An interview with Genowefa Jakubowska-Fijałkowska
Conducted on the beach in Sopot, May 2012, during the Between/Pomiedzy International Festival, while chain smoking and chasing strange heavenly lights across the night-time sky.
Where do you live and how did your literary career begin?
Sometimes, I say I am from the provinces. The word province has so many different meanings, and yet it it somehow complete, framing all that which is outside the centre, on the sidelines, the peripheries, in the vicinities of. I was born in Mokolow, in a district town in Upper Silesia, or one which is now a town but back then was a village in the Mokre region. Though we didn’t own land or property. We lived in outhouses, behind privately owned buildings, with a outdoor lavatories, windows as low as in basement bars, mouse traps stationed in every corner of every room all year round. I wrote my first poems walking among fields to school, sat on meadows or when skipping school, telling myself stories while killing time at a local cemetery.
Then my family up and moved to a bigger town. I lived in Tychy for almost twenty years, where I wrote down my first verses, graduated from evening school and gave birth to my daughters. I made my literary début in 1972 in the monthly journal “Odra” published by Tymoteusz Karpowicz*. I also published poems and a few short stories in the Seventies and Eighties in numerous literary titles, then fell silent for almost a decade. I was struck down with existentialist angst, which I soothed by descending into alcoholic haze. I returned to Mikolow, living on the edge, words abandoning me. Perhaps I hadn’t bothered to try and find them again in all that hell. One day, in a psychiatric hospital, I began returning to life and to writing, which at the time was more whimpering than the naming of anything.
In 1994, my first book Dożywocie was published, which contained some of my earliest poems, as well as new work. My comeback attracted the interest of local media, but not only. Based on the poems from that book, the regional Polish Radio Service broadcast a play, which was then followed by a few other broadcasts and a few more books followed. I was writing, publishing poems, winning national poetry prizes, publishing more books – Pan Bóg wyjechał na Florydę, Pochylenie, Czuły nóż and Ostateczny smak truskawek, then in 2010 with the volume i wtedy mnie twoja gorączka, my knife-poems period, I ended my time of howling out verse. I don’t know how much destiny and how much accident there was in my returning to Mikolow to start writing again. They say Mikolow is a town for poets, that Wojaczek* left a special magic and mark upon the place.
How would you describe your feelings towards this latest volume?
Well, now that the book has taken on physical form, following its virtual launch, as the book kept flying back and forth in space*… now it is here! What does this mean, for me and the book? I did not write a “volume”, I wrote poems, they are what runs in my veins. In the space in which I breathe, in which I go to sleep and in which I wake. A poem is a book which is itself a poem. What is this book… it a psalm which I keep on writing. For three years now, I have been hounded by verses like a bitch on heat being chased down by dogs. I cannot, don’t know how to stop. Time keeps pressing, as does all that which is, which will be, visions keep on coming, prophecies forming within me and days gone by return, experiences coming back. When applying for funding from the Minstry of Culture and National Heritage*, I was thinking of a new collection of poems, but I was more certain I would simply compose more verse, that I will be able to bring a book out of them. Here is a book of poems which when scattered form a whole anyway, something I can hand to a reader. Meeting the poems one by one means they are lost in time and space, while the book is a shot straight into the heart.
How did you organise the book?
The book was organised by the times I was writing the book in. I never work on ideas for poems, they always come as emotions, as testimonies, from meetings with other people, experiences, smells, sounds, images outside my window… and that is when the film, in words, starts rolling, frame by frame, a poetic reportage, biographies of others and of myself… my characters are everyday people, simple folk from the Mikolow town square, from my surroundings… provincial heroes, outsiders, though they are from the centre too, from the very top and hence their stories are universal. We are all of us characters from poems.
You ask about sources of my inspiration, so I could mention the book Szczeliny istnienia by Jolanta Brach-Czaina (Stefan Morawski* wrote: “No book like it exists, anywhere else in Polish or in world literature”)… I was reading it while writing the poems which ended up in the collection Ostateczny smak truskawek. That book caused me no end of pain, while at the same time rewarding me for reading on. Nature does not care about suffering. And so why should man, if he is part of the great natural world, not suffer too? I don’t know, perhaps something was happening inside me then, something heading towards the poetics of Performance, to the Kafkaesque “Metamorphosis” (now, in answering your question, I have worked out the meaning of the title of my new book!). This is where the magic resides. You don’t know until you come upon it. Poetry is parapsychological. I dream dreams in which my poems shut themselves up in wardrobes, in the walls of my room and in the damned bathroom mirror. It keeps on spying on me, both that which is behind and in front of me. And me too. I don’t like mirrors, or ticking clocks.
Did the writing of this particular book come quickly, or was it a struggle?
And again, returning to the process of writing this book, I did not write it, I only wrote the poems in it… but even that does not explain everything. Poems are like the writing down of a symphony, they must resound within me, though they are not notes but words… having said that, words do make sounds. My previous books were very much spoken-word made manifest in the Mikolow landscapes, and in me… before I wrote them down, I had to memorise them. At poetry readings I would recite them from memory, those knife poems. All of my previous books I knew off by heart. On the 29th of May 2009, on a rainy spring Tuesday, after a meeting with Slovenian poets in Mikolow Institute, I was returning home:
the night was a rainy suicidal cold springtime
a white taxi took me and my black despair home
in this dream when I got home I dreamt of a poem
about love madness alcohol and sex
/ Rose, taken from the volume Performance /
I have been writing down this dream and this verse ever since and cannot stop.
You never write about any of your many trips around the world – why not? Where have you been?
My journeys are escapes, a seeking of the self in the wider world, and the seeking of the world within me. This needs the tasting of red African earth on the lips, where loneliness feels like me being able to touch God, like the creation of the world all over again. Journeys are the rescuing of the self from limitless universal space, and the best thing about them is the anticipation of the upcoming journey, to feel that desire, to then be able to satisfy it as if being at the source of water when my lips have almost dried up from thirst. My journeys are something I cannot share with others. I have seen half the known world. Europe, Asia, South America, Africa… Africa is my true love, my mortal ailment. I would like to die in Casablanca, and so I keep postponing my trip to Morocco… this year I have chosen to visit Madagascar.
How is poetry valued in Poland?
I don’t know. There are as many poets and poetesses in Poland as there are ants, and so the queen ant must be there too, but I have no idea where to look. As they say in Poland, everyone can sing, though not everyone should. I don’t know what it is like with poetry elsewhere in the world, but there are famous names in Poland and also many smaller names which write well, though there are lots of middling to poor poets. I open the pages of the few remaining cultural monthlies and see his name in print again. He is everywhere! I open the pages of the few remaining quarterlies and there he is again. He is omnipresent. I turn on the TVP Kultura channel (I have my TV tuned into it) and, fucking hell, there he is again. He is everywhere. And so you know, poetry in Poland is to be found everywhere!
Your poetry abroad, what has been the reaction during your trips to other countries?
The first translations of my work were published in Czech in 2006, in the on-line quarterly “POBOCZA”, in an issue dedicated to Central and East European culture, then in 2008 they also published translations of my poems into Serb and Slovene. I took part in several international “POBOCZA” festivals which were held in Poland, in Wiecbork, which is where I met my Czech translator Lenka Daňhelová. That is when my adventures with Czech readers began. Lenka Daňhelová kept translating me and I kept being published in various Czech periodicals. I was also interviewed at length, alongside some of my poems, in the quarterly “HOST”. Lenka Daňhelová then translated my collection Czuły nóż and began trying to get it published in her country. And so, in 2011, the Protimluv Press in Ostrova published Něžný nuž, which was a selection of poems from three different books. Also, prior to actually meeting my Czech readers, I had the privilege of reading for them at the STRANOU International Literary Festival. I don’t want to seem proud, but they like my poems over there, they tell me every time they embrace me, as is their way. I have been asked to go over there again this year, to Prague, for another evening with my Czech book, and then also to Ostrava. I too like my poems in this language.
I have also been translated into Slovene, and took part in the poetry festival Lirikonfest in Velenje, where my work was also anthologised.
The most thrilling adventure however was encountering my readers in Vienna. I had been asked to take part in a literary festival. My poems, in German, were read out by students of the theatre school and I heard myself in them, truly, alive. Though I do not know their language, I had the impression I had written the poems in German myself. On the peripheries of the event, people kept coming up and telling me they liked my work. This was amazing. I was moved and thought then that this makes sense, writing poetry, that this gives the reader something, that they experience the new through them. In 2010, Robert Rybicki had given a copy of my book i wtedy minie twoja gorączka to the translator Urszula Usakowska Wolff. She liked what she read, then translated almost thirty poems, which were then published, alongside an article she had written about me, in the magazine Matrix. The poems proved a hit not just with readers but also with the publisher, who then sought out funds to publish the poems in book form. From what the translator told me, the Book Institute in Krakow financed the translation. After that, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope for the best.
I have not had the chance yet to meet with Russian and English readers, though if it does happen, I will be scared, as always. However, in spite of the whole disturbance and the endless questions I ask myself why, for whom, what for, I believe in my poetry.
recorded by Marek Kazmierski