I met Tomas Venclova in Kraków last May, at the festival celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary. After the grand fête closing the week-long events – an awards ceremony and concert at the Kraków Opera House – a few exhausted party-goers had had enough and were ready for bed. Those of us who were weary of wine and hors d’oeuvres looked for a way to head back to the hotel in the rain. I was shoveled into a taxi with two men. One of them was Tomas Venclova, Lithuania’s leading poet, and a writer who is sometimes mentioned as a Nobel candidate.
We had corresponded before, as he was one of the contributors to my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and I had also heard him reading and reminiscing in the days before – the voice not quite what I had expected, the pitch slightly higher, the timber a little quirky, almost birdlike.
And here he was … or had I introduced myself in the crowded, jostling days before that night? I must have. I honestly can’t remember. But this is the first time I do remember, clearly: he was in the front seat – silent … as tired as I was, perhaps? I could see his silhouette, with his trademark cap, against the rainy windows. I spent most of the time chatting with the fellow with whom I shared the back seat, someone who knew us both – and such are the tricks of memory that I cannot remember who, exactly, that third companion was. He has become a mysterious stranger, though the Lithuanian poet and I have struck up a correspondence since. A penpal by email or letter, from Yale, or Vilnius, or Paris – but I haven’t seen him face-to-face since May.
Except on these newly released videos of interviews conducted last year in Paris. I was greatly chuffed that Web of Stories has put them online to celebrate World Poetry Day on Wednesday, March 20. It’s a good excuse to talk about this quietly marvelous poet – we aren’t likely to do anything later, on his birthday; it falls on September 11.
Here’s your chance to meet the poet and his poems. Too few know the Vilnius-born poet and his work. Consider it a gift on the first day of spring.
From the email Web of Stories sent me:
In these absorbing clips, Venclova recounts his upbringing in Lithuania, including how he and his father had staunchly opposing political views. He also depicts how his first poems were dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution and despite not being published, they were circulated among groups of people: “I can say with pride that many, many years later when Hungary and Lithuania were free, I received a Hungarian medal for supporting the Hungarian Revolution then through my poems.
He also reminisces about his decision to emigrate to America, losing his Soviet citizenship, being offered a job at Yale and looks back over his career as a writer since leaving Lithuania: “When I left, I thought that it was possible that I’d end up as a lorry driver, for example, or a cleaner or a road layer. But that didn’t happen, I’d been a philologist and a writer and I remained a philologist and a writer.”
This clip describe Tomas’s meeting with Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral. My friend, the Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas Katilius, translated Tomas’s poems into Russian for the Nobel poet. “This was our triumvirate, our group.”
I didn’t realize that, in fact, that Tomas Venclova first brought Czesław Miłosz (or Česlovas Milašius, in the native Lithuanian) to Joseph Brodsky‘s attention. Here’s the story in the clip below.
Part Deux, with video clips discussing his help from Arthur Miller, his friendship with Timothy Snyder, and his unsuccessful attempt to save an imprisoned dissident, Viktoras Petkus, is here.