In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes which have kept me company while on the move, while heavier volumes (like Steven Price’s By Gaslight and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York) stayed home.
The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuściński is the first in the International Translation Series from Biblioasis.
It’s translated from the Polish by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba, affording English-speaking readers the opportunity to sample the verses of the renowned journalist.
“I cannot imagine that I would be able to write anything without first having read poetry. It is the highest form of language… I believe that a poet is someone who preserves language and, for that reason, stands at the gates of its inexhaustible wealth, its simultaneous beauty and threat.”
When I was younger, and between picture books and chapter books, one of the few sections in the stacks of the library which appealed to me were the poetry books (and the fairy tales), but somewhere along the line I swapped affection for intimidation.
In this interview with the poet (from 2005; he died in January 2007), his passion and commitment to the form shine.
“I value poets and poetry because poetry is something more than a transmitter of information or a well-told story; it’s a strange form which is comfortable in what is hidden right before our eyes, where, in a few stanzas, one can raise to a boil a powerful freight of experience and transgression at the same time.”
His love of the form and his belief that it is essential to the art of writing is rooted in the idea of rhythm.
“Prose must have music, and poetry is rhythm. When I start writing, I must locate the rhythm. It carries me along like a river.”
In fact, Kapuściński debuted as a writer in 1949, with a poem in a Polish literary weekly, even though his reputation is grounded in prose. The translators state, however, that the fact that he ” hould have practiced poetry, then, is not surprising”. (Isn’t that beautifully described, poetry as practice? I love that concept.)
As a witness to the Soviet occupation of Poland, he had first-hand experience of “extreme deprivation and terror”, “round-ups and executions”: his poetry confronts vitally important themes.
“You write about the man in the camp / I write about the camp in the man / for you barbed wire is outside / for me it rankles the insides of each of us / -You really think there’s a big difference? / These are just two sides of the same torment” (This is an excerpt from “Notebooks”.)
One might imagine Kapuściński as a sculptor of words, borrowing from “Sculptor from Ashanti”, in which the artist “hews and chisels away the first layer / uncovers nothing / ever more impatient / he bores”.
Or see him reflected in the work titled “The Poet Arnold Slucki On New World Street”: a man with “his pockets full of poems / He took out one after the other”. In which “the page traces the struggles / between creation / and annihilation” “I Wrote Stone”.
This is only the first volume in the series from Biblioasis; a copy of the second is now en route.
Alongside the poetry in my bookbag, I’ve also been reading Joan MacLeod’s play Toronto, Mississippi. It was a whimsical borrowing from the public library, inspired by the BookRiot Reading Read Harder reading challenge.
And, indeed, reading drama has always been a challenge for me, even though last year Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience was one of my favourite reading experiences. (And how awesome that it’s now a TV show on CBC.)
The main character of Toronto, Mississippi is Jhana, who is eighteen years old and has just begun her first workshop job. It’s unusual to have a developmentally disabled character at the heart of a story (rather than pushed to the periphery), and Jhana is a dominant presence throughout the play.
Her interactions with Bill, the poet who boards with Jhana and Maddie (her mother), bracket the drama; it opens and closes with their spirited and credible exchanges. Neither is entirely content with their current existences, each aware of uncomfortable limitations and pushing against the boundaries of their everyday lives.
Jhana’s mom plays a significant role, too, and she offers readers a context which Jhana alone could not. “People think certain words work magic – group home, workshop. They hear that and assume everything’s taken care of. Someone from York just did a research project on her. She’s [Jhana] moderately mentally handicapped – moderate. I like that, like the weather when we lived on the coast. Superbly dyslexic – very complicated version of it. Symptoms of autism or soft autism. That’s what they’re saying now. That’s the style. There is a style to everything. But then you’d know all about that.”
Jhana’s dad, King, is an Elvis impersonator, who also plays a significant role, although initially only for his absence. Jhana’s attachment to her dad is charming and innocent, casting another slant to his character. “I’m out of style, Maddie,” he laments.
Because Bill the poet (a sensitive soul, quiet and studious) is intimately involved in the day-to-day of the family life, in a way that Jhana’s father is not, there is considerable tension when King arrives for a visit.
Bill is keen to set himself apart as a scholar, a thinker, even though ultimately it’s his relationship with Jhana which is important in this story (which is ultimately connected to the relationship he wants to have with her mother, Maddie).
“Animal as victim, environment as victim, women as victim. That sort of thing. Despair’s more of a sideline. Not that they don’t overlap. I love women’s literature. And it’s very despairing, for the most part. This is a very exciting time for female writers in this country. I mean since the time I was born.”
Agency and power, self-determination and identity, connection and loneliness: these ideas imbue Joan MacLeod’s play. It premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto (Ontario, not Mississippi) on October 6, 1987 but it’s in print from Talonbooks.
What have you been taking with you in your bookbag this week?