Vilenica Prize recipient 2020: Mila Haugová

Mila Haugová Photo© David Koronczy

Mila Haugová Photo© David Koronczy

The Vilenica jury – consisting of Aljoša Harlamov (President), Tone Peršak (Vice President), Matej Bogataj, Ludwig Hartinger, Aljaž Koprivnikar, Martin Lissiach, Amalija Maček, Aleš Mustar, Andrej Pleterski, Julija Potrč, Jutka Rudaš and Đurđa Strsoglavec  – have awarded the Vilenica 2020 Prize to Mila Haugová.

Prepared by Aljaž Koprivnikar, member of the Vilenica Jury

Slovak poet and translator Mila Haugová was born in Budapest on 14 June 1942. The daughter of a Slovakian father and a Hungarian mother, she grew up bilingual. Soon after her birth the family moved from Hungary to present-day Ukraine, and then after World War 2 to Vráble, a town in the then Czechoslovakia. The family encouraged her love of books and literature. They moved often until settling in Nitra, where Haugová finished primary school. In 1951, her father was declared class enemy by new authorities and jailed for two years, while Haugová was not allowed to study German and aesthetics. She was able to enrol in the Higher Agricultural College in Nitra, graduating in 1964. She first worked as an agronomist for a year and then as a secondary school teacher. While on her honeymoon in Yugoslavia in August 1968, she found out that Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Soviet military. She emigrated to Canada with her husband the next month and returned home after nine months. After giving birth to her daughter in 1972, she moved to Bratislava where she worked as the editor of the renowned Romboid  literary journal from 1986 to 1996, which was linked to her own literary aesthetics.

She says she gradually took command of her own life, created a family after having grown both as a person and as an author. She wrote between the countryside, Zajačia Dolina (Levice) and Bratislava, the capital. She taught creative writing for many years and urged young poets to be sincere and clear in their writing while creating her own enviable body of works, which includes 23 collections of poetry and many self-reflective works of fiction. She has enjoyed great recognition and popularity among Slovak literary circles and readers for four decades. Her poetry opens the space of invisible feelings that help her study human souls and personal relationships, including between men and women, mothers and daughters, and the like. She often writes about how we all belong together: plants, animals, stars, etc. Her poems are like lectures on humanity and care for the life of all living beings: “the plants are slow animals / I am a slow animal / where I come from…”. The poetry of Mila Haugová travels between the reflective and the imaginative, between intellectual and intimate lyrics and philosophical consideration, pulsating with the harmony of the universe and complicated relations between a man and a woman that have remained the central themes in her writing. She has received many international and national awards, including the most esteemed Slovak award for writing, the Dominik Tatarka Prize, and the award of the Ministry of Culture for long-term exceptional contribution to original writing and translation. Her poetic journey has followed her basic creative tenet: an attempt to heal the wounds of the world through poetry and writing.

In her long career, Mila Haugová has visited many literary festivals and attended many residency programmes, while her poetry has been translated into most European languages. She has also been a prolific translator herself, having translated the work of Sylvia Plath, Anna Sexton, Ted Hughes, Jamesa Wright, Carolyn Forché, Ingeborg Bachmann, Georg Trakl, Paul Celan, Friedericke Mayröcker and others, and a mentor to younger Slovak poets. Her persistence in poetic call and reaching beyond convention have placed her among the giants of Central European and world literature.


Prepared by Andrej Pleterski, member of the Vilenica Jury

Between Archaic Alfa and Cosmic Garden

The name (word) from my body comes into your body as a word which I create together with the body. If I could make love all the time, would I not write? These words about her creative experience, which seem to sum up her poetic credo, were written in 2012 by Mila Haugová, the leading Slovak woman poet. Her oeuvre expresses the dialectic experience of woman, of the human being and humanity. From the very beginning, its substance has been erotic love with all its shifts and contradictions.

Mila Haugová is an outstanding poet who has devoted to literature most of her life and gradually achieved exceptional artistic confidence. Her imposing oeuvre, 23 collections of poetry, is matched by the prominence which she has enjoyed for four decades among Slovak literary experts and common readers alike. Moreover, she has exerted an enormous and continuous influence on her contemporaries, both through her art and her human charisma.

In the 1980s she was one of the first Czech or Slovak women poets to introduce an autonomous subject, one fully aware of her womanhood. This poetry is no longer stamped by dependence on man, submission, the painful fate of women, renunciation, sacrifice. Rather, her writing is reflective and imaginative, intellectual and erotic, accommodating men and children, creativity, sexuality, compassion and gentleness, physical nature, metaphysics which brings no mutual exclusion or opposition between nature and culture, reason and feeling, soul and body, imagination and reality.

While Mila Haugová confronts her readers with high demands, she can cosset them as well. Her poetry is a continual flow between intimate lyric poetry and philosophical reflection, pulsing with the harmony of the cosmos, which is often symbolised by a garden and embodied by an archetypal woman. Yet there are also moments of inward rift, loneliness, despair brought about by the undermined structure of the world. Many of her poems, often explicitly dedicated to her partners, mother, daughter, granddaughter, as well as furnished with the date and place of composition, relate an actual experience. This, however, is elevated by her unique poetic practice, old-world and at the same time contemporary, to a universal level accessible to an intuitive rather than merely intellectual reader.

In the case of Mila Haugová, the often evasive concept of Central Europeanism assumes highly distinct features, which are evident in her very biography. Born as Emília Viktória Labay in 1942 in Budapest to a Hungarian mother and Slovak father, she grew up bilingual. Towards the end of World War II the family moved to present-day Ukraine, then already part of Hungary, and later to various places in Slovakia. In 1951 her father was identified as a class enemy and politically imprisoned for two years, which deprived his daughter of her desired study course – German and aesthetics. At last she was able to enrol at the Agricultural College in Nitra, receiving a degree in agronomic engineering in 1964. She worked as an agronomist for a year and then as a high-school teacher. On her honeymoon in Split, Yugoslavia, in the August of 1968 she heard on the news that Czechoslovakia had been occupied by Soviet military forces. The very next month she migrated with her husband to Canada, only to return home nine months later. After her daughter’s birth in 1972 she moved to Bratislava, where from 1986 to 1996 she edited an eminent literary magazine, Romboid. She copiously wrote and translated from Hungarian, English and especially German, tackling even Japanese and Finnish poetry in joint translations.

Having published in magazines since the mid-seventies, she debuted in 1980 under the pseudonym Mila Srnková with the poetry collection Rusty Clay (Hrdzavá hlina). While it still consists mainly of poems with a traditional formal bent and takes up the poetics of older Slovak women authors (the countryside, nature, love) coupled with a well-nigh stenographed everyday reality, the collection already features what was to become one of her staple themes, erotic love. As early as her second collection, Shifting Surface (Premenlivý povrch, 1983), Haugová begins to shake off the influences of her contemporaries’ predominating poetics and mythicizes sensuality. The third collection, Possible Tenderness (Možná neha, 1984), brings into sharper focus the manifestations of life in transits or intermediate spaces, exploring the gaps between the effable and ineffable. The infinite layers of meanings in this shifting dichotomy will keep piling up throughout her subsequent work.

After the Velvet Revolution, Mila Haugová published her collection Pure Days (Čisté dni, 1990) to wide acclaim. A watershed in her writing is considered to be her introduction of a primordial woman named Alfa, who has been interpreted as a blend of fascination by writing and of female identity. The forceful development of her poetic practice in new directions was fuelled by two additional prompts: her partnership with a Slovak visual artist, Peter Ondreička (on whose works she based her poems), and her translator’s dialogue with Sylvia Plath, which led to the surge of similar motifs (wing, body, star, reproductive system, blood, etc.), a measure of gloom (death, night, darkness, madness, etc.), and an even more radical emancipation of the female lyric I. In Pure Days, Slovak literary criticism has traced the foregrounding of the relationship between writing and the body, which becomes a key theme for the author. The erotic body remains present. This kind of ‘performative’ writing, labelled in Slovak poetry as ‘writing with the body’, serves in Haugová’s case to consecrate physicality.

The collection Ancient Love (Praláska, 1991) delves deep into the (pre)history of humankind. The book is dominated by the persona of Alfa, who recurs in the subsequent collections as well. Moreover, this collection includes such classical and biblical motifs and characters as Oedipus Rex, Pompeii, Salomé and particularly Cassandra, a figure who recurs in Haugová’s work in her original, ‘Trojan’ character of an ignored prophetess. In Ancient Love the individuation of the author’s poetic practice has become irreversible: the poems increasingly focus on female identity. They study even more intensely the relationships between men and women and among women themselves, and explore women’s history and memory, the bounds of possibility, the places of infinite freedom and well-nigh magic power. Through dedications, mottos and quotes they grow more explicitly intertextual.

The next watershed came soon with the collection Nostalgia (1993). The change is most conspicuous at a formal level, in a thoroughly refreshed poem structure, undoubtedly based on Haugová’s current translation of Paul Celan’s poetry. If the preceding collection still associates confession with soliloquies and a certain narrativity, now the lines are increasingly breaking up, independent words and syllables are being inserted, and the punctuation illustrates the voice of half-sleep. Words in Nostalgia are woven or knotted into a singular ‘lace’ or ‘net’. The content, on the other hand, is transformed by personal loss. The poet’s addresses to her deceased partner, coupled with frequent Christian motifs or quotes and imitation of such biblical genres as the litany or psalm, have earned these poems the label of ‘requiem poetry’. Many of them bear dates, thus underlining the address to the partner, and sometimes accompanied by an explicit dedication; the subject-matter derived from the visual arts grows even more pronounced. From intensive mourning the collection segues into a quest for a new perspective, one through which Alfa may explore her existence. According to a leading Slovak literary historian and critic, Milan Hamada, Haugová’s Nostalgia forms ‘an original image of the Song of Songs, whose eroticism defies the growing aggression and necrophilia of the departing century’.

Another prominent collection from this period is The Lady and the Unicorn (Dáma s jednorožcom, 1995), which deepens the author’s interest in the female principle of the world order, the generational memory of women, the mother–daughter relationship, and the themes of pregnancy and childbirth, rebirth, transformation. It seeks to encapsulate pure existence, the conflicting yet inseparable lunar and solar forces, thus tirelessly approaching the touch of the unseen.

Haugová’s six poetry collections from the 1990s have proved a great inspiration for contemporary Slovak poetry, rousing echoes in many poets practically as soon as they appeared. Moreover, Haugová’s poetry, both original and translated, reverberates in the feminist intellectual line, which has been substantially consolidated in Slovakia since the sociopolitical watershed of 1989.

Since the turn of the millennium she has published a collection almost every year, with Slovak publishers queueing up regardless of their favoured poetological line. For a poetry which is sometimes labelled ‘hermetic’, this is most uncommon and telling. Each new collection by Haugová is a literary event.

Over the last two decades, the author’s poetic practice has grown increasingly fragmented. This fragmentation has been stamped by the annulment of punctuation, particularly the comma, or by a strongly idiosyncratic use of colons, semicolons, ellipses and slashes, which preclude predictable hierarchies and may reflect the demise of the illusions fostered by our ‘rational’ civilisation, our anthropocentric world. In the third millennium Haugová continues to probe the fundamental questions of human life and death through depicting natural phenomena, leaning on (classical) mythology and archetypes. In the lines encountered in her meditative collection A Map of Sand (Atlas piesku, 2001), contemporary readers may easily draw parallels with the anxiety of their own existence.

Over the last couple of decades Haugová has centred the world of her poetry around the garden, soon grown into her symbol par excellence – a parable of existence and speech, a well-rounded (and circular) world that is home to plants, living creatures, and soil with its minerals. The garden establishes a manifold symbolism of birth and growth, of cyclical patterns, acceptance and peacefulness. Its prominence is attested in the very titles of the collections, such as The Closed Garden: Colloquies (Zavretá záhrada: reči, 2001) or Plant with a Dream: Vertical (Rastlina so snom: Vertikála, 2006). The garden remains a mirror of feeling and thought even in her next collection, The Disappearance of Angels (Miznutie anjelov, 2008), stamped by her mother’s death. In these poems the garden breathes and mourns with the speaker: aeons are disappearing in the poet’s wake, but through memory or dreams, the inner time of the lyric self, they will, every now and then, open up the passage of real time and twist it around. The next collection, The Slow Bow Woman (Pomalá lukostrelkyňa, 2010), largely replaces experiment by the simpler reflection, with the punctuation marks almost absent. The author continues to explore the complex relationship between man and woman, and a significant contribution of the collection is its detabooisation of mature sexuality.

The last decade saw a steep rise in Haugová’s prose self-reflection. The period 2009–2019 yielded as many as four experimental compilations of the most varied genre titbits, dominated by existential ruminations and frank autopoetological subject-matter. Hence, Haugová may well be considered one of Europe’s most (self-)reflective women poets of today.

The years 2011 and 2012 saw the publication of the collections Plant Room and The Garden: the Labyrinth: the Nest (Záhrada: labyrint: hniezdo). The enduring central place of the garden in Haugová’s later work may come as a surprise, but only while it is perceived as a limited space, even an enclosure: until it is seen as an intimate space for growth, for cultivation of phenomena belonging to life and soul. Dreams are an expression of liberation, unburdening, an allegory of selfhood, and finally a minuscule universe, in harmony with the poet’s cosmological view of the world in which there is enough room for everything. Not only does she contemplate the garden flora, fauna and stars, not only does she love, despair and believe: with the garden, Haugová’s lasting theme of erotic love burgeons into something much larger. As in ancient Persia, the garden acquires not only cosmological but also metaphysical and mystic meanings. The speaker’s ‘stroll’ through it becomes a stroll through time, but far from straightforward: a stroll through universal eternity, which is home to myths and archetypes.

Haugová’s latest collection, Roe Deer Looking at the Pole Star (Srna pozerajúca na Polárku, 2016), enriches the garden concept with a mystic duality. A chance to slip into this duality is offered to the poet by Anankē, the Greek goddess of inevitability and necessity, who is fatally linked to the god Chronos. In the beginning of time is a deer seeking the Pole Star. It is necessary that the deer should catch the starlight in the pupil of her eye: only thus can she transform into a deer gazing at the Pole Star and become part of cosmology. The light of the Pole Star in her eye is that act on the fringe of consciousness which must be entered by the logos, if the gaze on the star is to become a conscious act of being, of coexisting with oneself and others, with the world here and now, and with cosmogony in general.

Beyond her country’s borders, Mila Haugová is anything but overlooked. Translated into most major languages and included in the anthologies and magazines of many minor ones, she remains the most widely established Slovak poet abroad. Her success in the 1990s was followed in 2001 by a French book-format translation and in 2003 by an English one, which was complemented this year by a second selection published in the United Kingdom. Her poetry is particularly resonant in the German-speaking space, with as many as five books published between 1999 and 2017. In 2003, a short selection from her works was translated into Slovene as well (by Alenka Šalej), and a Spanish translation is now underway. The poet has presented herself at more than forty festivals and readings throughout Europe and the US. Her latest performances took place at the eminent poetry festival Weltklang – Night of Poetry in Berlin (2017) and last year at the Salon du Livre in Paris.

Even in the third millennium, Mila Haugová’s poetry has the power to surprise with brand new positions, visions, questions and answers which have inspired many of her most precious collections. The Vilenica Award has thus arrived at an amazing apogee of her creative lucidity and power, an apogee which has never been a matter of course because the Slovak literary scene relegates poetry to the margins, thus ensuring it little public notice. To give an example: Haugová has received no poetry prize in her homeland to this very day simply because no poetry prizes were bestowed until last year. Even in the context of broader literary or cultural prizes, it was only after 2005 that her poetry received some recognition; in 2014 she was thus awarded the most prestigious Slovak literary prize, the Dominik Tatarka Prize for the best literary work of the preceding year, for her poetry collection Cetonia Aurata and a prose compilation titled The Hard Wood of Childhood (Tvrdé drevo detstva). In 2019 she received the Culture Minister’s award for her long-standing and exceptional contributions in the fields of original Slovak literature and translation.

The 40th anniversary of her first book publication, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of her first appearance at the Vilenica Festival, is a symbolic opportunity to establish this unique poet officially on the Central European Parnassus, where she has in fact long been a private resident. To reward her uncompromising adherence to a poet’s vocation and sincerity, as well as her lifelong commitment to the highest standards of creativity towering far beyond conventionality. In the case of Mila Haugová as a body poet, this means ‘walking with no skin or protection’.

By way of conclusion, we can only agree with the prophetic words inspired as early as 1984 by the author’s third poetry collection. According to the leading critic and literary historian of the time, Valér Mikula:

Mila Haugová is an author who distinctly improves with each book. And what is essential, her improvement takes the form of purposefully stressing and elaborating her own traits while laying aside mere conventions of her period, generation or group. In Possible Tenderness this process rises to a level of quality that makes Haugová’s development significant for the development of all contemporary Slovak poetry. As one may venture to assume, it is not only that poetry will continue to be important for Haugová: rather, Haugová is going to be important for poetry as well.


Translated by Nada Grošelj