Maintenant #17 – Agnieszka Mirahina
‘she has a swastika on her belly and a worm in her heart’ – an interview with Agnieszka Mirahina by SJ Fowler
The prominence of Polish poetry in the twentieth century is arguably unrivalled when taken relative to nation’s size. It is no coincidence that you will be hard pressed to find a nation that has endured as much in the same time frame. The Poles have endured with a poetic sophistication that is marked throughout their history as a nation. Where others countries are failing to produce poets to match their semi-deified figures of resistance under fascism or dictatorial-communism, Poland’s vibrant student communities and reading culture has spawned the beginning of another generation of notable poetic talent. Agnieska Mirahina is an indelible voice amongst them – offhand, brutal, immediate and yet wholly female, sensitive in her barrato. The first of many Poles to grace the Maintenant series, she speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: Polish poetry of the last century has shown a variance of technical skill and an ingrained evolution that exceeds that of almost all other nations, and it would not be specious to suggest that this is down to the political trauma’s of the same timeframe, if political is the right word. Undoubtedly the current situation in Poland is very different, no longer are there the immovable monoliths that must be confronted in poetry, nor the responsibility. Does this effect your poetry or are you oblivious to this change?
Agnieszka Mirahina: I will begin by stating this; that I belong to the generation, which has no recollection of that change, or who posses only “misty memories“. At the time of the Round Table discussions I was 4 years old. Only in one of my texts do I refer directly to political transformations. It’s a poem entitled “Zlomiarze biorá wszystko” (“Scrapers take all”), where an age of steel is replaced by a scrap yard. It was inspired by memories of a scrap yard located in my town, in which the Soviet army were stationed for many years. It was the scraps they had left, many piles of junk. I was 5 or 6 years old back then and from a pile of junk I chose a bullet belt, which my parents quickly took away from me. So it is only that one personal story, which connect my poems with the political situation of my country. But in light of literature it is not really important if the story is personal or historical.
3:AM: Do you actively select subject matter, or are you more passive in terms of your content?
AM: I like to dehumanize my texts. I treat the poems as art of persuasion, phenomenon of language, not as ‘self-expression’. During the writing process I make selections and simultaneously let myself be carried away by words, and let them inspire me. The words are always ahead of me – I am only standing at the gate. Beside, the computer plays the key role – there is a difference between writing on paper and typing on a word processor application. I have more to say, that now I couldn’t write any poem down on paper. Only the computer screen has this hypnotizing influence on me, and this hypnosis my work is created as text in that kind of electronic form.
In the two months I have been preparing myself to write my first book, I have had to break off all ties with contacts and kept myself from seeing any people. By day I’ve been reading books, at night time I’ve been writing, especially around 2, 3am, when silence is most deafening. Silence, laptop screen, words, all of that was very hypnotizing. Somehow after a month I had become so perfectly isolated, that I started thinking in poetic form thus found the writing of poems so easy, that I could write them also by day. I was wandering the streets of Warsaw, catching words, noting these ‘ricochets’ into my mobile phone, and later, at home, I typed, connected words, watching, how they played with one another. And that is how Radiowidmo (Radiophantom) was made.
3:AM: Do you feel overshadowed by previous generations of poets?
AM: Here I have to admit, that I am not falling for poetry, I almost don’t read it. I write, but I don’t read. I do read prose though, but in fact I couldn’t write anything in prose. Poetry as a style and the poem as a technique correspond very well with chaos, which I have in my head, responding quite well to the way my thoughts are streaming – chaotically, with many metaphors and limbs, which are susceptible to change. Chaos might be disturbing in everyday life, but for a poet, it is a blessing.
3:AM: Perhaps in Western Europe the magnitude of figures such as Milosz, Herbert, Rozewicz would make us think they would be inescapable as reference points in Polish poetry even now, as is the case in England with Auden, Larkin and Germany with Brecht, Sachs, Celan, Trakl. Do you answer to these figures? Or are you engaged with more contemporary figures, like poets of bruLion generation, or even more contemporary, poets in your age?
AM: I have partly answered this problem in a previous question. I don’t read poetry, because it is prose which inspires me. I know, that of all Polish poets Andrzej Sosnowski is beating everyone on the head, but I’m not willing to read his poems, because I’m afraid of being influenced. So I’m sticking with prose, with authors like Etgar Keret or Mikhail Zoszczenko. I read scientific literature passionately– linguistic and historical. I was completely drawn into Linguistic Studies at University. That’s why I care more about the style of a poem than it’s content. The important things for me are poetic qualities like: lightness, fluctuation, multiple association, flowing from connotations, from connectivity of words. In short the syntax and phonetics of a poem; its sound. A poem is supposed to have at least a partial melody. It is a slogan, is it not? Some kind of magic, art of persuasion. Slogans are part of the so called ‘oral residuum’ of our culture, its attributes are opposite of those of another– literacy. I am referring now to the research of Milman Parry, who studied the Iliad and Odyssey. Thus in such abstruse fashion, the ways of linguistic study, through an interest in mnemotechnique in poetry, focused on concrete, not on abstract, resigning from extended logical structures – I am returning to Homer.
3:AM: What is your relationship with American poetry and American poetics, being the de-restrictions of free verse, beat poetry and experimental methodologies like concrete poetry or cutup techniques?
AM: Regarding techniques, I definitely prefer free verse, most popular now in Polish poetry. I am sticking with free verse, but in the process I always consider melody and the sound of a text. I no longer like concrete poetry, whereas I am willing to apply cut up technique in cases where texts are taken straight from the street, e.g. from advertisements, and not from cultural texts. From American culture I appreciate Raymond Carver, so again not poetry, but prose.
3:AM: Do you conceive of poetry as having a political or philosophical responsibility at all now?
AM: Yes, as every message, every announcement. I chose ethics, and with it a kind of bravery, which can be impregnated into texts. By bravery I mean pushing the limits of language, allowing thoughts to become genuinely free. It can sometimes influence decisions and actions in real life.
3:AM: Is European poetry amalgamating, blending into an expression whose tone cannot be ascribed to a single nation or its national characteristics any longer?
AM: That amalgamate is created in the process of translation. Translated poems make this mixture. If we leave a text on its own, keep from translating into any available languages, then nothing certain can be said. It would have to be interpreted, compared with other cultural codes, but at the same time its already lost. I’m a graduate of Russian and Polish philology, therefore I possess some experience and I have to admit, that losses in any translated poem are usually substantial. I’d compare Russian and Polish texts, though in this case it is not a big deal, because they are both Slavic languages. But how will it appear in English? I am curious. And the mixture exists, as an effect of an interpretation, which is always a confrontation of two languages and two different codes of culture.
Translated for 3:AM by Maciek Markowski.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 13th, 2010.