Here is what I learned at school: That children are arranged in circles. Well, I say circles it could just as well have been tiers in a vertical system but circles is what springs to mind as I write this now. Back then it would have been hard to put into any words, and certainly not geometrical shapes, though my memory of what was happening is very clear.

In the first and inner circle were the children who got the most stars on the star chart displayed in our classroom for everyone to see. A small inner group. The most popular children. They got silver stars and gold stars as well as – the less valued – red and green and yellow stars.  Their stars stretched in a long line on the chart. You won’t be surprised to know they were mainly, maybe not exclusively blonde and blue-eyed children, and they got the good, speaking parts in the Nativity play. I imagine they always had to be on the look out not to lose their position. The next circle also had a number of stars but not nearly as many. I expect they tried very hard to keep up with the children in the first circle. Perhaps they tried to be like them. And then there was us. We were all foreigners except for one girl. We came from Poland in my case, Nigeria, Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia I think. No one told us where that child was from but I knew he spoke Arabic. The teacher who seemed to be having some kind of break-down or fit used to throw his board rubber at him. We were white, black, brown and so obviously different we each got bullied at one time or another. And then there was this one English girl. Why was she in the foreign circle on the outside with us? The only sense I could make of it then – and now – was because she was different too. She was emotional and laughed much louder than the other children, holding her hands together in front of her and shaking with excitement. So she was bullied as well. The other children held their noses and said she smelled whenever they went past her.

Years later I found out that this learning was called the hidden curriculum as distinct from what the school thought it was teaching us. I wish I could tell you that we banded together sharing what we could see was happening to us and that we gave each other moral support. If we did so at all it was entirely silent. I wish I could tell you that we then reached out to the other two circles and broke down barriers and started a children’s revolution saying we refused to be divided like this or be made to compete with one another. I think we probably all knew and watched and saw everything that happened. But we were divided by gender and race and class and language. We didn’t know how and nobody helped us to form vital alliances, to find the words to describe and understand what was happening and change a system of inner and outer circles and ranking children. I think I’ve been trying to live differently ever since. If I could travel in time, I’d go back and rip the star chart off the wall and sit with all us children and help them/us through it so that no one was ever bullied again and each felt valued.

I know teachers, youth workers, therapists, parents, adults in all walks of life, who have devoted years of their lives to doing exactly that and have made a real difference to children growing up in whatever version of those circles they found themselves in over different decades. I know poets, writers and artists finding ways to speak out against the ‘othering’ of people. I feel so lucky to have that sense of community. We’re living in an immense backlash where prejudice and hatred are being whipped up daily and the earth is being destroyed. We can see it. We watch it all. But we don’t have to watch helplessly.

Plac Solidarności w Gdañsku. Młodzieżowy Strajk Klimatyczny. YOUTH STRIKE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE IN GDANSK. NATURE BEFORE EXAMS!
15.03.2019 Photograph by fot. Krzysztof Mystkowski / KFP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I was growing up I found the older generation’s nostalgia for the past suffocating. Have I become backward gazing myself?

I now realise it was their immense grief – trauma – the loss of so many people during the war and the occupation of Poland, the devastation of a whole country, that was overwhelming for a child. The other thing about the past – a bit like the proverbial sales rep joke – is it all depends how you tell it. Which version gets handed down? The dominant, sanitised, simplistic, version or the more complex and inevitably more interesting, inclusive one? (Even children can get excited about history. I have a 6 year old friend who will happily explain to me how it was when she ‘was young’.)

History became exciting when I could find my own experience – my own questions – somehow mirrored in it. Not only exciting but empowering, strengthening, reassuring. I wasn’t alone in how I thought about things and I wasn’t the first – not by a long stretch.

Three events I have been at about the past recently have nourished me. IMG_8499Firstly Dr Aviva Dautch, poet and scholar, gave a wonderful talk at the Progressive Synagogue in Brighton about First World War poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg. She gave us a close reading of his famous poem Break of day in the Trenches in which, as he goes to pick a poppy to put behind his ear, a rat brushes past his hand: a rat free to move between Englishmen and Germans, unrestricted by borders and frontlines, a droll rat, inwardly grinning. It’s an extraordinary poem, clearly at odds with the dominant narrative of nationalistic pomp and glory. A young working class Jew, Rosenberg was helped to pay for his studies by two women artists Lily Joseph and Violet Schiff, women who understood the importance of education, themselves educated – though never to the same extent as their brothers. Joseph and Schiff helped East End women as well. Tragically Rosenberg was killed aged 28 before the war ended.Isaac_Rosenberg_by_Isaac_Rosenberg

Next was Jane Traies in the Nightingale Room in Brighton who introduced contributors from her new book Now You See Me (Tollington Press) and talked about the research she’s carried out into the lives of older lesbians. The readings were funny, poignant, powerful. So is the book. As she points out these stories will simply vanish if we don’t write them down or record them in some way; silence is ‘ how we disappear from history’. The contributors were joined by marvellous author V.G Lee reading from her new book Oh You Pretty Thing (just out from Tollington Press) and as if that wasn’t enough there followed a melodramatic romp about the Ladies of Llangollen, two aristocratic women in the 18th century who eloped to Wales, escaping abuse and enforced religion to live together, reading, writing, drawing and gardening. The drama was written and joyfully performed by Jane Hoy and Helen Sandler of Living Histories Cymru. Everyone left with a smile on their face.

 

Last but not least I took part in an event to commemorate the bicentenary of Polish writer Narcyza Żmichowska with the scholar and her translator Ursula Phillips plus translator-poet Anna Błasiak and myself. We had been asked by Ursula to respond to Żmichowska and her brand of Enthusiasm as part of Lambeth’s LGBT history month in London. Enthusiasm was a philosophical, spiritual movement in Europe often at odds with religious authorities. EnthusiastsEntuzjastki – was also the name given to the group of women surrounding Żmichowska who were the first openly emancipationist, or proto-feminist group of women in Poland. Here was a woman in the 19th century looking for a more inclusive spiritual framework for her ideas, grappling with the vicissitudes of being a woman writer – she published a collection of texts in 1861 entitled: ‘Several Writings of an Anonymous Female Writer Published by a Completely Unknown Editor’ , a title which made me laugh out loud and encouraging debate and discussion between women. While valued and respected in some circles, Żmichowska was also viewed with suspicion and accused (sic) of being an atheist as well being criticised for supporting a divorced friend. She was clearly someone who was not prepared to limit herself to being only a good Polish mother – in fact she did not marry at all. At the heart of her novel The Heathen translated by Ursula Phillips is a love story between a young man and an older woman which Ursula is convinced is a disguised story about two women, based on Żmichowska’s own experience. If divorce was such a scandal then how much harder to speak of same-sex relationships. In this context the word Enthusiasts can also be seen as code, for women’s friendship, sisterhood, sexuality.

I am indebted to Ursula Phillips for her work on Polish women writers of the 19th century. Their stories are both poignant and inspiring. It is a history I knew nothing about when I was growing up.

Now especially, living in strange and retrogressive times, as clocks get turned back to prejudice and narrow-mindedness we need to look back to stories just like these in order to be able to look forward.

 

 

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The amazing women at Damesnet have also written about this last event and a longer piece about it by me appears in the next issue of Pamiętnik Literacki journal of the Union of Polish Writers Abroad .

Photo of Ursula Phillips, MJ and Anna Błasiak courtesy of Urszula Sołtys.

 

 

img_9181_2According to Polish tradition the tree and decorations should be down by today –  goodbye to the old year, what will the new year bring? Also according to that tradition carp is eaten for Wigilia on Christmas Eve yet practically all the Poles I know don’t like it and so cook other more delicious (this year sea bream here) things. And that’s even before the PolishMoslem/Jewish/atheist/agnostic/feminist/vegan… take on it.

fullsizeoutput_2ea144e557ba-8621-49be-900b-9fb8ff3bf905Against a backdrop of increasing political buffoonery and thuggery 2018 was a creative year for me. A new collection of poems The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Liquorice Fish/Cinnamon Press 2018) came out towards the end of the year. I was proud to be part of the Wretched Strangers anthology (Boiler House Press 2018) marking the vital contribution of non-UK-born writers to British poetry culture, published ‘to commemorate the anniversary of the June 2016 EU Referendum and in solidarity through struggles to come’ with proceeds going to charities fighting for the rights of refugees. And for the last 6 months from Summer to Winter Solstice I have been intensely involved in an exciting Polish led collaborative project, Snow Q, reimagining  Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen along contemporary themes with music, art, film and poetry. I have been posting about it along with the other artists involved (hence my absence) on: https://snowqproject.wordpress.com

As you grow older what other people call history is just parts of your life. When people – still – talk about ‘bra-burning women’s libbers’ I think of my younger self and friends. Of course none of us ever burned a bra in our lives. If we don’t tell our own unique stories they vanish without trace (or get misrepresented). Which is why I was thrilled to hear Queer in Brighton, a project dear to my heart, has received funding to continue its work collecting our precious LGBTQ history. And which brings me back to carp. Its other meaning is to complain in a way that someone else finds ‘unnecessary or annoying’. But one person’s carping is another’s understandable, entirely justified protest…

There is certainly enough to carp about as we start this New Year, 2019. There is also so much to celebrate, not least the connections between us in all our differences and diversities. As Kit Fan says in Wretched Strangers: “So many of us, I want to know every single life, what brought them here today, who they are, and how long they will live.”

Down with bullying and – in this Northern hemisphere – up with snowdrops! As Toni Morrison said a while back: these are precisely the times – again – when artists go to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Swimming photograph courtesy of Helen Joubert Chagall stained glass, Rita Suszek performs my version of Kai for Snow Q – photograph courtesy of Wendy Pye, Cowboy book launch photograph courtesy of Ceilia Jastrzembska, Amsterdam window, Snow Q poster design by Dagmara Rudkin & Wendy Pye, Cover of my new book design by Adam Craig www.cinnamonpress.com

The film Frozen which you, or your children, surely know, was loosely based on it. Interpretations, deliberate feminist ‘misinterpretations’*, artistic, musical, film, scholarly and literary takes on it abound – a story written almost 175 years ago. I got together with 2 other Polish-connected artists, Dagmara Rudkin, a visual artist, and composer Peter Copley along with other artists including photographer Wendy Pye and director Mark Hewitt to create a re-imagining of the Snow Queen story by Hans Christian Anderson. Our project SNOW Q https://snowqproject.wordpress.com will culminate in a pilot installation at Winter Solstice in Brighton. The original story is many-layered, (actually seven stories in one), rich in symbolism and full of astonishing characters not least the evil Snow Queen at the centre of it. Yet how ambivalent everyone is about her power!

Is she a strong woman taking her strength for granted or is she a disturbed mother-figure? A victim herself? Beautiful? (whose terms?) Seductive? A fashion icon? Grasping ruling class tyrant? Force of nature? Death? Depression?

And how is my work changing as I work with other artists and different groups? Thinking about it while the sun is shining here in the UK is strange in itself. I find I’m here but also elsewhere much of the time…perhaps not unusual after all. 

Thanks to an Arts Council Research and Development grant we have started working on this collaborative project and are documenting the process on a blog specially for it:

https://snowqproject.wordpress.com

If you haven’t already seen it please have a look and if you know which buttons to press follow us. As there’s several of us involved it’s going to be a more regular and intense blog than these random musings. I’ll be focusing there for a while but will come back to this blog in the end. (So don’t hang up!)

*Pauline Greenhill, Women’s and Gender Studies Department, University of Winnipeg, Canada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some years ago I was involved in a poetry event called Even Cowgirls Listen to Poetry which included a line-dancing display.  To me it seemed perfectly logical to put the two together. Everyone in Brighton was learning how to do the Tush Push then. OK, nearly everyone. Line dancing had started as a gay craze (often the way) and spread everywhere. Country and Western music (with its working class American songs) was suddenly all the rage here. I knew some likely gals adept at dancing and so they did a little show alongside the poetry (Jill Gardiner and myself) with singer songwriter Carol Prior. Some of the audience loved the combo, some remained bemused…but I need to back-track.

Romantic ideas about the Wild West predate the line-dancing craze of course. Musical hall artistes were dressing as cowboys and girls in the early 20th century as postcards below from an Into the Lime Light collection show.

Reproduced by kind permission of http://www.intothelimelight.org

 

 

 

Reproduced by kind permission of http://www.intothelimelight.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up (though I adored the Lucy Show) there weren’t many (any?) female role models I could identify with. Instead there was the Lone Ranger.  The Lone Ranger was a justice-seeking, chivalrous Robin Hood sort of cowboy protecting poor, defenceless people from ruthless and extreme macho bandits. He had a ‘trustworthy’ Native American companion (sidekick really) called Tonto, who despite being a skilled tracker was portrayed in ridiculously stereotypical fashion. As recently as 2013 the film was remade with Johnny Depp playing Tonto… so the fascination, along with a good portion of racism, remains. If you don’t remember the original you have to imagine that the Lone Ranger was trying to avenge the death of his brother – murdered by white men. He didn’t get drunk or kill people. Crucially for me as a child, he wore a white Stetson and black mask and gloves and he rode a horse named Silver…

All too often the Western films we watched back then, (‘Cowboys and Indians’ films) portrayed white men as heroes and either glossed over the repeated genocide of Native Americans or justified it by portraying them as menacing savages. It’s now estimated about a quarter of cattle herding cowboys were in fact Black, much of the language cowboys used derives from Mexican Spanish. Luckily too, imaginative interpretations of the Western trope abound, from Ed Dorn’s trippy Gunslinger to Brokeback Mountain, Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid to Patrick Gale’s Canadian pioneers.  The work of Native American authors  – Jo Harjo, Paula Gunn Allen, Natalie Diaz, among many others – enriches and rebalances both this narrative and the North American canon. For better or worse there were also women sharpshooters like Annie Oakley, women who fought for prohibition as well as activists like Helen Hunt Jackson who exposed the federal mistreatment of Native Americans.

At their best the legends about cowboys appealed in Europe owing to the ruggedness and vastness of the American landscape, with its prairies and mountains, and spirit of quest and exploration, a freedom from the confines of European society perhaps, America being the new world for Europeans. A good part of my childhood was spent riding my imaginary horse, looking tough, rescuing folk and seeing off the bad guys instead of doing whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. No wonder attempts to transform me into a young lady failed. What chance did they possibly have?

Reproduced with kind permission from http://www.intothelimelight.org

 

 

 

Polish political poster for Solidarity from late 1980’s using cowboy imagery

 

Reproduced by kind permission of http://www.intothelimelight.org.

A few years ago I started writing a new book almost by accident. I’d written a few lines about the lazy heat (not set in the U.K obviously) of high noon – a Western cliché as it happens, only instead of a horse and rider a mysterious truck appeared on the dusty road. I was going to discard these lines as they seemed to be going nowhere but suddenly found I needed to set other projects aside instead and focus on the story – or stories – unfolding before me.

It takes place in what a friend described as a spaghetti Western setting, more Hispanic than my usual Anglo-Polish landscapes though for my money you can take the girl/author out of Poland but…the usual themes are still there war and love, love and war. Are there cowboys or girls in it? Or are they characters who may have fallen under a cowboygirl spell sometime? There are certainly two women and they fall in love and go on a quest and one of them wears a cowboy hat. And it is all true. It says so on the cover.

The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue by Maria Jastrzębska

will be published by Liquorice Fish/Cinammon Press in October 2018.

For more information see:

https://www.cinnamonpress.com/index.php/blog/entry/maria-jastrzebska-on-the-true-story-of-cowboy-hat-and-ingenue

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words are powerful. They change meanings, connotations as language evolves. The goddess Trivia was clearly demoted. If you remember saying ‘straights’ to mean cigarettes (rather than joints) you are probably over 60. If you ever said sick to mean good, well below. I remember correcting students who said ‘coloured’ instead of Black. They thought Black was rude, didn’t want to offend.

When I was growing up ‘queer’ was an insult word for gay men. Women (and some men) I know still balk at using it. Most younger people I know prefer it to saying gay or lesbian. My friend, poet John McCullough wrote a wonderful essay for Queer in Brighton‘s anthology exploring and celebrating the word queer for its inclusivity and subversive quirkiness. The lengthening list of letters to describe the LGBTIQ community has amused and irritated people both on the outside and inside of the community. But when you are in a minority or seen as ‘other’, language and being able to name your experience in your own way (rather than being told what you are by someone else) is especially important. You have to fight to be recognised and you’re seldom in a position to take your identity for granted.

I recently went to see the exhibition about the life and work of 20th century artist Gluck at Brighton Museum. One of the things that struck me is how different groups and communities have claimed Gluck.  As someone who wore tailored ‘masculine’ clothes, with cropped hair and who had (quite a few!) relationships with other women she became a lesbian icon. More recently “a trailblazer of gender fluidity” for the Trans community. I couldn’t help wondering what she herself would have made of these legacies.

I love how many younger people (though not exclusively, think American writer Eileen Myles,) are rejecting or questioning gender stereotypes by appearance or pronouns to describe themselves. At the same time I think it’s crucial not to gloss over the misogyny (from the Greek, hatred – no less – of women) in society. It’s not a level playing field from which we choose equal options. As an older feminist I’m heartened seeing young women (men, everyone) take up campaigns about sexual harassment, male violence, economic inequality.  I’m also gutted that we still need to.

So maybe that is something to do with my relationship to the word lesbian.

I love the inclusivity (now) of queer and at the same time I mistrust general words. It’s too easy for women to get lost – be made invisible in them (since men are – still – the default, women the other). Also I have a soft spot for the word lesbian. Maybe it’s what was current when you first come out – like the affection you have for music you grew up with – which makes you embrace a particular word. It’s got limitations as a Western/Eurocentric word –  ancient Lesbos being the birthplace of Sappho, but it makes me happy that she was a poet as well as a woman loving women.  It also suggests an exclusivity (of only relating sexually to women) which actually doesn’t apply to lots of lesbians’ experience. But there’s something uncompromising about a word that is so much about being a woman. I can still remember how arresting it was to hear it and start using it myself. And all the times I heard any woman standing up for herself get ‘accused’ of being a lesbian, her opinion dismissed. I asked a friend who is around 20 years younger than me how she referred to herself, what she felt about the word lesbian. She said she calls herself queer or gay and – to my surprise, since I expected her to think its power had long worn off  – she said the word lesbian packed a punch, so she would reserve it for confrontations rather than casual conversation.

Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Basket the dog

Poets seek to name the impossible, the just-out-of-reach. Those from minority/disadvantaged groups look for words to name that which is sidelined, excluded.  Words do and don’t matter. Lesbian – not a word to hide in.

Gertrude Stein wrote her famous rose sentence in 1913, in her poem Sacred Emily

It’s that time of year again…complicated…?

So many kinds of wrong. The manipulation of women, families with no money, anyone physically or mentally vulnerable, heart-broken; the pressure to spend/consume, to cope and act jolly and the imposition of cultural norms, an expectation of conformity regardless of other faiths or persuasion is often unbearable at this time of year. Not to mention all the sugar or booze.

And yet and yet and yet, despite all that, I take a childish delight in Christmas and also Advent: this current period of time of preparing for it. It’s probably the time of year I feel most Polish and also recall childhood Christmases – both good and bad – (yes, it’s complicated) and somewhere in the middle of it all the sense of hope on the longest night.  Of course Christianity doesn’t have the monopoly on festivals of light or celebrations of the longest night in the year, Persians, Greeks, Romans, pagans, Hindus and Jews invented such rituals long before the Christians.

There are many traditions and customs which form part of the Polish celebrations with its main focus on Wigilia i.e Christmas Eve. I think one of my favourite is the laying of an extra place for an unexpected guest. A stranger who is to be welcomed. Given the recent track record of my two (birth and adopted) homelands, Poland and the U.K in welcoming refugees, increasingly this is a heinously enormous irony. I don’t imagine those in power read blogs such as this or listen if they do, but here’s a flicker sent out into the universe, a reminder that the extra place on the table doesn’t have a sign on it saying no Muslims or LGBTQ people for instance. Worth mentioning too how many LGBTQ people still dread times like Xmas when their families deny who they are or who they are with. There was a wonderful event in Brighton recently organised by Brighton Migrant Solidarity and Thousand 4 £1000 to raise money for supporting refugees. It included a reading from activist-poet Saradha Soobrayen and a film about the collective making of an amazing patchwork blanket for a refugee family. The project took as its name the first line of a verse inscribed on Brighton’s city gates as you drive in:

Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee.

Too cheesy? That’s another thing I like about this time of year. Permission to be ultra cheesy! Angry, indignant too. Sad. Excited. Complicated…(See Death and the Devil included in the Christmas display from Kraków below.)