and enthusiasm. I feel great respect for these things.

I am not just an individualist – my interdisciplinary works created with other artists are probably a testament to that. It’s just that I don’t like working with just anyone – a connection is important, a partnership built on friendship. As I was writing Nuo ašies, I was more concerned not with climate change but with transforming my tragicomic driving school experiences into a work of art. The play sees the actions of the Instructor and Pupil, while their lesson and dialogue take place during the change of seasons – this concept I copied from Donelaitis. The driving lesson is opposed to the ‘Metai’ (‘The Seasons’)– the 18thcentury squirrels knew when to crack nuts, and bears would lay not in marshes but in beddings of deep snow. Everything revolves in Kristijonas’s poem, there are no cataclysms or ecological disasters there, but the play’s characters are living in quite different circumstances.

GK: The opera librettos you wrote are also related if not to environmental protection, then at least to consumerism and labour exploitation, which are very serious social issues. How did you gather the stories of the cashiers? Or perhaps they have no documentary basis?

VG: I did not specifically gather the stories, but I questioned a friend of mine whose mother works at a supermarket. I’m not interested in absolute documentarism in literature – we’re all well aware of exploitation, psychological abuse, overwork, privation, and I see no point to directly reiterate all this information. I am intrigued to discuss social issues in a poeticway, staying clear of didacticism or pathos. The cashiers here sing their life stories, which are easy to identify, they’re not difficult to relate to. For example, the character of the art historian emerged from my personal experiences – having finished theatre studies, I lived through a crisis, and I have faced the genre of an employment agency, of not being able to pay the heating bill, etc. We all have at least one aunt or cousin who at some point in their lives have emigrated to England or Norway (the opera contains the character of the Emigrant’s Mother). Finally, this work is not about the cashiers themselves but about the inevitable circle of consuming, the ‘I work and I buy’ that we all revolve in, it’s about everyday life and the existential nothing.

GK: Is it hard to write for an opera? I suppose it involves much more teamwork than, say, writing a poem – you must always negotiate, communicate, and even create together.

VG: Really hard. We program the work with Lina Lapelytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, and we intrude into one another’s field. I usually write my librettos in bits, every stanza must pass a ‘committee’, music is written simultaneously, and everything is tried out with the singers live. I participate in the rehearsals, the castings, I have my equal share of copyrights, and I equally intrude into my colleagues’ areas. To work on my poetry book was like going to a spa – I really miss solo work. I intend to devote more time to it: Less touring and adrenaline, more creative silence and routine. Sure, without these collaborative practices I would’ve never met so many people from such a wide variety of fields. Teamwork is often like married life – you must learn to forgive, withhold storms of ego, and listen. Sometimes it takes a great emotional toll, but the end result is worth it.

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

Edited by Marius Burokas