Mikhail Iossel is a Diaghilev-like impresario of creative writing who runs workshops in Russia, Africa and Italy. He is also a Russian expatriate, Concordia University creative writing director, and a writer in his own right. It's all pretty impressive, but when he approached me and the Humber School for Writers to run a creative writing workshop in Vilnius, Lithuania, I thought it was a long shot.
"Who will want to go there?" I asked.
"Jews, Poles, Lithuanians - just about everyone who knows anything about it, and the rest will come to find out what they don't know. It's the new Prague."
But why do a writing workshop so far away, I wondered.
"I love to share a new city with writer friends," Iossel said. "And besides, the jarring displacement is exhilarating, good for creativity."
Iossel was very convincing, so much so that he brought the Humber School for Writers on board for this journey, as well as American and Canadian writers as teachers, and 54 Canadian and American creative writing students. As a group, they were a cross between James Joyce in Trieste and the Shriners descending on a new town.
Vilnius is a baroque city, its church spires overlapping one another in the many photographic studies of the old town. But it is a city of layers as well: It was once the Jerusalem of the North, an important centre of Jewish learning before the Holocaust destroyed that culture and most of its Jews. Vilnius was also a Polish city, the lifelong inspiration of the poet and Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz. The Lithuanians themselves have only become dominant in this city since the Second World War, although it was the ancient capital of Lithuania.
Some of the students opted for the Jewish Vilnius program, run by Dovid Katz, a linguistics professor who founded and ran Yiddish studies for years in Oxford. Katz has the long hair and beard of a rabbi, and the grin of a standup comic. It's impossible to eat with him at the table because the Brooklyn-born scholar spews jokes so fast a listener is in danger of choking on his food while gagging at his puns.
Prominent American non-fiction writer Philip Lopate was an intrepid traveller gone mad with research: Within three days, he knew more about the city than I did. Poet Erin Mouré (East European heritage) and American/Israeli poet Peter Cole drove off one day in search of his Litvak roots.
The real local experts were the expatriates, the ones who came here for reasons of heritage or for no particular reason at all, and found the place a congenial centre to stay. Kerry Keys grew up in the Appalachians, but he can give a tour of Vilnius bars unparalleled by anyone. Laima Vince and Darius Ross came to visit, and have stayed for many years.
How did all of this translate into the classroom? With my 14 students, I tried to focus on self-editing, a monk-like attention to details in the sentences and paragraphs. In effect, we were polishing the silver while the city roared outside our baroque schoolhouse and a mixture of history and literature roared through the work on the table.
Marion was writing a novel about the seizure of Memel by the Germans in 1939 and the subsequent imprisonment of her relatives in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The context was slightly confusing to most of the class, so I gave a brief history. Dawn mentioned, but did not write about, her visit to the town of Kupiskes, where 881 Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Some things took time to sink in. After the workshop was over, she sent me a beautifully wrought piece about visiting a scrap of her past.
At least a small part of the workshop had to do with familiarizing the students with Lithuanian literature. The local Lithuanian writers talked about how important theatre was as a scene of protest against the postwar Soviet regime. In those heroic days, when writers rose up to join the burgeoning protest movement that would break up the Soviet Union, books of poetry sold in runs of 10,000 and 15,000.
The Lithuania writing workshop was just like life, but more so. It was intense and heady, a literary conversation that sparked into various small fires and occasionally blazed into animated discussions or readings.
Vilnius is a small city, with the core traversed easily in half an hour. Teachers, students, and guest lecturers kept bumping into one another - it felt as if the whole city was dedicated to writing, as if we had gone back in time to the era of coffee houses populated hacks and geniuses, all toiling away with their ink-stained fingers.
If the battle for the study of creative writing has been fought and won in the English-speaking countries of the world, where hundreds of programs now exist, the phenomenon is still pretty much unknown in Lithuania and the rest of the continent. My repeated attempt to explain the session clarified the concept in my own mind: A writing workshop is a community creating a world of letters; it is to literature what architecture is to building, a place to hash out ideas and some of the details before setting out to finish the structure oneself.
Why do this thing in Vilnius? Because the city is a very complicated place on a very small piece of land, filled with people and visitors as complicated in themselves as the confusing, winding streets in which I always got lost but where sometimes, if I was lucky, I turned a corner to find one of those church spires standing out brightly in its golden ornamentation against the dark background of a troubled sky.
Antanas Sileika is the artistic director of the Humber School for Writers. His most recent novel is Woman in Bronze.