Poetry & Conversation: Piotr Gwiazda

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By Kathleen Neil, Collection Management Department

While it’s August and some may be heading on vacations—to the beach or other well-planned destinations—on Wednesday, August 7th, Piotr Gwiazda, with poet Joseph Ross, will take listeners on a journey through poetry that transforms the world to "a thing unknown," opening new perspectives and vistas.

Piotr GwiazdaGwiazda will be reading from his luminous new collection, Messages, as part of our Poetry & Conversation series and, to ready us for the evening, recently shared with me some thoughts on his poetry. 

Gwiazda has published two books of poetry, Messages (2012) and Gagarin Street (2005), as well as a critical study, James Merrill and W.H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (2007). His translation of Polish poet Grzegorz Wróblewski’s book of prose poems, Kopenhaga, is forthcoming from Zephyr Press. He was Writer in Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington in the fall of 2008. He teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is currently Visiting Scholar at the Humanities Center of the University of Pittsburgh.

How does the experience of moving from Poland to the United States as a young man reverberate in your poetry—thematically and linguistically? 
It certainly reverberates strongly, thematically and especially linguistically. Although my poems are not strictly autobiographical, I’m sure that in some ways they reflect—simply by being poems—the basic facts of life and my somewhat idiosyncratic relationship to the English language. I talk at length about the challenge of writing poetry in a second language in the interview portion of Messages. But let me just say that, for all their strange or foreign attributes, I hope that my poems implicitly tell a story of their author not only giving up one language for another, but also giving himself over to a new language and the ways it shapes his experience of the world.

Your poems have sometimes been termed "difficult." How do you respond to that and what do you think is meant by that label?
I certainly don’t intend my poems to be difficult, though I admit that I often seek to create some kind of estranging experience for the reader, perhaps to reflect my own strange relationship to the English language. (A friend once told me that he had found Gagarin Street to be full of "strange" lines; I was rather pleased with that response.) As a poet, I try to transform my personal experience of the world into something that I hope will be interesting, stimulating, or at least surprising to the reader.

Also, "difficulty" is a relative term. As Charles Bernstein once said, "no poem is ever difficulty-free."

I sense an affinity for music and painting in your poetry. How do other art forms influence your poetry?
I would say that music especially influences my poetry. Not in the sense that my poems are "musical" (after all, they are speech not song), but in a more abstract, theoretical sense. Sometimes I conceive or even construct my poems using musical analogies. I occasionally envy composers their ability to work with sounds rather than words—what I think gives them greater artistic freedom.

MessagesWhat poets and other artists inspire you?
The other day, reading Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Lighter than Air: Moral Poems (translated from German by Reinhold Grimm), I was reminded of how important a model he has been to me since I first started writing poems. I admire his intelligence and sharp wit, as well as the ease with which he enters into dialogue with history, philosophy, science, political theory, and other categories of knowledge, while always keeping to the artist’s point of view.

In the past three years, a great discovery has been the work of Grzegorz Wróblewski, a Polish writer who lives in Copenhagen and whose book of prose poems Kopenhaga I have recently translated into English.

A line from the poem Time, "Poetry is silence in drag," creates an intriguing metaphor. Does this express your thoughts on poetry as a form?
It certainly can. What I find particularly fascinating about poetry is that it gravitates toward extremes. Some poems reside at the edge of silence. Others thrive on overstatement and verbal excess, flaunting their own artificiality. Here’s another way of putting it: a poem is an act of personal attention to language, but at the same time it is a very public act, an outward manifestation of the mind in conversation with itself.

Many of the poems in Messages are concerned with the various modes of communicating today, and yet the difficulty in finding meaning or a sense of real connection in the world. How do you think the poet and poetry provide something more?
May I respond with a poem?


The world is everything
that is not the case:
a system of remote processors
and massive databases,
networks of communication,
cloud computing, etc.

Thus anything, anything
can be put into a poem:
the morning star, the morning news,
the lost dog, the lost cause,
your feelings, your bank account,
Paris, hope (especially hope).

And it is up to the poet
to translate, i.e. to say:
"You think this is a movie,
but it isn't a movie."
"You think this is freedom,
but it’s a Chinese toy."

The poet is a hacker
(is art information?),
a spoiler of the tyrant’s feast,
a disturber of the public peace,
a traveler on the red-eye,
an assassin in the boardroom.

Poetry is a matter of
perspective (perception rather).
All you need to do is pay attention
to what you are looking for
or looking at—
as with the duck rabbit—

and voilà, out in the ether
some gnostic chant,
some joyous cantata begins:

Nothing happens, something does.
First nature, then culture.
First thanks, then tanks.

First handshake, then bullet.
First eyesore, then gentrification.
First speeches, then more speeches

followed by the Big Lie.
"To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow."
(Never repeat yourself.)

And the plain truth? And le mot juste?
And birdsong? And mother tongue?
The reconstruction of dreams.

First published in Messages: Poems & Interview (Pond Road Press, 2012).

For more Poetry & Conversation, please join us in the Poe Room August 7 at 6:30. Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events at the Pratt Library, & join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.

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