Poems with Crumpled Corners

by | Nov 11, 2018 | IBBYLink Autumn 2017

Santa Remere

Named after an onomatopoetic poem by Latvian poet Jānis Baltvilks, the little Bikibuki or Bicki-Buck Books are so popular among the reading families of Latvia that ‘bicki- bucks’ has become almost a generic Latvian name to refer to a special kind of palm-sized poetry book for children that contain only one poem.

Under a project run by the publishing house Liels un Mazs, 100 such books are to be published by the centenary of Latvia’s independence in 2018. The books appear to have changed the artistic quality criteria for Latvian children’s publishing to the point that the Latvian Section of IBBY is considering adding a new category to the Children’s Literature and Book Art competition: Bicki-Buck Book of the Year. The 24 booklets released every year thus far have been illustrated by diverse Latvian contemporary artists, and they all have been serious candidates for the Book Arts nomination or even the main prize. What is the secret of Bicki-Buck Books: thin, palm-sized, poetry books decorated with a curious roe deer that contains only one poem, stretched over 10 to 12-page spreads? What has made them so popular among young readers and appreciated by the critics?

The idea of ‘painting old poems in new colours’ came to artist Rūta Briede six years ago while she was reading her own favourite childhood poetry books to her little daughter. She regretted seeing her beloved poems presented without much attention to the illustration; after all, the visual perception of the world is crucial during the first years of a child’s development. Arranged in thick volumes with numbered pages, the poems seem inaccessible to young children who cannot read independently. The adult can read the poem to the child, which can be a wonderfully imaginative audial experience, but interaction between the child and the physical carrier of the poetry – the book – is lacking. When a poem is hidden in the book’s uniform pages, it is more difficult to find it and to ask the parent for it; it is impossible to read it at your own pace, lingering on your favourite lines as many times as it takes before the poem gets absorbed with all its meaning and sound, which is basically how we, the adults, read and perceive poetry. Nobody would deny that children’s poems are a perfect way to learn words through playful sounds along with new world experiences, stunning ideas, memories, associations and cultural values. But it is so easy for parents to lose their motivation for a joint poetry reading when the listener is not eager for it, which is especially true for old, long-standing poems.

A determined mother and talented illustrator, Rūta Briede decided to resolve the situation by launching a different poetry reading experience for children: slow, attentive, visual, tangible, reflective and interactive. One hundred Latvian poems written in the last 100 years by some 60 different poets were selected in collaboration with the Liels un Mazs team, then presented to 98 contemporary Latvian artists – illustrators, animators, sculptors, stage designers, textile designers, graphic artists, renowned painters, poetic landscapists, rebel street artists, experimenters, etc. As a result, a set of six books of illustrated poems – a joint efforts between poets and artists – has been made available to young Latvian readers each quarter since 2012. They can be purchased in packs, or the readers can pick their favourites, collect, exchange and sort them according to their taste, and they can also attend Bicki-Buck Book release parties and readings.

Bicki-Buck Books have become items of fashion and culture in Latvia. They range from childishly colourful to very serious and modest, and from lyrical and stylish to grotesquely scary. When the poems materialise in page-layered rectangles, their striking diversity suddenly becomes very apparent – they have literally each got their individual colour, which has sometimes slipped past us or has changed along with the context.

The Bicki-Buck Books are not united by an overriding theme, era or style; sometimes the only common element in a set is their 14.5 × 10.5 cm format and the fact that an entire page is allotted to each line of poetry – just enough space to let the line be pondered and interpreted. Each poem comes coupled with an illustrator’s interpretation, but there is also the reader’s and the listener’s version to be added. That makes no less than four interpretations of the meaning! These are not always contradictory, but they inevitably remind one that poetry has more than just one way of being approached. And your own answers to the riddle matter in making the poem happen.

Illustration by Dārta Stafecka.
The illustrators for Bicki-Buck Books have seriously studied and analysed the poetic material, to transmit not only the sense and information of the poem, but also its rhythm and pace.

For example, in painting the cloudy poem ‘The Chimneys’ by Aivars Neibarts (‘Skursteni’, Bicki-Buck Book #048), artist Zane Oborenko put the spaces between the lines in a way that makes the reader take a breath in the wrong places, creating the effect of a rush of excitement or climbing. Perhaps an actor or may be the poet himself would pronounce it with such a gasping breath, but in this case, we are exposed to the illustrator’s declamation, i.e. the accents and pauses are chosen by her. It is interesting that two other artists also used the motives of a shifting wind and breath-taking heights to illustrate poems by this same author (#017 and #060), which suggests that the breath-taking lightness is probably inherent in the author’s expression, irrespective of the story being told.

Illustration by Reinis Pētersons.
Many illustrators try to find a visual equivalent to rhetorical elements – repetition, metaphors and hyperbole – and some try to imitate the rhymes and metre using graphical symmetry. Or, on the contrary, a canonical rhythmic poem is given an abstract, non-linear visual appearance that highlights its universal message. In some cases, the illustrator’s interpretation reveals quite another idea, which is nevertheless rooted in the text of the poem. For example, the cheerful and catchy poem by Arvīds Grigulis ‘The First Line’ (‘Pirmā svītriņa’ #046) about the trouble with the whimsical line in a calligraphy lesson, loses its didactic tone when illustrated by Ieva Maurīte, who is the master of uninterrupted line in Latvian art. She paints ‘with the first stroke’ and leaves her lines in their initial shape. As opposed to the uniform standards of Soviet calligraphy lessons, the artist emphasises the importance of individualism in the act of creation; however, similarly to the poet, she recognises the importance of improving throughout life.
Illustration by Ella Mežule.
In a different example, Jāzeps Osmanis’ sententious poem about the importance of cleanliness ‘The Riddle of the Rain’ (‘Lietusmīkla’ #075) aligns with contemporary themes of global ecology and green thinking via the illustrations of Ella Mežule.

Kristaps Zariņš, whose masterful paintings always present an expressive image of women, brings a somnambulistic Ophelia into the plot of Māra Cielēna’s poem ‘The Comb Named Emma’ (‘Ķemme Emma’ #084), about a hair comb that gets lost in the tangled hair.

Illustration by Ilmārs Blumbergs.
Talented stage designer Ilmārs Blumbergs turns the classic Latvian poem by Rainis ‘The Wives of the Rain’ (‘Lietus sievas’ #038) into a bright visual show with bold dramaturgy by interchanging font sizes and colour intensity. I could go on in this manner to describe every booklet.

With a laconic definition of their handwriting, favourite styles, technique and tonality, these 100 books are probably the most complete catalogue of Latvian illustrators. For the insatiable art theorist, this project is a demonstration in the visual language laboratory with unexpected combinations of ‘artist + poet’ and contains much evidence that a poem exists ‘in the air’ before it is written down on paper. But most importantly, this is a great way to introduce children to the technical and aesthetic diversity of works ofart.

In many books, the artists reveal the background of their work, their failures and personal struggles with the drawing, which coincides with the young readers’ everyday learning process. The Bicki-Buck Books are, in a way, the artists’ dedication to the next generation, as well as their duty towards the past, when they were children themselves.

The images express a lot of nostalgia that has found its place in today’s reality. With the frequent references to the sense of belonging to the place, local traditions, culture space, city architecture and urban legends the little books provide a connection with their country of origin to the diaspora of emigrated Latvian families whose children no longer learn the Latvian language. The Latvianness in the visual language of Bicki-Buck Books is not folksy romanticism contemplating the ancient past; it is diverse, contemporary and cosmopolitan.

A considerable proportion of the books is devoted to the avant-garde and dissident art of the Third Awakening (1986–1991) and the restoration of Latvia’s independence. It is not an easy conversation, but we can only admire how self-evidently children perceive provocation, absurdity, irony and other complex concepts. There are books to be read upside down, from back to front or to look through. The conceptual artist Andris Breže has cut such a big hole in his Bicki-Buck Book so that there is only the husk of a book left (‘Ciku caku caurā tumba’ by Hardijs Lediņš, Juris Boiko #088). And on this husk, like on the edge of a crater blown up by a bomb, people continue to live, work, exercise, dance in discotheques and pull the asphalt roller of perestroika.

In our family, we have not missed a single release of a Bicki-Buck Book, and we have been reading them with our eldest son since he was 18 months old. He has grown up with them and each release of six booklets always seemed to coincide with his developmental milestones (repeating sounds, learning colours, recognising his surroundings, first letters, first drawings, first words, first attempt to make his own book, first ability to quote a poem in an appropriate life situation, first understanding of the inexpressible, etc.). And many other parents have noticed these coincidences too, regardless of the age group, since there are so many Bicki-Buck Books and there is so much in them.

Our son’s favourites have twisted and chewed corners, while the ones he didn’t like were cast aside, but they will be secretly read later, as he is unable to resist his curiosity. I don’t know if I would have noticed these preferences if the poems had a different physical shape. The Bicki-Buck Books are his toys; he sorts them, counts them, makes big puzzles and card houses and has a strong sense of ownership of them. Seeing them on his peers’ bookshelves is his first steps in a collective experience, and leads to making friends around common interests – which, for a change, are not associated with global toy brands.

Finally, a bit about myself. Like many young parents in Latvia, I was born in the Soviet Union, a country whose books and culture have been instinctively rejected as unnecessary, wrong and inappropriate since the restoration of Latvia’s independence. We truly hated those yellowish pages associated with outdated values, unconditional obedience, compulsory literature listings and uncritical reading of poems, whose lines had to be learned by rote. As far as I remember, in school and later on there was always a denial of everything Soviet and resistance to the teachers who carried on the outdated methods. We built our new identities on the basis of an idealised pre-war cultural heritage, rapidly – sometimes too fast and without understanding – assimilating everything that came from the West and was the opposite of our recent past.

But those six rejected years I spent in the USSR were the beginning of my memories that suddenly started to return when I wanted to read or sing something to my own child. My favourite poems, lullabies and counting rhymes were scattered in old- fashioned, didactic and controversial books. I often did not know how to regard the word combinations and infectious stanzas that turned in my mind and were the first words that for me touched the concepts of beauty, tenderness and motherly love. The naive verses we used to express our affection for our parents at a time when saying ‘I love you’ was not popular. Words that meant love to me, whatever their real meaning.

To be honest, I have often lacked role models on how to live in the Western world when making life choices or giving explanations about the course of events. But now I need clear and convincing answers to my children’s many ‘whys’.

By involving a large group of artists of several generations, the Bicki-Buck Books’ project may not give all the answers about how our past and our culture can be looked at. To a certain extent, the Bicki-Buck Books have given me back a basic sense of who we are. We have a past and we have poems – indeed, we have at least 100 of them.

Santa Remere is a Latvian art critic who specialises in visual communication – from children’s books, to art installations, animations and cinema. She has an MA degree in engineering from Tokyo Waseda University, but mainly uses the written word as her means of self-expression. She regularly translates theatre plays from several languages into Latvian and writes critical and analytical articles for the internet magazine satori.lv.

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