photo: Agnieszka Cytacka

Bedside table #74. Tomasz Bąk: Love tastes better when it includes elements of a book club

Winner of the Silesius Poetry Award for best debut and the Gdynia Literary Award for his poem Bailout, author of seven books of poems and the one-act play Katedra (“Cathedral”), Tomasz Bąk talks about his series XXI, the climate disaster and the multi-narratives that could finally spur action, economics books, poets who inspire him, poetainment, as well as his current readings.

How well do you swim?

Oh, that's a very personal question! I rarely swim at all, and even rarer swim well. After a recent visit to the swimming pool, I concluded that if someone swims well, swimming must be deadly boring for them (which, of course, doesn't preclude taking pleasure in every length of lane covered), and when I get in the water, swimming suddenly becomes deadly exhilarating - a constant battle for life, brutal clashes for every breath, choking in water, taking up the entire width of the lane in crawl. Basically, you'd rather not be in the pool with me then, but you'd probably have a good time watching the whole affair from the pool's edge.

And what about handling oars, sails, windsurfing boards, or motorboats?

Twenty years ago, I was for a moment a meat filling in a sailboat gliding through the Sulejowski Reservoir - it was nice, but I somehow never managed to repeat it. However, a few years later, I was kayaking, and that was more of an adventure, because one of my friends figured that instead of paying the kayaks' owner to pick us up from Spała (a village on the Pilica River – translator’s note), where, by the way, none of us were to have a drink or sleep, we could, after all, go back upstream in the kayaks, and thus save a fiver or something like that. We already knew the route, so what could go wrong?

The world is drowning - that's what your latest poem XXI nagi wodnik w śródmieściu (“XXI naked aquarius downtown”) is about. Are you sure, absolutely, there is no longer any rescue for us?

If I were to address any part of the question in an absolute way, I would say that XXI is a series culminating in an epic poem. I find other parts more problematic, as I don't know what you mean by 'us' and what 'rescue' is supposed to mean. I think a small fraction of the possibly widely understood 'us' may be rescued in some sense, but does it rescue us in any way?

A poem, a series, a set, a collection of poems referring to Anatol Stern - no matter what terminology we use, reading this text deprives one of any hope, "I don't know what I'll be remembered for; I don't know if I'll be remembered; I don't know if there will be anyone to remember" (XXI). Did the end of history prolong in time for the symbolic to become real in the face of climate change and related disasters?

Let's just say that Western societies' internalisation of the concept of the end of history was somewhat akin to the process of waking up for work, with the inherent, much-repeated 'five more minutes'. The present has solidified like jelly, making it difficult to move in either direction, sure, but, most of all, the need to move has ceased to exist - the here and now was sweet, warm, and very pleasant, and the future was to be another present, only with extra trimmings, let’s stick with the jelly: homemade raspberry juice and crushed walnuts. Sitting up to our necks in jelly, experiencing 'reflexive impotence' (Fisher) and subsequent 'retromanias' (Reynolds), we have reached a point where we are essentially no longer capable of taking any action that could potentially ensure that we are not, like this baby, thrown out with the jelly....

And perhaps this flood, this time, will also be cleansing? Perhaps all it takes is a little bigger bucket of cold water?

I am not enthusiastic about human sacrifice.

Literature will never be a safe haven, but it can guarantee a more in-depth reflection on the world and its fate. What readings would you suggest in this context? What accompanied the writing of this – and I quote - 'series culminating in an epic poem’?

In writing XXI, in addition to the scientific articles on climate disaster available online, a book by David Wallace-Wells called The Uninhabitable Earth proved very helpful and should be treated as a warning call, and the most interesting thing about it is actually why it doesn't work, it doesn't do its job - especially when, as if gaining self-awareness, it describes the mechanisms that make it impossible for it to work. It's a slightly different approach to the subject than in the books by Foer or Magnason, which are popular in Poland, because instead of sensitising us to our surroundings, the author serves us a series of shocks - yet it still doesn't work. And what could possibly work? - you will probably ask. Well, I guess you could try to poach from the populist right their pride and joy, the so-called 'multi-narratives', and create as many stories as possible focused on the greatest challenge of the modern age, targeted at specific audiences: with economic forecasts for the ladies and gentlemen of Civil Development Forum, with species extinction for the sensitive, with flooded SUVs in underground garages for people with mortgages, with killer heat waves for those who are getting older, etc. The enormity of the problem, as well as its all-encompassing nature, means that - as opposed to the gas attacks emitted by right-wing politicians and columnists every day - these narratives need not be at all mutually exclusive, and using this technique will ensure that everyone gets something that affects them personally. Cool, right?

Very much so, it makes you want to invest in such narratives. But first, idealistically, I would focus on the poems. In terms of strictly poetic stuff, who - apart from 'steersman' Stern and, let's face it, once patrons and now committed colleagues - did you draw from?

Vigilant readers will probably spot a crypto-quote from Cavafy, a reference to a phrase from a poem by Marcin Świetlicki, which is important to me, and a paraphrase of a passage from Milosz Biedrzycki, but otherwise I would have to think deeply about what else might have influenced the shape of Naked aquarius.... You know, the process itself was quite short and altogether painless (especially that it's writing about annihilation, and so what if it hasn’t happened yet), the book was composed between November and March, it was written in parallel with the poems for the volume O, tu jestem (“Oh, Here I Am”) and Playbook. I think I may have read some American poetry, but who specifically? Schuyler, sure, he even appears in the series' concluding poem, but what else? And to what effect?

To the effect that I will delve further and deeper: would you also reach for esotericism and divination in the broad sense? The zodiac signs, Aquarius and Pisces, play an important role in this series, not only metaphorically.

Astrology in XXI appears by right of religion, as one of the last resorts for people deprived of hope, affected by disaster not where and not how they wished it to happen, but it was not a subject I somehow particularly wanted to explore. In fact, my associations with astrology are limited to an anecdote going around about working for a local weekly newspaper. If the anecdote is true, a journalist who is late for work prepares a horoscope for the next edition as punishment. I used to start work on time, so I don't see any reason to engage in astrology.

Given the scenery, do you still believe in anything?

Oh yes, in many things and many people, that a few more nice moments will happen to me here, that maybe I'll be able to put together an aesthetic sentence, that I'll find one or two such sentences in the book I'm about to read.... And my strongest wish is to believe that I am wrong, because pessimists are much better off being wrong.

And love? In the epic poem, no disputing the term here, it nevertheless provided an important counterpoint.

Love is also what falls through the open window at the end of the XXI, a certain counterbalance to the enormity of potential suffering and cruelty. And while I'm not sure it's a completely fair exchange, there must be something to hold on to. That is why, coming back to the question of faith, I believe that Kinga and I will both fit on the door drifting on the ocean.

Does love need any readings at all? As part of this conversation, we are supposed to be promoting reading, but does it even matter when you are in love?

A relationship is much more valuable (and love - tastier) when it also includes elements of a book club. I highly recommend testing this out!

How much literary research in areas other than love was required of you to write Bailout? Basic economic knowledge, even combined with an anti-capitalist and anti-free market stance close to you, may not be enough here.

Yes and no. I was preoccupied with the financial crisis to the extent that the research basically was done on its own, because for more or less a decade I almost obsessively bought or borrowed anything that could help me understand it, so the challenge with Bailout was to find the right format for the story, rather than cobbling together facts and anecdotes from various sources. But, as is quite often the case with me, I came across the most helpful title during the writing process after I had already finished the book - I am referring to a book from the Heterodox publishing house catalogue, namely Steve Keen’s Debunking economics. The author was one of the few economists who warned of the coming crisis, and the massive brick of a book published by Heterodox is the best way I know of to get kicked out of economics school, as Keen dismantles the edifice of mainstream economics step by step, piece by piece, and does so with great panache, exactly the way I imagine dancing on the rubble. It's a really exciting, enthralling book, although I'm guessing much more so for me than for those who haven't experienced an economics course at undergraduate level.

What are you reading now?

I've just finished a quick jog through Baudrillard (wading through his sentences does my brain good), along the way there was also Białoszewski in a selection by Jakub Pszoniak, Ballard's Hello America, reportage on Riot Grrrl, books by Atwood and Zadie Smith, and now I've started a collection of texts by Joan Didion. I have read quite a lot of prose since the beginning of the year, which is a bit of a novelty for me, as I usually tend to go for essays and reportage, read between the lines, of course. I've also been going through the aforementioned Fisher all this time, I'm preparing a bigger thing based on Capitalist Realism, I'm actually about to finish it.... It's taking me an awfully long time to get through it, and my copy is already so well-thumbed that any further flipping through it might turn out to be its last.

Are you writing another epic poem/series of poems? Have you developed, from a certain office publisher, design thinking?

I figured that if I put my poetics on two legs: the more conceptual one and the more free-form one, not only would it become more stable, but it would also provide more opportunities for readers, allowing the poetainment strategy to be realised on a larger scale. Besides, I'm having more fun, so why should I stop?

There was also a time when you had fun, publishing - through the increasingly thriving Papier w dole publishing house - the one-act play Katedra (“Cathedral”). So, for the full spectrum, you are left with prose. Are you thinking about it?

I've managed to publish short stories in some places, but to be honest, I'd like to put something more serious on the shelf one day so that one day, I can confidently say that I'm a writer, although this plan doesn't really match up for the moment with a full-time job. I'm looking for a formula that would allow me to add a few paragraphs in the evening, before walking the dog, while avoiding the final document giving the impression of Solpol (department store building in Wrocław – translator’s note), or whatever is now considered to be cobbled together. If I can get to that point, I will, of course, communicate it immediately. After all, it's a bit daft to be the only person in your own house who hasn't written a novel, isn't it?

I understand that you not only cultivate a book club on an ongoing basis, but also enjoy sharing valuable writing tips with Kinga?

We sometimes discuss specific ideas and completed sentences, Kinga is also the first reader of my poems, but it comes out quite naturally. It's not like we specifically arrange consultations and talk about writing for an hour or two. However, the fact that we both write makes our relationship more equal, as we better understand each other's needs and the rituals associated with sitting in front of the computer and typing on a keyboard.

Finally, I would like to return to the bottom line: how to live with the awareness of the inevitable end, which is looming and becoming more real, as if in a Jehovah's Witness universe?

I think the hint at the end of XXI is the seed of a strategy of sorts, yet this should not be seen as a survival strategy. As we say goodbye, it is worth reflecting on what else it is that we would like to do, and what we would prefer to avoid after all, and squeeze it somehow into the framework of a day, a week, a month. I think if I've learnt anything in the ten years since the diagnosis, it's mainly not to be particularly serious about your plans and just enjoy every small victory, even if it was getting out of bed.

How to write? What to avoid?

Should I be tempted to offer some more general tips, two come to mind that I have drawn from other engagements. Playing music, I've learnt that the fundamental thing is that whatever comes out of the amplifier should be enjoyable for those who are playing - if it's not, it's probably better to go for a walk. The second tip comes from the hockey field: Wayne Gretzky once used the phrase You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. Even a failed attempt is more valuable than not making an attempt.

Interviewer: Rafał Gawin

Translated by Justyna Lowe