Posts Tagged ‘Izabela Filipiak’

They scatter the dark: three Polish poets in Berkeley

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
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Izabela Morska, Julia Fiedorczuk, and Krystyna Dabrowska. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

If you noticed a slight shimmer in the firmament last week, I know the reason. There was a superb display of talent at Berkeley’s “Scattering the Dark: Celebrating the New Generation of Female Polish Poets,” featuring Krystyna Dąbrowska, Izabela (Filipiak) Morska, and Julia Fiedorczuk. Who better to moderate the reading and discussion than Pulitzer prizewinning Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate and the preeminent translator of Czesław Miłosz?  He hailed the  “three amazingly adventurous poets” and was delighted to extend the “intermittent conversation” between English and Polish poetry.

Bob asked the inevitable question of the three: How did they live in the shadow of the poetry of the 20th century giants and the “huge moral trauma it responded to?” He was thinking of course of Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert,Tadeusz Różewicz, Julia Hartwig.

Krystyna added the lesser known (in the West) Miron Białoszewski to the list, then dismissed the issue: “For my generation, it’s not such a problem. The younger poets are looking for different sources of inspiration,” she said. They also have new historical sources for trauma: the reactionary turn in the country that was once hailed as the champion of post-Soviet democracy and recovery. Her own inspiration tends to be enigmatic, imaginative, and personal, such as this one in the poem “Travel Agency”:

I am a travel agency for the dead,
I book them flights to the dreams of the living. …

She roundly criticized critic Andrzej Franaszek‘s recent 2-page editorial in a major Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which claimed that people don’t read poetry anymore and addressed the reasons why. He blamed hermetic trends and experiments in language poetry – John Ashbery has been a powerful influence on recent generations of poets – and called for a new poetry based on experience. (I wondered if Franaszek’s role as Miłosz’s biographer had a hand in his p.o.v.: ““Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever,” the Polish poet had said.”)

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Izabela shot with light. Krystyna and Julia center and right. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

Julia was also angry at Franaszek’s editorial, for other reasons: not a single living woman poet was named. She published a spirited reply, suggesting that if Franaszek did not like today’s poetry, perhaps he should not review it.

Izabela said the fictional alter ego “Madame Intuita” is her response to the generation of giants, with its homage to Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito.” Like Miłosz himself, she herself had been an immigrant, though one who had lived in a refugee center and shared utensils with other displaced people:

My whole life’s like learning a second language –
so many immigrant sacrifices but in the end
I can’t get rid of this accent, recognized
everywhere to my annoyance.
And I’d been feeling almost assimilated!
All that effort, and for what?

However, she pointed out today’s poets face hurdles that the yesterday’s giants never knew. To wit: the “acrobatics” to get into the publications were something Miłosz and Herbert never faced. She described the hardscrabble life of the writer, the uncertain income, the rejection letters and the silence that is worse than rebuffs. “I feel like I’m on a trapeze and doing somersaults and hoping I catch the next trapeze,” she said. Such a precarious life is “strange at about thirty, more strange at 40, and kind of odd at 50.” But in that sense, the life of the writer is most universal.

“Failure is the key human experience,” said Izabela, who had been a visiting scholar at Berkeley from 2003-2005. It’s a universal one, because “none of us arrive at the destination,” the imagined empyrean we never reach. She remembered George Orwell, and said this realization is why “poverty became his topic.” I believe that is one reason why Orwell will last.

scatteringFailure is the key human experience, and her words were all the more powerful for being spoken in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, a place where success is both addiction and the drug itself. We trumpet our successes on Facebook, perpetually shine our C.V.’s, and forge ahead in our determined effort to “brand” ourselves and market ourselves. We risk replacing the face with the mask we have created.

It was a magical evening, that ended at Chez Panisse, Miłosz’s favorite haunt. I suspect Miłosz was the presiding spirit of the evening. Berkeley was, after all, his home for forty years, and where he trained a generation of translators.

Most of the poems that were read came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut  one, inspired by Miłosz, was not. I cannot do better for my tribute today than include a poem indirectly inspired by him. The one I wanted to use, “Psalm 31,” is under consideration for publication (we’ll send a link to it when it is), but she sent “Psalm 2” as a replacement. After all, said Julia: “the whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms.”

Psalm II

for M. M.

some poems cannot be written any longer.
some could not be written until now.
nighttime despair because of the children, drowned
children, hanged children, burned
children, massacred children, toys of children
in the plane wreck, because motherhood
is a life sentence, while despair seeks ornaments
and pleasing shapes, so as to dress up in them,
take shelter in them, be protected;
so best be quiet, I’m saying, so I’m saying: none
of your bones is going to be broken, let’s say,
Blueberry“you shall want for nothing,” let’s say,
“a tree will be planted by the flowing waters” –

(Translated by Bill Johnston)


Three Polish poets plus Bob Hass. (Photo: Halina Zdrzalka)

Conscience or complacency? Izabela Filipiak on Słobodzianek’s Our Class

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

No exoneration: Polish production of “Nasza Klasa”

On July 10, 1941 in the Polish village of Jedwabne,  hundreds of Jews were herded into a barn, which a Polish mob then burned to the ground. The perpetrators of the massacre were not, as originally thought, the Nazis, but overwhelmingly neighbors.  This atrocity, largely uncovered by Jan Gross’s 2001 book Neighbors, is the subject of a controversial play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek‘s Nasza Klasa (Our Class).

I had not heard of the play, which was performed by the National Theatre in 2009 (you can read about it here and here and here) – not until the presentation by Paul Vickers of the University of Glasgow today at the University College of London’s conference on Polish Literature Since 1989.

I hadn’t heard of novelist Izabela Filipiak, either – though she was educated at Mills College, she is unpublished in English.  The Gdańsk professor’s works were much discussed at the conference, and she was introduced as a prominent public intellectual as well as notable author.  Her remarks on the play brought to light some ambiguous issues about the portrayal of atrocities onstage or in films, especially as time passes and a new generation has lost the connective tissue that attaches them to recent history:

“Paul Vickers argues that Our Class contributes to ‘ongoing Polish efforts to confront the memory of ethnic Poles’ crimes against the Polish Jewish neighbors and classmates during World War II.’ … However, I also agree with a critic from Krytyka Polityczna, Witold Mrożek, who argues that since the contemporary Polish audience cannot identify with Polish characters from Our Class, the play does not facilitate such in-depth efforts.  Our Class is not their class, Mrożek says.  Polish theatergoers are more likely to identify with the children of Jewish merchants who dream about becoming teachers and movie stars, rather than with children of peasants who have no professional ambitions.  To Warsaw theatergoers these Polish characters are as alien as contemporary inhabitants of the so-called “Poland C.”  Anti-semitism thus becomes a peasant issue.  Evidently, it would suffice to educate our peasants, together with our clergy, in order to wipe out the anti-Semitism which sprouts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other publications rooted in pseudo-scientific research … Wider European audiences are similarly put at ease; since Polish intellectual anti-Semitism was part of European intellectual anti-Semitism, we all become exonerated.  We have nothing in common with Polish peasants.”

Polish author with a California degree

I, too, am nervous about atrocities presented as the act of the other, who is not like us at all, rather than uncovering the roots of our individual, as well as collective, violence and cowardice and complicity.

Vickers responded,  “That’s not a problem with the text, it’s a problem with the kind of people who go to the theater.”  Which is also true.

These remarks of Filipiak’s also interested me, given my recent interest in the degree of allowable fabrication in creating drama from real-life people, in this case I was discussing the movie Anonymous):

“I am also wary about the way Słobodzianek presents the Polish-Jewish couple, the woman having converted to Christianity.  The couple’s history, which includes infanticide and infertility, exemplifies the old prejudice against intermarriage.  Transgressing one taboo starts them on a slipper slope and renders them infertile. I also wonder how the actual Polish-Jewish couple from Jebwabne felt about his rendition of their marriage.”

Said critic Charles Spencer: “It’s a remarkable and powerful play – but not one I would willingly sit through again.”


Postscript:  Uilleam Blacker of Cambridge offered this quotation today, from Przemysław Czapliński :  “…to be an inhabitant of any space today is to be aware that we exist on the pages of a palimpsest, that we walk in the footsteps of those who lived here before us, we write down our narrative in their narratives, we erase the signs of their existence, we add our own motifs to their motifs.”