Every Poet Has to Be Lonely”: A Conversation with Tomasz Różycki and His Translators



Tomasz Różycki rose to both critical and popular prominence as an important voice of his generation in Poland when his fifth book, Twelve Stations, won the Kościelski Prize in 2004. Playing off of Adam Mickiewicz’s national epic, Pan Tadeusz, the book captured readers’ fascination with its historical subject matter, mock epic form, and humor. Within a few years, Twelve Stations became required reading in schools and was adapted for stage and radio. Translations into many languages quickly followed. Różycki was first introduced to anglophone readers with Mira Rosenthal’s translation of a selected poems, followed by his sonnet collection Colonies, which won the 2014 Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Twelve Stations was published in Bill Johnston’s English translation in 2015 and won the Found in Translation Prize. Last year, Różycki appeared at the AWP conference to read and discuss his work with his translators and American poet Major Jackson.

Major Jackson: Ever since I was introduced to Tomasz Różycki’s poetry almost ten years ago, I’ve marveled at the casualness of his intellect. It is wide yet local in its concerns, serious yet also possessing a wit and irony that sometimes rivals his countrywoman, Wisława Szymborska. But, most notably, I’m struck by the spirit of the poet as pilgrim, searching for authentic language to capture the feeling of both unity with his fellow countrymen and women but also a kind of alienation. I’m reminded of literature as a kind of estate, of which Różycki is in firm possession. He is truly a unique voice in contemporary world literature.

Having returned again to Colonies—I read it in manuscript form—one of the poems that struck me was “Scorched Maps” [available at pen.org]. I first read it during the time when the Russian-Ukraine conflict was just starting, and this time I found it even more to be a brilliant, allegorical poem of incantation and homage to not only ancestors but also that ever-specter of war and conflict and its effect. My first question is to Tomasz, and then the question will go to his translators as well. I sense, particularly with Twelve Stations, various kinds of conflicting constraints. There’s the poet who speaks to the history or estate of literature but also one that’s rooted in today. This has me wondering, how do you view your role and function as a contemporary poet?

Tomasz Różycki: It’s a very complicated question. I don’t feel myself as representative of—I don’t know—the Polish spirit or Polish culture. Rather, as a poet I am a private speaker trying to explain or to talk about the history of my family, but in the context of a more universal history, of a national history. I don’t like that kind of big, national narration, big cultural narration, so I am trying to do it from a very private perspective. I don’t know what my role is in relation to other Polish poets. I am never considered as part of a group of Polish poets—they have a kind of classification by generation sometimes, or there is still what we call the Polish School of Poetry of Miłosz, Herbert, Szymborska, and Zagajewski. And then we have the rebels against this idea. I am probably, rather, on the side of this Polish School of Poetry, but it’s for the critics to make this kind of selection. I feel lonely, but in a good way. [Laughter] Every poet has to be lonely. It’s a good position not to be considered part of a kind of narrative.

****by Major Jackson and Mira Rosenthal at World Literature Today


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