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Journal, Day One

By Steve Young

Although they take place immediately after the school year, when many writers repair to Vermont, Italy, Greece, or other creative writing capitals, it’s hard to think of the Kraków Poetry Seminars as a writers’ retreat. How many such literary refuges, after all, include a visit to Auschwitz? How many can offer a tour of Kazimierz, the once bustling Jewish Quarter of Kraków emptied by the Nazis? The writers in these seminars don’t workshop, nor are they granted monkish solitude and relieved of bothersome interruptions until cocktail hour. Instead, they meet to discuss ideas, history, philosophy, art, and poetry with an intensity seldom found in American classrooms. Poetry surely needs the Wordsworthian tranquility that has become a summer industry in our MFA-rich land. But without the deep reading and constructive cultural exchange that is the Kraków curriculum, such tranquility may bear little true fruit. One wonders whether the homogeneousness one finds in some American poetry might vanish under the stimulus of outside perspectives.

The Seminars were established in 2002 by poets Adam Zagajewski—his only physical creation, he says—and his former colleague at the University of Houston, Edward Hirsch, now head of the Guggenheim Foundation. The presiding spirit is Czesław Miłosz, who during his many years at Berkeley initiated a vital dialogue between Polish and American poets. Miłosz settled in Kraków after the fall of the Soviet Union, as did Zagajewski. Part of the younger poet’s motive was to bring American writers back into Miłosz’s company to sustain the high-level, complex conversation already begun. This year’s Seminars, the first since Miłosz’s death, were dedicated to his memory; his presence was deeply felt.

In the four years of its existence, the program has attracted a pantheon of English-speaking poets, including Eavan Boland, Anne Carson, Carolyn Forché, Linda Gregerson, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, W. S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Tomas Venclova, Rosanna Warren, and C. K. Williams. Among the Polish poets who have participated are Ewa Lipska, Bronisław Maj, and Wisława Szymborska. This year the faculty consisted of Clare Cavanagh, Jorie Graham, Patricia Hampl, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland, and Philip Levine, as well as Polish poets Jacek Gutorow, Julia Hartwig, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Dariusz Suska, and Adam Zagajewski. Each year, an outside panel selects 10 graduate students from the University of Houston to attend, although there has been talk lately of opening the application process to students from other universities. The faculty and students are accompanied by a gaggle of auditors, friends, and onlookers, who, though freed of the substantial responsibilities of the conference, are nonetheless welcome to join the discussions.

I was lucky to enough to be a member of the latter group this year and would like to share some of the Seminars’ highlights here over the next week. The conversations and readings chronicled herein took place June 23rd through June 29th. Obviously then, this is not a blog in the true sense, but a post hoc blog, or plog as a friend says. Still, I intend to present the Seminars in day-by-day format to give some sense of a whole emerging from “spots of time,” to invoke Wordsworth again.

Literary understanding is a process; even its surest steps are provisional. If I’ve misremembered, misinterpreted, or just plain misunderstood something, I hope conference participants or any interested party will post a correction or comment.

Meanwhile, I’ll sign off today with a few lines from Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov,” which were my reason many years ago and now to go to Kraków:

why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, July 24th, 2006 by Steve Young.