Farewell to one of Europe’s leading thinkers, Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016)

September 22nd, 2016

“Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist.”

Leonidas Donskis died yesterday from an apparent heart attack. He was 54. The Lithuanian Jewish philosopher and public intellectual – he was a political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, political commentator, and professor –was little known in the West, but is a major figure in Eastern European thought. He was also a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014.

One of Europe’s leading poets, Tomas Venclova (his correspondence with Donskis was published last year), wrote to the Book Haven: “Leonidas Donskis was the only one Lithuanian philosopher (mainly historian of ideas) who merited the title. I would say he was on a par with, say, Konrad, Krastev, or even Havel. His sudden and untimely death is a terrible loss.” Tomas Venclova and Donskis were both born in Klaipėda, and both attended the University of Vilnius.

Donskis recently coauthored a book with a man he considered of the greatest thinkers of our times, Zygmunt Bauman. The book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013) was “a high point of my life,” Donskis had said. “Such an opportunity can occur only once in a lifetime.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Correspondent Venclova

At a discussion at the Central European Form in Bratislava last November, he spoke on the role of the intellectual in today’s world: “The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that if you want to be a star in your society you need to invent yourself either as celebrity or as victim. But I think there is also a third way out for the intellectuals, who way too often become fear-mongers. This is in my opinion their sin against societies. At the same time, we still have many sober voices resisting this temptation. The principle of intellectual or journalistic work is not to scare or paralyze people. The best thing to do now is to encourage audiences to live their lives without fear, in dignity.”

“The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity, to its own antidote. For instance, in terms of political existence, I am afraid Europe will become even more securitized and surveilled. But the crucial thing is to defend the humanistic legacy of Europe. First and foremost, our task is not to become paranoid or fear-ridden. The challenge for the 21st century is to protect democratic Europe with respect to our humanistic sensibilities, and respect to human rights and civic liberties. This will be quite difficult, but we must stand together for it, especially given the rise of violent political extremism.”

A few words on Donskis from some important voices on my Facebook feed:

marci-shoreMarci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968: I’m writing from Belgrade, in shock at the news of the death of our friend Leonidas Donskis. I had just seen Leonidas in Krasnogruda, at Fundacja Pogranicze on the Polish-Lithuanian border, at our seminar “Second reading: Tony Judt on Arendt, Camus, Miłosz, Kołakowski.” In Krasnogruda, he spoke about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita as a novel about the devil as superfluous in modern politics: we are in the age of do-it-yourself. He spoke about the death of the Left in Lithuania and about “ontological junk food” – quick, ready-made theories for easy consumption here and now. “I’m afraid there is just a void,” Leonidas said. But he never stopped trying to fill the void with a passionate insistence on truth and ethics. We were meant to meet in Vienna two weeks from now at this year’s Leszek Kołakowski symposium devoted to the topic “Paradises Lost: Entzauberung, Utopia, and their Afterlives.” I never imagined “afterlives” taking on this additional meaning. Now of all times our world could not afford to lose Leonidas.

TimSnyderTimothy Snyder, author of Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Between Hitler and Stalin: Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist; liberal in his politics, generosity and individuality; trilingual in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. A rapid wanderer in our best traditions, a loyal companion with expansive ideas of friendship; a European link to much of what was admirable his Soviet generation and the ones that came before; an eager interlocutor who wanted to bring out the best in those he admired (such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tomas Venclova with whom he wrote books); a patient teacher whom I last saw among grateful students, filling my notebook with the connections I never would have seen without him.

iosselMikhail Iossel, author of Every Hunter Wants to Know: A Leningrad Life and contributor to The New Yorker: I am absolutely devastated. I loved him dearly. He was one of the most brilliant, altogether remarkable people I have ever met, one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, one of world’s most interesting philosophers and social thinkers, an enormously erudite and prolific scholar and a passionate patriot of his country, son of Holocaust survivors and member of the European Parliament – and also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most decent and honest people I’ve ever known. In point of fact, I have never known anyone quite like him, in all of my long life: he was absolutely unique, unrepeatable and, to my mind, a perfect human being. I cherished each and every one of our conversations: in Lithuania, in New York, and, most frequently, online – about politics, Europe, Lithuania, Jewish history, Russia, art… It is impossible to believe he is gone. The world was so much better with him in it. There are no words….

Postscript on 9/23: We received this message from Beatriz Miranda in Mexico City, and thought we’d share it (it’s also in the combox below): “With great sadness we have received the news about the death of our beloved friend, Leonidas. I met him in Amsterdam. The University of Amsterdam asked me to invite Prof. Bauman to present their book Moral Blindness in Amsterdam. The invitation was accepted by Prof. Bauman with a condition: to bring Leonidas too. It was the beginning of real friendship. Later on, he came to Mexico invited by the 17, Institute of Critical Studies and helped us to think critically about the role of universities and academics. I will never forget the way he conducted himself, with humility and sweetness. He even travelled with me around Mexico City by metro. He ate at the Coyoacan Market and enjoyed visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacan. During that visit and taken by his passion for jazz he proposed to the Institute to give the doctorate Honoris Causa to the great jazz musician Vyacheslav Ganelin. We did it last January but unfortunately, Leonidas could not come. We will keep his words alive in our Institute. This is important especially in this violent time. Leonida’s call for peace and understanding will be missed but kept immortal through his work and publications. 17, Institute will keep the promise to translate some of his work into Spanish. Gracias querido, Amigo Leonidas! You will be missed.”

Postscript on 9/26: Read a few of his reflections and aphorisms here.

Andrew Sullivan on living-in-the-web: “It broke me. It might break you, too.”

September 20th, 2016

Getting off the grid. (Photo: Trey Ratcliff)

Author, journalist, blogger Andrew Sullivan has been a kind friend to the Book Haven over the years, picking up our posts in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and in his blog “The Daily Dish” – we’ve written about it here and here and here. Then last year he discontinued his blog – burned out, needed to get off the grid, he said.

I understood. Being online, all the time, had affected my own ability to read, think, and focus. Nowadays, I find it requires discipline to read a few pages without compulsively leaping up to google an unfamiliar word or doublecheck a random fact. But I’d never escalated to the hepped-up scale he did.

He tells his story in New York Magazineand it’s a riveting read, and a black warning. Here’s an excerpt:

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years wentby, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

invisibleAnd that, of course, is the point, isn’t it? As I wrote in the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz

Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and tweet back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remains essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, heuses the Latin esse elsewhere.) When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about être and devenir. He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.



After some hesitation, however, he elaborated. “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.

Read Andrew Sullivan’s piece here. As he writes: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Timothy Garton Ash: “Universities should be safe spaces – safe spaces for free speech.”

September 18th, 2016
Contributor Tim Garton Ash of st Antony s college Oxford Pic Rob Judges

Man of the hour.

I had lunch on the Stanford campus with historian, author, and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash a week or so ago. We had passed each other in Kraków and at Stanford, so I thought it was high time we actually sat down together to talk.

He was having a short spell in Palo Alto before resuming the on-the-road lectures, readings, interviews connected with the promotion of his new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press) – and eventually he’ll return to Oxford, where he spends most of the year. Edmund Fawcett, writing in The New York Times Book Review called the book: “Admirably clear, . . . wise, up-to-the-minute and wide-ranging. . . . Free Speech encourages us to take a breath, look hard at the facts, and see how well-tried liberal principles can be applied and defended in daunting new circumstances.”

Naturally, our conversation revolved around issues about free speech and the social media –  for example, what exactly, are the obligations of Facebook or Twitter when it comes to tweets or posting that are violent? We also spoke about George Orwellbecause by curious coincidence I had been reading his renowned essay, “Orwell’s List,” in his previous book, Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from the Decade Without a Namethe day before.

His new book is winging its way to my house, but meanwhile, you can get a taste of the direction of his current lines of thought in this weekend article in The Guardian, “Safe Spaces Are Not the Only Threat to Free Speech. An excerpt about the cultural debate surrounding free speech today [British spelling retained]:

gartonashbookOne trouble with this debate is that the important and sometimes difficult balancing judgments that should be its focus are obscured by the silliness, hyperbole and hysteria that accompany it like the raucous camp followers of a medieval army. It also comes with a whole new jargon: trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platformingmicroaggressions.

And it is highly politicised. At this year’s Republican convention in Ohio, speaker after speaker garnered a surefire round of applause by attacking “political correctness”. No one had to explain what they meant: just spit out the two words and trigger the Pavlovian response.

But what might loosely be called the other side is often its own worst enemy. The New York Times recently reported a presentation to new students by the chief diversity officer at Clark University. Among her examples of microaggressions to be avoided, she included saying “you guys”, since the phrase could be interpreted as excluding women. One female Hispanic student, who had repeatedly committed this heinous error, commented gratefully: “This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor too.” What a dreary, anxious, puritanical kindergarten a campus would become if students were constantly worrying whether this or that word might cause offence to someone or other.

Maybe what we need is a “safe space.”  Maybe the whole campus must be a “safe space.” He objects:

gartonash2subversiveHere, anyone who believes that free speech is vital to a university must draw the line. For what these student activists are claiming when they insist that, for example, Germaine Greer may not speak on a particular campus (because of her view that a woman is not “a man without a cock”), is that one group of students has the right to prevent another group of students hearing a speaker whom the second group actually wants to hear. Such no-platforming is, in effect, student-on-student censorship. It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be “unsafe” because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.

In fact, one underexamined question is precisely this: what kind of space is a university? And the answer, which also explains some of the confusion, must be: several different kinds of space, which should have different standards.

 Overall, Garton Ash isn’t staying awake at night, worrying about all this: “I think it’s fair to say that the erosion of free speech is still only at the margins in major western universities, and mainly concerns a few particular subjects. But we must always watch out for the thin end of the wedge, whether it is being pushed by student activists or government.”

Read the whole article here. Or come to his talk at at 7 p.m., Wednesday, October 5, in Cubberley Auditorium, here.

David Sanders: “And the moment? Well, moments are always disappearing.”

September 15th, 2016

The poet, editor, publisher David Sanders

I met David Sanders many years ago. The occasion was the West Chester Poetry Conference – but circa when? The year 2000, I think, at an evening celebration at the home of the conference’s co-founder, Michael Peich. I don’t remember what the two of us were discussing so earnestly. I simply remember standing on the back porch with David, his cigarette embers glowing in the dark, a sea of crickets somewhere in the distance, and the orange tip of light making circles as he gestured. He was the director of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press then, and I thought of him as publisher, not a poet. Later, he became the founding editor Poetry News in Review at The Prairie Schooner – the Book Haven has discussed it here.

Recently, however, I was pleased to see the more personal side of the poet emerge, with the publication of his collection Compass & Clock. (The title does not refer to a poem in the collection – why the title then? Perhaps because one measures space, the other time.)

Poet, actor, and editor David Yezzi called the collection “the strongest new book of poems I have read in quite some time.” Poet Joshua Mehigan noted that the poet’s “kind, observant clarity can lull you into a sense of ease, even as he lays open the poignancy and diverse fascinations of existing on earth.” According to poet Andrew Hudgins, “Sanders knows well it is love itself that makes us miss and mourn the things we’ve lost.”

Here’s one on a topic we’re all too familiar with, the quotidian effects of death on the living – written, curiously, in first person, from the p.o.v. of the dead:


The living pack us up.
Now that we have gone and died
it’s comforting to them
to know what’s left is tucked inside

a box, an urn, or closet
where memories, like dreams, abound.
They tend to the mess
our dying first has left around.

(Letters dried to mica,
clothes gone further out of style,
souvenirs of us
in storage, kept a little while.)

They allow themselves sadness,
drifting near this windy border.
But grief has raked out its embers,
which cool and die among the order.

His poem “Lascaux” naturally caught my eye – I recognized immediately which poem he honors when he writes “after Miłosz.” The Nobel poet’s very early 1936 poem, “Encounter” is the first in his Collected Poems. You can read it here to see the Polish maestro’s earlier treatment of the same idea. One poet answers another through time. Here’s David’s unusual take:


Jacques Marsal, who as a boy discovered the prehistoric paintings of the Lascaux cave with three friends and became the cave’s guardian for life, died Saturday after a long illness.

lascaux_megaloceros– (AP) July 17, 1989

The first day, his dog disappeared in the forest,
lost down a hole. The next, exploring with friends,
he found the cave – leaping stags, buffalo,
prehistoric horses.
.                         Alone a moment, one French boy lived
a dream boys dream: to stand at the place
where for thousands of years no one has been.

That was 1940. Boy and dog are dead.
And the moment? Well, moments are always disappearing.

.                         after Miłosz

Paris, Rilke – what’s not to like?

September 12th, 2016

Busy day today, so we thought we’d share this invitation with you in lieu of a post. It’s an indication of some of the glamorous events we get invited to, but can’t attend. We like the poster. Details (in French) below. Who is Barbara? We don’t know, either. But we’re not going to quibble. The venue sounds magnificent, and Rainer Maria Rilke, Paris – what’s not to like?




Arendt: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.”

September 9th, 2016

Immigration is much in the news, and will be for some time to come. Hence, philosopher Hannah Arendt‘s important and apparently little-known 1943 essay, “We Refugees” is very timely. The Book Haven has occasionally posted about one of the last century’s most famous immigrants: Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva and then France, where she was placed in an internment camp. She finally made a home in the U.S. in 1941. Although, of course, she was writing with the Jews and the Holocaust in mind, the reader may substitute the term “Islamic refugees” or “Christian minorities in the Middle East” for up-to-date applications. Her conclusion is all the more stunning for that reason. The piece in its entirety is too good for excerpting, really – you can read the whole thing here – but I’ll do my best:


“A new kind of human beings…”

Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved – and most of us had to be saved several times – we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in France or six weeks in America, we pretended to be Frenchmen or Americans. The more optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. …

In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries – it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends. …

I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved. I could even understand how our friends of the West coast, during the curfew, should have had such curious notions as to believe that we are not only ‘prospective citizens’ but present ‘enemy aliens.’ In daylight, of course, we become only ‘technically’ enemy aliens – all refugees know this. But when technical reasons prevented you from leaving your home during the dark hours, it certainly was not easy to avoid some dark speculations about the relation between technicality and reality.

arendt3No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. … Instead of fighting – or thinking about how to become able to fight back – refugees have got used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we cheerfully imagine all the trouble he has been saved. Finally many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly.

She concludes that, for the Jews:

…history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of the Gentiles. They know the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

Again, read the whole thing here.

The PLOTUS as anthropologist: Juan Felipe Herrera recalls his time with the Lacandón Mayas

September 6th, 2016

The poet offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation. (Photo: Don Share)

On February 29 this year, I made the trip to Fresno to interview U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The results of that occasion, as well as the phone calls that followed (not to mention a trip to Oakland to hear him talk at the University of California headquarters on Cesar Chavez Day), were published this month in a Stanford Magazine article here

There have been many articles on the popular PLOTUS who is the Chicano son of migrant workers. But to my knowledge, none have included much about his background as an anthropologist, the focus of his Stanford master’s degree… until now. An excerpt:

With the help of an educational opportunity program, he went to UCLA; as a 21-year-old anthropology major, he heard about a nearly extinct ethnic group in southeastern Chiapas. Although the remote community was known to a few anthropologists and archaeologists, no Chicano had been there, Herrera says.  “I immediately had an awakening—‘I have to go.’ It was a deep, soulful response to do something for 250 Lacandón Mayas, who are part of who I am.”

Chicano studies and cultural centers were new at the time, Herrera notes. He wanted to “do something original”—with interviews, photographs, artifacts—“to bring about some kind of awareness in the United States.” At the same time, he was trying to find “a new way of doing political theater and a new way of doing poetry.” He thought, “Wait a minute. Let me get back to my cultural roots and see what poetry is like there.”

mayandrifterWith funding from UCLA’s Mexican American Center, he set off to the Mexican lowlands with a classmate, an experienced videographer. They packed old Army fatigues, machetes, mosquito nets, anti-viper first aid kits, Vietnam tropical combat boots, plenty of 16mm Ilford film and top-notch camera equipment. “It was a great idea, a timely idea, a perfect idea. Conceptually, a triple A-plus. Did we know how to go about it? C-minus,” he says.

In Mexico, “we hired a Harrison Ford kind of guy—a piloto,” says Herrera. It was straight out of a 1940s film: a man in khakis and a crumpled shirt writing with a half-pencil on a tiny desk, in a dark office that had his name in black letters on the door’s frosted-glass window. He agreed to make the trip for 100,000 pesos.

The Cessna landed in the rain forest and tore off a wheel. The piloto patched it back together, and then the small plane disappeared into the sky, as Herrera watched. He found himself in the jungle, among little huts and local elders who were willing to talk. He listened to their stories of “eco-piracy”—slash-and-burn farming, deforestation by loggers and “chicleros,” who stripped the forests to make Chiclets gum from the sap of the chicle trees. They told him of the destruction of the wildlife and the rape of the local women.

“The situation was immense, immeasurable,” Herrera recalls. Until his visit, “No one had really gotten on the ground and said, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Bananas. I’d like to share a tortilla with you.’” Later, he wrote: “To read about their ‘way of life’ and spew Chicano ‘azteca’ poetry jive was blasphemy, and to assign the oppressed Maya the honorable position of ancestors was a cultural crime—if I did not take action.”

He continued his studies in social anthropology when he came to Stanford in 1977, though the lure of poetry and performance was already beginning to exert a powerful counterpull. Stanford Libraries now has the poet’s archives, which include the documentation for his life-changing trip to Chiapas—reel-to-reel tapes, audiocassettes of interviews and about 45 minutes of the rush prints of the film.

Read the whole thing here

Farewell to Sigtuna! A few last glimpses as I leave Sweden….

September 4th, 2016

We’ve written about last week’s Sigtuna Literary Festival outside Stockholm. We’ve written about Syrian writer-in-residence Iman Al Ghafari and Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes and the Swedish poet (although he lives in Oslo) Håkan Sandell. Now it’s time – alas! – to say goodbye to the Sigtuna, where we were delighted to be a guest for a few days. What a better way than with a few random photos from the mansion where it all took place? Top to bottom (first photo provided by the festival; the rest by Humble Moi and cellphone).

1) I joined a panel on Eastern European poets and the poetry of exile with Swedish poet and novelist Malte Persson (left) and Prague-based Ukrainian poet and journalist Igor Pomerantsev (right). The lively and witty Ukrainian stole the show – a good thing, too; he had a lot to say. Please note the statuary on the bookshelves: on the left, a relief of the Russian poet Regina Derieva, who is greatly honored in Sweden, the place where she made her home after many peregrinations. And on the right bookshelf, Dante Alighieri, of course.

2), 3), 4), 5) The charming literary mansion that hosts the festival is a delightful place to roam and get lost in. Every room has delightful nooks and crannies where you want to curl up with a book – and there are plenty of those to peruse, too.

6) A memorial corner for Regina Derieva, with some of the seashells she loved and collected.

7) Last day in Stockholm, with award-winning Swedish writer Bengt Jangfeldt, author of acclaimed biographies on Vladimir Mayakovsky and Raoul Wallenberg, with Alexander Deriev and Igor Pomerantsev at right.









Oslo poet Håkan Sandell: “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

September 1st, 2016

Sweden’s suave poet. (Photo: Dagfinn Hobæk)

Earlier this week, I discussed the Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes. I met her at the same time I met a very different Scandinavian spirit – breezy, debonair, ever so slightly sardonic, as we chatted at the reception for the gala dinner at Sigtuna’s literary festival. Håkan Sandell is one of Sweden’s leading poets … or is it Norway’s? He writes in Swedish, but lives in Oslo. But really, most of the words are the same, he explained to me; the pronunciation is a bit different, that’s all.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill calls him “a stunning poet.” A mutual friend, the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, said, “He’s a modern metaphysical poet, a lover of the world who, while praising it, never stops probing it with his formidable poetic intelligence.”

We met again at the panel discussion he shared with Ulrikka. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of his newest book – as I waited, he scribbled a quick inscription in what appears to be crayon, but what I recall as a very worn pale blue felt-tip (he appears to have signed a lot of books). We corresponded later about the translations in Dog Star Notations: Selected Poems, 1999-2016 (Carcanet, 2016).

“You must remember that the Scandinavian languages are a bit different from English – very musical but also harsher. We tend to flatten out just a little bit in English,” he explained.

Håkan is “one of the chief agents of the renewal of metrical poetry in Swedish,” according to his translator, Bill Coyle. “His most common criticisms of the drafts I have shown him was not that they were inaccurate, but that I hadn’t captured enough of the original’s verse music, that they didn’t sufficiently swing. I hope that the translations included in the present volume do, when all is said, swing.”

The slightly skeptical Swede is optimistic about poetry. As he put it, “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

Rejoices over the rain on the Faroe Islands,
over rendezvous on the Champs-Elysees at evening.
It rejoices over Japan, over Korea,
over arts refined over a thousand years –
the art of swordsmanship, or of drinking tea.
Rejoices over the poet, that his heart still beats.

Most of his poems are longish, and I looked for a short one to include for the Book Haven. I was sold on his Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age when he told me that he composed each 12-line section (three stanzas, four lines each) during his long walks. Twelve lines is as much as he could remember at a time. That’s an intriguing notion in an era when hardly anyone memorizes anything at all.

I also thought it struck a very different note from Ulrikka’s contemplative poem about an open book in the dark. He added a crisp Nordic bite to a damp Swedish week:

from Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age


I prefer after raucous Saturday nights
to stroll and at the most nudge with my shoe
the shattered glass and blood left after fights,
rather than joining in the party too.

It’s early June but feels like fall to me.
I cried on the street, I miss my daughter so.
Autumn wind stirs the leaves, and from a tree
a flock of black birds glares down, sated, slow.

This happy, fjord-side, ice cream-licking scene
could I decide, would be dark, arctic cold.
Expansive life, a new beginning’s green,
like this, for these, proved more than I could hold.

– Håkan Sandell, trans. Bill Coyle

Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes: bringing light to darkness

August 30th, 2016

(Photo: Christoffer Regild)

One of the more radiant presences at this year’s Sigtuna Literary Festival in Sweden was Ulrikka Gernes, one of Denmark’s leading poets. Ulrikka, daughter of the international artist Poul Gernes, published her first collection at eighteen, and has followed with ten more collections in the years since since. As far as radiance goes, you can judge for yourself by the photo at right. (She was wearing the same trademark pearls last week.)

The Copenhagen poet is also generous. I attended the Sunday morning panel on “Border Crossings in Language.” She shared the conversation with Oslo poet Håkan Sandell; it was moderated by Swedish writer and journalist Maria Küchen. I didn’t understand a word, of course – it was all in Swedish. Ulrikka ended the session with a shout-out to Humble Moi, and read the poem below – mercifully, in English.

It’s from her most recent collection Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments (Brick Books, 2015), translated from the Danish by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen:


On the table in the room in the dark

On the table in the room in the dark
house lies the book you didn’t know
you were looking for, opened to the page
with the poem about solace you didn’t know
you needed; at first the letters
then the words, little by little
the lines disappear as you read them
in the light of the faint dawn that trickles in
between the venetians’ dusty
slats and unites you with someone
you didn’t know you are.

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