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In Conversation with Karlis Verdins

Posted by Arc, 20th August 2015

"Karlis Verdinš; is a funny, clever, quirky, musical, sweet, puzzled, charming, intense, meticulous, whimsical, gentle, and slightly fantastical. So are his poems. He is a master craftsman with a miraculously unique way of seeing the world." - Gabriel Jackson, Composer

Karlis Verdinš is a renowned poet, translator, and critic living and working in Riga, Latvia. Verdins has published five books of poetry, each one receiving great critical acclaim and picking up top literary awards in the process. In 2012, Karlis was chosen to represent Latvia at London's Southbank Centre, where he took part in the prestigious Poetry Parnassus event. In 2011, he read in Hebden Bridge - homeland of Arc Publications. His poems have been translated into many languages, including collections in Russian and Polish and Czech.

Q: Your poems have such beautiful fluidity to them. They remind me of characters moving around on stage. How many of the poems in Come to Me are based on real people and real experiences?

A: I use my everyday impressions and observations in my poems, still I do not write about my everyday experience - simple things work for me when I can make some generalisations out of them and to make them into images. So it's pretty complicated to evaluate how "real" they are.

Q: The title of your collection is very enticing and your details are always endearing. Do you think much about how your audience will receive the poems throughout the writing process?

A: Actually, no. I feel free when I write, and the audience is important only when I read my poems at some event or collect them together for a book. If I think about what the audience will say and if they will like my poems, I could not write anything!

Q: Has the experience of sharing your work to the UK been revealing or unexpected?

A: For the moment, this experience is rather nice - there are people who like my poems, so I understand it is not that complicated or exotic to read poems by a Latvian author in English translation. Of course, it is largely because of Ieva Lešinska, my translator, whom I trust very much.

Q: Do you read a lot of English-language poetry? Do you have a preference; British or American for example?

A: I read very chaotically, and I have various moods for various poets. Sometimes, for example, it's a Emily Dickinson mood and usually it ends with reading and translating some of her poems. My Whitman mood and Charles Simic moods have resulted in translated books. Now it's Yeats' turn - his selected poems will appear in Latvian translation soon.

Q: Can you say a little bit about what your creative process involves? Do you have a routine? A favourite time of day or place to write?

A: No, I don't have any favourite time and place to write - it's just when everybody leaves me alone and something comes to my mind. Unfortunately, it's not that often anymore.

Q: I love your poem 'Come to Me', that one feels particularly dream-like, like floating around with a sandwich in your hand. "Must have been the third day when I could finally treat you to it, you were so angry, you ate the sandwich hardly looking at it. Had I had more courage, I would have said: but you know I love you, you know I admire you. Don't make me say it again." Did a real life experience lie behind that poem?

A: Yes, there is a bar in Riga Old Town called "I Love You", and on some night in 2004 I really bought a cheese sandwich there. Back then I loved to spend my nights at parties, so above mentioned three days also sound relevant. Strange enough, now I should reconstruct my past after my poems, otherwise it's lost!

Q: Come To Me is an interesting title, one which entices the reader and demands inquiry. As a reader, it's like sitting on your shoulder in the rain, chuckling away at the irony of life. What inspired it?

A: I think, communication is very important thing in contemporary poetry. I adore high modernism and avant-garde things as well as conceptual approaches and past poets, sitting in ivory towers, but at the same time I feel the need to speak to other people as directly as I can without making my poems too simple and flat. I really enjoy if the poems by other authors I read make me feel intimacy and tenderness. If somebody feels the same reading my work, I'm happy.

Q: What first formed and inspired the basis of this collection? Was it a conscious attempt to break away from previous work?

A: My English book consists mostly of my previous work that has been published in my Latvian collections. Still, there are also poems, written in the last years who will be included in my new collection that will come out in Latvia this fall. Largely, they represent the period when I got tired of the rhymed poems of my first book and started to use vers libre with long lines and prose poetry.

Q: Is there a sense of a shared style or cultural conscience for Latvian poets? Do you consider yourself part of a Latvian collective?

A: Language is a very special part of poetry, of course. Latvian is the language I know and feel best, so Latvian poetry is a very strong source of inspiration. I was happy to be in Arc's "Six Latvian Poets" together with my fellow poets, my friends and colleagues, their work is important to me as well as heritage of Latvian poetry.

Q: How do you decide when a poem is finished? Do you ever want to go back and change them after you publish?

A: I've been writing poems for almost twenty years already (oh my God, it's such a long time!) so I think every author gradually develops his or her understanding of when the work is finished. Yes, sometimes I see that the poem would gain from adding or deleting but if it is published already some while ago, it's too complicated to return to my past emotions and to change it.

Q: Finally, Karlis, what are you working on at the moment?

A: We are doing the last corrections for Yeats' Selected Poems in Latvian, I'm also working with the designer of my new Latvian collection which will be called "Pieaugušie" (Adults). I've been getting e-mails from the UK - I'm coming again in October to read my poems in London and Wales.