Saturday, February 21, 2009

Michael Czyzniejewski's Elephants in our Bedroom

Elephants in Our Bedroom is Michael Czyzniejewski's first collection of stories, and reading them you wonder why they haven't been gathered together sooner. They are wonderful. Michael, the editor of the Mid-American Review, has the true story-teller's gift. He can take the most mundane topic and put a magical spin on it that makes you realize that you and I -- even in our wildest moments -- aren't thinking half as imaginatively and wildly as Michael is.

Let me give you some examples from Elephants in our Bedroom:

His first story is called "Wind." Yeah, wind. We feel it every time we go out, we watch it moving the tree limbs or picking up a piece of paper and scooting it down the street, but what if suddenly people realized that they couldn't explain it, that all the old explanations didn't make sense?

And then there's the story "Green" where instead of proposing a typical summer vacation, the main character's husband invites her old lovers over for two weeks "just to clear the air."

Or how about the title story "Elephants in our Bedroom"? In it a guy wins an elephant in a card game and decides to keep it in the bedroom. That's wild. But what's wilder is that his wife doesn't say anything about it.

The stories in his collection have the sort of postmodern magic that we used to see in writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthleme, but Michael makes that magic new again by spinning it in the everyday world, the familiar world, of children and husbands and wives, of city streets and schools and libraries, bedrooms and kitchens and backyards.

Michael's Polish-American background, for me, comes out in these stories. He's got the alien's gift for looking at what most of us take for granted and seeing it in a completely different way.

He's a second-generation Polish-American, and you get the sense reading his stories that he came from an area that was still tied to the old ways, tied to seeing the world outside the neighborhood as strange and foreign, alien even in a sort of comic way. And reading about his life bears this out. He grew up in the predominantly Polish-American Chicago suburb of Calumet City and attended St. Andrew the Apostle School and Church, where the nuns and priests all spoke Polish and Michael often served a Polish-language Sunday mass as an altar boy. In college, Michael studied Polish for two semesters before the language, as he says, "soundly defeated me, though I did expand my Polish vocabulary from 12 words to nearly 30."

But I think I've said enough. Here's an excerpt from one of his stories, "In My Lover’s Bedroom":

My lover is hiding old men in the recesses of her bedroom, but if you ask her about it, she’ll deny it every time. Despite what she claims, I discover men in her closet, men in her armoire, men skulking behind the vanity or crouched in the trunk at the foot of her bed. The men act pleasant, appear comfortable and content, and all of them seem to know my name, offering salutations and good words in abundance.

To pass the time, the men read newspapers, listen to transistor radios, and some of them, if it’s nice outside, fit in nine holes of golf. When I ask about my lover, they change the subject, remind me who won some game, ask if my career’s taking off. When I ask what they’re doing in my lover’s bedroom, reading and resting and recreating in general, they act like they can’t hear me, and if I press, they start speaking a foreign language, albeit very poorly. Aside from random pleasantries, the old men go about their business, keep to themselves, and at worst, tell good off-color jokes.

The problem with the old men is, I only find them when I’m alone, when my lover is in the kitchen, in the bathroom, home late from her job at the club. I’ve asked her many times why she keeps men in her dresser drawers, and her answer is the same, every time: Why are you going through my drawers? When I open said drawer to show her, the man has disappeared. The first time this happened, my lover thought it was funny, some sort of dry humor I’d never before demonstrated. On the second occasion, she was less amused. She assured me she had no other lover, she wasn’t married, and as far as she knew, she had no plans for that to change. On the third try, she suggested I leave, forcing me to apologize, to admit I’d taken a joke too far. Since then, I’ve decided to keep the men to myself, to go to them for answers. When I inquire as to why they won’t let my lover in on the joke, I get the What? treatment, the toggle of an imaginary microphone in their ears. It almost makes me think I’m onto something.


Currently, Michael Czyzniejewski teaches at Bowling Green State University. His website is at

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Polish Literature in Translation

One of the online literary sites that I frequently visit is Dr. Constance Ostrowski's Polish Literature in Translation. It's an amazing site. She's gathered together links to Polish literature available on the web, critical articles, and Polish cultural sites of interest to readers of Polish literature. Using her site, I've found and read Polish authors that I would probably never have been able to discover otherwise.

Here's what Dr. Ostrowski says about the purpose of this site:

The treasure-house that is Polish literature is more accessible to English-language readers than many may think. In addition to English translations of the most famous works--works with which Polish literature has tended to be identified--there are many translations of works by far less famous authors. These translations, while often available in print format, are increasingly accessible through the World Wide Web.

My goal in creating this website is to provide as comprehensive a list as possible of works that are currently available through the Web and that are or that until recently have been in print in book format.

For those works available on the Web, this site's subpages provide links to English translations of entire works or excerpts of works. A word of caution, though: I've tried to make available the great number and variety of Web translations, which means that I've chosen not to judge the quality of those translations. While some variations are due to the fact that translation is as much of an art as is the original literary writing, others may be due to language mistakes, typographical errors, and/or less than meticulous editing. Therefore, while one of the marvelous advantages of the Web is that availability of translations of Polish literature are far less dependent on profit-motive, one of its drawbacks is the reduction in the amount and potential quality of editing.

For those translations of Polish works in book format, the site provides bibliographic information; I've chosen not to link to vendors in order not to privilege one over another, and because sometimes what one vendor identifies as out of print or unavailable may not be so. As much as possible, I've tried to verify the status of printed works by checking multiple sources, including publishers' catalogs. However, since I've surely missed works or authors, I invite corrections and additions (see my e-mail address at the bottom of this page).

Regarding works that are published in periodicals: I've included online periodicals as well as print periodicals that also publish online versions. However--and regrettably--at this point I'm not able to include any works published by periodicals only in print format.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Polish-American Writers Reading in Chicago at the Polish Museum of America, Feb. 12

On February 12, 2009, during the Associated Writing Programs Conference, the Polish Museum of America is proud to sponsor five Polish American Writers in a reading of their works. The event will take place in the Great Hall of The Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave. at 6:00 PM. There is free parking to the west of the building. The Museum can also be reached by the 56 Milwaukee Ave. bus (Augusta stop) or the blue line (three long blocks from either the Division or Chicago Avenue stops. The reading is open to the public. A small donation is requested.

Each of the authors will discuss how they have been shaped by the culture of the Mid-West and the culture of Poland. Linda Nemec Foster writes about the search for Polish roots and her travels to Poland to discover what parts of her identity were formed there. Anthony Bukoski writes about the disappearing communities of Poles in northern Wisconsin, and their interaction with successive waves of post WWII and post Soviet Poles. John Minczeski’s most recent book tries to put the essentials of Polish identity within the context of Western culture. Leslie Pietrzyk (Iowa) writes about the tension between older immigrants and their children and grandchildren growing up in rural Iowa. John Guzlowski, a Polish immigrant writes about what brought his family to America and how his Polish parents struggled to maintain their Polish identity within a melting-pot culture.

They will also be reading at the AWP conference on Feb. 13, at 430 in the Lake Ontario Room, 8th floor, Hilton Hotel Chicago.

Biographical Sketches of the Writers:

Anthony Bukoski has published five story collections, four with Southern Methodist University Press, including North of the Port and Time Between Trains. Holy Cow! Press recently reissued his first book, Twelve Below Zero, in a new and expanded edition. A Christopher Isherwood Foundation fellowship winner, Bukoski teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Linda Nemec Foster is the author of eight collections of poetry including Amber Necklace from Gdansk (LSU Press), Listen to the Landscape (Eerdmans Publishing), Ten Songs from Bulgaria (Cervena Barva Press). She has received honors from the Academy of American Poets, the National Writer's Voice, and the Polish American Historical Association. She is the founder of the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas College and currently is a member of the Series' programming committee.

John Guzlowski writes poems about his family's experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. His most recent books are Lightning and Ashes and the Pulitzer-nominated Third Winter of War: Buchenwald. He received the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award for poetry in 2001.

John Minczeski's books of poetry include Letter to Serafin (Akron University Press), November (Finishing Line Press), Circle Routes (Akron University Press), Gravity (Texas Tech). He's the winner of the Akron Poetry Prize, a Bush Fellowship, and an NEA fellowship among other prizes. He freelances as a poet in the schools and does occasional adjunct work.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels: Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). She teaches as Johns Hopkins and has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.