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An Unfinished Project

April 26, 2012 - Łukasz Wojtusik - Interviews

A conversation with Dr Michał Rusinek, literary scholar, personal secretary to the late Wisława Szymborska.

This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are grateful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview.

ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK:  When you talk about Wisława Szymborska's recent collection of poems Wystarczy (“Enough” – editor’s note) you always say “the newest” and never “the last” collection.

MICHAŁ RUSINEK:  I still have a grammar problem here, both with the past simple tense and  defined expressions such as “the last collection of poems”. There is no doubt that Wystarczy was the last collection of poems prepared by Szymborska herself. But this won't be the last publication of her work. We may still publish some of Szymborska's poetic and non-poetic work. Szymborska will, for sure, keep coming back to us, time and again, speaking with an unknown, maybe even new, voice.

Wystarczy includes 13 complete poems. Did its publication involve some preparation? Or was the collection ready?

Szymborska did not write books, but poetry. When she had around 12 poems, she looked for a common thread which could connect them all together. She would arrange them in a very precise manner and then come up with a title for the entire collection; usually at the end. In the case of this collection, we can’t say that it is an unfinished book, but rather it is simply 13 poems. Szymborska insisted on referring to them collectively as Wystarczy. She had talked about this earlier, first in a joking manner, but later more and more seriously. In October 2011 I even asked her if the title should remain like this as our Italian and Spanish translators were telling us that basta would not sound good in these languages. But she insisted on the title. There was no arguing about it.

Our work on this collection was not much different from how we had always worked on her publications. Ms Szymborska would hand me a poem typed on a typewriter. The corrections were put in manually. And I would retype this on the computer and bring it back to her. At times, she would also make additional changes to this version. And that was it. Most of the poems from this new collection have already been published elsewhere, including in Odra, Kwartalnik Artystyczny, Tygodnik Powszechny and Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland. One of them was published in an Italian art magazine which had requested one of Szymborska’s unpublished poems. For the first time, we can also see in this collection how she worked with the texts.

Will readers get to see the inner workings of a poet in this collection?

I still have mixed feelings about this. The story of this part of the collection is extraordinary. Szymborska never talked about her poems. But when she was on holiday last year, I visited her in Zakopane with Ryszard Krynicki (Polish poet, translator, publisher – editor’s note) and his wife, and for the first time in a long time, she started talking about the poems which she was planning to write. This was extremely rare, which is perhaps why I remember it so well. And these are the poems that have been published in this collection. When it became certain that the collection would be published by Wydawnictwo A5 (a Polish publisher and one of the main publishers of Szymborska’s poetry – editor’s note), we knew that the book wouldn't be finished. There were only 13 poems. But near the armchair at which she used to sit and work, I found notes to the texts that she had told us about earlier. Ryszard Krynicki and I decided to try to decipher them. First, we tried to do it separately, each in our own way, but later we would meet and read them out loud to check which one of us had better understood the message Szymborska was putting across. The collection includes scanned copies of these notes. They are scattered throughout the book and one can see different versions of individual verses or strophes. At the beginning there is a reproduction of her typed version of the text. This was the version that I received.

However, the collection is missing one element – a manuscript. And even if it did exist, somewhere between these notes and the typed version that she gave me, she probably destroyed it. In general, we do not have many manuscripts in our archives. The only ones that have survived are the ones that Szymborska’s ex-husband, Adam Włodek, saved by sneaking out to the rubbish bin and taking them out.

But aren’t you of the impression that Szymborska’s notes and these extracts of her poetry are a feast for literary scholars, although an incomprehensible addition for the ordinary reader?

Such information is extremely important for literary scholars, and in terms of the “ordinary reader” (if such a reader even exists as I believe that every reader is extraordinary) the foreword prepared by Ryszard Krynicki should be of great interest, which is in fact how I would have started reading this collection. The foreword includes the key to reading this book. We must remember that despite everything, this is an unfinished project. It has to remain a mystery. But poetry, by nature, is mysterious and its reading is always like wandering through different meanings. Wystarczy defends itself as a book, but it is an unfinished project. In literature we have many examples of such work, but which, in the end, are complete. In this case, necessity was the reason for this situation (Szymborska’s passing – editor’s note). 

Is it possible to avoid thinking that we are reading the last poetic strophes of Wislawa Szymborska while reading the poems from this collection?

Generally, I am of the impression that when we talk about poets and writers we speak in the present tense. The truth is that we are left with what they have written. As long as their poems are with us and we keep reading them, they are alive. Hence, Wystarczy is not a farewell. Death is not its leitmotif. There isn’t more of it here than there had been in earlier collections. The collection does not really have a credo. We are meeting Szymborska here as we know her, as well as the subjects that have for a long time been part of her work. I have recently been reading some of Szymborska’s poems from before her literary debut in 1949. Interestingly, they include some elements of the topics discussed in Wystarczy. It seems that, even back then, over 50 years ago, Szymborska already knew what she wanted to talk about. 

At what stage is Szymborska's foundation in right now?

We are waiting for the decision of the court. This should be a matter of days; we just need a few final signatures. The plans for the foundation remain unchanged. The first point of our articles of association and also Szymborska's will is a literary award, which we are hoping to give out next year.

What will this award be for?

We have not made a final decision yet. We would like it to be an international award in the area of poetry. We will be looking at other similar awards in the world, in order not to repeat what already exists. We don't have the financial possibilities of the Nobel Prize but we would like it to be an important award. Both in terms of prestige and financial value. We will see how things evolve.

Wisława Szymborska awarded her collections of poetry to two Krakow-based publishers: Znak and A5. What will happen next? Is the foundation planning to publish her works?

Probably not. The articles of association allow us to do this, but we probably won’t. We will probably stay with the same publishers that have already published Szymborska’s poetry. And, importantly, we have made a decision, albeit an informal one at this point, that should we come across a note saying “do not publish” in Szymborska’s belongings, we will respect her wishes. Szymborska left all kinds of notes, taped in different places. And sometimes I wonder who were they written for. I have the impression that perhaps they were for me. Once in a while, while going through her things, I come across a file with a note “nice or not nice”. There is a choice. And what's inside this file? Mysterious things…

But back to the question: I would really like to publish a collection of Szymborska’s translations. She translated a lot of texts from the languages she knew, including French and German, as well as other languages in which case she used something what we call philological translations. She would turn them into literary works and this is something I would like to publish. I would also like to publish a collection of her essays called Lektury nadobowiązkowe (roughly translated as “Unmandatory Readings” – editor’s note). We can also expect to have a thorough bibliography of Wisława Szymborska published by Znak quite soon. This will be an expanded and modified version of an earlier book by Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna called Pamiątkowe rupiecie, przyjaciele i sny Wisławy Szymborskiej (roughly translated as “Memorable knick-knacks, friends and dreams of Wisława Szymborska). This book will be of value not only to Szymborska's readers but also to the foundation itself. And through it, we will be able to find out what Szymborska left behind her, as well as what is of value, and what may not necessarily be.

Are you afraid that we will build something which we could call a monumental Szymborska here in Poland? A poet whose works, even before we read them are marked as “these are the words of a great poet”?

I would not be scared of that. Thankfully, Szymborska has many faithful readers. Both in Poland and abroad. Her poetry continues to be quite successful in Italy, and if we turn Szymborska into one of these grand poets and clutter Poland up with monuments to her, we will do a lot of harm to her poetry. The foundation has been set up to regulate these kinds of things. I hope we will be able to retain the status quo.                                                                                      

So that while reading this new collection we could continue thinking that we are reading – and here excuse me for my colloquial language – “a good-ole Szymborska”?

Yes, absolutely.

Editorial assistance with the original interview: Anna Siatka

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are grateful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview.

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