Author of the Week / 2 October 2023

Poetry and addiction

Author of the Week: Lithuania

It’s June 2023, I’m sitting on my mum’s terrace on Pavasario Street in Vilnius, and I smell jasmine from a blooming bush beside me. The weather is warm, it has just rained after a long drought, everything’s fine – none of my relatives are sick or dying, my sister’s children are playing outside (children are like a trump card against death and oblivion, against entropy, but I know that’s merely an illusion, because children die too, especially since it’s been happening so close to me, as Russia keeps bombing Ukraine), my country is not at war, and I would like to preserve, capture all of it. But not like a photo for Instagram.

I’d like something different, something more substantial, like a poem. To save it for the coming autumn, when this essay will be published, and we’ll gather again for the PDR – Poetinis Druskininkų ruduo (Druskininkai Poetic Fall), an annual poetry festival in Druskininkai that has become a milestone event in the Lithuanian poetry scene. I remember myself as a teenager who had just recently discovered poetry, enthralled by its elation, accuracy, edginess, uncertainty and sweet bohemian splendour, reading about the PDR in the cultural press, wanting to be there, among the poets, the people who somehow seemed different, more interesting, more important than others.

The Druskininkai Poetic Fall festival originated out of the fellowship of poets residing in or regularly visiting the city (people like Kornelijus Platelis, Nijolė Miliauskaitė, Vytautas Bložė, Sigitas Geda and others). It was officially founded in 1990, during the inception of Lithuanian independence, and partially considered by its founders as an alternative to the Poetry Spring, a conformist, Soviet-era festival that had been attracting stadium crowds since its establishment in 1965. Druskininkai, whose name is derived from the Lithuanian word druska, meaning ‘salt’, is a resort city near the border with Belarus which attracts a year-round flow of people who typically come here for the fresh pine-scented air, mud baths and mineral waters. Visitors come to appreciate the nature, and the atmosphere of the place which becomes especially captivating in autumn.

I came upon this information much later, while researching the city’s history and reading the founders’ stories. Yet most present in my own memory are the fragments of bohemian life I had first heard of or read about, and eventually experienced myself. I think I was eighteen the first time I went to the PDR, as I was invited to participate in the young poet readings (oh, how important I felt that day…). ‘We’re all aware of the existence of a parallel reality to the Druskininkai Poetic Fall, one where poets knock back glasses and bottles trying to reach the depths of their own subconsciousness (or unconsciousness). They ride the tower’s lift until they wake up with a head injury, or in someone else’s room, or with someone else beside them. I recall that the PDR would begin on Friday morning, with bottles being passed around in the back of the bus on its way to the festival. I would partake in this ritual myself, so attending the annual conference was out of the question, while the culmination took place in that same tower, which spun together with the falling leaves in the night sky’ (Išvari Prema, Šiaurės Atėnai, 23 October 2020).

For me, bohemian life was always about a particular form of nostalgia – a longing not for something that’s in the past, but for something which I never even experienced in the first place. I recently came upon the idea that music from the 1990s (and all other symbols of that period currently being revived in popular culture) triggers feelings of nostalgia even in those who didn’t get to live in the era. Adventures on paper always seemed more exciting than those experienced in real life. What was the source of my fascination? Was it the exotic quality of a bygone time? The literary prowess of the narrators? The eccentricity of the stories told? Perhaps because the characters in those stories – the artists – seemed like exceptional human beings who lead extraordinary lives, unburdened by quotidian and domestic affairs, and that I, too, wished to lead a life like that?

For Soviet-era bohemians, freedom of expression was usually found in the kitchen of a Khrushchevka[1] apartment – a relatively safe space for sharing stronger and more subversive opinions about the regime. Drinking could have also been considered a particular, albeit destructive, form of resistance. I was born in 1988 (two years before the Druskininkai Poetic Fall), still in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, but I never experienced the Soviet era myself. Since I had the opportunity to travel freely across Europe and stay in Italy during my undergraduate years, it was hard for me to comprehend the realities of the Soviet period. However, the totalitarian experience has affected my generation indirectly – through the strict, emotionally oblivious parenting we and our parents experienced, and through the rigid nature of the Soviet public space that we inherited. While still in school, and even as an undergraduate in philology, I had built an image of the poet as a genius, someone more capable than others and thus allowed more freedom. I now understand that this image resembles the thought pattern of an addict, someone who thinks that the world revolves around them yet does not appreciate them, that it’s hostile toward them, or owes them something.

I had witnessed alcohol abuse in my family as a child. It did not seem extraordinary in any way, because it was common for adults to drink alcohol when the children were around during the celebrations. When I was 20, the therapist I was seeing for anxiety and depression left me somewhat at a loss when I finally told her about this, because she dramatically declared it to be my life’s greatest tragedy.

For a long time, I didn’t write about any of that. First of all, it seemed rather unpoetic, and second, to speak of family secrets felt like betraying my loved ones. I wouldn’t even know how to do it, or what words to pick. Back then, my poems centred around universal themes of (unhappy) romantic relationships or stories of bohemian adventures. Plenty of abstract suffering and self-pity.

I can’t say what rock bottom was like for me, at what point I realised that I had issues with alcohol myself. I suppose the realisation was gradual, forming over the years I spent denying the problem (people say that addiction is a disease of denial), looking at others who drank more and had more problems than me. I relied on my being an artist to justify this, telling myself that I was allowed to, that this was the source of the exhilaration and inspiration that I needed. I’m grateful to the writers who stopped drinking before me. I knew them. Whenever we met over a cup of coffee, I kept asking them the same thing: ‘How’d you do it?’ I also knew some who had passed away and whose deaths were alcohol-related. For some time, these were the people I identified with – those who had died too early, the unappreciated heroes, the rebels against the established order and boredom. But eventually death started to seem closer and more of a threat than before. Without the romantic perspective of a teenager, I recognised the reality and the horror of it, the grief, emptiness and hopelessness that it brings to others. Perhaps this was my rock bottom, a great fear of death and wasted life.

When I gave up drinking, certain changes were already happening in Lithuanian society. Alcohol use was becoming more strictly regulated, advertisement was prohibited, selling hours were shortened, heavy drinking wasn’t normalised anymore. Lithuanian poetry was changing too – instead of glorifying bohemian inebriation, it embraced confessional poetry, which openly spoke about mental illness, traumatic experiences and exposed the drunken friendship of poets:

‘We used to drink and sing praises to each other’s faces, but
we berated and slandered the ones who weren’t drinking
with us that day.
We learned to replace alcohol with ice cream
and our life became brighter,
neutralising the suffering.’[2]

Two years ago, I finally put together and submitted the manuscript of my second poetry book, which was made up of poems that spanned almost a decade. I called it The Fellowship of Empty Bottles, after a poem based on a conversation between the lyrical subject and another addict about their drinking days (‘and where did you hide the bottles’). The subject admits how much she wants to receive ‘that little medal’ they hand out in AA meetings to people who stay sober for a month – ‘aluminium more costly than platinum’. To me, the transformation is almost mystical: the eternal thirst for alcohol, intoxication, carelessness and detachment from reality is vanquished by the desire for a sober life. But why are some able to achieve it, and why do others keep drowning in the river of oblivion? Perhaps that’s an existential question with no clear answer.

I was 25 years old when I published my first book of poetry. It received a lot of attention in the Lithuanian poetry space and earned me the Young Yotvingian Prize in the Druskininkai Poetic Fall. It seemed that I had fulfilled my teenage fantasy – I had glory, attention and praise. Perhaps even a place in literary history! Posterity! And yet, something was missing. ‘How can I write now,’ I remember complaining to a drinking buddy at a bar, ‘if everyone’s comparing it to my first book?’ She replied with an astute observation that people tend to forget who the literary laureates were. That period of my life was chaotic. I had taken a sabbatical from my MA studies in literature. As a poet, I didn’t feel like working a nine-to-five, so I didn’t have a job. I had been receiving an artistic creator grant for some time, but I spent my time at bars, complaining about writer’s blocks, or lying in bed, tormented by guilt trips and hangovers, instead of actually writing.

Pride. Embarrassing amounts of it. Suffering, which no one else understands, and self-pity: the companions of an addict. Often the suffering is brought on by imbalances in our brain chemistry from the effects of psychoactive substances. Loneliness – because your only friend is another drinker, and come next day you can’t even remember how you met them, while the sense of genuine human connection is replaced with an alcohol-fuelled illusion of togetherness.

I wrote poetry occasionally, both during my drinking period and since I set out on my path to recovery. I was afraid that I would have to give up writing the same way I gave up drinking – I either wouldn’t have anything to write about, or wouldn’t know how to do it. But I felt better seeing the examples of the poets who had stopped drinking and maintained their writing habits as well as their involvement in literary life. At literary festivals, while everyone drank beer, the quitters ordered coffee. As time went on, I found myself attending more get-togethers where the majority of writers were either quitters or had never drunk in the first place.

When I was putting my second book together, I split the poems into two sections: tuščių butelių (‘empty bottles’) and draugija (‘fellowship’). The first section deals with a lyrical subject who is still in the process of emptying bottles; she wanders the often foreign and cold city of Vilnius, looking for a place to call her own. The second section narrates the story of my recovery – the 28 days I spent in rehab, following a detailed routine which was nevertheless permeated with fear and doubt and thinking about whether I’d be able to stay sober once I got out. About the people I met and the AA meetings. My first sober date. My occasional desire to drink again: ‘but I still sometimes feel like I’m sick with chickenpox: / I itch but can’t scratch.’ And my attempt to establish a real, honest, sincere connection with other people, a fellowship that can replace any bottle, empty or full.

As a recovering addict, you learn to notice others – you listen to their problems, thus distancing yourself from your own and gaining more perspective. Similarly, I re-learned to participate in literary events and informal gatherings attached to them. I used to refrain from going to these places, because I couldn’t shake off the association with drinking. When I finally returned (a hiatus most likely perceived only by myself), the people were more accommodating than I expected; I didn’t feel forgotten or underappreciated. I stopped concentrating on myself so much and focused more on listening to poetry. I learned to see other poets not as competitors for grants or attention, but as comrades.

I taught myself discipline and learned to adopt a routine – the killer of creative and inspiring life, as I previously thought. I found a job that had nothing to do with literature, but it fit me, leaving me time for writing and creative tasks. Since I had less time to spare (after working six hours at a non-creative job), I learned to use it more efficiently. I was able to deliver my essays, articles, film and book reviews, because I’d stopped procrastinating. And I kept writing poetry, not more, and not less often than before.

When we think of what to tell foreigners (especially Westerners) about Lithuania, we often speak of independence – more than thirty years of it, which we spent building a country for ourselves after the dissolution of the USSR. How it differs from the fifty years of oppression marked by guerrilla resistance, exile, KGB persecution and daily attempts to walk the tightrope between the demands imposed by the regime and one’s own conscience. When I titled this essay Poetry and addiction, I realized that addiction, like occupation, is the antonym of independence.

The Fellowship of Empty Bottles was listed by the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore among the top 12 most creative books of the year, and was eventually awarded as the most creative book of 2022. Although many excellent and prize-worthy books were published during the same year, and even though people do tend to forget who the laureates of literary prizes are, I am glad the spotlight was given to a book which does not uphold the image of some poetic genius but instead speaks about the long, difficult, slow and awkward journey to recovery and maturity. I am also glad that I’m no longer interested in being exceptional; even writing poetry is not as important as leading a mature and decent life. I’m less concerned with promoting or establishing myself – although I still struggle daily with my ego, I’m more interested in seeing and uplifting others. Poetry, like life, can be intoxicating like an addiction, superficially playful and self-absorbed, but it can also be mature, bringing people together and giving meaning to their pain, giving a voice to those who need it most.

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

[1] A type of low-cost apartment building developed during the period when Nikita Khruschev presided over the USSR (hence the name).

[2] Giedrė Kazlauskaitė: ‘Bulvių valgytojai’ (‘Potato Eaters’) from the book Gintaro kambarys (The Amber Room, 2018).


Ramunė Brundzaitė

Ramunė Brundzaitė was born in 1988 in Vilnius, where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Lithuanian Philology and the Italian language and the Master’s degree in Intermedial Literature Studies at Vilnius University. In 2010 she lived and studied in Udine (Italy) for half a year. In 2013 she won in the contest of the First Book held by the Lithuanian Association for Writers. Her first collection of poetry titled Drugy, mano drauge (Moth, my Friend) was awarded the Young Yotving’s prize during the Druskininkai Poetic Fall festival and later she received the prize of the Mayor of Vilnius for her works on Vilnius. In 2015–2016 she had a graduate internship in Trieste, at the museums of writers Italo Svevo and James Joyce. Poetry, translations from Italian language, essays, book reviews have been published in cultural magazines and anthologies. Brundzaitė published her second poetry book Tuščių butelių draugija (Fellowship of Empty Bottles) in 2022, which was selected by Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore as the Most Creative Book of 2022. Her poetry has been translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Chinese, Turkish, Hungarian and other languages.