Luljeta Lleshanaku Wins Prestigious Poetry Prize
New Directions is pleased to announce that Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku has won 2009’s Kristal Vilenice Prize—an award that will not only sustain her already well-established career, but also alter its trajectory onward and upward. She is in august company—previous recipients of the Prize have included Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski, Peter Handke, and Zbigniew Herbert. In awarding her the Prize, the jury summed up its sentiments:
Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poems take place in a melancholy landscape of mountain villages, chestnut trees, and collapsing futures where ‘spring kills solitude with its solitude’ and the only emotional expression not considered a sign of weakness is impatience. The place of her poems is like a zero point that can only look out from itself in all directions at once. But the poet looks inward beyond paradox, and, instead of judgment, she finds recognition. In Lleshanuku’s work, geography and soul are charted on the same map. The rhythms of her new poems are expertly managed to enact vulnerability and withdrawal. Her lines stretch out and suddenly retract into fragments with the sensitivity of snail horns. She doesn’t juxtapose so much as she integrates the peculiar and the familiar. A vernacular sentence can open into an unforeseeable corollary abstraction. The 2009 jury is delighted to present this year’s Kristal Vilenice prize to Luljeta Lleshanuku.
Luljeta Lleshanaku was born in Albania, in 1968, and came of age during the Albanian Cultural Revolution. She was only 22 when the dictatorship collapsed, relaxing the brutal censorship of the previous several decades, and resulting in a flowering of contemporary Albanian culture. As with so many writers, Lleshanaku’s career began in journalism—she was editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Zëri i rinisë (The Voice of Youth). Lleshanaku then took a step towards poetry when she began to work for the literary paper Drita, later becoming a full-time poet. The last decade and a half has been marked by phenomenal success: Lleshanaku has published four volumes of poetry, one of which, Fresco, has been translated into English (by Henry Israeli) and published by New Directions. She has gained as much attention and as many awards and accolades as a minor-language poet can in today’s literary world, including a teaching post at the University of Iowa; her winning the Kristal Vilenice, then, culminates a brilliant period of work.
What distinguishes the poetry of Luljeta Lleshanaku? The critic Peter Constantine speaks of her poetry’s “remarkable variety of themes,” but this belies the simplicity of her works, which sometimes borders on starkness. Take, for example, the first three lines of ‘Irreversible Landscapes,’ available (with some of her newer stuff) online here: “Irreversible is the river / on whose back / dead leaves swirl.” What makes Luljeta’s poetry so daring, and so striking, is her willingness to explore old poetic tropes: there is little novel in writing about rivers and leaves, and the next two lines—“Irreversible are words / the dust of roads”—are also a familiar association. It is the ease and earnestness with which she transitions from one trope to another that are so arresting: by eschewing the abstruseness of modern poetry, Luljeta’s work is conservative yet fresh, and though it shuns irony for sincerity, her verse never falls prey to self-consciousness or self-parody.
Rivers, words, roads: another recurring theme is the connection between purity and artifice, permanence and transience, nature and man. People are characterized as earth—“even when skin comes to moss”—and forces of nature are anthropomorphized—my favorite passage from her oeuvre reads, “Where the wind with its toothless mouth blows / luring in tides…” There is something primal in these lines, as in the best of poetry. Constantine writes, “…one of the elements that distinguishes Luljeta Lleshenaku’s poetry is the absence of direct social and political commentary,” but this absence is a choice of which the reader is always conscious, especially since the poet’s background is in a blood-soaked country where, for decades, poets were not allowed to practice “abstract humanism, anarchism, bourgeois objectivism … patriarchalism, revisionism, or sentimentalism, to name a few.” By declining to mention the Revolution or the dictatorship directly, Luljeta indicates her desire to write poetry that transcends them—the Cultural Revolution comes and goes, but rivers, words, roads are timeless, “irreversible.” She concludes her first poem in Fresco with this pretty stanza, where Israeli’s sensitive translation captures the musicality of the original Albanian: “There is no destiny, only laws of biology; / fish splash in water / pine trees breathe on mountains.”
Though Luljeta surmounts and surpasses the profound difficulties of her country’s past, and its continued struggle in the present, her poetry is still subtly shaped by these circumstances: the same poem that ends with biology, fish, and pine trees begins with “There is no prophecy, only memory / What happens tomorrow / has happened a thousand years ago.” The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past, and Constantine’s introduction adumbrates this essential context for Luljeta’s work: “Poets and novelists,” he writes, “were forced to volunteer to strengthen their ties to the land by working in the fields.” And yet the past, though it determines the present, is something that fades before the immediacy and beauty of now, and now is nothing if not Luljeta’s time.
The Kristal Vilenice, though little known in the Anglophone world, is Eastern Europe’s most prominent prize for poetry. It is unique among awards of its kind for encompassing a broad swath of languages, nationalities, and traditions—from Kundera, writing in Czech, to Handke in German and Zagajewski and Herbert in Polish. Recent recipients have included Valzina Mort, of Belarus, and Kaca Celan, of Serbia. Luljeta is the first Albanian to win the prize. Though the Kristal Vilenice comes with no monetary perk, it is our hope and expectation that its prestige and publicity will enable Luljeta to continuously pursue a long, full, and successful career in poetry. At New Directions we are also very proud to welcome Luljeta into our ‘modern canon’ of published poets, which places her in equally august company—alongside Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and Kenneth Rexroth. Another volume of poetry, translated into English, is forthcoming from New Directions. Congratulations, Luljeta!
More biographical information, as well as links to her poetry (online and in print), is available at the New Directions-maintained Wikipedia article.