Piotr Florczyk on translating Anna Swir
Poet and translator Piotr Florczyk, tells us that Anna Swir was “profoundly interested how humans live and die; how the human condition figures in their actions.” As one of the most prominent feminist Polish poets of her time and survivor of the Warsaw Uprising, Swir writes the body, as Florczyk describes “both the object and source of pain and desire”. A poet of concision, Swir’s work meditates on the bare bones of moments, teaching the reader and in this case also the translator to “trust an image”.
Florczyk, a multilingual poet whose native tongue is that of Swir’s, translates her voice with the precision of music, image, and idea. From Swir, he expresses that one of the most important lessons she taught him remains in the music; both English and Polish, in his work and hers.
1.) Anna Swir is considered one of the most important Polish poets of her time. Could you speak a bit about her life and work?
Well, she’s important because of her subject matter—mainly WWII and women’s lives—and her treatment of these subjects, but she’s not read or discussed widely in Poland. It seems to me that Poland’s literary history has not kept up with her because there have been so many changes in how poetry functions in Poland, especially since the end of communism in 1989, and writing about war—however honest and concise it is in Swir’s case—just doesn’t register with people anymore. Which, by the way, is why, I believe, Miłosz wasn’t overly interested in that part of her work.
Back to your question…Anna Świrszczyńska was born in Warsaw in 1909 into a family of humble means. Her father was an artist, but his large-scale, historical pieces didn’t sell well. Swir studied Polish literature in college, where she fell under the spell of Old Polish and began writing poetry. She had a poem published for the first time in 1930, though it is another publication, one in 1934, that she always identified as her poetic debut. She lived in Warsaw when Germans occupied the city during WWII, where she worked odd jobs. She survived the Warsaw Uprising, and eventually made her way to Krakow, where she lived for the rest of her life, earning a living as a literati (writing poetry, radio pieces, books for children, and plays).
She was married and divorced once, and had a daughter, who is still alive. Swir died in Krakow in 1984.
2.) Swir is well known for her very private lyric poetry of the body and bodily love, as well as perhaps the most well known Eastern European feminist poet, and also as the poet of war memory, who in Building the Barricade was able to give a voice to more than just one person’s recollections of atrocity. Could you speak about those dimensions and dualities in her work?
I think she was profoundly interested in trying to understand how humans live and die; how the human condition figures in their actions. Since the body is the ultimate receptacle for all of the above, she wrote about it as both the object and source of pain and desire.
3.) As a translator do you ever assume the identity of the writers that you translate? What was your experience translating Swir? If you do not assume the identity of the poet you translate– how did you feel, as a writer in your own right? How has your own work changed, if at all, while you were translating Swir?
I don’t think I take on the identity of the writers I translate, or at least I’m not aware of it. Translating is an extremely private affair for me—the main reason why I translate is to fill some kind of void in my own work as a poet. In other words, I only translate those poets who write very differently from the way I do. The outcome is that I often learn things from them—translating is the best way of close reading and listening to a text—which then become part of my own poetic craft and aesthetic vocabulary. Still, it might be too soon to tell how my own work has changed, though translating Swir has certainly taught me something about the music and rhythms of Polish AND English, and about concision—that is, how to trust an image to be its own thing and to resist elaborating.
4.) Why, in your opinion, was Swir so respected by certain other poets in her generation, most notably C. Milosz?
You know, there is a saying that poets only like those poets who remind them of themselves, which at first doesn’t strike us as the reason why Milosz would find her work so appealing. Still, he was very much a man who couldn’t get enough of life—the carnal and the sensual—and Swir talks about both at a very fundamental level. Perhaps she was his medicine? That is, her poetry managed to remind him time and again what great art is all about: getting to the heart of things, so to speak.
5.) What, in your opinion, could American poets learn from Swir’s work?
Concision, I think. Most American poetry seems to be either experimental or narrative, but in Swir we really see how just a few lines can have a lasting effect. Swir teaches us how to trust an image—and not feel inclined to explain or elaborate things.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years? Do you have different views on writing by women in Eastern and Western Europe? What about the United States?
There are more women writers and poets today than ever before. In Poland, and probably in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, there are some interesting cultural changes taking place, i.e., women aren’t afraid to break taboos, especially in regards to traditional female roles and their place in society as a whole, and they write and talk about them. Additionally, both in Poland and the United States, we see a wonderful flowering of women writers and poets who produce the kind of high brow and original work that seemed the sole realm of men writers in the past. Yes, having more smart, intellectually-engaged women writers at work is probably what I’d designate as the most profound change of the past twenty years. It’s a wonderful thing.
7.) When translating Swir what was your biggest focus and or challenge in regards to melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia.
The biggest challenge was not to overwrite the translations, i.e., to hold back in regards to filling in the blanks for the audience. The musical, visual, and verbal effects of Swir’s verse are supposed to be razor-sharp, even underdeveloped, if you will, and so time and again I had to stop myself from wanting to make things clearer or more profound or pleasing to the ear. Then, of course, I had the help of the wonderful editors and poets at Calypso Editions—they made sure I didn’t get carried away.
8.) What do you believe Anna Swir’s message to be. I am specifically interested in her speculations concerning the human body. What did you draw from it, how did it affect you, and how has this manifested itself in your own work?
I don’t think Swir wrote poetry to pass on messages to us. But clearly some of her strategies hint at her wanting to get to the bottom of what it means to be a human being, and how the human body, which is what we mostly identify if when we talk about each other as people, can be a source of pride but also something to be despised, scrutinized.
9.) In Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, by Milosz and Cynthia Haven, Milosz states “if one changes the language, one changes the personality completely. Do you agree / disagree with this statement and how does this affect your own writing?
Indeed, Milosz believed that poets should only be writing poetry in their native language, and I understand why he would make that claim, but there’s a lot more to being a multilingual poet than worrying about changes to one’s personality. In my case, I find writing in American English extremely liberating—the language’s impoverished grammar is beautifully supplemented by a vast and fascinating vocabulary. Also, American English is the language I use on daily basis, so it’s only natural that I would use it for critical and creative writing as well. Finally, writing in American English allows me to find new ways of saying things that poets and writers have been saying for centuries; in other words, while Polish seems a bit stale to me, especially if I were to use it for poetry, American English is lively and to an extent still uncharted.