by Cynthia Haven
“People in the know know him.” That’s what his English translator, Peter Constantine, told me. Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is becoming an important poetic voice from today’s Poland, with six volumes of poetry, and translated editions on the way. His translator added, “He has a strange poetic voice, very original and stark.”
Grzegorz is also a celebrated musician: his internationally known post-rock band Trupa Trupa has been featured on NPR, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. He has called his music a “vital pessimism” which shows the “rather dark and rather frightening sides of human nature.”
He grew up in Gdańsk, in the shadow of a family marred by his grandfather’s internment in a concentration camp. “My grandfather and his sister were both in the camps. This experience buried them,” he said. “After the war, she went crazy and he became a quiet, hidden man.”
His minimalist poems explore not only conflicted pasts of Eastern Europe – for example, the Nazi euthanasia program – but also the paradoxes of contemporary genocides –Rwanda, for instance. His poems have been perceived as quasi-testimonies, provocative and lyrical utterances delivered by the dead.
Yale critic Richard Deming said that Kwiatkowski’s work “reveals that the unforgettable is also the undeniable. Is it beautiful? I say it is powerfully necessary, unrelentingly direct. I say it burns.”
Kwiatkowski has hosted workshops at the Oxford, and lectured at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and others. Crops, his first collection in English, will be published by Rain Taxi next month.
A few excerpts from his interview with Cynthia Haven, for the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford:
Haven: The word that your translator kept using to describe your poems is “stark.” They could easily have become histrionic or moralistic, but they’re not. How do you do that?
Maybe you could read the title poem of your new collection in English, Crops. Perhaps you could read it for us in Polish, too, because we’d like to hear the sound.
Kwiatkowski: Alright. So first – Polish version. [Reads in Polish.] And now the English version, translated by Peter Constantine.
nasz prawdziwy zawód to rolnictwo
rzezie na bagnach odbywały się w rytmie prac sezonowych
i kiedy były duże deszcze nie wychodziliśmy po plony
our real work is farm work
although I admit:
the massacres in the swamps have the rhythm of our seasonal labor
and when the rains were heavy we did not go out for crops
Very short, as you can see or hear.
Haven: We’ll explore the subject matter that describe in these poems. But could you tell us a little bit about what’s going on in the Polish, in terms of the structure of the poem? I think you’ve compared it to Glenn Gould, and that’s intriguing comparison to…
Kwiatkowski: I guess the point of most of my poems is the voice. First, this is written using the methodology of the “lyric of mask.” For me, Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology” is one of the biggest books ever written.
But second point is a very neutral tone, a tone without melodramatic aspects. That’s why I compare it to Glenn Gould. Of course, I’m not comparing myself to Glenn Gould, I’m not so stupid. But I really love Glenn Gould and I’ve been listening to him for, let’s say, 10 years. And he plays in very neutral and mathematical way. You can feel almost the lack of emotions. But because of this lack of emotions, you start to think, “where are these emotions?” – and something inside of you is going on.
The point is that when you’re talking about such drastic situation as genocide and such dramatic situations, when you’re using this neutral voice, then it provokes you to ask yourself something. You know, if it were melodramatic or if I tried to make a dramatic impact on the reader, I think it wouldn’t work. But this neutral tone is almost provocative in some way – because of its neutrality.
Haven: I understand you have some unusual methods for composing poetry. You use a Nokia cellphone. Can you show it to us?
Kwiatkowski: [He holds it up to the screen.] This is my very big love. My cellphone, which is very old and not connected to any network. It’s full of dirt and dust. It’s really hard to write on it because it’s super hard to press the buttons.
Because of that, I have to be more lapidary. Instead of writing ten sentences or images or visions, I have to compose in a super short way because it’s too hard to press these buttons. Maybe because of this old equipment and my laziness, I am more and more lapidary and more and more direct. So in some way, this is my best friend, right?
Haven: Exactly how old is this phone?
Kwiatkowski: I don’t know. Fifteen years, for sure.
Kwiatkowski: I want to understand the place where I live. I want to understand the people all around me. And I want to understand myself. So I’m not into to blaming. I’m not the better one. I really want to understand because my family history and my family’s concentration camp history is turning me still to these moral questions.
Haven: Your poetry includes quotations from witnesses, observers, and the murdered, in your quest for what you call “the musicality of poetry alongside the unbreakable truth of history.”
You’ve also said, “I’m intrigued by the combination of ethics and aesthetics in one person, one life, and one story.”
So how does the combination of all these elements work within you?
Kwiatkowski: You know, I don’t know. I think it’s a good question from somebody who knows me or who read my work, but I think that, anyway, this combination of music and history and poetry is not a bad combination. If you’ve got a sense of music, then it’s easier for you to create. And I think I’ve got some sense of history because of my family, and I think I’ve got some sense of rhythm and a bit of creating music and some musicality. So it’s natural for me to do what I do.
Thinking about Second World War was natural because my family was involved, as were almost all families in Poland, and because I live in Gdańsk, where the Second World War started.
There are so many traces of the Second World War around here, and I still think we are really a very devastated society and a people full of trauma. And I’m really not into easy blaming, but I would like to really understand and, in some way, to make more understanding – even a positive message.
Focusing on the dark side of history and the human propensity to murder will not make us worse as a people. When you’ve got a situation where you lack light, then you need a light. When you see the horror all around, you need a fresh air. And I think that, for example, poetry that is focused on the dark horror of human beings creates some moral awakening.
The point is that I’m not really writing for readers. I’m not creating the music for listeners. I’m really doing my own process. So when I’m shocked by something, for example, by some story, you know, in the poem, it works on me. I mean, very often I just read something and I’m frozen – “Oh, my God. What I would do in such situation?” Of course, I don’t know.
I’m searching for this kind of edgy stuff because, for me, this edgy stuff was family stuff. But I’ve got this ability to play with music, in poetry or in the band. So I think it’s easy for me to make this storytelling process – not in the worst way. I hope so.