Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stuart Dybek: A Report by Janusz Zalewski

Janusz Zalewski writes about his recent visit to Chicago and his meeting with Polish-American writer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Stuart Dybek.  Mr. Dybek delivered the Keynote Address at the meeting of the Polish-American Librarians Association, held at the Polish Museum of America on February 24th.   


Stuart Dybek began his keynote address by reading his poem “Penance,” from his first collection Brass Knuckles (1979).  The poem was also published the following year in the anthology of Polish-American poetry Blood of Their Blood, edited by Victor Contoski, in which Dybek was featured among a few dozen other authors.  The poem “Penance” is very characteristic to Dybek’s writing at that time, with his childhood, religion, humor and emotions in it, all on the broader background of ethnicity.

Then, because this was a librarians’ meeting, he talked about his countless visits to Chicago libraries, which were to him both secret and sacred places in his childhood, where he could immerse himself in dreams and “sail with Magellan, Jack London” and others.  Marshall Square Library was the one he said he attended most.

He talked about being a reader and about the act of reading being a form of art.  Readers, Dybek says, are dreamers and artists.  Reading is definitely a more active form of perception than viewing other forms of art, which is closer to plain consumption.  For example, watching a movie or listening to music is essentially engaging senses without actively participating in the process.  Only dancing to music can be compared to reading a book.  In this analogy, reading becomes closer to writing than anyone would imagine, because there is only one step from reading Dostoevsky to grabbing a pen.

For a writer, he continued, readings in a library are very different from readings at universities.  The diversity of people coming to the library makes it so attractive.  All the characters from various populations, ages and ethnic groups form a truly amazing and attentive audience. 

Dybek said that on the East or West Coast he is known as a Chicago writer, but for someone who lives in Chicago it is clear that Chicago writers are categorized as neighborhood writers.  As much as Saul Bellow wrote about Hyde Park, Farrell and Algren wrote about their neighborhoods, Dybek’s writing is immersed in Chicago’s South Side, in particular Pilsen.  One of the reasons he keeps writing about his neighborhood is that it is inescapable.  Assimilation, race, ethnicity (which is a currency of Chicago writing), dreams of democracy, promise of America, all this makes a microcosm, in which it’s easier for a writer to meet his readers.  Ethnicity especially is an enormous gift to a writer, says Dybek. 

Then, Dybek addressed his heritage and talked about his Busia (grandma), how much she affected him, and he refered to a story “Blood Soup” as a tribute to her.  Finally, interacting with the audience, he recalled his multiple other stories, among them one about his Dziadzia (grandpa), who along with a mule was the only one to survivor a disaster in a coal mine.  He was a tough character.

After the presentation, Stuart and I wandered around the old Polish neighborhood that’s the home for the Polish Museum of America.  On a way for dinner we stopped at the Chopin Theatre, at the corner of Division and Milwaukee, an amazing place led by an even more amazing man, Zygmunt Dyrkacz.  Next door, sitting at the bar in “Podhalanka,” we recall when Dziadzia used to bring young Stuart (they called him Stuluś), placed him on a bar and ordered to sing for the audience.  The evening gets closer and it’s time to go home.

Dybek's most recent book of stories is I Sailed with Magellan.   Two new collections by Dybek are due this year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  One piece of a short fiction titled “Trust Cuts Both Ways” that made it into the first book, Paper Lantern, is included below.  It was originally printed in a short-lived magazine named Joe, published by Starbucks, in 1999.



It was always Good Friday
those Saturday afternoons.
Stooped babkas in black coats
and babushkas, kneeling
in marble aisles
before racks of vigil candles,
faces buried in hands.
Weeping echoes through the dim church
as foreign as their droned
language of prayer.
I stood in line
waiting the priest’s question,
“Alone or with others?”
and my turn in Confession
trying to imagine
the terrible sins of old women.

Trust Cuts Both Ways

- “Do you fantasize about me?” - she asked.

- “Sure” – he said, not volunteering any more information.

- “I have the oddest fantasies about what I’d like to do with you.” – she said.

- “Like what, for instance?”’

- “I want to shave you.”

- “I want to shave you too.” – he said.

- “Not that way” – she said. – “I mean it. I picture you soaking in a steamy tub, a beautiful
old claw footer, and I lather your beard with a boar-bristle brush.  I even know where they
sell them – at Crabtree & Evelyn.  Then, you lie back and close your eyes, and with an old-
fashioned straight razor that makes the sexiest scraping sound, I give you the best, closest
shave you’ll ever have. Shave you clean and smooth and rinse your skin as if I’m your geisha.”

- “Sounds nice – he said, rather than tell her there was no way in hell she was getting near him with a razor.”

Stuart Dybek


Janusz Zalewskis has translated a number of works by Stuart Dybek into Polish:
- „Nie udało nam się“ (We Didn’t), in Odra, No. 12/2004

- „Pan Placki” (The Palatski Man), in Arcana, No. 57/2004

- „Czarny Anioł” (Black Angel) and „Wietrzne miasto” (Windy City), in Nowa Okolica Poetów, No. 18-19/2005.

An extensive biographical note and links to some of Stuart Dybek's other writings are available at the Poetry Foundation.  Click here.  

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