Essays

Dispatches from Vilnius: Regarding Language, Genre, and the Capital of Culture

By posted at 6:22 am on August 18, 2009 0

Vilnius is a city of towering churches and small winding cobblestone roads. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, an assortment of street musicians line Pilies Gatve, the main drag through town: Lithuanian punks sit in a doorway and play English pop songs for change, a young blond violinist draws her bow, boys circle around a music stand and play their brass instruments in an impromptu after-school band while an older, red-faced man bellows across the street. The men cat call at the ladies by saying “meow,” kids break dance on cardboard laid out in Cathedral Square, and on Saturdays, brides speckle the city in white as they line up to take their vows.

This year Vilnius is the European Capital of Culture, a title the city shares with Linz, Austria. The country’s focus on culture may explain why each room in the dormitory is equipped with a piano. This does not explain, however, why the only toilets in the third floor women’s bathroom are squat toilets, or why, in front of the dorms, two men pass their day talking and smoking and prodding an uncovered man hole, sometimes even leaning into it, only to cover it and return the next day for more of the same. The only thing that possibly redeems the seedy bathrooms is the bakery situated next door, where a strong kavos (or coffee) and pastry can be purchased for less than 3 litas, a little over a dollar. The woman at the counter always walks two fingers across her palm to ask if we want the coffee “to go.” I am a habitué who stops in each morning on my way to workshop and lectures before trepidatiously crossing the busy traffic circle en route to the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore. I find it disconcerting that the only way to make the cars slow is to step into the street in front of them. Near the end of the conference, we learn that a prominent literary Lithuanian lost his life at this crossing, and I am not surprised.

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My mornings are spent in Lynne Tillman’s fiction class, where we focus on language and the ways language functions in a story. We discuss how rhythm moves writing forward, how the unnecessary repetition of words weakens linguistic power, and how a story develops from the choices the author makes in telling it. This all reminds me of the last lines from Tillman’s story, “Come and Go”: “Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly there will always be stories.” This would make a good motto for the class.

Between morning and afternoon classes it rains or the sun shines, and often it does both. The precarious weather in Vilnius changes so quickly it sometimes rains four times a day with the sky clearing between downpours. I learn to pack an umbrella if I leave the room wearing sunglasses, and to take sunglasses even when I wake to a morning downpour.

In the afternoons, I attend a nonfiction class taught by Phillip Lopate. Although he’s best known for his personal essays, he has written books of poetry (one is forthcoming in January) and a few novels. In fact, he taught fiction alongside Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston for many years, an experience he wrote about elegantly and elegiacally in his essay, “The Dead Father: A Remembrance of Donald Barthelme.”

Despite this being a nonfiction class, at least three students hand in pieces of fiction to workshop. The first fictionalized piece we read is a memoir told in third-person about a husband with cancer who is receiving chemotherapy treatments, his physical deterioration, and his family. Lopate has a bloodhound’s nose for spotting fiction masquerading as nonfiction. When he calls the author out on this at the beginning of the class discussion, the author admits she created composite characters. This sparks a conversation regarding the conventions of fiction and nonfiction, and what nonfiction accomplishes better than fiction. Lopate claims that fiction needs narrative conflict whereas nonfiction should stimulate or provoke, and this can take the form of unexpected insights, contradictions of character, and the tracking of thought, consciousness, and doubt. He cites William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” as an example.

Genre is interesting to consider, especially because the nonfiction class is filled with poets and fiction writers, many of whom don’t often write personal essays or memoir. This is the reason we are reading so much fiction in the nonfiction class. But Lopate asks, would you dare turn poems in to your fiction class? My friend who takes the same two classes that I do says that in her MFA program, there was a writer whose pieces were considered flash fiction by the poets and prose poems by the fiction writers, and neither set knew quite how to respond to the work. When this writer decided to classify his pieces by an invented name, the writing went over better. It makes me consider how much our expectations determine how we respond to writing, and what inclinations lead us to pick up one genre of writing over another.  It seems to me that fiction, nonfiction, and poetry overlap in varying degrees, in a way that could be mapped by a Venn diagram.

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Photos by Anne K. Yoder





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