Archives for posts with tag: The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue

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.

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/104871-lecture-english/

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

55eb637e-b533-4fab-92af-ae2cb29f6018My summer sea swims have been curtailed by the strong winds here in Brighton. Is that it now?

But there are things to look forward to in the coming autumn: Festivals where I’ll be running workshops and reading from my latest book THE TRUE STORY OF COWBOY HAT & INGÉNUE published by Liquorice Fish imprint of Cinnamon Press  ISBN: 978-1-911540-03-8. Listed below. I’m also teaching an online course for the Poetry School, QUEEREADING so am re-posting the blog I wrote for them below that. 

Brighton’s first ever, The Coast is Queer Festival

on Friday 13th, Saturday 14th & Sunday 15th September Brighton’s first ever

https://coastisqueer.com

Tears in the Fence Festival on Saturday 21st September

https://tearsinthefence.com/festival/

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Saturday 9th & Sunday 10th November

https://www.poetryinaldeburgh.org

And thoughts about Queereading at the Poetry School:

“Robin Morgan started her Lesbian Poem with a dedication to everyone who had turned to that poem first in the Contents page of her Monster chapbook.

I’d done exactly that, of course. I was hungry. Hungry for anything I could get my hands on to read with a hint of a non-heteronormative narrative or some reflection of my experience. This was the 1970s and I clung to a handful of authors I’d found, Jean Genet, Violette Leduc, James Baldwin… I’d scan every index for words like homosexual, bisexual etc. Old habits die hard and I still do that (though our language has changed and keeps changing so I look for other words).

I’ve been stock-piling queer poems for years. To this day, for instance, I am ‘discovering’ nineteenth century Polish writers I thought/ was taught were heterosexual but who weren’t. I love finding writers all over the world exploring what it means to be queer. But back when I couldn’t find what I was looking for I made it up, ‘translating’ mainstream narratives into my own. Is the hunger still there?

In her Modern Poetry in Translation essay ‘Queerness as Translation’, Mary Jean Chan* talks about the relief of finding others who mirror our experience and how she found solace in the work of Adrienne Rich. She also describes the process of queering texts we read – in her case Shakespeare’s playful Twelfth Night. Despite reading it in school where it was presented in a conservative, traditional way, and despite Shakespeare’s heterosexual resolution of all his gender-bending in the play, it provided her with her ‘first glimpse into the multiplicity of queer desire’:

‘there was Viola/Cesario who had fallen hopelessly in love with Duke Orsino (whilst wearing her dashing military uniform), and their passionate conversations about the true nature of love made me question who it was I found myself increasingly drawn to – Viola, Cesario, or both?’

With Allie Rogers and Persia West at Brighton Library Let me Be Perfectly Queer event, July 2019.

This process of re-imagining and reinterpreting texts – or songs or films – is so familiar. What nourishment do we need as queer readers? What do we want reflected back at us? Or do we want to be transported somewhere different from ourselves, away from our own backyards? Poetry is often our safe place to explore who we are, but what if we still can’t find ourselves in the depictions of queer that become popular or enter the mainstream?

Introducing the poetry section of Queer Riveter, Lawrence Schimel* acknowledges the complexities of defining queer poetry. For his selection he chose recent work which is ‘celebrating or overtly expressing this identity’ but recognises this can’t be exhaustive. How explicit do we want to be? He also points out how many queer anthologies within Europe are national and thus mono-lingual so we are missing each other’s voices in different languages, from different cultures. And that’s just one continent!

I live in Brighton, the ‘gay capital of the UK’, where we have well established queer communities, lesbian networks, LGBTQ+ Pride, Trans Pride, etc., and even here people can feel isolated, attacked, vulnerable. In my birth country, Poland it’s a different, harsher story again. Is queer poetry – necessarily – a literature of protest? What of reflection, introspection, imagination? Not only that, but for many of us queer identity is not our sole identity. Is it meaningful to say ‘we’ when we come from different communities, ethnicities, face different issues be they race, class, health, age, language, & gender/s?

During my upcoming Queereading course we’re going to be reading poems which address the full richness of our experience, many already translated into English, and responding to them, ‘translating’ them into our own. So this course is for those who turned to the word ‘queer’ in its title, whether from hunger or from the sheer delight of wanting more, of expecting a broader, chewier, more delicious feast.

*Modern Poetry in Translation LGBTQ+ issue House of Thirst, 2018

*Queer Riveter – Riveting Queer Writing from Europe, Edition Six, June 2019, European Literature Network

Queeread and queerwrite across the borders of ourselves and others on Maria Jastrzebska ‘s online course,Queereading. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.” Concessions available.

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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