Vilnius: City of Strangers

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Dispatches from Vilnius


Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.

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