Slight Exaggeration: An Interview with Adam Zagajewski




A WEEK AFTER the September 11 attacks, The New Yorker ran Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” on its back page. Though he’d written it a year and a half earlier, the poem sang to the heart of our collective sorrow in that troubled time and, as well, to the immutable beauty of life.

The celebrated poet (most recently the recipient of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry’s Lifetime Recognition Award) was himself born into a “mutilated world” at the end of World War II, in the once-Polish city of Lwów (Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian) — twice occupied during the war — where his family had lived for generations. He succinctly describes that personal and historical displacement in his 1991 memoir, Two Cities:

In 1945 almost my entire family was packing suitcases and trunks, getting ready to leave Lvov and vicinity. At the same time countless German families, who were told to leave their homes and apartments in Silesia, Danzig, Stettin, Allenstein, and Konigsberg, were also packing. Millions of people were forcing resistant suitcases shut with their knees; all this was happening at the behest of three old men who had met at Yalta.

This new home in which his entire family was resettled — they traveled by cattle car — was the industrial town of Gliwice (formerly the German town of Gleiwitz). Unlike cosmopolitan polyglot Lwów with its exuberant architectural traditions; Gliwice was a “difficult, strange, ugly city.” “Still,” Zagajewski writes, “one had to live there. And oh, wonder of wonders, here too there were sunrises and sunsets, and the same seasons of the year passed through calendars and municipal parks.” 

Zagajewski, who studied philosophy at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, wrote poems protesting the authoritarian state early on his career — his work was banned in Poland in 1975. He lived in exile for two decades, from 1982 to 2002. For many years, he taught at the University of Houston and now teaches part of the year at the University of Chicago. The rest of the year, he lives in Kraków with his wife Maja, a psychotherapist. 

During over a decade of trips to and from Poland, while working on my own memoir, I made it a habit to carry with me one of Zagajewski’s books, most often his poetry collection, Mysticism for Beginners, which I’ve always found particularly trustworthy. In 2005, I invited the poet to Los Angeles to read for the ALOUD series, and we became friends. From then on, when in Poland, I’d always aim for a day in Kraków, to have a meal or take a walk with the writer whose work continues to mean so much to me.

There is no better way to experience Kraków than to promenade its surrounding gardens in the company of the poet. He might stop to greet friends, or to marvel at the shimmering gold leaves of what he points out as “the only gingko in Kraków.” For Zagajewski, walking the streets of his beloved city while remaining exquisitely attentive to the inrush of a poem’s “slight exaggeration” is, he once confided, “his real job.”

His essays, too, hold the mysterious glow of those spring afternoons, as well as the dark shadow of his country’s complicated history. As Susan Sontag wrote in the New Republic: to read Zagajewski’s work is to take “a tour of a wonderful mind.” The occasion of his new bricolage of memoir, essay, anecdote — Slight Exaggeration — is a cause for great celebration all over the world.

This interview was conducted via an email exchange between Los Angeles and Kraków.

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LOUISE STEINMAN: Your new memoir feels like one in which, perhaps even more than in your other books, you lay your cards on the table. You write how, unlike the scholar, “the poet is exposed, takes no cover.” How does memoir differ from poetry in allowing you to reveal your vulnerabilities on the page?

ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: I think it’s mostly a formal difference. A poem is for me an abbreviation, a text message, but then it allows you to make huge leaps. You can start with an everyday scene and two lines down you can suddenly invite to your poem an Egyptian queen or Johann Sebastian Bach. This facility of having sudden ramifications can also function as a veil. A memoir has a much more straight narrative, and this probably compels you to confess more, to say more. A poem writhes; a prose memoir has to behave. But there’s a general and, for me, fascinating question, which isn’t relevant to me since I was too young and never a part of any evil machine: all these people involved in nasty actions provoked by totalitarian systems were practically unable to say anything negative about themselves. Those who write about divorces can sometimes confess wrongdoing, but not the great sinners of our time.

Slight Exaggeration begins in the month of December, in Kraków, and moves, loosely, through seasons, though there are no dates, and you allow yourself reveries in time. I found it satisfying to pick it up anywhere and read — was that how you intended it?

Yes, this is how I intended it though, being an author yourself, you must know how big a role chance is playing while you compose the book. Chance and intuition; my ideal for such a book is somewhere midway between a closely knit structure and a chaotic ensemble of notes, observations, motifs. Some parts of the book were written orderly — I mean their order corresponds to the order or writing, but many were juxtaposed later. My idea is usually not to bring similar motifs together but to disperse them.

You seem as much influenced by diary forms as narrative memoir. Were there models for this kind of memoir that influenced you? Or did it just evolve?

It’s probably clear that I’m fascinated by diaries, especially those which go beyond a basic notation of facts of life (unless they do so as idiomatically as Samuel Pepys’s diary). But I’m not a “born diarist” — I don’t keep a diary. I try to note from time to time more interesting moments, meetings and, often, ideas that come to my mind, lines of possible poems, et cetera — but this is not very regular. But starting with the book Solidarity, Solitude, I began to experiment putting together short essays and scraps of “life related” notes. And so it evolved through my two nonfiction books, Two Cities and Another Beauty. I owe a lot to several distinguished diarists but the final result has my trademark, so to speak.

Let’s focus for a moment on the autobiographical background of this new memoir. The formerly Polish city Lwów (now the Ukrainian city Lviv) plays a large role in this book as it does in your others, and as well, in your poems. Lwów was where your family lived for generations, it’s where, as you write, “they dreamed their dreams, planned, grieved, fell in love, built their homes, died, visited graveyards.” Just when that old Lwów died, you were born and your family was displaced westward to the provincial city of Gliwice, formerly in Germany.

So many of the adults around you as you grew up in Gliwice lived — in their memory — in another city, in that lost Lwów. What did it mean to you as a child, to live a city that “no longer existed,” a city that was, you write, “an unhealed wound”? Do you carry that wound? Are you now the keeper of that lost city’s memory?

It’s complicated. I don’t think I do carry the wound. I remember the wound of my family and of their friends. I could say I carry the scar, not the wound. It’s something very moving for me but more as a part of memory, of “history of my observations,” not as a living part of my personality. As a child, I certainly couldn’t discern this, even less name the phenomenon, the emotion — but I accumulated memories, kept them in a safe place, in my mind, only to be struck by these things much later, when all this came back along with my more mature perception of things.

When your family was displaced, others (Germans) who had been living in what was called by its German name Gleiwitz were displaced as well. I wondered if you’d read Filip Springer’s book, History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town, where he describes that historical displacement from the point of view of the ethnic Germans. Do you feel any empathy for them?

No, I haven’t read it. But I’ve had plenty of meetings with the displaced Germans, or with the second generation of the displaced Germans, mostly in Germany. I have a strong connection to the German readers who know my books in translation; I did give dozens of readings in Germany — and it happens a lot that after my reading some elderly person approaches me, or sometimes someone younger (the second generation). These are always friendly conversations, actually moments of an unexpected solidarity between those who know what it means to lose one’s place in the world. Even if I’m the second generation, too. I met some people from Gliwice/Gleiwitz — we talked about concrete streets, buildings, parks.

Your own grandfather spoke German, studied German literature. His mother was German. Yet he chose “Polishness.” There a fascinating discussion in your book of what “Polishness” was before there was a modern Polish state. [Poland gained its independence in 1918, at the end of World War I.] What was the Polish “dream” your grandfather identified with?

As you know, there was no Polish state for some 120 odd years; three powers divided between themselves the country. So this is really very different from a state which evolves but in which the governing elites, the educated classes, can to some extent shape the mentality of the citizens. In Poland, the state was poetic, undetermined, vague — but perhaps therefore somehow more interesting than the solid states of our oppressors. Plus, there was a very strong presence of the intelligentsia. My private theory is that the representatives of the Polish intelligentsia were somehow more attractive than their counterparts in Russia, Germany, Austria simply because their energies were free floating; in the other countries, you became a government clerk, an officer, a politician, and your forces were harnessed by your duties. Not here (though of course many educated people worked for the administration of the occupying powers). There were, as well, our lost insurrections. There’s nothing more romantic than defeat. I like the book by Wolfgang Schivelbusch who writes about “cultures of defeat” — the American South, France after 1870, and Germany after World War I. I think my grandfather was attracted by all this. When as a young man, bilingual, he translated Polish poets into German, his reference was this mysterious Poland …

This same grandfather, you report, wanted his children to learn three skills: speaking German; stenography; knowing how to swim. You unpack that anecdote of his advice into a tale that covers the disappointments and ironic tragedies of two World Wars. What three skills would you suggest for young poets today?

The first would be “intellectual curiosity” (but this is given or not), second — the same, intellectual curiosity. And the third — also. What else can you require from poets? You can’t recommend “talent” since this is really given; you could recommend “work” but what actually does “work” mean for a young poet? Sometimes idleness can be more fruitful, the capacity to be attentive, alert, without actually doing anything. If I’m stressing “intellectual curiosity” so strongly, it’s because I think many younger poets are undereducated, many tend to think that reading poetry, especially their contemporaries, is enough. But there is the huge edifice of learning: all the centuries of history, history of art, of music, et cetera. Nietzsche was against “historicism” in the sense of not being interested in the answer to the question “What is the world?” and only reading about what previous generations thought the world was. But this danger is minimal today. 

You describe your family as “solid, hardworking, people devoid of fantasy.” You respond in your book to a dream admonition: “Write about delicate people.” Thanks to that dream, we learn about Little Myszka who died too young, about your aunt Maria who suffered the loss of both her child and her husband and ran a flower shop near a cemetery. What was most surprising (or satisfying) to you in answering the call of that dream?

This is hard for me to answer. When I think of my “heroes,” I find among them also undelicate people. In Two Cities, I think, I wrote more about my grandfather (he has a cameo appearance in Exaggeration, as you know). He was (as you know from the book) the director of a high school and had to be a bit tough. Also I once witnessed how he — as a “sworn translator,” one who made “official” translations of birth certificates, et cetera — turned down someone who said, “But I have no money, I can’t pay you.” For me, a child, it was a chilling event.

There’s a particularly chilling scene in your book about a young Jewish couple who come to your young parents’ apartment in Lwów during the German occupation, seeking refuge for their child. For good reason, your parents had to turn this couple away — it wasn’t safe for the family or for the child. Situations like this probably happened more than we will ever know. It’s a reminder, isn’t it, that we can’t judge from the safety of our own times those who were placed in untenable situations.

Yes. What can I say. This story was for me a shocker. Suddenly they told me something that for a second lifted the veil. Suddenly I saw the practical choices they had to face and not readymade sentences about the “suffering of the war.” It was shocking also because it showed me how vulnerable they were. Usually your parents don’t want you to see this part of their past. Parents shouldn’t be vulnerable in the eyes of their children (even if at the time I heard this story I was totally adult). By the way, as I remember it, it was a mother with her child, not a couple, and someone who was an acquaintance. And she was looking for shelter for both of them. It’s scary to think what happened to them. (You know, I read recently a wonderful book on Kafka, by Reiner Stach; all three of Kafka’s sisters were killed by the Nazis and they must have had some social position, some standing.)

One of your enduring friendships was one with the poet Czesław Miłosz. You write in your memoir that Miłosz’s mysticism “fed on the yeast of reality.” Would you say that of yourself as well? Were you a dreamy child?

It’s probably silly, but it seems to me that calling oneself a “mystic” is rather inappropriate. Why? Because I regard mystical temperament in arts as something positive (though I can also see negative sides of mysticism: disregard for historic circumstance, indifference vis-à-vis political situations). I remember watching ages ago a film on the British conquest of India (I have no idea what the title was) where the Indian educated class was represented as being totally indifferent to the progress of the invasion, playing chess and sunken in sublime mental actions. Yes, I think I was a dreamy child — but moderately dreamy. I wasn’t number one in sports, but I wasn’t a sissy either.

And, as an adult, how do you differentiate between “the spiritual life” and imagination?

I don’t have a good answer to this. I think it’s a question of finding an adequate name for the same thing. Those who hate religion call it imagination. I don’t hate religion (though I do hate fundamentalism), that’s why I don’t avoid the word “spiritual” — for me it is an entire continent of ideas and emotions, so basically something that goes beyond imagination. And yet I don’t really expect answers from that continent; meditations and questions are enough.

As with Miłosz, we learn intimate details in your book about many other writers, some whom you knew quite well personally, others whom you “know” by reading them with great care over time: Nietzsche was “honest, gentle, and good in his daily life”; Cioran was “afraid of loneliness”; Simone Weil could be found sobbing in the Luxembourg Gardens because the police had opened fire on marchers in Shanghai. There’s a delightful anecdote about Joseph Brodsky and his moth-eaten tie. And how you and Brodsky used to spar. What about? And what do you most miss about him now?

I miss the incredible vivacity of his mind, his incredible intellectual presence — softened by the tone of his voice which could be quite tender (while speaking to friends — not so with some strangers; somehow he rejected rich people — you had to be a poet, a writer, an intellectual, not a “philistine,” this was bad). Joseph and I had endless intellectual debates — he loved this. My voice was usually a voice of reason (or common sense) — he checked out his fantastic theories on me. He was wonderfully educated but not evenly — philosophy was terra incognita for him; well, not totally, of course, but for him the history of humanity was the history of poetry, period. This was fascinating for me: it taught me that there are many histories of mankind, not one. I was proud when after having read my book, Two Cities, he told me: I’ve learned a few things from your book.

You’ve been an avid listener to classical music all your life, and music, like literature, threads through your book, juxtaposed with history. Listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Canzonetta. Andante, you are reminded of that same piece “being broadcast throughout Leningrad during the siege, in that dying city.” What have you been listening to most recently? Is there anything that jibes with this historical moment?

I don’t think I can find correspondences between our historical moment and music. Music is always somewhere else, and that’s good. I think that in a difficult situation, one should pay attention to what’s going on, but one should also have a realm that is totally independent, distant. I’d consider it a victory for those stupid politicians who’re now steering in a dangerous direction if we stopped having other passions. It can be philosophy, music, poetry, bees, mountain hiking, photography, dance, calligraphy, watercolors, swimming, surfing, learning Japanese. We should have “something else” to be stronger. It’s no good to be only reactive, to live constantly in opposition, in anger, having no other resources …

And yet you’ve written that “poetry must be on the watch for history.” Its presence in your poems is one of the qualities that I love about your work.

I cannot say the strong presence of history in poetry is my invention; this is one of the things I’ve inherited from what Miłosz called “the Polish school of poetry.” I’d say that if I introduced any innovation here, it was rather the gesture of being more autobiographical in my poems. I’ve written a series of “Self-portraits,” and you don’t find many of those in Herbert, Szymborska, or Miłosz; they shunned self-presentation. You could infer from their poems what they were like, but only infer.

On the other hand, I can be sometimes envious of poets who navigate in non-historical space, like Tranströmer, for instance. Because, as much as I’m convinced that we need to seriously deal with history, I also think that we lose something when we become “over-historical” — sometimes we tend to blame history for things for which we should blame ourselves (and then I remember Yeats’s notion of “passive suffering”).

One of your newest poems, recently published in the NYRB, navigates in very contemporary historical space. It’s perhaps your most (slyly) political poem yet.

Some Advice for the New Government

We have a new government.
Our new government includes many gifted ministers.
One of our ministers speaks English.
Our new government has set to work energetically.
Unfortunately, it is less than aggressive in a situation permitting so many unregenerate liberals to persist: in some cities they even outnumber traditional Catholic families.
What else should our government do?
It cannot be guided by the sentimental views typical of Western politicians.
Some night it should execute several movie directors, not sparing women.
All professors of constitutional law should be interned for life.
Poets may be left in peace since no one reads them anyway.
Penal camps are necessary, but should be lenient, so as not to provoke the UN.
Most journalists should be sent to Madagascar.
Hungary, on the other hand, should be gently removed with tongs and inserted between Poland and Germany on the map. And later, once reactions among the international freemasonry have subsided, Germany should be surreptitiously placed between Spain and Portugal.
The government of today cannot be overly scrupulous.
It has been given a historic opportunity.
It would be a sin not to seize it.

               — Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

How was that poem received in Poland? Is it possible for poets to rattle governments?

This poem was published in the Gazeta Wyborcza, the main newspaper representing left-liberal orientation in Poland, an organ of opposition against the rightwing government. The reception was easily predictable: publishing in Gazeta is preaching to the choir. It is an indispensable journal, I don’t want to diminish its validity. On the contrary, I can’t imagine life in Poland without this journal, one of the main guarantors of mental sanity in the public space. I received signals from people who think like myself, I also received hate mail, mostly anonymous, from the other camp.

After all Poland has endured — the Nazi occupation, the imposition of Soviet ideology, the struggle/success of Solidarity, and now today’s rightwing government … do you think Poles are better equipped psychologically than Americans to navigate this dangerous current global rise of nationalism? What advice to you have for Americans aghast and outraged at the authoritarian tactics of our government at this moment?

There is one thing that I’m more and more conscious of: I’d say Poles were quite well equipped to withstand the onslaught of lies 10, 15 years ago. But now we have new generations and the transmission of experience between generations, especially in the era of social media, which didn’t exist before, is very poor. I never thought that all that which was acquired by previous generations would be lost, forgotten, by the new generation. It is as if almost everything in the public space needed to be learned anew by the youngsters and they are slow to understand the gravity of the situation. I find it tragic, the impossibility of transmitting these things to the young.

As for Americans — I’m sure you’ll find ways of protesting against the authoritarian tendency in your new government.

I was intrigued by this passage in your memoir:

Poets possessed by great emotion, subservient to the energies of talent, no longer perceive reality. Why did Brecht serve Stalin? Why did Neruda adore him? Why did Gottfried Benn place his faith in Hitler for several months? Why did the French poets believe in the structuralists? Why do young American poets pay so much attention to their immediate family and neglect a deeper reality?

Do you think these times will shock our poets and writers into that deeper reality, if they haven’t ventured there already? And isn’t it possible to pay close attention to your immediate family without neglecting a deeper reality? Isn’t that what you’re doing in this very book?

Well, yes, of course it is possible to combine interest in your family history with a more general quest for truth. My negative reaction comes from my first years of teaching creative writing in the United States — there were so many “family poems,” which, taken as a symptom rather than as the matter of personal artistic choice, had something almost mechanical about them and therefore depressing. But if you take it a bit higher, make it more sophisticated, you leave the realm of the mass addiction and have the freedom of choice in terms of both subject matter and form.

But then, if you go back to the ’60s and ’70s in the United States, you had a flood of Vietnam War poems and, as you know, so few of them have traveled well in time. So there are two extremes, aristocratic silence or, sometimes, an overabundant poetic action in which literary excellence must be dimmed.

I love how you are always trying to find metaphors for the work of poetry itself. Poetry you say, is “like a human face — it is an object that can be measured, described, catalogued, but it is also an appeal.” An appeal for our attention, our understanding?

Yes, an appeal for our attention and understanding. Human faces, poems, and paintings — they all share this, the highest possible concentration of meaning. The human face is tiny in comparison to a locomotive or to a bulldozer, or to a comet — and yet it has so much more meaning. Some paintings are very small — self-portraits represent a special case, for instance the one by Rembrandt, still very young; here we have the face and the painting on the same piece of wood, so small and so powerful. And then Celan’s “Death Fugue,” on a page and a half, an entire world of terrifying human reality.

I know for a fact that you have a thorough command of English (a phrase that now strikes the ear oddly) … Why do you prefer to have a translator (usually the wonderful Clare Cavanagh) translate your poems into English? Do you feel at home in your poems when you read them in English? Or more at home perhaps, in French?

When I read Clare’s English renderings of my poems in the United States (recently at Columbia University), I almost forget that they weren’t written in this language. I like being immersed in the English language, I like the energy of your language, the sense of humor of your language. But then I profit from Clare’s work, I’m a guest in the English language.

I’m not interested in translating myself for two main reasons. One: I’m fanatically interested in writing a new poem, so going back to the existing ones seems to me a waste of time. Two: My English is perhaps okay, but I’m not a native speaker and I believe the act of translation involves these layers of language, very subtle, having to do with the idiomatic, irrational choices, which are only accessible to native speakers.

You wrote this memoir through the period of your father’s illness, his loss of memory, his slow dying. Your father was an engineer, and you describe him as a scrupulously honest man who never liked language sprinkled with metaphors. Your father even suspected that such language was often “the language of liars.”

When asked by a journalist for a response to one of your own poetic evocations of Lwów, his native city, your father called it, “a slight exaggeration.” You liked that phrase so much that you used it as your title. Why is “a slight exaggeration” such a good description of what poetry is, what poetry does?

When I read this interview (my father gave it to me), I was deeply moved by this formula, but I also found it quite funny. Now, whether this is a good description of what poetry does (maybe of what art does) is worth a long answer, a treatise on art. Yes, I think it is a good description: poetry amplifies, exaggerates, puts emphasis on things and feelings, on thoughts and dreams that go almost unnoticed in everyday life. Amplifies them and stops them, makes them immobile so that we can freeze contemplating them. And it’s probably totally impossible to live like that, to have so much attention for detail in our days, which fly over our heads like supersonic jets.

On the other hand, no, it’s not a good description in the sense that actually our true life is more present in poetry (art) than in these hasty days. Poetry gives us back life as it really is, as it should be experienced, in its grandeur and in its misery. So perhaps we should be saying not that “poetry is exaggeration” but “life as we know it is diminished, a bit crippled,” regarded through the lens of litotes. Life is understatement; poetry doesn’t exaggerate.

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Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). She curates the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC.


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