Nights at the Museum
In 2019, Ron Whitehead was named Writer in Residence for the UNESCO City of Literature international residency program in Tartu, Estonia and invited to spend April and May 2019 living in the Karl RistikiviMuuseum in Tartu. When he arrived, he had no intention of writing a book of poems about Estonia. He had resolved to use the gift of the residency to finish two manuscripts; he also eagerly anticipated helping coordinate Estonia’s first Insomniacathon—a 24-hour nonstop poetry and music performance to conclude Tartu’s 2019 International Prima Vista Literature Festival. Since he was young, Ron has had wanderlust and simultaneously experiences profound homesickness immediately upon leaving. To help distract him from missing home as he adjusted to complete immersion in Estonia and to challenge him to get out and about, Ron’s partner in art and life—Jinn Bug—suggested he take long walks and write a daily poem about what he saw and experienced. Ron’s first poem—which does not appear in this manuscript—was raw and painful. Jinn invented a device—the adventures of an old man and an imaginary boy in Estonia—and suggested creating a series of fairytale-like storied poems that explore the folklore, myth, politics, and culture of Estoniawhile simultaneously capturing a bit of the poets’ own human experiences. Separated by 5,000 miles and a seven-hour time difference, the two poets visited daily with each other via Facebook video calls and in the body of this manuscript. In late April 2019, Jinn joined Ron for ten days in Estonia. The poems in this book were born out of research, reading, and personal experience, enriched by contacts made and friendships formed by Ron during his time as Writer in Residence. The poems were also enlivened by mutual puzzling over and attempting to explain and understand things that were foreign to us. Simple questions such as “What to do with my trash in Estonia?” and “What is up with this stupid coffee machine?” challenged creative minds to supply answers and explanations (see The Ogre’s Lunch, the illusion of Choice). Trying to wrap our hearts around what it might feel like to experience genocide and atrocity, occupation, war, and exile influenced other poems in the book, including Words Worth Dying For, Homeland, and The Ghost of Karl Ristikivi. Other poems are our humble attempt to share the flavor of the history and culture of Estonia (Soup Town Days, The Cathedral of Crows). Still others explore our experiences of love and longing and loss and the phenomenon of aging in body while growing ever more unguarded and full of wonder inside (When Everything Blossoms, On the Terrible Loneliness of Heroes, The Field Guide). The Afterword contains more information about our process of writing these poems and some hints as to which poet wrote what. It is impossible for two travelers to capture the rich culture, history, and spirit of a country and its people in a slim book of verse. Our hope is that these 31 poemed stories will entertain, provoke and—more importantly—encourage others to learn about and dream of a fabulous place that transcends time and space, that encompasses myth and history, and which symbolizes for us the freedom song of an oppressed yet resilient and triumphant nation: Eesti Vabariik, the Republic of Estonia.