Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Glimpses of SLS Vilnius

That's Gint Aras standing on the left, a writer from Chicago, Lithuanian-American, at MintVinetu Bookstore in Vilnius, July 18. This place, crammed with books, mostly in Lithuanian, some Russian, a few English, was packed with writers from USA, Canada, Lithuania & scattered other places — more jammed than this photo from the SLS Facebook page shows. Here's another look (below) from my iPhone cam farther back in the room.

A writer in residence at SLS Vilnius, Gint read a chapter from his novel Finding the Moon in Sugar that follows an American who comes to Vilnius, homeless, broke & dazed in love with a Lithuanian rich girl. It was a large pleasure to hear it and later to meet Gint, who offered me some "fried bread" at the Uzupio Kavine.

When I first wandered past this bookstore on a curvy, narrow sidewalk on Sv. Ignoto (Saint Ignatius) street, the chalk board outside the front door had this familiar sentence, scribed in English: "he not busy bein' born is busy dyin'." So I dropped in & said, to the lovely woman behind the counter, who I'd guess was the proprietor, "To live outside the law you must be honest." She laughed. And acknowledged that, yes, of course, she knew that Bob Dylan's maternal grandparents were Lithuanian.

A fairly short walk from my flat, this place became a regular stop because (a) they had a guitar propped in the window (you can see it, lower left in the photo top of this page), which I had the nerve one day to pick up and, with permission, gave my stiffening fingers a short workout, and (b) they served maté, the Argentinian tea I often get at The Beehive, down the street from my condo in Pittsburgh. 

This is Mikhail Iossel, from St. Petersburg, professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who directs the SLS program. We're in the courtyard of InVino, the SLS closing reception. In St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Mikhail was an underground (samizdat) writer. He came to the USA in '86, got a master's degree & was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford.  Here's a piece he wrote on a blog at the New Yorker.
At this writing (Aug. 5), I'm safely home & glad to be here. The return trip last Tuesday (July 30) took about 20 hours — Vilnius to Frankfurt to Toronto to Pittsburgh. I departed from Vilnius Oro Uostas (airport) at 6:15 a.m. — around the time baseball fans in Pittsburgh were learning the Pirates won their first game with the Cardinals.

Worried about whether I'd wake on time, I didn't sleep Monday night. But it all worked out. The taxi arrived on schedule & charged a reasonable fare (a concern here, though even the ripoff fares are cheap compared to USA). With help from pills, I caught a little sleep on the Frankfurt to Toronto trans-Atlantic leg & was back in my place by 8:30 p.m. EST on Tuesday, after zooming west through seven time zones.

I'd planned to do more posts from Vilnius, but ran short on energy & time. So now I'm catching up, sorting back through a few notes & many iPhone photos to arrive at something approaching narrative closure as a photo-journal record of this experience.

A major part of my attention for these two weeks was my workshop with poet Ariana Reines. She's a remarkable poet, smart (very), well educated — with European training in philosophy, and unshowy about it, with a manner that welcomes all. A challenging part of this for me was being the grandpa in the group, mostly young women, nearly all in university programs as grad students or professors, with gender politics part of the intellectual air of the room & some lack of sure-footedness for me — even though seldom, if ever, in poetry groups in my experience are men not a minority.
Ariana Reines with black lipstick at the closing reception.

Sometimes I found myself struggling to find thoughts & words to express myself. Some of this feeling, I think, is I'm not getting any younger intellectually (or otherwise) — not a comforting concept. To a woman friend I put it this way: I felt on the periphery of the vortex of female energy generated in this group. She laughed and said it was good for me. Maybe so. We discussed poems by group members (Ariana supported & offered helpful insight to my work), and also some that Ariana brought in — including this remarkable long poem, "Eleven Stars Over Andalusia," by renowned Palestinian poet Mahwoud Darwish.
The back room at Uzupio Kavine.

In this last photo, you can spot me (on the left) enjoying the reading by SLS participants on Friday evening, July 19. A second participant reading, on the deck outside, went for a marathon nearly three hours on Friday the 26th. I read three poems, beginning with my first public reading of "Jolly Jumper," my grandpa poem, not a well recognized poetic genre. It's the only grandpa poem I heard in Vilnius, and people liked it. Maybe I'm starting something.

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