INTERVIEW WITH ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI BY IZABELA J.BOZEK
Katarzyna Newcomer - She writes in Polish and English. Her Haiku
poems and sequences were well received in Dragonfly;
Modern Haiku and Ko (Japan). Her book of poetry
After - something ensues river flows was published in Polish
to celebrate Adam Mickiewicz's 200th Birthday Anniversary.
Her recent poetry is influenced by American landscapes
and recent wars. She organizes annual readings of the works
of the Polish classical poets in English translations, performed
by Overbrook Poets.
On Adam Zagajewski
as presented in Polish-American Cultural Center & Museum
on the 27th October, 2006
(Used by permission from Katarzyna Newcomer)
Adam Zagajewski covers his biography in his essays and interviews, so
I will say only a few essential facts and a few his statements relating to his writing.
He was born in Lvov (in Ukrainian "Lviv") in 1945. That part, also called Eastern Galicia, used to belong to the Kingdom of Poland
and Lithuania, later it was occupied by the Russian Empire. After World War II, when Zagajewski was only
4 months old, the borders of Poland were re-arranged and Easter Galicia stayed in
the Soviet Union; the family of Zagajewskis, together with their aunts
and grandfathers, moved to Gliwice in Upper Silesia.
I am mentioning this, as in Poland our classes of literature always comprised of presenting historical background first.
Adam Zagajewski speaks on history:
I think that writing a poem does have a historical dimension. Poetry lives
in time. It is a special combination of what is changeable and what is constant...
we must make a little effort to understand the meaning of some old poems...
I am very concerned about my American students, who have no historical
sense... I am fascinated by history, and I read historical books. History is one
of the immanent ingredients of my poems. Sometimes, I use history in a non-
historical way. Sometimes, I put historical dynamics in my poems, then I stop it.
Adam Zagajewski comes from an educated family. At home, he acquired
a feeling of grandeur, values, and was acquainted with foreign languages,
reading books, music and arts.
In 1963, he began his studies of philosophy and literature
at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. He became active in the dissident
Solidarity movement. In 1982, in the wake of martial law, he emigrated to Paris, where he co-edited a literary magazine
Zeszyty Literackie (Literary Notebooks).
A few years later, Zagajewski began to teach European literature and creative
writing at the University of Houston and travelled extensively in the USA.
The political changes in Poland allowed him to return to Cracow; presently,
he divides his time between Cracow, Paris and the USA.
Among the honors he received are: a fellowship from the Berliner
Kunstlerprogramm", the Kurt Tucholsky Prize, Prix de la Liberte, Guggenheim
Fellowship, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
The stage for Adam Zagajewski's verses is the whole world, as we remember, the method was introduced by Goethe in Faust.
But Zagajewski is an observer rather than an actor. There is no social disparity in his verses; personae intermingle in
a variety of situations as Zagajewski travels inwardly. The tone is mostly light, playful, ironic; the language balanced,
with no outbursts of emotions, but can be bitter and sardonic. His expressions are precise, visual, coming from different
branches of knowledge, like music, painting, philosophy, history, religion; politics influenced more his earlier
years of creativity.
As Zagajewski says in Two Cities, his greatest influence were
Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz. In his essay, he tells us about his first
meeting with Herbert when he (quote) "came to our school"...
He read fragments of Barbarian in the Garden and a few poems... He was
the first real poet I had listened to. He read, among other poems, the unusual
but very simple Biology Teacher. I understood then, or at least I felt vaguely,
that social issues could be tied to non-social ones, that one could speak about
something that belongs to the community in a way that goes beyond the limits
of this category.
(Next point). In one of the essays in Two Cities, Zagajewski stands in defense of
We are often told to scratch out adjectives. Good style, we hear, gets by fine
without adjectives (probably the influence of journalistic English
and advertisements). Zagajewski gives us one sentence for consideration:
Melons are piled on the fruit stand. Meanwhile, one melon is as sallow
as Talleyrand's complexion when he addressed the Congress of Vienna,
yet another has sunken cheeks, and is lost in a deep, mournful silence, as if
it could not bear to part with the fields of Provence...Some are hard, or soft, dry,
resigned, exhausted by the trip, rain, strange hands, the grey skies of a Parisian suburb.
In Two Cities, Adam Zagajewski also comments on the role of poetry in
the face of suffering and cruelty of the world, that is, on Theodor Adorno's
statement that poetry cannot be written after the tragedy of Auschwitz:
Auschwitz exists in our imagination, especially for somebody who grew up about
50-60 km from the former camp. This is part of my own heritage. On the other
hand, poetry also has an element that is joyful, playful and no Auschwitz can take
it away...Adorno should not paralyze poetical creativity.
One of Adam Zagajewski's main interests is the duality of life on Earth,
all its elements, physical and abstract that exist side by side, like good and evil,
science and religion, mortal and immortal, absurdity and rationalism, beauty
and surrounding truth. Adam Mickiewicz expressed this beautifully in his sonnet
"Alushta by Day": in the wave (as the wave of waters and life) "fleets and flocks
of swans bathe" - (w fali, jako fali wód i zycia) "kapia sie w niej floty i stada
Some Zagajewski's comments on his poems:
On "Dutch Painters": the poem indicates "the limits of expression".
"At first, I build this spark of admiration for the Dutch painters and then take it
away. Only darkness remains in the end.
On the poem "Spróbuj opiewac okaleczony swiat" (Try to Praise
the mutilated World), associated with the "9/11 tragedy:
The poem was written a year and a half before September 2001. "It expresses my
conviction that we live in a mutilated world. City of Gliwice was laced with
the post-German and post-Auschwitz history. It was bombed and largely
destroyed. Some buildings were never rebuilt after the war. The feeling that
this world is not perfect was part of my childhood, and it has never left me.
Adam Zagajewski on poetry
From the interview by Izabela J.Bozek;
Nowy Dziennik-Przeglad Polski; New York,
23rd March, 2007
Translation by Katarzyna Newcomer
Reprinted by permission of Katarzyna Newcomer
...The American visits are very stimulating. In American literary and academic
circles one feels a certain dynamics and energy; there is less bureaucracy, more
enthusiasm; there are outstanding students, who treat their duties seriously, who
want to learn...
... That seriousness of their writing is priceless. I am not saying that
the students in Cracow treat their classes less seriously, but it seems that they take
less risk; they treat writing as a supplement and do not - as American students do -
put everything at stake. At the same time, the Americans have a sort of security
in the possibility of teaching creative writing. This system supposes to copy itself
indefinitely, because every next generation of students aspire to the role of
a creative writing teacher.
Izabela J.Bozek: In the interview with Ewa Sonnenberg, you said: I often think whether
the poet has anything to say, and I think that he has, but the poet actually does not know what he is saying.
A good poet tells people something but he himself does not know what it is. Would you like
to develop this statement?
A. Zagajewski: I am also intrigued by that. I am convinced that poets have a message
to pass on; maybe it is something of substance, but is difficult to express it in
the rational language. The part of this message borders between rationality
and irrationality. It fascinates me that - in my view - poets seem to be messengers,
passing something that they themselves wouldn't be able to formulate.
That message sometimes exceeds their reasoning. This probably refers to
other kinds of art as well. It takes place in poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.
I think that he too did not know his message to the very end. In the works of
great poets exist a certain excess, something more what the poet thinks; something
over which the poet has no control. In the moment of inspiration, something
opens in the poet that leads to appearance of an important message that helps
people to live and at the same time, it signals the presence of the unnamed.
If the poet knew exactly what it was, he would write articles not poetry.
In writing there is an element of spontaneity and the unforeseen, at the same
time, this "something" is disclosed; this "something" writes itself into the poem.
I do not want to use big words; I do not know where it comes from
but that "something" is beyond the common, intelligent or rational way of
thinking. There follows an opening to sacrum . There is sacrum of poetry,
sacrum of religion; they partly overlap but not completely. I do not want to say
that poets are shamans, though there is an element of shamanism in poetry.
But there is also much of rationalism; the poet also is somebody who thinks like
a philosopher, a scholar, a journalist. Not all in poetry is shamanism and the force
of fantasy coming from the outside. That "something" appears rarely, sometimes
as an additional ingredient in that unique mixture created by poetry.
I.J. Bozek: Once I attended the reading of Julia Hartwig and Rosanna Warren. Both
outstanding poets read their poems, but one could notice differences in their
writing. Among others, there was a noticeable difference between Polish
American poetry: what is particular in the Polish poetry and is lacking in
the American one is sublimity and distance.
A.Zagajewski: There is some danger in what you say; it always happens in general
statements and I would be careful in such absolute generalization, but to
a certain degree you are right.
Once in Rome, there was the evening of poetry with the participation of Julia
Hartwig and other Polish and Italian poets. One person asked why the poetry of
the Polish poets is enticing and much deeper than the poetry of the Italian poets.
I think that Polish poetry still lives in an incredible moment of symbolism
and sublimity. It goes beyond colloquialism, beyond the confessional
and psychological language. The Polish poetry has preserved the faith that it
has something sacred to say. But let's not forget that American poetry is very
rich; there are thousands of creative poets; it's an army. There are many interesting
poets like August Kleinzahler or C.K.Williams. In this variety of poetry, one must
be careful about any generalizations.
However, Polish poetry is highly regarded by the American reader, who
admires its interlacing of facts with a certain philosophical level. He admires its
being readable and ambitious at the same time, its speaking of deep issues with reference to human conditions. The problem of poetry, not only American, often appears in poetical specialization, because poetry is created for poets, for a refined
reader, who wants to taste the language; they are addressed to the academic specialist,
who will be able to decipher the codes included in the poem. The Polish poetry
is also very rich in the language, but it's directed to a common reader, not a specialist.
This is poetry open and rich in humanistic issues of humanity at the same time.
And maybe this is the difference...
Thank you to Katarzyna Newcomer
Thank you to Peter Krok for arranging this interview and sending me Katarzyna's translation.