Kerry Shawn Keys Interviewed by Iveta Jaugaite


Parts of this interview appeared translated into Lithuanian in the cultural press in Lithuania.

Briefly explain how you – an American writer and traveler – have ended up living in Lithuania. How has your perception of and relationship to Lithuania change since you came here? Could you tell us one most striking thing, place or feeling for you about Vilnius?

About 1994, I started to look for a place in Europe to live where I would have reasonable health care (my legs were destroyed by felling a tree and also from the ensuing complications of a crooked spine at birth due to a spat between the doctor who delivered me and my mother), a place where I wouldn’t feel alienated, and could devote myself to writing by living frugally and in a bohemian context. But the latter was not so important because I could have easily settled for an isolated fishing village along the Adriatic – fishing had been my passion for years. I also thought of Olomouc in Moravia, where I had friends and felt at ease with the Czechs, and where there was an incredible little dive of a bar called Ponorka that catered to bikers, poets, and students. During that time, I happened to visit the poet, Sam Witt, in Iowa City. There I met Eugenijus Ališanka who was a participant in Iowa’s International Writing Program, and when he found out I was going to Prague the next Spring for the launch of a book of my poems, VulturesCountry – Krajina supů, he cordially invited me to Poetry Spring 1996 in Lithuania. We had already discovered that we were both Czesław Miłosz fans. My scanty knowledge of Lithuania was limited to Miłosz’ texts. But since I was going to stay a few days with the Polish poet, Urszula Koział, in Wrocław, and then go on to a hang out in Tampere for the tango and the wild white nights and wilder women, Vilnius seemed the perfect place for a layover. I arrived in a pouring, cold rain, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since. For me, Poetry Spring was amazing – Lithuanians’ love of poetry from urban Vilnius and Kaunas to the villages: the intense and lovely audiences; the flowers; 3 Nines hooch; and the folks I met who were very friendly to me, and, of course, the infamous Third Brother (Suokalbis) canteen at the Writers Union. But perhaps even more important was the warm friendship extended to me by the poet Kornelijus Platelis, and the photographer, Džoja Barysaite; not to forget Eugenijus of course, and the Mexican poet, Gerardo Beltrán, who had accompanied me to Vilnius from Warsaw. It was then I decided that Vilnius would be the ideal city to bivouac in for a lifetime – intense, small enough, beautiful, and with a fascinating history and a hazardous future. Also attractive was the rustic nature of even the most sophisticated of the literary urbanites. Most were not from Vilnius or larger cities – that has changed, of course. Shortly thereafter, back in the States, I applied for a Fulbright stipend to teach translation theory and practice, and English composition at Vilnius University and Vilnius Pedagogical University. I secured the stipend and returned in the Fall of 1998 as an Associate Professor. Though in the meantime I had visited again in the summer of 1997 to make sure my plans were not some romantic idealization of a possible, future home. So, I came with the idea of staying, having shipped my few worldly goods from 609 Geary Street in Harrisburg via Chicago to Vilnius (redbud Brahmadanda stick, fetishes, paintings and books, etc.), and that was that.

Neither my perception nor relation to Lithuania has changed since that time. Circumstances have – for a long time, Džoja and I were quite close as sidekicks and then married, but I strayed for no good reason or for many reasons. But la vida has its own rhyme and reason, and I have been with the Lithuanian poet, Sonata Paliulytė, for about a decade, and we have two lovely children, and so on and so on. Now, I could say, my life is that of the devoted father and breadwinner, and the bohemian has been cast overboard for the domestic – though the Muse has remained my mistress, the other woman, throughout. Hermes also remains my faithful, dodgy doppelganger companion – yes, we break black bread and get drunk on degtinė (vodka) on occasion, and my palėpė (garret-workroom) is named Hermescort in his honor. A play on court and escort, the latter my title for work I have done in Amerika for many years. Yes, and Kornelijus took on the nickname of Zapata many years ago; Gerardo became Zorro; and I lugged up from the past a name given to me by a gun-toting Garifuna on the coast of Honduras, Zopi. Hence, we are the 3 Z’s, a trinity that has helped sustain me in some nebulous way.

As for the most striking thing about Vilnius? Well, it used to be the Conspiracy (The Third Brother, the Writers’ Union Saloon), and now I suppose it is the serenity of just going to the store on a sunny day to buy a bottle of 3.2 milk (as in my book of wonderscripts, PIENAS), but unlike the narrator in the book, returning as Rip Van Winkle through a time warp in a gentle Lithuanian drizzle with a bottle of Malbec, a gimp, and a double-shot of testosterone.

You have started translating from Lithuanian to other languages, poets such as Sigitas Geda and Jonas Jackevičius. How is Lithuanian – as a language of poetry or in general – different, personal for you? Do you ever create in Lithuanian – if so, what decides in what language you write in when writing?

I can only translate by working with others whose native language is Lithuanian. And so I have recently translated Sonata Paliulytė and Eugenijus Ališanka. Often, two opinions other than my own serve best – semantic interpretations differ and can be tricky, and often there are just simple mistakes. The target language is easy enough for me – English, though how in the hell I learned it is beyond me. Since the age of 13 when nearly flunking Latin, I discovered I had no gift at all for mastering any foreign language despite studiously trying to; and later on in life, after immersing myself in German and Telugu, and in surroundings where little English was spoken, and still getting no results, I decided that Yahweh or my mother had performed some sort of brain, foreign-language-center lobotomy on me at birth or in the womb. I have no other explanation. Despite private lessons, years of studying, and my children speaking mostly Lithuanian, I remain nearly deaf and certainly dumb except for menus and a few common courtesies. I did manage some reasonable Portuguese at one point in my life – the voodoo macumba helped me, along with Exú (Eshu), the Cantina da Lua, and Oshun as mentors. (It was in Salvador, Bahia that I met the poet and novelist, Barbara Browning who will be featured at the Paris Café in a few weeks). German I could read thanks to Rilke and to my errant mentor, Professor Kristina, mesmerizing me at the age of 21, forcing me to say my undergraduate prayers to her in Pennsylvania Dutch before we would hit the hay together. But Lithuanian? – perhaps if I were transported back to Brazil and held captive there by a Lithuanian lover-in-exile deep underground in an emerald mine in Minas or in the sewers of São Paulo, I might even sing sutartinės like a canary. Years after I arrived in Vilnius, I would still mistake Lithuanian for Greek or Portuguese, and couldn’t tell the difference between Russian and Lithuanian, lolitas from litas – LOL, but not so funny for my Lithuanian friends. But anyway, to create lyrical poetry, it has to be in a tongue that one has spoken and heard, felt and tasted from a very early age. So, by default, English for me, or sometimes the language of Heaven-and-Hell. Though, since I am the Republic of Užupis’ World Ambassador to Poetry, I am occasionally called on to write a poem:

                                                                ‘stonewalls do not a jailbird make
                                                 nor Cupid’s barbs a cage
                                             – Dick Lovelaced

I speak Užupiškey.
Sometimes I speak firewater or whiskey.
I used to speak Anglitzkey
’til I lost the keys
to my native language tree.
Heaven and Hell are my linguae francae.
I also converse my Cuntree Tis of Thee
and stutter a Tarzan-Lootoowishkey.
Everyman knows of the Man without a Country
and so in precaution I speak pure polyphony
talking my head off daily
to Everywoman whose nothing to me.
Nightly, I invoke a femme fatale’s hospitality.
As payback, mostly I speak Purgatory
or mime the silence of Eternity.
But today, sentenced by the testimony
of my jailbait-Muse’s jealous treachery,
I languish in solitary
confined to this soliloquy
in my tongue’s unfettered Užupiškey.

You have lived in various and very different places around the world – the US, India, Brazil, Lithuania. Do you feel as a voice of a global literary community, or rather each time a voicing of a new locality in which you live?

Not a globalist at all!—that’s the media, automatic-pilot airplane of middling, middle-men/women, the brokers and fallen, Gilgameshes’ who have little or no attachment to the land, the wild. In Lithuania, for example, those who did not vote in the recent referendum to protect their lakes and woods and oak trees from foreign investors, from Big Shale. I am not speaking of some trumped up, fictional land as in a fascist Heimat or Imperially secured Homeland, or the spreading tumors of Israeli settlements in Palestine. I don’t much like an instant, world music mix either, unless the mix has evolved over a long period of time, as in a country’s cuisine or dance, bagels and flamenco. Jazz might be the one exception, but it is now “homeless” and sleeps at night in a saxophone or in a paperbag under a bridge. Wherever I am, I compose. I composed a poem in Honduras many years ago, and in it there is this line, skewing Jehovah’s: “I am where I am.” And so my content is a mix of where my feet are planted (we breathe through our feet), and all the times and places eternally within…

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”
 — Eliot

Your poems are often very rhythmic, almost transic (e.g. your work with the Vladimir Tarasov Quartet) – why is that? How important is the experience of your poetry – as performance or at least a reading aloud? Do you feel there is any affiliation of an almost religious experience to the performance and experience of poetry?

Lyrical poetry is by definition rhythmic and often resonate. The heartland and core of poetry is “pulse” and silence. When composing, I hear the poems and the space around the words or a thread of words, and so the oral or aural delivery is only natural. I suppose some might call this a “religious experience.” I would prefer “liminal.” The tingle in the chakra, from the brain to the base of the spine or vice versa, back and forth. To quote Emily Dickinson’s definition once too often: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off (or feel speechless, I would add), I know that is poetry…” Not all poetry, but the “heart” of poetry.

You sometimes talk about the ‘muse’ that inspires you in creating. These days this seems sometimes to be seen as a dirty word, a romanticized vision of poetry in the world of ultra-rational or extra-conscious postmodern. What place does inspiration, or the muse, have in your work?

I think you should be careful referring to the Muse as a “word.”

“Ultra-rational?” Hmmm, may the Gods save me from sterile academia or Poe at his worst. Postmodern? A literary cliché and hard to say what it now means, which is fitting since under that umbrella “nothing has meaning because everything is language” – well, the adherents of post-modernism’s “man is the measure of all things,” Protagorean world-view never touched the Muse or danced with her, breathing down or across each other’s neck in an agon of inspiration.

Who are the most influential or impressive Lithuanian artists for you personally? How are they different or maybe similar from your expectations of Eastern European culture?

Poets: Sigitas Geda, Vytautas Blože, both poets of the former or older generation. Neither influenced my writing, but I think they have influenced countless others. That time may now be past as the younger generation are more and more products of the city or globalization, and find their Pierian Springs in tapwater or other human beings. In the generation closer to my own, Kornelijus Platelis impresses me as a poet with a huge range and a masterly prosody, but he is a personal friend and so I am at a loss to assess my objectivity. Eugenijus Ališanka of course. As for the visual arts: Vilmantas Marcinkevičius; Petras Repšys; Jacques Lipchitz; Vytautas Valius; etc., and many, many others. Writers of fiction, the usual suspect: Sigitas Parulskis. But the great directors of theatre in Lithuania are incredible. So many, one need not name them.

I had no expectations of what to expect from Lithuania in regards to other Eastern European cultures. More provincial perhaps – which I see as a plus. That is, more a part of the earth than the world. Closer to local color and the non-human than to taxonomy and secondary sources from without.

What do you find most intriguing about the SLS seminars that are offered in July or August? Is there something in particular you are hoping to see, discover or discuss in this year’s program?

I don’t teach in the SLS seminars, although one day teaching literary translation might be an option. I work behind the scenes with suggestions and contacts, as a kind of Ombudsman. I also give a reading, an orientation tour, and host a faculty/staff reception-fest at my flat. And I schmooze with the workshoppers as the local, cultural guide and Jack. Caulking.

Short, intense workshops and seminars can be really useful for some. But perhaps of most importance is getting out of one’s habitual environment so one can return and experience it in new ways mediated through other cultures and ways of being. Yes, really.

I chose to live in Lithuania with Lithuanians and not in an ex-pat ambiance; however, just being around some fellow gringos for a couple of weeks and rediscovering their America or Canada or tribe through them, their understanding of language and literature, is a good way to keep me on my toes, and is a joy, especially when accompanied by some moonshine or non-filtered beer. The smiles and insularity and sense of entitlement of provincial New Yorkers and their kin are a refreshing and comical break from the gloom and irony of Vilnius. As for hopes, maybe to be lucky enough to discover among the participants one single writer with a prodigious and roughhewn talent, that is a wild rainbow trout or shark among so many graduates of the fish-stick hatcheries.

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