photo: MagdalenaRubine / JWT

Bedside table #41. Adam Kaczanowski: Every brilliant book is a call to work for me

Poet and prose writer Adam Kaczanowski, winner of last year's Silesius Wrocław Poetry Award in the "Book of the Year" category, talks, among other things, about the selflessness of reading, the influence of fantasy on his work, genetically inherited bathtub reading, damaging books, and what discourages him most in literature.

I know you read a lot, so I’ll take it a step further. Do you like it, or do you need it?

I like it. I sure do. But do I need it, or am I an addict? It would probably become clear if one day, I was cut off from books, although it is hard to imagine. Anyway, I prefer to think of reading as pure, irrational, and selfless pleasure rather than as a rational need.

I'm asking, among other things, because I'm curious whether reading can be treated as a kind of fuel that propels one's own creativity. Or maybe the other way around - when you write, you can't read because other styles and diction distract you?

Oh, yeah, sure. There are books that restore my faith in literature, in its power, and after reading them, I would like to throw myself into writing. And this is not about style, diction, or subject, it is more about the power and meaning of writing as such – it’s about the fact that writing can be a revolution sending us into the still uncharted corner of space.

Recently, faith in writing poems has been restored to me first by Tomasz Bąk with his Baillout, and, a moment later, by Aleksandra Wstecz with her Kwiaty rozłączki (“The Flowers of Separation”). These texts show me that this kind of fun still makes sense. It was a similar case recently with prose, with Natalka Suszczyńska's Dropie (“Bustards”). Walter Abish's books, In the Future Perfect and How German It Is, they used to work on me like that too. J.G. Ballard's story The Terminal Beach. James Schuyler, Jane Bowles… Once, after reading Dariusz Sośnicki's book, I wrote mine in two to three evenings - it was Sośnicki. Szary człowiek. (”Sośnicki. A Common Man”).

I'm not distracted by someone else's explicit diction, I'm not afraid of the excessive influence of other writers.  Every brilliant book that comes into my hands is automatically a call to work for me.

How do you balance full-time work - not related to literature in fact - with household chores, with writing, with being a juror in competitions, and also with reading? Isn't this some kind of suicidal mission?

I'd like to say it's just a matter of good work-time management, but it's not. Maybe it's a matter of desperation? I have very little time to read; the list of books I want to read - and don't have time to do it - is much longer than the list of books I've happily read. Especially since I can't read quickly; for me, it's often a tedious process to hack through the pages. And due to the constant lack of time, I also have a lot of unfinished books, uncompleted, or in fact, only just glanced at, I jump from one book to another. I'm just giving up and abandoning Moby Dick, and I'm returning to another Herman Melville book, formerly abandoned, to Typee. I'll finish the second one, not the first one though. Under ideal conditions, I'd sweat it out and finish both. In reality, I only finish reading those that really absorb me.

Do you have a favourite place to read? Bed, sofa, public transport? And when? Are there any books that are only suitable for a certain time and certain places?

Definitely the bathtub. I love lying in the tub and reading. I also like to damage books while reading - maybe not heavily, but wear out intensively, bend, rumple to make them look like they have really been read - and it's working out quite well in the tub. I have this childhood memory when my mother fell asleep in a bathtub with a book and sank that book, then I admired how beautifully wrinkled her novel was. So, I have genetically inherited reading in the tub. Now I'm suffering because I temporarily live in a house with a shower. And I like to read while eating, especially at breakfast. You can get your book nicely dirty here too, I recently made a nice stain on the cover of Kenneth Koch's One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays translated by Piotr Sommer. A beautifully published book, really, and with a stain on the dust jacket, it seems even more beautiful. The third option is obviously the bed. In public transport, for example on the train or on the bus, I always have very ambitious reading plans, but unfortunately nothing comes out of it, because in public transport, sleeping wins – when travelling, I really like to nod off a bit. There are those poor books that I keep carrying with me in my backpack, thinking I'll read them on the metro. But I don’t think I ever managed to do it. But as for the second part of your question: no, it’s not the case for me that some books are better for a beach holiday and others for gloomy winter evenings.

So, you don't have an aversion to lending books?

No, the only problem with the borrowers is whether they'll give the books back or will have to be reminded. But once they have borrowed these books, they can easily damage them.

Do they know about it?

Well, once, I had this problem but the other way round in a way, because the book that I lent fell apart, and the person who was supposed to return it to me was struggling unnecessarily, because they felt guilty. And I was even a little proud of them.

Where do you keep the books you'd finally like to read? Do you have something like a bedside table? Or stacks of books scattered all over the house?

All the books - mine, my wife's, and my daughter's - we try to keep within the bookshelves, there are different pyramids created, and that’s where the mess is; if they spill over somewhere, it's usually on the windowsills. The windowsill is kind of a porch, a purgatory. A little bit of a chest of drawers, too. On top of that, there's my backpack - the book transported in it that I've already mentioned, the one for reading on the metro. It’s a very unlucky one.

What is it that interests you most in today's literature?

I can't answer that in a binding way. Because I might find anything interesting. Sometimes some emotion, some hyper-human, hyper-realistic touch. Sometimes technicalities, sometimes the courage or uncompromising nature of a given author. It is easier for me to determine what discourages me - conservatism, mediocrity, correctness; there are some books that might as well not exist. And it would be better if they didn’t. I'm discouraged by excessive garrulity, babbling, sophistry. I hate it.

So, all those The Magic Moutains, Brochs, Musils – they’re not for you?

The Magic Mountain is not for me, definitely. The model of readings “for me” is the prose of Franz Kafka. There - on the level of the plot - something is happening all the time; I don't get bored while reading even for a second. Or John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. I'm one of those readers who skip the descriptions of nature and avoid like the plague all kinds of thinking, deliberations. But I’m sure I could find an exception... Oh, Henry Miller, there's a narrator in his works that I hate, a babbler. But in his case, this babbling doesn’t bother me at all.

So, how do you make your choices?

I read a little bit by authors, and a little by the law of the series, because I am not only a reader, but also a collector of literature, my books stand on a bookcase grouped in series. The queen is the black PIW (State Publishing Institute) series. I suffer when a publishing house is inconsistent in publishing "its" author: for instance, Susan Sontag in Karakter publishing house at several different heights - that's a real crime. Or when the lettering on the back of one of Franz Kafka's books published by the PIW does not match at all the other one, which was only published a moment later. What a nightmare.

However, the most reliable source of information about the authors worth reading is still “Literatura na Świecie" (“World Literature”) magazine for me.

Do you have your favourite critics, or do you try to find new readings on your own?

I read the critics' texts, often even with pleasure, but I don't think I treat them as guides to the world of literature. For me, however, the critical text is another literary text - an autonomous stage of fun, not a recommendation or evaluation, just like on Filmweb (the largest Polish film database – translator’s note).

That could somehow be confirmed by your review of [Ka] (“[Kei]”) by Marcin Sendecki, which you published in the magazine "Wizje", because it proves that even literary criticism may look like Leopold Buczkowski's Pierwsza świetność (“First Splendour”). Or the page that you run on Facebook, where, in various interesting configurations, you collate books with food products or cosmetics. But, back to the main topic - there are no such genres that programmatically repulse you?

Science fiction is my thing, or at least it was. Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, Robert Silverberg, William Gibson – these are authors who created me as a writer, who had a great influence on me, especially in my youth. I've also read horrors a bit, I know the work of Graham Masterton, and I have nothing against it; if I had enough free time, I would return to reading horrors. The only genre that turns me off me is crime. I have not an ounce of curiosity to wait for the answer to the question of who killed. There must be some anti-crime or post-crime books, but someone would have to recommend me some good ones.

Prudently then, I do not recommend the famous Świetlicki trilogy. Anything else?

I like children's literature very much: on the one hand, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll and The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum, but also Swedish masterpieces – The Children of Noisy Village, Pippi, and, from newer things, Bridget or Albert. These are excellent and very inspiring things.

Tell me more about the books that shaped you - from your childhood and youth.

The first book I read myself was The Three Musketeers. I remember reading it in the shortest possible time, sitting in my grandmother's kitchen during the summer holidays. Then came a period of hundreds of comics and fantasy. Afterwards came poetry - the first poet who made a big impression on me was Ezra Pound. There was also a moment of reading Shakespeare passionately. And I believe my childhood ended with Ashbery.

Are you (still) reading to your daughter? Do you suggest any books to her?

She's eight years old - and yes, we still spend time reading together. We're on the third volume of Harry Potter, fine, it’s not bad. We have also done the Swedish gems I mentioned earlier, and the reading of those was a lot of fun for both me and my daughter. In one of the parts of Bridget, you can see an illustration of her dad reading American Psycho... you immediately feel at home.

I was a little disappointed with Polish contemporary children's books, until finally we came across Niesamowite przygody dziesięciu skarpetek (“The Incredible Adventures of Ten Socks”) and Nowe przygody skarpetek (“The New Adventures of the Socks”) by Justyna Bednarek - and this is a cracker. The readings that maybe wouldn’t naturally find her, and the reading of which I provoked, is The Borrowers saga. I remembered it from my own childhood, and I wanted to return to it. And the aforementioned The Wizard of Oz, he's not very popular today, and I sneakily prompted it too.

Do you have an e-reader? Have you tried to use such inventions?

Ola, my wife, she has a Kindle. I've tried to read something on it a couple of times, and I could live with it if I had to, but I'm not a fan.

And do you read the texts you once wrote? Do you return to your own texts? Maybe you sigh with discontent that you worded something in one way and not the other?

I try to avoid reading myself. This is the type of autoeroticism I'd like to stay away from. And I prefer to assume that it's better for me and for my writing if I presume that I've bodged everything so far, and the only chance to improve the result is to write a better book. What matters to me is what I'm working on at the time, the rest is the past, and there's no point in going back to it.

I only had to return to my works while working on Happy End, poems collected from 1994-2013. The texts that I couldn't stand, I just threw away, left the rest alone, didn't dig through them, didn't improve them drastically.

Do you write at work - like Gombrowicz, under his desk – or you don't have this possibility? And at home? Writing in the bath is probably a little harder than reading.

I would like to – and, in theory, I probably could - but in practice, I have too much work at work to make this happen. And the bathtub, let's just leave it as a temple of reading. Had I started writing in it, no lotion would save my skin.

I simply write at the table, at the desk, wherever I can sit down. No rituals or holy places. In the evening, after eleven p.m., when most of the duties are already taken care of.

Your bibliography shows that you feel at ease in all forms - you write poetry, prose, drama, you publish them alternately. Is such a crop rotation necessary so as not to fall into a routine? Or maybe this multitude of ways of expression is due to something else?

I don't feel any compulsion of form, these are very fluid issues for me - I like working somewhere on the border of genres. So, it is not a crop rotation for me, but an eternal polygamy.

Last year, for your book Cele (“Goals”), you received the Silesius Wrocław Award, one of the most important poetic recognitions in Poland. Do you feel the pressure now?

I don't think so. I didn't write this book for any jury and any award - and I won't write any next ones with that in mind either. Silesius made things easier for me, for example, talking to publishers, it also gave me some wind in my sails, but it didn't change my priorities and approach to writing.

Last shot: what are you working on now?

I've now focused on prose, I have three novels to write, this is a job for the next few years. First Utrata (“The Loss”), a novel written from three different perspectives - man, woman, and child. The story of the break-up of not so much a relationship, but of a world. Then, Calineczka. Tunel (“Thumbelina. The Tunnel”), a novel stemming from the Andersen fairy tale, the story of Thumbelina trapped in the tunnel with a Mole. I have both these books mostly written, I have been working on them for a long time, but I never sat down to finish them. The third novel is to be a play on Lost in America by Franz Kafka, my version of the ending of this work. It's a bit ambitious – to plan to write three books when all the signs in heaven and earth indicate the coming end of our world, but maybe I'll make it; I'm going to play like an orchestra on the Titanic.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe