Valts Ernštreits is a Livonian poet, linguist, and translator, currently also the director at the UL Livonian Institute. He is an author of two collections of poetry – “Inter/rational” (2003) and “Dark Energy” (2014). Last year, he collaborated with poets Baiba Damberga and Ķempju Kārlis in publishing “Trillium”, a bilingual collection in Livonian and English. Francis Boutle Publishers this year published a translation of his latest collection “Seļļizt nemē mēg/People like us”. In this interview with Anete Konste he tells us about finding and not finding time for writing poetry, clearing your head by riding a motorbike, and, of course, about Livonians.
I have the impression that you have been attending a lot of festivals lately. Could you tell us how you got so involved in the poetry scene abroad?
I guess it was first initiated by the Latvian Literature platform and Latvia getting ready for the London Book Fair about three years ago. There was an idea that we could promote Livonian poetry as well but none of it had been previously translated into English. What changed everything was the poetry translation workshop organized by the platform which earned our entire team a spot at the Hay Festival in Wales. Sipping coffee at the Birmingham train station we came up with an idea to invite Ryan Van Winkle to translate Livonian poetry. There were early drafts by Uldis Balodis available and on our way to Liverpool Ryan read them. That’s when work on the “Trillium” collection started, and one thing lead to another. It was largely the result of the Latvian Literature platform’s direct efforts establishing connections and organizing events all over the world.
We are currently at the UL Livonian Institute directed by you. What is the day to day work at the institute like?
One of the most important areas we work in is the acknowledgment of the Livonian heritage when it comes to linguistic, cultural, and historical contributions. It is important to me that the research on Livonian heritage is integrated into other fields of study. Ideally, there would be no need to have a separate Livonian Institute and among the people working with the Latvian language, there would be someone specializing in Livonian, etc. However, the first institution devoted to Livonian culture was set up very recently. We have been operating only for under a year, and the subject is so vast. We are at the very beginning of the road and I believe there is quite a journey ahead. We are trying to relocate the research from Estonia back to Latvia where it should have been focused in the first place.
Are you suggesting that the perfect outcome would be getting rid of the institute altogether?
Exactly! That is when we will know we have done our job right.
Language and reality are forever changing, and so many new terms come into existence. Are you working on creating new words in Livonian?
Livonian has had a steady and rather high influx of new words. There are many small languages in Europe that have more speakers who are only now shaping their written language and publishing their first books. Livonian literary tradition is nearly 200 years old and has had enough time to develop, and coining new terms has always been a part of it. Latvian language has borrowed a lot from German, Russian and English when it comes to new terminology, whereas Livonian is mostly based on Latvian, Estonian and Finnish which are all historically related to the Livonian language.
Tell us more about your writing process! Are some periods more productive and some less?
You have to be on a creative wave to some extent. You have to switch off from other duties. It is quite a problem, and poets might be struggling with it the most. I do not know a single person who could be considered a full-time professional poet nowadays. Certainly not in Latvia. It is always seen as a side-job which affects greatly how much time one can devote to this “hobby”. I am generally not a high-yielding writer. I am best at it when presented with a task. For instance, when working on the first anthology of Livonian poetry in 1998, I wrote its final poem the very night I finished the manuscript. I thought it needed something to hold it all together. Writing poetry is a fractured job that depends greatly on being able to afford to focus on it. Once you find the time, switching off is not that difficult, I find it almost easy.
Could it be that the poets whose side-job is to translate poetry find it a bit easier?
That is difficult too! Sometimes you start overanalyzing things, wondering if the poet you’ve been translating hasn’t rubbed off on you too much. I only translate practical texts or poetry. I do not like translating fiction. I mostly translate from Estonian. The highest achievement for the relationship between the two languages is probably the Estonian-Latvian dictionary I was involved in compiling.
It might be a banal question, but what is the most impressive poetry experience you’ve been involved in lately?
I guess attending the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam has been the biggest thing for me. I think every poet should see at least one of these international festivals to get a perspective on how different poetry truly can be. Being confined to one country or cultural region we get so used to a certain way things should be. If a Russian poet travels to the West, you can hear very well the undertones of Pushkin or Mayakovsky. All the influences surface no matter how many layers you wrap them in. When you listen to poetry from China or Guatemala, for instance, you sometimes catch yourself not even recognizing poetry in it. You ask yourself: “Would this be considered poetry in the tradition I come from?” Seeing that different types of texts can be considered poetry in different places around the world opens you up and encourages exploration for no path is seen as being wrong.
My final question will be rather prosaic. I know you own a motorbike, and your bookstore “Nice place” just closed down. Can you tell us more about your hobbies?
The whole point of riding a bike is to have an unmediated connection to the world. You feel every field left unattended, every withering cornfield, and the forests after rain. You let all of it inside you directly. Riding a bike is far more dangerous than driving a car or walking down the street, so it leaves you no room to think about anything else. You have to be fully focused which helps you to empty yourself out beautifully. I used to ride all year from January till December, but lately, I prefer not to freeze myself so terribly. “Nice Place” was my long-time hobby. We started out as a shop selling design souvenirs, made in Latvia. Then we expanded the concept and created a bookstore–cafe hosting various cultural events. Unfortunately, bookstores of this kind, selling specific high-quality products, have a small target audience. To sustain it as a business would entail replacing, let’s say, poetry books by “Orbita” with stationaries, erasers and pencil sharpeners. There came a point where we could not be bothered to sponsor this particular “pastime”.