“I Wish for Professional Art to Expand in the Regions as Much as Possible”

Conversation with Juozas Žitkauskas

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Poet Birutė Ona Grašytė discussed literary events and how they have changed with Juozas Žitkauskas, organiser of the events “TAI-AŠ, Purpurinis vakaras, Dainų dailogai” and head of the cultural association Slinktys.

Juozas Žitkauskas by Mariam Paluszkiewicz

You’ve been active in the field of cultural events for more than one decade: you are the organiser of the festivals “TAI-AŠ, Purpurinis vakaras, Literatūrinės Slinktys, Dainų dialogai,” etc., and you have participated in most of the events yourself. I’m curious as to your first events. What were they, and when did they take place?

It all began in Kapčiamiestis: I was interested in the émigré poet V. Kazokas and I established a museum for him; this led to the need for organising relevant events. I later organised events in cultural houses myself, but from 1994 onwards I was employed at a cultural institution, which specialised, among other things, in educational cultural events. At that time, just like now, the events were quite varied – from chamber events to massive festivities, so I would have a hard time trying to fit them all in one drawer.

The very beginning emerged out of the need to fulfill my potential and show myself. I couldn’t possibly limit myself to the school paper. I later realised that it could be interesting to others, not only me. Especially after I was hired and began to get paid for what I did, I had to organise events according to the format of the institution. But you won’t find me dancing to the tune of commissions or orders – neither then, nor now. I managed to tailor what I do to what I feel passionate about.

I have not participated in a large number of events. It began in the cultural house of my native town of Kapčiamiestis; we later went to the surrounding towns. I began to attend events on my own since I was 14. I remember feeling like the best events ended too soon, as soon as they began, while I felt like I could be there forever.

I speak of the events that had a cultural impact on me. I pay no regard to the “exotic” Soviet pioneer events with the pompous “I serve the Soviet Union” chants – these were part of everyday life.

You wrote the following in one of your interviews: “If I could count all of the events that I organised during my 20+ years, I would think that 70 percent of them were literary ones.” I would be very glad to speak about those. How did these events change over time?

I would say that during this time, the literary events remained the same as opposed to changing. I don’t see anything inherently bad about this either. At that time, private initiatives were only emerging, and many events were still organised institutionally. Today, the achievement of individual ideas has grown much more; these ideas are not dependent upon institutions, cultural centres, libraries, etc. This is a good thing, because it gives way to more variation, more open thinking and flexibility. Perhaps, for this reason, our capital city boasts such a colourful and vibrant cultural landscape. Even the traditional chamber events are becoming more playful and less formal, people tend to discuss more and review less. In recent years, I have noticed the trend that literary events do not need musical accompanying anymore.

Literary festivals sometimes become more like interdisciplinary art festivals, as they house many genres with equal exposure under their wing. Occasionally, they even lack simple readings or calm conversations, so typical of literary happenings.

The financing aspect has changed as well; now there is a system for funding the events, which serves to strengthen them. Step by step, we are witnessing the emergence of literary events with tickets, while writers are sometimes paid “decent” royalties (even though the actors reading their works are still getting paid more). I hope that these positive trends will continue to develop in the future.

Would you agree that Lithuanian cultural institutions are still clinging to the forms they have learned during the Soviet era — that they lack an imaginative and innovative effort, and this is the reason why people attend these events less, leaving the major part of the audience to the writers themselves?

Sometimes the writers are missing too… But I could not state wholly that all cultural institutions (the cultural centres, the libraries, and the individual organisations) are still clinging to “Soviet forms.” It all depends on the creative efforts of the staff of those institutions. If the effort is there, the event will be interesting and attractive to visitors. If not – the event will be a matter of statistics, not much more. And by this I mean throughout all periods and organisers of all age groups.

Owing to the events, you have visited many Lithuanian cities and towns. How is the cultural landscape there, in comparison to bigger cities?

Their communality is, I suppose, the biggest difference. The bigger cities have no sense of it – the audience is gathered by means of media outlets and social media. The smaller cities and towns use the power of the individual invitation issued by the organiser. The usual participants coming from the capital city do not realise that those several tens of audience members sitting in the little hall are there because the local cultural staffmember called each of them individually, sometimes more than once. Every now and then, I overhear something like: “Alright, Birutė is already here, Alvydas too, but we should wait until Alytė shows up.” You can plaster the whole wall with posters and invitations, but they have no power over there – the people want to be invited personally.

Sadly, there are still many towns where professional art and prominent writers are unheard of. The local writers are living in a closed community, interested only in what they do and keen on presenting themselves as one of the best. For that reason, I wish for professional art to expand in the regions as much as possible. Even if it takes a dozen attempts to be decently welcomed there. 

Lastly, I would like to speak of the necessity and impact of literary events. Who needs them?

Well, these events are needed for the dissemination of literature itself — of both the author’s persona and their creative work in all possible forms.