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Marek Kazmierski: How do you see Gdansk and its literary scene?

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: Not sure if a lot happens here, but some events do, in Gdansk and more across the Tri-city, Gdynia, Sopot, but I don’t take part in such things, at all, never been to literary events, apart from the one where I was invited to read, and I did once go to a poetry slam, which was enough for me. I don’t feel the need, they give me nothing, I know these things happen, but they don’t recharge my batteries.

Tell us about the Polish poetry scene today…

Hard to know what to say, as there is not much in there for me. I could say I don’t like it, it’s not good, bad perhaps, but why, I’ve been reading the same authors for years, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Walt Whitman, Czeslaw Milosz when it comes to Poland. Sometimes I reach for Polish writers, but again I don’t feel my mind energised by contemporary Polish poetry… I feel energised by the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, or by Robert Lowell. I do write poetry, but I’m not subject to it. I want to use it, explore it, but I don’t want to be its servant. Language should serve me, not I it.

Do you think it’s important to be part of a literary group or movement?

I’ve no idea, I only have a few authors which concern and satisfy me, they did not form a poetic group, Lowell did not form a groups with Larkin, Walt Whitman lived in different times to Ginsberg, and I can’t explain why these authors appeal. I’m not an expert who can say it’s down to a certain theme or a language which suits me. I appreciate their style and no one has taken their place, and perhaps one day someone from my generation from Poland will replace them, but for the time being they’re not around.

Is poetry widely read in Poland?

I don’t think so, and if it is I think it’s in a superficial, celebrity way. Wislawa Szymborska may have written a poem or Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel, but in my circle of friends which is not unconnected with art, people are almost completely unmoved by poetry, only feel some connection with my work, and I think it’s the same with theatre, literature and poetry. Those on the inside think it’s an important subject, important to modern culture, but I suspect actual public awareness barely exists…

Do you consider yourself to be a Polish poet?

I don’t have my own theory of art or a definition of creativity, I don’t try to avoid anything, to not  write something which turns out to be very Polish and then have to edit it out, I simply write down my own images, obsessions, and that’s it, that which I hit upon, what I notice standing in a queue for the bus or in a book, I take it and present it in a new space, and this process of re-pouring and reworking has no rules, perhaps it’s easier to define looking from the outside, to set some definitions, but I see none there.

Do you think Gdansk has influenced your writing?

I don’t theoretically try to avoid anything, but perhaps it’s true. I supposedly live in Gdansk, but I spend most of my time in Wrzeszcz not central Gdansk. I could go to various pubs, but I mostly hang around woods and parks the psychiatric hospital, the theatre in the woods, not for any ideological reasons, but it’s calm there, I need peace, and in those calm spots I can talk to people, look at them away from noisy, hectic places.

Is childhood an important theme in your work?

Childhood is important, which can be seen in the first volume The Crossing, the transition from childhood into young adulthood, and can be seen in Eine Kleine Todesmusik even more strongly and then finally in Weaken. There is a return to childhood, but in touching on the theme of “They should not have been born”, which undermines the whole point of existence, lots of images taken straight from childhood, my grandmother, taking the host round, or in The Crossing, this is abstract enough to compare with the memories of others. Of course, childhood is present, but there is no nostalgia, childhood as a simple stage of life, without some teary sadness that I’m no longer a child playing in the garden wt grandma

At which point did you feel the need to become serious about writing?

The young Grzegorz wanted to be a musician, a composer, a conductor, a virtuoso, went to a music school and that was his first love, the very young Grzegorz, and then later on Grzegorz was fascinated with theology, religions, philosophy, and those threads run along each other and once they came together poetry was the result.

Are the songs your band plays your poems set to music?

Trupa Trupa is not poetry set to music, I don’t sing my poems, there are cetrtain phrases which reappear, but they constructed in a way not to make them poetry, certain sentences reoccur, but it’s a rock band, without any ambition of being poetic. It’s closer to artists such as Beck or Velvet Underground or the Beatles, not Czeslaw Milosz or those others. When I enter into making music, I want it to be quality and it to be a pure form, with literature I have the same approach, I don’t want to mix things. Music and philosophy mixed makes poetry, but Trupa Trupa is a purely musical project.

So you don’t want to be the next Dylan or Cohen?

They were leaders, musically things are not too good with Cohen, where for me the music is most important, with them the text takes precedence and music subject to it, with me it’s quite the opposite. If we approach things this way and Trupa Trupa do it that way, we know it will not be a literary masterpiece as it is with Dylan, though Dylan is fantastic, as is Cohen, though less consistent… actually, so was Dylan, his first few albums were genius, but there’s a mass of rubbish which follows.

Are you more of a Stones or a Beatles type of person?

Childhood inspirations are mostly Beatles, Dylan came later… the Rolling Stones, I don’t know what the deal is there. They are an effective band, meaning they keep putting records out regularly, but there is no one there with any charisma, it’s all cheap marketing personality, Mick Jagger is a village showman. I don’t see anything unique in the Rolling Stones. In the Beatles we see four individuals, which shows in their later history, four individuals who had a specific approach to music and created with ease. I know the two groups are compared and both have their fans, but I feel sympathy for Rolling Stones aficionados as it must be hard to defend such average art.

So are you more of a John or a Paul fan?

I had this situation that it was John, but then I stopped liking him, terribly, not liking Paul at the same time, then Paul came back and at the moment I think respect to them both. At the moment number one is George Harrison, humble, distant, background but absolutely genius, balanced and beautiful. With the others one can see a certain performance and showing off a soiled ego, while George sat at the back and explored eastern wisdoms… Why not Ringo, very infantile, simple smiling boy, Gombrowicz should vote Ringo.

So could Trupa Trupa function without you?

The Trupa Trupa gang keeps changing, from time to time, unfortunately, something bad happens. One person from childhood was there and now they’re gone, and now there are new people involved, every a year or two. It’s certainly a band of individuals, specific personalities, who do things differently in their private and artistic lives, there’s a painter, a visual artist, a photo reporter, and it’s a democratic and diverse set up, sometimes someone will get it wrong and write a review in which they call Trupa Trupa “my band”, but it’s not my band, it is all of us, not just me.

So you don’t want to be seen as the leader?

I do stand at the front, singing and playing and I’d probably prefer to be at the back. I don’t care about being a front man, I’d be prefer to be one of the musicians, but this is how it has turned out.

At which point did you know you wanted to write verse?

At secondary school there was some poetry, it was dull, which was down to the approach of analysing a piece of poetry and this was terribly complex, one couldn’t just approach something for what it was, a landscape, poetry as something very elevated, an icon like Mother Mary, something with elevated status, but in which no one believes, something covered in dust, incomprehensible, and if a tradition is dead, it arouses no emotions.

So are you foremost a poet or a philosopher?

I was interested in philosophy, in some amateur way, but have never been surrendered to such formal ideas, poetry for me is the same, not something I bow before, like music, music exists for me. I toy with it, explore it, exploit it, which is why my studies were not anything interesting, something mostly set to a dry standard system not for individuals but for the masses, where everyone had to follow the same path. Perhaps other students enjoyed it, but for me it was more of an ordeal to be gone through, because others did, my parents did, but it didn’t give me much. My own searching through philosophies took place at home, and the same for my literary discoveries, rather than through school or college.

How did you conceptualise the writing of the three books?

The idea emerges with Eine Kleine Todesmusik that the books are interlinked, that I’m telling variations on the same story, and by the time I came to write the last volume Weaken I realised consciously that I’m writing the third and final section of this trilogy and Weaken ends the deliberations developed in the earlier books. The idea came about during the writing, an automatic process and once it became apparent I called it a trilogy, but this is an answer to the questions  which repeat themselves obsessively and more conscious developments of the same characters who pop up in the books, reappearing, and so it’s important to read them in sequence…

How does the process of writing work for you?

I tend to document images, when one comes, when I see it, in the bus, in the street, etc, or something I overhear, or something comes to me, like “three suns and St John of Patmos”, “fire consumes”, and later I develop the idea, like a workman I sit and write it down and it turns out most of the images I write down were already poems and the shorter the more powerful… then there is some refining, but this is also easy, as it has to fit in with a certain musicality so it’s not just a dry picture, but it has to have its own melody, and until now it comes to me easily and gracefully.

Was there anywhere you learnt the craft of writing verse?

Nobody teaches anyone in Poland how to write poetry… we do have some “creative writing” courses, but this is a new development. I think it’s good that no one teaches anyone how to write. For me it’s an independent thing. I put my own name to something, once I’ve walked along, alone, and give it my own testimony. I have my favourites, I have my Milosz, have my Larkin, but I’m not surrendered to them, I can treat them as friends, teachers perhaps, but not masters of any kind.

You write your own songs in English, where did you study languages?

I have been learning English since childhood, but my English is average, purely functional, not at the level of expressing excellent sentences. This is OK for writing songs in English, whereas the process of translating my own poems, I don’t do this, I have to trust my translator, and in this case I do.

And does singing in English come naturally?

This is relatively easy, most rock and roll music is in English. Perhaps my accent is not quite good enough, it’s clear where I’m from, but I think rock and roll music was created to go with the English language, you can feel the softness the lightness. Writing song lyrics in Polish is hard and only a few Polish writers can mange it, the rest is crap. I honestly am not able to write decent texts in Polish all the time, I’ve written a few, but doing it frequently, they may seem good, sound wise, but they must be horrible to other nationalities, all those vocal sounds must destroy the musical fabric of it all. The English language sounds a lot better, and yet I pay the price for my accent not being perfect, so there is always a consequence.

You often hang out at a local mental sanatorium, what do you think about the relationship between madness and creativity?

I think real madness defeats the creative process. To create something and then publish it demands a huge sense of self-awareness and also egoism, whereas real madness burns out too quickly. Those who are burning are not interested in writing about the process, if someone is on fire but not being consumed, they can document this. Some creative people are partly alight and then convert this into art, but I don’t know of anyone really mad who was also creative, except perhaps one person who I never met, so I can’t say for sure, but I mean Klaus Kinski who really did have madness in his eyes. The same goes for Werner Herzog, but they must have also been calculating, rational, expecting some outcome, but the facts are in madness, in mental illness, with Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, there are limits, a man undergoing some form of test, is he a man or an animal…

Is that why you prefer the poetry to Hughes to say Sylvia Plath?

Evidently, Ted Hughes I value him for one thing, his book Crow, yes, Sylvia Plath by being ill was not a great writer, even though she had the potential and did write a few genius poems, but it was Hughes, through his calculation and cold and withdrawn stance being creator of his own biography, who managed to create something more important than her.

You also mentioned you are interested in film making, do you have any favourites?

Herzog, for sure, definitely Klaus Kinski and his film Paganini, as he was not only an actor but directed that film, and of course I am now watching lots of their work which must mean Herzog is most important. Of course, there are other important influences, like Bergman, Tarkovsky, but both of them are very intellectual and often overly so, but Werner Herzog is more poetic than intellectual, intuitive, and this triumphs. His film about Kaspar Hauser, Bergman saw it in Cannes and said it was one of the most beautiful movies he ever saw. It was about him, his childhood, and Werner did it without intellectual tricks, using intuitive poetic metaphorical images, and so number one is Kaspar Hauser. He’s recently has made some weaker feature films, but in documentaries he is still a force to be reckoned with.

Is there any one film out there you wish you had made?

I don’t envy anyone their films, but I do admire Herzog for Fitzcarraldo. On the other hand, I like a more simple, mainstream cinema, like Foreman’s Amadeus which I’ve watched hundreds of times, no joke, I have seen it that often…  I compared Eine Kleine Todesmusik to the ship Molly Aida from Fitzcarraldo, a metaphorical ship I try to drag over a mountain, and give it some life, and anyway this tempo, three books over three years, when I hear fellow poets or critics say that it’s not the most sensible route onto a literary life, but I’m not bothered by this, I have my idee fixe, to get that ship over that hill, and I follow this, I have my obsession and and I transfer it to paper, don’t wait for the right moment, for better years and sit around waiting for the ship to be perfectly finished like a diamond. Instead, I get my stuff out there, risking it’s a little rough around the edges, but still valuable.

What next now your trilogy is written and published?

I feel completely exhausted and tired and at peace, I want peace, I’ve had enough, it’s cost me a lot, emotionally. All three were inherently so connected with who I am, amazingly so, and in fact I’m in the emotional state of the heroes from the last poem of the trilogy “Morbio”. It seems I somehow broke through childhood, through The Crossing/ Eine Kleine Todesmusik rebellion, provocations, letters, I now no longer feel like rebelling, like demonstrating anything. I’m in a state of morbio where my gestures are no longer important, in purgatory or some such place. The books have cost me a lot of emotions and eaten up a lot of images, as most things in there were witnessed by me, either autobiographical or things directly observed, and I’m exhausted by it right now.

Is it is hard to get poetry published in Poland?

It’s definitely possible for those who want to to get through and get published. It’s not a closed world or one you have to be connected with and promoted in by someone. I didn’t know anyone, don’t know anyone from Tygodnik Powszechny or from magazine Tworczosc, I don’t pay anyone for good reviews, so it is possible to make it honestly, but you do need to be stubborn and strong to pick yourself up after all the inevitable setbacks.

What next for you?

Trupa Trupa has just put out an EP which is garnering very, very good reviews, and are putting out an LP, we’ll start recording in three months time, to be released some time next year, and this is my next challenge…

Are you settled in Gdansk, or are there any other places in the world you would like to live and write in?

I’m in the state of morbio at the moment, so I have no ambitions of to find fulfilment professionally or through travelling, maybe one day, but at the moment I need a lot of calm and time for recharging batteries which I literally used up in writing these three books. I often visit the countryside, have a house there, but to be there constantly, perhaps, is not for me. I really like the company of others, I’m not the loner type, and am constantly surrounded by others, don’t need to be isolated, but a break from work, not creative work, but work full stop, I could use a half year break when I could recharge batteries and simply rest.

Is it easy for a poet to make ends meet in today’s Poland?

This poet supports himself working in PR for a local theatre, Wybrzeze in Gdansk, and its very good work, and every so often gets some money from literary prizes which are very OK as this is very, very decent money, so things are not bad. It would be fantastic if someone gave me a five year scholarship on brilliant terms, but perhaps I don’t need this. It’s a good question, perhaps it’s another myth, needing this peace, solitude and silence, but if I did have it, I might not write as much.

And what will you be writing next?

In a moment, we’ll start talking about a fourth book.. perhaps I have something in mind,  but I don’t want to say anything… It will definitely be about demythologising and it will definitely be unpleasant for the reader, as it will strip them of a certain sense of self-assurance, strip them naked, not to destroy, but to wake them. But to say exactly what next, I’m not Mr Cogito and can’t tell someone how they should behave and what they should work on, it’s best to work on nothing or the self if anything, one’s own humanity, and nothing else.

Recorded and transcribed in English by Marek Kazmierski

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