The Irreverence of Poetry Writing

In Progress: American Poets in Krakow

The June 17-21 Krakow Poetry Symposium will bring together distinguished poets of several generations from the United States and other countries for 5 days of “International Poets in Conversation.”   The Symposium is organized by the American Poetry Foundation and is an initiative of American poet Edward Hirsch and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who over the years have built permanent literary bridges between Poland and the United States.  The United States Consulate General is pleased to join the Krakow Festival office and Jagiellonian University in supporting this significant event.  The Symposium includes two poetry evenings: onWednesday, June 19 at 19:00 at Galicja Jewish Museum and Thursday, June 20 at 19:00 on the Stanislaw Wyspianski stage of Krakow Theater Academy.   All events are open to the public.  The results of the symposium (poems, translations, and reviews) will be published in “Poetry magazine”, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English speaking world.

More information about the Symposium is available here

Easter and Palm Sunday Red

I found myself mysteriously attracted by the pigment 

in this kind of red… 

You can give it a number, don it a code, paint it on nails,

wear it on lips or eyelids,

stamp it on paper under a fingertip, or bury it in your memory…

It will still be the same kind of red, will it not?

 Take a closer look at the wall on the stage in this picture of beautiful Angela Gheorghiu. 

It seems to be the same kind of red, doesn’t it?

Listen to “Love is Blindness” 

on an album in this colour.

Can you hear the same kind of red? 

Feel your heart beat. Is it the same kind of red pumping in your chest?

What does time smell like?

In a world devoid of senses,  let the tip of your tongue taste fear.

What kind of red does it taste like?

When one by one, the senses leave you, what is left?

Imagine dying in a world without senses. It seems a cruel fantasy, doesn’t it?

Imagine being born without senses. What kind of reality does this spell?

 Whether imagined or excruciatingly real, as it sometimes is, living with or without senses has the same kind of answer. Love. One and the same. 

Feel it, savour it, nourish it,  absorb it into your lungs, wash your body in its aura, dive in its seas, relax in its softness, fade away in its grace.

Happy Easter and Happy Palm Sunday to you, all!


Writers Passing Through Krakow: Zadie Smith and Gabriela Adamesteanu as Seen by Alina Alens

Today, on what is deemed to be the international Day of Poetry, I happened to have a meeting with one of my students, Mariusz Walczak, who translated to me from Polish an interview with Zadie Smith  taken after the Czeslaw Milosz Literature Festival, and published in the first issue of the book magazine “Ksiazki” in July, last year.

Zadie Smith and Alina Alens (Photo by Tomasz Wiech)

While discussing the questions, answers and several inevitable translation issues as we went through the interview, I was brought back to the meeting with Romanian writer Gabriela Adamesteanu in Krakow 7 days ago, on the occasion of the release of her novel, “Dimineata pierduta”, in Polish translation “Stracony Poranek”, albeit across three languages – Polish, English, and Romanian -, a linguistic reality I am by now familiar with, by force of circumstance. 

Both authors happened to be, in 2011 and last week, at their second visit to the city of Krakow. As a temporary city resident since late 2006, I was fortunate to meet them both, exchange a few words, and offer each of them a copy of my book of poems “The Incomplete Fantasy We Call Love”.

To paraphrase Zadie Smith – via Mariusz’s translation that I am grateful for :), Thank you, Mariusz!, we live in a world that favours non-fiction/ the things that actually happen(ed), over fiction/ the things that occur(ed) in an author’s imagination, a world in which people have lost their patience for being guided into fictional worlds of sorts – all except, maybe, some educated elites within the contemporary reading public. Is it a stretch of the imagination to say that living in one’s head as a self-exploring writer nowadays is more than a risky business, verging on a kind of self-imposed social isolation?

Asked what type of literature she prefers to write, Zadie Smith gives a two-fold answer, saying that she writes articles, essays and reviews  requested by various publications for practical reasons and with  immediate results, whereas writing a novel is a much more unpredictable endeavour. That is because while writing a novel a writer can dive in and disappear for what can sometimes end up to be years. Gabriela Adamesteanu is, in her turn, well-known for her non-fictional review and article writing in the Romanian cultural press. When asked if her non-fiction writing sometimes blends into her fiction, she asserted that, even though the research for certain articles could work to the advantage of something she writes, the fictional worlds stand alone, uniquely anchored in the imagination, no palpable reality strings attached.

 The greater part of the interview with Zadie Smith, as well as the greater part of the meeting with Gabriela Adamesteanu, rested in a talk on different aspects and qualities of literary speech, in other words, on the mechanics of the dialogue that the literary characters engage in. According to Zadie Smith, there are three categories of writers when it comes to the art of dialogue, which she does not see as an outdated strategy for building characters: there are writers like J. D. Salinger, who write sparkling, natural dialogues with ease and perfect intuition, writers whose characters tend to sound like themselves (in terms of humour, tone, concepts, phrasing and the like), which lends them a certain artificial quality, like the School of Saul Bellow, and writers like John Updike, for whom dialogue is nothing complicated, and who tend to always preserve and observe a certain thesis behind their characters’  speech. Each category of characters created by these three types of writers is different, some being kept willingly diverse, others remaining homogenous. In the case of Gabriela Adamesteanu, the characters of her novel released  in Polish translation last week refuse to remain homogenous, and their language, the main topic of that and many other literary meetings, we were told, spanned the Romanian social hierarchy from its very  top to its very bottom, in a manner that has made it such a daring challenge for any translator, and so true to the reality of the Romania of the inter- and post-war period, that the author herself confessed that when she thought of her book being one day translated into another language, that possibility was as far from reality (as she saw it) as astronomically possible.

In writing the text of the five scenes of the play “Born A Foreigner” for the Talking About Borders international drama competition, over  two weeks before  December 21st, 2011 – coincidentally a year before the Mayans predicted end of the world, I myself  was confronted with the challenge of creating strong, independent characters with voices of their own, while prserving the intended meaning of their sentences. The most challenging character voice in the play was Wido’s, as he is a character whose English, the original language the play was written and meant to be acted in, is not very good, so that the risks involved in illustrating his linguistic limitations proved very high. “Is the character’s language that bad, or does this author have no clue about how to write?” became the question. As “Born a Foreigner” was written as a play, I decided to use correct language and, instead of  inserting pauses and mistakes, I (subsequently) added introductory notes in which I advise the actor playing Wido to improvise and reduce the language of the character as he sees fit:

 ACTORS’ NOTES: The language used by Wido, Alta, and Nomura in order to communicate is not their mother tongue. The original language of the play is English, which Alta and Nomura have a good knowledge of. Wido’s knowledge of this language (or the language the play is translated in), on the other hand, is more limited than the other two characters’. Therefore, the actor playing Wido’s part has to make use of pauses, hesitations, or mistakes and insert involuntary linguistic inaccuracies while communicating. The texts of the two scenes of Act 1 include the lines that Wido would have used if he had spoken English (or the language the play is translated in) well. Each of Wido’s lines is subject to alteration. As a result, Alta and Nomura’s lines may also undergo changes. Wido’s linguistic difficulties remain consistent throughout the play, throughout Act 1 and Act 4, respectively. In spite of language mistakes, the general impression conveyed by the two scenes of Act 1 is one of apparently successful communication.

Clever trick? Lazy writer who makes life hard for the actor who happens to play Wido and the director who happens to direct the play? May the audience decide. I am ready for any outcome, as I assume each of the writers passing through Krakow might be, should they decide to have their words performed on stage. When Gabriela Adamesteanu’s “Wasted Morning” was put on stage in 1987 by Catalina Buzoianu, it  became a cultural centre of interest at a time when the Ceaușescu regime had entered its more repressive phase. I promise to be back with impressions from the first performance of “Born A foreigner”, in Poland or elsewhere there are still skin colour lessons to be learnt. For now, I am just passing through, from winter into spring, from circles of silence into other circles of silence, in this border-line fictional world of the blogosphere.

Someone To Talk To, too-too-ti-do!

The brilliant son of Colombian writer  Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha Pardo, Rodrigo Garcia, wrote and directed Ten Tiny Love Stories (2001), a movie that takes the art of monologue beyond the screen.

The words move away from the page, as you can, yourselves, witness in the fragments below.

I agree, this is perfect material for WORDS: “Period. New Paragraph,” or MOVIES: “Cut… Action!”, but it’s too good not to step out into the open, a post of its own, isn’t it? 

Epilogue of the Ninth Monologue


“Truth is… 

…I immediately thought it was kind of silly for him to be crying in a movie. It was a red flag for me. Immediately I said to myself, be careful with Ben, he’s sentimental. Sentimental people are ruled by their feelings and incapable of anything. So I thought that the whole thing would go nowhere. But then, when he proposed to me, I had already forgotten the whole thing, and I said yes and we got married. It’s funny… Whenever I start out with someone, I fill my head up with expectations. Later, when it’s all over, I can’t, for the life of me, remember what it was that I was hoping for. I mean, I remember stuff… but I can’t remember who I was… The whole relationship is like this weird terrain, barren mostly, with two or three things sticking out of it that I recognise. Two or three things sticking out like… warts that have shrivelled and died.”


Epilogue of the Tenth Monologue


“People, things, places, they can just wash away, and what’s left is a sense of peacefulness and the feeling that we’re all alone, and that’s OK, and that that’s a relief, too. It’s a relief to know that the wind will blow us away, leaving nothing, not even a trace, and it’s good to be nothing and it’s good to have nothing. If only we wanted nothing while we were here…”


Earlier, the Same Tenth Monologue


“By the time I met Roy I’ve already been through a good number of boyfriends and I was only 27. Some people would say too many, but how many is too many, and what’s a boyfriend anyway? Boys I kissed but didn’t sleep with?”


From Writing a Resume, by Wislawa Szymborska 


“Of all our loves, mention only the marriage;

of all your children, only those who were born.”


“Write as if you’d never talked to yourself

and always kept yourself at arm’s length.”


“In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.

What matters is its shape, not what it hears.

What is there to hear, anyway?

The clatter of paper shredders.”

and so on…

Czesław Miłosz and Kraków

Interview with Ewa Zamorska-Przyłuska,

author of the literary guide to Kraków and the Małopolska region,

Przewodnik literacki

po Krakowie i województwie małopolskim (WAM 2010)

I invite you to read below the interview she gave for the Karnet monthly, on Czesław Miłosz’s Kraków:

Barbara Fijał: In your book, you name nearly a thousand men of letters associated with Kraków and Małopolska. A very special place among them is assumed by Czesław Miłosz, whose name – next to that of Stanisław Lem – crops up most often. Was it a conscious decision or is it just that while writing about literary Kraków one simply cannot leave out the person of Miłosz, who lived in Kraków for just 10 years?

Ewa Zamorska-Przyłuska: My decisions about including an author or a place in the guidebook usually had their own “solid” reasons, the ranking of the person or a venue on the map being among the most important ones. Yet those decisions also had certain undertones based on nuances and personal preferences. Czesław Miłosz owes his multifaceted presence in the book not only to his unquestioned position in the world of literature, but – possibly even to a greater degree – to the fact that I still find him intriguing, somebody who does not leave me in peace, and who in different periods of my life I must rediscover anew, even if only in small snippets. The measure of time, whether only a decade or an entire lifetime, is of no consequence here. The game is played at another scale whose name is intensity.

B F: Miłosz was already living in Kraków in 1945.

E Z-P: He was, but it may be worthwhile mentioning his earlier encounters with Kraków first. When he saw our city before the second world war, he found it charming. In 1941, when he arrived here with Jerzy Andrzejewski from the ruins of Warsaw and visited the café in the architecturally perfect and modern Dom Plastyków – the “House of Artists” designed by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, at ul. Łobzowska 3, the city brought Paris to his mind…

Early in 1945, the poet reached Kraków, freshly liberated by the Red Army, and moved with his wife Janina to the Dom Literatów providing accommodation to assorted men of letters at ul. Krupnicza 22, from where he soon moved to ul. św. Tomasza 26, to a large louse-ridden flat which he occupied together with Tadeusz and Zofia Breza. He had the quarters assigned to him by a political officer of the Polish Army, a true éminence grise and writer, Adam Ważyk, who – as a “Lublin man”, closely associated with the new powers that be – had opportunities in this city that were next to infinite. Miłosz resided in Kraków for less than a year, witnessing not only the new order, but also the poverty and suffering of the people who he met e.g. around the railway station.

To get to know the places associated with the poet at this time, you need to visit the headquarters of Film Polski at ul. Lea 5 (today’s Mikro cinema), where he wrote the script for Unvanquished City (Robinson Warszawski) together with Jerzy Andrzejewski. In The Captive Mind (Zniewolony umysł, 1953) you can find a staggering description of the view from its window onto the courtyard of the Regional Security Office (UB) where the soldiers of the clandestine army were held captive.

Ul. Wielopole 1 is the address of Dziennik Polski, where Miłosz published his regular column under the nom de plume czmił. He knew Jerzy Putrament, the editor-in-chief of the daily, very well from his Vilnius days. Miłosz also published in Twórczość and Odrodzenie, which were housed in the Feniks building at ul. Basztowa 15, and in Przekrój weekly which at that time was based both at ul. Wielopole 1 and at ul. Starowiślna 4. As he wrote in a tribute to Kazimierz Wyka, Professor at the Jagiellonian University, editor-in-chief of Twórczość, and activist of the Polish Writers’ Union (ZLP), “friendship with him sweetened my time in Kraków, where I found myself much like many others (…). If not for the delegation to a foreign post, I would probably have stayed at ul. św. Tomasza in between Wyka and Jerzy Turowicz, with whom I left the galley proofs of my volume entitled Ocalenie (Rescue) in 1945. When I come to think about it today, I believe that having such friends is a sufficient reason to take root in Kraków, even though how I would have behaved in the Stalinist period, I dare not pronounce.” (2000).

In December, Miłosz left for New York as a diplomat, saying his farewells to Poland in 1951 to become an émigré for a long period of time. In 1959, Czesław’s father, Aleksander, died and was buried in the Rakowice Cemetery (quarter LXIII, row 11, grave 18). It was not until June 1981 that the poet was welcomed back to Kraków as winner of the Nobel Prize.

Return visits to Kraków since the late 1980s are separate subject…

B F: Was our city frequently present in the writing of the Nobel Prize Winner? What is the Kraków that emerges from his works?

E Z-P: Kraków was certainly not one of the foremost themes of Miłosz, even though it plays an important role e.g. in A Poetical Treatise (Traktat poetycki, 1957), where it is identified with the culture of the Młoda Polska – Young Poland movement. One may not gloss over the image in Powrót do Krakowa w roku 1880 (1984) either, devoted to someone hardly known today, Julian Klaczko, a man from Vilnius who settled in Kraków. Miłosz mentions “the little town in a hollow by Cathedral Hill / with the graves of the kings”. Another work (W Krakowie, 2001) reads: “on the border of this world and the other, in Kraków. / Pitter-patter on the worn out marbles of the churches, / Generation after generation. It is here that I’ve understood / Something of the customs of my sisters and brothers”. Kraków does not fascinate Miłosz as an urban organism or structure. Perhaps it used to be more of a pretext than the goal of poetic expeditions that went far beyond the borders of the city… Yet, as Ewa Bieńkowska wrote after his death, “it happened thus that Kraków proved the place of Miłosz’s last reconciliations and his last thanksgivings”. Which is the very measure of the intensity I mentioned earlier in this interview.

B F: What, then, could incline the poet to choosing this very city when he decided to return to Poland in 1993?

E Z-P: In the interview he gave to Bronisław Maj in the same year 1993, when he was still living at Berkeley, Miłosz very clearly put a finger on it thus: “I like Kraków very much. I enjoy Kraków, as it is truly a university city, yet in a size that is still human. Moreover I finished growing up in Vilnius, and in many respects Kraków reminds me of my university in Vilnius. The walking of the same few streets every day has its charm. It has, and there are plenty of things going on within these few streets. It is very important, and it is plainly seen, especially in contrast with those cities where nothing happens for tens of miles – in music, poetry, literature, science: no cultural events… (…). Moreover: the beauty of your city also means a lot. Old stones, architecture…”. Miłosz emphasised that his relations with Kraków are of precisely a spiritual character – still in this fragment, we see that the physical “substance” of the city is what crops up second in Miłosz, after the description of its “function”. Already when he arrived to be granted the honorary doctorate of the Jagiellonian University in 1989, Miłosz was believed to have asked that they should find him a home (obligatorily within the garden ring of Planty), since he might soon settle down in Kraków – the city he considered the most attractive. And indeed, together with his wife, Carol, they ended up living close to Planty, yet on the outside of its ring. It was his favourite place for walks.

B F: You have mentioned a few places that Miłosz was connected to – the house at ul. św. Tomasza, the flat in Krupnicza, and another one at Bogusławskiego… Did he take any special liking to any spot in Kraków, did he make his mark on one particular place?

E Z-P: I believe this would be the apartment at ul. Bogusławskiego 6, on the first floor. Even as late as the 1990s, he would come here in the spring to return to California in autumn, yet at 90, he remained here for good. And in that apartment he died on 14th August 2004. I recently read the talks between him and Agnieszka Kosińska, the poet’s secretary from 1996 until his death. In her memoirs, she fills up the space of the city with an exceptionally subtle, modest, and at the same time highly realistic tale full of expression and temper about Miłosz. Moreover, the readers are also familiar with a colourful account by Jerzy Illg, who got the apartment ready for the arrival of the Miłosz couple… Yet the testimony of Kosińska about how Miłosz filled this space with his presence seems to me, particularly acute.

B F: Miłosz’s Kraków is more than just places, it is primarily people – the writers he was associated with, and the magazines and newspapers where he published his poems. Could you talk about this side of Miłosz’s life in Kraków?

E Z-P: It is generally known that the poet remained on friendly terms with the milieu of Znak, the Catholic monthly and Tygodnik Powszechny the Catholic weekly – Jerzy Turowicz was among his chief friends. The realm of closest friends included Wisława Szymborska, Professor Teresa Walas and Professor Aleksander Fiut, Marek Skwarnicki, and the late Professor Jan Błoński, whom he visited in the district of Kliny. The publisher of the vast majority of the Nobel Prize Winner’s writings is the Znak Publishing House, which – together with Wydawnictwo Literackie – coedits his “collected works”. In 1992, the Biblioteka “NaGłosu” series (documenting the legendary NaGłos “spoken magazine” of the 1980s – editor’s note) published a small volume of his Haiku translations. In addition Miłosz was also published in Kraków by Dekada Literacka.

In the last period of the poet’s life, his health was in the care of Professor Andrzej Szczeklik. And let me stop at this, as I want to keep a distance from matters of “living people” remaining closer to “stones” – as I perceive myself as primarily writing a literary guide to the city…

Cz. Miłosz and J. Błoński, photo Błońscy Family

B F: And a very special location for the end – Skałka – the Church “on the Rock”. It is here that Czesław Miłosz was buried on 27th August 2004. Did he visit this place, while still alive?

E Z-P: Yes, he did, Miłosz visited Skałka in the summer of 1941, having visited Kazimierz Wyka in Krzeszowice. An exceptional story, highly significant and complex. Andrzejewski mentions it – though without revealing the name of his friend anathematised by Communist Poland – in his foreword to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, as the decision to emigrate undertaken by the great 19th-century prose writer and, by the way, one of the Kraków protagonists of A Poetical Treatise(Traktat poetycki), he associated with the impulse to which he and Miłosz yielded when they “began to withdraw from Skałka in silence, first slowly, nearly on tiptoes, and then speeding up their pace the further away they went…”. Andrzejewski’s text is so interesting and important that I would not like to make a summary of it here, as it would certainly lead to trivialising of its senses. Although I quote fragments of it in the guidebook, I do encourage you to reach for the 1956 edition of Lord Jim so that you can read this episode in its natural context.