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Kristiina Ehin: Poetry is a bird with two wings

Posted by Arc, 19th September 2012

Kristiina during her last visit to the UK. Photo: Amarjit Chandan
Kristiina during her last visit to the UK. Photo: Amarjit Chandan

In anticipation of Kristiina Ehin reading at King's Lynn this Friday, launching this Autumn's Arc Venture's Tour, I asked Kristiina a few questions about her work and her visit to the UK. Diving right in there...

How would you describe your poetry?

Difficult question... you could say that poetry gives me the possibility to say things in a precise and thought-out manner. In everyday life I'm sometimes a bit slow - I feel that the right words are somewhere to be found but I'm not always able to find them quickly enough. When I write poetry I can wait for the right words to come.

How have you developed and improved your poetry since you started?

I developed most as a poet when for a long time I didn't write or publish anything, even though I felt I was able to. I held myself back. I wanted and also didn't want to become a writer. Watching my mother and father, both of them highly respected poets, I saw how complicated a writer's life is. But the time came when I couldn't hold back any longer.
And of course my work has improved through conversations and correspondence with people who are important to me, as well as some reviews of my work.

What is your writing process? And what is the collaborative process between Ilmar and yourself?

It's very difficult for me to describe my writing process. I wouldn't know how to go about it. There probably is no particular process in the way I write.

As a person my translator, Ilmar, is special and exceptionally sensitive to poetry and literature. The translations are totally his work and I very rarely get involved. I eagerly look forward to his translations, as I do to his own fine, deep poems.

How does it affect or feed your individual work?

In several ways Ilmar is a citizen of the world. My conversations with him and his wife Sadie Murphy about life, poetry and translation have often made me see and write more broadly. Ilmar understands that above all I always write for our dear one million Estonians who share with one another our old, beautiful, paradoxically still thriving language. In global terms it is in many ways like writing in a secret language. Ilmar conveys this "secret language" in such a way that its accent hopefully won't be lost.

You came to London in the Summer and are back at the end of September, what do you enjoy or find different about reading in the UK?

In the UK I read my work in English. In Estonia of course I don't need to, but elsewhere abroad I read in English as well. I don't really understand why at some festivals I have been asked to read only in Estonian. For me poetry is a bird with two wings. One side carries the meaning, the other the sound of the words, the rhythm, language and so on. I feel that if I am left with only the latter, then my poetry is reduced to something like a beautiful sounding exhibit of a small language in some museum. But that has never been my intention. The meaning has always been essential to me. I like to read the translations of my work myself.

I very much like a poetry evening to have someone to introduce the poets with interesting information about them (not rattling off whatever can be found in some official biographical note) and something of their own emotional response to the poets' work, thereby taking responsibility for the shared experience of the evening. I have very much enjoyed such evenings on various occasions in England. The ability to fit several different poets naturally into one evening's readings is an art in itself.

What are you most looking forward to in this forthcoming trip?

I'm looking forward to lots of fresh air in every sense.

How much does reading in a new context change the way you think about your work?

Sometimes it really does lead to changes. Most of all it makes me think about cultural differences.

And audiences' reception to one and the same text can vary greatly depending on the place, the people in the audience, preparation, mood, people's level of tiredness or even the air in the room.

Kristiina is reading on Saturday 22nd September, 3.00pm as part of the King's Lynn festival. Her book The Scent of Your Shadow was translated by Ilmar Lehtpere