Conversation/Kōrero: Vivienne Plumb and Adam Wiedemann
ANZL member Vivienne Plumb is a poet, playwright and fiction writer who has published more than 15 books. Her play The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep was published during 2016 by Playmarket N.Z. in Shift, a collection of three plays by New Zealand female playwrights. Her new major collection of past-published work, As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, will be launched in March, 2017 (available through split/fountain online). She has held numerous residencies and been the recipient of several prizes including the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award. She lives in Wellington.
Writer and critic Adam Wiedemann was born in 1967 in Poland. His books include the poetry collections A Small Male (1996); Animal Fables, a volume of rhyming poems (1997), and Starter Motor (1998). Both his story collections – The Omnipresence of Order (1998) and Sek Pies Brew (1999) – were nominated for the Nike prize, Poland’s most prestigious literary award, as was his most recent poetry collection, Calypso (2004). In 1999, he won the Koscieleski Foundation Prize, which recognizes literary achievement in Polish writers under forty.
This conversation took place via email in late 2016.
I think it was 2004 when we first met? We were both on the International Writers Residency Programme at the University of Iowa in America, you from Kraków in Poland, and me from Wellington, New Zealand. We became friends and since then we have stayed in contact and I visited you in Poland in both Kraków and Warsaw, where you now live. I’ll never forget that when I visited you in Kraków, the Nike Award (a national literary award, and you were on the long list, I recall) was broadcast on the television at prime time viewing at around 7 PM. I thought it was wonderful to see literature considered prime time importance.
Sometimes we’ve discussed the differences between Poland and New Zealand: after I judged a NZ poetry competition we discussed the difference in subject matter. You assured me that topics in a Polish poetry competition would include death, death of a close family member, death of a good friend, the death of a pet dog, the death of nature, and the death of the world. I replied that in New Zealand poetry topics would include nature, a close family member in nature, a friend doing something out in nature, a dog or another animal in nature, the environment, nature worldwide, and a death in nature.
How many poetry books do you think would be published annually in Poland?
Dear Vivienka – of course, it was earlier: Slovenia, Vilenica Festival 2000 or 2001 (I don’t remember now because I’ve lost the catalogue). One of the events took place in a small town, we were reading in a church (memorable for me because it was my first reading together with Tomaz Salamun) and then it was the party under the open sky when I met you and your Irish friend (you both gave me your cards). We were dancing, drinking plum vodka and Michael Farrell from Bombala was climbing the trees.
That was our first meeting, before Iowa, where naturally our friendship flourished. We were neighbours in the hotel and had many adventures – in fact, it was a nice time for me only because of you and the ‘two pale boys’ (Alberto and David) whom I’d met in the classes about the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.
As far as the Nike Prize is concerned, during your first stay in Poland it was really a thing – now it’s simply one of four biggest prizes (we also have the Gdynia, Silesius and Szymborska Prizes) and, because of the political circumstances, TV is no longer interested in broadcasting it. It was just awarded to Bronka Nowicka, a young poet, and we had only one minute about it in TV news. Poland is a paradoxical country. Now our government is doing everything to destroy the culture and change it to a tool of the political propaganda. What to do? We must survive it.
À propos death, I am reminded of two funny situations: first was a poetry competition in SDK (I hope, you remember the place) when my ex-boyfriend Michałek and another young poet, Seweryn Górczak, were fighting for the first prize with poems about the death of their fathers. Some months later, Professor Śliwiński gave a speech about new poetry and asked: Why do poets write so often about their father’s death? His answer was: Because women live longer, so when mothers die, poets are already tired of writing those funeral poems and therefore don’t write about them. Poet Małgorzata Lebda, present there, said quietly: But my mother died first …
So, death is very popular here. Once when I was reading a New Zealand poetry anthology, I noticed that the most popular topic in your poetry is a stone. And I must say: stones are very useful here too. The book of prize-winner Nowicka is called To feed a stone; selection of Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki’s poetry is called A Stone full of food, young Wisława Szymborska wrote the long poem ‘Talk with a stone’ and Józef Czechowicz, one of the most important pre-war avant-garde poets, titled his first collection simply A Stone (and now it’s the name of the poetry prize given in his birthplace, Lublin). So, maybe we should talk now about stones?
Yes, many New Zealand poets write about stones. The Paekakariki-based poet, Dinah Hawken, recently published her seventh poetry collection, Poetry and Stone; and the Palmerston North poet, Leonel Alvaredo, has written a poem ‘What Stones Know’, a piece that relates to a local river.
The symbolism of stones appears to be a favourite literary theme, not just because New Zealanders love nature so much, but because stone is also representative of our indigenous Maori and our colonial European histories.
I admit to falling under the influence of stones myself. I use a large stone as a paperweight that has a plant fossil embedded inside it. I found this on Dunedin city’s Tunnel Beach, a mysterious, primeval beach surrounded by high fossil-filled cliffs that can only be reached by a hand-carved tunnel through a rock promontory.
I have written about the Stone Store, which was built in Kerikeri by the early missionaries to sell goods, and was a point of first contact between European and Maori.
A poem I wrote features ‘a bleached stone shaped like a large jelly bean’ that ‘has lain on the foreshore for many years doing nothing except gazing at the sky, which it has studied hard in all its intricacies, concluding that the sky is merely a large cloth, sometimes pulled taut but at other times tucked and folded back on itself in a devious origami-like manner.’
Speaking of stones, do you know if Miron Białoszewski ever wrote about stones? There is ‘A ballad of going down to the store’ and also ‘And even if they take away the stove’, neither ‘store’ nor ‘stove’ being quite a stone but both being still as wonderful in these poems. I love the way he wrote about everyday practice.
Białoszewski didn’t write about stones because he was a ‘city poet’, spending his entire life in Warsaw. Of course, stones were very important during the Warsaw Uprising (he wrote the very important book about it, but from the position of a private citizen, not a soldier), and during the time of the transformation in late 80s (though by then he had died). So he was writing rather of stoves or pokers and the most important things for him were the micro-sociological, interpersonal situations, a strong contrast to a stone, which symbolizes stability and invariability.
The Polish philosopher Andrzej Falkiewicz says that the border between living and unliving beings is fluid, so a stone is simply a better-organized being, able to survive more time than a human being (like the Catholic Church or culture, for example). It’s very interesting but nobody knows Falkiewicz because Polish people don’t respect Polish philosophers. Do you have any important philosophers in New Zealand?
Now it is quite difficult to find a stone in Warsaw (but, as the writer Krzysztof Środa says, ‘the Earth is still giving birth to new stones’). In my book With Movement there is a poem about a stone which I found on a pavement as a sign of something that – maybe – will happen. Now I’m afraid that the stones will be useful again: who knows? (Polish women fight for their rights with black umbrellas now). But the position of the female writers seems to be very high: they are even more powerful than our male writers. How does it look in your country?
Of course, regarding women writers in New Zealand, we have our famous female writer, Katherine Mansfield, who left an indelible mark on our literary history. And Robin Hyde is another important female writer here, and Janet Frame (both later than Katherine Mansfield).
Just returning to Bialoszewski, and the way he wrote so much about his own space (within his apartment), and his geographical spaces during his everyday life – this has made me think about how important a role domestic spaces play within a writer’s life, as both male and female writers often spend a great deal of time working at home within their domestic space.
A domestic space can be defined as a space that is very personal, even private, and at the same time pertaining to our everyday (domestic) business. And these spaces offer insights into an individual’s own self, as these spaces can even shape identity. Throughout 2008, I lived in a thirty-square-metre apartment on the twelfth floor. Everything was in one room although the bed had a three-quarter wall around it, and the bathroom was separate. I wrote one (commissioned) play script in the morning, then went to drink coffee and eat in a nearby cafe, and in the afternoon I worked on another (commissioned) play script. In this apartment, I became obsessed with storage space. At night the apartment felt like a little boat, sailing high up in the sky, as the twelfth floor was more in touch with the sky than the land. And this small space was like a discipline on me, that I feel contributed to the discipline required in the writing of the two commissioned plays.
It does seem to me that writers are fond of controlling the environment they work in – producing conditions that they find they can work under, although you can still be uber-aware of the desk, the chair, the rug, of the room as a whole. The humming refrigerator. These are the tangible objects in the writer’s space that make up your working environment and assist you (or not).
Geographers believe that space should be mappable so it can become transparent, understandable. But writers work with intangible unmappable spaces that exist in their minds and can be made up of atmosphere and dreams.
I know you live and work in your own (domestic) apartment space in Warsaw, so how important do you feel that place is to your writing? To your everyday practise? After all, it is our everyday practise that makes our writer’s life.
Speaking of black umbrellas, my mother travelled by herself in 1930s Europe, as she was quite adventurous. And she told me that if ever I found a man following me as I walked along the road, then I should turn around, face him, and then shake my umbrella at him in a ferocious way (she demonstrated this), and that would make him go away. I don’t know if she meant a black umbrella.
Here, in Poland, we have two powerful streams or branches of the literature: one is private and one is civil, and they are in a continuous contest. Of course, I belong to the ‘private’ tradition, so maybe now I’ll tell you shortly about my favourite writers who constitute it.
– Karol Irzykowski: author of Paluba, the first psychoanalytical novel in Poland and probably in Europe. It was published in 1902 and never translated. He wanted to be a professor of German literature but stuttered, so he worked for the Polish parliament as a stenographer.
– Bolesław Leśmian: greatest poet of the 20’s and 30’s, but personally very tiny. He was a very unfortunate lawyer, once almost arrested because of financial scrapes. His poetry is like a cruel, metaphysical fairy-tale.
– Zofia Nałkowska: the ‘great Lady’ of the Polish literature. She wrote many psychological novels but the most important are nine volumes of her fascinating diaries.
– Anna Kowalska: probably the best Polish author of short stories. At the end of her life she was the partner of another writer, Maria Dąbrowska.
– Leo Lipski: a Polish-Jewish writer, whose brother was injured at Monte Cassino, then paralysed. He published only two little books but he was a genius.
– Leopold Buczkowski: the author of novel-collages using diverse ‘found’ documents, e.g. the old translation of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.
– Mieczysław Piotrowski: primarily he was a draughtsman but he published four big novels. I feel he is the most important Polish novelist besides Witold Gombrowicz.
– Witold Wirpsza: an extremely intellectual poet who was the symbol of the avant-garde of the 60s. Then he emigrated to Berlin and was nearly completely forgotten. Now the young poets ‘recover’ him.
– Miron Białoszewski whom you know: he discovered colloquial language for the literature. Wirpsza and Białoszewski were as important for Polish poetry as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for the Americans.
This is the list of my ‘saints’. I could mention more of them but OK, we are nearly tired of names. The second stream stretches from the Romantic poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid) to Czesław Miłosz, from Henryk Sienkiewicz to Szczepan Twardoch, including all the well-known authors of the political poems and historical novels. They are quite unimportant for me (I am ‘private’), but because of social-political situation this is the mainstream now, so I feel like a minor writer existing on a margin of the literature and can only look back to the 90s when ‘we’ were on the top.
My apartment is very small (you have been here, so you remember). It includes only my cat, my books and CDs, and the big painting by Paulina Lignar on the wall, it’s enough. It’s only on the second floor, so I don’t think of it as an attic – rather an owl-hollow where I sit trying to write something every day. The first years of my artistic activity took place in a student dorm and until now I liked to feel a little as if I was still there, with everything on hand. You said you wrote in parallel two ordered [commissioned] plays. I can write only for myself. I hate orders – do you like them?
On hating orders: I guess writing to ‘order’ has taught me some good discipline in my writing. I have also taught creative writing and over the last few years I have mentored creative writing students for various institutions, and I really enjoy the one-to-one aspect of mentoring. Are you subsidised in any way, as a writer in Poland?
I remember that one thing I liked when I was in Poland was the small spare room in the Massolit bookshop in Kraków where writers could sleep the night. I love the Massolit – an independent English-language bookshop in Kraków with a small cafe. Massolit always has the most fantastic books plus you can find some great English translations of Polish literature there. I think New Zealand bookshop owners would think it very strange to put in a bed in the back room for a visiting writer, who was maybe giving a reading at the shop. But it sounds excellent to me!
I’m interested in hearing about the other differences between Poland and New Zealand. For instance, how many poetry books do you think would be published in Poland in one year (roughly)? In New Zealand it would be about 30–35 books, I would say. And what sort of places would publish the poetry books in Poland? In New Zealand it is only the university presses (each NZ university has a press attached) or small independent presses that publish poetry.
I don’t know, how many poetry books are published in Poland, but much more than in New Zealand. Every year I get about 20–30 free copies from the publishers and authors, so I nearly never buy such books. We have three main publishers of poetry: WBPiCAK in Poznań (my publisher; established by Mariusz Grzebalski), Biuro Literackie in Wrocław (established by Artur Burszta) and a5 in Kraków (founded by the couple Krystyna and Ryszard Krynicki). But there are many small publishers too. Some of them are respected (like Nisza, which publishes Michał Sobol, or Instytut Mikołowski), but mainly they are completely unknown and have no distribution. Very often, I find books written by my friends only in second-hand bookshops because no one knew that they were published. Some poetry is published in the literary magazines, but no university press publishes poetry in Poland.
Polish poets are nearly not subsidised at all. You can apply twice a year for the scholarship from the Ministry of Kulture, then you get about $1000 a month for half a year. I’ve received this three times. There are some residencies as well, for example Villa Decius in Kraków (mostly for Polish, German and Ukrainian writers, but not only). If you are a translator of Polish poetry from Central Europe, you can apply for the Gaude Polonia scholarship (it’s for half a year as well).
The source of money is mainly readings and festivals of poetry. Festivals are very popular and nearly every bigger city wants to have a festival, or two (with different organizers), so if you are quite popular, you can live off them. And, of course, we have the four literary prizes. If you get any of them, you can live a year or two from this money. This year  was very special because they all were given for short prose poems – can you imagine? It is one of your favourite forms, isn’t?
Yes, the prose poem form has become popular here in New Zealand (and I have enjoyed using it), although it is not as popular as something else called ‘flash fiction’ which is a kind of short-short fiction. Of course, prose poetry travelled to NZ via various American poets who were exponents, such as Robert Bly, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, James Tate, and John Ashbery. And the wonderful Gertrude Stein. Although it has roots in French literature (Bertrand, Baudelaire), and also in Japanese literature. Is it true that the Polish writer Boleslaw Prus wrote ‘micro-fictions’ that could be termed prose-poetryish?
I have been thinking a lot about memory recently as the project I am working on requires me to reach back into time and recall events and happenings, although previously, in my novel Secret City, I focused on how precarious memory can actually be, how much it can be influenced by other forces. Memory cannot necessarily be trusted.
Place and memory are very intertwined. While memory is personal and social, it can be aided by memory’s attachment to place: cities, neighbourhoods, where you live, where you grew up, where you work, and geographical place (mountains, beach, river, lake coastline, etc). And the ways of knowing these places – by sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – can result in an even more potent memory.
Have you ever had an experience where a sound or a smell has suddenly transformed you into another (past) place? I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and when I was a child we always caught the train when travelling out of our suburb. We walked to the train station (about twenty to thirty minutes) and then caught the train. It was the only mode of transport available to us in the early days.
Returning to Sydney many years later after I had been living in NZ, I was standing on a city railway platform in intense Sydney summer heat when the train pulled in, producing an up-blast of hot dry dust that you could smell. I was immediately transformed back to the place of my childhood. It was such a small thing and yet a powerful trigger on my memory.
I recall you telling me a little about your Polish childhood. You liked dinosaurs, but your mother knitted green woollen singlets for you to wear in the Polish winters. And you dreamt of pulling these green woollen garments off, and of running with the dinosaurs. Do you remember?
Bolesław Prus? I don’t think so. He was a novelist and columnist but never wrote ‘poetry’. The first Polish prose poems were written by Tadeusz Miciński and Stanisław Przybyszewski, a friend of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg (he wrote them in German and then they were translated into Polish very badly). But the best prose poems in Poland were written after WWII by women: Anna Świrszczyńska (her poetry was partially translated to English by Czesław Miłosz), Julia Hartwig (who has translated many prose poems of Max Jacob and was influenced by him) and Krystyna Miłobędzka (the wife of Andrzej Falkiewicz; she invented a completely new ‘language’ to describe the experience of being a woman). So, I find it a typically ‘female’ form. Or maybe this form likes Polish female poets?
With Julia, I have a memory from Iowa: the second day of my stay, Mary Nazareth, our ‘guardian’, took me to the bank. While we sat waiting for my ATM card, Mary said: ‘Julia, she’s dead now, isn’t she? She was here forty years ago and wanted to get the Nobel Prize’. But Julia is still alive and active: she’s 95 now. I’m wondering if Mary is still working with new groups of International Writers.
She said another thing too, that the people who have their readings in the Iowa University Hall get the Nobel Prize. Our year, remember, there was a reading by John Ashbery. And her prophecy didn’t come true. The prize for Bob Dylan I find a total discredit to the Sweden Academy. And it’s hurting me that even some wise people say that Dylan’s texts contain poetry. OK, they contain some poetical gestures but songwriting is a completely different occupation than poetry. I feel cheated.
My memory changes – of course, I remember the stories from my childhood that I told you, the garments; it was an extremely sensual experience. Now I can stand the touch of wool but then it was simply terrible, and I was always untouchable. But lately, I must say, I’m gradually forgetting all the direct impressions connected with my own poems. I read them as ‘texts’, better or worse, but apparently written by somebody else. That’s strange. Maybe because of my move to Warsaw – it’s a totally different place than Kraków. In Kraków you feel putrescent, in Warsaw you feel eaten. Is it similar to your experience with Wellington and Auckland?
Place is so important. Kraków/ Warsaw and vice versa. Auckland/ Wellington. In Maori culture they talk about a turangawaewae, which is the place where you feel you truly stand – your place. Maybe you don’t live there at present, but you will return.
Regarding Auckland and Wellington, I have always thought that the big difference between them is the weather. Auckland has the better weather, so people are friendly, benign. Wellington gets these crazy southerlies blowing straight from the Antarctic, and that wind shakes you up a bit, rattles you around, so it feels as though there’s a sharp, slightly acerbic side to the inhabitants.
New Zealanders are obsessed with weather – remember, I was taught some Polish by the beautiful Basia, who worked at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre (where we both worked together on the front desk). She was born and raised in NZ but could still speak Polish (although she had never been to Poland), and taught me ‘the weather is excellent’ in Polish! But this was so NZ!
Here is my next question: Have you ever read a novel entitled Wiedemann? A novel that used your own name as its title? For me, this is the N.Z. novel Plumb, written by one of New Zealand’s most well-known novelists, Maurice Gee, and considered one of New Zealand’s best novels. It is part of a trilogy – the other two novels being Meg and Sole Survivor, and all are written around the family of the character, George Plumb. This character’s life is loosely based on the history of Gee’s grandparents, Florence and James Chapple. Gee has been quoted as stating that ‘much of George and Edith Plumb’s early history is Chapple history’. But the later part of the narrative is not.
In the novel, George Plumb, now elderly, looks back on his past life and tells his own story. The narrative moves between George Plumb’s memories and the present time, when he is planning to travel from Peacehaven to Wellington for a special visit. During the telling of the story we discover Plumb’s past history as a Presbyterian minister, the accusations of sedition against him, and his own spiritual journey. And Plumb’s voice is extremely convincing.
Although not as a Real Plumb: let me explain further. I have to admit that I only read all of Plumb fairly recently as when I had tried to read it previously I’d found it uncomfortable continuously reading the name ‘Plumb’ in the narrative (being a Plumb myself), and I’d put the book aside. Plumb is not a common name. But for me it was, as there were many children in my father’s family: Jill Plumb, Stella Plumb, Bill and Bobbie Plumb (the twins), and my own father, Harry Plumb, and many more. They were all Plumbs.
And within the family we would often speak of a child as ‘looking Plumby’, or of having ‘a Plumby sense of humour’. Plumbs were good at telling stories, having parties, and cracking jokes and laughing. A famous Australian Plumb was Gwen Plumb, an actress. We once swapped communications which included the agreement that, yes, we both ‘looked Plumby’.
My problem with George Plumb is that – he doesn’t look Plumby and nor does he sound Plumby, and I think this is why the novel was difficult at first for me to read. My favourite Gee book is actually The Fat Man (1995), a very scary children’s book.
So, comment from Pan Wiedemann – as I know you have actually read Plumb (maybe thinking it was about me!).
We don’t have any book called Wiedemann because it’s a German name, mostly popular in Bavaria (though my family comes from Berlin); it’s an old medieval word, originally used for the producers of wicker baskets and fences. When I was born, there were only 13 Wiedemanns in Poland (my grandmother, my two uncles and two aunts, my two cousins, my parents, my father’s first wife, my two stepbrothers and one stepsister), but now, I suppose, there’s about three times more of them, mostly thanks to my Uncle Zenon who had many wives and mistresses, and many children with them, who have now children and even grandchildren.
From the literary point of view – there are three Wiedemanns in the USA: John Edgar Wiedemann (a novelist; the only thing I know about him is that he’s African American and teaches at Brown University); Barbara Wiedemann (a poet from South Florida); and – last but not least – Elettra Wiedemann (a columnist and daughter of Isabella Rossellini). Another Barbara Wiedemann lives in Thübingen, Germany, and is the editor of Paul Celan’s work; once, I was asked whether I was her son.
Characters called Wiedemann appear episodically in novels by Thomas Mann and Harry Mullisch. I like this name because it’s connected with weaving and we have an old Polish word pleciuga which in one sense means ‘a weaver’ but in another sense means a tattler or storyteller. So I feel a connection to my name, though my mother uses it as invective. When she wants to criticise my behaviour, she says: ‘You do it like a typical Wiedemann’. Her maiden name is very Polish: Kubiak, and she is not happy being a Wiedemann.
I got the Plumb novel from you and just read it. Of course, Maurice Gee is completely unknown in Poland and – I’m afraid – he’ll be never translated because the problems and adventures of a Presbyterian minister are too exotic for our readers, although the struggles between evolutionists and creationists are still vivid (religion is an obligatory subject in schools). But the novel is written in a traditional way and with ‘transparent’ language, so reading it was not difficult for me. It was a bit boring because what I like in prose is the grotesque mixture of humour and tragedy, and here I don’t find it. If I could find you in this book, I’d say you’d be Plumb’s daughter, who is quite reasonable and likes cooking.
So, maybe we can speak now about eating, you’ve been to Poland several times: what is the most strange thing for you about Polish food?
[PS. I did ask another friend (who works for a publishing house) about the number of poetry books published annually in Poland and he found it: 1692 last year. So, imagine…]
Dear Adasz – Yes! Food! Let’s talk about food. I have read some of the other conversations/koreros on the ANZL site and I didn’t notice people mentioning food so much, so we will remedy that, as we all know that food is what writers truly think about. When we were both in Iowa at the university, the other writers on the same programme discussed annoying noises in their environment, annoying furniture in their environment, money, agents, publishers, and FOOD.
Of course, it has been said that I often write about food in my work – my mother was an excellent cook and my father a baker, so maybe there is an influence there. But food is part of our very being, and it reflects so much about any culture.
In Poland I loved the pierogi – similar to small Chinese dumplings or Italian tortellini. I liked the way they have different kinds of stuffings (sweet and savoury). I also like the special cheese they sell in Kraków: Oscypek. It’s smoked salted sheep milk cheese and comes from the Tatra Mountains. It tastes salty, and very sharp. Individual men and women sell it around the market, or in places like that underground walkway at the railway station.
Bigos [or Hunters’ Stew] seemed the strangest Polish food to me. But I enjoy the general mixture of sweet and sour or tart tastes in Polish food – the sour cream, the sauerkraut, the pickles; and then the cakes and sweet breads, such as the chalka that I wrote about in one of my Polish poems. When staying in Kraków, our dear friend Jarek Klejnberg, another writer, advised me most pointedly (at midnight) that he and I should urgently eat chalka early in the morning, with coffee, fresh from the shop below the apartment in Blich St, Kraków. It is a sweet bread made in a plait, and it was excellent.
Later, I visited Jarek in the small village near Warsaw where he now lives. He was in the Little White House with a wood fire stove and dried tobacco leaves which he kept rolling into cigarettes, while he made his drawings. I slept in the Big House where his granny and brother, Andrej, were living (his mother and her partner had gone away for a few days). Granny, (who I liked a lot) and I could not speak Polish or English to each other and understand, but we made apple pancakes together and the making of that food was a bond that leapt the language barrier. Then Granny would shout: Andrej! Andrej! for Andrej to go down the stairs all the way down to a cellar and put more coal (was it coal?) in the heater.
And there was snow so deep. I had never seen so much snow! I wanted to walk in it all the time (although Jarek thought this madness). When it’s fresh it squeaks and if it’s old it can be hard and icy. And Andrej’s dog barked, boof boof boof.
And then Jarek said, we will take you for a walk in the Polish forest. And my knees knocked together in a delicious fear and I dressed in all my thoroughly useful New Zealand cold-weather clothes and we drove to this small forest and got out with the dog. But no, maybe the dog wasn’t there. But I want him to be there, anyway. So I place him in the story now. And Jarek said, we will walk in the forest and drink the gold vodka. It was maybe Gorzka Żołądkowa. As we walked the snow began to fall again, slow at first and very beautiful, and then thick, and it became colder. It was an unbearable fairy story, an environment I had never known physically, only read about in fairy tales when I was a child. It was colder and colder, and then this is what I thought: what a way to die, to drink the Gorzka Żołądkowa in the snow. Maybe you sit down on a bank of snow to rest, drink some more, then you lie down, and kaput. (You freeze.)
Regarding your favourite ‘grotesque mixture of humour and tragedy’ – these are the sort of works that the general reading public of New Zealand seem to abhor (according to a recent article in the Listener).
They instead prefer historical-type stories about family that may contain a little humour (not too much, and definitely not grotesque), and no drastic ending. (For instance, the plays of Sarah Kane are very rarely performed here.)
New Zealand is a young country and many prefer to call a peg a peg, and if the peg hurriedly transforms into a pig overnight, it can be troubling. What does that mean? some would ask. A peg becomes a pig? And I cannot answer, only to say that change is inevitable.
I see food from another point of view. Eating (and shitting) humiliates me, this putting strange things into me and digesting them. I’d prefer to not eat, only absorb some minerals. But I know the story about the great Slovenian poet Jure Detela who died because he denied eating, so I eat, and even sometimes I like it. It must be simply clean and tasty. (I like hot spices). Because I eat, I eat meat as well, my body needs it: it’s a question of hunger, a need of some specific substances. My stomach hates soya and even too many vegetables seem to make me sick, what to do? I hate ‘elegant restaurants’, prefer small Chinese or Vietnamese sheds (happily, very popular in Warsaw). Oriental cuisine is the best.
I like bigos the most of all Polish food because cooking bigos is a ritual. My mother is a mistress of bigos and she knows the recipe from the great writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (he had a radio talk about it in the 60s and she’s remembered). Good bigos needs three days of cooking, First you wash two kilos of sauerkraut and then cook it with a big amount of tomato pulp (the pot must be big). On a pan you fry different kinds of meat cut into little pieces (no sausage: bigos with sausage is a fake), then you mix them with the sauerkraut, adding prunes, raisins, red wine and caramelised sugar or honey. The most important spice is the juniper berries: they make it smell like a forest. And then you cook it for three days on the small fire. The result must be brown and soft, and you eat it with bread and butter. I do it only once a year, for my birthday, and it is enough for all the guests (for the vegetarians I prepare a smaller pot with beans instead of meat). I dislike cooking but when I cook, I do it well because I’m attentive.
What I also like a lot is czernina, soup made of duck’s blood (popular only in the Wielkopolska district, where I’m from). It’s black, with small white dumplings and dried fruits (I’m just back from Poznań, where I ate czernina in my favourite restaurant Król S). I must say, I prefer it when food is a little dramatic and strange. I like seafood as well, especially small cuttlefish in Slovenia and tiny fish served as French fries. But okay, it’s boring.
Jarek Klejnberg is one of my best friends and I constantly complain that he’s published only one book of short stories because he is very talented writer. Recently he began to write a novel about a Martian, Ezekiel, who visits him and his family in the Cieńsza village, but after three chapters he stopped. It’s a problem with Jarek now that he’s unable to finish anything, maybe because of these times which do not favour a literature like his (fantastic, narcotic, funny and full of abominations). But I’m sure, the people in the future will adore him as an écrivain maudit. What a consolation.
The vodka you drank could be Żołądkowa (good for the frost) but we have also Golden Vodka from Gdańsk that contains really small flakes of gold, probably only for the visual effect, though it’s very tasty as well. (Jarek just called and said that it was Żołądkowa.)
Okay, so enough about food! And vodka. We are obviously both obsessed with it! I remember emails in the past where we have simply described our most favourite recent meals! You speak about your friendship with Jarek, which is an important one, so finally, this brings us to the subject of friendship. Writers work in isolation, and for this reason ‘writing friends’ are important.
We first met in Slovenia, and then in Iowa we established a friendship based on our own writing, our thoughts, our sense of humour (which involves an interest in the absurdities of the everyday). After Iowa we kept emailing, we wrote letters, encouraged each other, and discussed writing problems. I visited Poland and discovered I liked it.
We have cooked Polish cheesecake, and also New Zealand scones, together. I have worn your jacket and you have worn my scarf. You have translated my poems, and our writing friendship appears to outrageously continue. What will happen now? At the end of the day, I believe human contact and human friendship is one of the most essential requirements in life. So, we will go on, as everyone must.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell