img_2634What does it mean to be different? How do we perceive others? It tells us everything about a society knowing how difference is treated within it. This will be the subject of a new exhibition at Fabrica the Brighton gallery, where I first began to write blogs as their artist in residence a few years ago. They/Onlar by Turkish artist Ipek Duben runs from April 8-May 29 2017.

This blog follows on directly from the last one where I spoke to writers I met in Poland about their experience of being different. Below is what 2 writersRadek Wiśniewski, writer, poet, editor, founding publisher at  Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów and cultural activist and Olgerd Dziechciarz, poet, prose writer and cultural activist had to say (translated from Polish). The title of this blog Chipboard (the wonderfully expressive paździerz in Polish – not least given three ‘z’s) was a word I discussed at length with Radek and translator pals. It was the cheap material used make furniture in Poland in the 1980’s. In the last year we have seen divisions between people deepen dramatically, yet in my social life these divisions don’t show up. Us and Them aren’t in contact. Is it different in Poland? Are people in opposing factions more bound up socially? That was my impression but it still shocks when chasms open. As over here, people I spoke to were focussed on surviving the current climate.

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Radek Wiśniewski

To be other doesn’t mean being at risk, for now at any rate but it’s already uncomfortable. And how long is for now? We think we’re the same and surround ourselves in good faith with like-minded people. That’s the illusion but it’s breaking up, the bubble is bursting. It turns out we differ in ways it was difficult to see until recently. For instance at a friend’s barbecue we went to with Małgosia last autumn: when conversation was flagging we turned to the latest news about refugees drowning at sea and were saying that if they do reach the shores of one or at most two countries and these countries aren’t coping, something needs to happen. We talked about Pope Francis himself calling on all Catholics to accept a family into each parish.

“Best thing to do would be to shoot at them and not miss.” said one person, a Catholic who had just sent their child for first holy communion. We looked at each other amazed waiting for some response from the other guests at this garden party of educated people, who’d worked hard, often earning money abroad, to build their small oases of family life.

“I’d go first, if you gave me a gun.” another father of the tribe joined in. The children were playing around us, singing along to Disco Polo.

“You told me to watch what I say about refugees and that we’re in a minority, but I didn’t believe you” said Małgosia on the way home.

It was getting dark. These same people will go to church on Sunday to worship a Jew, himself once a refugee from Egypt, his mother Miriam and father Yossef. These same people will gladly tell you about their community’s terrible fate throughout the great wars, migrations and exile. Yet the people who truly understand the legacy of the Polish people and of Poland are not the ones we met with at the barbecue. These are the inhabitants of some kind of Polandia, built on the ruins of Poland. They have settled for a sham, a shabby chipboard facade. Only I’m not sure whether the real Poland, as it once was, ever existed. Or is it that it exists only in the minds, the idealisation of a few individuals, foreigners, others. Like you. For now at any rate.’

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Olgerd Dziechciarz:

Being different means being yourself. I don’t know if I’m different, but I try be all right with myself. I see how people bend over backwards, let themselves get bent out of shape in order to fit in – I’m fairly resistant to that. Once in the 80’s I belonged to a punk band, it was harder then to be yourself, or maybe it was easier, I don’t know anymore. Anyhow that was a formative time. Basically I try not to judge other people. In political matters I’m getting closer (again) to anarchism, a humane kind, similar to Kropotnik’s. In matters of poetry I know less and less. Or maybe I just know less and less generally. Not important. What’s important is that sometimes I host cool people, we talk about literature, we have a laugh, sometimes we have a beer or something stronger and life feels more bearable. The world is beautiful, people are beautiful, except for those who aren’t especially beautiful but – oh wonder of wonders – are the ones who claim the right to make decisions for us. And that’s the only thing which worries me. But maybe one day we’ll get together and drive them out. Yes, I still believe that.’

Next week the London Book Fair has its market focus on POLAND. Opportunities to hear more from Polish writers, what will be uppermost on their agendas?https://literature.britishcouncil.org/project/the-london-book-fair-poland-market-focus-2017

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https://literature.britishcouncil.org/blog/2017/first-monday-blog-polish-literature-across-borders/

 

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I often wonder how my life would have turned out had we stayed in Poland. I came to England with my family as a small child and grew up different from the majority around me. We, my family, community and myself, spoke a different language, ate different food, had different customs, songs, stories. In time more layers got added to that. In my teens I fell in love with a girl and that too changed the course of my life. Difference became, as I wrote in an early poem, ‘simply the backdrop/to everything I do/…the sound of my own footsteps”. So otherness is never far from what I write about. This winter thanks to an Artist’s International Development Fund grant I visited Poland twice, first travelling to Wrocław, then Kraków. My publisher arranged a mini book tour of the dual language collection The Cedars of Walpole Park in which my selected poems are translated by Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Paweł Gawroński and Anna Błasiak. The time flew by so I asked some of the writers, who had hosted my events to continue the dialogue we’d begun and write to me about how they see being other, being different, in Poland. Ostensibly, as Poles they belong to the majority, people living in their own country – a country and its people e/migrating to these shores in turn at times and then seen as other from over here.

I was struck by how much my writer-hosts had to say about religion – the rise of Christian fundamentalism has gripped the country in recent years leaving many writers out on a limb. Here is Agnieszka Żuchowska-Arendt literary translator (from Serbian and Croatian), writer and cultural activist in Kraków, (translated by me):

“Being different means always being lonely. But also stronger. You have to be because ever since childhood you got called names, kicked, spat on for being fat, for not knowing how to play with dolls, because you read books and didn’t collect colourful trading cards…

“It’s not good being a ‘biscuit’ as bisexual people are commonly known. Among heteros at best you’re an undecided weirdo or show-off. There’s allusions to threesomes and infidelity…It’s not any easier with lesbians They’re always mistrustful, see you as a traitor or a spy because you’ve slept with guys. As a ‘biscuit’ you’re excluded from the lesbian and gay community too, which itself also suffers exclusion form the rest of society.”

And then there’s being an atheist:

 “Childhood experience has taught you that in a small town you must never ever admit to being an atheist. Don’t give anything away. But the secret weighs on your conscience. You get top marks in RE. You don’t go to church, you don’t lie about believing in God, but nobody actually asks you so you don’t have to lie. Surely nobody guesses…”

Kazimierz area of Kraków

Kazimierz area of Kraków

At university in a big city, Krakow, she thought it would be a safer place to exchange different viewpoints but found herself proved wrong. Those who believed in God saw atheists as Satanists, capable – in the absence of a belief in God – of any crime. Not only that but as communists to boot:

 “No matter that in 1989 you were six years old, you still represent the ZOMO [paramilitary-police of the Communist government]…the question of faith has to remain a private matter and not something you ‘display publicly’ say people wearing crosses and medallions round their necks, taking out rosaries on buses, crossing themselves as the bus passes a church, hanging crosses in schools and offices, wishes of blessings and grace at Christmas and Easter and from Baby Jesus or the Risen Christ on their lips. But one word about not sharing their faith and you become an agitator, someone doing battle with the church. Not everyone is like this, but sometimes I‘m surrounded by a circle of believing friends who openly declare they are praying for my conversion. The biggest compliment they pay me is to say: I like you because even though you are an atheist you are a good person. When I answer that I like them too even though they are believers, they look surprised.”

Part 2 of this blog will follow with a publisher/poet and an ex-punk rocker.

 

 

 

 

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img_2481Thanks to the Artist’s International Development Fund I am able to make 2 short trips to Poland this winter to pursue lines of poetic enquiry and promote my selected work The Cedars of Walpole Park translated int Polish by Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Anna Błasiak & Paweł Gawroński and published by Stowarzyszenie Żywych Poetów.

 

 

 

 

Here I am in Wrocław, European City of Culture 2016: I didn’t expect it to be gloriously sunny in November. I’m not sure where to go so I sit with my take-away coffee outside Wrocław Główny, the main railway station, once Breslau Hauptbahnhof, built by a royal Prussian architect in the mid-nineteenth century.

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Morose Man, aged 71 (he quickly tells me) comes to sit beside me. Within moments he informs me about his various health issues, including discolouration of the urine as well as heart problems possibly caused by side effects from strong medication he is taking for another problem. His body’s like a car, once one thing goes, everything begins to fall apart, only with a car you can get new parts, he says. He lives alone since his wife died, I learn and also how he and the grandchildren visit her grave together – well he can’t turn his back on his family can he – and how the oldest one won’t go to bed until he sings down the phone to him when his daughter calls of an evening. [Some comfort hopefully, I say.]

Politicians, it was ever thus, even harking back to the days of the Tsar, are all the same, they just want to make money, he tells me. He’s not interested. There’s nothing we can do anyway that makes a difference. But he did vote for the present government [ultra right, something like UKIP in the UK, threatening constitutional rights, women’s reproductive rights and currently planning to reinforce a territorial army to deal, inter alia, with civil unrest.] His daughter didn’t vote for them [hurray!] but he doesn’t try to impose his views on her. She has her own mind, he says. He never joined anything in Communist times, never rose up the ranks, doesn’t try to push himself up to the top. Doesn’t aim for the gutter either. He treads a middle path, well you have to. A Christian path. But there’s nothing any of us can do. Everyone has their cross to bear, some heavier than others. Jesus never wanted to die on the cross but he had to. He had no choice did he? 

Poland, oh Poland.

 

 

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My parents lost everything during the war. Their city was razed to the ground so that they lost their homes along with the very streets they’d stood in. So it’s not surprising that once they got to England they kept everything – from tiny salvaged black and white (even sepia) photographs to rubber bands or plastic carrier bags. Once they bought a house in London they never moved again. Over the years they filled it with more and more things, including mementos from my grandparents’ nearby house when my grandparents died. Then after my parents died in turn bags full of things ended up in my house. Recently my partner and I decided to downsize and move from a house to a flat which meant I have had three layers of belongings to sort. I had kept so many old letters and photographs, my own, my parents’ and their parents’. Sorting through the piles hasn’t been easy. I wish I could tell you I have finished the job but some of the old papers have followed me to our new flat although a little more sorted this time, in nice, see-through plastic boxes, though there are a still a lot of them. Along the way I discovered gems, notes written by mother during the Warsaw occupation.  Little books reliably called ‘My Book’ created by me when I was barely literate, confirming how I always planned to be a writer, along with a certificate for second place in the sack race at my primary school…Inevitably there was also a lot of dreck, although one person’s weed to be pulled up is another’s wild flower. Friends divided into the writers who all cried Keep Everything It Will Be Handy for the Memoir or Your Poems…and everyone else who said for heaven’s sake free yourself from all that emotional baggage and make space in your life.

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In a way it’s similar to editing poems. Some poems thrive on richness, on texture, colour crowding in; they bristle with rawness and sensory detail, depend on their ability to take the reader by storm. You need to throw yourself into them – writing on your nerve – and not hold back, not censor. Other times it’s all about what you leave out, what is unspoken. Some poems are so pared down you could say they’re written with silence as much as words. So that’s how it’s been these last few months – what to keep, what to take with me.img_2247

The magazines tell us moving house is one of the most stressful times in your life.  A few days without internet or the TV not working, disruption to daily routines, newness, unfamiliarity and we are tearing out our hair. Glasses, (glasses case!), pens (including that great thick black marker pen which keeps disappearing) – I daren’t put anything down or it will get lost among constantly shifting cardboard boxes, piles. I am tired, irritable. It’s only when you leave that you notice everything you’ve been taking for granted, the familiar route from your front door to the fishmongers, the cat who liked sitting on the roof of the neighbour’s car. And yet this is something my partner and I have freely chosen. We have the comfort of family and friends’ support, the luxury of choosing shades of white for the walls or the shape of new taps.  All the time I have been thinking of how it must have been for my parents who could only pack a few cases when we left Poland to flee communism. What – if anything – was I told about us leaving our homeland, not to return for years and years. But my parents were making a planned decision. I’ve been trying to imagine refugees being forced to leave suddenly, in immediate fear for their own or their families lives. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet the refugee ‘crisis’ is worse than ever.

Friends of mine have dropped everything and gone to Lesvos to help refugees there, others have been to Calais. Most of us shudder and look away. So in the midst of the recent surge in anti-foreigner feeling in this country it feels good to do even a small thing to help. In Brighton we are having a Poem-a-thon at Komedia on December 11th 2016 where 60 of us will be reading poetry non-stop to raise money for the School Bus Project at the Refugee Council. I hope you can donate something to it – any amount – and tell your friends about it. It doesn’t take long, honestly (take it from a non-techie poet). Just click on the link:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Maria-Jastrzebska

Dziekuję! Thank you!

Still stroppy after all these years...Siren feminist band, reformed with 2 daughters playing in Brighton daughters

Still stroppy after all these years…Siren feminist lesbian 1980’s band, reformed with 2 daughters playing in Brighton

 

 

Eleanor Barrett gave my father English lessons and I was sent to her small, cottage like house to stay for tea after school and sleep over – to improve my English and maybe to give my mother a break, or both. She had silver hair and blue eyes, was a widow and if I was sometimes bored it was because she was an elderly grown up and all I wanted then was to be outdoors playing with other children. But she had an open coal fire which was wonderful and she grated cheese and made me strangely named things like ‘Welsh rarebit’. She was a Quaker and her husband had been a conscientious objector in the war. Pacifism was a startling concept for someone like me who had grown up in a family where armed resistance to fascism was a given. Even my parents who were very much ‘you’re either with us or against us’ people respectfully agreed to disagree with her. I am writing about her now for 2 reasons: first, because there can never be enough written in praise of older women. But secondly because England has just voted 52 percent against 48 to leave Europe after a campaign of xenophobia and racism. Within days incidents of racism have soared, such as graffiti on the Polish Cultural Centre (which we visited when I was a child and where I have worked teaching creative writing as an adult, done readings and where my play was performed)  or school children and their families being told ‘Go home Polish scum’. Homeless people have been marking their cardboard signs ‘English and Homeless’ for fear of being attacked as migrants.

What has been heartwarming are the messages of support I have personally received and the amazing responses publicly telling me and others like me that we belong, are welcome here.

English roses my Polish mother loved so much

English roses my Polish mother loved 

One of the things English friends are saying is how ashamed they now feel being English/British. So to all of them/you, don’t be ashamed! Think of the best in your culture, history. Invoke it now. Remember everyone who has ever resisted the colonialist/racist mind set and behaviour. We badly need those role models at this time. I wish I had a picture of Mrs. Barrett, as I called her, to show you. Let’s replace all the media images of the men in power who have lied and led the country into this vicious and hideous mess with images of good and ordinary folk. If Mrs. Barrett was still alive we might be disagreeing about all sorts of things but I imagine she’d be opening her door and helping Syrian refugees as she once helped Polish ones.

 

13512027_10153907518773401_286957910405027_nI’m a poet. I ‘m trying to write a poem about the sea for the lovely Beautiful Dragons Not A Drop project. I wanted this blog to be about writing. I’m also a Pole, by birth and heritage. I have always felt a European. After 2 world wars, the war in Ireland and then the war in what was Yugoslavia it’s so obvious to me what Europe needs is to build even more closeness within itself while at the same time reaching out to other continents, cultures around the world, working together to help refugees who have lost so much, working together for civil liberties, for equality, for a sustainable, healthy environment .

This morning the results of the U.K referendum came in with a shocking (albeit narrow) majority wanting to leave Europe. I say Europe because I don’t for a second believe the vote was about the merits or defects of EU institutions. Will those on the Left or feminists who naively thought they were voting against a capitalist or patriarchal club now realise who they have jumped into bed with? As for those who voted to leave in order to curb immigration I have never known what to say to them. They never wanted the likes of me to enter Britain in the first place. They have conveniently been offered an Other to blame and jumped at that offer. Without Johnny Foreigner everything will be all right.

Today I can’t sit still, can’t concentrate on anything. Walking to the shops from work I wanted to stop everyone I passed & say have you heard? How can you just carry on as normal? Two men behind me were saying to each other: we could move to Scotland… The exercise of the referendum has back-fired on the Tory Prime Minister who has resigned today. David Cameron should have read his history books. In the 1930’s the German Right believed they could use and manage Hitler.  Before long he had outmanoevered, over-powered or simply got rid of them.We already know Cameron’s successor will be even worse than he was. This referendum campaign to leave Europe was conducted by stirring up xenophobia and racism – perhaps these forces were never that far below the surface. That’s what’s so frightening and upsetting. Now they have been given a green light.

In this climate the Labour M.P Jo Cox was murdered last week by a man reportedly shouting ‘Britain First!’ who has alleged links to white supremacist groups and in court called himself : ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ . Her husband urged people to fight ‘the hate that killed her’. I can’t imagine what he and her family are going through.

13497858_10154493451523646_7489450108758851598_oMy phone hasn’t stopped today with everyone I know feeling some version of absolutely gutted. What should we do, as the clocks get turned back further and further, not only in the U.K but elsewhere? I don’t know. Grieve, feel shocked, feel our hearts break, go numb, feel tired? Remember how we were once bullied as children (in my case for being different/Polish) and find ways to heal and feel less helpless as adults now, have parties, paint, build, have sex, sing, dance, swim, grow veg, play ball, play music, paint our toe nails, go for walks, hide under the duvet, sleep, swear, spit, watch TV, turn off the TV, organise, protest, eat ice-cream? Raise money, love each other, hug our kids, hug each other, stick together, let off steam, be angry, get furious, livid, raging, think together, cry our eyes out together, believe in love, in friendship, translate, talk to each other, reach out, read books from other countries, write more poems? In what order? I don’t know. Maybe the order doesn’t matter. But let’s not shrug and say ‘Oh well..’ Let’s not be British about this.

IMG_1170IMG_1181IMG_1183What is happening to the time-space continuum (so fondly referred to in Star Trek)? Last month I was on a pro-choice demonstration in Warsaw. If I told you about all the demonstrations I have ever been on we would be here forever. But these are pictures of the one outside the Sejm (parliament) building, in my birth town where the government have been trying to make all abortion illegal. I listened to the eloquent speakers. Some spoke in fury. Some soberly.  All spoke brilliantly.

One woman talked about a church which covers up the abuse of children in its care and then preaches to women about reproduction. Another woman told us the story of her daughter who’d had to have a termination on health grounds which saved her life and enabled her to go on and have a child later. Professor Monika Płatek said we want abortion to be legal, safe and a rare occurrence. She then went on to outline what is necessary for that to be the case with social conditions and sex education as priorities. She pointed out the dire consequences when the dictator Ceausescu criminalised abortion in Romania. People brought coat hangers to the demo as a symbol of back street abortion.

Below are pictures from 40 years ago in Brighton when women’s rights were threatened by a restricting abortion bill – it didn’t get passed. Not the church, not the state women must decide their fate, we chanted. Our posters showed knitting needles – another backstreet variant which older campaigners then still remembered.

Recently there have been so many and continue to be demonstrations about different issues all over Poland. For a clearer understanding of what is happening there I suggest reading other people, for example like film-maker Wanda Koscia.  Given all the injustice happening world-wide if I write about Poland it’s because I feel connected to it in ways I can’t always explain but which touch the very core of me. Since I visited Warsaw I have been hearing more depressing accounts from friends and family there. About the erosion or outright destruction of democratic institutions and hard won rights civil liberties, including women’s reproductive rights, and about ever increasing racism, anti-semitism, anti-refugee feeling, Islamophobia, homophobia. Yet people are also galvanised. They are meeting up together. Isolation is getting broken down.

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I happened to be in Warsaw for a tiny moment, standing at a demo in my birth town thinking back to other demos. For feminists, activists, politically engaged and caring folk it is devastating to see the clocks being turned back whether here or in other countries. Are we in a time warp? I’ve also been sorting through old letters recently and finding letters from older friends and relatives, Polish, Jewish, German, people who lived through World War II writing aghast at war in the Middle East and elsewhere. How can this be happening again, happening still, they ask with bewilderment? Sorrow, bewilderment, anger, despair – these seem accurate responses when clocks are turned back. Is there also hope? There has to be. In Poland there is K.O.D (Committee for the Defence of Democracy) and a new political party called Razem (Together) and countless individuals and organisations fighting back. There is the closeness and exhilaration when people join forces. On the demo I went to there was a friend who is over 80. She clearly has no intention of giving up. But I’ll leave the last word to the young friend I met, a young woman with blue hair who said she’d never been on a demonstration because she’s scared of crowds. But now, she said, she’s more scared of the Polish government. So she went and chanted and made a stand for the first time in her life: GDZIE JEST WASZE CZŁOWIECZEŃSTWO?!