See J.C.'s Feature on Lithuanian poetry, including eleven well-known poets in Lithuania in Winter 2002.

For J.C.'s other columns on Lithuania:

Lilacs and a Resinous Will: Poetry Spring in Lithuania

International Poetry Festival


Jane's Summer 2002 column

For J.C.'s look at the aftermath of September in Spring 2002

Her debut column in Spring 2001

For J.C.'s translations from the Spanish of Ivón Gordon Vailakis

For another review by J.C. Todd


J.C. Todd's work can be found online at:

"Why I Teach Poetry," an on-line supplement to the PBS special Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, Fall, 1999 is located at


J.C. Todd is a Contributing Editor of The Drunken Boat


Email J.C. Todd
riverviews At water's edge is how I locate my life: Great South Bay marshes and beaches of Long Island; peninsula of Pittsburgh narrowed by the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers; bank of the Susquehanna in Harrisburg; and now the Delaware's levee in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill at my back. As a poet, too, I've stood to the side of the mainstream, in the marshy detritus of language from which new language emerges, myself a river and reiver, splitting and splicing, plundering and rescuing, making a language of my mother tongue, being made by it. So, a reiver's view of riverviews, this column of musings on language and poetry.

Fire on the Lake: Live from Druskininkai

By J.C. Todd

Friday, October 4: On the dark lake, two boats crammed with poets, on the dark shore, more poets, all inspired. Water to earth, earth to water, they are reading from the heart of the word poems about fire, voices enlarged by wine and electronics. At lakeside, a ring of seven straw totems, Ur-figures, each about ten feet high, fashioned by Lithuanian pyrotechnics. As the poets breathe fire-words, the totems are set aflame, one by one, their blaze a hot brilliance on which the poems ascend into fire-lit rain that gleams like shards of amber. Fire, Air, Water, Earth. Except for the electronics, this could be early in the world, when time was season and rhythm, and meaning did not matter as much as sound, fire, heat. This could be an autumnal pagan festival in ancient Lithuania—the poems, dainos, old Baltic folksongs, and the poets Baltas, the pale tribes of the North. But the palm pilot calendar reads 2002, and the poets speak in a heterogeneity of languages—Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Byelorussian, Polish, Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Slovenian, Thai, and a variety of English dialects. The lake is a two hour drive from the geographical center of Europe, as determined by satellite geometrics, and the beauty of the babel is threatened by the homogenizing press of global economy—if the Euro is the lone franc, will a single lingua follow?

Perhaps the question is large in my mind this night because I am among so many languages that have extinguished others or have come dangerously close to extinction themselves. Polish has erased the Prussian spoken three hundred years ago just east of here, and English has diminished the Irish lingual heritage of one poet here to a charming lilt. During the Russian occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, business, government, legal affairs, and education were conducted in Russian, and today in Latgalia, eastern Latvia, Russian predominates strongly as a common (although not legally approved) language of commerce, government and law. Byelorussian is so uncommon that when it was sung this afternoon, some poets wondered what language they were hearing. The Yiddish I listened to yesterday on a CD of ghetto tangos from the 1940’s is spoken rarely by scattered octogenarians. Despite the dominance of English, the conqueror’s tongue of the United States, my native land, I understand that it could become a dead tongue, too. But the preservation of my language is not my concern tonight; it is the lack of diversity, the shrunken power of heritage and inflexibility of thought that results from mono-culture, mono-language. After an evening of multi-lingual poetry readings, of listening to the music, although not the meaning, of seven languages, I am alive to the poverty as well as the wealth of a single tongue.

This is the evening of the opening day of Poetinus Druskininku ruduo 2002/ Druskininkai Poetic Fall, an annual festival celebrating Lithuania’s fall poetry publications and the national poetic heritage. It is an especially auspicious year for the nation’s literary culture because Lithuania is the guest of honor at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair the following week. The previous night, young Lithuanian poets had read for almost three hours at the Writers Union in Vilnius. This afternoon, after organizer Kornelijus Platelis officially opened the Festival and poet Sigitas Geda raised the Poetic Fall flag while paper streamers flamed behind him, the young poets joined the formal convocation of critics and poets convened to discuss “Poetry and Fire.” Tomorrow the new books of the season will be displayed, but tonight, everyone walks the broad promenade back to the kavine, where, inspired by the winemaker and the beermaker, talking and dancing go late into the night.

Saturday, October 5: Last night in the kavine photos from previous festivals were projected on a large screen. This morning in the damp of a outdoor pavillion some of the same poets are signing the 2002 almanac containing poems of forty-three Lithunanian and international poets and one class of schoolchildren, a multilingual almanac in Lithuanian and the poets’ native languages. Whether or not we read the various languages, many of us page through, comparing translations with originals, sighting forms, rhymes, word plays made obvious by spelling. Soon we will compose the traditional renga, each of us working in our native tongue, each tanka composed by two poets, the “haiku” of the first three lines by one, and the coda of the second two lines by the other. Tonight, after the Fall prizes and formal readings, as the renga is read aloud in all its tongues, poet by poet, I imagine the music that is beyond meaning will tune us to each other.

After lunch, books published during the year are presented. They cover two tables and four languages, an ambitious showing for a small country. Lithuanian poets have a reading in the afternoon, and in the evening, the Jotvingiai Prize, the major fall award for a Lithuanian poet, is presented to Jonas Zdanys, poet and English-language translator of the new collection, Five Lithuanian Women Poets, published by Vaga Press, featuring selected poems of Judita Vaiciunaite, Danute Paulauskaite, One Baliukone, Nijole Miliauskaite, and Tautvyda Marcinkeviciute. The debut prize for the best poem by a younger poet is awarded to Donatas Petrosius. Ten other poetry awards are made for poems written in or translated into Lithuanian, five for an anonymous poem on any subject and five for an anonymous humorous poem on the theme of “Fire in the Water.” Then there is a late-night caberet/talk show hosted by critic and poet Liudvikas Jakimavicius—jokes, stories, a puppet show, blues singer, awards of firewater that must be 100 proof, music and dancing.

Sunday, October 6: Poets drift away to Vilnius by car, minivan and bus, gathering in the early evening for readings at Town Hall and later at the Jazz & Rock Café for an evening of poetry and music. Leading off is “Sonatina for Voices of Poets, Oboe, Contrabass and Percussion,” orchestrated by Vladimir Tarasov, leader of the Ganelon Trio, a rock group as famous in the former USSR as the Beatles are in the West. Featured poets are Sigitas Geda reading in Lithuanian, Gerardo Beltran in Spanish, Kerry Shawn Keys in English and Alesksei Parscikov in Russian. Poet and songwriter Andrei Chadanovic of Belarus follows with his ballads accompanied by guitar, then Polish poet Leszek Engelking reads. Finally American Craig Czury’s blues harmonica punctuates a bilingual reading from Angliavaizdis, Marius Burokas’ new Lithuanian translation of Czury’s poems.

Monday, October 7: For those who cannot quit, meaning the young, the hardy and the poetry lunatics, an informal evening reading at a famed gathering place for artists on the willow-hung bank of the Vilnia River, the Uzipis Cafe. Weaving into hours of readings are guitar, harmonica, blues singing, piano, choruses of drinking songs, ballads and a karaoke performance by an Australian songwriter. There is no way to separate the poetry from the music which seems to be playing in us as we wind home through the narrow medieval streets of Old Town.

And after the festival is over, after books have been packed, planes and buses boarded, kavine floors swept and hotel linens changed, what has remained? An almanac, remembered fragments of poems and conversations, a few new and renewed friendships, a detail recorded in a journal, a poem or two drafted, a pound or two gained. For me, and I hope for others, what remains is the sense of poetry tuning us to each other, particularly through its music. A Vilnius woodcarver told this story. When he was a child, his grandfather sometimes would lie on his back in a forest clearing, a Lithuanian folk dulcimer on his chest. He would play, his torso a sounding board vibrating to the music, the earth beneath him vibrating in response. He believed the music kept him well, in harmony with nature. In the old spa town of Druskininkai, and in the cafés of Vilnius, in the nation which, a decade ago, gained independence with a “Singing Revolution,” I have felt how the music of poetry kept us well, in harmony with each other, and that has expanded my imagination for the possibility of peace among peoples of many tongues, a sonatina that supercedes differences, a glossolalia of accord.