The Joy of Writing - Polish Poetry Festival
I left this festival with an overwhelming sense - a reminder for me - of the joy of writing. Which is handy really, that being the festival title. In Polish it’s Radosc Pisania, the title taken from Wisława Szymborska’s poem of the same name. (Favourite poet too of Anya, a recent poem of the week winner.)
Most of Nobel Laureate Szymborska’s life was spent in Krakow - like Manchester, a UNESCO city of literature - where poet Mark Pajak recently spent a creative residency, an experience that inspired him as curator of this event organised by Carol Ann Duffy’s Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).
The festival comprised an evening of short readings after an official reception on Tuesday, and four consecutive workshops on the Wednesday. Oh, and a visit to a cemetery, about which more below.
The festival’s title could have been the joy of writing and performing, thanks to Mark Pajak’s inspired choice of Weronika Lewandowska and Bohdan Piasecki as the last two workshop leaders.
The penultimate session was led by Weronika, a performance poet who had used mouthed sounds and physical movement, as well as words, in her beguiling performance on the opening evening. And it was the use of the poet’s body on which her workshop focused, getting the group to perform surprisingly powerful wordless mimes with but a few minutes’ preparation. An inspired choice for the post-lunch workshop, getting us out of our seats and setting us up, perfectly poised, for the final session with the charismatic Bohdan Piasecki, who made his UK reputation as the highly successful Apples and Snakes Midlands coordinator, and performance poet in his own right.
Like Weronika, Bohdan clearly understands the notion of a workshop as a session that engages the audience in ‘work’: creating something, or learning, through participation in activity designed by a workshop leader. In my years of attending, and running, workshops of all types, this short session was one of the best. We wrote six poems each in 12 minutes, quickly editing them using Bohdan’s drip-fed aide-memoire of the classic elements for editorial focus: treat adverbs with suspicion, hack out the redundancy, so forth. The tightness of the time was bonkers; yet it worked: a potty, potted poetry-editing masterclass, rendered with vivacity, humour and humanity.
It was a day of two halves, in that the morning sessions were not workshops in the above sense. I enjoyed, and learned from, the translation group, particularly as, to my shame as someone long interested in poetry translation, I hadn’t heard of Stanisław Barańczak, the poet and prolific translator of poetry from English to Polish, most notably of, I believe, superbly-wrought versions of most Shakespeare’s plays; and Dr Seuss! We were introduced to this fascinating chap by Paweł Łyżwiński in his, well, I’d have to call it a talk rather than workshop; the best bits being his asides from his clearly comprehensive knowledge of the man he described as Poland’s best poetry translator - “the perfect translation machine” - who fell out of favour with the communist regime because of his translations of (decadent?) Western literature. Astonishingly Barańczak translated a lot of Polish poetry into English, a very difficult task.
The session I missed was a guided trip to Manchester’s Southern Cemetery to see the grave of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. Known as the “Polish Sappho” and queen of lyrical poetry, by 1939 she had written fifteen plays covering then-taboo topics such as abortion, extramarital affairs, and incest, provoking scandals in her native country. She was a solid pro-choice, quite a position for a woman in a such a staunchly Catholic country. She died in Manchester in 1945, having arrived there in 1939.
I got little new, unfortunately, from the day’s first session led by philosopher-turned-poet, Michał Sobor. In fact, I found most of it embarrassing, not least his lack of proficiency in English, which mightn’t have been a problem if he had made good use of the provided translator. He tried to engage the audience by asking questions but couldn’t understand the responses. Still, those are minor quibbles in what, for me, was a really interesting and valuable festival. Top marks to the Manchester Writing School. I look forward to the next one.
Manchester Metropolitan University’s Polish Poetry Festival was one of a planned series of bilingual and multilingual poetry events that seek to widen access to poetry in Manchester’s mother languages, to introduce poetry in these languages to people who attend poetry events and join with other language communities in celebrating their literature and culture.
Photo shows Weronika Lewandowska (bottom left), Bohdan Piasecki (bottom right), Mark Pajak (centre), Paweł Łyżwiński (top left) and Michał Sobol (top right) pictured at the opening of Radość Pisania Polish Poetry Festival, Manchester 30th and 31st October, 2018. Photo Julian Jordon.