photo: author's archive

Bedside table #85. Adam Wiedemann: reading ‘inferior’ things helps in writing

Adam Wiedemann, poet, prose writer, translator, literary and music critic, talks about his reading habits, first readings and high school readings, the shock of his encounter with Grochowiak's poetry, reveals which poets he imitated in his youth, and through reading which writer the world could look better.

“I’ve overdosed on poems, stare blindly at a shelf filled with books,” wrote Menno Wigman in a poem that you translated together with Barbara Kalla. Do you sometimes find yourself in a similar state?

I wake up in the morning, in fact, no matter what time I wake up, I always have 'a shelf filled with books’ in front of my eyes, it's a pleasant sight, wouldn’t you say. Although I also sometimes look to the left, where a large painting by Paulina Lignar is hanging, and I can stare at it for a long time. Or to the right, where there are some birch trees growing outside the window. So, I understand people who only have a window.

When you read, do you sit or lie down?

Lying down, that's why I can't read books during the day, because it's a bit weird to lie down like that during the day, switch on the light. Unless it's over breakfast, in which case I usually sit and read a volume of poetry, it's good for digestion, which is a tedious and tiring process.

What book format suits you best? A small volume of poetry or a weighty experimental novel?

I have no strength in my hands for hefty books, nor do I like boxy books that cut into my stomach. The ideal format and binding is, say, the 1965 edition of Stendhal's Wybór z pism różnych (“Selection of Miscellaneous Writings”).

Do you listen to music while reading? Or rather do you read while listening to music?

All of these in the widest range of configurations, because, after all, I also listen while writing and while cleaning, I like to read and listen while eating, and especially eat while reading and drink while writing, listening alone is quite boring, I only indulge in it during concerts and while falling asleep (as well as falling asleep at concerts), reading works best for me on trains, I used to travel more on trains, and at the time, I also liked to listen to music on trains, from a Walkman, but the Walkman was stolen from me, and I haven't liked it since, even though a phone is supposedly more convenient.

Opposite the bookshelf, by the way, you have a record collection, perhaps just as important? Tell me, what is your attitude to music literature? In the narrow sense (writing about music) and in the broad sense ('musical writing')? Actually, you have already made this point in the introduction to your book Posłuszność. Przygody muzyczne (“Obedience. Musical Adventures”), but I still wanted to elaborate on what you mean when you write there that 'music is the prefix of all speech'?

That's what I said at the time, and I think it's right. For instance, communication with Irina. I never know what she specifically wants to tell me, but from the intonation of her meowing, I can guess whether she's telling me how it was on the balcony, or whether she's just hungry, or asking why the phone hasn't rung today. It is the same with films, we do prefer to watch them in the original languages, with subtitles, even though sometimes we do not know these languages at all, but we have the feeling that we are communing with the 'total creation', uncut (it's a different case with Rudnicki, he prefers everything with German dubbing, that's how he got used to it). I like to read books about music, scientific and popular science books, they attract me more than books about literature, because I always learn something from them.

Was that Englishman, Walter Pater, who claimed that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, which is only a form” right, then? Or is it completely different? Is there, for example, 'literary music'? I ask about it also because your latest volume of poems Odżywki i suplementy (“Nutrients and Supplements”) is - as Rafał Wawrzyńczyk noted - structured on the model of a symphony.

This Englishman was right in a postulative sense, although on the other hand he was not, because it doesn't aspire, only "should aim", but stops halfway through, and that is fine. If one pays attention only to the 'musicality of the phrase', then it no longer is good literature, if one pays no attention at all - either. As for the form of Nutrients - it just worked out that way, because at first, it was to be a simple "collection of poems", then Ania Piwkowska agreed to include the correspondence with Filip (which acts as a "scherzo"), and, at the very end (during the composition phase), I added Uciekinier (“The Fugitive”), which I call 'a great fugue', although of course it has little to do with a fugue, but I quite like this form now, as if taken from Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106: allegro - scherzo - adagio - fugue.

OK, let's get back to lighter questions. What will you never read, no matter how much they urge you?

I once got Crowley's Magick from Mirahina, it is a book that is firstly thick and boxy, and secondly, I am afraid to open it at all. It sits on the shelf and shines its black light (well, I recently lent it to Piotr Skalski and now I'm a bit afraid of what he'll get out of it, but from what he's told me, it seems he hasn't opened it yet either). Other than that, I don't know, I'd rather not be forced to read any of Olga Tokarczuk's new books for fear that (like Henryk Bereza in his old age) "I'll be converted to Olga".

Is there any reading you are ashamed to admit to?

If I tell you, it will mean that I am not ashamed, won't it? Once, on a scholarship in Germany, I had pretty much nothing left to read and picked up some French gay novel at my hosts' house; the boys were staying in Italy, I think, and they had a lot of love adventures while chatting about Michelangelo, Raphael, and their rival Leonardo. It was terrible pulp, but at the same time a "reading of delight". And the second experience of this kind was when I picked up a book at Mr Krzyś's one day entitled Siostra zjedzonego człowieka ("A Sister of the Eaten Man"). An elderly lady was standing next to me and said, “Make sure you read this one!” So, I bought it and indeed, it fully absorbed me. After that, I couldn't take to anything else for a long time.

Are there any books that you don't want to spoil for yourself by reading them? The kind you prefer to only have an idea of?

An interesting vision, but not really, there are rather some I'm a bit scared of, such as the second part of Jakub Wojciechowski's autobiography, which I want to tackle soon (in connection with the planned edition of his works by the Rural Writers' Union). But since it is considered to be unsuccessful - maybe it will be a positive surprise?

Were there any writers you enjoyed reading but would never want to meet?

I’d rather say there are some I regret ever having met. Although the opposite also happens, I once found myself at a party where Katarzyna Grochola was present and, admittedly, she held court a bit, but she also told a nice anecdote about how she had neutered a neighbour's cat because she thought it was hers. Oh, I know: I would never want to meet Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (although I wouldn’t say I read his works with any undue pleasure either).

What was the first book you read independently?

It was, if I am not mistaken, Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand. Hence my incurable pacifism.

And what did you read later, when you were, say, a teenager?

Then I went with the flow and read exclusively books about animals, both the obvious ones (Gucwińska, Goździkewicz, Żabiński) and the less obvious ones, such as Magda Leja's novel Kot pięciokrotny (“The Fivefold Cat”), which enabled me to read Jan Bloński's Zmiana warty (“Changing of the Guard”) with understanding at university. The saga of the lioness Elsa was most wonderful, but so was Angelo Cerkvenik's Runo, which was, as it later turned out, a cult book for Slovenian children, including Miklavž Komelj. I was never drawn into 'young adult' literature, because I was already at the stage of fascination with science fiction, which lasted until somewhere around the end of primary school (I particularly remember Snerg Wiśniewski's novel, I think Nagi cel (“The 'Naked Target”), where the protagonist suddenly finds himself in an 'immobile world' in which time passes much more slowly than it does for him).

So, you've read Lem? If I am not mistaken, Lem appears in one of your poems - by the way, it is a memorial poem to Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (I think so? I don't have it to hand). Lem was hated by Henryk Bereza and adored by Tadeusz Komendant.

Henryk resented Lem for his language stylisations into Old Polish and Young Polish, which he considered misguided from the point of view of 'living speech'. I myself started reading him with the novel Katar (“The Chain of Chance”), which turned out not to be science fiction at all, which hurt me a lot (I like this novel today), after that, I gradually read almost everything, including Filozofia przypadku ("The Philosophy of Chance"), but these were strictly primary and secondary school readings and I did not return to Lem later on, except for the purpose of a class with Jurek Jarzębski, where I think we discussed Maska ("The Mask"). But I'll also tell you an anecdote (I could tell you more, because my friend Wiercioch was Tomek Lem's fiancée for a while and brought back lots of tasty stories from the Lem household), well, one of the Lem books I bought for myself as a child was a book with the mysterious title Suplement ("Supplement"); at the time, I didn't yet know what it meant, and it turned out to be excerpts from his other books that didn't make it into those books, again I was disappointed. But when recently (that is a couple of years ago) Marcin Sendecki offered me to take part in the Antologia Lemowska (“Lem Anthology”, which is unlikely to be published now; the idea was to write a poem bearing the title of one of Lem's books), this very title came to my mind, and now, this poem is included in Nutrients and Supplements, somehow further justifying its title.

Was your literary taste influenced by Polish language teachers at the time?

Haha, you instantly assume they were solely women! (in the Polish language, nouns have grammatical gender, the ‘teachers’ above was used in a feminine gender – translator’s note). Quite right to be honest, although I also had a male Polish teacher for a while, and it was my very own dad, thanks to whom I managed to read Grażyna and I liked the same kind of verse in it as in Maria Janion. My high school Polish teacher, Zdzisława Wawrzycka, cut me some slack because she knew that I would read everything myself anyway. She just drew my attention to a shelf in the library with volumes of poetry, which is how I came across Grochowiak's Nie było lata (“There Was No Summer”), it was a shock.

What was the shock about? What did Grochowiak, a poet who I don't think almost anyone acknowledges today, bring to your thinking about poetry?

And what might the shock be? I simply encountered great poetry. As I've mentioned somewhere before, I like to like things that nobody likes, to have my own criteria, to make personal discoveries. At that time (early 1980s), Grochowiak was not talked about, not discussed, he was not there at all. So, I suddenly had 'someone of my own', not some Herbert or other Miłosz (who, by the way, I didn't like very much from the start), but a most private object of adoration, and such an object is always the greatest treasure. The same happened later in my student days with Wirpsza, with Ważyk, with Kozioł, who were also somewhat despised, and I discovered them, and they were already 'mine'. It seems unthinkable now, but, at the time, Wirpsza was known only as the author of Traktat polemiczny (“Polemical Treatise”), and therefore the one who 'dared to raise his hand against Miłosz', I liked this treatise, of course, and it brought me to Wirpsza's much better poems. Coming back to Grochowiak, I happened to come across his best volume straight away; while it is true that this is no longer the Grochowiak we perceive as a 'typical Grochowiak', it is a solid and faultless Grochowiak, capable of going toe-to-toe with all the greatest, even a little 'Miłosz-like’. Of course, Błoński, having written about him once, did not consider him any more afterwards, because he would not fit into his "Miłosz line" as being better than Miłosz, and how can one be better than Miłosz?

When was the best time for you to read?

At university. At that time, I hadn't yet fallen in with 'a bad crowd’, so I read anytime, anywhere. Anyway, speaking of Polish teachers, I had classes with Maria Indyk, who dealt with writers such as Buczkowski and Parnicki (I probably wouldn't have taken an interest in them myself), and she also lent me Gombrowicz's Dziennik (“Diary”) when it hadn't yet been published in Poland. I became interested in Piotrowski on my own, no one had read or discussed him in Polish Studies at the time (and this is probably still the case today).

Do you remember your first reading of Mieczysław Piotrowski? The circumstances of it?

Of course. Having settled in Krakow at Krupnicza Street (it was 1986), I went to the library, which was located opposite my shoebox of a flat. There, I simply started looking around and two thick books caught my eye, which I had never seen before. One was called Złoty robak (“The Golden Worm”), the other Cztery sekundy (“Four Seconds”). The author was also most 'transparent' to me (although I later found Ogrodnicy [“The Gardeners”] in my hometown Grabów in the library, never before read by anyone). I borrowed 'The Worm', started reading it at home immediately and ‘The Prospect’ swept me away right away, and then the 'Husserlian' description of the bicycle, the semi-gay stories with Hieronim and Filip, the hardcore tour of the pubs of Bydgoszcz, everything there was most wonderful.

Piotrowski is sometimes described as an incompatible, separate phenomenon. Andrzej Falkiewicz compared his writing with great Austrian prose. And you, if you were to compare Piotrowski with someone, who would you point to? Is there anyone at all who channels similar frequencies? Bishop Berkeley? Godard?

I find these comparisons always annoying. Piotrowski was a maverick mind and artist, he wrote his own stuff and is rather incomparable (therein lies, all in all, his misfortune too). Well, because one could say that he resembles, for example, Clarice Lispector - and so what?

Does reading help with writing, or does it get in the way?

It helps, especially reading the 'inferior' stuff, which can become a springboard for your own ideas. Because reading masterpieces tends to get in the way, it is harder to bounce back from a masterpiece.

Have you ever fallen victim to a fad for a certain author?

I have already mentioned Herling-Grudzinski, it happened because of Jurek Jarzębski, as well as it did with Konwicki. But these were student days, the 'victimhood' moment came later, when the 'New York School' fad came along. In fact, at the time, I formulated the thesis that one might as well imitate Wirpsza and Bialoszewski, but still some O'harisms and Ashberisms made their way into Samczyk ([“Male”], well, it was an awful lot of pressure).

Which poets did you imitate as a budding poet?

As a young man - Kochanowski, Leśmian, and the aforementioned Grochowiak. There were also French poets, especially Laforgue, but also Zone and Easter in New York translated into Polish by Ważyk, and of course Ważyk himself, although that was later, as were the Slovenes. Komelj, although younger, had a great influence on me, and of the older ones: Kocbek and Jesih. These were all good influences when it came to the development of the technique (or its 'solidification'); I judge this American influence as a bad one, which I only realised when I went to the USA, where young poets imitated Miłosz and Zagajewski, and John Ashbery came to Iowa as a 'little-known writer', and I think I was the only one who recognised some of his poems. It was then that I realised that this was a strictly Polish aberration that was nothing to worry about (although it must be said that Sommer, Zadura, and Sosnowski succeeded in this art of evoking some kind of collective hysteria, which we, in turn, 'infected' Slovenia with).

Have you ever wanted to write a 'great novel'?

Maybe not a great one, but I would like to write a novel one day, and, in fact, I think if it was still the 1990s, I would have written one by now; unfortunately, the term 'novel' now stands for something else, and I am not as adamant about writing prose as, for example, Waldemar Bawołek, who finally managed to convince the public of his own format. I'm more of a 'poet-novelist', I can't plan and then execute that plan, all my work is one big improvisation.

Is your approach to literature Puritan?

It is, and it isn't. I basically lead a 'monk's life', devoted entirely to writing, but, after all, you know that I also like to party or even go wild sometimes. So, I guess this puritanism of mine is more about what I read. I apply my 'tools' to everything, and it has to be of the highest quality for me to like it. Because why should one appreciate things that are 'fairly good'?

Are you a reader of religious literature?

By no means. I rather treat everything as 'religious literature', a piece of the Holy Scriptures that we all write together all the time.

If you had to decide what book the whole nation would read on National Reading Day, what would it be?

Piotrowski's Cztery sekundy (“Four Seconds”), of course. Sometimes I imagine what the world would be like if everyone knew it.

What would you forbid the nation to read?

Krzyżacy (“The Knights of the Cross”, because I haven't read it myself), obviously. Maybe also Sylwia Chutnik and Walter Benjamin.

Which writers do you consider better than yourself?

Well, those who are better, and there are many. And in all seriousness, almost everyone out there is better at something than me, and I'm better at something than everyone else. It all depends on what is this 'something', because there are also better and worse things that one is better at.

All right, thank you for this conversation, I'll end with a completely serious question (which doesn't mean that the previous ones weren't serious): has literature given you more in your life or has it taken more away from you?

Recently, Kasia Szumlewicz and I chatted about the 'justification of existence', as Kasia felt she was briefly 'without justification'. To me, literature provides such justification, and what more could you want? Of course, there are also moments when I doubt it, or look for justification in other people, some boys, or even Irina seems to me to be the justification of all existence, but these are fleeting states, and literature is a constant, someone is constantly trying to destroy it, to ruin it, and yet it still persists, keeps one alive. And has it taken anything from me? How could it have taken anything from me when I never had anything?

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki

Translated by Justyna Lowe