Always Present – Miłosz Festival commemorates Adam Zagajewski
1 July 2023
The 2023 Miłosz Festival celebrates the influence of Adam Zagajewski and shines a light on the role of poetry in difficult times. Two guests of the festival and past students of Zagajewski’s reflect on his importance.
Mira Rosenthal: Adam was so unlike any other professor I ever had. He made a big impression on me during my first semester at the University of Houston in 2001. I had heard that, the previous year, he challenged everyone to write an elegy for the 20th century, and I loved how such an assignment assumed without hesitation an important position for poetry at the turn of the millennium. But the creative writing workshops at the university could have the opposite effect, localizing criticism to a group of young Americans trying to prove their literary worth from an overly airconditioned classroom in Texas. “Poets possessed by great emotion, subservient to the energies of talent,” he wrote later in his memoir, “no longer perceive reality.” Instead, he seemed to prefer our more casual but intellectually intense conversations in a small group at a café.
ariel rosé: Adam wasn’t too keen on being a mentor. He didn’t like to tell other people how or what to write, preferring instead to make friends. When he gave advice, it was indirect. He listened closely and then told some distant anecdote that turned out to be quite parallel and useful.
Mira: Or simply responded honestly. I remember, after one particularly brutal workshop in which students discussed ten pages of my poetry, I bolted from the room, devastated. Later, I ran into Adam in the parking lot. “What happened?” he asked. “Well…” I tried to explain, “I think I felt like people were critiquing me as a person instead of discussing my poems.” “Yes,” he said, letting the acknowledgement linger for a moment. And then, “There’s always an element of that.” I recall this moment often as a reminder of how Adam was able to hold both possibilities for poetry: that it is at once personal and communal, an act of transforming our understanding of ourselves in relation to the roles we are capable of performing within the culture.
ariel: There was a year in my life when I didn’t even have time to read the paper. But Adam shrugged it off, though not without a smirk: “If war breaks out, I’ll call you.” Or another time when I was trying to figure out how to support myself. Leszek Kołakowski chose philosophy to have some line of work. I thought the simplest occupation for a poet would be journalism. Then Adam told me a short anecdote about George Orwell, who at some point realised journalism was robbing him of energy for writing prose… There was no need to say more. But if he really liked something I wrote, he told me many times.
Mira: That sense of attending to the next generation of poets was evident in so many things Adam did – I think he learned it from Czesław Miłosz, who also seemed continually to be reading and commenting on what younger poets were writing. Adam brought us all together, first and foremost at the annual Kraków Poetry Seminar (antecedent to the Miłosz Festival) which both of us attended several times.
ariel: The idea for the seminar arose when Czesław Miłosz returned to Kraków and missed his American circle of friends but couldn’t travel himself anymore. Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski had the idea to bring American poets to Kraków, and they wanted to include younger poets in the discussion as well. We all sat around a long wooden table in Collegium Maius, framed portraits of university professors peering at us from the walls as we discussed the role of the sacred in poetry, the role of indigenous art, and poetry’s engagement with politics. It was such an intellectual feast, even the heat didn’t bother us.
Mira: Being in that room as a young poet meant everything, to be welcomed to the table, to feel the seriousness of our art – in short, to begin to understand the dynamics of poetry’s quest. “Poetry is a quest for radiance,” Adam says in his poem of that title. Poetry is the record of that search, both in “moments of deep joy” as well as moments of pain and conflict.
ariel: With the escalation of the war in Ukraine, I’m often reminded of the now legendary poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World, which ended up on the cover of the New Yorker shortly after 9/11. It was Adam’s motto or azimuth, and I try to stick to it on my own poetic path, to look for light despite everything. This doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to the war. On the contrary, I’m involved, but I also take note of even the smallest, kind gestures of human selflessness or of indiscriminate beauty, a winning smile or a disarming irony. And I feel even stronger the need to build community in keeping with this motto.
Mira: Now, it’s wonderful to see that spirit being carried on and expanded by the Miłosz Festival, with its program of meetings with poets from different generations and events that bridge poetry and other artistic fields. Not only that, but the festival focuses on translation – something that became central to me as a writer and thinker, thanks to Adam. He made it possible for me to begin learning the language and introduced me to younger Polish poets, whose work I eventually started translating. The Miłosz Festival’s translation workshops – one of which I’ll be leading this year – plant similar seeds of cross-cultural exchange and engagement in our common quest as human beings.
ariel: As a poet and an intellectual, Adam didn’t shut himself away in solitude. He fluctuated between solidarity and solitude – both became central figures in his book – but solitude was never number one. Of this predicament, his friend Tzvetan Todorov, the French philosopher of Bulgarian roots, once quoted him: “There are evenings, says my friend Adam Zagajewski, when I have a real dilemma: listen to the BBC or Brahms. Or, if we’re talking about taking action: participate in political organizing or write a symphony.” In recent years, Adam could be seen at protests in Kraków against the court takeover by the PIS party.
Mira: His slyly political poem “Some Advice for the New Government” springs to mind.
ariel: At the same time, he showed up for friends. He did shopping for Leon Neuger, the translator of Swedish poetry, when he was sick. He took interest in the state of health of Nicola Chiaromonte’s wife – Miriam, to whom he dedicated a poem, ending with the lines: “It seemed to us / perhaps she was immortal. / Unfortunately, we were wrong.”
Mira: It will be bitter-sweet to come together this year in Kraków – a city of literature so tangibly enriched by Adam’s presence. It also feels important to invoke his poetry during this time of war, to consider the powers of the lyric mode to confront atrocities, and to celebrate Polish poetic heritage with writers from all over the world.
Author of Territorial, a Pitt Poetry Series selection and finalist for the INDIES Book of the Year award, and The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and two Fulbright Fellowships to Poland, she is an associate professor of creative writing at Cal Poly. She also translates contemporary Polish poetry.
Author (under the name alicja) of the illustrated collection North Parables (Znak 2019) and the sea at night is a muscle of the heart (PIW 2022). Currently they are working on co-creating the international project “Both Sides of the Border Face East,” with a focus on Central Europe, under the auspices of Marci Shore. The project is supported by the Jan Michalski Foundation and the Borderland Foundation. This year’s edition is dedicated to the war in Ukraine.
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