On the final day of the London Book Fair Market Focus Poland I am back in my element of poetry at the English Pen Literary Salon.
Poetry in Poland has traditionally occupied a higher status than prose, a result of times when poets spoke for a nation partitioned and colonised. Poland’s Nobel prize-winners were both poets Marzanna Kielar reminds me. Earlier this week the Pakistani-British poet Moniza Alvi has told me she was drawn to Polish poetry’s lightness of touch and imaginative way of talking about serious, urgent subjects.
Today Marzanna Kielar is in conversation with Sasha Dugdale, the inspirational editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, the journal which is a lifeline for anyone needing to breathe and taste a truly international poetry.
Marzanna Kielar grew up in the formerly East Prussian, Mazurian area of Poland – a stunning landscape of over 2,000 lakes connected by rivers and canals, rich with wildlife, bison, deer, lynx, cranes, storks and wolves. I have kayaked there with my auntie and friends and can vouch for its beauty. You can immediately see how this landscape permeates all of her work, and she captures it with a clarity of voice, a precision of detail, and a lyricism which despite her objectivity never loses a sense of mystery.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of her influences and, as Sasha suggests, this is visible to us. Her translator, the acclaimed Elżbieta Wójcik Leese says in her introduction to the new collection Salt Monody: ‘rather than persuade... [these poems] attempt to convince with the intimate and the singular’. Elżbieta Wójcik Leese is a meticulous and profoundly thoughtful translator who has engaged with Kielar in a creatively collaborative process, even nudging Kielar to change a line or a word in a few cases, Kielar tells us, out of the need for clarity. Her translator has also said Kielar is of that generation of poets who no longer have to write about history.
Sasha Dugdale tells us that Kielar has conducted numerous field interviews with people about their lives in the post-German space of her area of Poland. Surely the process of these interviews, suggests Dugdale, must necessarily involve the historical and the political. The effect of the interviews has only recently begun to enter Kielar's poems so readers will have to wait to see what shape they take.
Meanwhile we have exquisite poems ‘Sonnet for my Father’ which sends a shiver down your spine. In ‘Boulders and Poems’ Kielar compares her first discoveries of poetry to the collecting of chips and fragments of coloured stone from her ‘geological legacy’. In ‘Lovers’ who are ‘grown into each other’ like branches, she talks of running out of words ‘when silence will return, silence will speak’. These are poems in which you hear that silence.
If you’re still reading this blog after the three days here, thanks for coming with me on this amazing journey and thanks to the British Council Comms team for helping me reach you. This is where I’m supposed to round off with an overview. I can’t because these three days are just the start of the Polish adventure abroad. Zygmunt Miłoszewski says that Poles are always looking over their shoulders at the past. Ewa Winnicka says that we haven’t begun to process even the half of what happened to us under Communism. Both are right. And right now we Poles find ourselves in even more hot water. It makes for unique and specific stories which, when handled with the skill and talent of the writers that we have met at the London Book Fair Market Focus Poland, are stories that also become universal. But it’s more than that.
Olga Tokarczuk, author of the day on Wednesday of the Book Fair, refers to herself as a Central European writer, drawing on the multicultural and diverse heritage of Poland which is not always apparent to everyone. The people in her books are not only Christians but pagans, Jews, Muslims, atheists, conformists and heretics… Under the neon sign that says ‘Poland’ at Olympia, she and the other Polish writers here for the last three days, organisers, funders, partners, staff, volunteers and us, the audience, have created a little oasis. A version of Poland with conifers, giant apples, colourful books, humour, familiar and new faces and astounding voices. A Poland in which I feel at home.
Maria Jastrzębska is a Polish-born poet, editor and translator whose work features in the British Library project Between Two Worlds. Her most recent collections are At The Library of Memories (Waterloo Press) and The Cedars of Walpole Park, selected poems translated into Polish by Anna Błasiak, Paweł Gawroński and Wioletta Grzegorzewska (Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów). She co-edited Queer in Brighton (New Writing South). Her translations of Justyna Bargielska’s poetry, The Great Plan B, are forthcoming from SmokestackPress. www.mariajastrzebska.wordpress.com