BENJAMIN PALOFF: The poems in your books are tightly interwoven: they speak amongst themselves and to each other, and at times you can even read them as a single monologue. If I am not mistaken, you have never published a selection that excludes any portion of what has appeared in the first editions. Does this English-language Selected Poems, then, tell a different story from the original?
ANDRZEJ SOSNOWSKI: Yes, it has to be different, because the selection changes and modifies the whole. And, of course, this is how it has to be, which is quite exciting for the author. As far as the "whole" is concerned, it's not that I feel an affinity with some concept of the Book, in the manner of Mallarmé. I just like when poems are in conversation with each other and at times extend certain threads, when they refer to each other, when they shift something within themselves. I also have the sense that, in an absolutely fundamental, almost physical (corporeal) way, the things I write are "telling" one story. When all is said and done, this will be one story. But only for me. Of course, changing the story is an unavoidable consequence of changing the language. You can't tell the same story in two different languages.
BP: But you're also a translator and a critic of modern American poetry in Poland. Is it fair to say that translating your poems into American English returns something to the place from which you yourself took it? That is, does it complete some aspect of your work? I wanted this question to sound more modest than it does ...
AS: This is something that only you, and eventually your readers, can sense and know for yourselves. I have read quite a bit of American poetry, and I've translated some. Has some of that rubbed off on my own poems? I don't know. Let's take an obvious example. In "Poem for J. S.," there are moments in which I try to be in conversation with the form of James Schuyler's "The Morning of the Poem," and even with the poem's author. Does my poem sound like James Schuyler in English? I don't know. Sometimes this kind of return to the source, via another language, can recall a game of Chinese Whispers.
BP: I've always loved the name of that game in Polish: "Dead Line," or more literally, "Deaf Telephone." These days we usually call it Telephone or Whisper Down the Lane, but in Polish you know right away that the line is dead, that there's nothing to hear other than what you want to hear, albeit unconsciously. It sometimes seems to me that your poems, or even lines in your poems, are talking to each other while knowing in advance that the system of transmission can never work perfectly. As, for example, in your poem "Morning Edition": "Stop, / I think you misheard that." How do you go about creating this effect—an internal conversation that is truly dialogic, and not just a monologue in disguise?
AS: That's a tough question, because it concerns something that happens, as it were, spontaneously. The language that I feel within myself is a language that rarely goes silent, that rarely sleeps. And since it doesn't shut off and doesn't sleep, it usually speaks with itself. It is not, therefore, my monologue. It's not even the monologue of my own language, but a more complicated, polyphonic adventure, sometimes a dialogue, sometimes a polylogue. I really admire Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Monument," because in it you can hear this beautifully illusory dialogue: you can hear at least two voices in two different registers.
BP: And to some extent this is something that American readers have come to expect from many of their own poets, though not necessarily from foreign poets. Many of the Polish poets known abroad are treated as unambiguous, even as moral authorities. I have in mind, for example, Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska. I should confess that I do not agree at all with that assessment, but I'm curious about the role this necessarily reductive way of thinking and reading plays in the reception of poetry in translation. And, to be honest, a lot of readers of poetry in Poland think the same way. How do you respond to those expectations?
AS: I'm not sure that I do—maybe I don't fulfill their expectations. (Laughs.) Let's go back to the earlier question. If someone has the same sense of the work of language as I have, I'll grant that it's very difficult for a poem to utter some unambiguous communication of a moral nature. Something like a "statement" or "message" simply cannot work, because some other voice always appears that suddenly challenges and dismantles the tone and composition of the ostensibly unambiguous utterance. I'll refer again to Bishop. Poems like "The Monument," "At the Fishhouses," "Over 2000 Illustrations," and "The End of March"—these are very serious, beautiful, and intelligent poems. And yet Bishop absolutely does not appear in them as a kind of moral authority. She stirs us and delights us, but she does not preach. In this case we can perhaps speak of artistic authority, even existential authority, but not moral authority.
BP: And which other Modern or contemporary American poets do you most enjoy reading? I didn't want to ask. Though the answers are often very interesting, the question is something on the order of ''And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear."
AS: Ah, and now it's time to leave the capsule if I dare. Though I really am "floating in a most peculiar way." Are we talking about living poets? I don't have a thorough knowledge of many. I've been reading John Ashbery with great pleasure since the early 1980s. More recently, I've been reading Cole Swensen with pleasure. Among my exact contemporaries I like Peter Gizzi, who also has occasion for some very interesting adventures in language. And I love the various styles of Harry Mathews, though he primarily writes prose.
BP: What you were just saying about language reminds me of Jacques Derrida, that "I have only one language, yet it is not mine." Though I'm not sure that we can ever "have" a language. Maurice Blanchot, whom I know you also admire—I'm thinking of your prose poem "Local Traffic Rules": "It was then that, in a manner as mysterious as it was inevitable, Maurice Blanchot became entangled in my sentences"—Blanchot was of a similar mind, that writing itself is an activity, whereas what we call "writing" is merely a trace of that activity. In this sense, is translation a trace of traces?
AS: Inevitably. But since you bring up such distinguished thinkers, perhaps we could also add Walter nomen omen Benjamin. I write in an utterly fallen, scrambled language, and it's possible that somewhere in this language of mine, in the language of these poems, there remains some fallen spark of revelation. And that's precisely what a trace is. You translate my fallen language into an equally scrambled and fallen American idiom, and your only essential task, "The Task of the Translator," is to discover and lift up this lost spark. (Laughs.) Besides, the translator is almost as lonely a creature as the author, right?
BP: Sure, but it seems to me that our very existence, as the process of identifying ourselves with an ideal—and here it's Jacques Lacan, not Blanchot, who's become "tangled in my sentences"!—means gradual isolation. Writing, and here I would include translation, is a treatment, and not an entirely effective one at that, for our solitude. Otherwise, what would be the point of all our letters, all our poems?
AS: I'd go along with that. Though there is also that aspect of living through your own solitude, a certain way of enduring the passage of one's own time, a certain way of listening to and hearing oneself. For me, this is as crucial as communication.
About the Authors
Andrzej Sosnowski was born in Warsaw in 1959. A poet, translator, and essayist, he studied and later taught at the University of Warsaw. His collections include Life in Korea, Nouvelles impressions d’Amérique, A Season in Hel, Convoy. Opera, and Zoom. He has translated many American and English poets, including Ezra Pound, Ronald Firbank, and Edmund White, and he has received many literary prizes, including the Kosćielski Foundation Prize and the Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna Prize.
Benjamin Paloff is the author of The Politics, and has translated several books from Polish—most recently, Marek Bienczyk's Transparency. He edits poetry and criticism at Boston Review and teaches at the University of Michigan. His poems have appeared in New Republic, Paris Review, and elsewhere.
Lodgings: Selected Poems 1987-2010
Open Letter / University of Rochester