Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir: A Conversation with Translator Piotr Florczyk

You see, ultimately translating is all about searching for some kind of kinship between two languages, a way to uncover that linguistic essence of the text itself.


Piotr Florczyk, welcome to The California Journal of Poetics! Even though you translated Anna Swir’s poems because you felt a connection to her poetry, is there significance in Swir’s work that Americans can learn from?


Yes, anytime you have a poet who really presents the human experience stripped of rhetorical dressings, I think that’s a really valuable lesson for all of us. Not just for us as poets as writing artists, but as human beings, too.


If she were a poet writing about the war in some kind of narrative fashion, I don’t think she’d be as successful. The value of this work specifically lies with it being so bare—it really hurts, really cuts where it’s supposed to.


According to some people Swir was unpopular in her native Poland during her life. Do you agree?

I’m not sure I’d say that she was unpopular, though there must’ve been some dissenting opinions. In any case, most of the criticism was aimed at her tackling subject matters that some saw as unfit for poetry, for example, her writing about women’s bodies. You see, in a way, Swir was about breaking down taboos—in addition to writing about women’s bodies, she often wrote about their domestic circumstances in a straightforward way—and at the time many preferred that those subjects stay under the rug.


Swir’s poems in Building the Barricade are spare and short—I feel a dramatic intensity in the spaces she creates. Is this characteristic of most of her work?

I think there are two things going on in those poems and in her work in general. The overreaching attempt is to really get to the absolute truth of something and to depict it as concisely, specifically, and honestly as possible. The second part, I think has to do with her work being ironic in the sense of not really relying on traditional poetic elements such as metaphor or elaborate forms; consequently, the irony in her work really comes out and it can be very biting.


Yes, I noticed that she leaps between her lines, but it seems really simple. For example in “I Carried Bedpans,” and in “He Steals Furs” where she writes: “A man jumps inside, / grabs an armful of furs, / struggles, runs to the gate. // At the gate another shell / tears apart a man.” She makes rhetorical leaps with the stanza break.

That has a lot to do with the sparseness of her work, too. Additionally, by writing these poems as de facto little pieces of reportage—they are really journalistic, very documentary—I think she’s political, and really attempts to cleanse the Polish experience of the war, i.e., the highly romanticized depiction of war that is so prevalent in Polish literature. For instance, in these poems she [avoids] any kind of overly romantic or romanticized ideas. It’s almost like reverse psychology, where instead of giving us an elaborate narrative—for example in that poem you quoted, ”He Steals Furs,” about human greed—how this man is taking advantage of the situation to go into the store and steal all the furs—I mean she could have done an elaborate narrative about that, painted the scene, but instead she uses just a few basic elements to cleanse it of any kind of narrative qualities, and by doing that we are forced to pay attention to it more closely, because the actual element that she’s after doesn’t get buried in the act of writing.


Right, and I felt that because she was spare in the narrative and it was very matter of fact. She says this happened, then that happened, and she leaves a space for the reader to digest the naked emotion and violence.

I especially think she’s effective in communicating the human cost of war without,  like you said, romanticizing it. Her poetry is not full of self-pity, particularly in “I Carried Bedpans,” where she in effect praises that which we would typically lament. She worked in the hospital during the Warsaw Uprising, and she writes: “I carried bedpans / filled with pus, blood and feces,” then she leaps with a stanza break: “I loved pus, blood and feces—”


Yes, the three elements would arguably turn people off, and they’re very much in line with what it must have been like to work at that makeshift hospital. But then she doesn’t really move on, she doesn’t let the readers off the hook that easily—and ultimately she implicates herself, right? Perhaps she means she was happy to be there, she was happy to help and that was just part of the experience. It’s also sort of a rhetorical stab at the readers—hey, there weren’t some strangers in there, some abstractions . . . I was really part of it all. In a way that’s what makes her so human.


That was a very traumatic experience for a lot of people—The Warsaw Uprising. Many people were against it, thought it was foolish, Milosz was one of them. He participated in the resistance through readings, publications, but he didn’t fight. A lot of people did, though, and a lot of people died because of it—because the brass decided to rise up and free the city, and they completely miscalculated what was going to happen, and to this day it’s an open wound in Poland’s history. The generation, the people who had died in the Uprising, have often been presented as glorified heroes—they wanted to risk everything to free Poland, but Swir brings people back to earth. She says you know, people, it wasn’t like that—there was fear, loneliness, the worst of men’s qualities came out: greed, etc. I think the sparseness of the poems really drives those points home.


I felt that dramatic sense without being hit over the head with it. But I did notice, in another poem “I Banged My Head Against the Wall,” she becomes very dramatic when she writes: “Then I was killed / by lightning three times, / and I had to be resurrected three times / without anybody’s help.” And I thought there she was a bit more dramatic, using this metaphor of lightning.


Anna Swir

It could be, but I don’t quite read it that way—I don’t read it as an overt attempt on her part to be dramatic. I like that metaphor because it’s tongue in cheek—it’s ironic, because who the hell gets hit by lightning three times? But that’s what tragedy is all about—not being able to escape one’s fate. It’s worth pointing out that particular poem doesn’t belong to the Building the Barricade cycle of poems—it’s a poem from the body of her work dealing with feminism. But nonetheless that whole thing is rather ironic.


Yes, she does talk about life “as a child,… as a girl… as a woman, I had lice….”


Three stages of womanhood . . . three executions . . . .


Swir’s poems have been translated previously in a number of books. Are the poems in Building the Barricade the first English translations?


There’s a book published by Copper Canyon, Talking to My Body. It was translated by Leonard Nathan and Czeslaw Milosz. It’s a book that’s been in print for a long time; there’ve been other collections, too. Some of these poems may have been done by Milosz and Nathan earlier. I don’t remember.


What I really wanted to do with the book is make it work as a separate book, its own thing—it can’t really be pigeonholed as a book about the Warsaw Uprising or her experiences of the Second World War.


In fact the last poem in the book, “Tomorrow They’ll Cut Me Open,” is the last poem she ever wrote—it’s the final piece of her life as a poet. So you see how we started? We started with “Building the Barricade,” which is a poem about ordinary people being called upon to participate in this uprising and they’re all dying one by one and nonetheless they erect this barricade, and notice how the book ends, with complete defeat—tomorrow they’ll cut me open. This façade of a happy and heroic life is being demolished. In the last lines, she looks out the window at the trees, and it’s almost as if she were making peace with this long life that had been filled with dramatic events. So you see how the book travels like that?


Yes, that’s what I noticed—it’s all bittersweet. Not just positive or negative, yet it still feels like praise: “Outside the window are May trees beautiful with life, / and in me are humility, fear and peace.” All the emotions are being reckoned with. It’s effective the way you’ve imagined this book. While reading it I wondered if Swir had written it as one complete manuscript.


The Warsaw Uprising poems end with “Waiting Thirty Years.” It’s a nice transitional poem because the one before that is “The Last Polish Uprising,” and then the next poem suggests that the war never ended, and then we have a couple love poems, and then one of my favorite poems, “I Wash the Shirt.” When we first started talking about doing this book, I was in Krakow, visiting my parents. One day I met up with Adam Zagajewski, and I was telling him about this project, and how we’re thinking of translating and publishing some of the Warsaw Uprising poems. He thought it was a pretty good idea, but then he started talking about a poem he liked, which turned out to be “I Wash the Shirt.”


That poem is very poignant. “For the last time I wash the shirt / of my dead father. … // Of all the bodies in the world— / animal, human— / only one secreted this sweat.”


So the poem ended up in this book because Adam turned my attention to it!


It’s a great poem. Because Polish is your native language, you didn’t need someone to provide you with the cribs. Did you find it was less of a challenge for you given your familiarity with both Polish and English?


No, I don’t think you can ever get complacent like that. You always have to be on your toes. In fact, anytime you translate, you really need good editors. So Ilya Kaminsky and Elizabeth Myhr offered suggestions. But you’re right I didn’t have to ask someone in Poland what something meant.


I think her work is out of print in Poland and difficult to find, but a friend of mine gifted me the Collected Poems of Anna Swir, edited by Milosz. I started going through the book and marking poems that I liked. There are twenty-five poems in my book, but I translated over sixty.


It could be another volume!


Could be. The only thing I needed was a proofreader for the Polish because I had to re-type the originals. My younger sister served as the proofreader, making sure all the diacritics were in there.


Yes, because the Polish and English are side by side in the book, which is nice. Was anything lost in translation? I know there are different views of translation. Some people stick word for word but others will make dramatic changes if they believe that it will improve the poem in the language they are translating into, etc.


I sort of do all of the above. But the only reason why you would want to translate a poem is because you saw it as a wonderful poem in the original. So I believe there needs to be allegiance to the original, especially when it comes to form. I am conservative in that way, though, having said that, I of course realize that it’s the new poem that will be judged—indeed, the translated poem needs to work as its own new poem.


You see, ultimately translating is all about searching for some kind of kinship between two languages, a way to uncover that linguistic essence of the text itself. There’s a reason why scripture translates so well…


I noticed for the most part you were keeping to the original form when translating Swir’s poems.


In my previous book I made a couple changes. There’s a poem in that Kornhauser book that is dense and convoluted in the way that he uses syntax, etc. I decided to break it up—I dropped a line to allow for a pause, because in Polish the poem makes plenty of sense but in English it just kept going and going and going…. Overall, however, I’m all about respecting and preserving the form of the original.


I’m wondering if you have a specific translation process or a specific way you like to translate.


Piotr Florczyk

I’m very practical about it. There’s a lot of theory, as you may know. Lawrence Venuti has that great anthology of essays dedicated to translation—he’s one of the big guys who is interested in translation as a field. Walter Benjamin also has that very engaging essay about translating—in fact, I highly recommend it. But does it really help you when you sit down to translate? I don’t think so.


You mean help you to . . . ?


Help you make decisions. It doesn’t really do that, though as a theoretical concept it’s interesting to ponder. When it comes to politics, well, it’s a little different because of what’s going on with English becoming the new Lingua Franca and sort of willy-nilly contributing to the diminishment of the so-called minor languages. I think there’s a lot to be said about that. I know there was a panel at the MLA or ALTA conference a couple years ago that dealt with translation and globalization, so there are people out there who are interested in what happens with English, particularly American English, creeping into these various languages and cultures.


But, anyway, I translate first as quickly as possible without any crutches—no dictionaries, etc. I read the poem over and over again to try to get the music right—the pulse of the poem. Then I go back and look up words. Then I’ll look at form. But the idea is that the most interesting thing about poetry is the music, trying to get the music while it’s still ringing in my ear. Then I kind of play with it. Does it sound off here? Do I need a different word here?


Another interesting thing about translating is how people decide what they translate. When you go through a book like The Collected Swir, well, for me it was really just personal taste. But then you have to keep in mind that most books of poetry tend to be repetitive. I may have translated fifty or sixty poems, but the reason why there are only twenty-five is because poets, and translators, do repeat themselves. There’s no reason to include three poems of greed. That one poem “He Steals Furs” is enough.


And it stands out more.


Yes. When I was going again through the book, I was throwing out poems thinking of which ones I like better. I heard a famous translator say once that when he first approaches a poem, it all starts with the title for him; if he can’t translate the title, he won’t touch the poem.


That’s very interesting.


Isn’t that interesting? It makes sense. The title should really be the gateway into the poem, and he treats it as such.


I enjoyed all the poems in this book, and there’s something to be said about being able to edit out poems. As poets we know that usually not all sixty pages in a book are great. I liked every one of these poems; I think these were all good choices.


Thank you.


I’m wondering too about your own poems, your own writing process. Does translating help you with that?


Translation teaches you something about your own language. In my case, English.


So you write poems only in English?


Yes, so it teaches me a lot about English, American English.


Translation for me—this is sort of my mission statement—I translate because it allows me to fill gaps in my own work. This is why the poems I’ve translated are very different from my own writing. It’s really about a fellowship between poets and writers. I don’t ever translate because someone says that so and so deserves to be translated. For me, it all starts and ends with the quality of the work itself. But I’ve learned from all the poets I’ve worked with, and since there’s a lot of close reading and close listening involved, no doubt some of their style has rubbed off on me.


What future projects can we look forward to?


I’ve got a new book of translations that I’m putting together—it will be out next spring. It’s poetry by a younger Polish poet, a fellow who is forty-one.


A contemporary poet writing in Poland right now?


Yes. These younger poets don’t write anything like what the older generations have, and I have a couple other manuscripts that I’m working on.


Then I also have a manuscript of my own work making the rounds, it’s called East & West. Since I don’t do many contests—that can get expensive, and I don’t believe in good luck as much as hard work—I’ve been talking to presses directly.


You know, I’ve turned some corners already and my new poems are very different from those collected in the manuscript, so it’d be nice to have East & West picked up. I guess it’s a good thing I’m not very prolific—in the last month I may have written one poem.


Maybe it’s the greatest poem of the month!


Yes, the poem of the month!


The only poem you need.


Yes, I keep searching for that one poem…


So your book of Swir’s translations has been published by Calypso Editions, a new publishing co-op, and the co-op has already been quite successful. Can you talk more about it?


There are eight members, in San Diego, LA, Seattle, the Bay area, Philly, New York, and Alaska. It’s a great way to publish books that are of little interest to established presses. I do customer service, trying to learn about the readership, the market, you know, who buys what, and why people read certain books. We all have our individual responsibilities, and it’s really amazing to work with people who are so good at what they do.


And the website is very well designed. Are there open submissions for manuscripts?


Not at this point, because we’re just getting started. Every year we hope to bring out four books and there will be a split between established authors and co-op members, and I think we’re going to eventually have a contest to help us find new co-op members. Our first book, Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Leo Tolstoy’s story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need” is just amazing.


Yes, it was written up in The New Yorker and The Times Literary Supplement.

It’s all over the place. The co-op is a lot of fun, and the fact that it’s decentralized is also interesting. We communicate via email, and once a month we hold a conference call. It’s a great way to establish a presence in different cities.


That’s great. Any last words for us?


Thank you very much for this. I really appreciate it.


Thank you for taking the time to talk to CalJoPo—it’s been a pleasure.


Interviewed by Gina Barnard.


More Swir & Florczyk:

Buy Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir at Calypso Editions

Swir’s biography at the Poetry Foundation

Read Swir’s poem, “My Father Would Recall,” at The American Poetry Review

Buy Been and Gone by Julian Kornhauser translated by Piotr Florczyk

Read Florczyk’s poem, “Omaha Beach,” at Slate

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