The PEN Ten: An Interview with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s senior director of Free Expression Programs Summer Lopez speaks with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, author of Crops (Rain Taxi, 2021).
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
It was The Song of the Murdered Jewish People, written by Itzhak Katzenelson. When I was a teenager I found it in my friend’s apartment by accident and I read it and it changed me in a big way. When I was a child I also read a lot about the place called Westerplatte in the city of Gdansk where I was born and where I still live. In Westerplatte, the Second World War started and it affected my family, my country, and the whole world, really. And The Song of the Murdered Jewish People was about the tragic and shocking effect of this bloody war.
2. The poems in your book, Crops, represent the voices of victims and perpetrators of—as well as apologists for—atrocities. Why did you decide to represent all of those perspectives?
I think that the moral scandal of crimes and tragedies is visible especially when we see not only victims but also perpetrators and observers. These three perspectives are crucial to see a kind of genocide landscape, to make it more visible. This terror, this obscenity, this cruelty, this violence. Of course this is rather the art of trying, not succeeding. I guess there is no way to really understand it. But I would like to come as close as possible to this tragedy to understand my family roots and the roots of my wife’s family, and because of that to understand myself—who I am and why I act and feel in one way or another.
“I think that the moral scandal of crimes and tragedies is visible especially when we see not only victims but also perpetrators and observers. These three perspectives are crucial to see a kind of genocide landscape, to make it more visible.”
3. Your grandfather was interned in the Stutthof Concentration Camp, and the poems in Crops sometimes specifically reference the Holocaust. But they also speak to the universality of violence in human history. What role do you think poetry—and literature in general—can play in helping us understand how humans can do such brutal things to one another?
The history of my grandfather is a key history in my life. When I was a child, I guess eight or nine years old, I went with my grandfather to the museum of Stutthof concentration camp. He was visiting this place for the first time after the Second World War. He was in a state of trauma, he was shouting, crying, reconstructing his memories. And I saw it as a child and I didn’t know what to do, how to behave. And in some way, throughout my whole life I have tried to understand it—understand the situation when someone is killing another, when someone is building concentration camps and gas chambers. My grandfather worked as a prisoner in a camp hospital and was forced to transport dead bodies. And after the war he was a really broken person—his sister, who was also a prisoner of this camp, was as well. On the other hand, the grandmother of my wife during the Second World War was hiding in the forest near the city of Rzeszów because of her Jewish roots. So there are many things that have an impact on my life and my art and for me in some rather big way the past is a presence.
4. Many of your poems are brief, stark, and yet those few words can be incredibly powerful. What is your writing process like?
I am writing about something which is too heavy for me, which in some way I reject. When my brain and my consciousness are telling me: Don’t look at this site, don’t listen to it, don’t watch it, it will bring you troubles, then I am begin to record and write. I write all things on my old mobile phone which is not connected to the outside world. It is an old Nokia 3110. And it’s really hard to push a button and it’s a really bad idea to write on something like that. So I write in an SMS style—one poem can only have the length of one SMS. But this gives me the effect of lapidary. Because of this broken stuff I produce a very short, lapidar essence. This old equipment, because of its technical problems, also gives me some distance to this dark, emotional state of mind. Instead of being for a very long time deep inside some very dark and edgy situation, suddenly I have to be totally outside, facing little stubborn issues with old keys on this phone. And it gives me distance. Anyway, I think that the most important thing in the writing process is hearing. I am a musician and I think that every writer is also a musician. So all the time, like an addicted person, I am just searching for musical moments in the air, in the bus, in the tram, in some stories that my grandfather told me. I am also very thankful to Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology, his story telling method, and also to the methodology of Glenn Gould, his anti-melodramatic and mathematical way of playing. I think that these two art methodologies are in some way a matrix for my art. Because of Masters and Gould I am trying to do things in this dark, lapidar way, anti-melodramatic way. But still not in a super cold way. I also think that in some way these poems are inviting the reader to go inside of these tragic stories. They invite someone to turn on his moral machinery (if it was turned off earlier) and to ask himself the questions for which there are no easy and no good answers. And because of that, someone can be more conscious about his moral actions. So in some way, I think that this art can lead to some happy end, to some lightness and goodness, because of this effect of moral awakening. That’s how it works with me, and I know some people who experience it in such a way. But of course I am open to criticism and people can feel and experience art in many ways and every way is ok.
5. Before invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in which he offered his own, alternate version of Ukrainian history; meanwhile he keeps Russian historians who have tried to document the truth of the Stalin era in prison. While Russia may be an extreme case, history is contested everywhere—in Poland, in the United States. Is it ever possible to talk about the “truth” of history? How do you think about that when you write poetry?
I think that war in Ukraine changed everything and in Russia there is now also no place for historians who document the Stalin era. I think that Putin went in a very open and direct way to the totalitarian system—without trying to hide it. Of course there are many perspectives and of course I am in love with the polyphonic state of reality. This is a very good question and very hard one. In my poetry I like to expose many different voices and points of views. But still I can’t hide and I don’t want to hide that I stand on the victims’ side. And when I expose the voice of a murderer I make it to de-mythologize his art of lying and to expose his cruel acts. In my opinion you are always on some side of the narration and some side of seeing things. And I think it’s really easy to find out that these nationalistic movements are using a false narration of history. If some nation is open to many narrations, and many versions of history, it’s good for the safety of human beings. If some politicians and nationalists claim that their way of narration is the only one, then we are all in trouble. It means that the art of lying has begun, and the art of lying is always very close to the situation when someone is killing another. And unfortunately we live in a time when many countries are more and more nationalistic and more and more into the art of manipulating history and truth. But maybe this tragic war in Ukraine will wake up societies? I hope so.
“I think that the most important thing in the writing process is hearing. I am a musician and I think that every writer is also a musician.”
6. You are also a songwriter and a singer; is writing songs different from writing poems for you?
In the past I thought that these were two different worlds. Music and poetry. But now I think that this is one big world of music—poetry is also music. The writing process is always based on intuition but in the world of Trupa Trupa’s music, I create it with my friends. Trupa Trupa is a band with four members and we’ve got a democratic structure, so the writing process is also democratic. Which is very rare in the rock world and in some ways very hard but this is the best way in my opinion. Best in an ethical way but also in an artistic way because, with this democratic structure you are making a lot of mistakes, unpredictable steps, because of this sense of compromise in the air. And finally and after all, you realize that this ethical way of working made you create something rare, something wrong, and finally something exciting, new, and fresh.
7. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process and how did you overcome it?
It’s always connected with one thing—with a state of making too many things at the same time. When you are busy with many issues, then for me poetry and music are gone. I am blocked. On the other hand, I need real, normal life to write and to create. The ideal thing is a mix of loneliness and my own rituals and just normal life, full of life, full of everything. After all, normal life is always very unexpected and it has a great impact on art. In my opinion, mistakes and accidents play the biggest role in the process of creation. But you have to be ready and open for them in a quality way—your artistic creative engine should be in good condition. And that’s why these lonely rituals are so important. So frustration and blockade comes in the moment of lack of balance between these two worlds.
8. There is little question we are in a moment of great global upheaval, and of resurgent authoritarianism. This was true even before Russia’s war on Ukraine, but that conflict has provided a stark demonstration of the stakes. What role do you think writers can or should play in this moment? Do you feel a particular responsibility as a Polish writer during this moment of renewed conflict in Europe?
I think that art is a big space of freedom and any nationalistic ideology should not take it away from us. This state of freedom of expression is really crucial. Unfortunately my art resonates with these tragic times. So I am doing what I was doing earlier because of my family roots and I can feel that this world of morality, ethics, and history does not belong to the past—it’s still present. But the most wonderful and “to the point” thing I found in these tragic war times was a tweet from the great American poet with Ukrainian roots, Ilya Kaminsky.
Me, writing to a friend in Ukraine: how can I help, please let me know I really want to help
He writes back: Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.
And, that is in the middle of war. Imagine.
So in my opinion writers should do their spiritual stuff. And I guess that in war times it’s even more important than in a state of peace and freedom.
“I think that art is a big space of freedom and any nationalistic ideology should not take it away from us. This state of freedom of expression is really crucial.”
9. If you could claim any writers from the past as part of your own literary genealogy, who would your ancestors be?
I really love the writing of Franz Kafka in the biggest way. I love everything he wrote, and I have been reading it almost all the time—every day or every week for 20 years now. For me he is an artistic and ethical hero. I especially love his late little stories such as “A Hunger Artist” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”
10. In an interview in McSweeney’s, you said, “A situation on the edge when there are no good answers and no place for preaching and easy judgment. That’s the territory I’m interested in.” Yet so much of our modern culture is focused precisely on “preaching and easy judgment.” Do you worry that we have lost our ability to engage in nuanced thought and conversation? How do you think literature can help us to regain that?
The ideal situation for me is when art gives you some tools and you—listener or reader—decide what to do with it. You create your own narration and you are in some way responsible for it. I think that moment of responsibility is crucial. So you as a writer trust your reader in a big way, in the biggest way. You create some spiritual connection not full of preaching but full of some strange storytelling process in which both sides decide what is the final story. And after all, the reader decides what is his final story. So you are giving and constructing a puzzle but the reader is creating his own story from it. And this is this moment of responsibility and eventual moral awakening. I also think that good art is always smarter and better than authors’ biography and declarations and their program, their ideology. Novels of Kafka, Mann, or Musil can transform in so many ways and have many roles and meanings. And this is a mystery—this open structure. So this open art is ideal for me. Because of this opening mode, the listener and reader can really construct and create his own home, his own universe, and can be responsible for it.
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is a Polish poet and musician, who has written several books of poems revolving around the subjects of history, remembrance and ethics. He is a member of a psychedelic rock band Trupa Trupa. He has been a beneficiary of numerous international literary programs such as Artist-in-Residence in Vienna and Styria Artist in Residence Scholarship in Graz. Grzegorz Kwiatkowski co-hosts the workshop “Virus of Hate” at the University of Oxford and has also been a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Chicago; Jewish Theological Seminary; the University of Cambridge and the Ted Hughes Society (“Crow at 50”); The University of Texas at Dallas and Miroslaw Balka’s Studio of Spatial Activities at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.