Just about a year ago, Jüri Kolk, Jan Kaus, Karl Martin Sinijärv, and I were reading our own works and a pinch of others’ to a nearly full house of listeners and observers in the large community center of the small town of Türi. We took turns speaking, and when Jüri Kolk was up, he announced that he would now read a poem that always makes him cry.

Jüri read, he read well, better than ever before, and by the finale, unmistakable tears were running down his childishly rounded cheeks. I was sitting next to him and was the closest witness, as a result of which I can confirm with absolute certainty that it was not an act or a performance – Kolk was being genuine, honest, and natural to the core. Such are his works, likewise – genuine, honest and natural (although readers can try deluding themselves that the wishes to deceive them – and the wish to be deceived is often what motivates us to read books). With Kolk, we cannot be deceived – not in life or in his works; and anyone who feels deceived by way of this disappoints me.


20 + n jobs

I asked Jüri Kolk (b 1972) for his official CV, but he hasn’t sent it to me in its most correct and exhaustive form. He had something better. Jüri sent me an inadequate summary of his professional life with added remarks, ending with the sentence: “Kaupo, I recently tallied up that I’ve held over 20 jobs.”

So, what have these jobs been? Warehouse worker, logistics director, purchasing director, export specialist at a brewery, and director of a vehicular transport service. His experience includes being promoted to department-head of a bakery, and in 2005, his colleagues voted him “Employee of the Year” of the Reola company’s production unit. Preceding these jobs was a degree in Estonian philology from the University of Tartu, and scattered amid them were a couple of positions in the humanitarian sector – at a translation bureau and as a magazine editor. These latter occupations would naturally be expected of a writer, although they have tended to remain mere episodes for Kolk.

“I have over 15 years’ experience resolving practical and logistical tasks. I’ve worked in the fields of logistics and purchasing in both the foods industry and the electronics industry, and dare to claim that I’ve handled these tasks wonderfully. I’ve been given in-company promotions several times,” Kolk himself summarized, beaming with pride that is entirely justified.

However, the most interesting aspect of Kolk’s professional past is that a few years ago, he made the conscious decision to step a few rungs downward on the job-ladder, crafting himself a backwards career. The reason was simple: he needed more time for writing. He does 12-hour shifts, which gives him more free days, even though his workdays are that much more draining. It’s possible that this schedule will turn out to be unsustainable and Kolk will end up at an office-job with more regular hours, but at least he will have tried to see how to manage coupling a day-job with writing-work, which is unfortunately possible for very few.

As an upstanding member of society, his CV’s present-day positions are a shift manager for beer- and soft-drink company A. Le Coq (since 2014), and a freelance writer. Kolk’s superiors and colleagues can adequately assess his performance as a logistics- or shift-manager; literary critics aren’t allowed to go poking around those areas. Luckily, one can reckon from a distance that since shops are still fully stocked with beer and soft drinks, Kolk must be doing very good work, and the very same can be said about his literary activities.


8 + n books

With writers, you can never avoid the trivial questions: Why did you choose the thorny writer’s path? How and why did you become a writer? Jüri Kolk has three answers for me:

Answer number 1: “Once, when I was just a kid, I discovered in myself the early conviction that I would become a writer. Not that I wanted to, but that I would.”

Answer number 2: “After a break, I started writing again in 2007.”

Answer number 3: “At one point, acquaintances started introducing me to others as a writer.”

Jüri Kolk’s debut, the poetry collection Barbar Conan peeglitagusel maal (ja mis ta seal rääkis (Conan the Barbarian in the Land Behind the Mirror (and What He Said There)), was published in 2009 (i.e. a couple of years after the end of his writing break), and by then, he was certainly already being introduced as a writer. You can’t say that Kolk took the literary world by storm with his first work. It was a good debut, but nothing momentous or world-changing. Of course, no one (except, perhaps, the author himself) knew at the time that it would be followed shortly by poetry collections – a couple of intervening years at first, and far smaller intervals later – as well as by books of prose.

Taken as a whole, Kolk’s works, which are often playful and based on free associations, radiate a sense of determined work-ethic. The number of his texts in print and on social media is increasing steadily and consistently. Rivers and streams are steadily flowing into to the sea that is Kolk’s writing – some straight, some winding.

When I was reviewing Kolk’s third poetry collection titled Seitse surmavoorust (The Seven Virtues of Death), I remarked that “quantity may not be sufficient proof of quality, but in Kolk’s case, one gradually transitions into the other and you can tell that the man greatly knows what he wants, even though he obviously wants much.” Now, three years and five Kolk books later, I can state with a sense of relief that I was right.

Might the best verification of Kolk’s quality (for which quantity might, though not necessarily, be a gauge) be the fact that as of today, he has received three prestigious Estonian literary awards – the 2015 Juhan Liivi Award for Poetry (“Arno apooria” (Arno’s aporia)), the 2016 Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award (Sünnimärk (Birthmark)), and the 2016 Gustav Suits Award for Poetry (Mee lakkumine pole meelakkumine (Licking Honey Isn’t Honey-Licking))?

Why not? It’s entirely possible. Especially given the roundabout path, by which the awards came; as if juries have just now noticed Kolk’s works, or else judges believe he reached a high artistic level only over the last couple of years. Thus, the principle that work and tenacity will lead you to your goal seems to be true in Kolk’s case; but even so, purely as a reader focused on his writing, the awards are not of greatest importance.

Kolk himself says he hasn’t given all that much thought to the awards, although he’s naturally glad to have received them – and they’re certainly boast-worthy. He is no incredible aesthete devoid of lowbrow cravings, and would undoubtedly like a state-sponsored writer’s salary or a Hollywood film contract; however, above all, he hopes to one day not have to have a job and be able to live off of his writing. “And, well, I can tell a little, maybe incorrectly, the kinds of tricks that would help make my writing please juries, but even so, I don’t use them. It might sound haughty, but I truly don’t. I’d rather sell my body because for me, literature is important as a hobby; as a love,” he says.

And so, creation and loving what you create is most important, all the same. That’s what I thought.


100 + n realities

Kolk asserts that he writes for likeminded people and adds that above all, he simply writes texts without concentrating on doing it for an audience. He certainly admits that this is partly a mistake, but at least makes sure that references don’t stay hidden in his head.

Yes, those references. Both Kolk’s poetry and his prose are brimming with them. In spite of its style, his poetry can be termed “essayistic storytelling”, and when someone tells a story, digressions and quotes inevitably creep into it. The teller doesn’t bother to explain their backgrounds, because he or she assumes that those hearing or reading will understand without explanation.

Thus, in Kolk’s works, we encounter quotes from films, books, proverbs, figures of speech, and lyrics – some correct, while others are witty adaptations. Kolk has employed adaptation as a method greatly in his poetry, breathing new life into earlier works such as Sergei Yesenin’s poem “Letter to My Mother” and Pink Floyd’s song “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”.

If Kolk’s works are to be translated, then a significant portion of the text will likely be untranslatable because much of the wordplay cannot be satisfactorily conveyed in another language. His phrasing is actually simple and fluent, but in order for someone from another cultural realm to comprehend everything, that reader must be supplied with explanations. Yet, what of other cultural realms – I’m afraid not even all Estonians can understand all of Kolk, although he doesn’t rest heavily on elitism, either. If he faces the choice of whether to reference Immanuel Kant or an Estonian children’s song, he will (unconsciously) choose the latter; however, it’s not impossible that Kant will be the one singing in Kolk’s story, and will be doing so in some grocery store on the outskirts of Tartu.

A fitting example of Kolk’s referencing, adaptation, and the entire translation-and-explanation issue are two lines from his collection Igapidi üks õnn ja rõõm (All Around is Joy and Bliss), Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, Tallinn 2016). Kolk writes: “social pressure grows high on St. John’s Day / you’re to find a fern blossom, drink and catch a flaxen-haired girl” (p 30).

The Estonian-language lines are as straightforward as can be. Firstly, St. John’s Day (Jaanipäev) is one of Estonians’ most important holidays – after midnight on 24 June, the shortest and lightest day of the year. Secondly, the lyrics of one popular Estonian song are “grass grows high on St. John’s Day” (“jaanipäeval kõrgeks kasvab rohi”), and another popular Estonian St. John’s Day song claims you “sure can’t catch a flaxen-haired girl” (“linalakk neidu küll püüda ei saa”). Thirdly, ferns do not blossom (searching for their blossoms are, however, a traditional Estonian St. John’s Day custom); and fourthly, as a consequence of social pressure, Estonians do indeed drink a whole forestful of alcohol in celebration of the holiday.

Oh, carrying on like this, we can naturally suck the life out of Kolk’s works through explanation, but life is the exact subject, about which he consistently writes (and in every form). In poetry, he mainly registers life; in short prose, he illustrates and sometimes also elucidates it. Kolk’s shift from poetry to prose came very naturally, and his experience as a poet is strongly perceptible in his prosaic style – his thoughts flow freely, his manner of storytelling is concentrated, and his stories frequently end the same way as his poems – with a single-sentence resolution.

Kolk takes his readers to ordinary, even emphatically uninteresting places – to parks, shops, literary evenings, and jogging trails. Sometimes, the narrator wants to beat someone up; sometimes, someone wants to beat him up. And in the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood in Kolk’s short prose collection Suur võidujooks (The Great Race, Tuum, Tallinn 2015), the protagonist actually encounters Zeus, who ultimately transforms himself into a swan, whom Little Red Riding Hood feeds a cake, and who, in the end, dies because of it.

The constant interweaving of reality and magic (or anti-reality) surfaces throughout Kolk’s works, and before long, it’s impossible for the reader to figure out what is happening for real and what is not. Is there anything unreal about someone actually going to talk to a wall? There conceptually could be, but when Kolk writes about it, there’s not. He firstly writes reality into anti-reality, then back into reality, and although it may sound pretentious, it’s very easy for the reader to keep up.

If one were to state something defining about Jüri Kolk, then it could be that he is a tucked-away secret of Estonian literature; a depth just below the surface, the discovery of which even his compatriots must make a little more effort to do.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that more and more people will arrive at Jüri Kolk’s works, finding to their own delight the extent, to which it’s possible to nudge the world into place by writing simply and understandably. Further opportunities for this will reveal themselves before long, because Jüri is partway through a novel, has a number of ideas for novellas on hold, is composing a book of short stories, and has furthermore started writing different kinds of poems; ones, which he says are “moderately un-Kolkish”.

In a poem published in Kolk’s latest poetry collection Igapidi üks õnn ja rõõm, the narrator asks a busload of glum-faced factory workers: “You haven’t happened to see my immortal soul, have you?” It’s a good question, which we could also ask others on occasion – Jüri Kolk, for example.

Kaupo Meiel (1975) is a poet, journalist, and consultant for Estonia’s only literature-themed TV show, “Kirjandusministeerium”. He has published four collections of poetry. Meiel’s works are characterized by humor, social nerve, and witty wordplay.

tagged in Jüri Kolk