Author of the Week / 4 October 2023

A portrait of the contemporary Lithuanian women poets

Author of the Week: Lithuania

To write about women’s poetry is to cheat both women and poetry – as if there existed a separate gender of women’s poetry full of lamentations and enchantments. Nevertheless, the voices of poets and poetesses[1] do often differ in intonation, in levels of intimacy, in the tensions of their strings: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell; Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska; Maironis and Salomėja Nėris. Poetic voices need to be different. I am thinking of the voice as an instrument of the body, or as a sound system for embodied experiences. And those experiences, styles of speech, vocabularies and biographies are in various ways marked by being women’s or men’s – even if that identity changes, gets deconstructed, or is not reflected upon at all. In the texts of poetesses I find more ‘sins’ and ‘newborns’, but that doesn’t mean that there is no ‘soul’ anymore. Maybe women give birth to poems, while men feel the rise of inspiration. ‘Literary pregnancy / was the reason I gave / for my academic leave’, wrote the poetess Giedrė Kazlauskaitė in her book Hetaerae Songs (2008).

What do the women poets of 21st-century Lithuania write and how do they see themselves? I will try to sketch a quick portrait of the contemporary Lithuanian poetess. That poetess (sic!) writes poetry. This doesn’t mean that 20th-century and earlier poetesses wrote non-poetry. For them it was more important to consider who was writing and how, but they did not reflect on the process of writing, or analyse their linguistic and emotional states of being. Contemporary poetesses leave footprints of their writing process: citations, ‘street’ texts, the scars left from dissecting themselves in poetry and poetry in themselves. Poetesses live in libraries and feed on books, they speak by means of books and reproduce themselves with books. They interact with the characters of books and are themselves characters in books – like Alisa Meler, the alter ego of Agnė Žagrakalytė.

The call to reflective analysis reveals itself most in their poems about poetry. In the work of Daiva Čepauskaitė, poetry is a cow: it gives a bit of milk, falls ill with various ailments, is afraid of gadflies and zootechnics, but is capable of another kind of usefulness:

when the frost arrives and I unburden myself,
climb barefoot into my load
and you’ll see – what warmth
spreads from your toes up
to the top of your head.

(Daiva Čepauskaitė, ‘poetry’)

Poems, it turns out, are not just born, but ‘milked out’, almost prayed out, just not by flying through the clouds. You have to step in the cow’s warm load.

Irony is another important characteristic of the contemporary poetess. She mocks and stings, though this is mostly directed at herself, and at the myth of the romantic ‘Poet’, the bard who interacts with the gods – The Great Poets – and creates new worlds in accordance with the signs laid out by those who came before. The poetess addresses not just any old poetry, but Poetry, regardless of the banal surroundings (or surroundings purposely made more banal). She both elevates and desecrates the muse. Nevertheless, the capitalised noun form more likely indicates a yearning for lost sanctity, rather than an existing belief. Poetry with a capital P is just a name and surname torn from (pop)culture:

(the soul) endlessly exalted is the whore
of the sad face, a woman wants to pretend
to be a girl, beautiful at first sight,
but how she sobs! She only needs to speak
and you feel pleasure as if on your
lips, and it’s not lipstick, nor even
lips, but the soul… The Soul!… is what matters.

(Neringa Abrutytė, ‘miss Poetry’)

The narratives of women poets are often closer to fairy tales and myths, while male poets write closer to history (HISsssstory…). Agnė Žagrakalytė, secreted under the mask of her persona, Alisa Meler, tells an ever new tale like Scheherazade, about Alisa and a fox:

Alisa pushes a wheelbarrow through the forest, looking around with concern, until she is delighted to find – sitting on a stump – a stout and weighty Reason Not To Work. She puts it into the wheelbarrow and takes it home. In the bathtub she can hear the cooing of Reason Not To Exercise being massaged by a fox. By the kitchen table a bicycle thief is tickling a giggling Reason Not To Wash Dishes under the chin.

(Agnė Žagrakalytė, The Whole Truth about Alisa Meler, 2008)

Ilzė Butkutė, in her Caravan Lullabies (2011), creates a world of circus performers, full of animal tamers, magicians, tricksters and acrobats. Her poetic narratives embrace their subject matter and can be reminiscent of the photography of Diane Arbus:

I was raised by ten dwarves.
I helped them with costumes and makeup,
and leaning over, I listened to lullabies –

I outgrew them and my time there.
They would tell me: to travel is to be late
to those places that don’t know you.

(Ilzė Butkutė, ‘To Yearn is to Walk with One’s Hands’)

The poetess seems to strive to retain the resounding moment in time, and to extend it ‘from twilight to you’. She wants to move the alienated human and animal worlds more closely to each other, to change strange occurrences into the everyday: ‘it takes longer to domesticate than to tame.’

A relationship with language that is domesticating, questioning, that pulls one in, is probably more characteristic of poetesses than of poets. In the book Women and Men in Lithuanian Culture (1992), Vytautas Kavolis wrote that the poetess Liūnė Sutema had a dialogic relationship with her text, while Algimantas Mackus had one of a more religious or sacral nature. A dialogic quality is likewise common with the poetesses of today. They speak not only to loved ones, God, or mythological heroes, but also to themselves. They also speak to each other. Both these latter forms of speech could be called narcissistic – to another we often speak as if to our own reflection, or to an accomplice, a double. Virginija Kulvinskaitė used that same idea to name her collection, Doppelgänger (2017).

Why not make a self-portrait, an autobiography, instead of a doppelgänger? A phantom questioning the authorial position? Who is speaking in the book – the poet Virginija Kulvinskaitė or the critic Virginija Cibarauskė (one and the same person)? Why do the poet and the critic have to be distinguished by their surnames? The author as a double or doppelgänger is not a common figure in Lithuanian poetry because most writers are primary selves – the creators of their literary world.

Cultural and social doubling, the taking on of different roles (poet and critic, poet and mother, poet and philosopher, poet and performer, poet and activist) is especially characteristic of women artists. There often seems to be a chasm gaping between their creative work and their everyday life. Men also take on different roles (poet and prose writer, poet and musician, poet and artist, poet and father, poet and translator), however, their social and creative roles are more often structured hierarchically, where the identity of the poet-creator stands at the top of the pyramid. They build manly (universal) poetic monuments, while women weave confessional webs of lyricism, trying on masks of different roles more equally.

Aušra Kaziliūnaitė dedicates one of her poems to Aušra Kaziliūnaitė. She entwines the positions of reader and writer, and one of them starts demanding co-authorship, sometimes both. The free, ironic construction of her own poetic world is connected with an openness to other – non-poetic – forms of speech. Newspapers, advertisements, academic of office jargon, notes left on doors, and teachers’ comments on graded papers melt into a single stream of everyday speech. Poetic speech, conceived as a language unstained by the quotidian, is exchanged for a writing style full of contractions, numbers, social media phrases and commercial signage where the meaning of words is reduced to pure sign:

here the name of all cafeterias is one
and if I were a store
at eight thirty I would rather
rob myself

(Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, ‘Dr. Mehmet Aziz Medical Servise’)

In her book There Is No Sea (2021), Kaziliūnaitė wades into even deeper waters of reflection, consciously erasing the boundaries between illusion and reality, as if she were trying to flay the hide of abstract phenomena – like, for instance, time:

like a cat wanting to please its owner
time, sinking in its sharp teeth
drags along its captured days
and sometimes it seems that one or the other
gives a little twitch

(Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, ‘Memory’)

Literary doubling is also prevalent in the work of Giedrė Kazlauskaitė. In her book The Amber Room (2018), she speaks with the voices of women from old photographs, recreating their stories and buttressing them not just with history, but also with the unseen thread of female fellowship, something Adrienne Rich described as the ‘lesbian continuum’. Kazlauskaitė’s poetry is inhabited by personas hitherto unseen in Lithuanian poetry – for example, a pair of women raising a daughter. The poetess mercilessly sets out the patriarchal concept of a woman: ‘I hadn’t yet read Lacan, but already knew that women didn’t exist – men had announced it.’

Kazlauskaitė’s work is not just multi-vocal, but multi-imaged – as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Inspired by this work, she named a poetry book after it (Meninos, 2014), the first line of which sets the tone: ‘A girl in a white dress in Europe Square’, a living allegory set in Vilnius of innocent Europe not yet raped by Zeus. The poem’s geography works by putting the large into the small. Brodsky once wrote that moving from the greater to the lesser gives rise to tears. Kazlauskaitė gives birth to graffiti in Europe Square while ‘tagging’ a discounted Szymborska with the gaze of the girl. Having left the tragic chorus of male fellowship, the poetess follows her small guide through the darkest valley.

The sources of the non-hierarchical relationship with poetry’s personas and readers can be found already in her first book Hetaerae Songs (2008). On the back cover, together with the author’s photograph, one finds a description of its imagined reader:

I would like to write a novel in the form of a cheat-sheet… so that one hundred years from now it would be found by a hypochondriac teenager coming of age in the depths of some provincial town. Maybe she would even be my reincarnation. She would live in a hermetically sealed dream world where she couldn’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. She would re-write it and put it out there as her own… A lower-class girl, trying to correct each and every emotional imbalance with food and the books that happen to fall into her hands – that is my imagined reader for whom I would like to sing something like the Psalms of David, thereby lessening her pain that continues to grow with each passing year.

Kazlauskaitė writes not for history, literature or eternity, but for a hypochondriac teenager, her own reincarnation. The desire to write is the legitimatisation of the creative act – and this does not require any authorisation ‘from above’ or the blessings of the older generation. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, thought about what would happen if Chloe liked Olivia – how their creative and passionate relationship could change the literary tradition formed by men. Woolf did actually show how this happens, in her novel Orlando. Poetesses who free themselves from the echoes of great poets learn to speak in several different voices, to change their gender, to be whoever they want to be in their poetry, not who others want to see and hear.

Under the influence of imagistic culture, writing is becoming more visual – not just in terms of the clothing of the words, the look of the page, the diacritical marks, but in terms of creating images. Poetesses are now the girls from the back cover. Unlike models of glossy magazines, poetesses moving to the back cover have more freedom of action. They direct their own photo shoots and create their own portraits: Agnė Žagrakalytė holds a pistol to the head of a stuffed rabbit; Ilzė Butkutė closes her eyes and her pale face becomes a blank page; Aušra Kaziliūnaitė looks out at us from a film still. Poetesses, just like their poetry, document their environment. Back in 1997, Neringa Abrutytė began her second poetry book con fession with her international student ID photo. A poetess? Then show me your passport! Her 2003 Neringa’s yr had a bohemian author’s photograph together with an autograph that spilled from the overleaf onto the cover – but only with fragments of her back and hands. Even though they may be seen as narcissists tattooing their names and signatures on books, contemporary poetesses don’t like to depict themselves as ‘proper’. They don’t want to show themselves off so much as sew themselves into the material book with all its words.

The portrait of the poetess can never be finished – new faces and new voices constantly recreate it. Contemporary poetesses don’t just write but also create performance art (Aušra Kaziliūnaitė) and installations (Dovilė Bagdonaitė), they sing (Jurgita Jasponytė) and intern at NASA (Justina Žvirblytė). Vaiva Grainytė writes radio plays and contemporary opera librettos (her Sun & Sea won the 2019 Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale). Ieva Toleikytė transfers poetry from the realm of inter-human relationships to inter-species relations – animals, even micro-organisms get equal attention (Red Slippery Room, 2020). Greta Ambrazaitė sometimes reads her poems as if she were leading a rock band, while also dedicating her last collection to her great-great-grandmother (Adela, 2022). The farther we go, the less the poetess feels the need to squeeze herself into some kind of frame – whether literary, social or psychological. Those frames are not entirely gone, but they have become more personal, made to fit the needs of the authors.

Should one still speak about men’s poetry and women’s poetry, about poets and poetesses? Not only should one, one must – for the literary field (as in contemporary art) has become paradoxical: strong, original collections published by poetesses are highly valued by readers, but ignored by colleagues. The Yotvingian Prize is evidence of this, given every year at the Druskininkai Poetic Fall Festival for the strongest book of poems released in the past year. The poet Sigitas Geda founded the prize in 1985, and in the 38 years since, 35 poets have won it, but only 3 poetesses. Such a skewed statistic reveals the calcified standards of evaluation and the lack of sympathy for different experiences and forms of expression. The literary field is becoming more free and open, however, the beams from the lighthouse of ‘high poetry’ have not yet descended from modernist galaxies to the Earth of today.

Wanting to bring attention to new poetic voices and a changing world, I decided not to wait a hundred years for evolution to happen ‘on its own’, and I founded the Żemaitė’s Bag Award in 2017 for the best poetry book of the year written by a woman. Żemaitė (1845–1921) was a modern Lithuanian novelist who began to write later in life but became a canonical author and champion of women’s rights. 

Rodion Petroff: Žemaitė.

The idea of the bag comes from an original in her museum, but it also functions as a symbol of women’s creativity and co-operation: a space for preserving and sharing accumulated experience – that first cultural artefact, and one which Ursula le Guin described in her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986). Żemaitė’s Bag has been awarded to Virginija Kulvinskaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Buividavičiūtė, Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, Enrika Striogaitė and Ramunė Brundzaitė. These authors have enriched the Lithuanian poetic language by bringing to it previously undescribed experiences, feelings, perspectives and modes of relation. In their work, one can hear the voices of ‘lesser people’, the forgotten, unnoticed and abandoned. Enrika Striogaitė even titled her award-winning 2019 collection, People. The irony is not lost that the same title is used by a glossy magazine documenting the lives of famous people. The people in her book inhabit a different world. They have names that are not brands, but signs of their lives – the lives of the unnoticed, walking into off-licences, living in old town arcades, the people we tend to ‘write off’ without even seeing them first.

Bag, wallet and shoes by writer Žemaitė.

Ramunė Brundzaitė writes urban poetry, full of trolley bus routes and new high rise apartments. For the contemporary reader, it’s crucial that she writes authentic women’s poetry about work and addiction. Hers is the voice we hear when we pick up the phone, a voice that can wash out our wounds (Ramunė Brundzaitė, The Fellowship of Empty Bottles, 2022). Vaiva Grainytė hears bacteria in the sky, as well as the complaints of grocery cashiers (libretto for the opera, Have a Good Day!), and the thoughts of exhausted holidaymakers in the shadow of an ecological catastrophe (Sun & Sea). Her poetry collection Gorilla Archives (2019) is, in her own words, ‘like creative archaeology’ in which not only cultural layers are uncovered but social and political ones as well. Lina Buividavičiūtė brought The Dark Ages (2021) to Lithuanian poetry – writing openly about the shadowy women’s realm of depression, limit experiences, exhausting sexualisation and the tense experiences of motherhood. It is a heavy book that is not so much a work of trauma as one of moving towards the light.

It’s impossible to generalise a portrait of the contemporary poetess when it is still actively creating itself. The poetess always slips out of the frames, slides out of the text. She leaves home for the library, leaves school for the street, leaves the body for the book. And vice versa. She speaks to herself and to other poetesses as if to herself:

you were my confessional, a shelf
for my tattered book
you were pages for my letters
ink for my fountain pen
and all of that is poetry

(Giedrė Kazlauskaitė)

Translated by Rimas Uzgiris

[1] Translator’s note: I have decided to use the now outdated term ‘poetess’ in order to reflect the contrasts the author draws between the gendering of the Lithuanian term for ‘poet’, written differently in masculine and feminine forms. This grammatical distinction is so connected to Kreivytė’s theme, that I feel it would be a disservice to the reader not to experience it, even though in other contexts I would avoid making it in English.


Laima Kreivytė

Laima Kreivytė (b. 1972) is a writer, artist and curator based in Vilnius. She has curated over 50 exhibitions including the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 53 Venice Biennale (2009), M/A\G/M\A. Body and Words in Italian and Lithuanian Women’s Art from 1965 to the Present at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome (2018) and co-curated the new display of the permanent collection of National Gallery of Arts, Vilnius (2019). Laima Kreivytė has published two books of poetry: Sappho’s Reading Room (2013) and Intimate Arithmetic (2019) and translated the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. She has compiled books about the artists Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė, Kęstutis Zapkus, Jurga Barilaitė and Igoris Piekuras. 

Photo by Tomas Petreikis