Maintenant #20: Adam Zdrodowski
‘when I was eight I found these were not idle threats’ – an interview with Adam Zdrodowski by SJ Fowler.
The second of a trilogy of Polish poets to be featured in the Maintenant series, Adam Zdrodowski follows Agnieszka Mirahina and precedes Taduesz Dabrowski in representing just a handful of the new guard of what remains one of the most consistent, prominent and enriched poetry scene in Europe. An academic, a reputed translator with a fine reputation in America and a excellent poet in his own right, Zdrodowski’s work maintains a poetic pointillism, a jousting purity that runs through numerous methodologies and vernacular’s. Adaptive, assured and informed, for 3:AM Magazine he speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: Your poetry seems to build from proclamations and images that are defined by their growth throughout the poem, certainly there are elements of Brecht, and ethereal and biographical images seem to lead your work. Is your writing process image generative? Do you begin with language or concept in writing?
Adam Zdrodowski: I think I know what you mean by referring to Brecht but I would say that, as far as the tone is concerned, and the type of humour perhaps, I owe much more to Raymond Queneau. And in matters of poetic method I’m really eclectic. But I think I like my images to grow and their growth is usually governed by formal principles (e.g. a chosen strict form) or by linguistic mechanisms (i.e. for example, some words appear because they sound similar to the ones that were used before).
It’s hard to say how I begin, each time it is different. Usually, I have some words and phrases I’m somehow emotionally attached to, or attracted by. And then I try to find a way to make them grow into a poem, to make it work.
3:AM: You utilise the prose poem as well as more formal verse. Is diversity of methodology and typography dependent on the poetic idea in question, or do you set yourself certain streams of writing that conform to certain methods?
AZ: I think there’s no sharp opposition between the prose poem and the more formal verse in my writing. In prose poems I use devices that are essentially poetic – assonance, aliteration, rhyme, etc., whereas quite often the verse pieces are quite loose formally. What I like about the prose poem is that it enables me to write pastiches of narrative or scholarly writing that are in fact poems that look like prose. I like this generic hotchpotch.
But I can’t really tell why I know that in this case I’ll need a prose poem and in that case – a sestina or a minimalist, haiku-like piece.
3:AM: Is there existent in Poland, as there appears to be in Russia, a relinquishing of expectation over the great poetic tradition because the very foundational cultural and political structures of the country has changed so radically in the last half century?
AZ: I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question. But it seems to me there are at least two strains – one that wants to continue writing in the tradition of, say, Miłosz and Herbert, and the other that prefers to explore what John Ashbery calls ‘the other traditions in Polish writing’.
3:AM: Is there a critical weight on new generations of Polish poets because of the retrospective and perhaps justified, near deification of a number of great 20th century Polish poets? In what way does poetry in Poland consider itself classical or formal? How embracing are readers and critics of new work?
AZ: There is quite a heavy weight and a strong pressure on young poets – about what poetry should or shouldn’t be like, a pressure connected with the Polish tradition. Fortunately, I didn’t do Polish studies and so I managed to distance myself from all these futile discussions. On the other hand, there are more and more options for young poets, there’s a growing interest in the writing of Polish authors who have been somewhat neglected, there are lots of literary magazines and publishers. So, even though the dominant tradition is still quite strong (in school curricula, in the media), there are numerous options for those who want to do something else.
I think both readers and critics are very diversified, there’s no unity, there are many different milieus. I can’t – and don’t really wish to – follow everything that’s happening in Polish criticism of new writing. But I think that we mainly get numerous reviews and we lack longer, in-depth analysis (it’s changing, though – e.g. a collection of Anna Kałuża’s essays is going to be published soon and I’m looking forward to it). Apart from the well-established literary magazines, there are also numerous new ones – both traditional and online – that focus on new writing and review a lot of new poetry (e.g. Wakat, Lampa, Red, Zeszyty Poetyckie, the recently closed internet magazine Cyc Gada). But the quality of the reviews differs. After 1989 critics divided Polish poets into classicists and barbarians – a division that might have been useful for the critics but was certainly harmful for the poets and didn’t do justice to the poetry. Now, some critics invent new, and equally erroneous, labels. Poets are classified according to the names of the poets they are supposed to follow. There are those who follow/imitate Andrzej Sosnowski, Bohdan Zadura, Darek Foks, Krystyna Miłobędzka, etc. So I guess that instant labelling and oversimplification are the most important shortcomings of Polish new writing criticism.
3:AM: I’m interested in the influence exerted on contemporary poets by a number of these poets, in your opinion, what is the legacy and impact on the poetry of the now of Tadeusz Rozewicz? Zbigniew Herbert? Wislawa Szymborska?
AZ: Again, I’m afraid I’m not the right person to answer this question as I’m more interested in the Polish other traditions (e.g. Miron Białoszewski, Witold Wirpsza, Jerzy Ficowski) and in the writing inspired by this tradition. But there certainly are young writers who want to write in the tradition of Zbigniew Herbert or Tadeusz Różewicz and are highly praised by mainstream critics. Wisława Szymborska is widely read but I think she’s so idiosyncratic that it would be hard to be influenced by her, it’s hard to pinpoint her impact on the writing of this or that writer.
3:AM: And the Barbarian poets of the 80s like Marcin Swietlicki?
AZ: Świetlicki is still widely read and highly praised but, luckily, I think, young poets stopped imitating him, which can only be a sign of their maturity and independence.
3:AM: You seem to be an assured translator, highly regarded. Does this compliment your own writing?
AZ: Translating other people’s work helps enormously. It activates linguistic energies that would have otherwise remained inactive. When you write your own pieces, you find yourself doing things you would never had done had it not been for the translations. And, luckily, you usually do not find yourself imitating the poet you’re translating. Recently, I translated some poems by Forrest Gander and then, writing my own poems, I was surprised how my vocabulary and imagery have changed.
3:AM: You seem to have a built a reputation in American publications, was this a deliberate choice, to introduce Polish poetry into US poetry communities?
AZ: No, it was entirely accidental. Grzegorz Wróblewski was looking for someone to translate his drama and poetry and Andrzej Sosnowski contacted him with me. I was a bit sceptical because generally one shouldn’t translate into a foreign language. But I was also intrigued and wanted to try. I always work with a native speaker who proofreads my translations. In the beginning it was Joel Leonard Katz, an American anthropologist living in Copenhagen and now it is Arthur Barys, a Warsaw Institute of English Studies graduate and a friend of mine. But from the beginning I have been only doing the translating work and Grzegorz Wróblewski has been sending the material to magazines and publishers. So, we are present in the States thanks to Grzegorz’s efforts and not my own.
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, July 11th, 2010.