Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West recently had this exchange with Triin Paja, our Issue #25 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about falling in love with literature, the importance of attentiveness, and the different perspectives gained from being bilingual.
I love the line in “The Lovers”: “I must attempt to believe in beauty. You must attempt.” Why is the attempt important?
We cannot survive without it. There is much violence and injustice darkening the earth, and one must make a conscious attempt in trying to fall in love with the world each morning.
Another thing that struck me about “The Lovers” is the use of repetition to build on the rhythm of the poem. Do you frequently use repetition, and do you have any thoughts about how and when you use it?
Repetition heightens the poetic experience, and perhaps that’s what I try to achieve. A kind of echo in which the poem may finalize or fade. Pushing further the comfort of the poem.
How did you come to write poetry? Were you raised in a literary household, or is it something that came into your life later?
I wasn’t raised in a literary household. I discovered a passion for language four to five years ago, when I returned from a long journey to Argentina, and found myself home in a new kind of silence, undisturbed by the Internet and media. I felt at peace, but restless, and picked up a book someone had left behind. I fell into that book as if into water. I love how literature can do that. I found myself in libraries soon afterward, finding immense comfort in Dostoyevsky, Vonnegut, Hesse, and other first author crushes, and have been tethered to language since.
I saw in one of your bios online that you “write by fields and riverbeds,” and we very much appreciated the references to the natural world woven throughout your work. Could you talk about the role of nature in your writing?
I often take walks into the forests and fields near my home. It is in that silence, punctured by birds or the wind, where, so often, words begin to swell and show. I have grown up in nature and I cannot see myself parting from it, and thus my poems, too, cannot quite part nature.
That same quote said that you write in cities, and “Käsi” has some amazing urban details. How do you find the inspiration from cities is different from (or similar to) the inspiration from nature?
Käsi reminds me that we must learn to venerate each place—cities, houses, forests—if we wish to learn their hearts, to live there, however temporarily. Poetry teaches us an important and beautiful skill: to be attentive. Regardless of the location, we must be attentive. Poetry has made me more sensitive towards the world. I can rarely go out without looking at the sky, without falling in love with the sky. But it also renders one more vulnerable, and we must know that, in becoming more sensitive, we will find that more of the earth can, and will, break our hearts. But we must continue to walk.
You have an inventive use of form. Two of the poems are in couplets and one is a prose poem, and they all combine certain standard features of sentence structure with more unusual choices, such as lack of capitalization. Could you talk a little about what you were aiming for in making these choices? Were they deliberate choices, or did the poems seem to call for these forms?
I do feel the poems seem to settle into their specific structure as I write them, without a deliberate attempt. Though when I write prose poems, I think of them as letters. When I compose poems in couplets, I think of how they sound, rather than how they read.
Are there other poetic forms besides the ones we see here that are favorites of yours?
I enjoy reading the haiku form, and sonnets, and poems with vivid imagery. I enjoy political poems. I enjoy the focused use of language of the Black Mountain poets. There’s so much!
There’s also a strong use of metaphor in these poems, drawing together very different images but somehow preserving a unity of meaning and mood. This had me wondering whether you tend to start with a meaning in your poems, and then build the metaphor and images on top of it. Or do the images and metaphors come first, and then the meaning emerges from them?
My poems are often an amalgam of several memories, concentrated in one era, place, or person. For the past three years I have written diaries in a kind of poetic language, in which parts of the poems first appear. Later, looking over the entries, they find their way into more formed shapes, into poems. Though sometimes a poem comes without dictation, and it is then the act of writing poetry is the most intense, the most spiritual.
“Doctrine of Hands” ends with the narrator being shown “how to fall in love”, but there already seems to be a very loving quality in the attention paid to details noted throughout the poem. Do you have any practices you use to help you gather details from life for your writing?
I always carry a means for taking notes with me. I believe poetry is everywhere. A woman reading on a beach, a winter apple clinging to a black branch, my own reflection in a window, his hands: poetry. Do not fear to write what touches you, however infinitesimal. I also think we must be kinder to ourselves when we write. To force writing can be a kind of violence. It can leave a wound. So, before writing, I make tea, I look at the sky, I listen to music, I breathe, I take a walk. I use patience as meditation. I do what I can to find the silence in which language will find me, not the other way around. The words come more softly, but they come.
You write in both English and Estonian. Do you find that aspects of either language influence how you write in the other? If so, how do you think this shows up in your writing?
Words in my native tongue, Estonian, have a nostalgic, even bittersweet feel. A more sensitive language, simple, longing, remembering. It speaks to me in the countryside, in poverty, in Soviet ruins, but also in sunlight, children, gardens. English is the language in which I grew as a writer. I’ve lived in that language as if in a city. It is where I have traveled and loved. Estonian is the language in which I remember more, and English is the one in which I choose to verbally express my memories.
And I agree with Lauren Collins who wrote: “Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. (…) But, if first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.” (Lauren Collins, “Love in Translation”, The New Yorker, August 8 and 15, 2016.)
Who are some writers you admire, in either language? Or even in other languages entirely!
Oh, what a question. I turn to these often: Alejandra Pizarnik, Emil Cioran, Carolyn Forché, Edmond Jabès, Cid Corman, Maggie Nelson, Susan Sontag, Anne Carson, Clarice Lispector, Ilmar Laaban (Estonian), Maarja Pärtna (Estonian).
What are you currently working on in your writing, or in life in general?
Training my new feral cat! But also, poems, of course, always more poems.