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A conversation with Philip C. Kolin about Pilsen Snow: Poems


Why after living in Mississippi now for over 40 years have you decided to write about your old Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen?

Someone said you can’t really write about home until you leave it. Though it has been over a half century, plus a decade or so more, since I lived in Pilsen, my roots are still there and with them a heritage that I am grateful to God for. Space is cultural, and the Pilsen I knew is best symbolized by two places, St. Pius V, a picture of which is on the cover of Pilsen Snow, and the other is my old apartment building (our “domov” in Czech) on West 19th Street (alluded to in “Wallpaper”). I struggled about which one made the best cover image. In any case, our apartment and St. Pius were on the same block and so you could say I lived in an enclave within an enclave. My school, church, the bingos my mother went to, fairs and carnivals, religious services, even then the new post office at 19th Street and Ashland Avenue, built in the late 1940s, were a short walk away. At one point in the mid-1950s, a Czech bakery opened just two doors down from where I lived, and across the street was a tavern and dance hall.

All of these places evoked memories I wove into Pilsen Snow (just as Tennessee Williams recaptured/refashioned many St. Louis settings for his Glass Menagerie). Stuart Dybek, who also grew up in Pilsen, and I recently reminisced about Pilsen and the places we knew there. Sadly, though he lived only a few blocks away, we never met there. Also inspiring Pilsen Snow were the family Bible, a wicker basket full of photos spanning 60 years in the lives of my Pilsen family and neighbors, and a huge box of letters I inherited, reliquaries that accompanied me to Mississippi when I left Chicago to teach at the University of Southern Mississippi in the early 1970s.

Why did you choose the title of Pilsen Snow? It sounds very evocative.

There are many reasons. Recollecting my childhood, it seemed that winter occupied Chicago for 7 or 8 months each year. There was always a drift or an avalanche of snow on Pilsen streets to slide or sludge through. On another level, snow symbolized both the innocence of youth and the inevitable changes that transformed innocence into experience. When the snow first fell, it looked like sugar crystals. But given the heavy city traffic and pollution from coal-burning stoves belching soot, the snow smudged in a hurry. The poems “Pilsen Snow” and “Sister’s Favorite” are deep in Chicago snow.

As a unifying element, allusions to snow occur in most of the poems. Shelley with her yellow teeth in “Pilsen Once Sang a Romance to Me” ate Hostess Snowballs, “The Procession” ends with a prayer to “Our Lady of the Snows,” the streets in “Pilsen Snow,” overtaken by “dead snow,” are not cleared until April. No nostalgia here! Worth noticing, too, the collection does not end with snow but with “drunken rain” pelting the boarded-up taverns that the Czechs once frequented but now are empty since they moved away.

Snow, then, seemed like an ideal signifier for transformations/change, since almost all of the poems in Pilsen Snow emphasize change of one sort or another. Ironically, though, if you Google Pilsen Snow, the first few hits take you to a weather report for Chicago’s west side or for the Czech Republic, thus linking the Old World of the Czech immigrants who settled in Pilsen at the turn of the 20th Century with their New World descendants—children and grandchildren.

How do your poems strive to recapture the history of Pilsen?

Yes, every poem in Pilsen Snow chronicles the history—collectively and personally—of this Chicago Czech community. The order of the poems moves from the arrival of the first Czech immigrants in “Eden in Pilsen” (an ironic title) where they were offered a “bruised promise of work” through the last couple of poems that chart the transformation of Pilsen into what Stuart Dybek calls a “Mexican Barrio.” Roughly, then, the poems travel across a 60 years of Chicago history.

Individual poems, of course, offer slices of that history replete with details about places and people, famous or ordinary, who at one time or another were Pilsen residents. In “Eden,” for instance, there are references to the McCormick Reaper plant and the breweries that dotted the Pilsen landscape as late as the 1950s. Some poems focus on famous Czech Americans such as Anton Cermak, the reform mayor after whom Cermak Road, or 22nd Street, was named (and about which Carl Sandburg wrote a poem titled “Harrison Street Court” [1916]), and Kim Novak who refused to change her Czech surname for Hollywood PR purposes. “The Glamour Mass” is pure 1950s with its references to cosmetics/fashion against the backdrop of the sometimes harsh domestic life in Pilsen. The last two poems—”Wallpaper” and “Czech Hieroglyphics”—lead readers to the Pilsen of the late 1950s and beyond when Czech culture (symbolized by the newspaper Denni Hlasatel) was replaced by Mexican media.

Why did you include the poem “When Pilsen Heard about Lidice”? How does this WW II atrocity relate to your overall history of Chicago’s Czech Pilsen community?

The Czechs brought their homeland with them including the ongoing history of what was happening in Europe. One of the most patriotic poems in Pilsen Snow, “Lidice” reveals how Chicago’s Pilsen community reacted to the Nazi destruction of this Czech village near Prague in 1942. Pilsen residents were determined not to let this horrific act wipe out their heritage and so they valorized Czech culture, playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony, “dressing infants in Czech flags,” praying to Czech saints, and petitioning the Chicago City Council for a sign of solidarity. So brutal was the Nazi retaliation that they dug up Czech bodies from Lidice’s cemetery, a point of history I did not want to lose when I described old Pilsen women rushing to the cemeteries to see if the same thing happened to their loved ones.

Reviewing Pilsen Snow, Kirk Woodward (Journal of American Ethnic Literature [2015]) suggested that Lidice, though miles and years removed from Pilsen in the 1950s, disappeared and so did the Czech presence in this Chicago neighborhood in the 1950’s when “paintings and murals [covered] over Czech walls.” I did not intend this analogy but there is no doubt about the patriotic tears Czechs shed for Lidice then and up to today.

You include quite a few Czech words and phrases. How do they work in your poems?

I grew up in a bilingual household. In fact, my mother, aunt, and uncle, all first-generation Americans, were sent to Czech school on Saturday mornings in the 1910’s and 1920’s so they could appreciate their heritage. “Speaking Czech” pays tribute to the Czech language, and its bountiful orthography. The adults in my family often switched from Czech to English, and back again, naturally, but at other times they intentionally spoke Czech as a secret, second language to prevent me from hearing about topics they thought were too sensitive, really, too personal.

Several Czech words in the poems signify domestic terms—for food, clothes, household duties, newspapers—or prayers that I heard on a daily basis. Kim Novak was a krasna holka (“beautiful girl”) to be sure. But I also included Czech names or words because they are ironic, and highly symbolic, e.g., the canary Milacek (“Valentine”) in “Pilsen Once Sang a Romance to Me” or Jerry Klamat (“the Deceiver”) in “Sister’s Favorite” who fooled the nuns into thinking he was so good and holy but was expelled from high school for cheating on a religion test three different times. By the way, there is additional punitive irony in Jerry getting thrown out of St. Casimir’s High School which in the 1950’s was an all-girls school and still is, I think. The Czech words in Pilsen Snow, then, serve multiple functions– they are icons of cultural identity, shibboleths, and ironic swipes.

Some of the poems in Pilsen Snow are hilarious, for example the one about the rooster who speaks Czech with a Southern drawl. What role does humor play in Pilsen Snow?

There’s different types of humor in Pilsen Snow. Some is sardonic as in “Sister’s Favorite”; there’s even gentle humor around the Czech saints who help their parishioners secure a new car to auction off at a church carnival. Pretentious Czechs are rightfully satirized in “The Potato Eaters.” “First Confessions” and “The Cock that Spoke Czech” are comic tales about childhood (mis)interpretations. Attempting to explain what the confessional box, circa 1950, looked like inside and how and what it is used for, the first graders offer comic, quasi learned explanations quoted as Gospel here—it’s “God’s closet,” his “private elevator,” etc.—drawn from the worlds they know such as TV programs like Flash Gordon (penitents leaving the box looked as if they were in an “Emperor Ming trance”), trips they took on the Illinois Toll Road, or the biased opinions about the kids who attended the public schools, “those sin traps,” vs. the saved kids whose parents sent them to parochial schools. I recall that on Wednesday afternoons we were dismissed early so the nuns could teach catechism to these the Sacrament of vilified public school recreants. Juxtaposing these childhood explanations of a Confession with the heady encyclical from Pius XII cited in the last stanza framed and furthered the humor in this poem.

As far as “The Cock Who Spoke Czech” is concerned, this poem is in large measure based on an actual monthly event that occurred on the corner of 18th Street and Ashland Avenue on Saturday mornings. An old black preacher, who came from across the railroad tracks on 16th Street, made everyone howl with his and his pet rooster’s hijinks. Crowds spilled into the street to see them and to drop coins into the old man’s hat, prominently placed on the corner. The rooster’s Southern Czech, though, is courtesy of my Mississippi experiences.

You have published several other poetry books and chapbooks. How do you see Pilsen Snow relating to then?

Many of my earlier books—Deep Wonder (2000), Wailing Walls (2006), A Parable of Women (2009), etc.—centered on Holy Mother Church, Scriptures, spirituality, the Sacraments. Though far more secular, the poems in Pilsen Snow nonetheless reflect attending school and growing up in a strict Catholic home where the Church was the hub for everything we did from studying school work, playing basketball, going to bingos, carnivals, picnics, retreats, missions, Adoration, Mass, and witnessing baptisms, weddings, wakes, confirmations, and funerals.

But Pilsen Snow also has strong affinities with my most recent book Emmett Till in Different States: Poems (Third World Press, Nov. 2015), the first full collection of poems on the Civil Rights martyr. Both contain Chicago poetry since at least half, maybe a little fewer, of the Till poems take place in or powerfully allude to Chicago history, landmarks, and people. In point of fact, I graduated from the same Chicago college—Chicago Teachers College South, now Chicago State University—that Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett’s mother) did, traveled to the southeast side of the city (where the Tills lived at 64th and St. Lawrence Ave.) a great many summers when I went to the beach. I also wondered if I ever saw or passed Emmett in the Loop. These are some of the links, then, between Pilsen Snow and Emmett Till in Different States.

Have you written other poems about Pilsen not included in this current collection?

Yes. Several years before Pilsen Snow, I published “Pilsen Rican” in the Catholic Exchange about what happened when Puerto Ricans moved into Pilsen in the 1950s and the ways Czech culture and history contrasted with but also assimilated into Puerto Rican rituals. Another Pilsen poem, this one included in my Departures: Poems (Mobile: Negative Capability Press, 2014), focuses on my former piano teacher, an elegant and deeply religious young woman, who came to our apartment weekly for my private lesson; I idolized her but when, after my 8th grade graduation, I saw her drinking beer in a Pilsen tavern (which, incidentally, Shelley’s parents in “Romance” owned), I was crushed. In addition to these, I have published poems about two of my uncles, both of them martinets, included in Departures and Third Wednesday, respectively.

When was the last time you visited Pilsen?

Yesterday, when I opened the family Bible and saw the record of births (my own), marriages, and deaths. I can hear the snow falling now, can’t you?

March 6, 2016


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