Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

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You have difficulties? What a relief!

This week’s True Community, my weekly column on education and men, is an introspective piece. I ended up feeling relief when I learned professors in England and the Continent were also facing poor standards and disinterested students. I wonder where this relief comes from and if it’s the appropriate response.

Hope you’ll check it out and share.

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What’s my heritage? (Links to essays)

The Summer Literary Seminars are in their fifth day—fourth day of classes and lectures and readings—and the event has been fantastic. It’s a privilege to attend once again (this time with my little girl).

I’ve noticed that a lot of traffic from the SLS website has found its way here to Liquid Ink, and students are perusing my photos and blog entries. Last night I got into conversations with some students who asked about my connection to Lithuania.

Here’s an essay I wrote about my grandparents’ flight from Lithuania in the 40’s. It’s titled Displacing Forces, and was originally published in Dialogo magazine out of DePaul University.

Here’s the blog post that has gotten the most traffic in the history of my blog. It also says something about my heritage. You will not need to remember what happened in the London summer Olympics to catch its drift.


Photo: Twilight in Vilnius



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Synchronicity with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

Note: I was asked by Mikhail Iossel to write this text. It ended up posted on his Facebook.

Early this summer, I needed to ride a train and a bus across Chicagoland, a trip that would take a good hour or so. Buying coffee, I looked in my bag to find I had forgotten to bring a book, so I went to my neighborhood bookstore to browse around. My desires were straightforward: a book of shorts, either poems or essays or stories, something that would not weigh down my bag very much. And I wanted to spend less than ten dollars.

Several books caught my eye, but I finally settled on a tiny little tome, a simple black and white cover. It was titled Dust, a collection of essays by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The blurbs said something about memory and dreams, favorite topics, but besides this, I had no idea who he was. I knew he had been translated from Russian, and I trusted Dalkey Archive Press. The book also cost less than six dollars.

The first sentences engaged me in a way books rarely do. As the initial paragraph made its way through my mind, I felt Dragomoshchenko’s prose was braiding strands of light among my thoughts; the effect was a trancelike wonder at the power of words to evoke spaces and sensations in the imagination. I had to stop reading for a moment to begin again—perhaps I was not concentrating properly. But this was simply the effect. The sentences were about something familiar, even tactile and intimate—knives, streets, shells—and yet his ideas and gestures flowed from one unexpected moment to another, cutting at angles that seemed invisible, passages that operated by association and accident, but also depended on some perverted mathematical principle, perhaps algebra. I read slowly, patiently, and let go of any need to understand this man, this Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. I simply let myself experience his beautiful visions, accept his gifts.

Later on in the summer, all the way in Vilnius, Lithuania, I attended the opening reception of the Summer Literary Seminar. I ended up in a conversation with Elizabeth Hodges, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Review, who handed me a bookmark, one of these meant as an advertisement for the journal. Among the names of people the journal had published—it leaped out to me—was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.

I grew excited, “This guy! This guy! I read this guy! This guy’s a trip!” Someone else in the world knew him? Someone else liked him? Here was a person who had published him? “I stumbled on his book, totally by accident, and it blew my mind.”

I learned that he had only recently died. The news hurt me, a curious kind of pain. It was not the hurt I have felt when relatives or loved ones have died, but very much like the kind that pangs when I hear about the death of a colleague I had worked with overseas, or if I hear that my old professor’s heart stopped beating in the middle of a lecture. Reading Dragomoshchenko is like swimming in his consciousness; at least for me, it was like knowing him across a dozen births and reincarnations. He and I were once goldfish sharing the same bowl; later on I was his housekeeper, and now he was this writer who braided light in my head.

Hodges told me that Michael Iossel, the director of the seminar, had been Arkadii’s close friend. I had to tell him about my accidental discovery. While speaking, I watched a restrained, sublime pain soften Iossel’s expressions, loosen his posture. He told me about Dragomoshchenko’s methods and relations with others in Russia, few of them very good. I took mental notes on what else to read even when I already knew I’d read anything that existed in English.

It is easy to explain this as synchronicity—how often do we run into friends and colleagues of artists we admire? In one way, my encounter with Dragomoshchenko, then with Hodges and Iossel, is exactly the same as being hit by leaves falling from the same tree at different moments of the day and in different parts of the forest. In another, it is the same as searching out for those leaves, the leaves of an elm, in a space where all the other trees are maples or oaks. I read Dragomoshchenko because he is exactly the kind of writer I’d read, and I met his colleagues because they are also interested in these kinds of letters.

Even so, it illuminates something I’ve always believed about literature. Reading a book is not just to engage the thoughts of an author but also to join a community. It’s invisible, spread out over great distances, even foreign to itself, barely aware of how large or small it might be. Despite all this, it is real, enormously powerful and deeply intimate.

Writers must remember this when they stare at their words and wonder, “Why the hell should I bother with this tripe?” There’s no reason, actually, just as there is no reason to invite friends for dinner or ride the bus across town to meet colleagues. But when we do it, and when we share, we create and maintain communities which contribute to what makes life interesting. Books improve bus rides for strangers and make distant friends in the process.


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Mobile phones and memory

I’ll be giving a lecture on the difference between memory and imagination in only a day, and so I’ve been thinking about the accusation: “We used to remember so many phone numbers. Now our phones do it for us. We’re lost without them.”

This is true. From childhood to my teen years, I usually had about ten or fifteen phone numbers memorized. I still remember a handful of them.

Here’s the real insult from this phenomenon. Our phones remember our grandparents’ number so that we wouldn’t have to. However, we still need to remember numbers, or at least streams of characters known as “passwords,” a funny name because they lead to no passage at all but only to metaphors for our contemporary entrapment.

I know about seven different passwords which I have invented myself at different times when different machines and services told me it was time for a new one. I cannot automatically reset every password I use in every website to the exact same one without driving myself insane. So I just remember al the different ones. And I’m ridiculously good at it, far better, perhaps, than I had been at remembering phone numbers.

What a pile of nonsense. We have exchanged remembering actual passwords—numbers which brought us to the space of conversation with someone—for these wild multi-character symbols which lead us to our empty bank accounts. Some of us use the same stream of symbols, a exclamation point taking the place of the “l”, fucking absurd !over5!ane to access our pornography.

Our memories work fine. We’re just remembering absurdities.

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My SLS Events

Liquid Inkers:

This is a great week to be in Vilnius and to be participating in the Summer Literary Seminar. I’m really excited for tonight’s opening reception.

I’m presenting this week at two events:

Tuesday July 16th, 2:00 at Mokytojų Namai Room 219

Lecture: Trusting Oneself—Memory, Imagination and the Traumatized Writer.

(Open only to SLS participants)

This lecture will examine how a writer sees himself after experiencing a childhood trauma—be it abuse, war or some disaster—which interferes with his ability to clearly distinguish between memory and imagination. I’ll be talking about my battle with PTSD, and the difficulty this condition presents to a writer who wants to document and share his traumas.

Interestingly, my experience of PTSD has convinced me that the reason we see so few wartime narratives from the 1945 wave of Lithuanian displaced persons is not only because those memories are difficult to handle. They are also slippery, folded into and between fantasies and dreams, imagined episodes, some of them impossible distinguish as one thing or another.

It is easy to blame oneself for being a fool when we’re caught in such a psychic predicament. However, the relationship between memory and imagination is reciprocal, and we depend on our imaginations more than we depend on our memories to write, to create and to do our daily work.

Thursday, July 18th, 7:00 PM at Mint Vinetu Bookstore, Šv Ignoto 16

I’ll be reading selections from Finding the Moon in Sugar. It’s the only American cult novel ever set in Vilnius.

Also reading are Benas Januševičius, who’ll present translations of Linor Goralik’s poetry, and Alex Haberstadt, presenting works of non-fiction.

In celebration of Vilnius’ cultural diversity, this reading will be in English, Russian and Lithuanian. So bring your polyglot friends!

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Summer Literary Seminars, Vilnius

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be participating as a lecturer and faculty in-residence at the SLS (Summer Literary Seminar) this upcoming July and August in Vilnius, Lithuania.

I’m scheduled to give two lectures. While I do not yet know what I will be talking about (the phrase assumes there are times I know what I’m talking about, but whatever), you can bet that I’ll have a curious take on Lithuanian identity, and what an English-speaking writer or artist might have to gain from a visit to one of the most fascinating cities in Europe, a source of tremendous inspiration for me personally. That this seminar is taking place in Vilnius is a testament to the organizers’ wisdom. I can’t think of a better place to discuss the state of contemporary letters; looking over the list of faculty lined up for the SLS, I know participants will be engaged and provoked in ways to rival or surpass any literary seminar. The nightly parties at ŠMC will be beyond what anyone is prepared to handle.

If you stumbled upon this post while searching for a literary seminar to attend, I hope you’ll click on the links and look very seriously at SLS. I have not looked forward to something with this much energy in a very long time.