Artis Ostups

- Latvia -

Artis Ostups is a Latvian poet, critic and researcher. He works for the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia, and has been editor-in-chief of the online magazine Punctum since 2014. He is currently studying comparative literature at Tartu University, having previously studied philosophy at the University of Latvia. His first poetry collection, Biedrs Sniegs (Comrade Snow, 2010), received immediate acclaim from readers on publication, and went on to be nominated for the Annual Literary Award in the best debut category. His second book of poems, Fotogrāfija un šķēres (Photography and Scissors, 2013), has been widely reviewed by literary critics and attentive readers. Ostups’ writing has been characterised as clear and precise, powerful and distilled. He uses words to create sharp images that connect history to the present, imagination and awareness of present experience. He produces poetry which is unshowy and highly sensitive, framing exquisitely meaningful moments as photographs, pregnant with underlying contexts. Ostups’ third collection, Žesti (Gestures, 2016), consists entirely of prose poems, combining echoes of high modernism with contemporary expression in highly original ways. This collection was published in English by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2018. His poems have appeared in various anthologies across Europe and are available in languages including Croatian, Czech, Estonian, German, Lithuanian, Russian and Slovenian. He is currently working on his fourth poetry collection, which will feature both lyrical verse and prose poems.

Artis Ostups made his debut with Comrade Snow (Biedrs Sniegs, 2010), a collection which featured a variety of poetic forms and moods. Some poems embodied modernistic reflections on memory and the past, while others addressed embarrassing relationships with girls or playfully followed the turbulent process of a child turning into an adolescent turning into a young man. In Ostups’ second collection, Photograph and Scissors (Fotogrāfija un šķēres, 2013), direct playfulness and childishness gave way to a more dense and fragmented mode of expression, drawing on sensual and intellectual experiences. Love and intimacy are still present in these poems, but they are addressed fleetingly, avoiding sentimentality and cliches. These poems suggest that our most precious things should be kept to ourselves, and not given up for public consumption. Writing such poems required an incredibly precise use of language, and Ostups gradually sharpened his poetic skill, growing in maturity with each collection. 

Another feature of his work is the implicit and explicit use of literary influences, from Western modernist literature to contemporary poetry. Arvis Viguls, a fellow poet and critic from Ostups’ generation, observed in 2013: 


It seems that this is not just a feature of Ostups, but of the whole young generation of Latvian poets: the awareness that, at the moment of writing, you are looked at by the several meters of bookbacks lined up on your bookshelves. However, it does not seem to paralyze the authors' creativity and taste for experiments.


Ostups himself argued in an essay in 2015 that the gaze of predecessors was not necessarily a paralyzing force. On the contrary, he experiences it as a presence of the Deleuzian ghosts that helps his own subjectivity to crystallize and mature: 


Perhaps the writer's task is to offer a narrative steeped with ghosts of the past and thus shed light on the only truth: a human being is thrown into an infinite network of relationships that constantly swings their identity, which – in the artistic sense – means operating in a "transmission zone”, where the “creator” is only the “recipient” and where the clouds separate, revealing the riches of history.


Such an approach to poetry means Ostups is much more than just a contemporary guy in his thirties, living in the Baltics and documenting his daily experience. He embodies the kind of poet who is simultaneously one of us and a stranger. Though born and bred on the Latvian poetic scene, he is constantly looking beyond its comfort zones and learning from the outside what he cannot learn from the Latvian tradition of poetry, which could be described as a series of belated reactions to international modernism. Ostups acknowledges Rimbaud’s Illuminations as one of his sources of inspiration, but it is impossible to miss his many other influences.  

Every new generation of Latvian poets tries to avoid the claustrophobic existence of “small literature”. This is what happens in a rather small and predictable poetic scene where everybody knows everybody else and where everybody always feels slightly frustrated by the vague feeling of things happening too slowly, too narrowly, too repetitively. Whenever you attempt to be a flâneur, losing yourself in an evening crowd, you inevitably meet an acquaintance and end up sitting in a bar and talking about your other acquaintances. 

The spirit of the poems in Gestures (Žesti, 2016) seems to dwell somewhere in the period of La Belle Époque, drawing its energy from the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires, giving us imagined glimpses of their material culture, everyday habits, and the mood on the streets as well as the particular etiquette of human relations. Alongside that runs the first half of the 20th century, with its modernist and avant-garde art practices and social reforms. What unites both of these eras in Ostups’ poems is their suppressed emotionality and fragmentary nature: we see a world we are somehow longing for, which nonetheless always remains alien. The principle of defamiliarization, formulated by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in 1917, is both a poetic strategy here and a gesture itself that speaks to the circumstance of its necessity.

Ostups belongs to the new generation of Latvian poets who are passionately interested in modernist poetry. Their utopian project might be described as creating modernist Latvian poetry of the 21st century that is both contemporary and steeped in the past – as if they were nostalgic about some trends in Latvian literary modernism that never came to be a hundred years ago. As if there would be something deeply wrong with Latvian poetry if they didn’t act on these trends. As if there was a painful necessity to overcome both the contemporary nationalist stereotypes of Latvian public discourse and the limitations of Soviet occupation, when modernism was wildly combated by the authorities. Gestures makes me certain that Ostups’ vision is not impossible. I believe in the world created in the long poem “Three Photographs,” one of his most striking works. I see Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Artis Ostups all meeting as children. Artis would let Walter hug his little monkey while Franz would put his big Spanish hat on Artis’ head. I see these gestures transcending time and space, if only for a moment.

As Ostups’ new poems show, he is interested in different forms besides prose poetry, and his openness to the ghosts of others is even more present than before, in poems which echoo the voices of other poets from the past. I can’t wait to see his new collection published and to let these voices, arranged by Ostups into an angelic choir, sound in my head.

Kārlis Vērdiņš