Carolina Pihelgas’s books usually appear quietly, without fuss or commotion, at moderate intervals, and blossom into thrilling experiences that deepen with every new reading. Lastingly. Pihelgas’s poems are multidimensional and reflect personal encounters, spaces, and flashes of memory. It’s easy to relate to the images they conjure; to the touching scenes. She has so far published six poetry collections, the latest of which – Valgus kivi sees (The Light Within the Stone, 2019) – received this year’s Award for Poetry from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

Your poetry collections create a collective image; they possess a strong common thread, at least for me. How do you feel? Do your works possess binding links in addition to their independent wholes?

Every book is an independent whole, but they are also traversed by certain recurring keywords. I try to arrive at a new focus with every collection – thematically, linguistically, sensorially – though that new course may also be faintly perceived in each preceding work. They’re not sharp twists, for the most part, but smooth transitions. You might say that the two most lasting cores of my poetry are body and memory. The body as a human expression of existence – sensory, but still mysterious. And then memory as a broad space of perception that connects to personal universality, cultural memory, and the memory of species. These two cores are joined in turn by myth, which always leads you back to the beginning, to birth, to human nature through patterns and repetitions.

            For me, some of the most powerful examples of corporality in poetry are the works of Alejandra Pizarnik – her dark, dense poems, which probe the peripheries of being, the person, and their shadow. My poetry also has quite a lot of nocturnal states of mind – one of my book titles is Details of Darkness. I relish the way in which dim light melts boundaries; how night is dark like intestines, and one can only guess at what it is capable of doing.

Recollections, memories, that which has been – all play a special part in your poems. Your poetry isn’t merely an attempt to capture a moment, but is ever intertwining with the past. Why is that? Does writing help you better understand what came before now? Or is it driven by an effort to record something fleeting?

Writing definitely helps understand things better. It is a tool for observing and interpreting, just like any creative activity. What is the present, anyway? An instant instantaneously becomes the past. I’ve always been more interested in digging into the labyrinthian archives of memory than running around with a butterfly net. I am, of course, amazed by those who are able to sketch a future and create parallel worlds – one of my favorite authors when I was young was Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance.

            The Light Within the Stone is a book about the possibility of remembering, but it is just as much about the possibility of forgetting. It’s about landscapes and places that may have been physically destroyed or transformed beyond recognition, but which nevertheless persist in the space we call memory. Poetry is tightly bound to silence – sometimes, the most important parts of it are pauses and gaps – and it’s the same with memory. I’d like to ask: what is it that I don’t remember? How can I fill my existence with the emptiness that surpasses language; which might sharpen my words and syllables? Writing certainly has its share of drive to record; of pleasure in and a thirst for language. Sometimes, language itself will guide you in the right direction; language should be trusted.

In addition to writing, you translate and have also studied the anthropology of religion. How do these different facets make contact within you? I’m particularly intrigued by your ideological persuasion, if that’s not too personal of a question. I feel that your poems radiate a certain animism. That which surrounds you is not simply a collection of things. Human lives and emotions have been stored within them. The line between animate and inanimate is, at some points, diaphanous. And you also take note of the nature around you, which is in no way self-evident.

Often, I wish I could break out of the anthropocentric model. I certainly harbor an intimacy with the animist worldview and, for me, nature isn’t just an environment that happens to surround us. The sacredness of springs, trees, and stones in traditional Estonian beliefs intuitively echoes with me somehow. Stones are a recurring inanimate object in my writing – great, unmoving, and ancient, yet still alive; there is an unfathomable substance to their existence. Among other subjects, I’ve been intrigued by object-oriented ontology – by the idea that things inherently exist, independently of humans and their senses; that their existence is not defined by human knowledge. It’s possible that things possess their own unique perception. Yet this is something we cannot know, because it’s impossible in principle to ever fully comprehend the substance of any one thing. From here, we can go right back to the question of memory, because memories are closely tied to spaces and things, and things record memories within them. Bergson has questioned whether our memories lie within or outside of us. If we possess inside of ourselves mere traces through which we access memories, then couldn’t it be possible that the memories themselves are outside of us? In the material world? In things? I’ve felt, however, that the best way to access the world of memories is through language – poetry probes boundaries that are simultaneously internal and external, which is to say, central.

            I find translating and writing to be rather closely tied. I translate poems, for the most part, and since commissioned poetry translations come rarely, I work primarily on authors who mean something to me in one way or another; authors who inspire, and whose writing I want to share. I’ve translated poetry by classics like Neruda and Cavafy, Norwegian poetry by the great Tor Ulven, but also contemporary authors, of course; currently, I’m translating Sylvia Plath and Sappho. Translating is true intensive reading – it requires total absorption and coalescence to phrase writing in a new language in a way that is essentially the same, but also a little different every time. As Borges said, the original never remains faithful to the translation. Translation involves intense attention to language, which is especially important during the times when I’m not writing all that much myself.

You are this year’s Tartu City Writer Laureate, which is still quite a novel title in local Estonian culture. What new doors has the role opened for you, and how can an author foster urban life? Doesn’t carrying out your official duties restrict your literary freedom and time?

There are no specific assignments for the city writer laureate – there is only the hazy horizon of expectations. The way I’ve interpreted this is by being present in the city; by living and working there, but also accentuating that presence with performances and public appearances. Most events were cancelled this spring because of the pandemic; some were moved online, but only a few. It was certainly a shame to miss them, but breaks like those can be positive, too – it allowed me more time to write, in any case.

Carolina Pihelgas. Photo by Ruudu Rahumaru

            The relationship between a writer and a city has a reciprocal effect, and that feeling is amplified even further as a city writer laureate: on the one hand, the city provides my writing with scenery and ambiance – a metaphor or fragment of poetry often stems from something I see or perceive in that space; yet on the other hand, I myself am a part of that city. When the streets emptied and people withdrew into their homes this spring, I sought out an opportunity to intervene in the urban space in a literary way. And although the idea to install audio-poetry dispensers around the city was postponed, poetry graffiti was still stenciled onto sidewalks this summer.

You’ve been involved with the alternative literary magazine Värske Rõhk for several years. One could say that the magazine has played a defining role in discovering new writers and delivering them to a wider audience. What, in your opinion, is the current state of fresh and youthful poetry? Is the complaint that today’s youth have nothing to say simply the eternal clash between old and new, or do you feel that the world is different than it was before?

The notion that it’s possible to say anything completely new is an illusion. Yes, language changes, the world changes, and the way we perceive the world changes as well, but are humans really all that different in nature? We’re still shadowed by fancies, fears, emotions, and aspirations. We can read Sappho and identify with her yearning and rage when she says that love is a “sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in”. What fascinates me about literature above all is how vividly and precisely something can be said, how deeply the author manages to delve – “novelty” is secondary, though there is always something astonishingly new in every unique voice. I’m always fascinated when someone does find a new and unexpected perspective or way of wording something. I think that among the younger generation, there are very many exciting and important new poets with a deft style and broad scope who have stood out recently. You could say, rather, that there are very few young novelists in Estonia; especially young female novelists. Perhaps the complaint that literature (or youth, or what have you) is doomed is simply a byproduct of apathy? I suppose literature does wear me out from time to time too, which is always a good point to focus on something else for a while. 

Should the role of literature change, given the current state of the world? Lately, many literary visionaries have remarked that writing’s one and only role is to heal; that in these conditions, it’s no longer possible to make art for art’s sake. Something like the role set out for the avant-garde literary movements of the early 20th century, which addressed the surrounding chaos forcefully. What do you think that relationship between the personal and the broad, purely aesthetic, and healing could be?

The role of literature has always been to heal, among other things. High-quality literature is multidimensional and multilayered, and offers an individual and social perspective simultaneously. Ene Mihkelson’s Ahasveeruse uni (The Sleep of Ahasuerus), in which the reader accompanies the protagonist on a nightmarish journey to discover the truth about how the character’s partisan father was killed, is not just a novel about the “singularity of the way an individual perceives the world”, but also explores the Soviet regime’s brutal systemic manipulation of memory and history, which left a painful mark on everyone who lived under the occupation. László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango speaks not only about the oppressive atmosphere in communist Hungary, but, as the author himself has commented, is “about the world at a deeper level”. But, just as not every medicine is meant to treat all illnesses, so might the power of literary therapy greatly depend on what ails the reader. The climate crisis isn’t especially pronounced in Estonian literature, but this might be partly because it’s such a complex issue – a ‘hyperobject’, to use Timothy Morton’s term. What does acutely concern Estonians right now, however, is the state-sponsored ravaging and destruction of its forests, which Hasso Krull has described in his poem “The Woods”.[1]

            The avant-garde literary movements of the early 20th century were extremely aesthetic, and surrealists arrived at a new language, which they used to interpret the great and terrible experiences of that era. The way that we interpret these new crises, new wars, and the wave of mass extinction still needs to be explored. As we do, focus should certainly be turned towards authors from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and especially towards female voices.

How about the usual question about your future plans? What projects are you working on and what can your fan club expect to come?

This autumn, I’ll be publishing a collection titled Tuul polnud enam kellegi vastu (The Wind Was No Longer Against Anyone), which includes poems from the period 2006–2020. Hasso Krull compiled the selection and penned an afterword. In addition to poems already published in other collections, there are some which appeared in magazines and even a few unpublished ones. As for translations, the Loomingu Raamatukogu series will be publishing my Estonian translation of Deaf Republic by one of the most notable contemporary American poets, Ilya Kaminsky.

Siim Lill is an autonomous expert.

[1] A video of Krull reading the poem with English subtitles can be viewed at: