Article by Adele McCann
Poetry allows us many things; expression, feeling and connection. Interviewing Lilija Valis was a wonderful exercise in connection. Born in Lithuania, Lilija has lived all over the world before she settled in Vancouver. She has published her work in books but is primarily identified as a performative poet, who reads her poetry accompanied to music to audiences. Listening to her speak, I got the impression of all the places she has lived, all the influences on her work both in history and in present day, all the threads of different parts of her life that she has turned into poetry and above all else the connections that she has made.
Poetry as connective is not a new idea and it brings us closer to our history and to the past. In fact, Lilija herself outlined to me the way that poetry functioned in some of her history. Storytelling, music and poetry were a means of remembering history, not in an academic and strictly factual sense but in a heartfelt way that allowed people to relate to the people and the stories that have come before them. In Lithuania, where Lilija was born, poets were at a time sent out of the country and exiled. Yet they would continue to send back poetry to the people to tell tales of their experiences. Amongst the many different forms and historic connections that have inspired her, Lilija mentioned ancient Chinese poetry, and Celtic poetry as having a particularly strong influence on her. I asked if they were not very different? She told me that there’s a similarity, the poems were written before poetry was strictly defined, especially in academic terms. Poetry was semi-song and took its own shape depending on the content. It found its own form and rhythms and this is something that she carries forth in her poetry.
Lilija doesn’t “care too much how a poem looks, that is secondary to what the words mean and how you present them”. This allows her poetry to have “different layers that touch you deeper even when you don’t know what it evokes”. It creates feeling. One of the things that she utilises in her poem for this is silence. They are not a consequence of the poem but rather a deliberate inclusion that allow the words to really “resonate with someone and allows them to absorb what is being said”. That focus on feeling, beyond scholarly definition, that the ancient poems had lives on in Lilija’s poetry. She told me that she tried to express her experiences in scholarly terms but it couldn’t capture the depth of what she was trying to say and that poetry was the one form that she found that allowed her to share her experiences. I myself am an English Literature major and often think of poetry as highly literary, often in a very technical or esoteric way. I think sometimes of poetry as a very beautiful and very inaccessible art form. Speaking with Lilija changed this perception. In fact, she gave me quite the opposite impression; poetry, at least as far as Lilija is concerned, is anything but inaccessible. It is a thread of connection that she has to her past, to her experiences, to her feelings and perhaps most importantly to others. Everyone has their story, and by putting ours out there, we allow others to relate to it and to make those connections.
Poetry connects us to our surroundings. Far beyond being highly literary words on a page, Lilija informed me “poetry is in everything”. It is in music, in dance, perhaps in cooking and occasionally for Lilija in conversations on the phone with her sister. Lilija does not define herself in narrow terms or under titles that might confine her definition, such as Poet or Artist. Rather, she says, everyone is an artist; be it through cooking or making a home or building furniture. It is natural in us to want to create; it allows us to no longer be a passive recipient of experiences but active. We can take our experience and transform them into something that may be good for others. They can look at your art and be inspired. This bonds us with others; we reach out to them and create that feedback loop wherein all our art is connected. Lilija says that she is not an Artist, but that creating is “natural in her cells”, she “grew up with poetry so much so that she doesn’t even know all of the things that have inspired her”.
In this way, poetry connects us to ourselves. It is self-reflective and a useful tool to be able to explore and articulate our experiences. Throughout her life Lilija has often found herself in various minority groups, sometimes the newcomer, sometimes the outsider. As she moved around the world and through different disciplines she often had to learn a culture that she didn’t know. Poetry allowed her to find her own way. Through expression through poetry, she was able to “make bridges and connections” and to bypass that which may have excluded her. She will be performing in San Francisco next month and her poem will tell of her experiences in her dance community. A highly diverse group of people she often feels the language barrier impedes her ability to connect. Yet when the music starts playing and everyone starts dancing that all falls away. When we dance all barriers drop, it, like poetry, is a common language.
Beyond ourselves, poetry connects us to each other. Just as her definition of herself as an artist seemed to me to be a fluid and adaptive thing that she didn’t set under strict parameters, this is also the approach that Lilija takes with her poetry. Even in her performances Lilija does not perform too rigidly. She is at once able to be completely present in the moment and transformative to her surroundings. She prepares her poems beforehand, memorises them for her performance and then is prepared to change them completely on stage if the need arises. This need, she told me, is based on the audience. She reads her audiences and reacts to them, feeding off of their energy and responding in kind. If she thinks they are bored she will change what she is doing and use a different kind of poem. It is this that allows her to reach her audiences.
Lilija performs with talented a musician, Enrico Renz. Early on when they first started they used to rehearse but fairly quickly he told her that they didn’t need to do that. Now when they perform he listens to her and will adapt his music to her words and likewise she will adjust her poems to his music. They are able to foster and create their art through this connection and then project this to an audience who in turn feed them back a kind of energy. It is a feedback loop of reciprocal connection. It is important, Lilija says, to care what people think. “You are trying to reach them and to have them hear what you are saying. If you weren’t trying to connect you wouldn’t perform, you would recite you poems alone in your bedroom”. Different than reading off of the page, the audience is listening to something that you want to tell them so you have to be responsive. “Poets are party people” that like to be surrounded by others and poems want to connect. Lilija likes the connections – “it’s a natural thing and it’s an ancient thing to want to reach out and relate with other people”.
We will be fortunate enough at VACS to have Lilija lead our upcoming workshop, Articulating Your Heart. I would encourage everyone to come and be inspired by her. I was very glad to have gotten to sit with Lilija for this interview and learn that “much of poetry is wanting to connect”. It is all around us and it allows us to connect with what’s around us, with ourselves and with each other.