I’ve been translating the poetry of Polish author Tomasz Różycki for over a decade now. We first met in 2004—an auspicious year for both of us. I was on a creative writing Fulbright Fellowship in Kraków, an experience that would solidify my interest in Polish literature and send me headlong into the language. That same year, Tomasz’s fifth and most ambitious book in subject matter and form, Twelve Stations, became a true literary phenomenon, winning the prestigious Kościelski Award and quickly finding its way onto the stage and into the classroom. I was just as smitten as so many Polish readers by his unique voice. But even more so I was taken by the musicality of his other lyric poetry, with its seamless mix of deadpan humor, historical awareness, and existential longing. Since then, I’ve translated a book of selected poetry entitled The Forgotten Keys as well as his collection Colonies; I’m currently translating his most recent volume, Litery, selections of which have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Kenyon Review, The High Window, Michigan Quarterly Review, Two Lines, Epiphany, and elsewhere.
In the midst of our current correspondence over minutiae of the translations, we wove in this conversation about life, writing, and the state of poetry in the world.
Mira Rosenthal: You’re just returning from a year in Berlin, where you were a DAAD [German Academic Exchange Service] fellow. I’m curious to hear a little bit about that experience, especially given that you write so much about the intersection of German and Polish history and culture in relation to the region where you grew up—a former German city that was repopulated by Poles who relocated from Lwów when borders were shifted west after World War II.
Tomasz Różycki: The year in Berlin was wonderful in many respects. First of all, it’s a great fellowship that allows you to move for a year to a big city, one of the capitals of the world, and live as a citizen with your whole family, observing what life is like there and participating in cultural events. The most interesting part of it for me was the experience of being treated seriously as a writer for the first time in my life. Up until this past year, I’ve always had to earn a living as someone else, with writing as a passion that’s relegated to spare time. It was a great privilege to be a writer for a whole year, and I’m afraid that I enjoyed it so much that I won’t want to return to teaching. The atmosphere of freedom that the Berliner Künstlerprogramm creates and the chance to meet great artists from around the world—it’s truly a miracle.
It’s also a distinct fellowship for Polish writers: before me, there was Gombrowicz, Lem, Mrożek, Herbert, Kapuściński, Ewa Lipska, Adam Zagajewski, Ryszard Krynicki, and other great authors. It’s legendary, created with the help of the Ford Foundation during a time when West Berlin was a small enclave surrounded by a wall inside the Communist state. It looked like a prison, and those who established the fellowship wanted to save the city from cultural devastation—who would want to live in a place surrounded by walls? But Polish writers found it to be a small piece of the West, a democratic world where, walled in—paradoxically—they felt free. Someone who was granted permission to travel to West Berlin and was able to obtain a passport in Poland for a trip abroad for a fellowship found there, if only for a year, a refuge of freedom and shelter.
Of course, for Polish artists, Berlin is a difficult city because there are a lot of reminders of the Nazi German past. To go there is a bit like walking into the lion’s den, a place where so many orders were issued concerning, for example, the invasion of Poland or the extermination of its population. But, at the same time, now Berlin is a wonderful, cosmopolitan, lively city filled with dozens of languages and cultures. And for me it’s kind of a familiar city—familiar architecture, familiar furniture, familiar apartments. I grew up in Opole, which before the war was a German city, and all the houses, streets and parks, kitchen cupboards and chairs, dishes and cutlery look the same as in Berlin. My family keepsakes are objects that, before the war, belonged to a German family, the Peters. In 1945, with the front approaching, they had to evacuate the apartment where my grandfather and family, forcibly relocated from Lwów, then moved. My grandmother told me that there was a decorated Christmas tree in the corner and bowls on the table with cold soup in them. The Peters weren’t even able to finish eating. I found that quite poignant. For their part, my grandparents had to evacuate their own apartment in Lwów with all its objects left in place. They were allowed to take only one trunk of personal belongings. And my grandfather loaded the trunk—to my grandmother’s despair—to the brim with books. Even though he wasn’t an intellectual and had been, in his youth, a sailor and then taken up various perhaps not entirely legitimate interests, for some reason he considered books the only thing worth saving.
Perhaps you owe it to your grandfather, then, that you became a writer. Your most recent collection, Litery, even speaks to this poignant sense of presence and absence that you’re talking about. While translating it, I’ve been struck by how often the poems invoke death, both directly and through metaphors that coalesce around a sense of nothingness or emptiness. And yet, at the same time, it feels affirmative of the abundant signs of life all around us, the “grass, gladioli, nigella, and gorgeous mayweeds, eyes ablaze”—and, most importantly, those early blooming bursts of Acacia. How do you think about absence and abundance?
It seems to me that existence is a kind of whole, and life is a process of subtraction from that whole. We simply move with time from the plus side to the minus side. With each year there’s more and more of ourselves on the other side, until, in the end, we move there in full. There are two parts of ourselves: the one that is here and the one that is there, and they long for each other but can never meet. So, absence is only an apparent absence: we are really our own absence. The void is a place in which matter changes its form. I adore life, maybe precisely because it’s a process of losing. As Heraclitus said: fire is a principle of the world. We burn. But from this burning comes heat and life and light, and the beautiful dance of flame.
Litery has many themes, one of which is time. When I wrote the poems, it seemed to me that I was telling a deep truth about what I went through in and around 2016. It seemed to me that the only way to stop time for a moment was to cast a spell on those moments, the minutes of my life, and to transform them into letters. Now, when I look at those poems, I feel like I succeeded, and I see them as if they are amber, each one with a small insect submerged inside forever. I am that insect.
Is there a connection for you between the lyrical mode and existential questioning?
Such a connection definitely exists. The lyric is a voice uttered by someone in the moment when he realizes that he is not immortal. He speaks about mortality, about life, and about this beautiful and miraculous singularity.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that a book of poetry is for you a “composed whole.” Your last three books constituted 77, 88, and 99 numbered poems, respectively. When I was working on The Colonies, I chose to translate it in its entirety for the English version, even though some of the poems posed those kinds of challenges that cause us to label something as “untranslatable.” But it seemed very important to keep the whole intact. Can you say more about this, and about how you compose?
I do regard a book of poetry as a whole thing. It’s difficult for me to write a brand new poem because it’s always part of a larger whole. When I finish writing a book composed of poems, I begin writing the next book composed of poems, not simply a new poem. Any given poem always has to be “from a new book” and correspond to what’s around it. That’s why I find it hard to choose the right form for the next poem after the last book, because I’m really looking for a new form, not for one poem but for a whole series of poems. Hence, the breaks between books are so long: I write nothing for several years, but I take notes, I look for the right phrases, the right rhythm and stanza, or some kind of compositional idea that creates a structure for the whole.
Sometimes I feel like I’m utterly incapable of writing anything new, and I have a crisis of creativity that drags on and on. It’s extremely frustrating, and I keep asking myself: who even wrote that book? How was it even possible? It couldn’t have been me! For a while, I’m like a person who’s forgotten how to write, like I’ve become illiterate. But when, at last, I manage to find a form, work goes well, the poems write themselves, as if a bad spell has been lifted. In this way, I wrote Litery in three months. First, six futile years, and then, suddenly, 99 poems in 90 days. I went around all the time as if in a trance, muttering to myself whatever stanza or lines of poems came next, everywhere—in stores and when out for a walk, while teaching classes and while traveling. And, I must admit, it was fantastic.
One element of the “composed whole” in your collections is the use of a refrain or a chorus: a recurring beginning line that periodically shows up throughout the collection, sometimes with variation. The chorus in Litery is: “I wish you were here,” which invokes the title poem of Stanisław Barańczak’s collection A Postcard from This World (Widokówka z tego świata). How did you come to this repetition?
Yes, the refrain is extremely important. In fact, for years I kept waiting for a sentence to repeat throughout a collection. And, just like a chorus, it must be good enough that the repetition won’t detract from it. A huge source of inspiration is music, rock songs. When you go like that for so many years, different repetitive sentences cling to your ears. One such sentence was “the man who sold the world” from Bowie’s song in Nirvana’s version, and it gave rise to “the guy who bought the world” in my Book of Rotations (Księga obrotów), and then, all of a sudden, “I wish you were here”—because of how much this sentence contains, essentially. It’s Pink Floyd, and then I realized that it’s also one of the few poems written in English by Joseph Brodsky, in which it’s also a kind of refrain, in the poem called “A Song”: “I wish you were here, dear, / I wish you were here.” Was Brodsky also listening then to Pink Floyd? He composed the poem when the song was a hit and they were playing it on the radio. Stanisław Barańczak translated “A Song” into Polish, and then he wrote his own poem, “I wish you were here” (“Szkoda, że cię tu nie ma”). And now, after some years, I’ve taken up this sentence once again because, if I had to sum up the last few years in a single sentence, “I wish you were here” captures it best.
How so? It occurs to me that there’s a similarity in both Barańczak’s collection and yours in terms of the elusive presence of the addressee…
Exactly. Barańczak directs this sentence upward, as if addressing God. Brodsky is speaking to a beloved, and Roger Waters wrote his lyrics about a friend who fell ill and left the group due to mental health issues, as far as I recall. But in all these instances it’s an appeal that sounds poignant. Ironically, perversely, bitterly, spitefully, sadly, and truly. This sentence is just as relevant if we say it to a god, to someone who is absent, sick, or deceased, or to the other half of one’s own “I.”
I’m a bit surprised to hear how influential rock music is for you. Your poems seem like the antithesis of the power ballad.
The rock ballad consists of music and lyrics combined. Good music can defend weaker words, even the most emotional ones, and lend them strength. In the case of poetry, words must defend themselves, play and sing themselves. They are sound and instrument simultaneously. That’s why emotions alone are not enough. A composition is necessary.
In terms of compositional strategies, then, what is the relationship between the lyric and the epic for you? Of course, I’m thinking here of your epic, book-length poem, Twelve Stations, and also the fact that you’ve written a novel and a collection of essays. What keeps you branching out to other forms?
I don’t have the patience for large, fictional plots. But I keep trying in different ways to talk about this beautiful singularity that I’m experiencing. Each form or genre has its own capacities and its own drawbacks. It’s a bit like saying that the world and life are terribly beautiful, but in several different languages. We keep saying the same sentence, but each time it sounds completely different.
Though this is a slightly different process, I’m currently working on an epic series of stories similar to the poetry: the most important thing for me is the language, its dynamics, style, and melody. The rhythm guides me. That’s why I’m incapable of creating some kind of narrative plan: some clever sequence of events—as happens in novels—that I could follow. Language, its internal dynamics, very often leads me somewhere else, in a direction I didn’t expect, toward beautiful new territory.
You have intimate knowledge of French, and have translated Stéphane Mallarmé, Jacques Burko, and others. What kind of influence have these experiences had on you as a writer? It occurs to me that there might be a connection there in terms of having a beautiful new territory opened up to you.
Translation certainly has a big influence on my writing. For me, translation is ultimately an uncontrollable desire to share with others what I have access to. After all, there are many who don’t know French or any other language well enough to read and appreciate its literature. But if this poetry has no chance of becoming known, then it will be as though it never existed at all. That’s why I translate from all the languages that I understand even slightly, because I have the impression that it would be good if those in Poland have the chance to encounter it. I’ve translated in this way individual pieces from Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, and English for my students, because I feel that if even one among them reads it and takes a liking to it, then in a certain way I’m prolonging the life of the authors of these poems. At times I’m dragging them out of hell or the abyss of oblivion. There’s a lot of satisfaction knowing that, thanks to a translation, someone has become interested in a previously unknown author and wants to reach for more of that author’s work and discover for himself some exotic literature that he hadn’t previously known. A new reader appears and the letters on the page live on. For me, it’s also a stylistic exercise, but ultimately it’s an uncontrollable desire to take something that sounds so good in a foreign language and try to sound it out in Polish. In this moment, I get to be someone else, and it’s a privilege. Or, at least, I attempt to feel what it would be like to be someone else, how that person might speak in my language.
How does it feel to have written something that’s now used on school exams?
Indeed, a few years ago, an excerpt from Twelve Stations became a topic on the high school graduation exam in literature. I had no idea that it had happened until a journalist called me, asking for a comment. I envisioned thousands of students in schools throughout Poland, sweating over an interpretation of the text and cursing its author. I thought that so many curses cast would surely result in something terrible befalling me. But I consoled myself that probably everyone was confusing me with Tadeusz Różewicz, an important poet who has a very similar surname as mine and whose poems have been on the exam for years. After all, even the journalist, in the midst of our conversation, made that same mistake. Our names were always being mixed up, even though Tadeusz Różewicz was one of the greatest Polish poets since World War II, fifty years older than me, famous and utterly unique. I remember, after a reading, overhearing two women who had been listening to my poems from the back, and one of them said to the other: “Look, Różewicz is in pretty good shape for his age.”
Fortunately, I found out later that the exam topic was only one of many options to choose from for those who wanted to write on it. I have mixed feelings about such assignments—mainly since, in the system for assessing student work, some kind of interpretive key is used. I once saw such a key and disagreed with it on a number of points—so I don’t know if I myself, as the author, would be able to pass such an exam.
The ideal situation is when someone reads my poetry because they feel a need, not because they are assigned it for school. In this sense, paradoxically, sometimes it’s better to be an author who’s banned in schools and is instead read fervently under a desk. But I fear that we have a huge crisis in readership today. Poetry is on the margins, or even beyond them. And the vast majority of people in Poland and throughout the world don’t know and will never learn that my poems even exist. In the end, you always write for those “happy few,” as Stendhal said. It would, however, be great simply to have the chance to encounter them—these readers of yours. Such an encounter can happen at the most unexpected time, and the most unlikely, unpleasant, and dreary places. Even in school.
Translated from the Polish by Mira Rosenthal
Tomasz Różycki is the author of ten volumes of poetry and prose. Over the last decade he has garnered almost every prize Poland has to offer as well as widespread critical acclaim, with work translated into numerous languages and frequent appearances at international festivals. His volume Colonies (translated by Mira Rosenthal) won the Northern California Book Award and was a finalist for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. He teaches French language, culture and literature at the University of Opole.
Poet and translator Mira Rosenthal is a past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Stegner Program, and her work appears regularly in such journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Guernica, Harvard Review, New England Review, and A Public Space. Her first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. She teaches creative writing and contemporary literature at Cal Poly University. www.mirarosenthal.com
Banner image: Mira Rosenthal and Tomasz Różycki, courtesy of Slav Zatoka.