Before getting into the poetry side of our Reading the World Book Clubs, I just want to remind everyone that you can share your thoughts and comments about these books/posts in three different ways: in the comments section below, on the Reading the World Book Club Facebook Group, and by using #RTWBC on Twitter.
For this intro post, I thought I’d list five reasons why I chose to start the poetry RTWBC with Twelve Stations by Tomasz Różycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.
1.) This is a narrative based poem. I like more abstract poetry that plays with language, forms, meaning, etc., but for my first attempt at running a poetry book, I thought it would be nice to start with something that’s more narrative based. Although based on Bill Johnston’s introduction, the “narrative” aspect of this seems a bit incidental . . .
It’s a sort of mock epic about restoring a Catholic church in what used to be the eastern part Poland and is now the Ukraine. Bill Johnston does a fantastic job explaining the cultural background of this poem, but in short, after World War II, the eastern part of Poland was given to the Soviet Union, whereas Upper and Lower Silesia were incorporated into Poland, becoming the western part of the country. (Oh, those shifting Polish borders.)
To further complicate things, the Germans living in what became western Poland moved back to Germany, and the Poles of what used to be the eastern part of Poland took over their abandoned houses and towns. Which is why the older generation is essentially “returning home” to the Ukraine to restore the church.
2.) The humor. I heard Bill read a part of this at Translation Loaf, and it was incredibly funny in a very Polish sort of way. Rather than try and explain that myself, I’ll let Bill take over:
Różycki’s mock epic has strong affinities with the gawęda, a long-established Polish literary tradition of prose writing in which the pleasure of pure storytelling trumps the need for tidy narratives and overarching plots. The gawęda goes back at least as far as Henryk Rzewuski’s Pamiatki Soplicy (Memoirs of Soplica, 1839) [. . . ] and stretches to the 20th century, where it left deep traces in the work or writers as otherwise diverse as Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) and Wiesław Myśliwski (b. 1930). Polish audiences know not to expect much in the way of plot resolution in such books; they read for the sheer exuberance of the narratorial voice, for the recounting of endless amusing incidents, and, going deeper, the delight of spendin ghours wiht a writer who is, simply put, good company. [. . .]
Though the form doesn’t draw attention to itself quite the way that, for example, rhymed verse does, a large part of the poem’s pleasure resides in its irrepressible torrent of words. Its comedy inheres as much in the exaggerations, excesses, and playful absurditites of the language itself as in those of the story and the characters.
Definitely a Chad sort of book.
3.) The fact that this is a contemporary work that’s made a huge impact. This poem was originally published in 2004, when Różycki was 34, and won the Kościelski Prize. Since that point, its made its way onto school reading lists, has been adapted for the radio, and has been performed in theaters throughout Poland. This sort of reaction to an epic poem is definitely more likely to happen in a European country than in the U.S., but still, that’s impressive.
4.) Because Bill Johnston. There are so many good Polish translators working today, but I have a personal soft spot for Bill. He’s a great person, incredibly talented, has a wonderful sense of humor, and picks some amazing projects. Over the past decade he’s translated Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, which was one of the first books Open Letter ever published; Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, which is one of my favorite books of all time; and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which is one of the great works of twentieth-century science-fiction.
Oh, and remember this t-shirt? Which served as my indoor soccer team’s jersey for a season, and which I still wear? The front of which looked like this?
(Unfortunately, these are all sold out.)
5.) To give a shout out to Poland. Poland is also the Guest of Honor at BookExpo America in Chicago this summer, and was one of the main organizing forces behind the New Literature from Europe that took place last fall. The Polish Institute is great to work with, and over the past year has taken a lot of great editors over to Poland to learn about their literature and culture. There are so many great Polish writers and great translators from the Polish. And as most of my friends know, I’m mostly Polish! So why not honor this fascinating country and its wonderful literature by featuring one of its most notable contemporary poets?
Overall, I’m really excited that we’re starting the Reading the World Poetry Book Club off with this poem and am looking forward to reading what everyone has to say about this particular book.
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