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Field Notes - Living Poetry
by Raymond Filip

THE CANADIAN FLAG has two sides. Reverse it, and you may discover the colours of another homeland. Lithuania happens to be the other country in the case of this author. An invitation from the Lithuanian Writers' Union to participate in their 1993 International Poetry Festival, with the support of the international cultural relations program of External Affairs and International Trade Canada, resulted in a spiritual exchange of Faustian proportions.

Canada has the money; Lithuania has the soul. At the festival, I was introduced as a "lietuvi poeta, rasanti anglu kalba" - a Lithuanian poet who writes in English. During the '80s, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had broadcast my work, some of my books and song cassettes had been smuggled in, and translations had circulated in clandestine publications. I had even covertly visited the forbidden zone of our family grave in 1983. Nothing heroic. My relatives suffered the reprisals. As a Canadian citizen, I had to put up with the harmless nuisance of intercepted mail, and a visa rejection by the Russian consulate following the Lithuanian declaration of independence on March 11, 1990.

Three springs later, I finally made it to their poetry festival. Despite, or perhaps because of my "EngLithuanian" accent, I was welcomed like a lost son: an interview on national television; a feature article on the front page of Vakarines naujienos, a leading newspaper; and readings attended by hundreds. All because this Canadian poet had decided not to bury his past with Khrushchev's shoe.

The love and warmth of the Lithuanian people made me regret changing my name from Raimundas Filipavicius (official still on my SIN, passport, etc.) to the pen name Raymond Filip. Anglicization was one strategy adopted by many immigrants in the 1950s and '60s to cope with Canadian racism and discrimination. The generation of the New York Islanders star Darius Kasparaitis doesn't have to worry about those types of shots.

Hockey-sized crowds, however, flock to poetry readings in Lithuania. The International Poetry Festival began in 1965 as an attempt by the poet Justinas Marcinkevicius to speak the first words of freedom (laisves zodziais) out loud. Shock troops of poets in buses travelled to Villages, towns, and cities, packing audiences to the rooftops. Poets such as Marcelijus Martinaitis or Sigitas Geda read to intimate thousands. The Soviets had banned any unauthorized public gatherings, so Russian versemongers were initially invited for camouflage reasons. In 1989, when Bernardas Brazdzionis read, 100,000 copies of his new poetry collection sold out. And in 1992, the Lithuanian-born Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz made his triumphant return.

The festival's sponsors operate like an extended family. Local hotels and funding groups combine inestimable good will along with a total budget of US$700 to bind all the regions tightly together. But the main patrons are the Lithuanian population. These are the people who joined hands to protect their parliament building and TV tower while singing songs as their only form of defence against Red Army tanks, thus beginning a Baltic movement that ultimately dismembered the USSR. Any citizen at random can sing or recite lines from Maironis or Kudirka. Streets, schools, museums, and culture centres bear the names of poets. Their statues stand tall in public squares, with fresh flowers regularly laid at their feet by admirers. And living poets can actually reach out and accept the roses, irises, peonies, and daisies offered by children who run up to their favourite poet after he or she has read. During the festival, the poet who walked off with the greatest armful of flowers was considered to be the laureate of that recital.

The bards in our minibus were Petras Keidosius, demon drinker and thinker; Lidija Simkute, rare breed of feminist who wrote "controversial" poems and articles in the Lithuanian tongue while growing up and residing in Australia; Mykolas Karciauskas, master of the revels and rhymes; and two young poets, Alvydas Slepikas and Valdas Gedgaudas, both of whom had recently served a mandatory two-year sentence in the Soviet military. The oppressive weight of death and sacrifice haunted all of their poetry, with images expressing living martyrdom, and no future beyond the tombstones of children.

But Alvydas is a proud new papa. He works as a DJ and actor to support his wife and nine-month-old son. He had to borrow clothes for our tour. The average monthly salary in Lithuania has plummeted to 9,420 talonai ($19). Speaking with a "LithuEnglish" accent, Alvydas talked about the scholarship he had won to portray Richard III at Oxford, his interest in rock, jazz, Muddy Waters, and Claude LeviStrauss. He and Valdas have formed a writers' group called Svetimi: strangers. They write about life in the new Lithuania with words that Alvydas described as "sharp."

The price of freedom has meant reduced audiences. In tiny Lukcia, one organizer apologized because only about 100 villagers had shown up for our appearance. In any big Canadian city, I comforted him, such a turnout would have been hailed as a renaissance. Our posse of poets advanced onward to win over three schools, one concert hall, one park, and one library in two days. First we took Sakiai, and then we took Vilkaviskis.

The closing ceremony was held in a courtyard at the University of Vilnius in the middle of a rainstorm. As someone who has spent 20 years of his life trying to bridge the different cultures in Canada before "multiculturalism" became a float parading past closed windows, this writer couldn't believe the 200-plus poetry fans who remained seated on hard benches for more than two hours in the rain listening to the windswept schwa and torrential angst of 30 poets from Denmark, Germany, Austria, Poland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Australia, Georgia, Estonia, Byelorussia, Canada, the United States, and Lithuania. The downpour was good discipline: on sunny finales in the past, crowd control had been a problem. Freedom of speech was a foreign concept that had attracted the masses, along with their love of poetry and ideas. A real audience.

I couldn't help thinking about Canada and our chronic complaints about no audience for Canadian literature; our abuses of freedom, petty language forts, and regional cold wars; our mall mentality in trying to hustle up a "target audience" through a greasy network of bureaucrats, literary sidewinders, inside politics, juries, awards, newsletters, free books, subscriptions, balloons, T-shirts. Push, push. A thousand readers in a country of 26.5 million people: jackpot! Who cares?

A Canadian audience cannot be man ufactured like artificial snow. Is largeness of spirit easier to maintain in a smaller nation of 3.8 million people such as Lithuania? Would we, a G7 giant, be united today by a constitutional accord and the symmetry of poetry if a Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitter had bloodied Canadian soil from east coast to west coast in a genocidal squeeze? Instead, Canada, this gift of a peaceful country, is dying a slow, dull, democratic death because of vast, snivelling indifference. Perhaps we can learn from the Lithuanian example of openness in handling their historic grievances. Russians, Germans, Jews, and Poles coexist within the New Order; rap artists blast down Laisves Aleja (Freedom Alley) from a record shop in Kaunas; and Canadians are being translated. The cartography of our identity transcends national borders in the age of the global village.

In the little town of Saulai, after the festival, a private reading to an audience of four - my wife and a cousin with his family - was an awesome experience. The setting was the legendary Hill of Crosses, the Lithuanian axis mundi. Considerably higher in 1863, the hill had withstood bombardment, bulldozing, burning, dynamiting, flooding, and axing by czars, Nazis, and Soviets. Lithuanians risked their lives to erect new crosses at night. In 1983, from a moving car, I had caught a glimpse of what resembled a wee last stand of rampikes on a hillside. By 1993, a massive forest of crosses had risen up to the sky beyond Christian folklore: crosses made out of wood, stone, straw, plastic, wool, paper; metal crucifixes in bottles. Orthodox and unorthodox. Broken arrows of time. These once-taboo totems had become symbols of political and artistic affirmation. The atmosphere was not morbid, for nothing was dead. Everything radiated life: the spring sun, the flowers, the birds, the crickets. The spirit of the place instilled a miraculous, demilitarized, uncensored, unrepressed, sovereign feeling of peace. I composed a poem on the site. We cut it into a cruciform shape and tucked it into a see through plastic envelope. Some thing: an objectification of determined faith in the light of the indeterminate. One amid endless crosses brought from all parts of the world: Venezuela. Australia. New York. Chicago. Montreal. Toronto. One-derful. Indomitable.


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