In 2020, we planned a residency exchange with Tartu UNESCO City of Literature. The late Estonian novelist and poet Vahur Afanasjev stayed in Norwich in March 2020; and novelist and poet Penny Boxall went to Tartu in August 2022. In the article below, Penny reflects on her time there.
Not long into my coach journey from Tallinn Airport to Tartu I thought, quite definitely, I’m going to like this. I was watching the woods, the unbelievably green fields dotted with the white commas of storks and their messes of nests. Later in the month I would sit on a watchtower over bogland, and hear the cranes sending up their otherworldly cries, knowing my intuition had been right.
I was staying in the Karl Ristikivi literary house, just beyond Toome Hill. The first morning, I wandered from my flat down to the river by way of timber-slatted Soup Town. There was something fairytale about this: the streets in the neighbourhood took their names from berries, potatoes, celery, melons. The riverpath, when I reached it, was lined with tall trees. I would come to know the path very well, with daily cycle-rides down to the back beach to swim in the Emajõgi. From one of the city’s swing-benches I could see an intriguing little houseboat on the opposite shore: nestled in the reeds, it was accessible only by canoe, and the people emerging onto its decks to lounge in a hammock or dive into the river looked happy in some quite distant, essential way, like contented ghosts.
I cycled up to the National Museum, a place so full of intrigue I spent three hours in the first half of the first room. I got lost in the curated woods of Echoes of the Urals, an exhibition about Finno-Ugric peoples — the languages, stories, traditions — and thought of my mother, who was once locked in the Robin Hood Experience in Nottingham after it had closed for the evening, and found herself stuck in the arrow-pestered trees of a reconstructed Sherwood Forest.
Zipping about on the city’s electric bikes, I found more places to love. I tried blockprinting at Typa, the paper museum, and made my own sheet of paper, the colour of moss. I loved the warm dusks and the sun-slanted mornings. One particular house in my area, lit up like a little theatre, drew me towards it in the evenings.
I would sit on a watchtower over bogland, and hear the cranes sending up their otherworldly cries
I soon discovered my favourite café: Naiiv, a relaxed, bohemian boat stuffed full of cushions and the perfect sort of writable-to music. I sat on the sofa on the deck, eating a raspberry pastry hot from the oven, and lighted on an excellent place to think.
The river kept me company in the days before I made friends in the city: and it brought me friends, too. I signed up for a nighttime canoe trip to watch the Perseid shower and the supermoon, and my canoe-mate told me as we paddled past my favourite little houseboat that it was, in fact, a floating sauna, and that I must try one. Next morning, searching online, the first hit was that very one: it was for hire. Three new friends joined me on the evening I’d booked it, and lucky they did — not just for their expertise with the sauna itself, but for the folktales that came out as we sat in the hot dark: about how the Devil favours the sauna at night; how (sleeping there alone) I must be careful to trick him. When we were sufficiently warm (and perturbed about devilish visits), we lowered ourselves into the black Emajõgi and swam against the current, looking up at the star-prickled sky and the woodburner blazing inside the sauna. We’d become those happy shadows I’d seen from the far bank.
It was these friends who showed me the bog, too: an unromantic sentence, but one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited. We walked on deserted duckboards over blood-red moss, through stunted, twisted pines, to an iron-dark lake where we swam in the grainy dusk with the cranes, far-off, calling. It’s easy to see why the Estonian wetland is so full of folklore, a place where trees and pools, in a fit of pique, are said to move bodily across the land. It’s a landscape of story. I messaged my sister afterwards: it is the place of my heart.
My last day, and a rare morning of heavy rain: I dug my forgotten waterproof out of the bottom of my rucksack. I couldn’t swim under that heavy cloud, but there were other things to do. A friend wanted to show me a graveyard to the north of the river. When we arrived the place was thick with ferns, moss-bright. There was no one there, and I could glimpse paths between the trees, like lines from stories. There was something so singular about this place, this city, that I knew then it was somewhere I’d return to often, even from far away.
Penny Boxall’s debut poetry collection, Ship of the Line, won the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award. Her second collection, Who Goes There? followed in 2018. In Praise of Hands, a collaboration with woodblock artist Naoko Matsubara, was published by the Ashmolean Museum in 2020. She has won a Northern Writers’ Award and the Mslexia/PBS Poetry Competition. In 2019 she was Visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford. She is the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, and has held residencies at Gladstone’s Library, the Château de Lavigny and Hawthornden Castle. Penny is working on a novel for children, which was awarded a grant from Arts Council England.
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