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Apr/May 2014 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Grzegorz Wroblewski

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream


Grzegorz Wroblewski's new volume of prose poetry, Kopenhaga, is reviewed in this number of Eclectica Magazine. His paintings are showing, or are scheduled to show, in many venues in Denmark and throughout Europe. Examples of his work are also widely available on the Internet. His poems have appeared in earlier issues of Eclectica. This interview was conducted via e-mail. Piotr Gwiazda, the translator of Kopenhaga, translated Grzegorz's replies from Polish.

 

GWP     Did you leave Poland nearly 30 years ago because the poor economy made your arts more difficult to pursue? Do you ever go back to visit?

GW     Time slowly blurs everything. Soon I'll leave for another universe, most certainly for Andromeda. I'll end my sojourn on Earth. I don't feel I am destined for terrestrial existence; life has dealt me too many blows. People have asked me on various occasions about the reasons I left Poland in 1985. The answer is complex and not unambiguous. But I'll try again, with a series of hints, in a properly coded way. I left because I'd had enough of tear gas on Warsaw streets. I left because I couldn't stand mustachioed macho men any more. Because I was looking for a different imagery. Because I wanted to see Donald Judd's works in Marfa. (Actually, I never made it to Marfa, but I have been to New York, most recently to Queens, where I was staying close to where The Ramones, my favorite band, came from.) I left because I dreamed about seeing the monasteries in Kyoto, because I was interested in Pierre Alechinsky and his calligraphy. This is why I left, I guess.

And yes, of course, I often go to Poland! I began to go back for regular visits after the fall of the Wall. It's only an hour's flight from Copenhagen to Warsaw. No visas required. In Poland I have my family and loved ones, great friends, etc. Also, there's an English bulldog, Freddy, of whom I'm very fond. I come from there. From Gdansk and Warsaw. In Poland I also publish my books. There is another piece of information—the most important one. I have always worked in Polish. Despite all these years in Copenhagen. I know that Poland has changed a lot. There has been a major generational reshuffle. People eat sushi, concern themselves with ideological constructs like "gender," write theses on the impact of Google on contemporary poetry. It is no longer the same country I left. Is there still any place in it for me? Or for unicorns? Anyway, I think I have long ago abandoned that Danish/Polish setting. If there's one thing that still matters to me, it's finally to see the painting "Las Meninas" in Madrid.

GWP     How do you pay your bills? Do you have a day job? Receive financial support? Do your paintings, perhaps, keep you financially afloat? It is hard to believe that poetry itself keeps anyone afloat these days.

GW     I never had to make a living from my poetry because I also write prose and plays, and I have been showing my paintings in galleries since the 1980s. So I'm not an unhappy poet. Or, to put differently, since I don't write for commercial purposes, it took me considerable time to arrange a kind of alternative livelihood. There have been many ups and downs. For years I taught painting at private and public schools. I also received stipends. I would hang out in hashish lounges and waste all that wealth. Meanwhile the Earth kept revolving around the sun! Suddenly I discovered that my paintings began to show up in various private collections around the world. And that's all I can say about this topic.

GWP     Where do you do your painting? Do you have room to do it in your apartment?

GW     For me painting is a deliberate activity. I always work outside my apartment. When I'm painting or preparing an exhibition, I don't write, I concentrate exclusively on the visual art. (As for the relationship between these two arenas of my creativity, that's a completely different matter.) I work in rented studios, often on collaborative projects with other artists. Currently, I'm preparing for two high-profile exhibitions in Poland (Warsaw and Katowice). I'm in a privileged situation, because I have a large family house that I can make use of, just outside Warsaw. It's a beautiful area, full of storks, owls, and other natural wonders. No one bothers me there. A perfect place for my conceptual and calligraphic ventures.

GWP     How did your recent tour of England come about? Did Marcus Slease lead the effort to make it happen?

GW     My last trip to England, specifically to London, and my performances in that city were, in a way, a result of my presence for many years in that literary world. The first translations of my poems into English appeared back in the 1990s in the famous London Magazine. Eventually there were other magazines, chapbooks, anthologies, books. My book A Marzipan Factory appeared in 2010 in Adam Zdrodowski's translation. My more recent book Kopenhaga, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, appeared in 2013. So now my work has found its way to the English-speaking public. It's a logical development. A kind of honor. Seeing one's work translated into other languages is a big deal for us writers. This April, Piotr and I will be presenting readings from Kopenhaga in the USA.

My friend Marcus Slease was a co-organizer of the events in London. It's all due to him! This terrific poet and I have known each other for many years. We have also collaborated on many projects. For example, we once edited an issue of Past Simple in which we included recent poetry from Denmark, Poland, the US, and the UK. In London, Piotr and I read excerpts from Kopenhaga, while Adam and Marcus presented their poetry in Polish and English. At UCL, all four of us discussed the problematics of emigrant literature and translation. One evening we read together for Wrogowie/The Enemies Project. I read poems from my 2007 volume Our Flying Objects, while Marcus read his poems. Here let me take this opportunity to thank Marcus for his wonderful hospitality in London Docklands! I enjoyed staying at his place.

GWP     How was your reception during your recent tour of England? You seem to have been very well received.

GW     I am pleased with my London performances. They were meaningful to me for many reasons. They were a kind of test in front of English-speaking audiences. I considered this an artistic challenge, a completely new experience (if it is still possible, at my age, and on this beautiful planet, to have new experiences). I had the impression that people responded with interest, that they were receptive to what I try to communicate in my work. Of course I can't judge that with complete objectivity. I also realized that my work can often be quite heavy, pessimistic. Not pleasant for the listener. My book Kopenhaga is very critical of the traditional "command centers": humankind, culture, civilization. That also became apparent during some post-reading exchanges. Presenting your work in public has a price. Regardless of whether it's Warsaw or London. For me, the big deal was that London proved that I have an artistic and intellectual understanding with my translators. It gave me the necessary strength, so I could better focus on reading my texts.

GWP     You often reveal a whimsicality in your poetry, which blossoms in the midst of the bleak landscapes of life. I would even call it your strongest trait as a poet. Is there really a "Jerry" in your life who "has been to King Priam's Palace," as in the prose poem in Kopenhaga?

GW     The human brain is probably still the greatest mystery of the universe. It reacts to its surroundings in different ways. We do not know what it does when we are asleep. Scientific theories about it change every year. Neurosurgery, psychology, psychiatry—basically, they all are helpless. We really don't know what that eternal dualism of body and soul is all about. Dolphin hunters and theologians argue about it. Every individual is an unexplored planet. If I could understand the mind of the only woman I ever loved (when she was first cheating on me), I would be a different person today. So each of us has a different filter, each of us reacts differently to the first flakes of snow. There is a greatness to William Carlos Williams's poetic range and to the sand installations of Robert Smithson. In my poems, I tried to capture the phenomenon of life, full of many everyday visions, pain, or atomistic emptiness. I did this through an aesthetic that seemed closest to me. I tried to experiment with the art of dialogue by writing plays. Sometimes it seemed to me that I got closer to the great mystery while I was working on my paintings. Then I would fall again into a state of depression, stagnation. I knew I would not manage to explain anything to myself. In my poems, I also observed dogs and cats. I am amazed by their reactions, always unpredictable. I came to the conclusion that the only meaningful thing in life, the only beautiful and decisive moment in life, is the proximity to another person, the meeting of another human being on Earth. A shared vanishing and dying.

As for Jerry and all the little corners of Copenhagen... You must find him there yourself. Kopenhaga is a tale about the history of the human brain, about cosmic trembling, about the foreigner syndrome. It also may be the answer to Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, something for anthropologists, cultural theorists, sociologists. You must embark on a psychic journey, whether you are a brain researcher or a tourist from Texas or a devotee of Søren Kierkegaard.

GWP     I get the distinct impressions that even crazier poems like "Cindy's Cradle," from These Extraordinary People, are based on events that actually happened—that they are stylized in telling ways. Am I right? For some reason that poem stays with me, somehow seems both strangely and definitively human.

GW     I don't want to continue dodging questions in this interview, but again as in the case of Kopenhaga, it all depends on the reader. Let the reader imagine the poem's author, wonder why he wrote a particular poem. For me, transitions between the real and the unreal have always been very fluid. I also for some reason can't forget that poem. It has always stayed in my head. Yes, it's certainly a very human poem, maybe too human. Recently I decided to preserve it in space, so that it does not completely evaporate. I made a painting under the same title. I will be showing in Warsaw in 2014 alongside a printout of the text. So that will be a strange thing: a painting in honor of my own poem!

GWP     Does the Danish Writer's Union really provide a membership card with the quote you give in Kopenhaga? The Polish language version, on the facing page, also gives the quote in English rather than Danish. Is there a reason for this?

GW     I joined it solely for practical and information-gathering reasons. Currently, my only relationship to it is limited to a publication that contains information about stipend opportunities, articles about copyright, etc. The text on the membership card is printed in English, not in Danish, that's why I report it in English. Again, this all has to do with the topographical detail, the documentary nature of Kopenhaga.

GWP     The fractured, irrational nature of today's reality is a very common theme in all of contemporary poetry, but yours seems to be considerably better than most. My impression is that this is because you do not succumb to the temptation to add to it, that you keep it closer to the real in your poems. Am I right, to your mind?

GW     Contemporary poetry is, above all, very diverse. It also has many functions. The era of metaphysical poets, or Mediterranean poets, has passed, never to return again. In the 21st century, we have Flarf and conceptual writing. Poetry will always comment on reality. On politics, natural catastrophes, revolutions. Soon we will go to Mars, and the voyage will no doubt occasion a whole lot of lyrical volumes. Our life will be extended, we will not be tormented by malicious microbes. Or maybe new, unknown epidemics will attack the Earth? New poetry will cover all that. Always as a linguistic adventure.

There is very little realism in my poetry. But because my poetry is devoid of the lyrical element (as someone recently mentioned on a Polish TV show about new books), it often gives the impression of being realistic. This may pose a problem for the traditional poetry reader. Despite all possible formal experiments that poetry underwent over the last 100 years, it is still expected to offer something divine, extrasensory. I'm still paying the price for my lack of lyricism. For example, I find it difficult to publish my poems in Denmark, a small and self-contained country. I greatly admire Reznikoff for his Brooklyn poems published in the 1920s.

GWP     "He's Worth Following," in A Marzipan Factory, truly has a delightful ending. It is totally out of the blue and perfect. Do you rewrite your poems or do they just come to you? Would rewrite hurt the spontaneity of your poems? Or perhaps they all are rewritten time and again until it seems they could not possibly have been rewritten at all.

GW     There is no simple strategy. There are some really brief poems that I worked on for years. Others I wrote spontaneously: they fell from heaven. They were finished, I never had to change anything. I am very demanding toward my poems. I know that sometimes I must leave them in their unfinished form, to let them mature, to let them calmly wait for their final version. Sometimes I would destroy, erase some of my texts. However, I never regretted it. For example, I kept a kind of lyrical diary for the woman I loved. When I destroyed it, I immediately felt better. Sometimes such an act of destruction can be a positive thing.

GWP     I've read, occasionally, that you once wrote a science fiction novel. It seems to me that it has not been translated into English. It has something of a cult following, doesn't it? Do you intend to have it translated into English eventually?

GW     You mean Nowa Kolonia [New Colony]. I wrote it in 2001-2002. In 2003 it appeared in Danish translation as Den ny koloni. In 2007 it was published in Poland. I had to wait very long, because it is a very complicated thing formally, so it scared off publishers. I called it "a treatise on identity." Danish critics termed it a novel in the form of a dialogue. Of course, it would be great if someone could translate it into English. But this will not be easy. The same goes for a publisher who would take that risk. I think it's the most important book I have written up to this point. The afterword describes it best:

"Nowa Kolonia is a fascinating journey into the unknown and more precisely into the unexplored. We find ourselves in a newly colonized terrain. We enter the 'new,' but it's not only on the level of events that we proceed toward the mystery of the undiscovered. Also the reading experience will lift us beyond the Earth's gravity, and the anti-gravitational peculiarity of Nowa Kolonia will make us move within the spiral of all times."

GWP     I could be pleased to ask a great many more questions, but we both have other work to do, as well. I'll finish, for now, with this: What are your future writing and painting plans?

GW     I'm still alive, so I have some plans for the future. In April I'm going to the United States for a promotional tour of Kopenhaga. With Piotr Gwiazda I will give performances in some interesting places, including Columbia University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Piotr is currently translating my new poems. Also my new book of poems in Agnieszka Pokojska's translation is scheduled to appear in the U.S. In May, I will go to Poland. I'm preparing an exhibition of my paintings at the Museum of Literature in Warsaw (August-September) and then in Katowice. I'm also preparing an artbook Blue Pueblo, my text accompanied by photographs of Copenhagen by Wojtek Wilczyk. And I am finished with my new collection of poems Kosmonauci. I'll now start looking for publishers. So there is so much to do...

 

Grzegorz Wroblewski and Piotr Gwiazda reading tour events in the U.S. during the month of April:

Friday, April 4, Poetry and Translation: A Conversation with Grzegorz Wroy blewski and Piotr Gwiazda. Columbia University, East Central European Center and Department of Slavic Languages, 4 p.m., International Affairs Building, 420 West 118th Street, Room 1219, New York, New York.

Sunday, April 6, Cambridge Public Library, 2 p.m., 449 Broadway, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Monday, April 7, A Poet, His Translator, and His Paintings: Readings from Kopenhaga. Rhode Island School of Design, Department of Literary Arts & Studies and Division of Liberal Arts, 7 p.m., Chace Center Auditorium, 20 North Main Street, Providence, Rhode Island.

Tuesday, April 8, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 7:30 p.m. Herter Hall, 161 Presidents Drive, Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

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