Between Athens & Jerusalem: A Conversation with Adam Zagajewski
by Brian Barker and Todd Samuelson
Adam Zagajewski is one of the foremost contemporary poets of Poland, as well as of the United States, where he lives during the spring. His latest collection, Without End: New and Selected Poems, was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 2002. He is the author of three other books of poetry in English: Tremor (1985), Canvas (1991), and Mysticism for Beginners (1997). Also translated are three prose collections: Solidarity, Solitude (1990), Two Cities (1995), and Another Beauty (2000). In 2004 he received the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Poetry from World Literature Today. Adam Zagajewski currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.
This conversation took place on April 25, 2003, a few months before the second annual Krakow Poetry Seminar and a little more than a year before the death of Czeslaw Milosz on August 14, 2004.
Todd Samuelson: You have a notion which you call “silence radio.” Will you explain it to us?
Adam Zagajewski: This is a French expression, silence radio, which is used in the navy, for example—when you cannot use the radio because the enemy is near. It’s not an expression I use regularly; I used it once, maybe, to describe my period of inner silence, which mostly happens when I’m back home, coming from Houston. The long weeks or months of silence. So it’s the opposite of inspiration; it’s the time of doing other things. Waiting.
TS: So, even though it’s fallow time, it’s productive in a sense, because you’re shoring up for the times when inspiration comes?
AZ: Well, that’s the optimistic reading of it, which you are never able to apply when it happens. You can read it this way when it’s over. Rationally speaking, it’s a period that’s needed, because the danger for every poet, I think, is to write too much. So these are the blessed moments of silence, protecting you from writing too many poems, diluting you and what you have to say in a stream of banal poems. It’s necessary, but still very painful, because I just don’t know what to do if I don’t write poems. I still survive, but it is painful.
TS: It’s hard to be rational when nothing’s coming through.
AZ: Well, yes, you’re rational, as I said, afterwards, and before, but not in the middle.
Brian Barker: You describe the writing of poetry as an act of brotherhood and solidarity with mankind, born out of solitude. Is this something that you’re conscious of when you sit down to write a poem? Do you have an ideal audience in mind when you’re writing?
AZ: Well, I guess so, but it’s a very blurred image of this audience. To be honest, I don’t think I really have an image of the audience when I sit down and try to write. This is also the kind of philosophical notion that comes before and after. I think writing is always for somebody else—why should we write if we are just alone, in our solipsistic lives? But I don’t think that it’s built, in a very strong way, into the very act of writing. There are so many other things that you have to be imbued with when you write, that this would seem external to writing.
BB: So once you’re in the state of solitude, this is a thought that’s external to the actual creative process.
AZ: Yes. Of course, not every solitude leads, for me, to writing; there’s good solitude, there’s productive solitude.
TS: Perhaps this would be another example of something that you don’t actively consider when you’re writing, but you’ve said that poetry can’t be exclusively constructed of tradition, that a poetry that attempts this ends up being hollow or dead. But at the same time, we need the writing of the past; we hope that it infuses our own writing with its immortality. Do you approach tradition in some way as you write? Or is it a consideration that’s more in the background, that doesn’t enter into the act of composition?
AZ: I think approaching tradition is something that we do every day without using this notion: it’s the life of reading. When you read poetry from Homer to Sappho and Archilocus, old Chinese poetry, whatever you can find. You find those ashes of old inspiration in the poems, and, in a more or less active way, you always reflect on what is your response. But tradition for me also means poets like Milosz or Herbert, from the generation right before me.
On the other hand, I always think that poetry expresses the newness of the day. If we were only here to continue tradition without existentially responding to the new day, I think it would be purely academic. It’s a very intricate combination of adhering to the voices of the past and somehow incorporating them, or dialoguing with them. But also there’s this feeling of newness—that every generation has some new word to say, because the world changes all the time. Maybe it doesn’t change so much, but we always think it does. So that’s the combination between the two.
BB: In Two Cities, you have this idea of the two defects in literature: the first, when the writer is preoccupied with only himself—his own weaknesses, his own life, and he forgets about the objective world, the search for truth; and the second, when the writer is preoccupied with only the truth of the world—objective reality, justice, judging people, ethics and customs. Do you have any thoughts about how a poet negotiates the middle ground between these defects? How does one strike a balance between the personal and the social?
AZ: Well, I don’t know exactly how. I just know that a poet is like a philosopher who—unlike the philosopher—also has to tell about his life, in a discrete way. Sometimes I think that poetry is in the center of a very intricate net of contradictions, and the two defects you just mentioned are just an example of one of the contradictions. Poetry, in a way, is a compromise—but a very creative compromise—between them.
I think that the poet has to show his life. In a way, a poet is an emissary—somebody who has to go beyond pure thinking. There are several poems by Zbigniew Herbert in which he discusses the notion of pure thinking, and is actually appalled by this. I love his way of rejecting the purity of thinking, which is good for the philosopher, but not for the poet. Because being a poet means you also have to show your imperfectness.
BB: I like this idea of contradiction; it seems to be an important philosophical and aesthetic notion. I’m thinking of the end of “Ode to Plurality,” when you say, “A poem grows / on contradiction but it can’t cover it.” Many contemporary American poets, I think, view contradiction as something negative, something to be avoided—but you see contradiction as something to be embraced.
AZ: Yes, because it seems to me that poetry cannot be hermetically closed to thinking. And thinking always enters the field of contradiction. So it also has to do with the way I try to reconcile poetry versus thinking.
Poetry is very different from philosophical thinking. And yet it cannot base or build its difference on ignoring it. I think the difference should be conscious; poetry should have a conscious relationship to the field of thinking, which is the field of contradictions. Starting from there, poetry has something, some supplement—what the French call the supplement d’ame, the supplement of the soul.
I think you’re right that for many American poets, poetry is almost an escape from the cruelty of thinking, from the choices you make when you think. Escaping your life—which may be tragic, but it’s not problematic. So I see it differently, as a necessity to confront these categories.
TS: So, should Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “In Praise of Inconsistency” be required reading?
AZ: Yes! Absolutely.
TS: I want to follow up this idea, because behind your intellectual presence—which is quite welcoming—I sometimes see a desire to provoke. Maybe this is overstating things slightly, but you seem to enjoy suggesting ideas which you can examine and retract later, if necessary, all the while taking the ideas very seriously. It’s not a game, necessarily, but you are reserving the right to revisit or reconfigure ideas. In the poems as well as in the prose. I wonder whether this ability itself stemmed from your study of philosophy, which allows the ability to keep ideas at a distance at which the thinker can walk around them, so to speak, and view them from different perspectives.
AZ: You never know. I don’t think it’s just from my studying philosophy; I think I belong to a family of minds that are hopelessly implicated in the quarrel between what Leo Strauss calls being “between Athens and Jerusalem.” I’m not claiming that it’s the best family of minds; I see it more as a kind of disaster—this impossibility of making a clear choice. It’s rather an aesthetic philosophy. Early on, I had this need to clarify something which cannot be clarified, or to be exposed to this wind of ideas, which clears your mind. But it’s basically anti-poetic, to a large extent. And at the same time, I had my moments of inspiration, and which drew me in a different direction.
When you look for companions, you look for philosophers or poets who, like you—in a different way, sometimes in a much more interesting way—were exposed to the same dilemma: this life between inspiration (or revelation, for some) and a life of thinking. I don’t remember the full list of those, but Kolakowski as a philosopher, Leo Strauss, Simone Weil, Milosz, and many others. Not every philosopher. I guess Wallace Stevens would be an example, though he’s not my favorite poet in the American tradition. Not every poet and not every philosopher has this feeling of standing between those two major forces. But it’s definitely my case, and it seems every year I’m just more conscious of this. There is nothing I can do; I just try to understand, what is this, what does it mean to be tempted by two opposite poles of intellectual life?
BB: Along these lines of thinking about contradiction, a theme that’s turned up in your prose from time to time concerns the contradictory elements of ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic is the line that shapes poetry. It seems to me, at the time being—in American poetry at least—that irony, or something that has been mistaken for irony, has not only eclipsed the ecstatic moment but unloaded it in some way. Made it seem naive. And I’m just wondering if you see these two impulses as completely antagonistic, or can they coexist in some way? Is it possible for a poetry fueled by ecstasy to be taken seriously in a contemporary moment which seems permeated with irony?
AZ: It’s very hard to answer this particular question because I can only offer my particular point of view. And I’m very conscious that there are many minds which are different from mine; somebody else would have a different answer. After I formulated this idea of ecstasy and irony, I understood it to be a particular case of the quarrel between Athens and Jerusalem, seen in the intellectual light of a practitioner. It’s something that corresponds to the very ancient struggle or tension between reason and revelation. Now, I think you’re very right, that probably in contemporary American poetry there is much more of the ironic moment than of the ecstatic moment.
The question whether there can exist a pure ecstatic poetry? I think that of course there can, it’s possible. This is where I cannot give a general answer, because the topography of my mind wouldn’t allow me to do this. I have my moments of skepticism, and I feel I need to incorporate them, because it’s a kind of intellectual honesty. I think that poetry has to express not just a particular string of moments in my life, but it has to correspond to a deeper something, a deeper formation or deeper attitude. This is why I try to have both, just to be honest. And I think that’s the least we can demand from poetry, this kind of honesty.
TS: Another part of what could be termed your dualism is in what I think is almost a mantra for you, which is that the writer must fight against his or her impulses. And I wonder whether this is limited to fighting against the predominate styles, ideas, and fashions of one’s time, or whether it includes going against what’s natural and comfortable in one’s self. Also, I wonder, when sitting down to write, what do you feel you have to resist?
AZ: To the first part, I mostly mean the intellectual fashion. I think it’s just very revolting; well, the intellectual fashion is a huge power, and we all are enslaved by it. I think there’s nobody who would be free from this. And it’s almost impossible to be completely liberated from it, but we should try. So, it’s this false impulse—we feel that we receive it as an impulse, but it comes from outside, so we just internalize the fashion. I think this is one of the major requirements, not just for poets, but for intellectuals: to try to liberate themselves from this.
Now, the other part, what do I resist when I sit? Well, in the very act of writing, I don’t think I remember all these clever injunctions. I am just driven by a moment of inspiration. I am very conscious that whatever I say about poetry, it is always in these binaries, always these contradictions. But in the act of writing, I mostly escape from these binaries. So they are more present in my prose than in my poetry, because it’s so hard to talk about poetry, about the mental field of poetry, the spiritual element. It’s very difficult.
Even the great philosophers use the binary category. (I’m not a great philosopher . . . I’m not a philosopher at all.) But I feel that it’s a kind of handicap, this network of binaries; it’s boring, almost, that they have this power over me. So the act of writing gives me the possibility of escaping these, because I think a poem is rarely seen as something binary. It is something else—something pure, or almost pure.
BB: I’ve been thinking about Tsvetaeva’s essay, “Poets With History and Poets Without History.” In it, she places poets into two categories—
AZ: Binaries again.
BB:—those with an insoluble relation to history, and the other race, the pure lyric poets, who are born fully developed and must simply wait for inspiration to sing. I’m wondering in which of these categories do you see yourself as a poet? Or do you feel, once again, that you are trying to negotiate a liminal space between the two?
AZ: No, I think I would be rather a poet with history. Changing, and using change as a vehicle. At least, this is what I think; but I think we are mostly mistaken when we try any self-definition. Which we shouldn’t do, anyway, but you are pushing me in this direction. [Laughter] But definitely a poet with history.
Yes, and I think something I try to do is to use history and somehow to envelop history into a lyric moment. I think that some of my poems are almost like taking a historical event or historical pain, and trying to find something human in it. Because the lyric is always human. So, finally, it’s maybe undoing history, if I think of it; it’s a way of undoing history, turning it into a moment of tragic pleasure.
TS: I like that description. And this is a much more sophisticated way of looking at your work than I think you are sometimes read. Just to get this out in the open—when you left Poland in, what was it—
TS:—it was for personal and not political reasons. But sometimes you are mistaken for an “exile”; I’ve read articles in which you’re described as such, in The New Republic and elsewhere. I think this is partially because in the United States, you’re seen as an emissary of a desirable tradition. There are some American poets who (probably for romantic reasons that they don’t fully understand) desire a fetish of history. So there’s this monistic and simplistic way of viewing your work, as something that you don’t really represent. Whereas in Poland, some critics see you as an aesthete, having departed the social and historical grounds—
AZ: A frivolous poet, yes.
TS: So it’s valuable for me to hear you talk about the way in which the historical and the aesthetic dimensions connect, and the dialogue between them.
AZ: I think this is a very good characterization. Yes, in Poland, many critics have accused me of dropping my social obligations and floating into this frivolous ocean of aesthetic pleasure. In a way, I prefer the American way of seeing me. Of course, this is not unique for Polish critics; there are some who see me justly, as somebody who is still responding to history, but not in a way that I used to do when I was young.
TS: Well, the thing that disturbs me about this viewpoint of certain Polish critics is that it seems to devalue imagination, or the personal quest, entirely. The social obligations are the only valid element of poetry—
AZ: Oh yes, that’s a very strong tradition, to look for a response to a social situation. In their accusing, Polish critics are like district attorneys—they all have this accusatory mood. And they accuse poets, but also fiction writers, of not being socially motivated enough.
TS: I’d like to ask a question, then, about the imagination. A great deal of the pleasure that I receive from your poetry dwells in the similes, the figures, which seem to me to be very surprising but also precise. I’m thinking of moments like, “black birds . . . waiting patiently like Spanish widows” from “Self-Portrait,” or “slim cathedrals like herons above the cities” in “The Churches of France.” The idea of the metaphor, I think, is imaginatively important to you. How does it fit into your conception of poetry?
AZ: Well, it’s a wonderful question, but very difficult. I think that metaphor is the central trope for poetry. Poetry needs metaphors to be lifted above the level of everyday speech. Not just because it’s more elegant, but because there’s some other level of perception which can be attained only in poetry. It’s very difficult to define this, but there’s this metaphor of the whole and the part: it always seems to me that in poetry, we try to return to some mythical whole of perception, which of course never existed. In our everyday speech and our everyday perceptions, we are hopelessly divided; we are in the life of the part. Poetry is an aspiration to return to this higher level, where we see the whole. Of course we will never see it, but there’s an almost religious aspiration, to find a stronger perception, a better perception, which would correspond more to the whole, than to this divided and fragmented way of perceiving the world. And I think it wouldn’t be possible without metaphor.
And yet, for some poets—I wouldn’t name any names—but I think that some poets use only metaphors, which is impossible, too. Paul Claudel had this idea, which I like, that poetry has the rhythm of breathing—inspiration and aspiration, the two rhythms. Within a poem, I think metaphor has to be met with the moment of relaxation, with a more realistic moment. Then you return again. This two step rhythm corresponds with breathing. If you had only metaphors, it would be just unbearable. Maybe this would be just for angels; Rilke would have said that. But poetry which has no metaphors, which is just built on the common speech, can be politically useful, can be interesting, but I don’t think that’s the poetry I have in mind.
TS: I think you said once that in the week there is one Sabbath and six other days, and this is the ratio.
BB: Do you see this also as keeping a fruitful tension between the imagination and reality?
AZ: Absolutely. Finally, imagination responds to reality. I don’t think that the imagination is a magical country that has nothing to do with reality. Imagination is a perception of reality. It just, as I understand it, tends to get to the essential moments of reality. But it’s not either-or. It’s not either reality or imagination. I don’t think imagination has its own realm; it always responds to reality.
BB: Returning for a moment to the idea of literary fashions: in The Witness of Poetry, Milosz criticizes the pervading tone of melancholy in American poetry during the twentieth century, from Eliot on. He suggests that this might actually be a type of literary fashion that people don’t even realize. They pick up this tone of melancholy just because it’s the fashion of the age. I say that as a kind of segue into thinking about one of the characteristics of your poetry that has attracted my attention, something that I have always admired: these moments of fleeting hope or joy. I’m thinking of the lines “the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns” at the end of “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” and “the joy that hovers somewhere nearby” in “The Early Hours.” Do you feel a poet has the responsibility to try to name and hold up these moments of hope and joy?
AZ: I don’t see it as a question of responsibility. It’s just something that goes back to the notion of intellectual honesty. In my life, but also in my intellectual life (not completely separated from my life, but a little bit), I find myself all the time between a dark register and a joyful moment. And it’s not just in terms of success, or career. It has nothing to do with any purely uncritical moment, but is in terms of this heightened perception. And I always have this very strange feeling that joy is not so far from the tragic moment. Even the tragic moment is the strangest cohabitation of joy and deepest sadness. I think this is the foundation. Also, in my reading of mostly pre-twentieth-century poets and playwrights—like Shakespeare or the Greek writers—that measure, the human measure they established, was always mixed between joy and the tragic moment, or darkness.
I like very much what Milosz says, because I think he means even more than poetry; he means twentieth-century literature. With Beckett, who he admired but rejected. Of course, some writers who emerged from Auschwitz had the moral and aesthetic right to have this vision, this ocean of darkness. But I think Milosz is right when he says that too much of this darkness is maybe a question of fashion, but not a just perception or a just aesthetic response to the world.
TS: It seems to me that sometimes in your writing, the darkness comes from a different place. I’m thinking of a poem like “Watching Shoah in a Hotel Room in America,” in which for me the terror—and I do find it a terrifying poem—comes not just from the matter of the Holocaust, the filmed images that you are seeing, but from the constant intrusions of the everyday world that don’t allow remembrance or mourning. They keep intruding. The singers of “Happy Birthday” in the adjoining room keep pressing into consciousness—not to mention sleep itself, which reduces this awareness of the sufferings of the world. If being called back to life is a solace, in this case it is very bittersweet. It’s taking you from this awareness. Do you think this is a just reaction to your poem?
AZ: Yeah, I think it is. I’ve never thought of it . . . Fortunately, when you write a poem, you don’t need to think about it so much afterwards. But I think you are right. I also could say that the impossibility of deep mourning is something that has to be acclaimed in this poem. The way you read it, I completely agree. But then, there’s this frivolity of life. It’s something which is of value, too. Everything is so complicated, but I think we are also lucky that we have this frivolous part of us and that we survive, just gliding sometimes. Not all the time, because especially when you write poems, you have to have those moments of deep mourning. In a way you work for the others. They sing “Happy Birthday,” because you do some part of their work; it’s a kind of division of labor.
BB: An awareness of suffering all the time would be terrifying in and of itself.
AZ: Yes, of course. It would be terrible.
BB: I’m thinking of the Szymborska poem, “Reality Demands,” and its idea that even in the midst of tragedy, life is going on somewhere. I think you could read this poem in that way as well.
AZ: Yes, absolutely. There’s this happy frivolity.
TS: Which brings me to the idea of humor in your poetry. I think it’s clear that you approach poetry as a serious pursuit, but there’s still, throughout the poems, a very pronounced humor. I could name a number of moments, but “Poems on Poland” has its historical sense, but it’s also a very funny poem. And “Self-Portrait” has this wry humor, sharp but subtle. So how do you think of humor in the context of poetry as a serious occupation?
AZ: I think this would belong to the chapter of what we would call the complexity of poetry. Somehow, poetry needs to express the same—maybe not exactly the same—a similar complexity to our life. And I think life without a sense of humor would be just horrible. It doesn’t mean that poetry needs to follow life in every aspect or respect, but it’s like a good map. A good map has all kinds of references to reality, and I see poetry as this very good map. So the sense of humor is like the colors on the map, to signal woods or desert.
It’s richer, because the sense of humor allows you to laugh, without being a fanatic of jokes, like Joseph Brodsky was, or Derek Walcott is; by the way, when they were together, there was this wonderful exchange of jokes. But I liked this because I saw it as an intricate part of their poet’s mind. Jokes are like the best poems because they have the same structure; the joke consumes itself in the act of laughter. There’s nothing left. A joke is like an explosion—there’s just this little smoke and it’s gone. A poem is like a much, much richer joke. So a sense of humor is absolutely indispensable.
BB: The poem “Speak Softly” begins, “Speak softly, you’re older than the one / you were so long; you’re older / than yourself—and yet you still don’t know / what absence , poetry and gold are.” I admire the premise of this poem very much. I read it as a kind of humility born of experience. I’m wondering how your defense of poetry or your expectations for what poetry can accomplish has changed over the years, if at all.
AZ: Well, if anything, I think the difference of the change would be that my love to poetry is growing, it’s more desperate. [Laughter] It’s deeper. I haven’t yet reached the point of no return, of loving poetry against all odds. But I envisage this situation. You never know, but maybe I will be an old man just living a miserable life, and yet having still this life of poetry.
I think when I was young, I thought poetry was just one of many things that you have, along with your physical life and all pleasures. I even tried to write fiction, I read philosophy. The change is that poetry becomes more and more of a monopoly for me. This doesn’t mean that it thwarts my life. No, I still have my life, and I’m very thankful for this, but I could describe my life as this gradual discovery of poetry which is far from being finished. The discovery of the richnesses of poetry, and the complexity of poetry—also, reading. The good part of aging is that you read more and more. You discover poets you never heard of when you were younger. So poetry which, to a young person, seemed to be one of many disciplines, now has changed. My defense of poetry would be much more savage and desperate now than it used to be.
TS: Do you think that this change has affected your reading of poets who you once loved and who mean less to you now, or poets who you had discounted and who now have risen in your estimation? Or is it just an expansion?
AZ: No, I think it is just expansion. Maybe there were some cases of abandoning poets, but let’s be merciful. No, it’s more a kind of expansion, but I also have this feeling of a very slow mental development. I’ll be sixty in two years, and I still feel that I have so much to learn. There’s this very slow pace of development, of reading, of learning.
TS: So, it’s been over ten years since you’ve been at the University of Houston?
AZ: Well, it’s just not years but springs. [Laughter]
BB: [Laughter] Don’t exaggerate it.
AZ: This is, I think, my sixteenth spring. Yes. If you count well.
TS: Do you have any mixed feelings about the workshop system as it appears in America?
AZ: Well, we’re having this conversation in the last days of the semester, and I always have very critical feelings in the last days of the semester. [Laughter] I’m much more serene in the beginning and in the middle. There’s this phenomenon of fatigue, with all the dissertations and papers. There’s this strange feeling of mass production, which I hate. This year, I think, was a good workshop, a good group of people. But it is a collective thing. It’s not a workshop that I do, and the students are just listeners. It’s very much a collective, common cause. I can neither claim responsibility of the success nor bear the calamity of the failure completely, because it’s a being together. The workshop creates an immediacy in which it’s not just about poetry, it’s about personalities, a clash of personalities. It’s a very humbling experience.
Sometimes you think that somebody in your class is maybe not very smart. First of all, you’re not quite sure. Then, even if that is the case, this person is a living human being with all the forces of a human being. So you are always confronted with life, with somebody’s life, not just intellect. You have to respect it; that’s the mystery of being with other people, that you are not with minds, your are with everything—with their sorrows and joys. Some of them are handsome, and some of them are not, and it’s politically very incorrect to mention this, but that’s the human world. We are always exposed to this conflict. So it is interesting, and difficult. And as I say, it is more than intellectual—it has this clash, this clash of personalities.
After so many springs, I’m still not quite convinced that workshop is the best way. But maybe, because I’ve had several good workshops, it’s not the worst way, either—a very measured experience.
TS: Part of what I question about the model or the structure is just this institutional, or institutionalized, way in which university-affiliated writers teach young students, who then have the aspiration to go on and teach at universities. This in itself is not necessarily dangerous, except as it becomes the totality of the poetry world. The danger of it is that it becomes insular.
AZ: Yes, but not only insular. There’s this very strange mix between academic thinking and poetic thinking. There is, I think, even a model of a poem where criticism is referenced, sometimes sardonically. Again, I cannot name any names. But this co-existence of the academy and poetry is bearing its fruit: there is a kind of poetry that is written on the fence between academia and poetry.
TS: One more question about your teaching. Many of the things that you teach run counter to perceived wisdom, or this kind of hybrid academic-and-poetic. For example, in Two Cities you have a short essay, “In Defense of Adjectives,” which seems very counter to the typical workshop thinking, in which the adjective is a weakness. Do you see it as part of your work to offer a different or wider perspective on the potential of poetry?
AZ: Well, I don’t formulate it in an abstract way; I think that what I do in the classroom is what I am. I just bring my reflections and my experiences from the pre-university space. So it’s not deliberate, in terms of countering any currents in American poetry. It’s more naive. Just, here I am, this is what I think. In the beginning, I didn’t even know the prevailing moods in contemporary poetry—or I knew very little about them. Now I’ve read much more, so I’m more conscious about it, but I don’t imagine I’m just acting by opposition. It’s more of just trying to be consequent and to do whatever I think is right.
TS: Which in this case is for adjectives. [Laughter]
AZ: Well, yes, this would be one of the many points of my unwritten manifesto.
TS: Unwritten?—it’s not coming out in the new book [Obrona zarliwosci, In Defense of Ardor]?
AZ: Well, partly. Hopefully, a manifesto is never completely written. They’re just fragments. But there are some fragments in the new book, yes.
BB: When you are not spending your springs in Houston, you live elsewhere. You recently moved from Paris back to Krakow, your university town. Could you talk a little bit about what returning to Poland has meant to you?
AZ: Well, it has been a huge shock, just in terms of returning to a community. My many years in Paris were interesting and positive in many ways, and good for my writing. But I lost one dimension of a writer’s life, which is belonging to a community. For a long time I thought this was wonderful, not to belong—because, in my country, Poland, the community is very invasive. This is a very communitarian country. It’s almost hard to be lonely; it’s easier to be overwhelmed by the community than to suffer from loneliness. So for many years in Paris I had this nice feeling of escaping the pressure of a community, but then I sort of started to miss it. And now I am back in the herd. And I love it. So far I like this dimension that I got back. I don’t know exactly what it will mean for my writing and for my life, but I feel like being back in real life with friends and enemies—and some real problems, political problems—gives me back something that I had lost when I lived in Paris, or between Paris and Houston.
BB: There’s been a long and rich exchange between American and Polish poetries. In Warsaw in the ’40s, Milosz translated Shapiro, Auden, and Eliot, before coming to America in the ’60s to teach. This dialogue has been extended recently by the Krakow Poetry Seminar, which fulfills an idea that you and Edward Hirsch had—to take American students to Krakow to study. The second seminar will take place in July 2003. Can you talk a little bit about your vision for this seminar? In what ways, if any, has American poetry been important to your own work? And what has it meant for you to introduce Polish poetry to a new audience in America, mainly young students, young writers?
AZ: It is very hard for me to answer the part of your question about what I have learned. It’s more in terms of a kind of atmospheric category: the kind of seriousness (not that there is any seriousness lacking in the Polish tradition), or maybe this kind of obsession with poetry in America. I’m very ambivalent about it—the writing every day, this kind of permanence. The poet is always in charge. I am a little ironic about it, but I also like it. I think that I’ve learned something from it. And I think the good side of the poetic industry, the MFA industry (which has many less interesting sides), is this conviction that poetry is important. Not that I hadn’t thought so, but it helps somehow to know that there are campuses and places in this country where very serious people have this ongoing obsession with poetry. In Europe, I think that there are islands of poetry, both in time and in space. You don’t have these factories of poetry.
The idea of the seminar is, as you’ve said, this exchange. My idea was to make the exchange for at least the time of one week, very intensive and personal. One of the main things was for me to give younger American poets the opportunity of meeting Milosz, who is like a mountain of poetry. His wisdom, his experience, is so enormous that I think that every day when he’s not talking to young poets is a lost day. He does some of this in regard to younger Polish poets (though not, of course, every day). But because he cannot travel, the initial impulse was centered on Milosz and his wisdom. Also, his need to share his experiences; he is a very social being. But beyond this it is also, as you say, just this week of very intense conversation going both ways. I think that Polish poets have something to learn from American poets, too.
Brian Barker is the recipient of the 2004 Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize, and his book of poems, The Animal Gospels, will be published in fall 2005 or spring 2006. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Blackbird, The Writer’s Chronicle, American Book Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he is assistant director of the Center for the Literary Arts at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Todd Samuelson, a poetry editor at Gulf Coast magazine, is the recipient of a Donald Barthelme Fellowship and a Cultural Arts Council of Houston Grant. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Lyric Poetry Review, Perihelion, and elsewhere. His imprint, Fat Matter Press, produces letterpress editions of poetry, most recently a Czeslaw Milosz broadside, which he presented to the poet at last July’s Krakow Poetry Seminar.