Oct. 17, 2006
NOTE: This is part of a series of feature articles on some of the writers from around the world who are taking part in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program this fall.
Doris Kareva's Mysterious Powers Help Her 'Follow The Poem,' Dance To Its Rhythm
Doris Kareva's schoolmates in Tallin, Estonia, suspected she was a witch. "They were a bit afraid of me," she recalls with a grin. "They came to me whenever they had a wish -- 'could you arrange that this guy ask me to the dance?' -- and I always said, 'Oh, it's easy.'"
Actually, her classmates may have been on to something. Kareva has not only become a prolific translator and poet -- in residence this fall at the University of Iowa International Writing Program -- but she describes her creative powers in terms that are definitely mysterious, and infused with her own brand of hybrid spirituality.
"From very early childhood I was mixing Christianity and paganism -- I think I have it in my blood, this feeling that nature is sacred -- and particularly Greek mythology," she explains. "When I was eight or so, I created my own religion or mythology, with a whole set of gods and goddesses with different characters, with different names and different phases of power. I imagined they had temples in various parts of Tallin, and when I had a problem, I went to this or that temple, where I was talking to them, and invoking their presence.
"But also I think this had something to do with writing, because I realized that you are not supposed to talk to the deity, even if you have created him or her yourself, in the same language you are using for everyday life. You have to be very selective with your words, and not to talk too much. Sometimes I wrote it on a piece of paper, and then tore it into small pieces and gave it to the wind."
Kareva began writing poetry in traditional forms, but more and more she broke free from formality to pursue a more intuitive process. "When I am writing I usually don't choose any form, as such," she says." But I just am trying to follow the poem, like a river. What I tried to do was express, as clearly and impressively as I can, what there is to express. I think rhythm is more important than rhyme -- you should never run after a rhyme. But it's not something you can choose. It is something you are chosen by, and you have to dance to it."
As she explains it, the genesis of this dance is itself a process embroidered with mystery: "The beginning of a poem is like hearing someone coming over the hill, and humming to himself. And you hear the voice, and then slowly you start to recognize the melody, but still you don't hear the words. It's only when he or she has touched you that you recognize the words. This is sometimes how the poem will approach.
"Or sometimes it might be two words -- sometimes the sound they make could be like friction, or it could be flowing. Already they set the scene, or the color."
Like her invented mythology, Kareva's translations began as a purely private activity, performed simply for the joy that the process yielded, until a first prize in a translation competition pushed her hobby into the public realm. "I have always enjoyed this, going into another voice," she says. "Trying to speak in another language the same way, that if someone heard it they would recognize the original."
Her translation interests have been wide-ranging -- Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Auden, Beckett, Kabir, Brodsky and Gibran, to name a few. "When I find out something that has been written which is missing in the Estonian language, and I wish it very much it to be existant in the Estonian language, I take it up and do what I can about it."
And she says that the process of inhabiting other voices has enriched her own poetic voice. "Emily Dickinson somehow opened in me some way of saying," she explains. "It was after my first child died, and I couldn't read anything. It all seemed so shallow to me. When I discovered Emily Dickinson and all of a sudden I realized I could read again. And when I started to translate her, I discovered a voice in myself that I didn't know was there before."
The intuitive process with which Kareva writes poetry is also reflected in her method for organizing anthologies and combining her poetry into volumes. "I don't have a chronological mind," she says. "So I have always put together pieces that have come from different times, which are connected by something similar. We are wandering most of our life in the same landscape, but since the light is changing we are always discovering new things. And we don't notice things that were very important just before. Basically we come to the same places again and again, so I don't see human life or artistic development as a journey from point A to point B."
She recognizes in her own fevered process a reflection of her father, who was a composer. "When he was sitting behind the piano and pulsating I could see he had all this music inside, but nobody could hear it but himself," she says. "And then, all of a sudden, he took the pencil and very quickly wrote, and he would be vibrating for some more time. And then he would say, 'No, it's not that,' and he would go to the kitchen and make a black coffee. And he would light a cigarette and then he would start vibrating again.
"Usually the whole floor is covered with papers and I am whirling like a dervish between them. It becomes a mad dance between them, and I know them all by heart and so I can hear them humming. It's all colors and all sounds."
But there is none of this mad dancing for Kareva during her concentrated time in Iowa. "This is a time for breathing in," she says. "There is a time for breathing in, and breathing out. It is a pity to breathe out when there is so much to breathe in.
"Whenever I go to foreign cities, the first thing I do there is to get lost. I have to be a stranger, to wander around and discover things. Usually I trust my intuitions. This what I have done in my life. And I have managed to get lost in Iowa a few times."
Kareva has published 13 poetry collections, and her poems have been translated into 15 languages, and she has edited several anthologies of Estonian poetry, After winning the State Cultural Prize in 1993, she launched Straw Stipend, which provides publication funding for 10 young Estonian poets. She also serves as secretary general of the Estonian National Commission for UNESCO. She participates in the IWP with the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.
Twenty-nine writers, representing 22 countries, are in residence this fall at the IWP. Biographies of all the writers are accessible on the IWP Web site, www.uiowa.edu/~iwp.
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