Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Piotr Sommer

Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Piotr Sommer

Article excerpt

South Bend, Indiana, 7 May 2000

W. MARTIN: In your two line poem "Grammar," you write: "What was, one should speak of in the past tense, / what isn't in some other tongue." The second line strikes me as somewhat utopian. I'm wondering how you became interested in English and English-language poetry and what has motivated your ongoing engagement with it. In particular, is there something like a utopian component to your interest in English-language poetry?

PIOTR SOMMER: Well yes, I think there may be one. There is an element of that utopian longing or whatever one longs for when dealing with writing and when one writes. But I can only try to say a few words about it, reconstructing, as I remember it, how it was. It was still very much a time when no one knew much about American poetry or about the British scene, which at the time seemed to include the Irish scene, too. I had begun writing in high school, and went on to university to study English literature by some accident, I used to think, but who knows. I learned the language a bit in high school, and I was interested in literature, so I think I was intuitively hoping that I would learn something there that I wasn't getting, or wasn't hoping to get, from my own Polish background, although I wasn't aware of this yet. The "foreign" was always intriguing to me. And since in the twentieth century Polish literature was dominated by French poetry, in terms of translations, studying English literature sounded, I guess, to a guy of seventeen, eighteen, like a cool thing to do. Also, that was a time when we were getting a lot of the pop scene from Britain. So for that reason, too, it was an absolutely natural thing for me to do. Even though, again, I think I had an intuition that I'm going to really, well, profit somehow from English literature, as a writer, from knowing about it, especially when I started finding stuff, bits and pieces. I remember my first English-language book of contemporary poetry: a Penguin Modern Poets series book, The Mersey Sound, which was an introduction to the Liverpool group: Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri. I got it from an instructor who came from England to teach a semester at the University of Warsaw when I was eighteen or nineteen. So I knew at that point that they were doing something interesting that I knew nothing about, and it seemed like nobody else in Poland did either. I later cured myself a little of the Liverpool connection, although I translated a children's book by Brian Patten once, when my son was still very young, which I have always liked and still feel pretty good about. But that's probably what got me into the British scene at the beginning, while I was discovering that it wasn't just the pop scene that was interesting. And I started looking into other anthologies and texts, which were actually very difficult to get and use, back then.

WM: Who else were you reading then, besides the Liverpool poets?

PS: I was full of awe and admiration for Rozewicz, Bialoszewski, and Herbert. Rozewicz was my first great inspiration while I was still in high school. But he was in the textbooks, so in a way it wasn't difficult to "discover" him, and I probably needed discoveries. Then I read all I could get hold of by Miron Bialoszewski, who I discovered through his Diary of the Warsaw Uprising, a book with a somewhat misleading title, suggesting perhaps a boring book about history. And Herbert, who was such a wonderful poet to read, back in those days. All that was quite a discovery. But Bialoszewski very quickly emerged, surfaced for me as the most exciting and most intriguing Polish writer of what now would be the second half of the century. And as for the forefathers who sounded exotic and exciting in a contemporary way, I always loved Kochanowski and Legmian. And I read plenty of others, so it was a kind of mixture. And I must have slowly come to realize that what I wanted was to escape the postromantic overtones and solemnities which to me sounded rather loud in a lot of Polish writing-with a few exceptions that I then knew about, like Bialoszewski and, say, Andrzej Bursa. …

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