Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Agnieszka Kuciak and Tomasz Różycki in Conversation with Zoë Skoulding: Four Perspectives

Breaking out of Reverence
by Gloria Dawson

The chair mentioned the ‘opening field’ of poetry in Poland and I wondered if it was open-field as in poetics. But Simon was reading Charles Olson next to me so forgive me. Tomasz Różycki spoke of himself as the king of "some Eastern European country" which, Plato-like, excluded "deserters, poets, traders and profiteers." Różycki’s strength is his ability to project himself into different stances, characters. Why is he the king of a regime which exiles poets? The place is always changing. But for Rozycki it is often islands and beaches, or looking into a watery mirror, which "moves, and the whole neighbourhood with it." This power is not just migratory - ‘nowhere’, he says later, is a comfortable place for a writer - but transubstantiatory. "The poet in his room will then eat God." There is a sureness in God’s presence in Agnieszka Kuciak’s work, as well; but the only guarantee is of his presence in the poem, not his actual substance. Różycki opens and closes his set with an (ironic? must be) statement of the ‘riches’ that poetry brings - but through that irony (the private island, all the food you can eat) is the real freedom - of thought, of movement.

Agnieszka, heavy with Dante, invents poets (I was reminded of Pessoa) rather than narratives. But she too touches on Plato’s exiling of the poets in the ‘Symposium’ (a hypothetical proposition). I don’t want to draw trite political inference from this, but it’s an intriguing overlap, the poets proposing the rope from which to hang themselves. She is deeply modest (irritatingly so); her poems, even in translation, are incredibly sensitive to the relationship between, for example, architecture and painful history - "roof’s yarmulke in place" in the ceiling in the swimming bath tells us everything, and she doesn’t need to footnote the poem with the dark history of those baths "where I, unfortunately, learned to swim." I would have liked more of this meditation on culpability in the reading. She writes as though things say things for themselves rather than the writer’s solipsistic ventriloquism. The rain is "the tiny quiet yes that will destroy you." And writing, imagining, can take you too far, somewhere where "there are no dogs, no rooms, no mothers." Her relationship with Dante and fear - fear is something, for all her protestations of levity, that is holy, that is sacred. She characterises the poetry of Milosz and the Polish poets of his generation as ‘the poetry of incantation, of prayer.’ She is breaking out of reverence.

Falling into Holes
by Holly Hopkins

During this event I fell into holes. Kuciak and Rozycki read in Polish, their words subtitled them on TV screens and I was continually lost. Which surprised me, given I have not had problems with earlier subtitled events. This is entirely my own baggage, literacy was never my strong point. But today I could not match pace, in a hurry not to be left behind I would skim and then be left floored at the bottom of the screen, or I would give myself time, catch an image and then lose out on a handful - no idea how many - of lines, scooped up and dropped into the next stanza. It was frustrating, yet at the same time interesting, to catch only fragments. I felt everything shook up, context shattered.

The synagogue turned municipal swimming pool with ghosts bathing and showering on the bottom - I could not catch the tone at first, though it dawned. The Italian men waiting for blondes, were they comic? Tragic? This is a response to visiting Italy, home of culture and refinement and finding a “culture of eating pizza and hunting for blondes.” Is this a poem about unrealistic expectations, or a comment on cultural decline? Both? My failure to keep up and my continual unhealthy stitch was my own experience, but the room did feel full of frustration. Particularly the questions and answers. Mistakes and confusion and guesses and other very interesting occurences.

Monopoly Really Barrier Unassailable Gulf Truly
by Adham Smart

The translator has a MONOPOLY over what you hear and what it means! How can you know what it is that the poet REALLY intends with their words when the interpretation of those words is up to the gobetween who does not know you? The BARRIER of language is UNASSAILABLE!

But isn’t this true of poetry in one’s own language too? The GULF of understanding between the writer and the reader! Is it ever TRULY reconcilable?


Yes, I cried myself to sleep
the night I heard old Poland speak
it was not the rhymes that got me
but the inflation of the złoty

Social vs. Individual Freedoms
by George Ttoouli

The event showcased two poets from a new Arc anthology featuring six Polish poets, cunningly titled Six Polish Poets. I was a big fan of the earlier Polish poetry anthology published by Arc, called Altered States, arguably a more cunning title.

The new anthology is a kind of response; where the earlier book showcased American-influenced poets in the confessional or New York mode, this anthology takes a more traditional response, containing sonnets and other established forms. I had a quick flick through the pages of the book and saw very little play with the poem’s shape on the page. In fact, the pentameter seemed a common line unit, or something thereabouts, and regularity abounded.

Within that, though, the poets found their freedom. Różycki, for example, found sonnets “restricting, and I enjoy breaking through those restrictions.” Kuciak, similarly played with tradition, taking Cavafy’s poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, and making her own version: ‘Waiting for the Blondes.’ I felt a surge of latent Greek nationalism listening to the piece, which was fortunately not the dumb tripe I expected from the title, but I still had the urge to shout out Edward Flint’s ‘Waiting for the Communists’ in response.

Różycki described himself as an anti-poet, which instantly endeared him to me. (Doesn’t take much, even on a bad day.) For him, poetry no longer means ‘Poetry’ any more, just as for some of the young Romanian poets featured in No Longer Poetry, that groundbreaking anthology of New Romanians published a couple of years ago.

What I found most notable in Różycki’s poetry was the folding of concepts - religion, politics and nature. At the end of one poem, he lists the targets his utopia will persecute: “deserters, poets, traitors, profiteers.” In another, he describes, “the whole sky: the clouds, the air force and God.” These lists are loaded, not wasted. Sparks fly off the poems, even when form seems to take them to obscure constructions.

Kuciak’s work plays with multiple voices and personae, with reported speech mixing with narrative. This was very interesting. There was something deeper going on than I was able to grasp in the reading (she read quite fast, grumblegrumble), but the formalism was strong, the language complex as a result. I’ve already talked about the way she played with tradition, so no point repeating myself.

The really interesting angle for me was in the discussion: Różycki talked about how he was from a displaced background; his family were forcibly relocated after the Second World War, leaving them rootless, constantly pining for the golden age of their family’s history, when everything was perfect and “carrots could be bought for minus eleven złoty”. Nowhere is a comfortable place for him now, he is used to not belonging.

This seems to be a positive counter-example to John Berger’s notion of poetry demanding roots, place. Oppression is divorceable from displacement and rootlessness is not the exclusive territory of capitalism. This is the problem I’m left with (and please excuse the leap of logic, I haven’t thought about this enough): is it better to be able to choose to leave your home than it is to be able to stay in your home with restricted freedoms? I.e. is freedom of individual action and thought more important than social freedoms? Jury’s out. I will mull some more and come back to this.

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