Maintenant #44: Tadeusz Dąbrowski
This is the first line. This line is meaningless – an interview with Tadeusz Dąbrowski by SJ Fowler.
Simply one of the most substantial and powerful poets emerging from Europe as a whole, Tadeusz Dąbrowski is a figure who is climbing toward worldwide prominence. An essayist, critic and editor (of the literary magazine Topos) he has authored five poetry collections and won the Hubert Burda Prize and, from Tadeusz Różewicz himself, the Prize of the Foundation for Polish Culture. His poetry has been translated into thirteen languages. Maintenant, as a series, hopes to be a platform in which readers will be able to come across poets who might grow into the stature of their most reputed and iconoclastic forebears. Perhaps with Tadeusz Dąbrowski we have arrived too late. Fundamentally a product of his generation, and quite definitively, the literary culture of Poland in general, Dabrowski’s is a voice both singular and alert, both wry and contemporary. He is a poet who should, and does, speak for himself.
3:AM: Your poetry seems to be focused on creating careful linguistic pictures driven by a philosophical or observational underpinning. Do you work with a specific style or methodology, or is the writing process very free?
Tadeusz Dąbrowski: No methodology, no linguistic rafting. I prefer rather calm sailing against the current, towards the source. Or towards the heart of the darkness. Methodology as well as manifestos tend to kill poetry, a poem is impossible to be planned. Planning of a form leads us to artificiality, while planning of your subject – to ideologisation.
But at the same time I don’t believe poets of “liberated phrase/imagination”, those who say they are carried by the flow of the language and who actually don’t know what their poetry is about because the current is rapid and uncontrollable. The problem is that “the current” is fast especially where the river lacks depth. I try to keep my works within the bounds of discipline. But even so my text will occasionally deviate from its course, and such an unpredictable deviation, or in other words, the distance at which the text retreats, is a source of self-cognition for me. But it is my duty to be in charge of maps and to be at the helm. Linguism and philosophy… A poem doesn’t go all the way from one to the other because the division into form and content is fictitious. The whole of poetry and philosophy takes place in language. However, the former, in my opinion, strips the reality of words, whereas the latter textualizes this very same reality.
3:AM: You have enjoyed exceptional success at a relatively young age. Do you think your youth has played in your favour? Is it something you are aware of in the construction of your poetry or the reception you have been given by critics and / or publishers?
TD: The age of author shouldn’t really influence the reception of his or her poems. There are old and young texts. What is more, we have to distinguish between youth and immaturity. I didn’t publish my first book at the age of 18 because I wanted to flirt with the readers or critics with my youthful blush at poetry readings, but to save my teenage self in the language. Since I was a child I have been tormented by the thought of my subsequent self erasing my former self, that the so-called adulthood will someday cut me off from my teenage self. That sorrow might have originated in the conviction that all life phases are legitimate and equally valuable. So when I decided that my teenage language was able to express my teenage experience, I began to publish poems in the literary press and my first collection came out. Poetry, or in broader terms, art – since it happens in timelessness – is like an agent for preserving illuminations or disillusions of the past. Today I blush when I read some of the poems from my first or second book, but I only blush as I am taken unawares by the naivety or idealism of the speaking subject, and not by naivety of the language of these poems.
3:AM: Amongst the many awards you have recieved the Prize of the Foundation for Polish Culture in 2006 was presented to you by the great Tadeusz Różewicz. Was that an especial honour? What place does Różewicz play in your work and as an influence to Polish poets of this generation in general?
TD: In my opinion Różewicz is the most prominent Polish poet of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s hard to say whether he exerted a substantial impact on the new generation of poets in Poland. Personally, he did influence me that much. Actually, Różewicz himself admitted in a TV interview, just after he’d awarded me with the Prize of the Foundation of Polish Culture, that his interest in my person was stirred, among other things, by my polemical attitude towards his poetry. A long time ago I published a poetry sheet entitled matka nadchodzi (“mother is coming”), which was a travestation of Różewicz’s book entitled Matka odchodzi (“Mother is leaving”). I received the Prize of the Foundation of Polish Culture for my collection Te Deum, published five years after that poetry sheet. I will not go into details about why I think so high of Różewicz as this issue might easily dominate our conversation. Anyway, I would reply to the question what the prize meant to me in the following way: it was the most significant prize I could ever have dreamt of, if only I had dared to have dreams like this. You receive an award from your most important living poet with whom you struck up a poetical dialogue. Not from literary critics, who are usually entangled in cliques, but from your master who decides to award you, although he could as well choose anybody. It is an enormous joy.
3:AM: Poland has often been designated the most prolific and gifted country for producing excellent poetry in the last century. The list of great poets is endless. Clearly you are one of the most prominent poets of your generation, do you see yourself following this tradition, are you in touch with it?
TD: Naturally, the Polish poetic tradition is extremely important to me, beginning from Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski, through Baroque Sęp-Szarzyński, Romantic Adam Mickiewicz as well as Miłosz, Szymborska, Różewicz and also more contemporary authors such as Marcin Świetlicki who influenced me considerably at the beginning of my artistic life. Poetry which has a modernist spirit appeals to me I really like poetry of modernism, poetry constructed out of nihilism which is a disillusioned idealism, poetry which is aware of its own limitations but it does not cease to raise fundamental questions. Poetry which, against all odds, strives to follow in the footsteps of runaway gods. This is exactly what Różewicz’s poetry is like: painful, stripped of its poeticality but at the same time profoundly ethical and even metaphysical, prepared to die in front of us so that we could try and find in ourselves its bright, vivid, lost side or, alternatively, its side cloaked in silence.
3:AM: What is the influence of figures like Miłosz, Szymborska, Herbert, Ważyk, Białoszewski? Are they well read by younger poets, are they often discussed? Or is the influence on contemporary Polish poetry more global?
TD: All of the enumerated poets are of course being discussed in academic circles but it’s hard to say if their poetry is an immediate reference point for young poets. Maybe except for Miron Białoszewski, who is one of the patrons of the neolinguistic style, which – perhaps with the exception of good works by Joanna Mueller – seems to be a complete misunderstanding to me. Poets from the “brulion” generation, people in their 50’s at the moment, were primarily fascinated by American poetry, New York school, the Beat Generation, etc. Undoubtedly, many of those influences turned out to be very creative, for example poetry by Andrzej Sosnowski. But this Polish Ashbery of ours, as well as our Polish O’Hara (Marcin Świetlicki) both had a vast number of epigones about themselves who believed that the key to a successful poem is absolute hermetism. The more incomprehensible a poem is, the better. Or, in other words, a pub version of existentialism: drinking, smoking and fucking without conviction. Superficial fascination with the post-war American poetry made lots of damage to the new Polish poetry.
3:AM: And the figures of the interim generation – Zagajewski, Świetlicki, Titkow?
TD: Zagajewski is unquestionably a very crucial figure. Not all of his epiphanies appeal to me, but I’m convinced by the fact that he is defending the ethos of poetry, he emphasizes the fact that poetry is something of value. In his essays, which are often excellent ones, he highlights the role of tradition and the necessity for a dialogue between artists of different generations. Link with tradition is not a ballast for him but, similarly as for Eliot, it guarantees universality and originality of a poem. We need artists like Zagajewski in times of easiness, frantic hurry and mediocrity.
3:AM: Is there a distinct stylistic change from previous generations to your own? I ask this because I find that across Eastern bloc European nations, especially in countries with a lauded poetic tradition, there has been a drastic change in the poetical style coming from a generation that has access to global poetry in a way it never did before. If this is the case, do you think the change has been positive?
TD: I haven’t noticed such a drastic turning point in Poland. The “brulion” generation that I’ve mentioned earlier on, promoted at the threshold of the nineties as a generation of geniuses, turned out to be less expressive than it had originally been expected. We have a few names that are left: Sosnowski, Świetlicki, maybe Podsiadło as well. It turns out that this generation was being promoted unproportionately to their potential in the wake of the political turning point and the artificial need it created for new names and phenomena, not implicated in collective, ideological thinking. Indeed the main difference of the turning point of 20 years ago in Poland is the abandonment of “we” and going towards “I”, distrust towards all authorities and the so-called high culture, breakaway from the romantic myth of poetry, that always had some duties to perform due to the peculiarity of the Polish history (123 years of partitions). The truth is a poet doesn’t have any obligations apart from self-expression – this is how the primary manifesto of these authors looked. This happened, naturally, not only within the space of the content, but also in the language which was made more colloquial, even vulgar.These changes didn’t bring any poetic revelation, maybe except Marcin Świetlicki. But even though he is quite bellicose and in a way anarchistic, at the same time he is following the path of romantic and modernist tradition of Polish poetry.
3:AM: What is the state of poetry in Poland at the moment? It has been traditionally viewed as a nation where poetry is read by many, by the average person. Is this still the case? Is there sufficient support for poetry from the government and publishers?
TD: Because we have many interesting poets in Poland it doesn’t automatically mean that poetry is widely read. But only a few decades ago poetry played a more important role, people were able to recite fragments of their favourite poems, there was a kind of poetic ethos. Nowadays a poet is regarded as someone grotesque and rather amusing. The society, with their appetites satiated and their minds devoid of beliefs, looks down on him, regards him as a clown, jostler, juggler. Up to a certain moment I was blaming pop culture, so much abhorred by intellectuals, for this state of affairs. Now I understand that in fact poets themselves are co-responsible for that marginalization of poetry. Poets who have abandoned their faith in a reader from outside literary circles and are now writing for other poets instead. Every year the poetry corners in Poland’s largest chains of bookshops are getting smaller and smaller. Usually you can only find few shelves marked as poetry, aphorisms, humour. Seriously. So next to few single books by Szymborska or Herbert you can find lavishly illustrated collections of rhymes for occasions such as weddings, birthdays, dedicated to your dad or grandma. We still have a few excellent all-national literary magazines but their circulation has been steadily dropping. I have no doubts that in the nearest future we are following the path of the United States and poetry is going to become a campus phenomenon. In terms of grants in Poland you can receive it from a government institution or from the Ministry of Culture but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your works are going to be published in a good publishing house. Personally I can’t complain as I’m with an exceptional publisher – “a5”, run by poet Ryszard Krynicki and his wife Krystyna. This is an excellent publisher who doesn’t follow ephemerical fashions or aim for easy profits. I also know that I’ve got readers because we already had second editions of my books. That’s very important for every author – knowing that my books are being read. That helps me to believe that poetry, even if it’s being marginalized by media, is still indispensable to someone. And a reader is the best prize for a poet.
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, January 9th, 2011.