Kārlis Vērdiņš was born in 1979 in Riga. He has published four books of poetry: Ledlauži (Icebreakers, 2001), Biezpiens ar krejumu (Cottage Cheese with Sour Cream, 2004), Burtinu zupa (Alphabet Soup, for children, 2007) and Es (I, 2008). He is a renowned critic, with an MA in Cultural Theory and a PhD in Philology, and has published many essays on literature as well as translations of European and American poets (including T.S. Eliot, Konstantin Biebl, Georg Trakl, Joseph Brodsky, Walt Whitman), and has also written libretti and song lyrics. His own poetry has been translated in many languages, including collections in Russian and Polish, and appears in the Arc anthologies A Fine Line (2004) and Six Latvian Poets (2011).
SJ Fowler interviews Karlis Verdins for Poetry Parnassus
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
KV: Of course it could be some other Latvian poet instead of me as well, there are quite many interesting poets in my country, unfortunately, not all of them have exhaustive translations in English or other major languages. It's hard for one person to represent whole country, doesn't matter if you are an athlete or a poet. But until I'm not asked to do sports, I'll manage somehow.
SJF: How do you think the experience of Poetry Parnassus will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
KV: In Latvian tradition, poetry usually is regarded as something that comes out of the very depths of a person, so it is quite unlikely that such short period could change something important about my understanding of poetry. On the other hand, I really want to see the other poets and get to know them and their work.
SJF: Your translations from English to Latvian seem to focus on English poets, often modernist poets. Is this a period that fascinates you especially?
KV: I was fascinated by English and American modernism during my studies – T.S. Eliot, imagists etc. Now I dare to be quite egoistic in my translation projects – I try to work with material I really like, the language and period is not the crucial thing. Together with other poets I made selections by Trakl and Brodsky, now we're working with Whitman. There're a lot of important authors that are not widely translated into Latvian. I like also Geoffrey Hill, I'd like to make his "Mercian Hymns" into Latvian.
SJF: How does the process of translation affect your own work, if at all?
KV: It's hard to say. I have learned that the biggest value in poetry is one's authenticity. It's possible to copy Eliot or Brodsky but it's pointless. I might never be as good and important as them but I have my own things to say and I enjoy doing it. My work with translations show many possibilities of what can be said and how it can be said, but not all of them will be useful for me. And sometimes it's better to translate a beautiful poem by somebody else than to write some crap by myself.
SJF: Though such descriptions are reductive, and perhaps not possible, how would you explicate your poetry? What do you wish your poetry to achieve? What are your pre-occupations in your work?
KV: I write poems already for fifteen years and it's impossible for me to understand what can I achieve doing it. Every concept or system I ever tried to adopt has failed, so I can trust only my impulses and write down a poem when it comes. I just wish my poems not to be boring for myself and others and not to repeat themselves.
SJF:The parnassian ideal that really centres Poetry Parnassus reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the artform of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?
KV: Such ideas are always nice to hear. When I took part at a poetry festival in China three years ago, their slogans were pretty similar but I'm not sure if the whole thing really matched to these slogans. Actually poetry is one of the most restricted arts because it is deeply rooted in a particular language. As an East-European I'm quite skeptical about bold statements on political subjects, so I'd love to see how these notions will work during the festival.
About the interviewer:
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.