Throughout the summer I have been in email correspondence with Latvian poet, novelist, playwright, theatre director and comic Inga Gaile. A selection of Gaile’s poems have now been translated by Ieva Lešinka to form a new book, 30 Questions People Don’t Ask, published by Pleiades Press. I have been spending time with these poems over the past couple of months and been struck by their boldness, their feminist engagement, mischief and candour. Writing about the book EJ Koh praises Gaile’s poems for how they show ‘life as it exists, as both miracle and fog’ – this was certainly my experience of them and informed the starting point for our discussion.
Amy Key: I've been reading your book of selected poems 30 Questions People Don't Ask. I felt a kinship in much of the subject matter and would like to begin there. In your poem ‘Bus No.3’ the speaker of the poem says 'I build a wall around myself, made of gold, of fear, made of bread with sausage, of shame'.
In your poem Fog, I read 'fog' as an emblem of self deception, almost like the wall the speaker mentions in Bus No.3, where shame – or existing in a fog – becomes a kind of personal force field.
Could you talk a bit about the idea of shame, as it relates to your writing? (It feels as though in this interview I have the chance to ask some of those questions ‘people don’t ask’.)
Inga Gaile: Shame is important concept for me, but when I wrote ‘Fog’ I was not even able to say it in connection with myself.
Now, when I’ve been in therapy for several years, read lots of books (for example Beverley Engel’s It’s not your fault), sought the truth through meditations and spiritual groups (ok, this must sound creepy. At the moment I have defined myself as Quaker, but Jesus ‘stuff’ has always been important for me), right now, I am able a bit to think about it.
But still, if I am too close to it, I feel shaken and its better for me to plan a special day for ‘shame thinking’. And as I am single parent of two, it's not so easy to do.
So in the poem ‘Fog’, retrospectively I understand that shame has a lot to do with it. But when I wrote it, the fog was more about ‘illusion’, not being able to tell the truth, not being able to admit something.
There is line towards the end of the poem, where heroine says that she is going out from the forest (this emerged in the translation, maybe it's too pretty a word) and by that, I mean just that she was able to say that: to show photos of the event to the friends. Shame is very dark and hard for us, as for society, as well. We prefer to lie, not to admit it, than to feel this black, black shame. So, this truth telling, I see as the first step towards trying heal, but I am not so sure, I myself have been so courageous as to deal with shame in all its majesty.
It is interesting that I have recently started a bit to stutter (not much, but sometimes). It did not happen before. Of course, now I more and more speak what is on my mind, and don’t hold back. But it seems that something in me is still saying: you can't talk, stop, you should be ashamed of yourself.
In ‘Bus no.3’ when the speaker says ‘shame’, I think I meant: the shame of man, not being able or not being taught to deal with his sexual urges in normal way or, maybe, thinking that his urges are not normal. It’s that and a lot of alcohol consumption tangled together. I even just thought, that maybe it's the man from the poem ‘fog’ – the offender. But this idea I got only now, when you showed me this shame link between two poems.
AK: I really identify with what you say about only just coming to terms, or beginning to come to terms, with shame in relation to yourself.
It was very interesting to me that in preparing my last book, shame only became visible as a kind of connective tissue when I cut and pasted all the poems into one document. This is the same kind of experience I had in reading your poems.
I am now wondering about your 'shame day' and that necessity you have to compartmentalize shame. I wonder if poems are a kind of container in themselves, albeit a container that is unruly, that spills and spreads its contents once it is outside of your grasp.?
I feel that, for me, a by-product of writing and sharing poems that are concerned in some way with shame – with meeting or falling short of societal expectations of women – has been a kind of liberty because of the conversation they have opened up with the women around me. I wonder if that has been the same for you at all? If you could talk about the role being a writer plays in your feelings about yourself and other women?
IG: I have difficulty answering this question because I am afraid that I will forget something, some marvelous support and then, when I remember that I have forgotten to mention it, I will feel shame I think it goes like that with me. But I have felt silent gentleness from women and supportive words from readers.
Someone in PEN congress said in the Women Writers Committee, that we women have a migrant identity. I understood it as we are in exile all the time, but some of us manage to adapt better to the foreign country, some of us even fall in love with it, but some of us can’t deal with this exile situation at all. In that way, I agree with you, that poems (and literature overall) could be these containers – our home in an exile situation, through which we can learn to return home to ourselves, to understand that we are at home in our bodies, minds and souls, whatever society says.
AK: That makes sense to me. It reminds me of a couple of lines from your poem ‘Damascus Autumn’, which while written in a very different context seem to describe so well the coming to terms and integration of shame in personal identity:
We cannot return home.
Now we have seen it.
That wall built around oneself (‘of gold, of fear, made of bread with sausage, of shame') has to come down and new boundaries of personhood are established.
I would also love to hear you talk a bit about how you choose which poems were to be included in your selected poems. You have many books to choose from and what I loved about 30 Questions People Don't Ask: is that in a way it did not feel like a 'Selected' it had a feeling of integration, as though it were a collection of poems that are contemporaneous.
Motifs of the snow, of fog, of women in conversation with each other and with themselves come up again and again – I love it when poems do this! So if you could share some of your experience of putting this book together that would be wonderful.
IG: Your question brings up some of undealt or partly dealt with emotions about the book, as the composition of the collection was done largely without my participation. The title, for example. And the cover of the book I saw for the first time when they sent me the book.
I am happy with how it looks and ok with the composition as well. BUT....The situation with literature of small languages is not easy. And, when someone – in this case the agent (we have 3 agents for all Latvian literature right now, for all of us) said that he had found publisher in the USA, it was like – ok, I am happy, because I have to be happy. I asked about what I would be paid, royalties etc. I was told that usually poets don’t receive them, that I must be happy and honored (which I am) and that this book possibly will open gates to international festivals.
But, actually I got royalties, because I, of course, asked. I am quite stubborn.
But even now writing this, I feel how sad I am about the situation. It's miscommunication and partly tradition: because they deal with the translator more. In this situation, I feel rising shame, about asking for things (royalties, for example) or wondering if I am allowed to ask. It all makes me feel that I am ‘too intense and needy’… But, I am really happy that my poems are translated in English. And of course, one more thing is that I don't give myself time and permission to take care for myself. Because I have two kids and I am single, someone will think that I am too arrogant etc. So, your question raises another layer of shame: that I have been so negligent to myself and have not worked with my translated poems well.
But I am on my way to the light, because I am self-aware about all this stuff and right now, writing this to you, I whispered to myself – you should be proud you asked for royalties at least to be included in the agreement and at the time when book was made you went through the crisis of divorce and did really great, taking in consideration all the stuff that was happening.
AK: I am sorry it wasn't a more positive experience. I wish you had more power and control in how the book was prepared. Its very sad we as women are conditioned and socialised to seek permission for what should be freely given, but I am grateful for your honesty (one of your own 30 questions people don’t ask’ is ‘Have you uttered at least one honest sentence today?’)
IG: I just listened to interview with Hannah Gadsby (she is comedian. Do you know her? I am quite into the comedy stuff. I organize women standup. as well) and she was so normal and grownup, and talking a bit about ‘call-out’ culture as one, which is a bit restrictive.
AK: I watched Hannah Gadsby a few weeks ago and was very moved.
I'm so interested in your writing across various forms and organising stand-up too! It speaks of a very strong creative energy. Could you talk a bit about working in different genres –is the poet Inga a different identity to the playwright Inga, for example? Does one genre influence how you approach other genres of writing? Are the different genres you write in ways of asking answering different (difficult) questions?
IG: I am answering with delay, because I had to travel to Romania, Bucharest to an art festival. Actually, Romania, is not so far from Latvia, but in some strange way (probably, because they and us have some corruption problems overall), we don't have straight flight, so I had to go to Frankfurt, there spent 7 hours waiting and then came here. But Bucharest is just wonderful. Now I am here and have managed to sleep and eat a lot.
About standup: I started to organize it four years ago, because a venue asked me whether I could do something for International Women's Day. It was an awful time for me personally, my heart was smashed and I decided to talk about it in funny way. And I called some of my brave and/or funny friends. Interest was huge the first time I ran it, but then it grew. In second year we got trolling from right wing parties and their fans, which is still going on. But now we have community and fans and, I think, we will manage. What I have, that I did not have four years ago, are: friends. Women friends. And fantastic colleagues. Some of us are not funny in a way society used to understand ‘funny’, some of us are not funny at all. And about ‘friends’ – it's not like in Hollywood movies ‘friends’, but we have met each other and have talked about things – children, giving birth, fat, fat, fat, divorce, dating, work (!), not only hated and envied each other from a distance.
This year, we decided that we will take turns into organizing and hosting stand-up each month, so I will be able to make more jokes of my own.
I like writing and I am quite curious (sometimes I need control myself, not to confuse people with my staring) and I spent my teenage years and early youth daydreaming. I have read a lot to escape reality. So, this all together I think makes my writer's profile. I have a quite sensitive but quick temperament. With this comes one thing: that I won't be able to survive as writer without sensitive and understandable editors. My grammar is still quite awful, because my thoughts are running faster than words.
Overall, I think I am doing one thing with all my writing: trying to communicate, trying to tell my story. And then I am quite sad, if someone gets angry because of my communication (it happens). But, now I can deal with it (therapy and friends, meditation and yoga).
Different forms excite me. The mystery between form and plot, excites me: that thing, that you don't know how it happens, that work is becoming real.
I think that people of the world are quite brave, that they wake up every day, live, do their work, help, survive, taking in consideration that, they don't know anything about the next moment and possibility that every moment could be their last. I think my energy comes from this admiration, sometimes.
AK: I think that comes across really powerfully in your poems, especially in ‘For Grandma’ and ‘Over the Border’.
I think, that in my poetry there is more ‘my voice’ or ‘one voice’ speaking. Although, starting from collection ‘Fog’ there are some poems – like ‘Bus No.3’, where are several voices already. In prose, I want to have that ‘polyphony’ that is in Dostoyevsky’s works, that in some mysterious way, the heroes are starting their own life and work forms in this polyphony of voices, of which the author's is only one.
AK: What's the relationship you have with the form of your poems? Does that change when the poems are translated?
Personally – I am not often conscious of working with form or other constraints, though of course I am using form all the time. But I read something the poet DA Powell said in an interview ‘If we have no other constraints, we have the constraint of time. And the constraint of attention is right behind that.’ And it made me think about how we come to write might affect form. I know you have many demands on your time, so I'm interested to know how you write, what it feels like for you to be writing and whether the time you have to spend on poetry has altered the form of your poems?
IG: I am afraid to read my translated poems because I would have to ‘fight’ the translator or ‘just leave’ it, and then there will be some small pain in me. There have been very good collaborations – like with Alyse Conran, who translated ‘For Grandma’. It was quite a good collaboration with Ryan Van Winkle, as well. And of course I like what came out from out cooperation with Ieva Lešinska too. But still, poems in translation lose me. Okay, this sounds very narcissistic, but it's the end of week and I am tired (it's my oldest’s birthday and the youngest is going to bathe. Everyone is quite nervous, maybe happy nervous, but still). But I am really happy, that poems are translated. I think that you always have to compromise between losing form or plot of the poem. And usually with my poems they tend to have a loose form, because translated poems are somehow with ‘important’ messages. Maybe important. We could never know, but maybe. And then I am a bit sad, if I am reading them in English, because they have lost something important, like blood (translators, please, I am exaggerating, because I am tired). BUT sometimes they have gained some new blood and new life. Maybe translation is like blood transfusion. Something like that. And then I have to re-introduce myself to my poem. And at the end of the day, I am happy. It's like with children and letting them go, I guess. It's not very pleasant process, but at the end it makes you fulfilled.
I have not written much poetry recently, because I have to finish my novel. But when I write, I write over a short and intensive period of time. I write different short notes and ideas in my notebook. I want to write one poem about fat lady (me) sitting in the chair. I've got the first line of the poem around half a year ago:) I write schemes and make drawings for my novel. When I wrote my first novel Stikli (glass shards) I had big papers on the wall with names of heroes and different lines, how they entangle and some basic words, what are they and what they are doing. My second daughter had just been born, and then was my divorce and I understood that I wouldn’t have enough time, so I decided that with the tables and papers living around me, the novel’s characters would push themselves upon me (in some way, something like in this shady ‘secret’ business.)
I think I write what is exciting for me. Maybe, I am quite hedonistic and write what is interesting for me. Or what has hurt me: like with ‘Bus No.3’ I got really anxious seeing this pregnant girl standing on the bus and people were like: ok, don't even look at me, because we all are tired and we can't let you sit down, because we too have a fucking hard life.
AK: I really love this idea of translation as a kind of ‘blood transfusion’. Is there something of the blood transfusion in poetry too?
IG: I think about poetry like breathing. You have to allow yourself to breathe, not be afraid to breathe, and start to breathe consciously. I think that translating is a ‘blood transfusion’ for me, because there is the moment (subconsciously), when I am quite unhappy that the poem is translated, it has somehow torn away from me. But then, the next conscious thought is joy, that another person has understood it and it somehow starts to live again, it gets new life. And breathes it with the translator’s breath. I guess So, actually I am very thankful to all translators.
Amy Key’s second book-length collection, Isn’t Forever, a Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice, was published by Bloodaxe in June 2018. From Spring 2018 – Spring 2019 she is joint poet in residence, alongside Rebecca Perry, at Halsway Manor, the National Centre for Folk Arts.
Inga Gaile is a playwright, novelist, and poet with four adult collections and one for children. She has translated Russian poets into Latvian and participates in the women’s ‘Stand Up’ movement.