Night Table #31. Anna Matysiak: I like it when language is a tool for studying the world

The poet and publisher Anna Matysiak talks about her editorial work, discovering new poetic voices, rare readings for pleasure, her formative books and the eternal human need to tell stories.

You are a poet, a researcher, but also an editor and publisher. How does your work in the creation of books affect your perception of literature?

I have been an editor for a long time; before I started my own publishing house, I worked with others for a long time and I edited books on the broadly understood humanities, preferably on cultural studies. I edited about half of the Communicare and Dromena series at the University of Warsaw Publishers. Those were beautiful times for me as an editor: Ong, Assmann, Havelock, Albert Lord, Jack Goody, Duvignaud and others! At the same time, for six years I was the editor of the magazine Kultura Współczesna (Modern Culture) - an invaluable source of topics and inspiration for the National Centre of Culture - and the books of such great authors as W.J.T. Mitchell and Mieke Bal. I have edited a total of about half a thousand books. All this, of course, influences my perception of literature - I see it a bit like an anthropologist would: as a sphere of human activity, which next to other spheres is an expression of certain cultural mechanisms that allow our species to develop and survive. And as a tool for the study of culture. For several years I have been editing less for other publishers; it is due to running my own publishing house and working with students, but it is still a dozen or so books a year. Editing in the publishing house, on the other hand, has a slightly different character, mainly because it concerns primarily poetic books (apart from those, I also have an essay series in Convivo, and volumes of poetry have an introduction or afterword).

What does editing of poetry look like, what kind of reading is it?

It's a completely different work than in the case of scientific books, although of course it is also sometimes a matter of checking the correctness of words referring to the realities of the outside world or verifying these realities. However, this should be approached more flexibly and cautiously, one enters into a dialogue with a poet rather than correcting them. Another matter is to "put your ear" to someone else's text, to listen to it as if it were music and then to talk to the author about it; these are often fruitful contacts. I like it, it also changes me a little bit every time, it broadens the area of reality to be watched, it opens up.

What draws your attention in someone else's writing? What attracts you to a book/author?

Two things are most important: firstly, treating language as a material, working with language, and secondly, a situation where poetic language describes some universal mechanisms for organizing our life as a species, but all this through researching concrete. That is, a kind of stretching on the line: I (poet) - planet (mainly as an ecosystem for homo sapiens, but also a set that is not airtight: I like to see an element of posthumanistic leaning in a book, both in the direction of other species, sometimes very strange to us, as well as in the direction of things-products and their reciprocal deformation; I find it appealing not to avoid the issue of the cyber future and the entanglement of our subjectivity and responsibility in it. I like it when language is a tool to study the world. I like it when poetry is anthropology. I also like it when one can feel the struggle, breaking, falls and rises in the language. When it becomes a place for crazy expeditions, when it pulsates, when it hurts and when it allows for ecstasy. Such books happen sometimes. For such moments, it is worthwhile to be a publisher.

What have you been reading lately? I guess it was mainly poetic volumes in the typescript, subsequent versions of a proofreading.

There are many volumes in typescript, I didn't expect that many at the beginning - I mean here also publishing proposals that need to be read. Actually, it could take most of my time to read them, but I'm working alone. That's why people have to wait a little while for my answer lately.... Of course, I also edit science and popular science books for other publishers, sometimes very interesting, but mostly for the first or second time. During the next revision, indexing or revision it gets worse, although thanks to these procedures I am probably the most insightful reader of some books.

What about books that are read "privately"? What have you recently discovered for yourself?

The only novel I've read in recent months entirely for relaxation and pleasure: Lincoln in the Bardo by Saunders. I liked it, but I was expecting even more, probably because of the reviews I had read before. Besides, I receive poetry books from other publishers and authors and read them with interest; I come back to some of them. This is the case, for example, with Alphabet by Inger Christensen translated by Bogusława Sochańska. With books by Małgorzata Lebda. Of course, I read my authors' books - those published earlier and those published later. Some of their stuff I knew earlier, others I didn't, and this is also an area to discover. This is the case with Grzegorz Wróblewski, Krzysztof Jaworski or Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki. I also read poems in internet magazines, and this often involves pleasant discoveries (e.g. Paweł Harlender, whom I listened to first, but did not read, at the Krakow open mike, in a trance-like, shouted litany of a poem, as well as other young poets). Sometimes I feel that I should have discovered something earlier, like the poems by Andrzej Szpindler or Dominik Bielicki or Cezary Domarus.

These last names, this "riotous Warsaw school" as Dawid Kujawa would put it, i.e. the circles that once orbited the website "Cyc Gada", seem to be fit with your poetic interests (both as a poet and as a publisher)? What do you like about their writing?

It is difficult to put it briefly, but probably the most important thing is the way of experiencing language, language as a tool to study reality. Language in a unique situation, typical for today's world of dense and rushed communication and doubly folded meta-metadiourses. A language that is a testimony to this and, at the same time, a way to unseal. A poem like an X-ray picture, showing the skeleton on which all the soft tissue is held. When I see something that I normally only sense, or that hurts because of this folding, here for a moment I know what it is.

Let's talk about your roots for a moment - what were your formative books?

In my late childhood it was Leśmian, who stayed with me for a long time, then Bruno Schulz. Constantly Lem. I had periods of "getting into" a given author, it was like that with Baczynski at the end of primary school and at the beginning of high school, then with the German-language writer from East Prussia Ernst Wiechert and his novel The Jeromin Children.

You come from Masuria, Wiechert is a writer who was born in Mrągowo and has written a lot to your homeland. Is that why you are interested in his work?

Yes, it certainly had an influence, although at some point I probably simply gave in to the magic of his most important book. Perhaps at some stage it was for me a novel "to escape into" - a few hundred pages long story of a poor village in the middle of a forest, which lasts and is a refuge of values, where the characters are distinct and psychologically probable, and at the same time they have something archetypical, some quality of mythical heroes. I imagine that instead I could have found Karl May and noble Indians earlier... Then I wanted to see how it works and I put a network of notions taken from anthropologists, Elias and others on it. I had to write a chapter in my doctoral dissertation about this book so that it could leave me.

You also wrote a monograph of another author from these parts, Erwin Kruk.

At first it was a master's thesis, which was published as a book, it dealt only with the poetry of Kruk. There indeed the starting point was the thought of the regionalists, with Charles Brune at the forefront. I followed the most obvious path: I analyzed subsequent volumes as stages of recognizing my own identity, ever more difficult searches in memory and building the myth of the north, the Masurian Land of Nod, reclaimed in place of this reality, which could no longer be reconstructed by memory. I later devoted a chapter of my doctoral dissertation to Kruk and it was different - it was about analysing the situation of a human being in an area which is subject to radical change, where the cosmos of childhood is falling apart, including the names of cities, villages, rivers, signposts, as well as an almost complete replacement of population; in addition, Kruk lost his parents, somewhere on the verge of the ability to remember, and was forced to build anew almost entire personal ontology. I treated the writing of Kruk as initiation literature; I assumed that the initiation was never complete, because it was done without masters, on myself, in a sort of existential debt. A painful, torn, expressive process of becoming.

Let's return to poetry; which poets had the greatest influence on your own writing?

The most important are first of all (chronologically) Różewicz and Białoszewski. These are my foundations to this day. Then Grzegorz Wróblewski. 

So when did you find out about Wróblewski? What was it that appealed to you about this exceptional Copenhagen emigrant, probably the most unrecognized poet of the generation of "bruLion" to this day?

I discovered him for myself about a decade ago; at that time I worked very intensively with Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, where Ryszard Burek was the director at that time. It published Pomyłka Marcina Lutra [Martin Luther's Mistake] and Dwie kobiety nad Atlantykiem [Two Women by the Atlantic]. I felt that one day I would like to publish Wróblewski's books. What is most important for me in his writing: from my point of view, Wróblewski is an anthropologist who studies the situation of homo sapiens on the planet, in its entanglement in all civilizational changes and sequences. Now, especially in the situation of the crisis (also understood as a turning point), caused not only by the heritage of the last two wars, but mainly by the communication circumstances, a kind of acceleration of information flow. Technological acceleration in all areas is important here, but changes in the communication system are the most important. This was always the case in situations of revolutionary changes in this field: during the invention of alphabetical writing, then during the Gutenberg revolution - it seemed that the world was ending and indeed, in a sense, it was ending.

Is it ending now?

It is. We can imagine these strange things today: that we will not need any body extension in the form of laptops and the Internet on the phone, that we will carry our "cloud" in our heads and activate it with thought impulses. The individuality of the subject and identity will be radically negotiated, perhaps these qualities will become extremely processual or disappear. There will be a lot of fear along the way. This may happen, but it does not have to happen, because maybe we will become extinct, and the awareness of such a global threat also changes us. Wróblewski "tries" all this: linguistically, visually and performatively. He enters into it and looks at it at the same time. He is inside and outside, it is a difficult and demanding position. He also examines this suspension - what we do in such a situation, as an individual and as a species, what systemic evasions we try to work out. This is fascinating.

You are interested in the future, so I will ask a futurological, question - what will the literature of the future look like? How do you imagine it? Will we survive?

If we survive (we as a species or we as a literature creators), one thing - I think - will not change too much: we will still want to tell stories. This has changed surprisingly little from the very beginning. The means of communication only modified the way in which data was transmitted. Already in the times of "orature" people were talking about the same thing as today: about the search for identity: about who I am, where I am going (when I get there, will I get there and what I have to do along the way). Everything that went on is in a sense a transformation of the founding myths of homosapienism, which in turn gave us instructions to navigate the environment (both external and internal).

The second point relates to the observed principle that means of communication never become completely and irrevocably obsolete. When the alphabet was invented and writing became easy, it seemed that telling stories would be unnecessary, people's memory would deteriorate (Socrates complained about these horrible, rotten new times). This did not happen. In a way, functionally, yes - today there are no illiterate storytellers (but Albert Lord described singers in the Balkans just after the World War II! The most famous of them, Avdo Medvedovic was able to recite songs as long as the Homeric ones), but the stories are still told, groups of storytellers are formed, e.g. Grupa Studnia O ( and many others. Although new digital media genres are developing, such as the world of role-playing games and hypertext literature, classic stories are still the most read! If we take a closer look at this, we can see that the work of this area is surprisingly strongly influenced by the things we know well from the most classic stories: the characters only have better weapons and more "lives".

One can, after all, try to imagine a kind of avant-garde literature - in which texts created in our minds, immediately rewritten into a kind of cloud, have their own cyber-biostructure, or cyber-nano-structure, with a negotiable arrangement of soft and hard fields, which makes it possible to assimilate, modify, use up, experience. Wouldn't we then at some point lose the difference between ourselves and the story? But is it not already so on another level?

- interview by Jakub Nowacki

Translated by: Łukasz Konatowicz