Just about a year ago, Jüri Kolk, Jan Kaus, Karl Martin Sinijärv, and I were reading our own works and a few by others to a nearly full house in the large community center of the small town of Türi. We took turns, and when Jüri Kolk was up, he announced that he would read a poem that always made him cry.

Jüri read better than ever before and, by the end, unmistakable tears were running down his childishly rounded cheeks. I was sitting next to him and was the closest witness, as a result of which I can confirm with absolute certainty that it was not an act or a performance: Kolk was being genuine, honest, and natural to the core, and his works are equally genuine, honest and natural (although readers can try deluding themselves that the writer wishes to deceive them, and the wish to be deceived is often what motivates us to read books). With Kolk, we cannot be deceived, not in life or in his works, and anyone who feels deceived disappoints me.

20 + n jobs

I asked Jüri Kolk (b 1972) for his official CV, but he didn’t send me the most correct and exhaustive version. He had something better. Jüri sent me a quick summary of his professional life with added remarks, ending with the sentence: “Kaupo, I recently tallied it up and I’ve held over 20 jobs.”

So, what have these jobs been? They include warehouse worker, logistics director, purchasing director, export specialist at a brewery, and director of a transport service. His experience includes being promoted to department head of a bakery, and in 2005 his colleagues voted him “Employee of the Year” of the Reola company’s production unit. Preceding these jobs was a degree in Estonian philology from the University of Tartu, and scattered amid them were a couple of positions in the humanitarian sector: at a translation bureau and as a magazine editor. These latter occupations would be expected of a writer, although they tended to be mere episodes for Kolk.

“I have over 15 years’ experience resolving practical and logistical tasks. I’ve worked in the fields of logistics and purchasing in both the food industry and the electronics industry, and can claim that I’ve handled these tasks wonderfully. I’ve been given promotions several times,” Kolk summarized, beaming with entirely justified pride.

However, the most interesting aspect of Kolk’s professional life is that a few years ago he made the conscious decision to step a few rungs downward on the job ladder, crafting a backwards career. The reason was simple: he needed more time for writing. He does 12-hour shifts, which gives him more free days, even though his workdays are that much more draining. It’s possible that this schedule will turn out to be unsustainable and Kolk will end up at an office job with more regular hours, but at least he will have tried coupling a day job with writing, which is unfortunately possible for very few.

An upstanding member of society, his present positions are shift manager for the beer and soft-drink company A. Le Coq (since 2014), and freelance writer. Kolk’s superiors and colleagues can adequately assess his performance as a logistics or shift manager; literary critics aren’t allowed to go poking around those areas. Luckily, one can determine from a distance that since shops are still fully stocked with beer and soft drinks, Kolk must be doing very good work, and the very same can be said about his literary activities.

8 + n books

With writers, you can never avoid trivial questions: Why did you choose the thorny writer’s path? How and why did you become a writer? Jüri Kolk has three answers for me:

1) “Once, when I was just a kid, I discovered in myself the early conviction that I would become a writer. Not that I wanted to, but that I would.”

2) “After a break, I started writing again in 2007.”

3) “At one point, acquaintances started introducing me to others as a writer.”

Jüri Kolk’s debut, the poetry collection Barbar Conan peeglitagusel maal (ja mis ta seal rääkis) (Conan the Barbarian in the Land Behind the Mirror (and What He Said There)), was published in 2009 (i.e. a couple of years after the end of his writing break), and by then he was certainly already being introduced as a writer. You can’t say that Kolk took the literary world by storm with his first work. It was a good debut, but nothing momentous or world-changing. Of course, no one (except, perhaps, the author himself) knew at the time that it would be followed shortly by other poetry collections –
a couple of intervening years at first, and far smaller intervals later – as well as by books of prose.

Taken as a whole, Kolk’s works, which are often playful and based on free association, radiate a sense of a determined work ethic. The number of his texts in print and on social media is increasing steadily and consistently. Rivers and streams are steadily flowing into the sea that is Kolk’s writing: some straight, some winding.

When I reviewed Kolk’s third poetry collection, Seitse surmavoorust (The Seven Virtues of Death), I remarked that “quantity may not be sufficient proof of quality, but in Kolk’s case, one gradually transitions into the other and you can tell that the man very clearly knows what he wants, and obviously wants a lot.” Now, three years and five Kolk books later, I can state with a sense of relief that I was right.

Might the best verification of Kolk’s quality (for which quantity might be, though is not necessarily, a gauge) be the fact that as of today, he has received three prestigious Estonian literary awards: the 2015 Juhan Liiv Award for Poetry (Arno apooria (Arno’s aporia)), the 2016 Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award (Sünnimärk (Birthmark)), and the 2016 Gustav Suits Award for Poetry (Mee lakkumine pole meelakkumine (Licking Honey Isn’t Honey-Licking))?

Why not? Especially given the roundabout path by which the awards came, as if juries had just noticed Kolk’s works, or else judges believed he reached a high artistic level only over the last couple of years. Thus, the principle that work and tenacity will lead you to your goal seems to be true in Kolk’s case but, even so, purely as a reader focused on his writing, the awards are not of the greatest importance.

Kolk himself says he hasn’t given all that much thought to the awards, although he’s naturally glad to have received them –
and they’re certainly boast-worthy. He is no incredible aesthete devoid of lowbrow cravings, and would undoubtedly like a state-sponsored writer’s salary or a Hollywood film contract; however, above all, he hopes to one day not have to have a job and be able to live off of his writing. “And, well, I know a little, maybe incorrectly, the kinds of tricks that would help make my writing please juries, but even so, I don’t use them. It might sound haughty, but I truly don’t. I’d rather sell my body, because for me literature is important as a hobby, as a love,” he says.

And so, creation and loving what you create is most important to him.

100 + n realities

Kolk asserts that he writes for like-minded people and adds that, above all, he simply writes texts without concentrating on doing it for an audience. He admits that this is partly a mistake, but at least makes sure that references don’t stay hidden in his head.

Yes, those references. Both Kolk’s poetry and his prose are brimming with them. In spite of its style, his poetry can be termed “essayistic storytelling” and, when someone tells a story, digressions and quotes inevitably creep into it. The teller doesn’t bother to explain their backgrounds, because he or she assumes that those hearing or reading will understand without explanation.

Thus, in Kolk’s works, we encounter quotes from films, books, proverbs, figures of speech, and lyrics: some verbatim, while others are witty adaptations. Kolk has employed adaptation as a method often in his poetry, breathing new life into earlier works, such as Sergei Yesenin’s poem “Letter to My Mother” and Pink Floyd’s song “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”.

If Kolk’s works are translated, a significant portion of the text is untranslatable because a lot of the wordplay cannot be satisfactorily conveyed in another language. His phrasing is actually simple and fluent, but in order for someone from another culture to comprehend everything, that reader would have to be supplied with explanations. I’m afraid not even all Estonians can understand all of Kolk, although he is no elitist. Faced with the choice of referencing Immanuel Kant or an Estonian children’s song, he will (automatically) choose the latter; however, it’s not impossible that Kant will be the one singing in Kolk’s story, and will be doing so in some grocery store on the outskirts of Tartu.

A fitting example of Kolk’s referencing, adaptation, and the entire translation-and-explanation issue are two lines from his collection Igapidi üks õnn ja rõõm (All Around is Joy and Bliss, 2016). Kolk writes: “social pressure grows high on St. John’s Day / you’re to find a fern blossom, drink and catch a flaxen-haired girl” (p 30).

The Estonian-language lines are perfectly straightforward. Firstly, St. John’s Day
(jaanipäev) is one of Estonians’ most important holidays: after midnight on 24 June, the shortest and lightest day of the year. Secondly, the lyrics of one popular Estonian song are “grass grows high on St. John’s Day” (“jaanipäeval kõrgeks kasvab rohi”), and another popular Estonian St. John’s Day song claims you “sure can’t catch a flaxen-haired girl” (“linalakk neidu küll püüda ei saa”). Thirdly, ferns do not blossom (searching for their blossoms is, however, a traditional Estonian St. John’s Day custom), and fourthly, as a consequence of social pressure, Estonians do indeed drink a whole forestful of alcohol in celebration of the holiday.

Carrying on like this, we could naturally suck the life out of Kolk’s works through explanation, but life is the actual subject he consistently writes about (and in every form). In poetry, he mainly registers life; in short prose, he illustrates and sometimes also elucidates it. Kolk’s shift from poetry to prose came very naturally, and his experience as a poet is clearly perceptible in his prose style: his thoughts flow freely, his manner of storytelling is concentrated, and his stories frequently end the same way as his poems: with a single-sentence resolution.

Kolk takes his readers to ordinary, even emphatically uninteresting places: to parks, shops, literary evenings, and jogging trails. Sometimes, the narrator wants to beat someone up; sometimes, someone wants to beat him up. And in Kolk’s version of Little Red Riding Hood in the short prose collection Suur võidujooks (The Great Race, Tuum, Tallinn 2015), the protagonist actually encounters Zeus, who ultimately transforms himself into a swan, whom Little Red Riding Hood feeds a cake, and who, in the end, dies because of it.

There is a constant interweaving of reality and magic (or anti-reality) that surfaces throughout Kolk’s works, and before long it’s impossible for the reader to figure out what is really happening and what is not. Is there anything unreal about someone actually talking to a wall? There conceptually could be, but when Kolk writes about it, there’s not. He first writes reality into anti-reality, then back into reality, and although this may sound pretentious it’s very easy for the reader to keep up.

If one were to state something defining about Jüri Kolk, it would be that he is a tucked-away secret of Estonian literature, drifting just below the surface, and to discover it even his compatriots must make a little more effort.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that more and more people will arrive at Jüri Kolk’s works and find, to their delight, the extent to which it’s possible to nudge the world into place by writing simply and understandably. Further opportunities for this will reveal themselves before long, because Jüri is partway through a novel, has a number of ideas for novellas on hold, is composing a book of short stories, and has started writing different kinds of poems: ones which he says are “moderately un-Kolkish”.

In a poem published in Kolk’s latest poetry collection, Igapidi üks õnn ja rõõm, the narrator asks a busload of glum-faced factory workers: “You haven’t happened to see my immortal soul, have you?” It’s a good question, which we could also ask others on occasion: Jüri Kolk, for example.

Kaupo Meiel  (1975) is a poet,
journalist, and consultant for Estonia’s
only literature-themed TV show,
Kirjandusministeerium. He has published four collections of poetry. Meiel’s
works are characterized by humor,
social nerve, and witty wordplay.