Archives for posts with tag: Polish poetry

Poczet 1By a happy coincidence, the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza  published Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel laureate lecture in full the day I was flying back from Warsaw so I could read it on the way home. Home is of course the key word here. I recommend reading the lecture in full.

Here’s why:Npx28ks0R42BYo%5mgnllw

On journeys between Poland and the U.K I can’t help thinking about the notion of home and belonging.  This year my partner and I fitted in a last minute, crazy weekend in the run up to Christmas to catch up with family and friends, which made everything more poignant. The lights were switched on while we were there, showering the city centre in shimmering gold, and my partner was bemused asking if anyone – anyone at all? – was planning to eat traditional karp at Wigilia (the main celebration on the 24th). (No one actually likes this fish was the answer.)

FlsPRPnrRpOG3HJnHvnwawSo where do I belong?  I was born in Warsaw but have lived practically all my life in the U.K. I’m writing this on the eve of a British election where the media have been championing right wing politicians hell-bent both on severing the U.K from its own continent and destroying the things I most value here: Britain’s openness and diversity, its not for profit NHS health service, its democratic institutions. These are cynical politicians who will happily plunge this country deeper into austerity and ignore climate change as they themselves will be immune anyway. And then there is my first homeland: 80 towns have been declared “LGBTQ-free” zones. (My civil partnership is not recognised, needless to say.) The constitution and judiciary are being demolished and undermined daily. And yet at the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw we saw The Power of Secrets an exhibition by Karol Radziszewski & friends along with the Queer Archives Institute, interviews with artists & activists & a queer portrait gallery through Polish history.  There is talk of change. There is always hope.

I’m a Polish poet writing in English. I don’t sound Polish. I don’t feel English. But then sometimes I don’t feel Polish either. I’m like lots of ‘between’ people. I was schooled here to be lamentably ignorant of European (including Polish) – let alone world – poetry and culture. I’m also a queer poet though at times the LGBTQ literary community struggles to recognise that, since I write about war as much as love and my stories are not straight-forward coming out tales…My most recent collection The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon/ Liquorice Fish Press) is a non-linear, cross-genre, lesbian love story interwoven with the stories of other outcasts and refugees, set in a Hispanic context of war. I mention identities because they shape how a person is seen but they are not exhaustive. Poetry is not necessarily ‘about’ one thing or another. Elsewhere I’ve written about being a fish out of water. Whose literary tradition do I belong to?

And then I’m on a plane flying from Warsaw Chopin to Heathrow London and reading Olga Tokarczuk’s speech. I’m not one for grand ceremonies but there is such a humility and such an openness in the way she speaks. And she is talking about literature striving for a ‘tender narrator’, a ‘fourth-person narrator’, which I find so exciting, about the need to:

‘drop the definition of “national literatures,” knowing as we do that the universe of literature is a single thing, like the idea of unus mundus, a  common psychological reality in which our human experience is united. The Author and the Reader perform equivalent roles, the former by  dint of creating, the latter by making a constant interpretation’.

It’s really worth reading her speech in its entirety as it makes better sense than any quotes or soundbites I can give you.nzKi+pecQKyVJOkqL4FF9w

For here is a Polish writer who speaks of ‘tenderness’ in literature:

‘Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly   melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of   immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.’

And suddenly I feel that my small contribution, my own work is a step on the right road at the very least. Olga Tokarczuk has articulated so well the things I’m reaching for. Here is a writer speaking my language, in all senses of the word. Decrying greed and prejudice and violence. Ridiculously, I feel she is speaking to me personally. Not that she’s the only one. Olga Tokarczuk would be the first to acknowledge there are many people behind her/with her. Not just writers or artists. But all the many people – my friends and family in Poland among them – who in countless ways, big or tiny, are making change.  Thousands of feet (or metres) in the air between Warsaw and London I feel I have a place. I’m home.AMpRpMIHQr2JWd31Ew8TWQ


A funeral and then a visit to Warsaw since my last blog.   All that is another story…

…for now I’m still thinking about the censors inside our own heads.  Every creative workshop is about trying to outwit them. How easy it is to spoil an idea with anxiety about its success or failure.

I have two friends – let’s call them Tom and Jerry. Tom’s book has just been short-listed for a prestigious prize.  On the strength of that he’s been offered a book tour and is meeting authors and festival organisers and getting more invitations.  His confidence is buoyed up and he’s already started a new manuscript.  Jerry thought he’d got the big break when a renowned agent enthusiastically approached him for his manuscript and said he’d get a publishing contract in no time.  Three years down the line the agent is no longer returning Jerry’s calls while other agents say the book is excellent but it’s a difficult time… Jerry decides to give up writing altogether.  Life’s short and the sense of failure is making him too miserable but he then finds he can’t actually stop writing.  Something makes him keep going even though he isn’t getting anywhere…  Which of these two artists will do better in the long run?  Is it a foregone conclusion?  Will Tom become complacent and stop honing his skills or he will he blossom with all the encouragement and attention? Will Jerry become so depressed he can’t see his projects through or will rejection spur him to write even better?  What’s next?

I expect you know Tom and Jerry too.  Maybe you identify with one of them?  Tom-everybody’s-darling or Jerry the also-ran – or maybe with both of them?

We artists like to think we’re above all that.  Surely all we want is to focus on our own creativity, not worry if our work is a) any good and b) marketable.  But we do.  And there are electricity bills to pay.  And we’re living in a society utterly obsessed with success and failure.  (It should be a double noun: Successfailure.) Singing, ballroom dancing, baking, going on a date, putting an outfit together, bush tucker trials, losing weight, living in a house – everything is a competition.  One of my favourite recent books is The Hunger Games, a young adult novel by American writer Suzanne Collins – thrilling social commentary on competitiveness taken to its extreme.

So there’s something very gratifying knowing J.K Rowling got half a dozen rejections from publishers before placing Harry Potter and – at the other end of the spectrum – that Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, who died earlier this year, referred to winning the Nobel Prize as the ‘Stockholm tragedy’, because it held up her writing for a few years while she was fêted by all the media.

Why write about this slightly embarrassing and ignoble topic?  (It’s a bit like talking about an itchy infection with a nasty smell.)  Why admit to my own sleepless nights of corrosive anxiety – feeling I am the only one foolish enough to be worrying this much whether I have truly ‘nailed it/made it my own/given it 110 per cent etc’?  Why?  Because it’s there.