Saturday, November 29, 2008

Danusha Goska

Dr. Danusha Goska is a writer whose essays, fiction, and poetry have addressed a broad range of topics and have touched many readers. She has written about the complex vision and personality of Pope John Paul II, Polish folk art, the Golem myth, the Holocaust, Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, Islam and Terror, and Spirituality and Ecology. She's also a writer who is deeply committed to uncovering and analyzing the truths that are hidden in popular culture. Her essays have told us important things about such pop culture icons as Woody Allen, Frank Sinatra, and Melvyn Douglas. Many of these essays are available at her website. She is also the author of a novel, Love Me More: An Addict's Diary.

The work that is most important to her has only been seen, however, in bits and pieces. For the last two decades, she has devoted much of her energy to a book-length study of the stereotypical ways in which Poles are often seen. Her study is is entitled "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish Jewish Relations, and American Popular Culture." The chapter called "The Necessity of 'Bieganski': A Shamed and Horrified World Seeks a Scapegoat" appeared in an award-winning number of the journal Polin: A Study of Polish Jewery. A review of this article in the journal Shofar described her work as "groundbreaking."

She has started a blog devoted to her work on "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" and other issues. You can see her blog by clicking here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Helen Degen Cohen: On a Good Day One Discovers a Poet

I have been reading Helen Degen Cohen's poems and personal essays for 15 or 16 years, maybe longer. A friend of mine, Dean Shavitt, first introduced me to her. He said, "You have to read her." He was right.

The poems and essays he gave me were dark and troubling and beautiful, and they were about Helen's life in Poland during the war and after the war. She and her poems and fiction and essays have never left me. When people ask me about what it was like in Poland during the war, I tell them what I learned from my parents and what I have learned from Helen's poems about her childhood and her essay "Return to Warsaw."

Helen's new collection of poems On a Good Day One Discovers a Poet is being published by Finishing Line Press this coming January; and from what I've seen of this book so far, I think it will stay with me the way all her writing has stayed with me.

Here's a poem from it called "Ponette":


A small, reasonable child in France
has no right to lose her mother:
mother the sun is gone but still
the child must play, the children
kiss and are kind to the child and still
she has too many questions – the sky
has its rules and everyone mentions God
and Jesus and the heaven where mothers
go and are happy, and still when
the light is behind the earth – the child
Speak to me, mother.
I have prayed, as I was instructed,
I have gone through four trials, I have
followed others, leapt fearfully, climbed into the dark
and slept, but – woke up listening when
sometimes you came to me
though not everyone believed it – and then
your voice rolled out of reach. I am not
cold though they say it’s cold
today, I am here.

Speak to me, vanished mother.

Mother, you must speak to me!

The schoolyard opens, releasing children.
They perch and fly by like the birds.
A child is more powerful than a mother,
mother, come to me, mother!

What can a mother do but promise?

And on the appointed day, she came, for a picnic, a long
long walk through mild meadows and woods, to just
have a good time, laugh, and, promise
that she never went away
and never will.
And so good-byes are

The father, just arrived in town, listens, as if to a long
lost letter in his hand.


Helen's new book On a Good Day One Discovers a Poet is available for pre-publication sales at Finishing Line Press.

You can also read an except from her autobiographical novel The Edge of the Field at Scream On Line.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Polish Writers on Writing edited by Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski's Polish Writers on Writing, a fine collection of essays by various Twentieth-Century Polish writers including Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Schulz, and Zagajewski himself was reviewed by poet Ron Slate at his website On the Seawall .

Here's Ron's review.

Many of the writers in this excellent selection, writes Adam Zagajewski, "faced a choice not very different from the one their nineteenth-century predecessors were confronted with: namely, should the new catastrophe be understood and dealt with as a national disaster, or should it be approached as a global event provoking an answer couched in universal terms?" He then goes further: "So here's the innocent paradox of this generation. These brilliant writers understood that in bad times they should keep their inner freedom, their individual voices, and their passion for infinity and not bend under the nationalistic yoke. Yet the weight of the Polish nineteenth-century model was such that they needed a constant consultation, a constant conversation to withstand that pressure." Both at the heart of the empire and the among the conquered territories, the position of the writer is identical. The relevance of Polish writers --Wat, Herling, Szymborska, Baranczak, Gombrowicz, Schulz, Witkiewicz -- to American writers is manifest. As an admirer of Zagajewski's poetry and prose, I read this book as well to see his designations as the seminal statements of his literary compatriots.

Milosz is represented here by his poem "Ars Poetica?" and three essays. In "The Sand in the Hourglass," he writes, "Social reality is distinguished by the fact that it is opaque, treacherous, that with its myriad guises it deludes everyone who is entangled in it." We begin by thinking of the Polish writers as making stark choices between solitude and garrulousness, a matter of timing, of hiding and exposure. But going further, we find writers who illuminate the complexities and ambiguities of our feelings of modernity, writers who have absorbed philosophy and culture in a broad, worldly fashion. Zagajewski himself, in his essay "Beginning to Remember" in Ardor, described this temperament and perspective: "A strong poetic talent produces two contradictory phenomena. It suggests, on the one hand, intense participation in the life of your age, plunging into it up to your neck, an obsessive experiencing of actuality. It leads, on the other hand, to a certain kind of alienation, distance, absence. It is ceaseless interplay of proximity and distance."

To read these essays is to enter into the specific pressure of reality that impinged on these writers -- and to track their various responses. In "Reality" (1974) Milosz says, "Having lived for a long time in France and in America, I have been astounded by my observation that the tough and predatory reality that surrounds me does not exist in the literature of these countries." Meaning there was no great American Dostoevsky in 1860, no concept of a predatory world to animate past American epochs. But we're catching up! Suddenly it becomes clear that Milosz attempted something very large and generous -- to address an entire world without separating himself from what the human is actually like. How odd, even with our wide-angle view of a globalized world, so many American writers, attempting statement beyond the personal and the quietly observed, quack at the regime, play to the pre-packaged politics of the audience at the poetry reading, and sing the flat song of grievance and victimization. No struggle, no rough edges -- just the unexamined pretensions of presumed higher consciousness -- political, racial, sexual, cultural.

Jozef Czapski somewhat contradicts Milosz, in "On Intervals in Work," when he writes, "In France probably fewer talents perish, while with us they almost as a rule go to waste, because ... there is in France a continuously enriched and deepened tradition of 'secret knowledge' ... a connection between a vision and the realization of that vision." Czapski, Zagajewski has written elsewhere, "was constantly testing to see if his experiences were real, if those great moments of illumination weren’t simply a diversionary ploy undertaken by his glands and hormones." This seems more in keeping with the rich vein of Polish creative scepticism. But Witold Gombrowicz voices a complementary, complex reaction to Milosz: "I find the same thing in him that I find in myself: antipathy and condescension in relation to them [Western writers], mixed with bitter powerlessness."

The Poles have thought long and hard about humanity from the perspective of "untenable positions." From this issues the special nervous tension and haunted wisdom of their remarks. As part of the creative vetting process, the writer questions his own motivations and the role of art, as Tadeusz Rozewicz does here in "Preparation for a Poetry Reading" (1959): "Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: 'As long as poetry hasn't died in me, I can't be unhappy.' As if they didn't understand there is no 'poetry.' There are like children ... what confidence in oneself and in 'poetry.' " Zagajewski has included "The Art of Empathy: A Conversation with Zbigniew Herbert" in which Herbert also gropes for the essence of poetic voice: "I also try to make it clear that the author doesn't appear in his own person. He creates a certain poetic persona, which -- sadly -- is better than he is. Because I think man isn't who he really is -- who knows who he is? -- but who he would like to be."

(The complete review is available at Ron Slate's On the Seawall. His recent collection of poems is entitled The Incentive of the Maggot and is available from Houghton Mifflin and Amazon).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

My Nose and Me

John Surowiecki's award-winning comedy My Nose and Me: A TragedyLite or TragiDelight in 33 Scenes will be given a dramatic reading at the University of Connecticutt, Storrs, on Thursday, November 13 at the Nafe Katter Theatre at 7 pm.

The play won the Poetry Foundation’s first Pegasus Award for Verse Drama. Inspired by Gogol’s story, “The Nose,” it recounts how a man and his proboscis battle cancer and win. Praising the play’s madcap ingenuity, the Poetry Foundation website describes Surowiecki’s protagonist as a man who “suffers not only the dread, despair, and indignity of cancer treatment but also the temporary disappearance of his nose,” which departs to travel the world.

Presented as part of the English Department's Creative Sustenance Series & Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Uncommon Sense Series, this event is a benefit for the Covenant Soup Kitchen in Willimantic. Audience members are invited to make a donation or bring canned goods.