Essay / 17 June 2021

Contemporary Poetry and Small Literature

Authors of the Week: Latvia

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

After almost a quarter of a century of writing, translating, and reviewing poetry, one might have some observations or even thoughts concerning this shady business. My observations will be based on the fact that all these years, beside my own writing, I have been involved in translating poems from other languages as well as dealing with my own poems being translated in other languages. I come from Latvia, a country with 1.9 million people, and translation has been a very important element of our literary ecosystem for a long time. 

In our region, we seem to be extremely sensitive to how we look to the “world” and what others might think about us, be it the Eurovision, the World Ice Hockey Championship or some president of some big country making remarks about our region. Desire to be seen on an international level and to be recognised by others as an equal player in whatever discipline shapes our cultural practices, our system of values, as well as our understanding of ourselves. Such desire also influences our literary scene which provides for an exciting playground of local authors and, much more seldom, for a trampoline to translation, circulation and recognition in other languages.

It seems that everybody who identifies as a part of small literature, lives with utopian hope for some other setup of the world republic of letters, wherein the smallness of the local language and the literary market would not be an obstacle tothe world-wide circulation of texts and, eventually, to the recognition of talents nurtured by small literature. However, this utopian hope may vanish pretty soon when you find yourself at some big foreign book fair with lots of participants and events where you have to pull yourself together and present your work to a foreign audience who might not be too enthusiastic about it or too well informed about where exactly Latvia is and how its cultural production might relate to the rest of the world.

Contemporary Comparative Literature, drawing on the theory of world-systems, pictures the world as an exchange between influential centres and less influential peripheries. As Franco Moretti has explained in his essay “More Conjectures” in 2003, his experience shows “that movement from one periphery to another (without passing through the center) is almost unheard of; that movement from the periphery to the center is less rare, but still quite unusual, while that from the center to the periphery is by far the most frequent” (75-76). Such a system might feel unfair and depressing from the viewpoint of small literature. In the 21st century, many small forms of literature have learned to stimulate the “unusual” movement from the periphery to the centre using the money of the taxpayers of their countries to evade the cruel logic of the international book market. However, mobilising financial support is not always enough: literary prestige is something that cannot be bought so easily. 

As Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen put it in their introduction to "Danish Literature as World Literature," for authors who write in small language, it is not enough to produce excellent writing. They need somebody influential to care for their literary fame and promote them on an international level. For example, they address the problematic international currency of Danish authors, canonised in their homeland:

"an example of this minor language-destiny is the short stories of Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1842). Their intricate enunciation and narrative structure, their mix of high and popular literature, and their local realistic grounding make them unique. Unlike Nicolai Leskov, with whom Blicher has many things in common, he never had a Walter Benjamin to introduce him into world literature. Realist novelist and Nobel Prize winner Henrik Pontoppidan had. Georg Lukacs made his turn of the century novel "Lucky Per" a cornerstone of his seminal study of the novel." (5)

As this account shows, in small literature even realist writers who mix high and popular literature seldom qualify for foreign recognition. Considering this, how could a contemporary poet, who probably not only uses her small language but even makes some idiosyncratic version of it, be able to transcend the borders of national literature?

Another perspective on the limiting system of centres and peripheries can be found in the ecosystem of late USSRliterature. Soviet literature was an artificially created system, isolated from the West, with its strict hierarchy of the centrein Moscow and peripheral centres from the other 14 Soviet republics, including Soviet Latvia. The Soviet translation policy privileged the translation of foreign authors into Russian rather than into all other languages of the republics —other republics could not translate foreigners into their languages before the Russian translation appeared. Russian also frequently served as a bridge language for translations among other Soviet republics. Poetry translators were seeking to overcome these bureaucratic and ideological limitations by collaborating, learning each other’s languages and trying to translate each other’s work directly without Russian as the bridge language.

Uldis Bērziņš (1944–2021), the living classic of Latvian modernist poetry and translator-polyglot, was also part of this ecosystem. He translated from several groups of languages, both inside and outside the USSR, both contemporary poets and old epics. He also encouraged young poets to study different languages and engage in ambitious translation projects.For example, to translate poetry coming from small ethnic groups from the Russian Federation, whose languages faced the threats of Russification, such as Bashkirian or Chuvash. These efforts came to an end as soon as the USSR ceased to exist and new political borders were established. However, the efforts of Bērziņš and his colleagues did much to enlarge the scope of poetry available to Latvian readers, and they made the profession of poetry translator to look like a political and ethical actor whose choices are significant as symbolic acts of creativity and solidarity. In the 21st century, it is important to remember those lessons of history when considering poetry translations in small literature. It is important to have forms of exchange between the periphery and the centre. Nevertheless, literary exchange among the peripheries, which might be unthinkable for the major theorists of world literature, is an important way to ease the burden of hegemonic relationships within the world republic of letters and to get to know one’s neighbours, both close and far. Such exchange would probably make the desire for recognition to be interpreted differently: as an egalitarian movement among many equal literary cultures instead of a hierarchical relationship between centres and peripheries. Are there any volunteers for Chuvash language classes?


Karlis Verdins

Karlis Verdins is the PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the Washington University in St. Louis and the researcher at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art, University of Latvia. He is interested in Central and East European Literature, Modernism, and Queer Studies. He has published five collections of poems and three books for children as well as translations of poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, Georg Trakl, T. S. Eliot, Daniil Kharms, Joseph Brodsky, and Charles Simic.