img_2830

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.