The Conversant (Interview)

Originally published on The Conversant (March 2016)
Interview by poet Virginia Konchan

Conversant: In your own history, as a first-generation American of Lithuanian descent, you describe feeling a degree of alienation from your relatives who were born in Lithuania or Ukraine—or who had been through the war. Is there a healthy form of displacement—at least in the literary sense—that can arise in those slippages between identities, and belongings? 

I wouldn’t say displacement has a healthy form. Displacement itself—experiencing or realizing displacement—is jarring, lonely, and frightening. When you are physically, mentally, and emotionally displaced, natural human reaction is to relentlessly seek a way to get back “home”—both literally and metaphorically. But then there is what arises from being in this state. Maybe it is descending further into depths of anguish or isolation; maybe it is discovering a major, affirmative truth or resolution about or within oneself. Before either outcome occurs, however, being in “a state of displacement” can catalyze truest expression.

Grappling for connection, trying to capture anything familiar or “grounding” can lead one to desperate places. Buddhism would direct you to continue going into that place and embrace it—to not expect resolution. I’ve found that, in general, I’m constantly trying to express the “no there, there” in my poetry, and I continue to try and articulate groundlessness. I’ve discovered this spurs me to continue writing. As we know, writing is seeking. (And I’ve found it’s numerologically unavoidable for me, I am a seeker, #7).

The sense of alienation(1) or displacement has been a running theme throughout my life—there are many layers to the displacement. On many occasions, I felt drawn to “family” or “groups” that seem natural to fall into, only to be continuously reminded that I exist on the outside, that I do not truly belong.

Historically, Lithuanians struggled repeatedly to assert their identity, their nationality, and independence. The Poles, the Swedes, the Russians, and the Germans all took turns land-grabbing and stamping out any scrap of Lithuanian identity. Lithuanians were forced to absorb all aspects of outside culture and accept it as their own, but often they cleverly rebuked their persecutors by using stark symbolism in an ironic way—one that they knew their brutish oppressors would not directly understand. Through their arts and literature, Lithuanians used code: devils and pagan creatures represented these dictators, and they told stories or folktales that conveyed a forbidden meta-message. So I believe this sense of being an outsider in your own “space” carries down via generations, through the soul. There is current genetic research being done on the relatives of certain ethnic groups that witnessed the horrors of war, and there is scientific proof that trauma can mentally and physically manifest in later generations. So trauma travels down through family lines—there is truth to the notion that the kin of displaced peoples can also feel inexplicably anxious, fearful, or displaced.

“Through their arts and literature, Lithuanians used code: devils and pagan creatures represented these dictators, and they told stories or folktales that conveyed a forbidden meta-message. So I believe this sense of being an outsider in your own ‘space’ carries down via generations, through the soul.”

In addition to this, my personal Lithuanian-American experience—both publicly and within my own immediate and extended family—has really defined this feeling of displacement for me, and it has inserted itself into my life and writing. As a child in Chicago, I spoke only Lithuanian first for an extended period of time. I was practically raised by my maternal grandmother who spoke no English. I heard English and spoke it with my parents, but I already knew I was different and felt separate from everyone else—and it became more apparent when it was time for formal schooling. Even in Chicago, where many Eastern Europeans settled, my name was not Lisa or Jenny. I had a long, strange last name. My mother made my clothes from thick, patchwork-patterned materials (think quilted skirts and burlap overalls). I had short boy-like hair. I had traces of an accent, and I hybridized English with Lithuanian often.

There was a mixed message between old world and new world: family elders wanted me to maintain all of my native Lithuanian, at every turn, show my heritage and be proud. My parents, on the other hand, desperately wanted to escape from all of that and be “American”. They were not necessarily ashamed … they simply embraced popular culture that would “normalize” them to peers. They held their ethnicity at a distance for weekend family gatherings only. And even then, being Lithuanian to them meant eating heavy foods and drinking excessively.

Being Lithuanian to me as a child was confusing. I was in Lithuanian school on Saturdays. I spoke the language fluently. I was enrolled in Lithuanian folk dancing and Bluebirds (scouts). And while in Lithuanian school I learned an entire history of a medieval sort of people (think Game of Thrones) who existed centuries back—knights and dukes and pagan gods. Sword fights and huge wolves protecting swaths of land, provinces and castles. Talking trees and elves. Paralleled with American history, this all seemed so distant. But I remember reading about Ben Franklin and thinking he was just a “mortal”—he had no god-like qualities or immense strength to slay tens of thousands of Teutonic knights. Americans seemed boring. But I wanted to fit in. Homogenize.

“And while in Lithuanian school I learned an entire history of a medieval sort of people (think Game of Thrones) who existed centuries back—knights and dukes and pagan gods. Sword fights and huge wolves protecting swaths of land, provinces and castles. Talking trees and elves. Paralleled with American history, this all seemed so distant. But I remember reading about Ben Franklin and thinking he was just a mortal—he had no god-like qualities or immense strength to slay tens of thousands of Teutonic knights. Americans seemed boring.”

So there was this “fit in here, no … fit in here” tug-of-war going on. Then when I tried to perfect the Lithuanian side of myself, it would never be good enough for the elders. I slipped and didn’t speak as beautifully or formally as I once did. I was constantly corrected. I was not “Lithuanian” enough for them. My accent vanished. My dancing was not on-point. I sucked at accordion. I would never be a violinist, ballerina, or pianist. I was not a prodigy. It was too late for me. I was 11. The message was “you are not like us, nor will you ever be, please don’t try.”

Even when I lived in Lithuania for a short while for graduate study—finishing my thesis about the atavistic nature of my creative writing (then fiction)—I was under suspicion and interrogated by my relatives: “Why did I want to go there? I can’t speak perfect Lithuanian, so why bother?”

It was incredibly discouraging to be the only member of my family to have any interest at all in who I was—where my people came from and why I felt the way I did all of these years: an anxious child full of energy, artistic and clever, precocious and existential. I remember laughing candidly about death at age 12.

Displaced by both cultures. There were many troubles in my family, which also led to feeling exiled. Family secrets, mental illnesses, abuse, and addictions. Some of these issues were handed down from previous traumas: post-war emotions surfacing, memories of families ripped apart—some sent to work camps, escaping in the night and being displaced in completely foreign places (Germany, Brazil, Canada) … everyone seemed constantly filled with fear, always in fight or flight … survival mode (2).  

“It was incredibly discouraging to be the only member of my family to have any interest at all in who I was—where my people came from and why I felt the way I did all of these years: an anxious child full of energy, artistic and clever, precocious and existential. I remember laughing candidly about death at age 12.”

Displacement takes form in my poetry, however, and I recognized that … I embraced it early on. When I write, I do it ambiguously and with a shape-shifter mentality. Roles are muddled, narratives shift, disharmonious words are forced to find comfort adjacent to one another. I never set out write anything specific (except my ekphrastic work / cinepoetry). I approach everything as temporary, which is why I years ago I chose to refer myself as an “evaporating language photographer”.

In White Stockings specifically, I take on the roles of the mythic, female Baltic snipers who have conscience, yet feel some sense of duty or national allegiance. But the allegiance is charged and complicated, as the Ukrainian crisis has presented to the world.

Conversant: Throughout White Stockings (the introduction and poems), you speak of the unique skills of a sniper—the deadly aim.  And yet in your dedication, you praise the power of a certain “imprecision,” for bringing communities together under shared, not rigidly-defined “aims.”  How do you relate a deadly aim to the concurrent power of imprecision, in terms of poetry?

Poetry is innately imprecise in its intention, yet its execution always has to maintain the appearance of decisiveness for it to “work”, no? I say we all start with unfocused inspiration, then it comes into focus as we do.

Conversant: The “White Stockings” myth was thought to have been another instantiation of Russian propaganda.  What do you find to be some of the most poisonous forms of political propaganda today in the Ukraine?  What about in our country, and between what sparring factions?  What are Americans not hearing in the international media, about the Ukraine?

More than 9,000 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia rebels and government forces. While the Minsk deal has helped reduce hostilities, a political settlement still appears to be far off.

(1)

As for my roots, to my knowledge thus far, I’m nearly 100% Lithuanian—at least three generations back—through my parents and my maternal grandparents. However, while working on my poetry chapbook, White Stockings, I discovered my paternal great-grandmother had a Ukrainian maiden name. She was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in the 1890s, but I’m further researching the village that my great-great-grandfather may have been born (the surname seems to herald from the Ukrainian area Velyka Linyna (Велика Лінина), outside of Staryi Sambir (Старий Самбір). This area was close to the border of Poland, but in the 1860s, this most likely was part of Galicia, where many Polish, Ukrainian (then called Ruthenians), Jewish, and Germans lived.

So for obvious reasons, I stand in solidarity with Ukrainians who are currently fighting for their sovereignty— just as Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians did in the 1990s.

(2)

Schizophrenia ran on my mother’s side as does clinical depression, and alcoholism and mental and emotional abuse on my father’s side.

For me personally, it took years to understand. After being misdiagnosed and fed dangerous levels of lithium in my 20s, I found out I had PTSD. The levels of anxiety and mistrust, the nightmares and panic attacks I experienced nearly made me completely paranoid. To this day, I am estranged from my family.

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