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Transreading the Baltics

Want to see Riga? Or, for that matter, any other place in Latvia. Or Lithuania. Or Estonia…

In July 2009 I moved out of Poland, which – five years after joining the European Union – hoped to be perceived as a central part of its continent, rather than its eastern addition. I moved out of Central (rather than Eastern) Europe to Scandinavia, that is, Western (or, should I say, Northern?) Europe. In September 2009, two months into my culture shock, I flew to Riga for the poetry and translation workshops organized by Literature Across Frontiers. Or, rather, I flew into a Poland of the 1970s, to my shock. How easy it is to take for granted certain political, economic, creaturely comforts. Yet Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined the EU exactly when Poland did.

I want to remember this mental discomfort of easy border crossing as an uneasy departure for ‘Transreading the Baltics’, my new course focusing on the north-eastern outskirts of Europe. Their positioning is all the more complicated by our temptation for ‘ideological’ readings. True, we remember their difficult relationship with Soviet Russia, just as most Poles of my generation remember Poland’s difficulties with its eastern neighbour. However, exactly because I’m Polish and I happen to translate recent Polish poetry, I know how most Polish poets scorn being read as witnesses to this global, unjust, history. Therefore, rather than contemplating big statements about the Baltics, we’ll try to counteract predictable generalizations with careful inquiries into individual poets and their histories. Better still, their stories, recorded in individual poems.

Whenever we visit less known places, we face the choice or, rather, the question: ‘Where do I even start?’ This time we’re lucky to be guided by three anthologies prepared by Arc Publications, the UK press indomitable in promoting poetry in English translation. We’ll sample the indispensible series ‘New Voices from Europe and Beyond’, looking at the volumes Six Latvian Poets, Six Lithuanian Poets and Six Estonian Poets, thus getting to know more poems by one poet. Arc Publications have also promised to show us the poets whose collections will be ready for the London Book Fair in April, which hosts Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as its guests of honour. Inside our classroom, we’ll become more familiar with these poetries, engaging with translation as creative writing, rewriting as reading, and sharing our varied experiences of encounters with other cultures and languages.

Actually, we are doubly lucky with our introduction to the Baltics, since the European Literature Network is preparing a special issue of The Riveter, which will be ready for us to read in its print and electronic form before the course opens in May. Because the ELN team: Rosie Goldsmith, Anna Błasiak and West Camel have kindly accepted my invitation to cooperate with the Poetry School and Arc Publications on this occasion, they have very generously planned to feature in their journal even more poetry from Baltic authors. These texts will invite creative rewriting as a form of creative reviewing, where new poems will reflect our insights, our fascinations, our queries provoked by the Baltic texts. The European Literature Network will publish our poems on their website, and I’m delighted for the participants of our Transreading course to have this unique opportunity to share their poems beyond the classroom.

My 2009 encounter with Riga and Latvian poetry was superbly guided by Ingmāra Balode, one of the poets whose work we’ll read together. Our walks around the city and its language transformed into my performance text ‘Logs: A Record of Undressed Windows in Riga,’ which concludes with my first foray into Latvian: Gribi redzēt Rīgu? Want to see Riga?


Discover the under-recognised poetries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on Elżbieta’s new online course, Transreading the Baltics. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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