An Interview with Polish Poet
by Ming Di
Ming Di: There is a new Chinese term, Sea Turtle, refering to people who have returned to the homeland after living overseas for a number of years, as “turtle” echoes “return” in Chinese. In this context, you are a “Sea Turtle” because you’ve returned to Poland after twenty years of drifting abroad. How do you feel like living in Krakow? How different is it now compared to the old one in the 70s? And how different is the present Poland besides being a democratic country? And how different is the current Polish poetry scene?
Adam Zagajewski: So many smaller questions in the bigger one… Yes, the present Poland is a democratic country which means it has fewer secrets. Countries under totalitarian domination don’t reveal their mysteries. Yet there’s nothing sensational in the new openness. It’s perhaps too early to say how much this “new” Poland differs from the older one. One thing is certain: life in Poland now is much better than before. The gift of freedom is not a myth, it’s reality. People are learning, and it takes ages to learn how to profit from this uneasy gift. Living in Krakow? I like it. It’s a medium-size city, not (yet) totally strangled by highways and cars. And the old city center is absolutely charming, even if you have to share it with many tourists these days. It was my college town so there are layers of remembrances, the city is cushioned by memory, so to speak.
MD: In the “Two Cities”, you divide people into “the settled, the emigrants and the homeless” and you define yourself as “the homeless”. Do you still feel “homeless” after you have returned to your home country? As we all know that one can feel homeless at home and vise versa. What was the primary force that drew you back to Krakow? Chinese has an old saying that “falling leaves return to their roots”, but is “return” the only destiny for “the homeless”?
AZ: I still am a little homeless. Once homeless, always homeless. I wanted to return to Krakow to taste the new life in my old country, to be nearer my old friends; my father was still alive when we left Paris for good.
For the homeless there are several options, all of them demanding a bit of philosophical resolve. You can stay abroad, philosophically, being an observer rather than a participant, or you can return and look at your native realm—philosophically as well. Because when you return after a long break you’ll never be unconditionally there; each day you’ll wake up and have a moment of hesitation: where am I. But there’s nothing terrible in it.
MD: Besides the two cities where you were born and where you moved to with your parents at the age of four months, Lvov and Gilwitz, you’ve lived in Berlin, Paris, Houston, Chicago, and Krakow. Of all the places, where do you feel most at home in your heart and why? How does the experience of living in different countries impact your writing? How do you associate each geographical location with the literary tradition behind it?
AZ: Krakow is the place which I cherish most; it’s a livable city for me. Then comes Lvov as a city which is more mystical than real but which means a lot for me, for my poetry. It’s a kind of a reservoir of meaning, of many possible meanings. The other cities offer me, when I revisit them, a kind of conviviality. I find it pleasant to recognize right away places which, years before, were so obviously “mine”. When I’m back in Paris, after half an hour it feels as if I had never left it: everything seems so familiar, unchanged, the paths of my afternoon walks are there, waiting for me…
MD: Polish literature has become very prominent since the beginning of the 20th century and you’ve had four Nobel laureates in literature. It’s a great heritage but at the same time it brings great challenge to the ones who are writing in their shadows. While maintaining highest respect for them on personal as well as literary levels, how have you managed to keep a personal voice distinctively different from theirs?
AZ: Well, when you have your days (or rather hours) of writing, of thinking—and they only come from time to time–you don’t have on your mind the “four Nobel laureates in literature”, you don’t target any “international recognition”, you’re alone in your room, with all your doubts and dreams, with the imagination.
And, for the other question, I can’t know myself, I can’t know whether indeed I’ve kept my own voice. I’ve written somewhere and I believe in it: we don’t hear our own voice, it’s not, after all, destined for us, We speak to other people.
MD: Czeslaw Milosz was a big influence to you when you were young and it’s a blessing that you were close to him in Krakow in his final years. In celebrating the 100 years of his birth, what would you like to share with Chinese readers? With over twenty years of acquaintance, I know it will be difficulty for you to say a few words but I would still make the request as you know how much he has influenced contemporary Chinese poets in exactly the same way how his poetry attracted you because “everything that was different from… [the] ‘people’s republic’ language.”
AZ: The more I know about Milosz— and this year has brought his first detailed biography plus many new essays, insights, etc.— the more impenetrable he seems to become. His greatness must lie in the incredible richness of his work. This richness is such that this year of his hundredth anniversary only complicated his image. After this year we’ll need at least five years to put some order into the new observations, new discoveries. His voice was so sovereign, so strong, and, in a way, plural; he spoke with several sub-voices, so to say. The shortest lesson to draw from his work is that you can’t write poetry without thinking and responding to important questions the time you live in is asking you. There’s an ethical clock built into ecstatic poetry.
MD: For the same and other reasons your poetry has influenced Chinese poets too. You know we share certain vocabulary from our childhood and youth such as Party, class or classless, and the big word that starts with C. What interests me most is how you evolved from a political poet to a more mature poet in terms of aesthetics. How did you manage to make that transition? Going to Paris put you in a distance from Poland… Did the “distance” give you a better perspective?
AZ: No, I don’t think it was the geographical distance which gave me spiritual distance to C., to use your lovely cipher (it’s like Cavafy speaking in his poems, with disgust, about Julian the Apostate). No, it rather was my conviction that C was already completely dead in the realm of ideas, much before it died in the pragmatic world of politics, and that it would have been a terrible waste to spend all my life combating a dead monster. It also was my feeling that “political poetry” wasn’t able to embrace the totality of my experience. And, also, the feeling that this kind of writing produced sooner or later (rather sooner than later) conventional forms, more so than poetry aiming at more substantial realms.
MD: Now that you are back in Poland, does it make you more critical of it again? Home is home only when you’ve lost it or are away from it… BTW, I saw a huge portrait of Lenin in Warsaw in 2010, and for a moment I thought I was back in China. The red portrait reminded me of the Mao badges that many taxi drivers in China hang on their rearview mirrors nowadays as they miss the Mao regime when China was a classless society and everyone was proletarian living poorly but “happily”. There has been a nostalgia feeling among the working class in China when the economic booming created separation of the rich and the poor. How is Poland doing?
AZ: A huge portrait of Lenin in Warsaw in 2010? It must have been irony, a jest or an “installation” in the sense of what modern artists do these days. No one (except for a handful of jerks) would today take seriously Lenin in Poland. Poland runs rather a danger of being too much to the right. I mean, in the free interplay of political forces in Poland it’s the left which is weak, which tries, unsuccessfully so far, to redefine itself. But, as far as I know, there’s not much nostalgia for C., thanks G.
MD: I like your word play. That huge portrait of Lenin reminded me of your poem “Old Marx”. You were protesting the C-ism in your youth and you were disappointed with the Bush administration too, yet still you have not acquired any faith in Marxism as some other people have. The world is complicated with no clear dividing line of East and West anymore, what is there that we can hold on to as poets? Of course the inner self is what we observe and write about, but what about social responsibility? What advise would you give to poets of younger generation?
AZ: That’s a very interesting question. It’s true, there’s no general philosophy, no set of ideas that we could easily discern and cling to—as poets, as thinkers, as citizens. When we look back at our history, probably both the Western and the Chinese history, a situation like this is unusual. Usually there were doctrines and religions than furnished intellectual frames for the individuals. So, what can we do? We probably have to do more homework than our predecessors had to. We need to read philosophers, theologians, but even before we can form a comprehensive map for ourselves we should have, I think, a provisional “frame”, we need to heed morality, to be more cautious than some of our predecessors in preaching any strong system. We can live without systems.
Actually I don’t have any ready answer to this question. I myself believe in an individual quest, done with a huge respect for spiritual values. I’m a Christian, an imperfect one…
And an advice for younger poets? Try to know as much as possible but don’t sell your soul to any doctrine.
MD: Will remember that. Now another question. You speak Polish, Russian, German, French and English, you have taught in Houston and Chicago for so many years and you read your poems in English sometimes but you write poetry only in Polish. Besides the fact that poetic subtlety can only be achieved in the native language, is there any other reason you write poetry in Polish? Some poets maintain a national or ethnical identity or even patriotism through writing in the mother tongue, or denounce the nationality by adopting a new language. But I know it’s not the case with you—yours is more of a literary choice. Yet, how do you separate the use of mother tongue and nationalism? This is an important question for me as I don’t feel belonging to any country even though I write in Chinese while living in America. I don’t believe in nationalism or patriotism to any country. And I always wonder how poets can maintain a language without yielding to the idea of “love” of a country. Are these two notions also sort of “eternal enemies” in a sense?
AZ: I don’t think there’s a link between writing in your mother tongue and nationalism. The former is a formal thing, a pot which can be filled with very different content. Look at Milosz who never deserted his native language and at the same time was a ferocious enemy of nationalism.
I write in Polish because I know it so well; I can write my poems or essays without consulting a dictionary and hearing echoes from different poems in Polish, dear to me. Plus I believe we’re formed by the history of our countries; successes and/or humiliations from previous centuries exist subliminally in our minds. We can liberate themselves from them by writing but not by leaping to another language. I hate nationalism as much as Milosz did but can find in the history of my country references which help me to understand the world. You don’t need to “love” your country, you’re naturally interested in it, you can (should) be critical of it and it gives you strength. In your case it’s seems to me so obvious: the Chinese civilization is so old, so rich, how could one renounce on such a powerful resource?
MD: For me it’s more complicated than that. Back to you. “En Route” from the “Eternal Enemies” is such a lovely set of short poems. Did you write them while en route? Well, I like the idea of being en route. It is the very fact of losing home that gives us a goal in life—every poem is a step on the road towards home as you wrote that “go to Lvov, after all/it exists, quiet and pure as/a peach. It is everywhere.” Even Krakow, your physical home at the present, is a temporary place, isn’t it? At the same time it is Lvov that makes you appreciate every city you live and have lived in, isn’t it?
AZ: You’re such a good reader. Yes, Lvov is the ideal city for me, lost for ever and yet very potent in a different dimension of life. I’m writing this in Chicago, in Hyde Park, which is the university neighborhood, soon I’ll be going back to Krakow, after a few days I’m supposed to fly to Berlin for yet another Milosz thing, so yes, I’m still en route, for the time being.
To be published in the October 2011 Issue of PoetryEastWest, a bilingual journal of Chinese and English