Andrzej Mandalian has been nominated as the Polish contender for the City of Gdańsk‘s “European Poet of Freedom Award.” The administration of this award, of which this will be the first iteration, seems to be a bit complicated. The award was established two years ago; the poets from the other seven countries were nominated one year ago; it’s taken a year since then to winnow out a Polish candidate from among six Polish nominees, and the award will be conferred a year from now in 2010. Awards are such fascinating cultural rituals, and I’m sure the circumstances of this one are especially so. Here’s a list of the actors:
Ryszard Krynicki (Head of Jury), major poet of the New Wave, co-publisher with his wife of the Kraków-based house Wydawnictwo A5, one of the strongest publishers for poetry in Poland.
Paweł Huelle, fiction writer and resident of Gdańsk, author of Who Was David Weiser?, Mercedes Benz, Castorp, and The Last Supper.
Agnieszka Holland, acclaimed major film director since the 1970s (Provincial Actors, A Lonely Woman, Europa Europa), also known in the U.S. for having directed episodes of The Wire. What many people do not know here is that Holland is also a translator from Czech (Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, among other books).
Dorota Masłowska, best-selling author of Snow White and Russian Red and The Queen’s Peacock.
Krzysztof Pomian, eminent philosopher and historian, dissident in the 1970s and exile in France in the 1980s, where he worked with the journal Kultura. Since 2001, Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.
Stanisław Rosiek, literary historian, founder and publisher of the excellent Gdańsk-based humanities publisher słowo/obraz terytoria.
Andrzej Seweryn, acclaimed stage and film actor (Without Anaesthesia, The Silver Globe, Schindler’s List, Pan Tadeusz). Seweryn gave an acclaimed staged reading of Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz in Gdańsk last year.
Andrzej Jagodziński, former Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in Prague, translator from Czech (of Vaclav Havel among others), reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza, editor for Literatura na świecie.
With a jury as exciting as this, who needs prizewinners? Never fear, the nominees are no less fascinating. They’ve been chosen from eight different European countries (seven of which will be different every time the award is given — which at this rate will be once a decade — with Poland always being the eighth country). This time the award will be given for a book published in 2006-2007. The objective of the award is the “commendation and promotion of works of poetry that treat of one of the most important of present-day topics, freedom, and at the same time are characterized by artistic excellence.”
Уладзiмер Арлоў (Uladzimir Arlou, b. 1953) for his book Паром празь Ля-Манш (A Ferry Across La Mancha). Arlou is a noted opposition poet and literary historian and Head of the Belarusan PEN Club.
Άνδρος Ζεμενίδης (Andros Zemenides, b. 1973) for his book Απ’ τατρίατομεγαλύτερο (The Greatest of Three). Poet, novelist, and screenwriter, Zemenides was born in England to a Cypriot father and Polish mother and lives in Limassol, where he works as a teacher.
Emmanuel Hocquard (b. 1940), for his book Conditions de lumière. Élégies. Author of over 17 books of poetry, many of which have been translated into English (by Lydia Davis, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Michael Palmer, among others).
Marija Knežević (b. 1963), author of over 7 books of poetry and fiction, for her book Uličarke (Streetwalkers).
Ivan Štrpka (b. 1944), for his book Tichá ruka. desať elegií (Quiet Hand: Ten Elegies). One of the most important contemporary Slovak poets, translator from Spanish, Chief Editor of the magazine Romboid.
Primož Čučnik (b. 1971) for his book Dom in delo (Home and Work). Čučnik is the author of over 5 books of poetry, the publisher of the publishing house Lud Šerpa, Managing Editor of the important journal Literatura, and translator from Polish and English (Adam Wiedemann, Piotr Sommer, John Ashbery, Joshua Beckman, among others).
Birgitta Lillpers (b. 1958) for her book Nu försvinner vi eller ingår (Now We Disappear or Join In). Poet and novelist, Lillpers has published over 10 books and recently won the newspaper Aftonbladet‘s literature prize.
All of the books by foreign nominees have been translated into Polish and published in slowo/obraz terytoria’s European Poet of Freedom—The Nominations series.
So who were the Polish nominees? An equally mixed group, generationally at least:
Magdalena Bielska (b. 1980) for her first book Brzydkie zwierzęta (Ugly Animals).
Julian Kornhauser (b. 1946), another major Polish poet of the New Wave, for his book Origami. Kornhauser is also a translator from Serbo-Croatian and a literary critic.
Andrzej Mandalian (b. 1926 in Shanghai), major poet and translator from Russian who came to prominence as a socialist realist poet during the Stalinist period, later a member of the opposition in the 1970s. Mandalian was born into a Communist family that took part in the revolution in China and the Spanish Civil War. For his book Poemat odjazdu (The Poem of Departure), which is a reportage poem about Warsaw’s Central Train Station and was nominated for the 2008 NIKE Prize.
Tadeusz Różewicz (b. 1921) one of the major Polish poets of the postwar generation, Różewicz is also well known as a playwright. His work has been available in English since the 1960s, translated largely by Adam Czerniawski, but also by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire and most recently by Bill Johnston (New Poems, published by Archipelago Books in 2007, was nominated for the NBCC’s Poetry Prize and Johnston won the first Found in Translation Award for it). Różewicz was nominated twice for the European Poet of Freedom Award, for two books: cóż z tego, że we śnie (so what if it was dreamed), nauka chodzenia (the science of walking).
Andrzej Sosnowski (b. 1959), one of the major poets debuting after 1989, author of over 12 books; translator from English of John Ashbery, John Cage, Elizabeth Bishop, Ronald Firbank, and Jane Bowles; editor for Literatura na świecie. For his book Po tęczy (After the Rainbow).
Krzysztof Zuchora (b. 1940), for his book Noc blisko światła (Night Near the Light). Zuchora is a professor at the Józef Piłsudski Academy of Physical Education in Warsaw, a member of the Polish Olympic committee, and Chief Editor of the magazine Kultura Fizyczna.
One thing that is immediately evident to me (and to most other North American and British readers, I suspect) is that of the 21 active and passive participants in this ritual (8 jury members, 13 nominees), only 5 are women. I guess that’s not bad comparatively, but it’s clear from this example and that of other recent awards that gender ratio is less important in Poland than it would be in the U.S. (This is also an issue for translation too, incidentally. The post-1989 generation of poets includes proportionally few women poets, which would make a representative anthology seem nevertheless lopsided to an English-language readership.)
Awards may be one of the least apparently substantial areas of literary culture, and don’t seem, at least on the surface, to merit much more attention than a press release. But I find them pretty fascinating phenomena for observing how cultural economies interact, and how political entities like cities, especially smaller regional metropolises (in this case Gdańsk; in the case of the Silesius Award, Wrocław), raise their profiles nationally and internationally by organizing structures of value and rituals around individual authors’ work and fame. The award of course comes with both prestige and a monetary component: 100,000 zloties (or 30,000 euros).
It is also politically significant that Mandalian has received the Polish nomination. He is one of the great first postwar generation of Polish poets — of Herbert, Różewicz, Szymborska, Ficowski, Białoszewski, Hartwig, and Harasymowicz — who came of age during World War II and had to negotiate the Stalinist period according to a variety of tactics: dissidence, opportunism, idealistic commitment. As an example of the last of these (from a Communist family, moreover), Mandalian took the ideologically regrettable—but perhaps existentially defensible?—path. I don’t know Mandalian’s later work at all; I associate him mainly with his earliest socialist realist works: Dzisiaj (Today, 1951) and Wiosna sześciolatków (The Spring of the Six-Year-Plans), the latter a remarkable book of spunkily propagandistic reportage verse he wrote together with Andrzej Braun and Wiktor Woroszylski, which was on one of my comprehensive exams lists. Despite his later activity in the opposition, I’m sure his nomination will raise the hackles of the Radio-Maryja and Institute-of-National-Remembrance folks (who recently put up such a fuss about a certain Bruno Jasieński Street in an out-of-the-way village, but more on that later). Those are the same people who get all Cheney-Bush on Szymborska for her early socialist realism and on Miłosz for being “anti-Polish.” Nominating Mandalian, who is clearly a substantial poet and at any rate underrecognized, is a much deserved slap in the face.
As for other felicitous accolades in recent news, former Premier (the first non-Communist Premier after 1948) Tadeusz Mazowiecki has been deemed “Person of the Year,” and “Person of the 20-lecia [two decades]”since the collapse of Communism in Poland, by Gazeta Wyborcza. I suspect it was not a hard decision to make.
I saw this man in person in October 1989 in the Collegium Maius in Krakow, standing three feet away from me as I walked by. He was Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the recently democratically elected Premier of a country with a whole lot of trouble on its hands. I've never seen a more exhausted, concerned, and respect-worthy person in my life. Even now, after Obama's election, he remains for me the model of a leader.