In “All Our Yesterdays,” Borges writes:
I need to know who lays claim to my past.
Who, of all those I was?
. . .
I am those that are no more. For no good reason
I am, in the evening sun, those vanished persons.
Piotr Florczyk’s latest book of poetry, East & West (Lost Horse Press, 2016), describes his yesterdays in Poland and reflects on his present day in the US, where abundance permeates even the most mundane tasks. His poems are infused with the open, vast atmosphere of the coastal desert West. In “1989,” he writes:
even though you were raised on fate alone and then schooled
in East and West. What happened after your hot-air-balloon escape?
Florczyk emigrated from Poland as a competitive swimmer when he was a teenager. He is a poet, essayist, and translator who lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and daughter, where he is earning his doctoral degree from USC. He is one of the founders of Calypso Editions, a cooperative press, and serves as translation editor for The Los Angeles Review. Florczyk has translated Anna Świrszczyńska’s Building the Barricade and numerous poetry volumes by other Polish poets. His is the author of the poetry collection East & West and the book of essays Los Angeles Sketchbook. As a writer, he is both a witness and a seeker, uncovering what’s essential for times of political upheaval. His work is reminiscent of Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz, and Adam Zagajewski. He is credited with bringing to light lesser-known poets like Anna Świrszczyńska and younger Polish contemporaries.
During his East & West book tour in La Grande, Oregon, he sat for an interview with MFA candidates Susan Kay Anderson and James Benton, and their professor, David Axelrod. Florczyk spoke about his childhood imagination under communism, and the changing atmosphere of post-1989 Poland. His dedication to poetry and the story of what it’s like to be in one place and dream of another, speaks both to the disappearance of history and its reemergence. These discoveries live between the covers of East & West.
—Susan Kay Anderson, David Axelrod, and James Benton for Guernica
Guernica: I really like the poem “From The Life Of Postage Stamps.” It is interesting to read about sentient everyday objects with lives of their own. Do you consciously animate objects after the fact, or does this develop naturally as you write?
Piotr Florczyk: East & West is a project is steeped in childhood memories of collecting stamps, coins, aluminum cans. When I was growing up in Poland, there were no aluminum cans; everything came in glass or tin. Kids in the neighborhood collected beer and soda cans. We’d go dumpster diving behind fancy hotels during sporting events because these teams from abroad would bring their own food. We’d take the cans home to put them up on shelves in our tiny rooms. We loved the colors and the writing on the cans even though we couldn’t read it.
I wanted to go back to that childhood innocence, where people, characters, or events depicted in stamps serve as imaginary gateways to adventures. I wrote seven poems about stamps, consciously trying to animate what I saw, whether it was a person, a character, a hero, or an object to transport myself back to the childhood activity of collecting stamps. As a kid I’d pore over those things for hours, imagining what it would be like to be someone like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. I’d look at another image and think, Wow, look at that flower! I couldn’t pronounce its Latin name, but I thought I would like to go to the mountain or forest or meadow where these flowers grow.
Guernica: In the poem “The Weightlifter,” you write:
Hurry up, you white light.
Let me off the hook.
No man can make things right
when he holds the world in his arms.
How do you arrive at these surprising shifts?
Piotr Florczyk: This is one of the mysteries of poetry. How do we make a turn in a poem—are we even in control? We just follow that image, that sound, that language to where it wants to go. Yes, all the poems in this series begin with the idea that every time there is a new event, a new Olympics, a new stamp is issued. But I didn’t want to write a poem about a stereotypical weightlifter from, say, Turkey or Bulgaria, in a red singlet, struggling with the bar and the weight. The quotidian is the starting point here, but then I always think there has to be something more beyond the starting image, a kind of marrying of the micro and the macro perspective in the poem.
Some of this happens subconsciously. I strive to endow my poems with larger meanings and significances. Having that kind of stance is a conscious decision on my part and many other poets. I’m not just a scribbler who has fun rearranging and arranging words on the page time and again. In fact, I am trying to communicate something and with someone, even if that someone is just myself trying to make sense of the world and really applying or utilizing the cognitive function of writing. I’m thinking through stuff. If it comes off quotidian and off handed, that’s even better, as long as there’s a shift somewhere in the poem that allows it to become more than a sum of its parts. It’s really important for me to have fun in my work but also to employ a stance or perspective that allows me to make sense of the world and my place or our place in it. I know it sounds kind of high and mighty, but that’s how I feel about it. I’ve never wanted to write poems just for the sake of just writing, just playing. There really has to be more to it.
Guernica: You tell a joke at the beginning of “Elsewhere”:
Now that the Poles have conquered an island
without firing a single shot—
“Ireland’s Beautiful,” “The people kind.”
It’s a kind of humor that shuts us down even as it expresses a degree of autonomy and dissent from the status quo. It’s also very much at odds with American expansiveness and sense of personal privilege. That poem partly tries to account for your experience as a Polish-American immigrant, and I wonder how you negotiate these conflicting national and personal terrains?
Piotr Florczyk: You’re right, the opening was supposed to be funny. I stole that phrase from a friend of mine. It is a nod and a wink to him. He immigrated to Ireland along with thousands of other Poles. He’s back in Poland now, for the time being, but before the housing crisis there were six hundred thousand Poles in Ireland! And Ireland is a tiny place! They worked in construction, or cleaned houses, then some of them worked their way up to more professional occupations. Every time I saw my dear friend in Krakow, we had a kind of an immigrant-to-immigrant talk. I’d ask him how it was going, and he’d say, Oh, great, and then make the joke: We got ourselves an island. It’s ours now. That may be, I’d reply, but don’t advertise this or they’ll kick you out! You’re still a guest, I’d add, the way I sometimes feel I’m still a guest here in the States even though I’ve lived here twenty-two years. I came here as a sixteen-year-old kid. Those lines you quoted came out of thinking, Okay, you’ve got yourself an island, but it will never actually be yours.
I write in English, and the idiom I hear on a daily basis is American; I think of myself as an American poet. But I will always be hyphenated—somebody who came from elsewhere, hence the title of the poem, and tries to navigate not so much the physicality of the two spaces, but the sensibility of it. What do I bring into my poems that may be seen as Polish or Central European, or Eastern European? Central European, because, you know, you’re not supposed to call Poles Eastern Europeans. Adam Zagajewski has his own joke about that “so-called Central Europe.” I don’t know if I’m successful at it, but there is a tendency to pigeonhole people like myself. It has been said, “Well, he’s not really an American poet; he’s really a Polish poet who writes in English.” People have said things like that to me. I take no offense. People can say whatever they want to say, but when it comes to writing my own poems, it can’t just be about me and myself and, God forbid, my struggles as an immigrant.
I’m not denigrating immigrant literature, but I am more interested in how to be Czesław Miłosz and David Axelrod, for instance, at the same time—can I create something strange and new by bringing these two tributaries together? Then I start wondering: Do I care how people read me? Do I care how they perceive my work? Because, as we are told time and time again, there’s only one reader, it’s best not to worry what the reception is. Nonetheless, this is why someone like Czesław Miłosz, for instance, really rebelled against getting pigeonholed as a poet. He wrote a certain historical, philosophical poem, not to telegraph to the world how much he had suffered, but because it was really part of his DNA. Thinking about the long and expansive poems that are very much in vogue these days, I think we really have to be careful how we channel ourselves through that. Not many people can do a long poem well, which isn’t the same as to say that it shouldn’t be done or attempted. Of course it should be.
Guernica: Tell us about the title?
Piotr Florczyk: As a title, East & West has something to do with fleshing out Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South. I love Bishop’s work. I was just riffing on the title of her debut book, and if people asked about my choice, I would say that it speaks to my hyphenated identity. I’m both of those things! When I actually said that to someone, they reminded me that East and West mean different things to different people. So East & West, with the ampersand in between, what does that really mean? Am I joining East and West, am I the missing link? Not sure.
Guernica: In “1989,” you have long lines formed in couplets. Other poems are in quatrains. Can you talk to us about your form choices?
Piotr Florczyk: When I started to write poems, I devoured Polish poetry in English and wrote my first poems in Polish because I wanted to retain the fluency of my native language and writing poetry seemed like a good strategy to do so. I did that through my first year of my MFA at San Diego State University. I wrote in Polish and translated my own poems into English. Those were the poems I would bring into workshop. Later on at SDSU, Sandra Alcosser introduced me to the work of Ciaran Carson, an Irish poet, whose work just changed the whole thing for me. Carson’s first book was very much like Seamus Heaney’s work: lots of very quiet lyrics. His second book, The Irish For No, took him ten years to write. During that time he worked as a traditional arts officer and toured all over Ireland collecting folklore and music. His second book has long, biblical lines, which he himself had gleaned from C.K. Wiliams. Gone completely was the quiet poet of that first book. In a way, the same thing happened to me. From writing very short, quiet lyrics, I expanded to writing all sorts of poems. And I had to do it in English, since my Polish had grown stale by then. It was such an American thing to do. I also realized writing long-line poems was a great tool for mastering craft and technique because if you write poems in long lines and they don’t work—well, I think of them as a clothes line—they begin to sag. Because long lines need to be taut in order to work, it’s easier to see what needs to be taken out when you read them aloud over and over. Of course I still like spare quatrains and tercets. And I like rhyming.
Combing different forms in this book stems from my belief that poetry books should be varied. It’s like being an athlete. If you’re a swimmer, you can’t just swim freestyle; you have to do the backstroke and the butterfly and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be the “IMer.” You’ll be the one doing all the strokes together.
Guernica: Building the Barricade depicts the events of the war in the decade just after it ended. It still felt part of our daily routine and occupied our minds in a lot of ways. You were born three decades later and I wonder what it was like for you to translate such a harrowing book that depicts experiences older people in your family experienced?
Piotr Florczyk: Tavern Books thought this was one of those volumes they wanted to see back in print. I’d done a selected book of the poems with a small press first and didn’t want to do a second version of that book just for the very reason you’ve hinted at. I didn’t want to revisit the war. I thought there was so much of it already in literature, and in Poland, growing up, you can’t escape it. It is everywhere, including school, where it gets drilled into your head. When I was a kid, it was all very top-heavy, all very rote learning of all these different dates. It’s no secret that Poles see themselves as martyrs. They think that the world owes them something because they stood up to Hitler and Stalin. In the seventeenth century, they stood up to the Turks. When we hear about this stuff here, we often lack the context, so we make fun of it. For instance, we make fun of Kosovo and Serbia being at each other’s throats today because of some fourteenth-century battle. History is still very much alive in that part of the world. With Poland’s recent turn to the right, it’s back in the news again. Politicians on the right are hijacking anniversaries and historical events and using them for political gain. I thought, let’s not go back to that, but obviously I’ve come around. It’s a beautiful book, and I feel very proud of it. And I don’t feel guilty about it. These poems are not pathos-ridden. If they cry for help, or commemorate the times and the people, they do it very subtly. They are poems, not political salvos, first and foremost.
The Warsaw Uprising remains an open wound in Poland. Every year, August 1st at 5:00 p.m., when the uprising began, the sirens come on. Everybody stops, honoring the insurgents with a minute of silence. In that sense, it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s a festering wound, too, because it was doomed right from the start. It was a very valiant struggle, but the decision to go to battle was also very tragic. Some people, like Czesław Miłosz, for example, thought it was utterly foolish.
Translating the book was painful, but I’m glad that I could take part in introducing new readers to it. We owe Tavern Books a great deal of gratitude. Selfishly, it was a wonderful way of learning how to write really short poems. Indeed, translating Building the Barricade poems has taught me a great deal about how to write a short poem, a poem that is not overwritten, a poem that you let be. You put a handful of words together, and then that’s it. Maybe they will rise like dough and become the poem they were meant to be, or, maybe they will fall flat. Sometimes the magic doesn’t happen, and it becomes a little doodle, and you think, Well, what do I do with this? Having the discipline to not over-engineer the poem has been one of the priceless lessons.
Guernica: In the 1980s and 1990s, the familiar tropes of resistance lost a lot of their power. I wonder how one moves forward as an artist. Perhaps the older generation had a harder time with that. Younger writers had an entirely new experience. You refer to it directly or obliquely throughout East & West. How do you and writers of your generation distinguish yourselves from your literary forbearers? I’m thinking of Pound’s poem to Whitman where he says, “You opened the grave but we’re here to carve it.”
Piotr Florczyk: “1989” is my very overt attempt at a reckoning with that time period. Even though I was only eleven years old, I remember it very well: the riots, the arrests, the military in the streets, water cannons. People usually want to know one thing about that poem: Who is the “she” at the heart of the poem? She isn’t identified as a daughter until the last section of the poem. And, why is it that there’s a washing machine there and a scoped rifle?
That’s how she shows up on the scene. Without explaining the poem too much, since everyone can and should have their own reading of it, the idea is that one form of oppression was replaced by another. Communism was out and capitalism was in, as represented by that washing machine, because under communism, as I’m sure you’ve heard, there were shortages of anything and everything, including appliances. Things like toilet paper, sugar, and meat were rationed. So, she shows up with the washing machine, as if to make up for decades of shortages, but there is also the gun, the boots, the outfit. Every gift had its price. I have really not come to terms completely with the changing of the guard that was initiated in 1989 because the euphoria of those first years after communism was replaced by political bickering and mass unemployment.
Guernica: It was shock therapy, as they called it.
Piotr Florczyk: I tell my own students that, yes, we have pockets of poverty in this country, but in Poland unemployment was like 25 or 30 percent back then. Can you imagine what this place would look like if we had a national unemployment rate of 25 or 30 percent? There would be marches on Washington every day.
Guernica: They would’ve been in the prime of their lives back then.
Piotr Florczyk: I was already in the States in ’94, and we would write and exchange letters with these stories about how Mom or Dad lost their job again. Of course things have improved greatly in Poland. But there are a lot of people who believe things should have been done differently, with less shock and maybe more hand-holding.
As for the Polish poets who arrived on the scene at the time, they have distinguished themselves, some might say separated themselves, by adopting more of a je ne sais quoi stance. In the late eighties, poets who were coming of age then looked to America for models and guidance. The New York School became the next big thing for them. Instead of writing these patriotic poems about history and philosophy and grappling with big ideas, poets were writing about having sex, smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and dashing to the store—Frank O’Hara style, like, “Hey, I was walking down the street and I ran into Robert, and Robert told me, blah, blah, blah…” That kind of thing. It became the dominant style for a decade or so.
Guernica: A lot of the New York School was a reaction against the authoritarian grayness and conservatism of the 1950s.
Piotr Florczyk: I’m writing my dissertation on this because I find it fascinating that in the ’60s and ’70s, Polish poets were imported and discussed in this country as models, but twenty years [later] it went the other way around. You might say that it was an indirect continuation of American imperialism, of capitalism, the fact that these poets were being exported, but at least they were being imported into Poland knowingly and willingly. Polish poets were grasping onto their poetics and trying to emulate them. As Scattering The Dark, a recent anthology of Polish Women poets, illustrates, they still have a long way to go in terms of something like feminism, which has been there all along, but it’s never been even near the forefront. Świrszczyńska did that in her other poems, those about the so-called domestic life. Younger women poets are doing that now in great numbers. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, most younger Polish poets were grouped into two camps: the Barbarians, those who emulated the New York School, and the Classicists, those who followed Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. That is no longer the case. The poetry scene is very varied and pluralistic when it comes to styles and genres. Language poetry has always been there, too. Why is it that what we have in English is mostly poets of the so-called Polish school of poetry, those who write about history, memory, ideas, but we don’t have any of the experimental or non-traditional poets? Some of this has to do with difficulties that stem from translating that kind of poetry, as I have recently learned, trying to translate a very experimental Polish poet. I just gave up. In any case, the Polish poetry scene is no different from what we have here.
In America everybody accepts that they can be whatever they want to be. But when I was growing up in Poland, it wasn’t like that. You were either this or that. If you tried to be something else, you approached it on your knees. You were humble before it. Today, that sense of hierarchy that I grew up with is completely gone. So, to go back to that first part of your question, people in their 20s nowadays don’t want to hear about the war, or the Holocaust, or anything having to do with historical events. They don’t want to hear about the recent stuff, like Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa.
Guernica: From “Omaha Beach”:
his voice was no more than
an umlaut going off the air
I liked that you used the word, umlaut, and the sensation of disappearing in it.
Piotr Florczyk: “Omaha Beach” is a self-evident example of my trying to bring back the past and suggest that it remains part of our daily lives. The poem came to me in Delaware, where my wife and I lived between 2006 and 2010. One summer we went down to the Atlantic coast. We watched people frolic in the waves, and I looked and down the beach and noticed these observation decks, these cylindrical structures made of concrete. I thought, Those aren’t lifeguard towers. They were built during WWII because people thought there was going to be an invasion.
Guernica: There were U-boats off the coast, it turns out.
Piotr Florczyk: Yes, absolutely! So I put the two together: playing in the waves, having a wonderful time at the beach in the summer, and that this could have been the place during the war where the Nazis invaded the US. I added the radio part because I thought the radio provided an additional voice or perspective; it also suggests this idea of telegraphing information, which doesn’t really chime with this carefree time on the beach. People listen to music on the beach, but they don’t listen to communiqués or messages. So the umlaut is simply a detail that has to do with connecting the place to Germany and the language, which I love, by the way.