London Antykultura… opinion

London Antykultura

Marek Kazmierski, London 1/2011

Paweł Gawroński / Intercultural Traveller event

I was recently quizzed by various people about Jerzy Giedroyc, the founder of a leading Polish-émigré literary-political journal, Kultura (1947–2000) and why he/it has no equivalent in Britain today. I rarely venture outside of London, almost never encounter the drunk/boor type of Pole in the UK, but do frequent cultural circles in what some term “our seventeenth county” (Poland itself has sixteen). I’ve seen a squat transformed into a remarkable theatre, a language school into an alternative gallery, an abandoned church into a showcase of photographic talent, all thanks to young artists from Poland living in London. I’ve also witnessed a handful of efforts from migrating writers and feel it is time to digest and analyse these – at the start of 2011, when it comes to Polish-language literary scene in Britain, there is little to write home about.

“In French post-war Polish circles it was said that the equivalent emigre cultural scene in London was lacklustre, without imagination, lost in itself, stewing in its own exiled bile. Something of this stuck, and seems to be continuing even today, the only difference being that once the audience was more accustomed to continuous engagement with cultural events – anything which was put on by Poles for Poles in London Poles would go see, without much discernment. Today, something special must happen to draw the crowds – the last person to make it work was Agnieszka Kucharko at the opening of the Homeless Gallery exhibition in the autumn of 2010. But please, forget about live literature, the audience is no longer there. There are random attempts at getting some sort of literary scene off the ground, all of which in some way or another struggle on without notice, or die quietly, so that no one, apart from their creators, remembers they ever existed … And so it goes on. A biblical kind of Chaos – out of which may arise, well, everything and anything. ”

Justyna Daniluk, journalist (West London)

Is the Polish language press in England is able to help? Cooltura, Goniec Polski, Polish Express, Link, Nowy Czas, etc. The titles of our journals published in Great Britain could be listed into infinity. All are the same – free weeklies, articles pasted between the ads, pictures downloaded from the Internet. The newspaper with the greatest circulation prints its sports sections not on its back pages, but up front, which speaks for itself. A short story or poetry may occasionally be sandwiched somewhere in between lonely heart ads and Polish satellite television listings at the back. Several years ago, the same magazine announced a literary contest. A jury made its choices. Certificates were handed out. At the request of the winners, the Polish Literary Club was established. A short while later, all its potential members received nine page contract to sign, obliging them to vote, pay subs and all manner of other bureaucratic clap trap, which ended the enterprise before it even began. The Polish White Eagle Club in Balham wanted £ 240 to hire a room for each of the Club’s meetings. The Polish Social – Cultural Centre in Hammersmith asked a tad less, but they’ve already been hosting meetings of the Association of Polish Writers On Foreign Soil since 1946.

“Many of our writers and poets here keep living in this ethos, mired in the mythology of emigration our literary ancestors found themselves exiled to. Writers like to feel sorry for themselves. For those young people who recently travelled here it is a stylistic device, like an item of clothing, a handbag, or a buckle. Something happening, something to talk or write about. You can be proud of this angst, may be tempted to write big words and symbols in a short story, or melancholy, morose verse. And the older generation? Those who actually emigrated here in times when more borders existed can not find themselves in a world which has changed and remain stuck in their old ways because they lack a reference point. This is our literary London. Some create closed circles, live in a proud past, none have written anything good in an age, but dimly remember a time when they could, and some of them very well indeed. Only those of their ilk are allowed to join their associations. Young people can not because they did not actually “emigrate” – no matter how much they might have wanted to. Some are too proud to attend events organised by others, others just gossip passively. All engage in that modern sport of networking only within their own peer groups, never beyond. As for actual writing there is little time, and so they invent new migrations, to give life its momentum. All sane writers have either long since died of lack of allies or gone over to write for publications back in Poland. But ‘ll leave them out of this, modern hybrids do not count. ”

Pawel Gawronski – poet, writer, musician (North London)

Polish bookshops? Orbis, the oldest in England, closed down a few years ago. Others tried to set up their little stalls, but internet bookshops killed them off. Literary magazines? One sprang up in London a few years ago, promising the world, or at least distribution in Polish news kiosks and a few issues were seen here and there, but once people found out its editor published his own stuff under pseudonyms, they quit taking it seriously. When you type its name into a search engine today, not even archives pop up. With all these wanderings one also meets interesting people, for example: Paul Gawroński, a bard and poet, with whom we have organised bilingual concerts across London, or Robert “The Fish” Rybicki, a poet now widely published in Poland, who lived here a few years ago, but was not even short-listed for the literary certificates I mentioned earlier. Rybicki brought a famous Polish poet over to London, but let’s not mention actual names, because the aforementioned squat/theatre where he was due to read was raided by police just moments before the event was due to start – someone there hit someone else kettle, and that someone then called the cops, the evening rounding off in a dire little pub, stripped of atmosphere, good music and any kind of poetry, leaving the well-known poet nursing a beer over a disgruntled half-smile.

Adding up all of the above gives us a big, fat, literary zero – no publications worth reading, no cultural magazines, no bookstores, no literary associations, nothing on the Internet even, which you would think, being free and widely accessible, would be the prefect forum for writers living abroad, tied down to menial jobs, separated from their literary peers, hungering to both read and be published in their native tongue. But how to create a literary scene when most of the Polish writers living in Britain whom I contacted in preparing this material are scattered across the island? Will the enduring legacy of Giedroyc’s Parisian “Kultura” ever be topped, or even repeated?

It seems there is no need for Poles to pray for a new Giedroyc. It’s enough to consider Dorota Masłowska, Poland’s most recent literary star. A few years ago, Soho Theatre staged her play “A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians” in English translation, and as part of the Soho Talks series, I chaired a discussion on the theme of cultural engagement among Poles living in the UK. Not wanting to keep the discussion mono-national, we asked representatives from the Portuguese, Romanian and Russian communities to come along and join in the debate. And guess what? Everyone shares the same experiences. Official emigre organizations and newly set up independent groups do not talk to each other. Cultural centres are usually funded by wealthy immigrants and therefore rarely have anything to do with high culture. Generations of those who came in days of old and those newly arrived do not speak the “same language”. The larger the group of newcomers, paradoxically, the harder it is for them to communicate. Lost in the crowd, blending into the background, rather than come together and celebrate their own culture, Poles in the UK prefer to hide and not remind the locals of their presence here. And with us its always Chopin and the Pope and Solidarity. And all that sorrow and longing and the old saying “Poles are wolves to one another”. Interesting things seem to happen in the lives of migrant artists in the 21st century only when they come together with others, both natives and newcomer. Though it is not the same for everyone. Musicians or painters or photographers can access new audiences quickly – their works do not require translation, nor do they need linguistic proficiency to communicate and contextualise their work. But a poet? A writer? A journalist? They fall into a real creative no-man’s-land. The life of migrating writers is one of literal exile.

Welcome to Sunny Prestatyn

“I arrived on the Isle of Wight in 2006. A friend who travelled round England for two years told me that local picturesque coastal towns are all flourishing with cultural life: “You see all these events and festivals.” He just forgot to add that they are mainly festivals of tomatoes and garlic, or small-scale cycling events, etc. My head stuffed with pictures taken from British adventure novels, in July I alighted from the ferry, forgetting that in the middle of the last century, 75 miles south of London, Virginia Woolf decided to drown herself in the river Ouse, while Philip Larkin frequently mocked the parochial cultural life in the provinces of this Great Britain. After several months of staying on the Isle, I realized that in the pompously Victorian Ryde there is no literary scene. In its library I found an announcement that the luxury restaurant on the Esplanade at ten in the morning held a meeting of poets. Someone forgot to add to the leaflet that the pensioners due to meet that morning over a glass of wine would concern themselves solely with writing rhyming ditties for children. From my English language tutor I got the addresses of several local literary clubs. I wrote letters to all of them, but never received a response. Shortly after, I went to the theatre, having long dreamed of seeing my favourite “The Tempest” by Shakespeare done in the original, but the grand doors of the palace building on Lind Street were closed. On the bulletin board I read that later that week a troupe of actors from London would be putting on a “criminal farce”, followed by local artists staging a Christmas pantomime. For mysterious reasons, both plays were cancelled, a new poster advertising some sort of pop entertainer instead. Friends invited me one evening to the pub, where I read past pages of The Isle of Wight County Press, mentioning that a year ago they had hosted a poetry slam. That night, the pub was hosting a karaoke session, while a woman who looked eerily like Virginia Woolf puked into Victorian-era sewer gratings outside.

I decided not to submit, and in late December I went to Christmas meeting of the postwar Polish immigrants in Newport. After the religious service, everyone moved to a function room and immediately rushed to Swedish table set with Polish dishes, wolfing the lot down as if they had never seen poppy seed cakes or hunter’s stew before. One elderly man with flakes of coconut on his chin handed me a business card imprinted with the proud word “writer”, but this artist had written nothing in the past thirty years other than the script for a television series popular back in the days of the Polish Communist People’s Republic. After the vigil, someone with a strange accent began to recite the invocation of “Pan Tadeusz”. Ironically, it was not a Pole but an Englishman of Jewish origin. As it turned out, his Polish wife, whom he had married in the Eighties, had taught him parts of our national epic. They had wed because the bride desperately needed a visa – threatened as she was with deportation back to our then-occupied country. For three years, she had studied Polish philology in Krakow and, as befits the marriage of convenience rather than love, instead of spending their wedding night in the bedroom, she sat in the kitchen teaching him poetry, and after the legal papers were signed, left with a friend for the U.S. Sometimes, I meet him at the High Street. He sits on the bench and recites: Lytwo, oiczysno moia, ty jestes jak zdrowie. In summary, one can say: Thanks to attractive female students the British will occasionally get a taste of Polish literature.”

Wioletta Grzegorzewska, poet (Isle of Wight)

Robert Rybicki returned “home” a few years ago, where he is now regularly published in the most high-brow titles. With Marcin Piniak, a writer and photographer from Lodz, we founded OFF_Magazine as an on-line experiment in 2009, as an antidote to all this Polish language commershit. But the plan too ambitious, because we wanted to publish everything, in all languages, and upload movies, and music, and still have time to create our own things. Too much, too soon. Piniak too recently returned to Poland and published his first book, while I reset OFF_ by focusing on translations, film production and the publication of new indie books. In our first title, Anthologia / A Prequel Manifesto, you will find authors from four different continents, along with a free DVD film about a trip to Poland, shot by a German director and an American writer and me, a Brit-Pol hybrid. Our second book, METAL – Young Polish Artists, accompanied a recent art festival in Essex, and our third is a collection of contemporary Polish poetry in translation. A nice mix to kick off with.

Maybe in time we can work with major organizations / publishers in Poland, those who want to access book and film distibution to the West, create a small literary salon, print cheap but well-made books (digital printing allows this), produce movies and music CDs and electronic publications, become a sort of literary Polish “satellite”, a moon which reflects the light of the very best stuff written in Polish and translated into English by writers of Polish origin anywhere in the world. A world which has changed since the time of “paryska Kultura” and requires us to adopt new systems of thought. We read fewer books, but ever more on our phones and computers. Poetry does not matter like it did in times of wars and oppressions and occupations, but a lot is going on the poetry slam and literary festival scene, in both Poland and England. Many people sign up for creative writing courses and literary workshops. I receive more and more material written by Poles writing in English, brave enough to try on this new, and yet so familiar, language. After all, it is interesting narratives, not perfect grammar, which attract the attention and stimulate the imagination of readers, and writers who travel far should have plenty of those to share.

“I live in Dublin, Ireland. In this place I’ve ended up in, there is no literary scene, or even much of a construction workers scene for that matter. In any event, I’ve heard nothing about migrant literary initiatives, but maybe I myself am to blame because I haven’t really searched all that hard… Culture is here, but there is no money to fund it. Anything which does pop up is likely to be a self-financing grass roots initiative, and no let’s not forget we are living in times of a global financial crisis. If people buy any books, that’s most likely going to be a cookbook or some such. I cannot predict whether this type of initiative will continue and grow in today’s global village, without an real patrons, though I wish this were possible. Still, I have a New Year’s wish for 2011 – I wish the people of this sort of vision were able to communicate. For sure, there are still other people, groups similar to OFF_ and other insanely lonely knights of writing, like me, who think that they are an extinct species in these parts. I wish they could organize themselves around common initiatives. If The Kids Are United … A phrase admittedly borrowed from an entirely different story, but it fits like a glove. ”

Piotr Czerwinski, author of Pokalenie / Przebiegum Życiae (Dublin)

It’s winter 1988. The first time I’m home alone

and scared of answering the phone. The model Spitfire

is still drying, its badly set undercarriage

doing the sideways splits. Outside the window, a snowy monument

– night, the lady of both tides. The silence

between rings is unbearable.

Twenty years on, I’m still scared of answering

the phone. Before me – an iron road, jaws

snapping, the whisper of grit, the squeal of sprockets,

waves of nausea. And love like overweight baggage,

like a vial of glue or green grease. Write it down:

inclined plane. Ten years earlier: unfortunate

drive up a ramp, a tiny skateboard wheel loose and the fall.

What an arena, dreams of fresh leaves on snow,

perfect surfaces of abandoned kites.

And also faith in the immortality of flesh and sudden silence

between rings. Diagnosis: cracked ankle

joint. Diagnosis: the hourglass smashed.