Interview by Agnieszka Tennant
This Strange Ambition to Want to Say Something
In the September/October 2002 issue of Books & Culture, Agnieszka Tennant interviewed the Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski ["Try to Praise the Mutilated World"]. Since that time, another volume of Zagajewski's poems has appeared in English translation—Eternal Enemies, in 2008—as well a collection of essays—A Defense of Ardor, in 2004—both from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Agnieszka caught up with him again when he was teaching a class at the University of Chicago, and they resumed their conversation.
Your poems give off a sense of motion, of travel. You're a cosmopolitan vagabond of sorts, having been born in Lvov, and now splitting your time between Paris, Krakow, and Chicago. I remember you telling me in our first interview that you could imagine yourself living in a village in Poland—with a good library—and "being exactly the same person" as you are now. Don't you write different poems in Chicago than you do in Krakow—not just in terms of content, but also in terms of sensibility?
I like the question; I wish I had a good answer. I enjoy travel, the moment of traveling, because it's being nowhere. And being nowhere is a perfect place for writing a poem. It seems to me that writing poetry comes from longing for something lost or absent. So while I'm in Chicago, I can barely imagine myself writing about Chicago. Chicago is here. And if I miss Chicago in Krakow, who knows, maybe I will write a poem about Chicago. When I taught in Houston, I had a very strong sense of nostalgia for Europe, for Paris, for Krakow. That was when I was still living in Paris—it was my everyday life. So maybe you're right that if I'd lived in a village in Poland, and hadn't traveled much, it would have been difficult for me to write. And I do see this in myself—a talent for being in exile. It fascinates me to be in places that are not native. It could have something to do with having lost the city of my birth, Lvov. Whether that's true ...