Tag Archives: Piotr Sommer

Polish Literature News Digest!

Some recent news in Polish literature:

Mariusz Szczygieł’s reportage Gottland (which was written up here in March after it won the Prix AMPHI), has just been awarded the Europe Book Prize. The Prize, which is in its third year, was announced on December 9 and comes with an award of 10,000 euros for each of its two winners. According to euronews, it was founded in honor of former EU Commission President Jacques Delors in order “to promote European values and an understanding of the European Union as a cultural entity.”

Poems by Piotr Sommer and Andrzej Sosnowski appear in the December 14 issue of The Nation, translated by Christian Hawkey and Rod Mengham, respectively.

On November 28, Northwestern UP released The New Century, a delightful new selection of poetry by Ewa Lipska translated by Robin Davidson and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska. (I wrote about Lipska and this book in a March post.) But the good news from Northwestern doesn’t stop there: editor Mike Levine recently acquired a new selection of poems by Julia Hartwig, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, which will be coming out in April 2010.

Words without Borders’ December international science fiction issue includes an excerpt from Stanisław Lem’s previously untranslated first novel Man From Mars (1946) along with a great overview of Polish speculative fiction and a novel excerpt (a first publication in English) by the younger author Tomasz Kołodziejczak. The October issue of WWB includes a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s wonderful Fado.

Copenhagen-based poet Grzegorz Wróblewski, one of the more distinctive voices of the so-called “bruLion generation,” has just published a new chapbook of his poems in English: A Rarity, translated by Agnieszka Pokojska and released in October by Červená Barva press. Here’s eclectica.org’s review of his first full-length book Our Flying Objects, translated by Rod Mengham and others, and an earlier chap, These Extraordinary People. And here’s John Guzlowski’s blogpost on Our Flying Objects, which includes several of Wróblewski’s poems and links to more. It’s great to see so much of his work available now.

He is also, incidentally, a visual artist.

Yale University Press has announced a March 29, 2010 pub date for an important new collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951). Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, translated by Madeline Levine, offers “the first authoritative translation of Borowski’s prose fiction, including numerous stories that have never appeared in English before.” Borowski is one of the most important writers of the Holocaust, but for too long was represented in English by a single (crucial) collection of short stories, This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Northwestern UP brought out a selection of his correspondence two years ago. This new and long-awaited collection of Borowski’s “stark, unsparing and self-tormenting narratives”—as Imre Kertesz described them in his 2007 Nobel Prize lecture—promises to be required reading for a new generation.

The new film Rewers (The Reverse, 2009), directed by the young Borys Lankosz and written by the novelist Andrzej Bart, won 7 Golden Lions at the Gdynia Film Festival in September and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best European Debut; it has been selected as Poland’s Best Foreign Film submission for the 2010 Academy Awards, and is getting a lot of jubilant press (Variety, cineuropa, The Krakow Post, among others). Bart’s screenplay was recast as a “film novella” and published by W.A.B. just last month. The Book Institute has a write-up about it by Dariusz Nowacki on its website.

For U.S. publishers, Andrzej Bart is definitely a Polish writer to watch. Born in 1951, he published his first book in the early 1980s, but his career as an author didn’t take off until his second book almost a decade later. He has been called “the most mysterious of Polish writers” and likened to Pynchon and Kafka. His popular novels, which are stylistically quite elegant, typically introduce a speculative element into a historical situation. The 2008 The Flypaper Factory, for example, is set in the Łódź Ghetto but revolves around an entirely fictional trial of Ghetto leader Chaim Rumkowski. It won the 2009 Gydnia Literary Prize and was nominated for this year’s NIKE Award, and Reverse director Lankosz has just announced plans for the film adaptation. In terms of his potential for the U.S. publishing market, Bart may very well be Poland’s answer to serious popular foreign authors like Stieg Larsson, Peter Hoeg, or Jostein Gaarder. The Book Institute has more information about him and his books on its website, along with an excerpt from The Flypaper Factory, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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(Photos of Piotr Sommer and Andrzej Sosnowski © Elżbieta Lempp / Biuro Literackie.)

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Recent Polish literature news…

A few updates on recent goings-on in Polish literature:

This year’s NIKE Literary Award was announced on October 4. It went to Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, the only poet among 7 finalists, for his book Piosenka o zależnościach i uzależnieniach (Song of Relationships and Addictions, Biuro Literackie 2009). Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, who was born in 1962, has over 9 books of poetry in Polish and one in English: Peregrinary, which was translated by Bill Johnston and published in 2008 by Zephyr Press.

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The other finalists were: Andrzej Bart for Fabryka muchołapek (Flycatcher Factory, WAB), Inga Iwasiów for Bambino (Świat Książki), Ignacy Karpowicz for Gesty (Gestures, Wydawnictwo Literackie), Tomasz Piątek for Pałac Ostrogskich (The Ostrogski Palace, WAB), Bohdan Sławiński for Królowa tiramisu (The Queen of Tiramisu, Czarna Owca), and Krzysztof Varga for Gulasz z turula (Turul Gulash, Czarne). Of these other finalists, all but one are men, all but one were nominated for a novel (Varga’s Turul Gulash is a reportage about Hungary), and all but one already had a book or more under their belts (The Queen of Tiramisu is Sławiński’s first novel).

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Andrzej Stasiuk has just published a new novel, Taksim (Czarne). Here’s a summary by critic Przemysław Czapliński from Czarne’s rights catalogue:

In his latest novel Andrzej Stasiuk tells a tale of a very last chase of capitalism. His two main heroes – Paweł, a marketeer who circulates among the bazaars of European provinces, and Włodek, his driver – suffer a symbolic and actual defeat in their encounter with the new force. Up till this moment they’d always managed to come out on top. Paweł in particular is like a knight errant of the first phase of capitalism in these parts.

Now, yesterday’s culture of short-lived products becomes a culture of one-time use. Asia invades Europe, not with an army, but with trade. It floods the continent with knockoffs, in other words merchandise the Chinese copied from Central European products that were themselves copies of Western items.

If someone has the impression that Stasiuk has created a contemporary version of the story of how “the yellow race overcomes the white race,” they will only partly be right. Stasiuk is less interested in portraying the victors in this capitalist duel of deceptions, more in showing us the losers – that is to say, the pariahs of Europe, inhabitants of its poorest regions, people condemned to a worse life because they live in a worse place. These people acquire the cheapest goods, but they themselves, especially the women, are also turned into merchandise. The only thing Western Europe exports to Central Europe is its trash, its used objects, the detritus of its development, while from there it imports male bodies for its harsher jobs and female bodies for its entertainment. In this way the strength of money and the weakness of the provinces cause the ideal of Europe to enter liquidation. And since history driven by money has no brakes, it is a liquidation that cannot be reversed.

I wonder if this book was picked up by an American publisher at Frankfurt last week. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Stasiuk’s novel Nine three years ago, has plans to release his book Traveling to Babadag sometime in the relatively near future. And if you haven’t yet read his amazing Fado, which came out last month with Dalkey Archive, please drop everything this minute and go out and get it.

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The plot of Stasiuk’s Taksim calls to mind another recent, darkly futuristic Polish novel rooted in a topical discourse: Paweł Huelle’s The Last Supper (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Serpent’s Tail 2008; US edition forthcoming in December 2009). One wonders if a new catastrophism is under way in Polish fiction, a throwback to Witkacy’s apocalyptic novels of the 1930s… Here’s an excerpt of The Independent review last year, after Huelle’s novel came out in England:

The Last Supper, again [like previous novels Mercedes Benz and Castorp] centred on Gdansk, makes a small leap forward in time. Bomb attacks on liquor stores have raised the fear of jihadi militancy taking root among local Muslims (at present, they hardly exist), while others blame provocations by rival booze tycoons. The Church, via the flashy local prelate Father Monsignore (who runs his own-brand wine label), is shoring up its status via showbiz-style stunts and entrepreneurial gambits. Meanwhile, the artist Mateusz gathers a group of old friends – all veterans of the 1980s opposition circles, some thriving but others marooned in the free market – to take part in a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

The book’s first US review, in Publishers Weekly, just came out today, and is somewhat lukewarm, beginning with a caution: “American readers may struggle with this near-future novel from Polish author Huelle… a meandering meditation on contemporary Poland and Europe,” and ending with a proviso: “Those familiar with the social, political and religious issues Huelle addresses will best appreciate this challenging book.” It does, however, raise some important questions about translation, reception, and differing horizons of expectations between Poland and the U.S. (and between Poland and the U.K.).

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Poet, translator, and Literatura na świecie editor Piotr Sommer is a Franke Visiting Fellow at Yale University this semester. He gave a reading together with Christian Hawkey at Symphony Space last month at the Polish Cultural Institute’s season opener, joined by members of theNew York-based ensemble The Knights, who performed settings of his and Hawkey’s poems by, respectively, Jeffrey Lependorf and Lisa Bielawa. He will be giving a reading at Yale tomorrow (20 October).

Hello! Przerwa skończona!

Yes, the hiatus is over! The past 5 weeks have seen, among other things, preparations for three Polish Cultural Institute events here in New York City:

the Institute’s season opener at Symphony Space on September 11, which featured readings by Polish poet Piotr Sommer and American poet Christian Hawkey and a performance by members of the New York-based ensemble The Knights of recent works by Lisa Bielawa and Jeffrey Lependorf (works composed as settings of poems by Hawkey and Sommer respectively)…

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the Polish Cultural Institute booth at the 4th Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 13 (which featured an informal reading by Jacek Dehnel, the author of the acclaimed novel Lala and editor of Six Polish Poets, and a book signing by Alex Storozynski, author of The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution)…

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photos: A. Grenda

…and our first session of the European Book Club, at which both newcomers and seasoned aficionados of European literature in translation discussed Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, recently published by Open Letter Books, together with Open Letter publisher Chad Post, who came down from Rochester to talk with readers.

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The rest of the autumn will be awash with Polish culture — see the Polish Cultural Institute’s website for more details and consider subscribing to the newsletters if you haven’t already. Be sure not to miss the debut performance in the U.S. of work by celebrated Polish composer Paweł Mykietyn (Thursday, October 1, at Symphony Space; the concert will be preceded by a conversation with Mykietyn and Cuban-American composer Tania Leon) and the dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day‘s return to the U.S. with their famous production Wormwood, which will be performed at Yale University November 5-7 and at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City November 11-15.

As for upcoming literary events, make sure to mark your calendar for the following:

October 6-7: After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century — a public conversation on the ins and outs of long-form and literary journalism with leading authors of the genre (these include Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Suketu Mehta, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as Wojciech Jagielski and Paweł Smoleński). The event is cosponsored with the National Book Critics Circle, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the new Literary Reportage concentration of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.

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November 3-4: Polish Poetry Now: Bożena Keff, Marzanna Kielar, Tomasz Różycki, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki will read at the new Poets House in New York on Wednesday, November 4, following a discussion there the night before with translators Benjamin Paloff and Bill Johnston; on Thursday, November 5, they will read and discuss their work together with translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones at Harvard University. Check back here and at the Polish Cultural Institute website for more details.

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November 10: As part of the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern European festival that the New York Public Library is organizing, there will be a book party at Idlewild Books in New York for The Wall in my Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain — a Words without Borders anthology published by Open Letter Books. Polish author Dorota Masłowska will read, together with Romanian poet Dan Sociu and German author Kathrin Aehnlich; New York University professor Eliot Borenstein will moderate.

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Hope to see you at any or all of these events!

Piotr Sommer’s Morning on Earth

This lovely book arrived in the morning mail: Piotr Sommer’s selected poems RANO NA ZIEMI (Morning on Earth).

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It’s just come out in a new series (Biblioteka Poezji Współczesnej = The Library of Contemporary Poetry) edited by poet Mariusz Grzebalski for the Wydawnictwo Wojewódzkiej Biblioteki Publicznej i Centrum Animacji Kultury w Poznaniu (umm, let’s just say it’s a joint venture of the Poznań Public Library and the Poznań Arts Center). Other poets so far published in Grzebalski’s series are: Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, Krzysztof Śliwka, and Grzegorz Wróblewski.

RANO NA ZIEMI includes about 180 poems from Sommer’s seven books: W krześle (In the Chair, 1977), Pamiątki po nas (What We’re Remembered By, 1980), Kolejny swiat (A Subsequent World, 1983), Czynnik liryczny (Lyric Factor, 1986), Czynnik liryczny i inne wiersze (Lyric Factor and Other Poems, 1988), Nowe stosunki wyrazów (New Relations of Words, 1997), and Piosenka pasterska (Shepherd’s Song, 1999). About half of these poems are available in English in his book CONTINUED, which Wesleyan University Press published in 2005, and which was translated by multiple hands (including those of D.J. Enright, John Ashbery,and Jarosław Anders) in collaboration with Halina Janod.

I helped out with some of the newer poems in CONTINUED, and I can vouch for the difficulty of getting them into English successfully. Sommer’s language is quite plain, understated, but so fastidiously gestural and resonant with the everyday that it resists translation. Most of the time. Here’s one, however, that I think works quite well:

BELIEVE ME
You’re not going to find a better place
for these cosmetics, even if eventually
we wind up with some sort of bathroom cabinet and
you stop knocking them over with your towel—
there’ll still be a thousand reasons to complain
and a thousand pieces of glass on the floor
and a thousand new worries,
and we’ll still have to get up early.

(translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright)

Sommer is above all concerned with the human voice speaking out of and to private experience—rather than converting it into publicity or declaiming an ethical position. There is also a sense in these poems, even in the ones that do not make this explicit, that to voice one’s experience as directly and as precisely as possible, without illocutionary or parabolic distortion, is itself an ethical act. So much delight is taken in that voicing, so much attention paid to pitch and tone and rhythm, that Sommer’s poems might be understood as both listening (I’m thinking here from Forrest Gander’s novel AS A FRIEND, which I just read, in which the hero claims that “poetry is a kind of listening”) and singing.

The poet’s delight is never far removed from his chagrin at things going awry; and in Sommer’s poetry, that happens mainly when a listening and singing subjectivity reenters the public atmosphere. In the poem “Proofs,” such friction becomes an occasion for articulating what is important to him in language:

Don’t worry about commas, all these
punctuation marks, colons, semi-colons
and dashes which you so scrupulously
specify will be, thanks to a proof-
reader’s inattentiveness, left out; the rhythm
of your sentence, your thinking, your language
will prove less important than
you expected, or maybe than you wanted.
That was nothing but wishful thinking—
you won’t be read to the music of speech
but to the hubbub of things.

(translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright)

And this poetics is at the same time a political praxis, understood in terms of craft:

LIBERATION, IN LANGUAGE
These heart-stirring errors of craft—
uncertainty how a nation
should respond to violence,
made up for by an urgent
sense of mission
(words big as beans
that are hard to swallow)
and that almost obsessive
lack of detail—

yes, one can speak this way
from the stage: this language
is not beautiful but all
abruptly draw out their hands
and clap, and so, perforce,
it must be correct.

(translated by Halina Janod and Ed Adams)

All three of these relatively straightforward poems are from CZYNNIK LIRYCZNY [Lyric Factor], which Sommer published in 1986. Sommer, who is the editor in chief of the monthly magazine of international literature, Literatura na świecie, a highly influential translator of British and American poetry, and a recent DAAD Artists Program fellow in Berlin, does not match the image of the Polish poet that has developed over the past forty years. He is a bit of a pain in the ass (he likes to say, for example, what he thinks). And his poems don’t behave the way they’re supposed to either (see Kim Hjelmgaard’s review in Zoland Poetry 2006 for a good analysis of this). But for the sake of Polish poetry in English, Sommer’s work and his views on poetry are more important now than ever, precisely because they are not easy or easily digestible; they represent an opening of the field.

A few other resources on Sommer:
National Humanities Center newsletter (2005)
Chicago Review interview (2000)

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