Archives for posts with tag: Warsaw

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

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?!

 

IMG_4306What a shame you’re going to miss the fire in the brothel, my friend said to me when I arrived. I understood every word but had no idea what she was talking about – she meant Pożar w Burdelu, the hottest (sic) cabaret in Warsaw. What was it like being in my birth town? Hot and cold I tell everyone and the weather did indeed range from sleeveless tops to jumpers but we poets always mean something else as well, don’t we. It’s different when I go to France, for instance. I meekly accept that I can’t remember how to form the subjunctive and will be regarded with suspicion as a foreigner, but in Poland…I hear my mother telling us kids off for becoming too much like the English. I feel somehow not Polish enough. I run around trying to see as many people and things as possible, have to be reminded constantly which tram to take where, am fed at every opportunity regardless of what time I turn up and shown such hospitality and warmth it makes me cry even thinking about it. This year it was strawberry season. And I mean STRAWBERRIES, not the paler imitation. Strawberries with whipped cream, with vanilla ice cream, in sugary syrup, in cake, au naturel…IMG_4348

Before I knew it, it was time to fly home and now I’m in back in Brighton I feel somehow more Polish again. Every day I miss speaking my mothertongue. That’s just the way it is.

Last year on a panel at eMigrating Landscapes at UCL poet Steven Fowler asked writer and translator Marek Kazmierski and myself if we identified as Polish writers. Marek – with a more Polish accent than mine- said No, I, in my native-speaker sounding English, answered Yes. Afterwards we talked about this and both agreed it wasn’t that simple and really we both meant Yes and No at the same time. If I flick back through the books I’ve written they’re crammed full of Polishness, though written in English, from the perspective of living outside Poland.

Many writers are reluctant to be confined to any identity. Besides when you live in ‘your own’ country you rarely think of yourself as having a particular identity unless you happen to belong not to the mainstream culture but to a minority. Identity is usually talked about in relation to those outside the dominant culture or if you are visiting another culture when you suddenly acquire that ambassador role. Can you imagine a new novel being described as depicting white culture or telling a heterosexual love story? (And yet how many discussions have we had about whether there is such a thing as queer writing or not at Queer Writing South events!) When I give readings abroad I am usually billed as a British poet. Here often as a Polish poet, sometimes a queer poet.  At the wonderful London bookshop Gay’s The Word the policy is that novels need some gay characters whereas poetry is left, so to speak, an open book…Next week I’m reading at Have A Word in Brighton and then at Felixstowe Book Festival where I’ll be talking with writer and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek about Polish writing. Is there such a thing? I wonder what we will decide.

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Doctor Who and the Old Woman

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One of my favourite poets Anna Świrszczyńska, pen name Anna Swir, wrote*:

‘Mankind has invented for her

the most abusive

language in the world.’

When my daughter came home from primary school, some years ago, worried that her legs might be ‘too fat’ I felt homicidal. My 19 year old niece says she doesn’t want to be 20. A 25 year old friend says she is starting her Masters degree ‘too late’. My 30 year old friend thinks she may have ‘missed the boat’ in her creative career…You get the picture. My male friends feel it too, but there’s a particularly vicious contempt reserved for ageing women that’s linked to how women are judged on the appearance of our bodies. So it’s different for girls.  Anna Swir’s poem is called Old Woman.

And so much depends on where you live and whether you can afford to eat well and take proper care of your health.

I know a bloke – you probably know him too – see him at all the events and we have talked, we know each other. But he looks straight through me. It’s not deliberate. It’s almost physical. He is searching so hard for the younger women in the room that he actually can’t focus to see me. Sometimes I stand right in front of him and say hello very loudly. Just for the hell of it. Rudimentary courtesy versus desperation. You can literally see the battle in his eyes.

This year I’ve turned 60. I have been forcing myself to tell people my age. People say ‘oh you don’t look sixty at all!’ to be nice and I lap it up, but what does that say about our expectations of being 60? Phew, I don’t look that old yet! When is ‘old’ going to stop being an insult?

Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Vivienne Westwood, Felicity Kendall, Germaine Greer, Catherine Deneuve, Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithful and Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, David Bailey, David Bowie, Terence Stamp, The Stones… Thank heavens for role models. (You can probably think of others.) And for writers like my friend Jackie Wills who dares to use the M (for menopause) word.

What is to be done? Total revolution where each person is genuinely valued for themselves would be a start. Meanwhile I’ve been celebrating – so far with cake and snow in Warsaw, my birth-town. (The top picture is of Warsaw’s mermaid.) I aim to continue. It’s a plan. And an 80 year old friend gave me a beautiful card which said ‘how lovely to be so young’.

So let me end with a Doctor Who moment. You know that bloke? He’s ignoring me and now he’s talking to a younger woman. What he doesn’t know is that we are in one of those temporal paradoxes. The young woman is actually me – only 30 or 40 years ago!  She/I may be impressionable but she’s/we’re also sussed. Who wants to be patronised?

She looks over to me and raises her/my eyebrows. I give her/me a wink and turn to re-enter my own time stream. Wait! She runs after me. In your time, she asks, have they cast a woman as Doctor Who yet? Oh what should I tell her/myself? Any day now, I reply, any day.

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*Old Woman in Fat Like the Sun, trans.Grażyna Baran and Margaret Marshment (The Women’s Press)

In the late 80s when I was on a scholarship in Warsaw meat and chocolate were still being rationed, censorship was rife, dissidents jailed. In Russia the poet Irina Ratushinskaya had been arrested in 1982, convicted the following year of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” with a sentence of seven years in a labour camp and five years of internal exile.

In prison she wrote poems about love and Christian theology on soap, memorising them before they were washed away. She was released on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed.

With artist friend Jola Scicińska we produced a book at that time called Postcards from Poland (Working Press). Travelling back and forth between Poland and England I felt a huge cultural gap and as usual found myself somewhere in the middle.  I was writing about the euphoria of banned books being suddenly available as well as the (inevitable but depressing) influx of Western porn. Things aren’t simple but then they never were.

Over two decades later, this August,  Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a labour camp for their oppositional punk prayer in the Temple of Christ Saint Saviour in Moscow.

“Absurdity’s on the increase/spirit wanes” writes the Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik in Mister Today (Elsewhere  by Iztok Osojnik translated by Ana Jelnikar and Maria Jastrzębska (Pighog Press). Clearly governments continue to feel threatened enough by musicians or writers self to respond viciously.  Moscow has also banned Gay Pride for the next century, Warsaw banned it a few years ago but the ban has now been overturned.

Sitting comfortably in front of my PC at home it’s humbling to think of those behind bars for their words. English Pen has published an e-book anthology of poems for Pussy Riot CATECHISM: POEMS FOR PUSSY RIOT, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer with an introduction by George Szirtes – a fitting title since the women are accused of being anti-Christian. I’m proud to have a poem in it.

http://www.englishpen.org/poems-for-pussy-riot-ebook/

On a smaller scale censorship succeeds when it gets inside our heads, whether in or outside the literary world.  I like writing workshops (both teaching them and going myself) – they’re a chance to trick the internal censor, to bypass authorial intention and discover things we might otherwise not have said. Here in the Developed World it’s impossible to calculate the exact weight of social/media pressure, except to say how profoundly it influences our choices, whether as writers or not.

“ …it is a

wonder we

can use the word free and have it mean anything at all to us. We          stand still let the cold wind wrap round …”

says American poet Jorie Graham in Dialogue/(Of The Imagination’s Fear) in P L A C E (Carcanet).

And it is no wonder that back in the 1970s and 1980s (in the West) revolutionary or separatist movements sprang up in an attempt to escape and create alternatives.  While in former Eastern Europe the concept of internal exile (self-created as opposed to state imposed) was developed. From the perspective of time we may see the task differently (apart from anything both literary and political styles change..) but having the word free mean something – that has got to be what do for ourselves.