Virginia Konchan converses with Lina ramona Vitkauskas on her new poetry collection White Stockings and identity politics and United States/global politics, particularly in the Ukraine.
Virginia Konchan: 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. Can you speak a little bit more about your generational perspective, particularly in regard to the difference between what your relatives endured?
Lina ramona Vitkauskas: So my parents and grandparents were displaced people. My father was born in Germany in a Displaced Persons worker camp and came to the United States when he was three, through Ellis Island and then onto Chicago—Cicero, to be exact. My mother was born in Brazil, and at age 10, moved to Canada. She arrived in Chicago at age 17, finishing her last year of high school in Gage Park. I was born in the US, but I was raised “Lithuanian” until age eight. Lithuanian was my first language, and it was the first culture with which I self-identified, but not without struggle as I was simultaneously immersed in American schools and culture. There were myriad tragedies and horrors my family had to face to get to the US, and I was reminded often via my elders and Lithuanian school how lucky I was to be here. The experiential differences were drastic, but much of trauma was transferred generationally. 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 symbolism in an ironic way—one that they knew their 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. I believe this sense of being an outsider in your own “space” carries down via generations, through the soul. There is 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.
VK: Is there a healthy form of displacement—at least in the literary sense—that can arise in slippages between identities, and belongings?
LrV: When you are physically, mentally, and emotionally displaced, you are vulnerable. Vulnerability can bring anguish or isolation, or release a life-affirming self-truth. But being in “a state of displacement” is to be in that vulnerable space, and that can be a catalyst for what I believe are the truest forms of expression.
When one is displaced, the natural human reaction is to relentlessly seek a way to get back “home”—both literally and metaphorically. 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 unfamiliar and scary place and embrace it—to not ever 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 motivates 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).
A sense of alienation or displacement has been a running theme throughout my life. On many occasions, I felt drawn to “family”, “homes”, or “groups” that seemed natural for me to fall into … only to be rejected. I often feel the strong tug of life’s temporary nature—I am vigilantly familiar with impermanence.
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 a 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 strange, polysyllabic last name. My mother made my clothes from thick, patchwork-patterned materials (think quilted skirts and burlap overalls). 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—to proudly show off my heritage. My parents, on the other hand, desperately wanted to be “American”. They were not necessarily ashamed … they simply embraced popular culture that would “normalize” them to social 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.
So there was a tug-of-war going on to “fit in” in two worlds. But 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 was terrible 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 like us … but not like us … please refrain from trying.”
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.
Displaced by both cultures. There were many troubles in my family, which also led to feeling exiled. Mental illnesses, adultery, questions of identity, addictions, and abuses. 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. Displacement takes form in my poetry, however, and I recognized that … I embraced it early on.
VK: 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?
LrV: Poetry is innately imprecise in its intention, yet its execution always has to maintain the appearance of decisiveness for it to “work”, no? Perhaps we all start with unfocused inspiration, then it comes into focus as we do.
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 to 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, I take on the roles of the mythic, female Baltic snipers who have a 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.
VK: 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?
LrV: To date, 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. Russian propaganda is endless—the most obvious lie is that Putin has no connection or knowledge of the Russian separatists that invaded Ukraine. Then there are insinuations that Ukrainians would kill their own people to prove Russian presence, then there’s calling Ukrainians fascists and claiming Ukrainians committed genocide against their Russian-speaking population, here is the outrageous insistence that ancient historical borders be honored to claim Crimea rightly … the list is endless and troubling.
As for what most Americans are attuned to, Ukraine is not on their radar, but it should be. From a national security standpoint, all major NATO players with a deep understanding and knowledge of Putin and his disregard for international diplomacy unequivocally believe he is a threat and to be watched. In recent United States presidential debates, Russia’s actions in Syria and the Ukraine have been raised alongside international threats that North Korea, ISIS, and China might pose.
As of this month, there are reports that NATO may deploy thousands of troops to the Baltics as a stand against Russia’s growing aggression.
Author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press), Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.
Lina ramona Vitkauskas (Lithuanian-American-Canadian) is the author of SPINY RETINAS (Mutable Sound, 2014); A Neon Tryst (Shearsman Books, 2013); HONEY IS A SHE (Plastique Press, 2012); THE RANGE OF YOUR AMAZING NOTHING (Ravenna Press, 2010); and Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star (dancing girl press, 2006). In 2013, she was selected by Eleni Sikelianos for the Henry Miller Memorial Library Ping Pong Journal Award, and in 2009, she was selected by Brenda Hillman for The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Juried Reading Award. Her website is linaramona.com.