Slight Exaggeration: An Interview with Adam Zagajewski

You wrote this memoir through the period of your father’s illness, his loss of memory, his slow dying. Or did it just evolve? 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. 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? 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. And the third — also. (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. Yes, an appeal for our attention and understanding. You’ve been an avid listener to classical music all your life, and music, like literature, threads through your book, juxtaposed with history. 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. You write in your memoir that Miłosz’s mysticism “fed on the yeast of reality.” Would you say that of yourself as well? But there is the huge edifice of learning: all the centuries of history, history of art, of music, et cetera. 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. 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. I find it tragic, the impossibility of transmitting these things to the young. Poets may be left in peace since no one reads them anyway. Hungary, on the other hand, should be gently removed with tongs and inserted between Poland and Germany on the map. By the way, as I remember it, it was a mother with her child, not a couple, and someone who was an acquaintance. Why did the French poets believe in the structuralists? 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. Music is always somewhere else, and that’s good. She curates the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC. And later, once reactions among the international freemasonry have subsided, Germany should be surreptitiously placed between Spain and Portugal. Yes. ¤
Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). 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. 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. Do you feel any empathy for them? Or more at home perhaps, in French? Your father was an engineer, and you describe him as a scrupulously honest man who never liked language sprinkled with metaphors. And she was looking for shelter for both of them. Is there anything that jibes with this historical moment? 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. 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. Even if I’m the second generation, too. But I’m not a “born diarist” — I don’t keep a diary. Situations like this probably happened more than we will ever know. And then Celan’s “Death Fugue,” on a page and a half, an entire world of terrifying human reality. Were you a dreamy child? I was proud when after having read my book, Two Cities, he told me: I’ve learned a few things from your book. 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. This story was for me a shocker. Suddenly they told me something that for a second lifted the veil. There were, as well, our lost insurrections. Those who hate religion call it imagination. I could say I carry the scar, not the wound. It can be philosophy, music, poetry, bees, mountain hiking, photography, dance, calligraphy, watercolors, swimming, surfing, learning Japanese. [Poland gained its independence in 1918, at the end of World War I.] What was the Polish “dream” your grandfather identified with? It’s perhaps your most (slyly) political poem yet. 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. 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. Plus, there was a very strong presence of the intelligentsia. 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. I love how you are always trying to find metaphors for the work of poetry itself. 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. What else can you require from poets? For good reason, your parents had to turn this couple away — it wasn’t safe for the family or for the child. And, as an adult, how do you differentiate between “the spiritual life” and imagination? 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. And what do you most miss about him now? The reception was easily predictable: publishing in Gazeta is preaching to the choir. In Poland, the state was poetic, undetermined, vague — but perhaps therefore somehow more interesting than the solid states of our oppressors. So many of the adults around you as you grew up in Gliwice lived — in their memory — in another city, in that lost Lwów. 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. When your family was displaced, others (Germans) who had been living in what was called by its German name Gleiwitz were displaced as well. 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. Isn’t that what you’re doing in this very book? Some parts of the book were written orderly — I mean their order corresponds to the order or writing, but many were juxtaposed later. I received signals from people who think like myself, I also received hate mail, mostly anonymous, from the other camp. 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. 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. Unlike cosmopolitan polyglot Lwów with its exuberant architectural traditions; Gliwice was a “difficult, strange, ugly city.” “Still,” Zagajewski writes, “one had to live there. You seem as much influenced by diary forms as narrative memoir. 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. 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 was fascinating for me: it taught me that there are many histories of mankind, not one. No, I haven’t read it. 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. 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. 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. I think my grandfather was attracted by all this. Canzonetta. A memoir has a much more straight narrative, and this probably compels you to confess more, to say more. It’s scary to think what happened to them. But then I profit from Clare’s work, I’m a guest in the English language. And yet I don’t really expect answers from that continent; meditations and questions are enough. Why do young American poets pay so much attention to their immediate family and neglect a deeper reality? 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. When I think of my “heroes,” I find among them also undelicate people. 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? 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. I met some people from Gliwice/Gleiwitz — we talked about concrete streets, buildings, parks. Do you think these times will shock our poets and writers into that deeper reality, if they haven’t ventured there already? What was most surprising (or satisfying) to you in answering the call of that dream? I found it satisfying to pick it up anywhere and read — was that how you intended it? 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). 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? Our new government has set to work energetically. Those who write about divorces can sometimes confess wrongdoing, but not the great sinners of our time. I was intrigued by this passage in your memoir:
Poets possessed by great emotion, subservient to the energies of talent, no longer perceive reality. 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? 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. 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. There is no better way to experience Kraków than to promenade its surrounding gardens in the company of the poet. Do you feel at home in your poems when you read them in English? I think it’s a question of finding an adequate name for the same thing. What about? 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. 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. I don’t think I do carry the wound. You could infer from their poems what they were like, but only infer. 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. In Two Cities, I think, I wrote more about my grandfather (he has a cameo appearance in Exaggeration, as you know). Do you carry that wound? 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. Amplifies them and stops them, makes them immobile so that we can freeze contemplating them. It has been given a historic opportunity. What advice to you have for Americans aghast and outraged at the authoritarian tactics of our government at this moment? We should have “something else” to be stronger. Listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. What three skills would you suggest for young poets today? Most journalists should be sent to Madagascar. 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”? Life is understatement; poetry doesn’t exaggerate. Parents shouldn’t be vulnerable in the eyes of their children (even if at the time I heard this story I was totally adult). Joseph and I had endless intellectual debates — he loved this. In 2005, I invited the poet to Los Angeles to read for the ALOUD series, and we became friends. All professors of constitutional law should be interned for life. 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. 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? You can’t recommend “talent” since this is really given; you could recommend “work” but what actually does “work” mean for a young poet? Were there models for this kind of memoir that influenced you? One of your newest poems, recently published in the NYRB, navigates in very contemporary historical space. The government of today cannot be overly scrupulous. Usually your parents don’t want you to see this part of their past. 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. 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. Our new government includes many gifted ministers. So there are two extremes, aristocratic silence or, sometimes, an overabundant poetic action in which literary excellence must be dimmed. 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. Sometimes idleness can be more fruitful, the capacity to be attentive, alert, without actually doing anything. And so it evolved through my two nonfiction books, Two Cities and Another Beauty. 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. On the other hand, I can be sometimes envious of poets who navigate in non-historical space, like Tranströmer, for instance. I don’t think I can find correspondences between our historical moment and music. His mother was German. He was (as you know from the book) the director of a high school and had to be a bit tough. Why did Gottfried Benn place his faith in Hitler for several months? As you know, there was no Polish state for some 120 odd years; three powers divided between themselves the country. MAY 28, 2017

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. Are you now the keeper of that lost city’s memory? But I’ve had plenty of meetings with the displaced Germans, or with the second generation of the displaced Germans, mostly in Germany. This interview was conducted via an email exchange between Los Angeles and Kraków. You unpack that anecdote of his advice into a tale that covers the disappointments and ironic tragedies of two World Wars. A poem writhes; a prose memoir has to behave. 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. And how you and Brodsky used to spar. 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. I’d consider it a victory for those stupid politicians who’re now steering in a dangerous direction if we stopped having other passions. Human faces, poems, and paintings — they all share this, the highest possible concentration of meaning. ¤
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. Let’s focus for a moment on the autobiographical background of this new memoir. There’s nothing more romantic than defeat. 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. 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. I’m not interested in translating myself for two main reasons. Not here (though of course many educated people worked for the administration of the occupying powers). 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. But starting with the book Solidarity, Solitude, I began to experiment putting together short essays and scraps of “life related” notes. I wasn’t number one in sports, but I wasn’t a sissy either. Why? 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. Is it possible for poets to rattle governments? 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). But this danger is minimal today. It’s complicated.                — Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
How was that poem received in Poland? 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. Your own grandfather spoke German, studied German literature. The rest of the year, he lives in Kraków with his wife Maja, a psychotherapist. Poetry gives us back life as it really is, as it should be experienced, in its grandeur and in its misery. And isn’t it possible to pay close attention to your immediate family without neglecting a deeper reality? I owe a lot to several distinguished diarists but the final result has my trademark, so to speak. 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. There’s a delightful anecdote about Joseph Brodsky and his moth-eaten tie. 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. Yet he chose “Polishness.” There a fascinating discussion in your book of what “Polishness” was before there was a modern Polish state. 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. Penal camps are necessary, but should be lenient, so as not to provoke the UN. 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. I remember the wound of my family and of their friends. It’s probably silly, but it seems to me that calling oneself a “mystic” is rather inappropriate. Yes, I think I was a dreamy child — but moderately dreamy. What can I say. For many years, he taught at the University of Houston and now teaches part of the year at the University of Chicago. Some night it should execute several movie directors, not sparing women. I like being immersed in the English language, I like the energy of your language, the sense of humor of your language. 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. This facility of having sudden ramifications can also function as a veil. 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. The first would be “intellectual curiosity” (but this is given or not), second — the same, intellectual curiosity. I never thought that all that which was acquired by previous generations would be lost, forgotten, by the new generation. 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. 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. Some Advice for the New Government
We have a new government. It is an indispensable journal, I don’t want to diminish its validity. As for Americans — I’m sure you’ll find ways of protesting against the authoritarian tendency in your new government. Why did Neruda adore him? One of our ministers speaks English. 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). One: I’m fanatically interested in writing a new poem, so going back to the existing ones seems to me a waste of time. 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. A poem is for me an abbreviation, a text message, but then it allows you to make huge leaps. 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. 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. My voice was usually a voice of reason (or common sense) — he checked out his fantastic theories on me. 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. 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”). Why is “a slight exaggeration” such a good description of what poetry is, what poetry does? 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). 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). It cannot be guided by the sentimental views typical of Western politicians. I don’t have a good answer to this. It would be a sin not to seize it. Why did Brecht serve Stalin? 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. What else should our government do? Well, yes, of course it is possible to combine interest in your family history with a more general quest for truth. 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. 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. 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. This is hard for me to answer. My idea is usually not to bring similar motifs together but to disperse them. He lived in exile for two decades, from 1982 to 2002. ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: I think it’s mostly a formal difference.