Interview with Jüri Talvet
by Ayla Zuraw-Friedland
Give us a brief biography.
My childhood and adolescence went by in Pärnu, the town where I was born in the last month of the end year
of WWII. My father was a building engineer and my mother worked as an elementary school teacher – when she
could work, as she had to raise four children, the first of us born in 1940 and the last in 1955. The after-war
life in the Soviet Estonia was anyway hard for most people. After finishing eleven years of school in Pärnu,
I was recruited to the Soviet Army. During three years of my compulsory military service (that I spent for
the most part in Riga) I learned above all my Russian and studied on my own from textbooks German and French.
At the University of Tartu –where I am at present still active as a chair professor of world literature – I
studied English philology. We were taught the history of English literature by Arthur-Robert Hone (1915-1972),
a genuine Englishman whom love had brought to Estonia before the war. Until 1969 he was the only foreigner living
permanently in Tartu – an extraordinary personality, a graduate from Cambridge in Romance philology, with deep
interests in Spanish literature and culture, but also in Chinese language and philosophy and musical history.
Before my student years I already had a pen-friend in Barcelona, but we wrote in Esperanto, because I did not
know Spanish. As Spanish was not in our university’s curriculum, I started to learn it on my own from my second
student year. I was encouraged and inspired by Hone but also by Ain Kaalep (b. in 1926), a major Estonian
intellectual and writer as well as a forefront translator of poetry from Spanish. At the same time I started to
exchange letters, now in Spanish, with Antonio García-Barbón, a young medical doctor from Asturias. He sent me the
first books of Spanish literature I ever had at home – some by Antonio Machado, Gustavo-Adolfo Bécquer, Pablo Neruda…
These had a special spell on me, especially because very few works of Spanish literature were translated or available
in Estonia in those times. In 1970 my first traslation – a short story of the Spanish romantic writer P. A. de Alarcón -
was published on the cultural pages of the Estonian main newspaper, Edasi. Since then I collaborated increasingly with
Ain Kaalep in translating Spanish and Latin-American literature. After graduating from the university, I was employed as
a lecturer of Western literary history. In parallel I began to work on my doctoral dissertation, which I defended at
Leningrad (St. Petersburg) university in 1981. The same year my wife Margit gave us our first child, Laura, and my
first poetry book, Äratused (Awakenings) was published. Not long before that, I had the chance to spend eight month
in Cuba on a research scholarship, with the main task of finishing my doctoral thesis.
To resume briefly the rest of the story, there are three children in the family – besides Laura, Pent (31) and
Marta-Liisa (16). I have lived since my student years always in Tartu, working ever at the same university. Besides
teaching world literature, I founded and have headed since 1992 a program of Spanish studies. I have published
nine books of poetry in Estonian, several books of essays and collections of articles. I have made quite a few
translations, especially from Spanish, but also from English, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian. I have been editing
since 1996 Interlitteraria, an international journal of comparative literary research. I have travelled a lot
both in the academic and the poetical line. I have had a long and highly fruitful creative friendship with the
Spanish-Catalan Albert Lázaro-Tinaut and the American professor and poet-philosopher Harvey L. Hix – the main
co-authors of my translated poetry books published in Spanish and English since 2002.
Where is your favorite place to write? Where do you gather the most inspiration for your poetry?
I have sketched poems on board of airplanes and at cafés, but for the most part I have hatched them in
solitude. For instance, I wrote my first longer poem, "21st Baltic Elegy," while staying in autumn 1992
as a guest at the Oslo home of Arne Melberg, a Swedish literary scholar and his Estonian-born wife Enel.
Just on my way to Norway I knew about the passing away of Ivar Ivask, the Estonian exile poet and scholar,
formerly the main editor at Oklahoma university of the journal World Literature Today / Books Abroad.
Ivar’s poetical work includes a cycle of twenty poems titled "Baltic Elegies." So at early morning hours
in Arne Melberg’s tiny study where I slept I wrote my poem – a farewell homage to the late friend (and in
many ways, my forerunner, because Ivar had established a specially cordial relationship with some Spanish
and Latin-American poets – Jorge Guillén, Octavio Paz). On the contrary, I wrote my longest ever published
poem, the 200-line "Estonian Elegy" at home here in Tartu, under the immediate impact of the drowning on
the Baltic Sea in a stormy autumn night at the end of September 1994 of the ferry-ship "Estonia." In that
tragedy nearly 900 people perished. My intention was not to describe it – it would have been impossible. It
served me a point of departure for a meditation about Estonia as a country and a nation, its history,
culture and fate.
Have those inspirations changed over time as you have done more and more writing?
Naturally, concrete images have come from many different sources, both intimate and social, from daily and
nightly dreams. However, as far as my experience goes, love in its different manifestations has always been
the depth and the nucleus of inspiration for most poets since the times we have memory from. I am not an
exception. In my poetry it can be love for my parents and progenitors, for a woman, for children, but also
for my people as well as for others, especially those who have unjustly suffered in the history. Or in a
still broader sense, love for nature, for the god-mother from whose womb we all have come.
How does writing in Estonian differ from writing in English?
I frankly envy people capable of writing equally well in two or more languages. For me it is clear
that I can write poetry (of some worth) only in my mother language, Estonian. Writing essays directly
in English is possible in my case, but even then a native English writer should go through my text and
provide final touches. I am deeply thankful to my friend Harvey who has never refused either to revise my
essays or adapt my own base translations of poems.
[Where do the Spanish elements of your writing come from?]
[I will skip this question, as I already write about it in my life story above.]
You reference a lot of other writers and intellectuals in your work. Who are your favorite authors to read?
There are many writers whose work I sincerely admire. I have been lucky enough to translate into Estonian
some of them: Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Baltasar Gracián, Gabriel García Márquez, Francisco de Quevedo.
On the whole, I can say that I always have translated those writers who in some aspect have been important
Among those whose work I have not translated but whose genius I admit without any reserve, I would mention
Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca.
Over the last years I have intensely dealt with the work of Juhan Liiv (1864-1913). For me, he is the
greatest Estonian poet of all times and one of the most original European poetic voices. Once again
collaborating with Harvey, we have recently made selections of Liiv's work available in English – first,
in Meel paremat ei kannata. The Mind Woud Bear No Better (Tartu: Tartu University Press, 2007). Last year
an enlarged selection, Snow Drifts, I Sing (Toronto: Guernica, 2013), came out.
In my monograph on Liiv's poetry, Juhan Liivi luule (Tallinn, 2012) I try to show that Liiv was not only
a highly original poet, but also a sovereign existentialist and anti-anthropocentric thinker. In that latter
sense, he followed the path laid by the great French Renaissance essay writer and thinker Michel de Montaigne.
My newest essay book has its title Ten Letters to Montaigne. "Self” and “Other." I wrote its main part directly
in English, while staying at Rhodes Writers and Translator Center at the end of 2011. I am looking forward to
it publication during this fall in Tartu, in Estonian, and next year, by Cervena Barva, in English.
You were selected to participate in the writing of The European Constitution in Verse in 2009.
What was it like to work with so many other European poets?
It was a special project, half-humorous and half-serious. No doubt, a noble enterprise, as it also alluded
critically at the darker side of the European history, as well emphasized the need to look for the European
unity beyond merely economic and political interests. It was a great emotive moment to be with other poets
representing all countries of the Old Continent on the stage of a major Cultural Center in Brussels,
everybody reading a poem in one’s native language, while a choir sang “European Hymn” tuned to Beethoven’s
"Ode an die Freude," comprising the word “bread” in all European languages... The main composers of the
Constitution were the Belgian poets David van Reybrouck and Peter Vermeersch. They asked everybody to
send them four or five new unpublished poems, of which they used some in their original full form, while
picking up and melting parts and lines from others, to form larger collective poems...
[Where is your favorite place to write? Where do you gather the most inspiration for your poetry?
I will skip also this question, as I have already said something.
What are you working on now? How does it compare to some of your past work?
This year a major anthology of my poetic work in Estonian was
published: Eesti eleegia ja teisi luuletusi 1981-2012 (Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2014).
With its approximately 400 poems it in a way sums up my poetic search along more
than thirty years. At its presentation Janika Kronberg, a critic and friend well aware
of my first two poetry books in Estonian (of which nothing has been published in English translation
so far) could not hide his surprise having discovered affinities between the beginning of my poetry
and its most recent cycle. So, every end is a beginning anyway...
My most recent effort has been to prepare – once again, in a fruitful collaboration with Harvey – a
third selection of my poetry in English. Its title is Yet, Love, Illumine Us.
Tartu, June 30, 2014