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Interview by Agnieszka Tennant

This Strange Ambition to Want to Say Something

A conversation with Adam Zagajewski.

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 or not, I don't know.

This talent for being in exile, how is it different from escapism?

It can be escapism sometimes. I remember when I was 11, 12 , I read passionately. Henryk Sienkiewicz, Jules Verne—this was escapism. I was sitting in my parents' apartment—it was winter, and I hated winter—and suddenly I was in Australia, with Jules Verne. For many of us the first act of reading is an act of escaping our circumstances. But then when you grow up, I think both reading and writing, which are quite connected, have two movements: the movement to escape and the movement to return. What's important is the movement, that your mind is suddenly set into motion. It is a moment of escapism, but we also see ourselves in the act of escaping. You return to yourself.

And that judgment of oneself, that observation, is grounded.

Absolutely; traveling is like many mirrors. You never see yourself well unless there are many mirrors. You cannot trust just one mirror. You come to a new place and suddenly you both try to learn about this new place and you learn something new about your old place. Suddenly you see the place where you live anew. You discover both the destination and the point of departure.

Do you write most of your poetry in transit, say, when you're in an airplane or a bus?

No, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Ideas for poems have occasionally come to me in an airplane or on a train. But there are long weeks and months when I don't travel. A walk in Krakow is like travel to me. I desperately need some kind of motion. Krakow is a very walkable city.

In "Self-Portrait, Not Without Doubts," you mention "those writers who sometimes bother you: some so modest, minimal, and underread, that you want to call out—hey, friends, courage, life is beautiful, the world is rich and full of history." Is this something you feel vis à vis other writers?

Yes, though I won't give you any names. What I have in mind here is minimalism in literature. Unlike minimalism in music, which can be fascinating, minimalism is boring in literature. The fact that you can write poetry—it's an incredible chance that's given to you, the chance to formulate what you think about the world, God, dying. When I read through many poetry journals, I see a strange modesty. So many poets are just saying something minimal. Poetry is not about defending poetry; poetry is about defending life.

Do you think this is a symptom of our times? Maybe when we know so much more about what we don't know, people are reticent to be courageous, because we're constantly reminded of our smallness and limits. Do you think the head-spinning scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries are in some way responsible for this modesty, this reluctance?

Probably not. Very few people go to the library to read poetry from the mid-19th century, but it was the same then. So many uninteresting, weak poems that had the same tapestry. For one John Keats, there were 500 non-John Keatses. It's probably universal. But maybe the modernist movement has also contributed, staking everything on artistry, not on knowledge or metaphysics. A notable exception was T.S. Eliot. In the modernist movement there are many messages. One is, Let's be artists, let's not talk too much about the ultimate questions. It's not up to us.

And as what kind of artist do you see yourself?

I never know who I am. When we write, we are completely blind to who we are in the writing. But it seems to me that I'm somebody who is deeply skeptical and trying to combat this skepticism. So my writing is probably situated somewhere between the poles of skepticism and ecstasy, with my dream being to have more ecstatic poems. I've written a few. For me it's a constant battle between this dream of an ecstatic, religious poem and the heavy burden of skepticism that pulls me down. I sometimes think that in being implicated in this conflict, I'm not a bad representative of our time. This is one of the main struggles today not just in poetry but also in the spiritual realm.

In your essay "A Defense of Ardor," you mention philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's juxtaposition of the priest and the jester. You're neither a priest nor a jester. You retain something from both, but you also refuse to learn certain things from both of them.

I'm glad that you've reminded me of this juxtaposition. I don't think a poet should be a priest. I think even those who are deeply religious and whose outlook is far less ironic than mine still are not priests. The authority in poetry comes simply from the individual voice; it's never based in any institution. It's probably based in a kind of revelation, but never a church-founding revelation; it's a poem-founding revelation. Of course, these days we're not in danger of regarding poets as priests. Almost all poets these days are jesters. There are so many younger American poets. They're very talented. They're typical jesters. They indulge in wonderful play, but there's some poverty in it; it's not interesting as an intellectual position. What's interesting is always drama, conflict, debate. In playfulness there's no debate, no drama. It doesn't amount to a statement. It's a kind of very safe diversion for people who say they are rebels but don't risk anything.

As you say in that essay, irony can make holes in walls, which is useful, but it is not generative on its own.

Absolutely; irony can be an important speaker in a larger debate. But when irony is the only speaker, it's boring; it's very limited.

In your poem "Ordinary Life," you give a sense of how deceptive our perception of things as ordinary can be. I like the way you suggest that, while ordinary things are unfinished, that's not necessarily cause for despair. Therein—in our knowing of the unfinished nature of things—lies a longing for completion. At least that's my interpretation of the poem. Is this what you were aiming for?

You've read it very well. And yet, it's also polemical. Many people, including some friends of mine, have a tendency to celebrate the quotidian. It seems to me that the quotidian doesn't want to be celebrated. It has to be completed. It's open to new adventures. It's not something we can put on a pedestal, to which we should pray. It prays itself for something else; how can we pray to it?

I think it's fair to say that your poetry is received differently in Poland than it is in the United States. America has been eager to adopt you as its son in the realm of poetry, and in academia. Poland at the very least has been more ambivalent. I'm wondering if you have an idea why that might be.

It's true that you could say I'm better received in the United States than in Poland. I have no idea why I am well received here. Maybe because I am different from American poets. Maybe because against the background of the prevailing playfulness of American poetry, I have this strange ambition to want to say something. The same quality for which I am punished in Poland, I'm rewarded for here. But again, I can't be the judge of my own poems.

Agnieszka Tennant is a doctoral student in political science at Northwestern University.

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