Immigrants, Survivors, and Translingual Poetry: An Interview with Piotr Florczyk
Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, translator, and a guest professor at Antioch University Los Angeles. I attended a recent seminar of his, where I heard him debunk a number of myths about translating creative writing—including the very common “a writer must be fluent in the original language to translate a work.” It felt like fate when Lunch Ticket paired us for this interview, conducted over Zoom, so I could have all my questions answered about translations and the emotional labor that comes with the territory. Piotr Florczyk is the author of several collections of poetry, both original and translated, including Two Thousand Words and the hot-off-the press From the Annals of Kraków.
Amanda Woodard: What inspired you to co-found a printing press? How did it start?
PF: Calypso Editions is a small cooperative press. It was founded by graduates of the San Diego State MFA program in 2010. I think there were eight of us at the start. We all pitched in money to get the press going, and the idea was to publish translations—and we did well doing translations. A translation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story. My small selection of Anna Swir’s Warsaw Uprising poems. The publishing plan was to do four books a year, if I remember correctly, and we did that for many years.
AW: Let’s talk more about translations! In your Art of Translations introduction seminar at the Antioch residency, I heard you mention that you only translate poetry, although you also write essays, articles, and scholarly works. Tell me why that is.
PF: It’s always been about expanding my poetic vocabulary. There’s nothing better to do, if you want to learn how to write, than to translate, because of the amount of intimate and up-close work that goes into translating something. That’s also a reason why I’ve always been drawn to translating authors whose work is very different from my own.
There is that disconnect, there is that learning process, and there is this feeling like you are a fly on the wall. You get to see what this poet is doing. Then, I would be trying to steal from their work, to learn and apply it in my writing. So that’s the reason why it’s always been poetry rather than something else.
This whole idea that the world is a village—I think that’s nonsense. There are so many wonderful voices out there that are just waiting to be discovered. And we need translators, people who are trained and confident in their cultural and linguistic skills to play that role.
There’s nothing better to do, if you want to learn how to write, than to translate, because of the amount of intimate and up-close work that goes into translating something.
AW: Who, in your opinion, is qualified to be a translator, especially of poetry?
PF: I think that is an individual decision that everybody should make on their own. The skills that you need are kind of obvious: You should be able to read the source language. But—this may surprise you—what matters the most is the target language. This is something that often gets overlooked, especially in the early stages of one’s work.
AW: You translate exclusively Polish to English; is that right?
PF: Yeah, for the most part. I have done some English to Polish but not a whole lot. As you know, I’m an immigrant. I was brought up in Poland. I moved here when I was sixteen. The thing is that when you are a translingual writer, meaning somebody who writes creatively in their non-native language, you see and feel the language differently. There’s a lot that goes into it and some of it is very fun and productive, like foregrounding linguistic reflexivity, for instance. You know, seeing puns and other things where other people don’t see them. Or kind of enjoying mangled syntax where somebody will say, “Well, you can’t say that in English” but to your ear and in your mind, it sounds perfectly normal!
While you’re getting better at your acquired language, you very often lose your first language. Identity wise, you are caught in this no-man’s land; you are made to feel unwelcome by Americans, then go back to visit what was once your native country and you’re made to feel the same way. “You’re no longer one of us. You’ve been away for so long, you speak funny or, god forbid, impure Polish, French, Spanish” or whatever.
The process of translation that happens in literature also happens in one’s personal life. And people seek therapy because of this stuff. Indeed, scholars of translingualism talk about how going back and forth, as far as language is concerned, exerts an immense psychological toll on a person. That’s why most people choose not to translate both ways.
It affects your self-worth, your self-esteem, because everyone wants to belong and be a part of something. If you can go back and forth, you may be a kind of strange, alien, chameleon-like person and not everybody is comfortable with that—at least not initially.
My first book of poems was written in Polish. It came out in 2003. It also marked the end of my writing in Polish. But over the last six or seven years, I had a file on my desktop, a folder with a Microsoft Word file that was entitled “Polish Poems,” and every once in a while, I would open that up and write something in Polish—because of some primal, emotional urge.
A phrase would come to me in Polish. I would hear or see something in my mind—maybe a childhood memory—and I would write it down. And ever since my daughter has been born, there’s been this renaissance of my Polish since I speak to her exclusively in Polish. I get to read Polish children’s books, watch Polish cartoons, and all of that has reawakened the Polish language within me, which has been dormant for all these years.
So, it’s only recently that I started writing in Polish again; I published a book of poems in Polish, called Dwa tysiące słów (trans. Two thousand words). It came out last year. It’s been really well received, which I’m both surprised and happy about. But for many years, I had resisted that idea of writing in Polish again. Because I worried, “If I do that, then where do I belong? How do I classify myself or how do I think of myself?” This book is a sign that I’m comfortable with being Polish and American.
AW: When you look back on the poems from before you started using Polish every day, what do you think about them?
PF: The early jottings were very tightlipped, if you will. Very sparse. When I looked at them a couple of years ago, when I started thinking about this book, they were indicative of someone who had trouble expressing himself. Somebody who couldn’t tell a story, who was always at a loss for words, somebody who made grammatical and spelling mistakes. In fact, I would get that a lot—people would criticize my Polish in emails, etc. A lot of it had to do with me just being careless. Nevertheless, it kind of stung when somebody pointed it out. That’s what those early Polish poems were like.
AW: Did you keep the poems you wrote before your daughter was born as is, or did you go back and edit them?
PF: I did both. Some, I expanded into longer pieces; some, I kept the same. The other interesting thing is, I’ve been writing new poems in Polish too! My new book in English has just come out, but I’m also doing new poems in Polish. Like I said earlier, I feel more comfortable than ever being a translingual poet, somebody who writes in multiple languages, whereas ten years ago, I was not. All I wanted was to become an American poet.
AW: I want to know about the new book! What is it called?
PF: It’s called From the Annals of Kraków, a docu-poetics book that came out of my stint as a fellow at USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research. While there, I spent two weeks watching the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and then I wrote a sequence of poems based on that experience.
On the first day, when I started working in the Visual History Archive, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of these recordings. I quickly decided to zero in on testimonies that had something to do with the city of Kraków. This became a very personal experience for me because, time and again, the interviewees talked about places that exist to this day and that I know personally.
It was very moving for me. It was also harrowing. I remember a gentleman talking about how he found shelter and went into hiding, after he escaped from the Kraków ghetto, at this monastery, a place I pass by every day when I visit Kraków! It is close to a pool I swim at. His family was killed. He was twelve at the time, or thirteen, and so he pretended to be an altar boy. Eventually he was denounced and had to flee and seek shelter elsewhere. This book of poems is retelling these testimonies by using the survivors’ words, their narratives.
There is also the component of me coming in contact with these people, their stories, and responding to it as a native of that same city. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but before the war, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe. It was convenient for the Germans to build concentration camps in Poland because that’s where most of Europe’s Jews lived—in Poland and to the east of it, in the heart of Eastern Europe. The Jews who survived the Holocaust were aided by their gentile neighbors, but it was also true that many local people, especially in the countryside, were anti-Semitic and played a role in the Holocaust.
Upwards of eighty percent of American Jews are of Polish descent. Yet many of them will tell you they hate Poles and Poland and everything to do with the country. I’ve been accused of anti-Semitism, even by people who know nothing about me, just because they found out I was originally from Poland.
When I was watching these testimonies, I got an earful about how terrible Polish people are. Of course, I also heard the opposite: how wonderful Polish people are because “Look, I survived! I didn’t survive on my own.” And in order to make it relevant for myself and not just write something that people would say was “appropriation,” I had to set it in a city that is also my city. My book is an embodiment of our common history.
Most of these interviews took place in the States many years after WWII and were conducted by Americans who did not speak Polish. Consequently, one of the things I did in the book is employ “broken English” because for most of the interviewees, English was their third or fourth language. For various reasons—political, ethical, or simply technical—some of the interviewees gave their answers in Polish, but for the most part, they spoke English. Very halting, broken English. I found that fascinating as a scholar because it was clear that they were not able to express themselves fully. If you ever get a chance to see the book, you’ll see poems written in ungrammatical English because that’s how the person spoke. “What is it that they’re not saying?” I wondered time and again.