I felt very grateful to have been invited to share poetry from my collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots—at VEMU, Museum of Estonians Abroad celebration of Estonian Mother Language Day (Emakeelepäev).
This day is a national holiday in Estonia, and a beautiful way to preserve and cherish the Estonian language.
The virtual event included wonderful presenters. Janika Oras, Senior Folklore Scholar of The Estonian Literary Museum gave a fascinating overview of regilaulud, Estonia’s ancient oral song and verse tradition, and talked about how their influence—especially maternal qualities and the presence of multiple realities—permeated poetry in the Mouth Quill collection.
Kaja Telmet and Inga Eichenbaum, of Toronto, each recited a poem from the collection and Kaja Telmet talked about her emotional connection and understanding of the collection from the perspective of one whose family, like mine, were World War II refugees from Estonia.
Triinu Villukas and Madli Oras, two young Estonians and singers currently living in Vienna, Austria, led everyone in regilaulu singing, including the song which inspired content in my poem, Mouth Quill. Piret Noorhani, VEMU’s chief archivist put together a wonderful, rich program and moderated throughout.
You can read an English translation of my remarks here.
Thousands of years after Baltic-Finnic peoples settled on and near the shores of the Baltic Sea, Veljo Tormis composed a song cycle, Forgotten Peoples, people on the verge of extinction and whose languages are spoken by a handful of people—Livonians, Votes, Izhorians, Ingrians, Vepsians and Karelians.
I loved writing the piece Estonian Music Week Sparks Reflections of Forgotten Peoples. It memorializes the first time I heard this magnificent music, which was thirty years ago in Berkeley, California, during The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s debut USA tour, with Tõnu Kaljuste conducting. I’m so pleased the article about my memories and its continued significance was published by the weekly newspaper, Eesti Elu, in December 2021 (Issue 50, p26.)
My writing was partly inspired by a recent VEMU (Toronto-based Museum of Estonians Abroad) virtual program led by VEMU’s chief archivist, Piret Noorhani, that featured a spectacular documentary by Collegium Musicale and their 3-year quest to sing the Tormis songs while visiting the people portrayed in Tormis’ music. Serendipitously, at about the same time as I saw Collegium Musicale’s documentary, I came across a home video which turned out to have a twenty minute excerpt of the concert I attended thirty years ago! From research, including tracking down the original US Tour agent for the concert, I realized that this concert tour was in all likelihood the first time Tormis’ masterpiece was performed in the United States.
I have since been able to make a digitized copy available to historic and musical organizations in North American and Estonia. I have also created a shorter (approx. 6.5 min) annotated version for you to enjoy.
“Midsummer Birches,” a poem from my collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots went live on June 24, 2021 as a choral pieces composed by Brigitte Doss-Johnson and sung by the virtual choir, Laulusild. A traditional old Estonian tune and words were woven with newly composed music set to my poetry. One piece is a celebration of Estonian Jaaniöö (Midsummer’s Eve) and Jaanipäev (Midsummer’s Day).
The English language poem begins by invoking Estonian traditions, referencing age-old verses and songs about this most important holiday: Jaaniööbirch leaves bitter-sweeten the air. A young man’s beloved rides his silk-tufted horse. Kaasike, kaasike, the refrain sounds. Trot with pride, mane bedecked with bangles.
The second poem and song is “The Rise,” which includes a recollection of my mother’s lullaby, an old Estonian song (Uni Tule), which I recall hearing as a very young child in America and realized later would have been sung by my grandmother in Estonia, who I never met. This motif is woven into newly composed music of the poem text . . . sleep mists its way from coastal stones crosses a thousand miles, fall upon my eye.
Singers include individuals from North America, Japan, the Basque region of northern Spain, Malaysia, and Estonians from the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
The composer Brigitte Doss-Johnson has used the text from my poem The Rise (from the collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots) to create an cappella choral composition. The old runic song that was an inspiration for the poem is masterfully woven into an SATB setting. Fragments of the old runic song, Uni TuleLapse Silma Peale (Sleep, Come on the Child’s Eye), survived as early memories of my mother’s lullaby singing, which she would have learned from her own mother, born on the coast of Estonia in the 19th century. The Rise, along with the song Midsummer (from the poem Midsummer Birches) will be performed by a virtual choir.
An exciting new creative project has grown from from my collection Mouthquill—Poems with Ancestral Roots. Brigitte Doss-Johnson, composer and choral conductor, has set two poems to music. The compositions will be performed by a virtual choir.
The Poetry Box, publisher of my book, will host its monthly live Zoom Poetry Reading on Saturday, October 10, 2020, 4 PM Pacific, 7 PM Eastern. I look forward to joining readings of two other poets, Christopher Bogart and Joan Colby (read by Wendy Colby).
Please join me to hear Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, Old Tunes on Spruce, Seabrook Farms (1949), The Songstress and more.
The Poetry Box, a small independent publisher in Portland, Oregon, has done a beautiful job with my debut chapbook of poetry, ready now for pre-order here from my page on
their website. Please visit to see a description and early reviews.
. . . a haunting intertwining of world history and family history. ~ April Ossmann
The cover is a stunning photo of Estonian forest and sea by Michael Huang. I am so grateful for his gift to me for this collection.
The print edition is slated for September 30, 2020. At that point, you can also order the book from Amazon or from your favorite bookstores.
The term “mouth quill” (suude sulg) comes from ancient Estonian runic song and is seen as a singer’s magical tool. In a lovely verse known as The Village Tells Me, the singer says she has left home enchanting charms—her mouth quill and her tongue click—(keeleklõks). She bids her brothers to ride home with silver beaded horses to bring them to her so she can sing like birds.
When I was a young student, just starting college, I traveled to Finland to study and listen to rich Estonian field recordings of such music. In these last years, I feel so lucky to have been able to access notated music and even listen to oral history recordings on amazing online runic songs databases in Estonia. As I explored an arc of identity, many of these old songs inspired imagery and language in my poems, as did nature and historic events, both distant and more recent.
My chapbook of poetry is being published by The Poetry Box and is slated for release in September 2020! The lines below the photo are from the first poem, Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, which begins an imaginary exploration leading to the shores of Estonia. This poem is part of a trilogy, three poems that form the start, middle and end of the collection; the other two being Ancestral Journey—The Milky Way and Ancestral Journey—Helix.
I chose the satellite photo above to share this announcement as it so beautifully illustrates, by way of a (modern) snow line, the approximate glacier lines from 10,000 years ago! You can see Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and even the small island of Saaremaa in this aerial image. Long ago, glacial ice covered all. When the melting began, I imagine the long journey of our Finnic ancestors, leaving the Urals:
Some will be left in river-bends, some follow the reindeer north.
Some will look heavenward at traces of bird-flight, some walk a milky star-path westward.
The term Mouth Quill (collection title and title of an individual poem) is found in runo verse (regilaul)—the word translates to suudesulg and refers to “a singer’s magical tool.” Some of the 21 poems are inspired by themes found in ancient runo verses (with the original runo verses listed in Notes), others by Estonian music, language and historic events. My writing weaves those world views into a life born and lived in America, with deep ancestral roots.
Poet Deirdre Callanan describes Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots as “a dark crystal studded with light.”