An Interview With Poet Adam Zagajewski

Anna Maria Hong

Born in Lvov in 1945, Adam Zagajewski is one of the most well-known and highly regarded contemporary Polish poets. His luminous, searching poems are imbued by a deep engagement with history, art, and life.

His books include Tremor: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985), Canvas (FSG, 1991), Mysticism for Beginners (FSG, 1997), and Without End: New and Selected Poems (FSG, 2002). He is also the author of several volumes of essays, including Solidarity, Solitude (Ecco Press, 1990) and Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (FSG, 1995), as well as the memoir Another Beauty (FSG, 2000).

For many years, Zagajewski split his time between Paris and Texas, where he teaches in the University of Houston’s creative writing program. He now spends part of the year in Krakow, the city he lived in during the 1960s and '70s. In 2004, he was awarded the $50,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today.

In late October, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish Zagajewski’s new collection of essays, A Defense of Ardor, translated by Clare Cavanagh. In these essays, Zagajewski blends ebullient insight with self-deprecating wit to elucidate his ideas on the relationship of poetry to the world while paying homage to friends and mentors such as Zbigniew Herbert, Jozef Czapski, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Zagajewski about the essays in his forthcoming book and what he hopes to achieve by defending ardor.

Adam Zagajewski: In some of these essays I do something that I usually try not to do: I propose a few programmatic ideas concerning poetry. Ideally poetry should speak for itself and contain, along with so many other things, its own program. So why do I disobey myself? Hard to say. Maybe because I feel I’m too discreet in my poems in this respect—which is probably not true. Or maybe sometimes I feel angry and disappointed with some aspects or currents of contemporary poetry and have to vent my emotions. Or perhaps sometimes I simply like the poetics of manifesto.

Why ardor? Because, I think, there’s not enough of it in our time. Or, at least in our literature. There’s too much lukewarm irony, too much sophisticated indulgence. The tragic dimension disappears in this intellectual environment. That’s why ardor is to be defended.

P&W: Your poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” speaks to the hope that may persist in the wake of devastation. What role does poetry—particularly lyric poetry—have in this endeavor? Does poetry, with its tiny audience, have the power to restore the mutilated world?

AZ: Of course not in a big, perfectly visible way, but don’t we use the word poetry in two ways? One: as a part of literature. Two: as a tiny part of the world, both human and prehuman, the part of beauty. So poetry as literature, as language, discovers within the world a layer that has existed unobserved in reality, and by doing so changes something in our life, expands somewhat the space of what we are. So yes, it has the power to restore the mutilated world, even if no statistics ever show it.

P&W: One of the challenges contemporary American poets face now is how to engage more of the public and the historical, and move out of the hermetically autobiographical mode that has dominated much of American poetry. How do you approach your writing so that your poems encompass the political while remaining true to your personal aesthetic?

AZ: That’s a difficult question—on the one hand there is a tradition in modern Polish poetry that entitles me to do it. One of its main proponents is of course Czeslaw Milosz, followed in this by Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska— and other poets as well. So that I don’t think I can claim it as a part of my own invention. On the other hand, what’s my own is perhaps my, as you say, personal aesthetic, my voice. The junction with history has been probably given to me as a piece of my heritage. The mode of how this junction operates, how it translates into my way of experiencing both language and world, is individual. Sometimes I think that I use history in my poems only to liberate myself from it.

P&W: There is among many writers I know the desire to create language that counters the hollow but surprisingly effective rhetoric of the Bush administration. You began writing poetry and prose under extremely repressive and censoring circumstances. What advice do you have for those of us who wish to counter the official narrative?

AZ: The only advice I can think of is a quest for a full humanity of the voice. It’s impossible to discuss with an administration, with any administration, especially in a situation where every four years you get a new one. But also because the business of running a country is not completely accessible to poetry; they—poetry and the government—simply don’t overlap. The conditions under which I began to write poetry were bad but not really extreme; nonetheless it was a predicament of a relatively mild totalitarianism. No lesson learned in such a society applies to a democratic—even if flawed—environment.

P&W: You have written that "Only in the beauty created / by others is there consolation, / in the music of others and in others' poems." What is beauty? What writings and artwork do you turn to for consolation?

AZ: What is beauty? I think you don’t need to define it; the issue is rather what does beauty do to us. I think it catapults us to a higher layer of atmosphere. The other part of your question concerning my personal preferences is impossible to answer; the list is almost endless and changes for me every month or so. Once in a while it vanishes—in the sense that I become deaf to beauty for a week or two or three. This coming and going of the inner life—because this is what it is—is a curse and a blessing. I don’t need to explain why it's a curse. A blessing because it brings about a movement, an energy which, when it peaks, creates a poem. Or a moment of happiness.

P&W: You have been called “a modern mystic, whose later poems in particular are infused with mysticism—not arcane or cabalistic, but sensual and rooted in the commonplace.” Do you agree with that assessment? Does writing feel like a divining? What advice do you have for beginning mystics?

AZ: Another difficult question. Do I agree with that assessment? To some extent, maybe. Any strong label put on my writing makes me nervous. The only thing I know is that I try to bring together, to contrast, to blend, to juxtapose, two realms. One is sensuous or sometimes commonplace, sometimes typically modern commonplace, another—invisible, spiritual, existing more as a kind of a questioning than as a positive, palpable reality.

And now, advice for beginning mystics. Be sober, be intelligent, be educated, rely on the tangible reality as long as you can. Remember that the act of writing is a tiny part of a bigger something. Defend the value of the spiritual experience and if somebody tells you it’s an old fashioned notion, laugh loudly and serenely. Don’t trust priests of the postmodern religion of absolute playfulness.

P&W: Last fall, I had the privilege of traveling in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, where I was struck by the level of interest in and cognizance of poetry. In Krakow and Warsaw, I saw your new books, Szymborska’s, and Imre Kertesz’s prominently displayed everywhere. Do you find the experience of being a poet in Poland very different from being one in the U.S. or France? Is Poland a kind of paradise for poets?

AZ: I’m afraid it’s an illusion, at least partly so. You have to remember, Poland is a relatively poor country where a general pattern of life under the new, non-Communist circumstances is still being painfully established and can differ from one city to another, from one town to another. On the other hand, that’s true, there’s still a relatively high level of interest in serious culture, but nobody knows whether this will continue and which part of it comes from the past, as a leftover, and which is contemporary or even future oriented. As you probably know, Poland, along with other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, has had a tradition of intelligentsia as a vigorous educated class; this class still exists but, again, nobody knows whether it will survive the possible success of the economic and political transition.

P&W: You've lived in Paris since 1982 and spent your springs in Houston since 1988. Have you become a Texan? Do you find inspiration in the landscape of Houston? What’s so great about Paris?

AZ: I’m afraid I’m not a Texan yet. I’m trying. All my stays in Houston must have impregnated me with something, but I don’t think it’s the landscape. The cityscape of Houston is not inspiring for me. The human world is sometimes inspiring—maybe especially the community around the writing program. It’s not a perfect, ideal community, but it’s a community nonetheless. I’m a recluse who loves the dialectic of being at the same time within and against a community.

Paris represents the memory of the 19th century, a great moment of the French cultural history. It has a magnetic force because of the concentration of memory. I don’t think it’s a laboratory of creative culture any longer, but even as a huge living museum it still exerts an attraction that’s quite impressive. Also, it really makes visible “the French way of life." Impeccable waiters in restaurants, the seriousness of the dinner, the gravity of red wine. We love it, because it goes against the grain of generic modernity. Paris, one of the cities where modernity was born, can be now admired for more conservative reasons.

P&W: Music and composers also inhabit your work. Do you listen to music when you write?

AZ: Sometimes I do. But most importantly music is often a bridge, or a jetty, that leads me out of the trivial world of practical concerns—and who doesn’t have practical concerns of different nature!—into the serenity and drama of a nonpractical reality where life can be contemplated in another way. Music is such an active art, it literally tears you away from where you are. Of course, it happens on a good day only.

P&W: In Without End, your poetry is beautifully translated into English by Clare Cavanagh, Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, and C. K. Williams. Translators of poetry make difficult choices—what if anything has been lost in these translations? Are there forms in Polish that simply cannot be brought into English?

AZ: I’m sure something has been lost in translation but it’s hard to say what exactly...I don’t think it’s the matter of untranslatable forms. It’s sometimes the degree of linguistic complexity. It’s not my case. It’s not the case of several Polish poets—maybe because there’s a strong tradition in Polish poetry of attention centered on meaning, of course, without neglecting formal aspects of poetry.

P&W: You were only in your early 50s when you wrote your memoir Another Beauty, which was translated into English a couple years ago. Why did you decide to write a memoir at that point?

AZ: I don’t see the act of writing a memoir as a definite act of closing a chapter of the past, as an act requiring the wisdom of the late years of life. A memoir presents an opportunity to think, to remember, to put into motion the engine of imagination—it’s revisable or at least it should be so. Also I’m not quite sure that my autobiographical essays could be called “memoirs”—they are not didactic, and American memoirs these days are. They tell you: Look how miserable I was and how well am I doing now. I’m not saying this. For me, not the healing is important, but memory and thinking. And poetry.