Bedside table #22. Jakub Kornhauser: I love reading on trains

Jakub Kornhauser, poet, essayist, translator, and literary scholar talks about his fascination with the French school of narrative poetry, his inspiration with travel and reportage-style literature, the borderline of the avant-garde, the influence of Herbert's poetic prose on his own work, and Romanian philosophers.

You read professionally, but what I wanted to ask you first is not what is on your bedside table right now, but about the books that you are behind with, which prick your conscience, those on top of which constantly come new titles. Do you have such books, constantly postponed in time, until later, because there is always something more pressing to do?

Your question reminds me of my Dad's poem with the meaningful title Biurko (“Desk”), which consists of a list of authors of books and objects that lie on the desk of the person enumerating – together with marker pens, a lamp, Cendrars, Carpentier, Brecht, and Thomas. "It all lies on my desk / Waiting for me to say something, " notes the voice of the text. On my desk, there are piles of books: on the left - those I currently translate and review in my scientific work (surrealists and concrete poetry); on the right - dictionaries, catalogues, and "interim aids" in which I search for quotations (at the moment Paw królowej [“The Queen’s Peacock”] by Masłowska, Wat, and Ernst's album). But it's alive, even though it's on a pile. In the stack on the floor and on the chest of drawers, however, there are gigantic heaps of books waiting for a better tomorrow, books I want to read, but before it becomes a reality, they will be covered with new ones, equally awaited, and equally forgotten. It is the worst for those at the very bottom, unless the heap decides to fall over by strange chance and at this point, they will open up for reading; right now, this honourable place is occupied by new novels by Christian Kracht, Georgi Gospodinov, Joanna Czeczott’s reportage on St. Petersburg, and Kapka Kassabova’s one on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as a biography of Komeda by Grzebałkowska. I try to read poetry on an ongoing basis. If I hid poetry volumes under a thick novel, I would never dig them up.

You have recently published Dziewięć dni w ścianie (“Nine Days in a Wall”), another volume of poetic prose after the feted Drożdżownia (“The Yeast Factory”). Have you consciously tested the possibilities of religious language? Because many fragments read like variations on liturgical language. In general, questioning the meaning is a procedure that is close to your heart.

Not only religious, but also scientific, various jargon from here and there. What happens here is breaking down the original meanings, blowing apart idiomatic expressions and calques, entangling them with the language created for the text (inversions, ellipses, chiasmi, intentional omissions). Poetry in prose makes sense when the reader's expectations as to the coherence of the narrative are failed. Inserting a stick in the spokes of a rational argument is not just a trick from the arsenal of the avant-gardeist, but most importantly, an expression of distrust towards the conventional view of reality, in which the spiritual (irrational, unconscious) is separated from well-organised realism. I don't have to convince you that I prefer to think about the world in much less sharp terms; thanks to a language that draws attention to itself, we catch the coexistence of different planes - surreal surpluses that go hand in hand with topographical detail, empirical sediment accompanied by oneiric spectre. After some time, we cannot distinguish which element is which.

What would you call a place between imagination and memory, where your poetry usually takes place? I stubbornly say ‘poetry’, although I know that you don't think of yourself in these categories... Do you like to lose control in the creative process?

I have nothing against poetry, I prefer this term to anything else and the longer I extend the form, the more willingly I acknowledge poetic provenance. Poetry sounds more liberal, so I don't have to bother with the requirements of a properly conducted narrative. The narrative should be as jagged as possible and off-note so as to gradually derail the reader's habits. Serbian surrealist Marko Ristić gave the name "The Branch of Reality" to the space of surreality, occupying a no-man's-land between the bulwarks of the external and internal world. This is a definition close to my perception of the world in the text. The starting point is observation, experience of space. Furnishing begins with the most credible elements, only to insert, soon after, into this seemingly familiar corner, the intruder from imagination, who quietly builds up his fraction in the text. The effect of such action is fascinating: I like it when language, thanks to its melody, rhythm, materiality, offers bizarre solutions, on the verge of error and wordsmith prowess. The moment of slipping into a disturbing otherness, after which one no longer wants to read further, only unknowingly repeats single phrases.

You consistently use the poetics of poetic prose in your work. What tradition is closest to your heart as a reader? French? Czech? Is it more Herbert or Julia Hartwig, or maybe Miłobędzka with her Anaglify (“Anaglyphs”)?

All the models you have mentioned are somehow close to me. Of course, I lived through the lesson of my fascination with the French school of prose poetry - especially Rimbaud and the cubists: Reverdy and Jacob, then Ponge and Leiris - which set my earlier poetry attempts in the orbit of concrete and geometry on the one hand and quasi-anecdotalism on the other. Hartwig was particularly close to me as the translator of Apollinaire, Jacob, and Michaux, and I believe she did it flawlessly. I read Miłobędzka in the context of concrete poetry, as a harmony with Dróżdż. I would obviously add to this list Białoszewski, who is very close to me both with regard to working with the spoken language (listening) as well as the form of text (prose poetry), and early Sosnowski, from the times of Konwój. Opera (“Convoy. An Opera”) and earlier volumes, as well as young Machej filtered by the Czechs. There is no doubt, however, that it was Herbert's poetic prose that had the strongest impact on my poetics. I believe that Herbert's first volumes are the most under-read material of Polish post-war poetry: it is the purest blood of the avant-garde, surrealistic imagery accompanied by cubist formal rigour (Jacob's anecdote)! What's more, these lines still work, they are alive and strong in the ear.

What phenomena within the scope of contemporary Polish poetry seem to you to be the most noteworthy?

I think that in recent years, a lot of interesting types of diction have evolved - from experimental to more classical. I observe a desire to return to concrete poetry and activity at the junction of visual and verbal (Kaczanowski, Mokry, Przybyła, Krzaczkowski), which of course has its origins in the poetry of Fox, Sosnowski, and Sendecki. What gives great results is poetry "from listening", compiling spoken and written Polish (Witkowska) and manoeuvring at the junction of linguistic vigilance and carnal involvement (Klicka, in a sense Małek). Then - raw poetry, going towards a strong, empirical detail from nature (Lebda) or a more sensitive detail, driven up by the spirit of impression (Gutorow, Suwiński, Gleń). Yet much can be found interesting in the poetry of everyday life, which opens up to changes in language and space (Świetlicki, Bielicki, Janicki, Wiedemann), carnal and organic lyricism (Bartczak, Fiedorczuk, Pasewicz), and local-ethno-philosophical poetry (Owczarek, Robert, the Silesians), a strong and accurate voice about today's world (Kopyt, Pietrek, Góra), and the last volumes of Jarniewicz and Król - the highest achievements in applying postmodern poetics to honest, intimate expression straight from the gut. The variety of these offerings is truly impressive; from minimalism to unbridled phrase, from haikuish snapshots to bulging narrative poems, from jagged ones on the right through prose poetry, to jagged on the left.

Among young Polish prose writers, do you notice any subversive, avant-garde, searching, unordered authors?

I must admit that I do not follow Polish fictional prose as deeply as poetry and non-fiction. I rather read foreign prose, translated and in the original. Of course, I like Dorota Masłowska for her unbelievable sense of language registers, and in this respect, I like the prose of Marcin Kołodziejczyk or Ziemowit Szczerka even more; all these books, however, are written "from listening", almost in an ethnographic, quasi-documentary method. And that’s all right, I buy it. Is this still young literature, though? Among the prose debuts of recent years, I would distinguish Weronika Murek with her Uprawa roślin południowych metodą Miczurina (“Growing Southern Plants the Michurin Way”): this kind of magical realism based on Eastern spirituality on the one hand, and on intertextualism integrated into the ethnosphere on the other, has proved its worth here superbly. It is a pity that Tomasz Pułka has left us so early: his Vida local is an example of highly experimental prose, greatly drawing on the best neo-avant-garde patterns, but also indebted to empiricism.

You're an avid cyclist. I wonder if we can ever expect your Bicycle Diaries? Do you happen to have a favourite reading that is inspired by traversing space, pushing the distance?  

For over a year, I wrote for the Cracow supplement of "Gazeta Wyborcza" (daily Polish newspaper – translator’s note) a series of essays under a joint title Granice miasta (“City borders”), which were a kind of a bicycle travel diary. I tested the possibility of a text of a triform nature: poetic prose based on the experience of observation, a sightseeing essay, and a personal note from everyday life. This concept has proved so successful that the texts will be published, after appropriate editing, in book form in the spring of 2020. But I also pursue my passion for cycling and textual work within the framework of the website Malopolska To Go, where I publish reports from my cycling excursions through Malopolska (Lesser Poland Voivodeship, a province in south-eastern Poland – translator’s note), charting interesting routes from the point of view of culture and nature. Although there is no place for poetic flippancy here, I can recoup this loss by weaving into the text the pictures taken during the ride. I have to say that I have always been inspired by travel and reportage-style literature, including bicycle literature, especially the kind with an individual, poetic character. I could mention Wolfgang Büscher with his walks in Europe and the USA, Daniel Kalder with his unique spirit of gonzo-flâneuring, or a more stable, but intellectually captivating Karl-Markus Gauss. Above all, however, Paolo Rumiz with his The Legend of Sailing Mountains, in which he travels across the Alps by bike, sharing many discoveries of a literary nature.

You're an admirer of 20th century avant-garde. In your latest academic book, Awangarda. Strajki, zakłócenia, deformacje („Avant-garde. Strikes, Disturbances, Deformations”), you wrote: "The history of the avant-garde in Central Europe will, from the very beginning, be a tangible, physical history, it will turn out to be the furnishing of a non-existent - or barely marked - territory.” What authors do you value and who would you mention as examples of writers "furnishing a non-existent territory"?

I am interested - as a reader and literary scholar, as well as a translator - especially in writers who approach their work in a transdisciplinary way. For to me, the avant-garde is a phenomenon based on the conviction that the traditional division into disciplines of art is to be replaced by borderline creation, which uses the possibilities of numerous means of expression. In this sense, this furnishing is a process that never ends, because it is subject to constant remediation. Artists such as Jiří Kolář (poet, prose writer, author of diaries, visual artist) Miroljub Todorović (creator of signalism, a neo-avant-garde trend in favour of performative and computer poetry), Vujica Rešin Tučić, Hungarian multimedia artists headed by László Lakner, Romanian and Czech surrealists, of course, there are many more names.

Let us still stick to this monograph for a moment. You write, "In Poland, surrealism has never existed, and it is still not present.” Is it really so difficult to include any names in this trend?

Yeah, I'm pretty sure of that. Apart from a few exceptions - the pre-surrealism of the juvenilia of Witkacy or Wat’s Piecyk (“Pug Iron Stove”), some isolated passages from Ważyk, Schulz, Vogel, later some excerpts from Harasymowicz, early Kornhauser and Barańczak, their students, e.g. Machej, then Sosnowski, later Melecki, Wiedemann, Honet, Owczarek – it’s difficult to talk about surrealism. And about conscious surrealism, about adopting doctrine and poetics – not at all. Of course, in recent years, there has been an interest in the avant-garde unprocessed by postmodernism – Rybicki, Przybyła. Mokry, Krzaczkowski, and even Malek and Klicka. However, this will be either a Dadaistic, a Situationist, or a Concretism trail. There are no references to the tradition of Breton et consortes, because Poland lacks a tradition formed in the Czech Republic, Romania, and Serbia, not only in France, and there are no translations neither. Paradoxically, it is Herbert who remains the greatest Polish surrealist in his first prose-poetic, ‘fairy-tale’ period.

To simplify things a lot, one can draw the conclusion from your writing that thanks to the avant-garde, others (scientists, politicians, officials, etc.) believed that it was possible to change the world. Can you think of any particular example here? Can you point to publications that have turned your mind inside out?

The revolution was to take place both on the social level (reduction of anthropocentrism in favour of revalorising the status of objects and non-human beings), as well as on the language level. While the first goal was achieved only in the lush and fascinating visions of ideologists-poets - although today, after almost a hundred years, we can see how prophetic the surrealists were - the second goal was achieved with great success. Most of the creative output of Czech or Romanian surrealists does not age whatsoever, they are still strong propositions that dictate terms to the whole of literary production. For example, Advantage of Vertebrae and Vasco da Gama by Gellu Naum from the 1940s, still unrivalled models of extended poems, in which the language flares up, jumping freely through spacetime, then calms down, arranges into delicate wrinkles on the page. Or Gherasim Luca's stories, a rare combination of a deregulated stream of consciousness and an effusion of linguistic curlicues that say one thing: the world is over, and we live only inside our egos. A real revolution!

You are the editor of the publishing series awangarda/rewizje (“avant-garde/revisions”, Wydawnictwo UJ - Jagiellonian University publishing house), Rumunia dzisiaj ("Romania today", Universitas publishing house), and wunderkamera (Instytut Mikołowski publishing house). Your afterword to Gabriel Liiceanu's book On Limit starts in this way, "Romania is a country of outstanding philosophers.” Which one is closest to you and why?

Indeed, thinkers such as Eliade, Cioran, Noica, and their students, Liiceanu and Pleşu, are important and well-known names. It is difficult to imagine a career of "weak thought" in Vattimo's ontology without Noica. It is difficult to talk about melancholy and the collapse of modernity without references to Cioran. However, to be honest with you, to me, the most important are still the writers, especially those who had gone through an essayist episode, who were the authors of manifestos or theses. Especially post-constructivists, like Ilarie Voronca, plus early and later surrealists: Geo Bogza, Gherasim Luca, Gellu Naum. I was lucky and had the pleasure to translate them into Polish. Bogza's early 1930s essays - Creative Fury or The Rehabilitation of Dream - are particularly close to me because of their indomitable, fierce, and yet irresistibly poetic character. The demand to readjust everyday life from quasi-mystical positions while believing in the dogmas of surrealism – that’s an explosive mixture.

You have recently translated and published in Mikołów publishing house The Passive Vampire by Gherasim Luca, the greatest achievement of Romanian surrealism, as you write. Are you working on any translations right now? Can you name your favourite translators who inspire you in your own work?

I value translators who take up experimental, avant-garde, and niche literature and are able to divest themselves of their habits in translating "traditional" literature, which is all about rendering meaning. Equally important is the melody of the original, the material shape of the text, the number of letters in individual words. The text should sound similar, not only mean the same thing. Of course, there are not many translators who would specialise in such a field; thus, there are no translations of experimental literature. There are not many who, like Barańczak, would be wordsmiths, who would forge the language like a hot iron. Well, with a heavy heart, I'm trying to fill that gap in the "wunderkamera" series. After The Passive Vampire, I am preparing a volume of Romanian short stories by Gherasim Luca, and this year, a selection of Gellu Naum's poetic series will be published. In addition, Joanna Kornaś-Warwas and I are thinking about an anthology of Romanian poetry of the 20th century.

I wanted to ask you now about your father's work, Julian Kornhauser. For several years, together with Adrian Gleń, you have been doing editing work, preparing full editions of the poetry, prose, and criticism of the author of Origami. Recently, Krytyka zebrana. Tom I (“Collected Criticism. Volume I”, WBPiCAK publishing house) has been published. Which Julian Kornhauser is closest to you as a reader and why?

I am close to Julian Kornhauser a surrealist, expressionist, author of the volume entitled Nastanie święto i dla leniuchów (“There Will Be a Holiday for Lazy People”), a New Wave Julian Kornhauser, especially from Stan wyjątkowy (“State of Emergency”), as well as Julian Kornhauser - a post-New Wave intimist and objectivist (to quote the magnificent Osiem linijek [“Eight Lines”]). But also Julian Kornhauser creating from listening, sensitive to colloquial, spoken Polish - from the volume Hurrraaa! (“Hoorraaay!), about which Komendant, Sommer, Lipszyc wrote warmly. I don't even mention my dad-the translator and propagator of the Serbian neo-avant-garde, because this is a separate subject. Without his translations of Miroljub Todorovic, Vujica Rešin Tucic, or Tomaž Šalamun, I cannot imagine contemporary avant-garde poetic diction.

What are you reading now? Are there any books coming out soon that you can't wait to read?

I have just read the book by George Saunders, the Booker Prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo, which made a great impression on me, just as did Dorota Masłowska's Inni ludzie (“Other People”), I consider this book to be the author's great return to form from more or less the times of Między nami dobrze jest (“All is Right Between Us”). I’m reading Darek Foks’s new book Café Spitfire forwards and backwards, length and breadth. And I have also returned to the frivolous poems of Edward Lear, and I recite aloud his The Scroobious Pip. I am waiting for the Polish translation of Michel Houellebecq's Serotonin, an author whom I value and like, although I do not always - or actually: less and less frequently - agree with his vision of contemporary times. His ability to manoeuvre between registers, however, from scathing satire to sentimental sighs, remains at the highest level.

Does reading require you to be completely focused and dedicated, or can you read wherever, with music, on a busy train, and so on?

I do indeed love reading on trains, especially novels, essays, and reportage. I travel often, and I'm used to reading when the world is flashing outside my window so much that when it's not flashing, I cannot concentrate. It is slightly different with poetry, of course: it requires tea and chocolate. And a hundred kilometres on a bicycle beforehand.

Interviewer: Bartosz Suwiński

Translated by Justyna Lowe