Niina Pollari is the author of the poetry books Path of Totality (Soft Skull) and Dead Horse (Birds, LLC), as well as the translator of Tytti Heikkinen’s English-language collection The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal (Action Books). Translated from Finnish by Pollari, “Planets in Their Tracks” and Other Poems were published in The Offing.
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I first met poet and musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski via email when we began corresponding about his band, the Polish political psych-rock four-piece Trupa Trupa. Over the course of our exchange, we began talking about poetry. At the time, Kwiatkowski was working with Rain Taxi and the translator Peter Constantine on a chapbook called Crops. He sent it to me, and I was stunned; the poems were short, ruthless fragments about the horrors of the 20th century, sourced from historical documents but reading as contemporary as ever. This is the crux of Kwiatkowski’s music and writing: to make art against the bleakness of humanity. I was thrilled when he agreed to have a conversation over email about his work as a multi-genre artist.
Niina Pollari: Hi Grzegorz. Thanks for having a conversation with me in this way. I really admire your work.Your poems — the ones in your book Crops and some others you’ve shared with me — are rooted in real, documented history, but they don’t read like documents of the past. That is, their tone is contemporary, even though they’re easily identifiable as our horrifying human history. Can you tell me about your personal relationship with history when you’re writing?
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: I live in the city of Gdansk in the north of Poland. The Second World War started in this place. Also: the solidarity worker movement and Lech Wałęsa are from Gdansk, and because of the actions of this movement, communism in central and western Europe was defeated at the end of the 80s. So for me, history is just my hometown.
My grandfather and his sister were prisoners of the German Stutthof concentration camp located 30 km from Gdansk. After the war, his sister was mentally ill and he was a broken man, a man in a state of trauma. When I was a child, I went with him to the museum of this concentration camp. It was the first time he visited this place after the war. I saw a person who was shouting and crying and was broken, devastated. This situation changed a lot for me. I started to ask myself questions. Why do people kill each other? Why do people hate each other? Why do people build concentration camps and torture each other? History was for me never just history, but a kind of family reality. Many years later I was coordinator for Amnesty International in the city of Gdansk, so I knew that bloody history is also present bloody reality, and that people are still being murdered and tortured, and are dying in concentration camps, and the eye of the camera doesn’t always show it. The war on Ukraine is a horrible quintessence of it, a reminder of it.
You asked about writing. I am writing about something which is too big for me — too complicated, too cruel, and too full of moral obscenities. In some way by writing, I am facing something I shouldn’t face. For me, writing about history is writing about family, and writing about family is writing about myself. Why am I this kind of person who is very optimistic and full of joy, and on the other hand afraid of human beings because of their hatred and murder potential? I don’t want to create a false theatrical stage in which I am a good observer and the world is bad — I think that this evil potential is in all of us. But when we find out about it, then it’s our moment to wake up. And I guess that all these situations you will find in my poetry. Not in a direct way, but as a narration of the landscape. One of the biggest genocides in history took place in Poland, and there are a lot of ghosts in the air. And of course the history of Poland is a history not only of German aggression, but also self aggression and the aggression of Russia. And you’ve got Finnish roots. Can I ask you something? Do your roots affect you? Your country was attacked by Russia at the beginning of the Second World War. Does this history affect your family and your writing? And do you believe in genetic memory?
NP: I was born in Finland, but I’m quite American in that I did all my growing up and my academic studies in the US. Still, my roots do inform and affect me. Finland is very progressive socially and politically, but it’s also incredibly traumatized by history, and the war against Russia continues to affect cultural memory and art and foreign policy and politics — there’s this idea that you are living next door to a huge potential threat, and so all your actions must be weighed accordingly. I mean, you know the concept of Finlandization. So even though I don’t write about cultural memory in the same way that you do, I do recognize that it’s a part of us all, and I do believe in its influence on families and lineage. I also have family members who, after their experiences of war, turned to alcohol abuse and succumbed to mental illness. That in turn had a profound effect on their children, my parents’ generation. None of this is disconnected, nor is it easy to process, even generations removed.
You ask why you are “very optimistic and full of joy and on the other hand afraid of human beings because of their hatred and murder potential.” This shock between your particular warmth and the bleakness of the subject matter you write about is something that I really find interesting about you. You wrote to me about music stuff originally, and your voice and tone were always cheerful and joyous and welcoming. But then you shared your poems with me, and their darkness and starkness held something totally different from the tone of our correspondence. How do you deal as an artist with the simultaneity of horror and joy? What about as a parent? And is there anyone, artist or otherwise, who you think does it exceptionally well?
GK: I think that once you understand the tragedy of humanity, the bloody history and bloody reality, the unfairness of the world, and human suffering, you can either surrender or you can do everything in your power to change things by telling the truth about reality, and by doing gestures which are not violent or oppressive, but full of joy, love, and energy, full of this better version of life.
I don’t want to say that I am doing it; this is only my ideal. I don’t have the proper distance to say how I behave. But I would like to behave in this way. To tell the truth, this dark truth, but also to spread some joy and fun. To create a community focusing on truth, and facing big problems, and believing in the power of morality and art, and just trying to be nice to each other. Maybe I shouldn’t use these big words. I just think that we can change the world for the better by trying to be nice, and, when you are an artist, by trying to create very good art.
Being a parent helps in this process. For me and my writing, being a father is something wonderful. The child has this natural joy, a natural energy, so you are learning so many things from the best source. And of course you are learning to be more responsible for your actions, and you can see love love love from morning till night. Of course sometimes it’s hard, and I can say there is no way to be an artist and father at the same time without a great partner and great support. So we always need a synergy,which I hope works for both partners. I don’t want to say I am a good father or husband; I am just trying to be. Being a father and husband teaches you how to say sorry very quickly, and how to change the narrative, and how not to go into dark long distance tunnels of evil. I think that every artist has a big ego and that’s why artists are creating art, and it’s all good, but family is also a great cure for narcissistic disease.
Anyway, most artistic and family stories I know are horrible. But by seeing bad examples, you try to do everything you can to be different. I really believe that we can change things for the better, and this is the point of my art and my life. I guess that the longer I live the less I am afraid, and there is more space for joy, creation, and love. A few years ago I was really amazed when I listened to interviews with David Lynch, and I love his art so much from A to Z. But his spiritual monologues about flying elephants were pure madness or comedy. Now, I think he is totally right. Everyone has to find his own path and his own way, and you can find some clarity, some hope and light. I will give you an example. Your example. I read your book, which is so heavy and tragic, but someone wrote it. You wrote it. And this book is also funny and paradoxical and it just works. It’s not like a book but like a living, crying, laughing, moving organism. I started to read and I couldn’t stop. And I wasn’t defeated by this dark experience. Quite the opposite. There is a power of life on every page. Power of fragility, power of precision. Just a stream of life with its own complexity. I think that this stream of life is very important, and it’s so easy to block it, and then you’re lost. But even if you are lost, great art can wake you up. Mainly I believe in the vital power of dark art which faces hard stuff but wakes you up in a good way. I guess that that’s why we are talking right now, because this is something we’ve got in common?
NP: Thank you so much for reading my book, and for your deep understanding. Yes, precisely — at some point in our correspondence I knew we had an aesthetic and philosophical kinship, and the more I learned about you the more I understood that it was this kind of fundamental quality of seeing the world… I don’t want to call it optimism, because it would be quite navel-gazing to say that you are an optimist in the world right now. But it’s this insistence on the effort, on the importance of trying, on the hope that you could make something a little better. With the experience I wrote about in my new book, of the death of my first daughter, there is a moment when I realized that I did not want to die, to obliviate myself from this world, and that was a foundational realization for me because I genuinely didn’t know that about myself before. And to be clear, I don’t believe that you have to move past terrible things, or get “better,” or learn from them somehow. That kind of prescription is never my intention. I just mean that it took something cataclysmically overwhelming for me to realize my own desire to live. I don’t want to, as you put it, “go into dark long distance tunnels of evil,” even though I easily could. And you could, too.
Your music with Trupa Trupa also has a political angle. Were you a musician first before poetry, or have those things always coexisted for you? Do you write differently when you know you’re writing for music? Is the same fundamental drive there for you in both?
GK: Thank you for this question. And thank you for your last answer. This conversation has pauses, and I was thinking about what you said and what I said for a few days. And I thought: oh my God, this “love love love from morning till night” sounds so naive, especially when you think about a lot of tragedies and suffering all around — this statement sounds like a message from Wonderland, the message of a spoiled and isolated child. But I wasn’t lying. I said the truth and I really think so. And I think that making good art often has got a lot to do with love and play. Like children play, with running and breathing. So maybe the point is that being an artist is a really big privilege, and we can be so thankful for this situation which is so full of life, feelings and emotions and love and freshness. It doesn’t mean you can’t experience and touch dark areas. You can, and you do it, but your energy and your electricity is made from love, from a state of fascination, from a state of being surprised by new things in the world. Of course I don’t want to generalize. I am talking about my experience, and that of a few people I know. I guess that a person like Elfriede Jelinek would just laugh at everything I said right now.
About the band — it’s such a big privilege to have poetry and also the band; in the past I thought these were two different worlds, but they are not. The world of literature is, in my opinion, also the world of music. Trupa Trupa is such a great band, but also a demanding organism to live in. In Trupa Trupa, we’ve got a democratic structure: no leader, no frontman, many different visions. So it’s so hard to make music, record an album, and even to play a concert, and it’s also so great, so full of mistakes, so unusual. My approach to songs is the same as in poetry: I am focused on morality and history. We have a song called “Never Forget,” inspired by the great documentary movie Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. But there is also a beautiful and harmonious world. When I was child I went to music school and played on clarinet, so I was playing and listening to classical music in my childhood, and even now I listen mostly to Bach, not to Fugazi. But it is all mixed – the world of music, poetry, literature, and democracy. I really believe in accidents, in great accidents. For example, I was an antinatalist because of the tragedy of history and my family experiences. My wife was quite the opposite, and here we are, parents. So in some hypocritical way, I am an antinatalist father. And I am delighted. Life goes on in many strange ways. I don’t control it even if I would like to. It’s hard and complicated and full of mistakes, but the best.
NP: First of all, I really understand on a fundamental level the idea of being conflicted about having children even though I am also a parent. I feel it every day when I think about the mountains of garbage that we funnel into landfills, or when I look at the graphs of atmospheric CO2 that surge dramatically with each passing year. But at the same time I also love my family more than anything, and I want to create a life of love for them. Is it a privilege or a curse to hold these things simultaneously in your mind? Is this kind of love egotistical even when it’s self-annihilating?
GK: Oh yes, dear Niina. I think this is a big privilege and it’s very egotistical but now when I think about it I realize that “regular” parents who have big families are even bigger egoistic people than egoistic artists without family. Artists usually don’t risk and play with someone’s life — and parents do it. In some ways it’s like poker and gambling. So of course it’s all very exciting, especially for artists, because you as an artist can feel and smell this risk in the air and this atmosphere of chaos and creation and joy. So yes, this is a big privilege. And of course, one more time, I am talking about my experience. I know many dark stories, many sick children, many suffering and poor families.
My mother was a teacher in a special needs school, and in Poland special needs school was the worst kind of school you can imagine. A lot of suffering everywhere. Children who went to this kind of school were usually from very poor families, isolated from society; people laughed at them, other children laughed at them. So I just want to say that I know a bit about both sides of reality. My poetry tells about this dark side full of suffering, but the energy I need to create is taken rather from this vital joyful side. It is a privilege to be in these two zones at the same time. And this is of course something very hypocritical — I am happy, but a few moments later I hate myself because of my arrogance and my status as an outsider who makes things in the way he likes to, and who observes and takes notes. But on the other hand my art is made against evil and cruelty and violence. So maybe after all it’s enough not to feel so guilty about this status of observer? I don’t know but I hope so.
NP: What you said earlier about playing (and also about playing music) reminded me of mindfulness, or meditation, or something like that. I feel like as adults we have to relearn to do some of these things in order to be present in the world. I was a deeply unathletic child, and only got into physical activity in my 30s — things like running, yoga, weightlifting, etc. Do you have any kind of mindfulness practice that forces you to be present?
GK: When I was younger I was very good at running long distances and now I love to walk long distances, I mean really long, and now I try to do it almost every day. This physical aspect is very, very important, in the process of creation and thinking and composing and just feeling good with your body and yourself. But maybe there is another point, quite opposite. I feel good when I feel in some way bad and exhausted. So after a big walk I feel great but I am really, really exhausted and defeated, and this too gives me vital powers. I’m doing the same thing with eating: I try to not eat for a long time during the day, and I drink liters of water. Then of course I finally eat a proper meal and I don’t destroy myself, but I like a state of being not fully satisfied and being in the process. Maybe that’s why I love Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”.
By the way — near Vienna, there is a little place called Kierling, and in this place is the sanatorium where Kafka died. Inside on the walls there are wonderful Kafka’s fever charts. He wrote A Hunger Artist on his deathbed, and it’s all very amazing. Instead of being sad, you feel the power of his creativity, and in some ways you see another chapter of his life and it ends in this calm and beautiful place where he wrote the best things in his whole life, with the person who loved him by his side, Dora Diamant. They had planned to move to Palestine and to open a restaurant and establish a family and have a son. On the other hand, 18 and 19 years later, Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Nazis in Chełmno and in Auschwitz in Poland.
So, as you can see even if I try to go to some kind of Neverland narration, I always land on the earth, in some cemetery when I see graves and I can read from them unfairness and inequality.
NP: Yes, I have that problem too — I guess that’s another thing we have in common.
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