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The living and the dead – New Eastern Europe

A conversation with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, a Polish poet, and Trupa Trupa, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. Interviewer: Jacek Hajduk.

JACEK HAJDUK: During the 2019 SXSW Music Festival you dedicated the performance of your group, Trupa Trupa, to the memory of the late Gdańsk mayor, Paweł Adamowicz. Let us then start with Gdańsk. How much of this city is with you today? And how was it before? Which faces of this multi-layered urban centre are close to your heart?

GRZEGORZ KWIATKOWSKI: Today, Gdańsk is a big part of me, unlike in the past. Back then I was more interested in self-isolating myself and creating a kind of enclave in one of its districts – Gdańsk Wrzeszcz. This actually is still my ideal, but now I also understand the impact that this city has on me and my poetry. This is mainly because of my family stories.

It was here where the Second World War broke out and it was not far away from here where the German concentration camp Stutthof was established. My grandfather and his sister were imprisoned there. This tragic experience broke their lives, which clearly had an impact on my father, but also me.

In other words, it was the dark side of Gdańsk and its history which had the strongest impact on you?

As well as literature. I was born in the Orunia neighbourhood, which is the poorest district in town. I lived there for the first five years of my life. The family of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had one of their houses here. Then I moved to Wrzeszcz, which is another neighbourhood in Gdańsk. Next to it, in Oliwa, the Schopenhauer family had a summer house. I lived near the cemetery and psychiatric hospital where poet Joseph von Eichendorff resided for years. For me these two gentlemen are inspiring men of letters.

And what about Gdańsk’s more recent history – the 1970s, 80s..? Solidarity and the freedom movement?

Here, at Polanki Street, you can still find the house of Lech Wałęsa, whom I call the Don Quixote who destroyed communism. Yet for me these darker and more pessimistic literary trends that I pointed out earlier are just as important as the history of the Solidarity freedom movement. I believe that Gdańsk is an ideal place for starting impossible ideas. It has this fable-like tissue which allows you to dream about the impossible and the unreal, and to try to make it happen. But this whole reflection over Gdańsk came to me only after the terrible tragedy which was the murder of Paweł Adamowicz (the mayor who was assassinated on January 13th 2019 in public during a charity event – editor’s note). It was then when history, in a way, knocked at the door of our rehearsal studio. Some members of our band knew the mayor. At that time, my own reflection into hatred, violence and past aggressions also started to take a different light. For me this was an awakening. This huge tragedy made me link my thinking about poetry with the thinking about my city. And it drew a kind of ethical line for my literature. Now I know that this ethical line comes from Gdańsk, and nowhere else.

So let me ask you about a different line – a dividing line. Your last collection of poems is titled Karl Heinz M and includes 21 miniature poems. It received some very positive reviews, including one that compared it to Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic drama Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady) for its similarity in presenting a “community of the dead and the living”. But it also received a very negative review from one critic who called it the “psychosis of late capitalism”. Why such a storm?

From my perspective this storm was actually a blessing. Thanks to the first critical voice, which indeed called on me to finish writing in such a way, the discussion was joined by other critics who were favourable to me. Among them were the best experts in the topic, including Leszek Szaruga, Małgorzata Melchior (who co-founded the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research) as well as Stanisław Obirek, a prominent ethicist and anthropologist. I also received a statement of support from the most renowned Polish literary expert and Holocaust survivor, professor Michał Głowiński, and from professor Józef Olejniczak, who was from the same university where the initial criticism came from. This positive assessment of my poetry has actually gone beyond Poland’s borders; recently my poetry was analysed at John Hopkins University where it was the subject of a discussion, including myself, professor Karen Underhill and Zachary Berger, who is a Yiddish translator and poet. Later this discussion moved to Kraków where Karen, Zachary and myself discussed it during the 30th edition of the Jewish Cultural Festival organised at the Galicia Jewish Museum. Thus, I should actually say thank you to my critic, because thanks to this plethora of perspectives our work gains power.

Could you say more about how this collection of poems came about?

To a large extent I wrote Karl when I lived in Vienna where I was the KulturKontakt scholar researching the Aktion T4 (a Nazi programme aimed at the “elimination of worthless life”) and investigating the operations of the Am Steinhof clinic where many children were murdered. This research project was, in a way, linked to my life in Gdańsk – the psychiatric hospital from my neighbourhood had participated in the Aktione T4 programme. Many of its patients were murdered after they had been transported to Saxony. This short collection of poems was my attempt to get close to these tragedies and the scandalous act of inflicting suffering on other human beings. Because my mother is a teacher at a special needs education school in Gdańsk, I have had many very unheroic experiences of being with people who are not accepted by the majority of society and marginalised as a result. For many years I was also a co-ordinator of Amnesty International in Gdańsk. Hence, for me violence, killings, humiliation and depreciating as well as dogmatising the discourse and elimination of viewpoint diversity for the sake of a monolith, are simply dangerous. I think that I am also quite scared of them and that is the driving force for my writing.

To inflict pain?

Yes. The moment which turned out to be of key importance for the writing of this collection was a visit I made with my grandfather to Stutthof. I was still a child when he went there for the first time. For my grandfather this was the first visit to the place since the end of the war and its effect was destructive again. He was talking and crying. He was reconstructing the past and still crying. In a sense, it was also a turning point for me; however I only came to this conclusion years later. Now I believe that poetry can help. We can use it to show some moral and ethical dramas. And as a result, we can help readers experience a moral awakening, or at the very least a certain moral reflection. In a way, the readers themselves can determine on which side they stand. Or at least, try to do so. More precisely, they can try to address, on their own, some unanswerable questions. That is why the tone of these poems also matters.

Wouldn’t you say that the reception of your poetry, and the message that you are trying to put forward through it, is more vivid, but also more mature abroad than it is in Poland? Why is it so? Is it distance that helps people see better?

I am a huge enemy of complaining so I do not want to complain, but rather talk only about positive things. First, in Poland my poetry is published by one of the best publishing houses, Biuro Literackie. Second, the great majority of these collections are very well received by Polish critics and this whole debate, which you mentioned before, ended, all in all, very well. And even if it hadn’t ended this way, I would not complain either. Matter-of-factly, I have never trusted this snobbish and naïve cosmopolitanism, but I know that my art – be it poetry or my band – benefits the most from the international platforms of friendships and discussions. What is more, art can give so much to the reader and listener, that the decision to choose is on their side. This, in turn, is what makes this bridge, this connection, between the creator and the recipient. However, the truth also is that my poetry is better perceived outside of Poland, as is our band Trupa Trupa. I remember in 2015 when a famous New York critic, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that: “One of the best rock bands doing business now is from Gdańsk, Poland”, the reaction of some Polish critics was quite cold. Kind of like: “OK, maybe their albums are good, but their concerts are nothing special”. Then we went to Texas and played at SXSW, which is the world’s biggest showcase attended by artists from around the world. We were there in 2018 and 2019, and we got into the top 10 rankings by Rolling Stones magazine, the Chicago Tribune, NPR and many others.

Did the Polish critics change their minds then?

Poland is a strange country, if you ask me. To a large extent it is a result of our terrible geopolitical location, between the East and West. In a way, it is like being in this middle of a firing range, which has made this area a hollow land, a site of trauma and suffering. I can see much envy and jealousy here, and lack of trust among people. Not only is there a lack of tolerance towards the Other, but also hatred towards others and ourselves. Evidently, there is such a thing as genetic memory and traumas can be passed down to next generations. This sad fact results in large psychological damage. It also explains the defence mechanism which is based on the logic that since something bad happened to me (us), it is not me (or us) who is (are) to blame. Thankfully, there is very little of this thinking in Gdańsk, or at least I do not see much of it. The most important thing is not to get this mindset into you and try to stay honest and work hard to prove what is possible.

Which means avoid falling victim to sentiments and focusing on your own work?

Exactly. On November 1st 2021 Rain Taxi will release my first poetry book on the American market. It is titled Crops and it is a collection of 19 of my poems, translated by Peter Constantine. This publication originated from public readings of these poems during my guest lectures at the University of California in Berkeley, the University of Chicago, John Hopkins University, the Jewish Theological University and the University of Texas in Dallas. What is an amazing coincidence is that these events took place during the pandemic. I am extremely happy that instead of falling victim to the wide-spread COVID-19 depression, we managed to build (together with some academics) a platform of discussion and support. And some of these activities have continued. For example, with Mark Harrison I co-host “Virus of Hate” workshops at the University of Oxford. I have also received invitations to the University of Michigan, the American University in Washington DC, and many other places. Quite soon my books will be published in France, Greece and Slovenia. Hence, like my beloved Beatles used to sing “It’s getting better all the time”. And when things start to get worse, there will be a reason to make them better. I think that art is the core of everything. As is its quality and our plight for this quality, at all costs. Equally important are conversations, discussions, criticism, pluralism of opinion, and building the space for dialogue.


our real work is farm work
not killing
although I admit:
the massacres in the swamps have the rhythm of our seasonal labor
and when the rains were heavy we did not go out for crops

(Translated by: Peter Constantine)

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is an award-winning and internationally recognised Polish poet and musician. He is the vocalist and guitarist for the indie rock band Trupa Trupa.

Jacek Hajduk is a Polish writer and associate professor at the Institute of Classical Philology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.