Michał Sowiński in conversation with Olga Tokarczuk, a new member of the Award Jury, on what poetry is and what significance it has for literature and politics.
Michał Sowiński: Why did you decide to join the Award Jury? Do you read a lot of poetry?
Olga Tokarczuk: I think I’ll make a good addition to the jury because I rarely read poetry. I assume, however, that good poetry is a universal language which does not leave even laypeople like me indifferent but which moves them deeply. I hope that these are the kind of poems we will be reading this year. I’ll follow my instinct and a simple sensitivity towards the word, which I presume prose writers possess as well. I believe that when the text is strong and well composed, it does not matter whether it’s poetry or prose.
MS: The European Poet of Freedom Award is a very unique initiative, where the participating authors may come from any country which is geographically part of the European continent. What use is this? What, in your opinion, is the idea behind it?
OT: I understand it as a quest for a universal language, one that is above national languages and borders. It’s a search for a European common denominator in the language of literature. I whole-heartedly support the forging of a strong European identity and believe that such an identity will start to emerge thanks to literature, among other things.
MS: The name of the award bears the notion of freedom, which is an ambiguous word. How do you understand it in this context? Who is the Poet of Freedom?
OT: “Freedom” is one of Europe’s bywords. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is this notion put through so many grammatical cases, discussed and over-interpreted. One may say that it is Europe’s main idée fixe. However, continual changes in politics, economics and the international situation are constantly showing this notion in a different light. Today freedom does not only carry a political significance but also a social one; it is also emerging in the economic context and acquires new dimensions connected with our omnipresent media, internet or privacy. Freedom should also be discussed in relation to the incredible advances in medicine, and with the freedom of choice which, until recently, we had no knowledge of.
MS: Despite the fact that it relates to poetry, the European Poet of Freedom Award cannot escape (though maybe it should?) political and social issues. Maybe because of the fact that the political division into countries has been part of its structure. This year will include an author from Russia – what would the role of the award be in this context? Is this a problem or maybe a challenge?
OT: It’s excellent that a Russian poet is going to appear. This is the way it should be, given what is happening in Russia. Maybe this is where the strongest verse will come from.
MS: Being a juror in literary competitions must be especially difficult as the criteria here are exceptionally vague and individual. But in the case of poetry this must be even more difficult. How should one compare seven authors who tend to write completely different things? And, as is the case with the European Poet of Freedom Award, each author hails from extremely diverse cultural contexts (for example, this year will include poets from Portugal and Macedonia). What criteria will you follow as a jury member?
OT: It’s true. It’s always hard to compare literary works. I’m of the opinion, maybe a bit naively, that there will be something among the poems presented which will touch me, delight me, move me and which will refuse to leave me alone.
MS: Poetry seems to be playing a less and less significant role in contemporary Polish culture. In fact, only a handful of names, mainly Nobel Prize winners, seem to be present in the wider public conscience. Do you think that the European Poet of Freedom (both the award and the festival) stands any chance of changing this? Or maybe it shouldn’t? Should poetry remain within its own elitist sphere, in its own internal circulation?
OT: Poetry is elitist and lives life to the full with its elitist status. It has always been this way. Poets hold their heads higher than writers, who tend to be considered a bit like craftsmen. It is poets who are referred to as ‘bards’. I like the poetry which enters everyday language. One you sing in pubs. Or see on T-shirts. I think the poetry which is confined to its own internal circulation withers away and is like recycled water which, although chemically clean, does not have any freshness to it at all.
MS: Your output is associated with prose (mainly novels and short stories) but you’ve also had your debut with a volume of poetry (Miasta w lustrach/ Cities in Mirrors). Why have you given up on writing poetry? Or maybe you’re planning on coming back to it?
OT: With all respect to poets, I wrote poems because of a lack of time. As soon as I learnt to make time, prose and the power of a story became my natural element. I do not agree with Miłosz that “one clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose” [from “The Poet’s Work: an introduction to Czesław Miłosz. Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn]. On the contrary. One good novel weighs more than thousands of published volumes of poetry. (laughter)
MS: What is, in your opinion, the difference between prose and poetry? Does either of these two ‘writing modes’ seem to you more privileged to express certain issues or to describe or illuminate certain fragments of reality?
OT: Sometimes I think that these two modes differ only as to technicalities – the way of writing things down, the brevity and the presence or absence of a story. But since it’s been decided that they are two distinct kingdoms – so let it be. For me what matters is simply good literature.