3:AM magazine's Maintenant series
S.J. Fowler writes: 'It is hard to make a case against Luljeta Lleshanaku being the greatest Albanian poet of the modern era. Such is the measure of her work, and her repute across Europe and America. Her poetry reflects her marked humility and reverence for the written word, utterly unique and yet universal in a way that belies the overuse of that concept. Though a child of political exile and marginalization, let alone physical danger, her work remains dignified and singular, and nor does she allow her poetry to be dominated by the issues of her nation, of its politics and history. She is a voice that would be recognized as truly poetic in any language, in any setting and this perhaps her most remarkable achievement. A winner of the International Kristal Vilenica prize (following the likes of Peter Handke, Zbigniew Herbert & Milan Kundera) it is wonderful to announce her first work published in the UK, Haywire: New & Selected Poems, will be released this September with Bloodaxe Books, already a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. She will be attending this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November. It is honour to introduce the 60th edition of Maintenant, a pioneer of Balkan poetry and a rightfully major figure in the current European poetry landscape.'
3:AM: Albania remains a unique country, both in its language, its culture and to a certain extent, in its isolation. Was there an expectation post 1985 and 1992, that the country would become more integrated and expansive in its actions, and that this might affect the literary culture?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: This is a very good question. I was 17 years old, when they announced the death of the dictator Enver Hoxha. It was April 11th, 1985. I was in high school, and I couldn’t wait to go back home, and celebrate it. I think a lot of people felt in that way. We thought, something was going to happen after it…a positive change…or something. But it was just an illusion; the family Hoxha and the new president Ramiz Alia went on governing with an iron hand…and the restriction was even higher, to try to keep the situation under control. Then we understood that the regime had to resist… The economy was catastrophically failing day after day…and the displeasure was not only political, but economic too. The longer the situation would last, the more dramatic the change of the system would be. In July 1990, around 5000 Albanian people occupied the Western embassies in Tirana: the German, Italian, French embassies. It is still a mystery how they could jump so easily into the yards of diplomatic residences, but for many people is already clear now that everything was projected by the communist government… as a plan to discharge the tension by pushing away the most dangerous part of population, the most rebellious part, those who could be really the first squadron of any movement. The point is this provoked exodus and didn’t calm the situation in Albania, but only increased the tension. I remember that in September 1990, the Secret Service sequestrated my passport, so it was clear that they were not tolerating any resistance and they were resisting in a frightening way…until 1991.
After 1992, Albania was totally exposed to any kind of cultural “attack”, all at once. I remember well the “Beatles” music shouting from radios, second-hand clothes exposed everywhere, cowboy movies, pornographic literature in the street… everything which was forbidden for a long time. The bookshops in Tirana were filled with American and French books, translated and printed in a hurry, in spite of their low technical quality. It was a urgent run towards the world which was refused us for about 47 years.
3:AM: The legacy of Albanian writers and poets is considerable in places. Ismail Kadare is obviously a world reputed writer. Yet it would not be an exaggeration to consider you the most reputed poet in Albania’s history since independence in 1912…
I was lucky to have the chances of publication abroad, in the US at first, and then in Italy, Austria, Poland and the UK in September. But I don’t want to be unfair: nobody can imagine what would be the Albanian literature situation… if we would ignore for a moment all the political repression and the fact that Albanian language is a small unique language. In such conditions, the promotion of Albanian literature in the world is an indicator of talent as much as a question of “accident”. But it was another writer of the 30s, an Albanian Franciscan friar who was the first Albanian nominated writer for Nobel Prize… His name was Gjergj Fishta, he was one of the anathematised writers by the communist regime, mostly because of his religious Catholic background.
3:AM: Has there arisen a stereotype because of the writing of the likes of Kadare that Albania is somehow inflected with an “old world” mentality - the kanun, the blood feud etc…that might not perhaps be accurate?
LL: It was a smart gesture of Kadare to avoid sometimes the extreme propagandistic reality of Communist Albania, through creating stories about Albanian myths, habits and all the spiritual infrastructure of the past. Blood feud was a part of “Kanun”- the medievalist code of self-governing in Albania. This stereotype is created by the anthropological perspective of foreign visitors and writers in the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century like Edith Durham and Rose Lane and it was fortified and mystified by the long time isolation of Albania to the world. It is true that there was a metamorphosis, a refreshing of the phenomenon after the 90s…in the conditions of a legal vacuum and the political mess of Albania.
Also the Albanian cinema after the 90s “played” with this “blood feud”, but mostly for sensational reasons. To identify Albania with blood feud is like identifying USA with some vandalistic acts in schools, or like identifying Buenos Aires with those wallet robbers in the street, experienced by the tourists. I personally am surprised when I am faced with such a topic: is blood feud really our identifying culture element?! Perhaps it is, but not in the wide dimensions it is perceived from abroad.
3:AM: The poets who wrote in exile and underground under Hoxha have left a considerable legacy, perhaps Arshi Pipa most of all. What is his legacy with contemporary Albanian poets?
LL: I think…the ideology could influence more the poetry than prose. The subjectivity was the target of ideology, considered the most dangerous thing. All the strategy aimed to flatten the individual voices and to encourage thinking in a group and for a group. That’s the way the Mayakovskian Futurism was easily embraced in the Albanian poetry of sixties and seventies. The collective awareness, “muscular” reality, the optimistic point view of life were a part of what was called “romanticist soc-realism”. The image of construction of a country in construction, and a new mentality of peoples who have no time to worry about “small things” was predominant. I don’t think this chapter is going to be interesting anymore for the new generations except as some stylistic exercise. But, there are still some poems which could survive due to beautiful metaphors or the lyrical moment they capture.
The other literature is the “underground” literature and the literature of exile. The “underground” literature-the literature of prison or the hidden literature – perhaps didn’t have the epochal power of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Mandelstam or Brodsky’s work, but at least it has a testifying value of the real Albania. Perhaps…because of being published later, after 1990, it couldn’t affect the reader as is it could’ve done in the right moment. Let’s remember the fact that it was impossible to create some literary groups in Albania, as in some other countries of Eastern Europe. The grouping and the solitude were both considered dangerous enough.
3:AM: The Albanian language itself is very unique, does it lend itself to poetic expression?
LL: It is always interesting to hear the comments about Albanian language, when I give readings in foreign countries. They say 'it is a beautiful language!' Some perceive it as Italian…some as Slavic… some even can’t indentify the similarity. I think Albanian language has the dolcezza of Latin…but enamelled with the toughness of Balkan temperament. It is a language rich with natural sounds of onomatopoeic words. It is very interesting making an anatomy of languages to understand the people: the Albanian language, in my opinion, created its own code of communicating with nature, perhaps as the only way to survive as a verbal language (only) for centuries. Albanian lexicon suggests a high diversity of dialectic forms. But, sometimes I feel that my poems sound better in English, for example, than in my language. Why? The long words…especially the verbs, give some solemnity to the poem, appropriate for a philosophical or rhetorical poem. But, for an imagistic poem like mine, the short words and the simple grammatical forms of English are better. The length of words in English corresponds with the speed of visuality, of observation and thoughts. Perhaps I look a bit crazy saying it but I always had the impression, that there is a parasite time between one image and the other, when the language can’t catch the rhythm of the imagination. So, for example, you can enjoy a rhetoric poem of Borges in Spanish… full of 'e' and 'rr', and see how the sound opens a parallel horizon before you. But, you can’t say that about a poem of Simic for example, in any language it will be offered.
3:AM: Your work maintains much of the elegance of the great post-Second World War European tradition, it evokes the likes of Herbert, Amichai, Pagis, Cassian. Perhaps you share something of their deftness, their care, their sense of responsibility, as poets. Do you think is true?
LL: I would like it to be true. I like Herbert, and I adore Amichai. For the first time I read his poems around ten years ago. It is not an accident I would have something similar with him: the first, because he is my favourite poet. And the second: we both belong to countries who have suffered greatly. What is in common? I think he dials into the real world, real history and the collective ego that dominates the individual ego. He never speaks about himself, even when he pretends to do so. His observation exceeds the white circle of private life. And especially there is always a “why” in his air, something which asks a response in history, and its rotation. And he always gives a response, the best artistic solution, through metaphors, through creating parallel realities. Any other solution is more arbitrary. He is from Israel, the motherland of metaphor (let’s remember the way God communicated with human beings). And…it was not difficult for a person “infected” with life like him, to create such amazing metaphors. He has such a rich life: World War II, Holocaust, the life in New Israel… Perhaps, the only way a poet can reorganise all this chaotic life, is making a system from it. And metaphor is the key. Metaphor became an instinct for him.
I saw a lot of suffering around and the question “why” became an instinct for me too. There comes a moment when I can’t wait out the destruction to understand the “why”. I admire his sensitivity about the world. His observation is always the observation of “the edge”, clear, like being in the last day of his life. Amichai always leaves me the impression of a full room, where there is no place for fighting, resisting or quarreling.
3:AM: Your work appears very fluid, it seems to be very descriptive, working at images, very carefully. How do you begin to write? Do you set yourself time aside to do so, or follow moments when you feel you must?
LL: Strangely I was a hyperactive and very moody child. My mother told me I used to speak regularly during the sleep, except when sleep-walking (somnambulism). I began writing when I was eleven years old. My first poem was a question of “honour”: I was asked to recite a poem, when I didn’t know any poems by heart. I never remember poems by heart. I don’t remember even my cellular phone number by heart. I have difficulty learning by heart; I’ve always had. So, in such conditions I had to improvise something, which sounded like a poem.
Then, (God knows why…) I went on writing humorous poems, and I read them in those little boring parties in high school. Perhaps I needed attention, and asked it in every way possible. I remember that I complicated the relations with my teachers just because of those jeering verses. But at least… I could see the others laughing and I laughed myself, and that was enough for a while.
The other side of my personality was a kind of melancholy which I never understood where it came from. I didn’t worry so much about the concrete hopeless and poor circumstance; what I worried about was something beyond them. Some existential questions. My advanced imagination encouraged me to see what a child never should see: the end of things. Once, I decided to say them in a loud voice: to write them. So I was around 18 years old, when finally I wrote a poem.
3:AM: You are a poet not directly bound to your nation in your work it seems, you maintain a ambiguity of subject. Do you avoid commentary on your nation in some manner, or do you just write how you wish to write?
LL: You are absolutely right. As I just said, my perspective of thinking didn’t have to do with the things which were before my eyes. Any small town in the world is enough for somebody to understand the rules of the world, the rules of the life. Each community functions as a cell of the world, as a micro-cosmos, programmed with all the virtues and vices, geniality and incapacity, vulnerability and ambitions, aggression and tolerance to create the table of human world. You don’t need the test of all your body’s blood, to examine your genetic code; even a single hair is enough.
As you can see, I am sensitive and instinctively seek protection when hearing about my country, like everybody would do. But, I never was convinced enough that nationality says something more than our common intimate relations. The nationality doesn’t determine who we are, but what we are compromised to do. And I never was interested in that.
And furthermore, I think that if the archetype exists, there is stronger inside me. Some unexplainable melancholies and some strange sensations were always an obstacle to be in my time and in my place. That’s why perhaps my identity is determined by an “anonymous” voice (more than universal), than from an active determined voice.
3:AM: The Vilenica Kristal prize has been awarded to some of the greatest European poets of our age, did it feel vindicating to receive the award?
LL: Oh, yes. It was a beautiful surprise. I didn’t even know they give prizes, and to be sincere, it was a moment when I didn’t get any sense on participating in literary festivals.
Until that moment, I was also not sure if the Europeans would like my style of writing, since I was published only in the US. So, it was a test for me, and I was really happy to be the preferred one, even if I had a high temperature that day (39 degrees Celsius) and I wore three blouses and a jacket over each other.
And… I really can’t forget how nice the Slovenians were and everything during the festival, the days were curated so carefully, with much elegance. But the prize I am awarded with, was not the International Prize, the “grand prix” of career which went to Claudio Magris, but the Kristal Vilenica Prize, for the best writer participant. And…anyway…it was very competitive. I still remember a Croatian writer who was really excellent…the Bulgarian poet attending… All excellent! Thank you for bringing me these emotions back!
This interview was first published in 3:AM magazine on 9 May 2011. SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
Luljeta Lleshanaku belongs to the first “post-totalitarian” generation of Albanian poets. In Haywire she turns to the fallout of her country’s past and its relation to herself and her family. Through intense, powerful lyrics, she explores how these histories intertwine and influence her childhood memories and the retelling of her family’s stories. Sorrow, death, imprisonment, and desire are some of the themes that echo deeply in Lleshanaku’s hauntingly beautiful poems.
She was born in Elbasan, Albania in 1968. Under Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist dictatorship, she grew up under house arrest. Lleshanaku was not permitted to attend college or publish her poetry until the weakening and eventual collapse of the regime in the early 1990s. She later studied Albanian philology at the University of Tirana, and has worked as a schoolteacher, literary magazine editor and journalist. She won the prestigious International Kristal Vilenica Prize in 2009, and has had a teaching post at the University of Iowa and a fellowship from the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has given readings in America, Europe and in Ireland at the Poetry Now Festival in Dún Laoghaire in 2010. Luljeta Lleshanaku is reading at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Sunday 6th November (with Robert Hass and Maurice Riordan) and at London's South Bank Centre on Tuesday 8th November (with Amjad Nasser and Soleïman Adel Guémar).
Haywire: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) is her first British publication, and draws on two editions published in the US by New Directions, Fresco: Selected Poems (2002) and Child of Nature (2010), as well as a selection of newer work. Published in September 2011, it is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. Available now from Amazon.co.uk by clicking on this link.
Click on this link to watch a video of Luljeta Lleshanaku reading four poems, with the texts of the poems below.