Orbita group comments after the US tour: Apparently our poetry collection is nearly sold out already
The Orbita creative collective recently returned from their tour of several American cities, where they promoted their bilingual collection of poems “Hit Parade”, published by “Ugly Duckling Presse” in 2015 . During the interview the group members – Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin, and Vladimir Svetlov – were working as a single unified organism regularly finishing each other's sentences and only in disagreement when trying to establish who actually said what or when exactly events discussed took place. While creating multimedia projects they have not only discovered and explored truly strange China-made gadgets, but also found a solution to the age-old problem – what is a poet supposed to do with his hands during a performance. Orbita, for instance, fiddle with the switches and buttons, complementing the readings with various sounds and noises. At the end of this interview we tried to find out how important is the author's involvement to get their book published in the USA and other countries.
Tell us how you got to tour the US!
Sergej Timofejev: It might begin with a girl named Karina who lived in Riga in 1970's and 80's. She lived here for a while and moved to America in 90's. Later on Karina met a great guy Kevin Platt, he's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a translator...
Artur Punte: Post-colonial Studies and ...
ST: and Slavonic Studies?
AP: He studied with Joseph Brodsky. There's this funny story about Platt's experience with Brodsky. Apparently he was a very strict lecturer. Students, of course, often handed in their works after the deadline. Here's a common exchange – Brodsky asks: “Where is it?”. The student replies: “I haven't got it!” One of the students plucked up the courage to say: “Please understand Mr Brodsky, us submitting our works about Russian Literature to you is like Darwin's student's explaining evolution to him.” Brodsky's response was: “No, it is more like if he was explained evolution by apes.” In other words, it wasn't easy for Kevin to get along with Brodsky.
Vladimir Svetlov: Nobody had it easy with Brodsky, every single student who ever studied with him remembers him as a cruel professor.
ST: No, we never meant to say anything bad about Brodsky...
AP: It is actually a compliment! Kevin still stayed in the field of Slavonic Studies.
ST: Kevin told us he believes there are two approaches in education. There's the Russian or Soviet approach, and then there is...
VS: I said that! Brodsky arrived in the US with this Soviet teaching method that believes in the survival of the fittest.
AP: It is OK if there is only one survivor! It is the case across the board, even conservatoires. The main goal is to make at least one outstanding pianist excel.
ST: And Kevin, of course, not only became a great professional and a translator, but also married Karina (Karina Sotnik). They spend almost every summer here in Jūrmala. Kevin is really interested in the culture of Latvian Russians and invited us to his summer cottage. One warm evening of July 2011, we created one of our first performances with radios in his back yard. It all started very simply and humanely. Then we needed English translations for our texts, and Kevin started to translate. Later on, he offered these translations to a couple of magazines in America, and several publications followed. Kevin is also a friend of Matvei Yankelevich who is a member of the editorial collective in publishing house Ugly Duckling Presse in New York. They publish a lot of American authors, but pay rather close attention to Eastern Europe as well. All this led to Kevin asking Matvei to publish our book as a bilingual edition.
AP: But there was a queue – the prediction was that it would take three years to publish it. By the end of 2015 our book actually came out and Kevin suggested that we come and promote it.
So this was a book promotion tour?
AP: To some extent, however the most effective publicity probably came from the good reviews by poets well known in the States. It's hard to imagine a better promoter than Kevin himself since he is the most passionate volunteer when it comes to popularizing Latvian culture in America. It was nice to see him work the audience. It was truly impressive. He finds out the facts, conceptualizes what is going on here and does it energetically and convincingly. I should probably note that before each performance we discussed not only the Orbita collective, but Latvian literature and culture in general.
VS: We performed four times, and each time, depending on the crowd, he came up with a new introduction about us and Latvia.
Which cities did you visit, and how did it go?
AP: Boston, New York, Amherst, Philadelphia and Washington. But we didn't perform in Boston, just had a walk around there.
What venues did you perform in?
ST: Mostly universities.
AP: Since in the US poetry traditionally resides in universities, our venues were mostly connected to those, but the audiences were really versatile.
ST: We arrived right after the US presidential elections and experienced strong contrasts. The weather was wonderful, a proper “Indian summer”. Red and yellow colours everywhere, and sunlight. But the students and professors were deeply depressed about the election results and concerned about the future of their country.
Did you do something similar to what you did in Kevin's back yard, with radios?
AP: Yes, but we had to optimize the show since it was impossible to bring all the radios we need to America. We usually use around 30-40 devices. Since we couldn't transport as many we found these multi-media devices used by tour guides and advertisers in the streets. We ordered four identical devices, however they each arrived having different functions. We could compactly transport them and set everything up in 15 minutes.
Artur, would you say you are the “technological mastermind” of the group?
AP: No, I simply like following the newest gadgets invented by China. Europe or the US would never manufacture anything like this because these products are not based on consumer's basic needs. Chinese have a radio built in every toothbrush. It is interesting to know what they come up with from time to time. This is how I discovered these mutants. I had previously ordered a tour guide speaker from Germany – the sound was clearer and louder but it didn't have any additional functions since it was a loudspeaker designed for tour-guides. But the Chinese had stuffed it full of all sorts of things.
VS: One of the projects we performed in the Dubulti Art Station was this permanently changing poem in the air that involved portable fans that could be programmed to project LED writing in different colours.
AP: This attribute can in no way be explained in functional terms, since nobody really ever needs such a thing.
ST: I think I just realised what is the point of that device is. In the 19th century they had fans and the technique of holding them was like an actual language. You could send a message across the room at a party. Nowadays you can send a message with the LED fan.
VS: “I am married!” or “I am single!”
ST: “I like you!”
VS: We modified these fans attaching a power supply and a motion detector making the fans turn on once a person has come close enough.
AP: It all survived only through the performance, the fans started to break down afterwards. After the show, not a single one was working and we replaced the installation with a video recording.
VS: Nonetheless, it gave the show its uniqueness. Everything appeared and disappeared into thin air.
Which countries have you performed in?
AP: Namely in Germany, Estonia, Lithuania. Ukraine, too. We went there three times in a single year.
ST: The crowd is really kind and welcoming there.
VS: One can see the birth of a nation, maybe that is why such sharp and close attention is paid to literature and text.
ST: In Lviv, every taxi driver knows if a book fair is being held somewhere. I think the city itself has two specialities now – coffee and books. What a pleasant combination. Where else have we been... Croatia, Serbia. We've been almost everywhere in Germany.
How was your friendship with Germany established?
AP: I think Germany simply is the most curious nation in Europe. The most interested in everything foreign.
ST: Every performance leads to another. It is like...
A snowball effect?
AP: We've been to Russia, as well!
VS: But we don't go there anymore...
ST: We were actively involved with the scene in Siberia.
AP: Both we and the people we like belong to the unofficial culture, but nowadays it has less and less resources and capacity to organize anything.
ST: The only big supporter which still operates there is the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation that sponsored also the prose book of Andrei Levkin newly published by Orbita. But Siberia is an interesting region. Exactly the kind of place something good can come out of.
Maybe we can discuss my global question about...
AP: Oh, there is going to be a global question?
Yes, there is! I assume that because of your many business-trips it is not the focus of your attention and endeavours. Moreover, the popular view is that, once the work is finished, the authors job is done, and the books' further journey to its reader is in the hands of others. How much effort should the author invest in popularizing his own works?
AP: There is a reason for this view. While working with “Ugly Duckling Presse”, we experienced how it is to be taken care of by a publishing house that knows how to do its job. They know how to push the work through to the readers. The publishing house has an excellent reputation. In America we met people who subscribe to this company, which means they receive everything it prints automatically. Even there, just like in our country, publishing poetry is an incredibly niche task with a comparatively tiny target audience. However they work extremely professionally and creatively when it comes to advertising.
ST: But one must get to work with such a publisher first!
AP: Well, yes. They have to want you. We were lucky to have a good agent in Kevin, he was able to convince them. He could easily be Latvia's sales representative abroad.
VS: I was surprised to hear from him when he said that the entire print run of our book was nearly sold out. Now they’re making ready next print run.
AP: But, returning to the initial question, how much should the poet be involved – of course, we often get our own books printed and do things to promote them. But I would be reluctant to say it is deeply effective.
However you were willing to go and perform in Kevin's back yard...
AP: We are ready to grasp at any chance to perform and read!
ST: It is, certainly, a tangled issue. On one hand, it is healthier for the author who has written the text to distance himself from it.
VS: We all dream of the perfect publisher who will select you and take care of you. But to get to such a publisher, you have to make the first step. If you have no ambition in life, nothing stands in your way to keep doing what your doing and then hide your art in the ground under a tree.
AP: In this sense, multi-media pieces that include poetry, is a good solution, since it can serve as promotional material.
VS: And our multi-media performances, for instance, our FM Slow Show, have been a great help in this. Somebody once said that we have solved one of the most important problems of a poet – where to put your hands during a performance.
You are the among the first and the most active ones to merge poetry with other art media?
AP: I somehow naively took it for granted, but in 2014, when Riga was the European Capital of Culture, I was organizing a project “The Poetry Map of Riga”. I though that interdisciplinary projects had no room to evolve, but I was certain they were taking place somewhere. That is why I organized such a project where poetry had to be interacting with some another medium. It turned out the authors had to be almost forced to think in this direction. However, we certainly don't believe that poetry should only exist as a multi-media art.
ST: It simply is one of the opportunities out there.
(Semjon Khanin, another member of the Orbita group, joins our conversation in the NicePlace Mansards book café)
ST: Here's the boss!
Semjons Khanin: Well done, guys, keep it up!
Everyone: Oh! On that note we can finish!
The Orbita Group book "Hit parade" you can buy here.