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World Literature Today / Uncovering Buried Historical Memory: A Conversation with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is a new and dynamic poetic voice from Poland, with six volumes of poetry and several translations on the way, as well as the vocalist of the psychedelic postpunk band Trupa Trupa. His newest collection, Crops, translated into English by Peter Constantine, was published by Rain Taxi in November 2021. In this interview, Constantine and Kwiatkowski discuss the themes of his poetry and his endeavors as a musician and activist.

Peter Constantine: Several years ago a number of students at the University of Connecticut specializing in Polish began translating your work. One of the students, Michal Ciebielski, published his translations in New Poetry in Translation, which caused quite a sensation. Readers were drawn to the stark voices of your poems, the different narrators from a troubling past who tell compelling and often frightening stories in a minimal and distilled form.

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: On reflection I realize that was in fact the first time my work was translated and published outside Poland. I was delighted with the translation. It really hit the mark. The English was minimalistic and cold and very direct. As for the voices in my poems, I feel that an artist in some way has to be like a sponge, and for me that means hearing and absorbing different voices from the past and present. It was important to live with these voices for a while. I think this is the crux of my method: I strive to listen to others as much as I can and to be as open as I can. But I do make a selection from these voices, and this selection is usually very dark. I believe that this dark music that I am seeking and re-creating has its source in my family history, in which the Nazi concentration camp Stutthof played a very central role.

Constantine: When I started reading your poetry, I came across an article in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, and then later in the Guardian too, about your grandfather taking you to the Stutthof camp when you were a child, and about the gruesome and momentous discovery you made there more recently.

Kwiatkowski: Yes, when I was a child my grandfather took me to Stutthof. It was the first time he’d returned there since World War II. It was a very traumatic experience for him. He tried to reconstruct what had happened to him, and his memories suddenly came alive—memories from when he was an inmate there. Both he and his sister. I was a child, and suddenly I saw my grandfather as a broken person. He was crying, shouting. He was in a state of trauma. It was a very powerful and very devastating experience for me, perhaps the most important experience in my life.

My head was suddenly filled with so many questions, vital and simple questions: Why do people hate one another? Why do people murder one another? Why do such places as concentration camps exist? In some way from this time on I was lost, and yet perhaps quite the opposite. I began seeking a way to understand these horrors.

And yes, many years after this visit with my grandfather, my friend and Trupa Trupa bandmate Rafał Wojczal and I were walking near the fence of the museum of the concentration camp and found first hundreds and then thousands of shoes. It turned out that there were almost half a million shoes. The Stutthof concentration camp was a kind of shoe-gathering center for all the concentration camps in Europe; the Nazis collected the leather for manufacturing everyday leather items. And when the Red Army soldiers in 1945 “liberated” the camp, they counted the shoes. There were half a million.

In 1967, when the Stutthof Museum was established, the director had most of these shoes disposed of outside the concentration camp, dumping them in the forest where they remained until we found them. My friend and I petitioned the museum director, asking for help in retrieving the shoes. But he refused. The whole thing turned into quite a big media battle.

Constantine: What was the outcome of this battle?

Kwiatkowski: After much back and forth, he ended up “securing” the shoes, but he did so in a most reprehensible way. He gathered them up and buried them on the grounds of the museum. So now they are invisible. But I will find a way to uncover them. In a way that is what I am doing in my poetry. I am uncovering objects and situations, states of being, trying to secure a very tragic and very important historical memory and thus bring it back with real immediacy.

Constantine: That the shoes were buried is truly terrible. I had no idea. This strikes me as an abominable sacrilege. Sara Hannah Matuson Rigler, who had been interned in Stutthof as a teenager, reported in a 2010 interview that she remembers there having been “mountains of shoes” all around the premises of the concentration camp while she was an inmate there. She said that the monstrous piles of shoes were “tall as buildings,” and that people had scribbled last messages before entering the gas chambers, hoping that they and their plight would not be forgotten

Kwiatkowski: What can I say? I will not give up. In the matter of this burial I have protested, I am protesting, and I will continue to protest. I also strongly believe that the main territory of my protest is art.

Constantine: Your newest collection of poetry, Crops, was recently published by Rain Taxi. Many of the poems’ themes center on atrocities committed during the Second World War and on the Holocaust as it was experienced in Poland by both victims and perpetrators, and also on those who remained silent in the face of so much evil. Were these poems a direct response to your traumatic discovery of the victims’ shoes?

Kwiatkowski: I never thought about that, but yes, it was a direct response. I think there is a strong connection. My intervention and protest regarding this appalling matter of the shoes showed me that I am able to participate in this tragic legacy in a more direct way than I had before. Before this I didn’t identify so much with the history of my grandfather and his sister, or rather I was afraid of so momentous an identification. Maybe I was afraid of the responsibility it would entail. But the discovery of the shoes made me realize that this is all very strongly connected with my life, that this is an important part of my life.

Constantine: What strikes me with much force in your poetry are the voices of your narrators. The poems in Crops create a poignant tapestry of personal stories. In one poem a six-year-old girl reports in a brief and stark obituary how she was murdered; in another a soldier remembers with gruesome humor the image of desperate people running in circles as they are hunted down in the fields; a farmer with a few terse words speaks of recurring massacres as if they were seasonal crop cycles.

Kwiatkowski: I tried to present a grim landscape of genocide with many different voices. It is a strange kind of storytelling, very dark and very direct and very sincere.

Constantine: Many of the poems are particularly short and startling.

Kwiatkowski: I keep distilling my poems for many months, sometimes for years. I keep chiseling at them, like sculptures, so that less and less material remains. I need there to be as little material as possible, and if there is almost nothing left, then, in my opinion, this nothingness is itself quite substantial. My Nokia 3110 helps me in this process of distillation. I write my poems on my old Nokia, which is not connected to any network. It is a very old phone, very dirty. It’s hard to press the buttons, and a poem needs to be written within the space of a single text message, which is really quite a small space.

Constantine: So you use the old Nokia phone as a sort of stylistic restriction mechanism?

Kwiatkowski: Yes, very much so. Because the device is so difficult to work with, I am forced to make stringent excisions and focus on the essence of a subject. The old phone is my curse. It is challenging in every way. It’s hard to turn on, it’s hard to press the buttons, it often freezes and turns off by itself. In a way, this broken old mechanism builds up the tension and material struggle that works to the advantage of the poetry. I think it’s not just about the difficulty of writing and the taxing process of pressing the buttons. I think this broken phone chills and redirects emotions.

Nietzsche once said, “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I think he is right. One sometimes finds that writers who are too focused on the tragedy lose distance, which can lead to a kind of artistic suicide. I think that in the end literature without appropriate distance is just swimming in a melodramatic hell. And I think that my Nokia rescues me from such potential troubles.

Constantine: In a live interview with David Kraemer at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, you emphasized that though much of your recent poetry has focused on the Holocaust, your fear is that this tragic past can in some way return, and there are more and more Holocaust-denial movements.

Kwiatkowski: Yes, unfortunately things are getting worse, not better. When I started writing poetry and writing music, I was under the impression that this creative process was a private inner therapy, that I was telling these stories to myself as a kind of cure, that this artistic endeavor need not be connected with reality. Time passed and I began confronting these tragic events. I came to realize that my own private poetic garden might offer a cure for others as well; my conviction grew that countering and fighting Holocaust denial was also my task.

In 2014 Rafał and I were codirecting a documentary about Albin Ossowski, a soldier of the Polish underground army and a prisoner in the Birkenau concentration camp. He told me that his resolve to take part in our documentary was in response to the worrying proliferation of Holocaust deniers. But he witnessed it. He witnessed it every day from the window of the barrack he was interned in. This window looked out onto the arrival ramp at Birkenau.

A second moral awakening came to me three years ago, when the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, was murdered at a charity event. In my view his murder was triggered by an atmosphere of hate speech directed at him by the Polish right-wing media.

Constantine: You have mentioned your work in music and your art-rock band Trupa Trupa, with which you have toured internationally. In a recent article, Rolling Stone wrote about your music: “In times of great turmoil in the world, it can be reassuring to focus on the simple fact of our shared humanity.” The magazine has called your music “a clarion call that the world needs right now.” Do you see a direct connection between your music and your poetry?

Kwiatkowski: Trupa Trupa has a democratic structure. We are four individuals with four visions. The music is as vital to us as our ethical values and friendship. My own input when it comes to our band’s music is very much along the lines of my input into my poetry. So when I write music I focus on territories of morality and philosophy and history. In the past I tried to separate the world of music and the world of poetry. But it was futile. Poetry is also music. For me these two worlds are in fact one world.

The change in me came after the murder of Adamowicz. That was the moral awakening I just mentioned. A few weeks after this terrible tragedy I was performing with Trupa Trupa at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and suddenly, quite spontaneously, I decided to speak to the crowd about it before our performance, to dedicate it to the memory of the murdered mayor of Gdańsk, and to turn the concert into a kind of anti-hate-speech platform. From that moment on I’ve been unafraid to spread the word in a broader way than before.

February 2022

Peter Constantine,