Joanna Kurowska: Featured Illinois Author

Willow Review 2016


An interview by Michael Latza

Originally published in Willow Review, volume XLIII (2016), the following interview is reprinted here by the kind permission of Michael Latza, the editor of Willow Review, who conducted the interview.

Michael Latza: What is your earliest memory of reading / writing?

Joanna Kurowska: I read fairy tales in childhood—Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, English tales, Scandinavian tales, and the tales from Warmia, the region surrounding my native town Olsztyn (pron. ‘Varmia’; ‘Olshtin’), with its endless woods and lakes. Many stories about imps, nymphs, and elves dwelling in them, have emerged in the local culture. Those supernatural beings often play pranks on people—but a clever Warmian farmer knows how to outsmart Rokita-the imp or the mischievous Licho! I also recall reading Greek mythology; and the enchanting Adventures of Sinbad The Sailor (in verse) by Bolesław Leśmian. As for writing, my earliest memory is of sitting on a wooden bench in school, dipping the metal nib of my pen in an ink-jar, and—my fingers aptly blackened—scribbling some words. From then on, I have often scribbled, diaries for example. I started to write creatively around the seventh grade, but my few poems from that time got lost. The oldest poem in my possession is my debut “Lubię” (I Like), published when I was seventeen.

M.L.: When a phrase or line comes to you in Polish, is that experience different for you than if it comes to you in English?

J.K.: I guess it makes no difference in spoken language, when the focus is on communicating (rather than on sound or structure). Sometimes I do notice differences, however, as during one of my visits to Poland. It was before the holidays, people in the streets exchanged Christmas greetings. Each time I heard “Wesołych świąt” instead of the anticipated “Merry Christmas,” it felt like a wonderful surprise. Not being able to translate idioms can be challenging. For example, how to convey “bib ‘n tucker” in Polish? Since I now interact mostly with English speakers, I encounter this problem more often when attempting to render Polish idioms to them. I can translate an idiom, describe its meaning, but its word play, shortcuts, rhythm, colloquial and regional characteristics, melody—all the things that make idioms unique and funny—get lost. This shows that a direct meaning is only one of many aspects of an utterance which is also a play, a piece of art, a unique physical entity. It exists in the larger context of a language—and language variegates like physical space, reflecting the “imprints” of human activity.

M.L.: Aside from the origin of content and adhering to an original work, how is the process of translating different from composing?

J.K.: A text composed stems from within a larger context of a writer’s experience, mindset, philosophy, etc. A text to be translated must be taken from its original context and transferred into that of the translator, which may involve reduction and interpretation. When I translate works by other writers, the “idiom-resistance” feels more acute. A literal translation of an excerpt can be quite understandable in the target language but just not sound right, which forces the translator to negotiate between meaning, idiom, structure, style, and meter. Recently, I have finished translating a Polish play. Because the original text is rhythmic and it rhymes, I have had to make decisions as to the altering the syllable count and word/line-order, to make the play somewhat melodic in English as well. A text as complex as the play, or a poem, is like an organism, all its elements must be in harmony. So if one takes a deer apart and puts it back together in a new form, if what emerges now is an antelope, the antelope design will govern the choices. A deer or a hybrid may not be able to survive in an antelope’s habitat.

M.L.: When two cultures or languages collide, the point of contact is a new amalgam, often referred to as frontier. Are you ever aware of this, ‘frontier,’ when composing or translating?

J.K.: Poland’s culture is essentially Western, and its history tied to a specific geographic and political context. I think of intercultural or linguistic encounters in terms of a dialogue rather than collision. Amalgam is a good term, and Mary Louise Pratt’s phrase “contact zone” would seem particularly helpful in elucidating it. Even if one approaches another culture from the position of power—as did the Europeans when they invaded Africa in the colonial times—the “subjugated” culture proves powerful enough to leak into the domineering one, thus broadening the contact zone. Europeans might have dominated Africa but African culture is strongly present in ours; to name only a few examples: sculptures that inspired Gauguin or Picasso, jazz in music, and craft. Of course, “pure culture” is a fallacy that ignores not only external influences but also the ethnic, communal, regional, or class varieties within. Units of culture exist in the tension between the particular (local) and the universal (human); never in either of the two alone. Symbolically considered, “Merry Christmas” and “Wesołych świąt” may appear different from one another, but in the context of the “universal” they are parallel, which almost proverbially extends to “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanza,” etc. It is just human to cherish holidays. As a writer, not only am I aware of these dynamics but cultural differences are the source of endless wonder and inspiration to me.

M.L.: Your family was forcibly removed from Poland before you were born. When you hear your family history, how is that different from personal memory of events? Or is it a different kind of memory?

J.K.: I was born years after my father, Bohdan Kurowski returned to Poland from his forced exile to Russia. He rarely spoke of his childhood spent in Kazakhstan. The Soviet invasion—which, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, took place in September 1939, almost simultaneously with the Nazi attack—was a political taboo in communist Poland. I learned much later about what happened to my family during the war. My grandmother Zofia and her two sons (father was six then) were approached by the KGB, given an hour to pack, and sent away in a three-week journey in a cattle train. Part of that human cargo, including Zofia and her sons, was then simply dropped in the Kazakh steppe. It was the second of the Soviet deportations during 1940-41, all four including nearly million of Polish citizens, mostly intelligentsia and the families of the army officers (who meanwhile fought the Nazis in the west). Though the KGB destroyed much of the pertinent documentation, historians estimate that about 250,000 people died along the way. Very few of those who survived were able to return to their homeland. I knew that as a small boy father worked as a cart driver; he spoke Russian and occasionally cooked ukha (Russian fish soup); but I knew nothing about Stalin’s ethnic purges. In 1956, during the short-lived political thaw in Poland, father wrote his outstanding essay titled “Śladami bosych stóp” (“Following the footsteps”), in which he tackled the deportations. Though later collected in several anthologies, that publication hurt him politically throughout his entire career as a journalist in communist Poland. Maybe for that reason father spoke little about his childhood. After he passed away in 2009, I edited his memoir—a poignant study of how tyranny and political manipulations can affect the lives of individuals.

M.L.: Do you have a favorite author that inspires you? That you emulate?

J.K.: One of the writers I would love to emulate—if I only could!—is the poet Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1938), born to an assimilated Jewish family by the name of Lesman. He could be categorized as a modernist writer, were it possible to put him safely in any “ism.” But Leśmian was a genius, hence difficult to categorize. A great number of twentieth-century Polish poets were influenced by his poetry. Philosophically inspired by Henry Bergson, Leśmian also drew motifs from folk culture and mythology. Many of his poems depict real or surreal beings tangled or trapped in the state of some sort of incompleteness. A half-being striving for full existence seems very human to me; I also love the questions—the open-endedness—of Leśmian’s philosophy. Due to the poet’s experiments with language, his work is difficult to translate.

M.L.: What advice can you give to young writers?

J.K.: I’ll start with a personal remark. A number of times people have asked me about my writing in English as my second language. I understand the interest because that very thing fascinated me in Joseph Conrad, the topic of my doctoral research. In the end, however, more important is that I always wanted to write, and writing just caught up with me. So my advice is this: Ask yourself, “Do I have to write?—not to feel better, get published, make bucks, for political reasons, or as a confession of faith, but because writing is my life and I am determined to do it, all the distractions, uncertainty, and self-doubt notwithstanding.” If the answer is yes, then observe the world, other people, and yourself, read books by others, and write, sentence by sentence, poem by poem; by hook or by crook.


MICHAEL F. LATZA was born and raised in Chicago.  After twenty-five years as a mailman, he is now teaching English, composition, literature, and creative writing at the College of Lake County, Grayslake, IL, where he also edits the creative writing journal, Willow Review. He was chosen to be the inaugural faculty lead for CLC’s Semester Study Abroad Program at Xi’an International University, in Xi’an, China.  Michael has been published in several literary journals, including, The Solitary Plover, Red River Review, Bear River Review and Appalachian Journal.  He also has nonfiction on the Prairie Home Companion website, and a book of poetry, Rip This Poem Out, currently available on Amazon.  Mr. Latza earned his MA in English from Loyola University of Chicago.  Jennifer Dotson has interviewed Michael for the series, Poetry Today, available on YouTube



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