Pleased to carry on my e mail interview with John Guzlowski. A son of a Polish immigrants , with both parents spending years as labourers in German concentration camps: Professor Guzlowski was born just after World War 2 in a Displaced Persons camp, and moved with his parents and sister to the USA in 1951, and uses poetry and short pieces of prose to convey their experiences
Part one of my interview can be found here
Whilst John Guzlowski’s blog is heartily recommended.
Since publishing the first part of the interview , it has been announced that John Guzlowski’s latest collection ‘Echoes of Tattered Tonges- Memory Unfolded’ has won the 2017 Ben Franklin Award for Poetry. Well deserved in my humble opinion.
4. Who is reading your poetry? Do you get much feedback from Polish people, either from Poland itself or elsewhere?
I think one of the things that’s surprised me is that all kinds of people read the poems about my parents. When I first started writing the poems, I thought I was doing it for my family, for my daughter Lillian, so she’d know what happened to her grandparents. And now I see that there are lots of people, different people, who are interested in hearing these stories. Polish people of course. I do a lot of presentations about my parents in the Polish diaspora communities here in the US, in Hartford CT, Chicago, Hamtramck, Michigan, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. These people want to hear these stories about what happened to their mothers and fathers and their grandparents, but I’ve also read my work in synagogues and churches and high schools and universities and libraries. I think there are people who feel it’s important not to forget the terrible things that happened in the last century during World War II. I hear from historians and the children of survivors and school children who can’t understand how one person can do such terrible things to another person.
John Guzlowski’s father Jan, as a Displaced Person in Germany, 1951.
"My father knows that men and animals do not die the same way.A man will kill a horse or a cow or a pig with respect he will not show a man " -What My Father Knows About Killing
5. Tell us about the wooden suitcase your father made which your family took with you to the United States, and where it ended up.
Where to Start? When we came from the refugee camps in Germany in 1951, everything was stored in a trunk my father and a friend built. It wasn’t a large trunk. We didn’t need one because we had very little. But this trunk stayed with my parents always. Every move they made in the US — from the sheds we lived in initially in the farms out of Buffalo, NY, to the beautiful retirement home they lived in at the end – that trunk moved with them.
And then it didn’t. When my mom died after a prolonged and hard death, I was used up and I left the trunk to be sold in an estate sale. I just couldn’t think clearly and I got rid of it. I know realize that it was a mistake. I’ve regretted it since that day in 2006 when I sold it.
When I wrote my new book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, I first titled it “Wooden Trunk” because I wanted it to represent the trunk we came to America with, the trunk my dad built from boards taken from a concentration camp wall. I wanted this book to contain all of the memories my parents and my sister and I brought to America and collected here. My publisher nixed the idea. I think she was wrong.
6. Your Chicago upbringing seems to have been tough. I particularly like the section in ‘Friends in America; Murdertown‘ when some youths tried to steal your mother’s shopping, and she gave one of them a severe kicking. How has your background shaped you as a writer?
I’ve never been asked this question, and I’m not sure how growing up in ‘Murdertown’ has shaped me as a writer. It’s given me stories of course. I’m just finishing the editing of my second mystery novel about my old neighborhood in ‘Murdertown.’ I think it’s also made me aware of a world where people struggle and don’t always succeed, a world where brutality and despair co-exist with beauty and hope.
One of the questions I often get is what do I want people to take away from my poems about my parents. The answer I like to give is that people should hope. This is the message, I think, of my poem ‘My Mother’s Optimism,’ about her cancer. It ends with something my mom said about hope, that “optimism is a crazy man’s mother.” It’s crazy to be optimist in a world where death can come at us from so many directions, but what else is there.
John Guzlowski’s mother Tekla shortly before her death in 2006
7. You had some very striking influences in your work, with your parents background in labour camps, and the family moving from being ‘Displaced Persons’ in Germany to ‘Polack’ immigrants in the US. But what has had an impact on you from American literature and wider culture such as movies or Rock music?
I am crazy about American culture! One of the first books I remember reading after we arrive in America was a comic book about zombies coming out of the grave. I was 4 years old and my love affair with American culture has never stopped. I grew up reading all kinds of comic books and science fiction novels and watching and loving musicals and horror movies and TV shows of all kinds. I can still tell you what was on the list of top ten songs from 1955! I think I felt that being expert in all of this popular culture some how proved to me that I was as American as anybody around.
And as I got older my interest broadened to include American literature. I eventually got a Phd in American lit and – I don’t often get a chance to brag about this — scored the highest score on my Phd exams ever recorded at Purdue University up to that point. I especially loved the literature of American outsiders: Whitman and Emerson and Dos Passos and Dickinson and Kerouac and TS Eliot and Baldwin and Bellow. They gave me a way of thinking about who I was that helped free me from the negative stereotypes that were being imposed on me by a society that really didn’t and still doesn’t care for immigrants and refugees.
"I can tell you about what it felt like for my mother to have been raped by a German guard in exchange for a piece of bread. But I can't make you decide that you will never be like that German guard "
8. Do you think that the plight of the Polish slave labourers has been neglected even though so many were starved or worked to death? Certainly I found reading your collection ‘Echoes of Tattered Tongues’ quite an eye-opener in this respect.
I think the plight of Polish slave labourers and other civilian victims of war in general has been neglected.
For most people, wars are heroic enterprises full of heroic soldiers. Most of the movies and movies and songs about war feature these heroes. We give them medals and we have national days commemorating them. Not to take anything away from these soldiers, but we almost never never never hear about the 50 million civilians who died in WWII. It makes me sick to think of all these forgotten and ignored deaths.
When I do lectures or poetry readings from my book, I always try to make people mindful of these losses. In WWI and WWII about 100 million people died. Most of them civilians — children and mothers and fathers — who never touched a gun, never invaded a country, never waved a flag. They were just people waiting for the shooting to stop so they could crawl out of a dark cellar and start looking for some water or a piece of bread.
"We wait in lines for bread that never comes. We speak to strangers thinking they will tell us where are lives are." My Mother's Dreams in Wartime
9. What specifically can poets offer to our overall understanding of World War 2 (compared with visual artists or novelists) ? Can the medium of poetry offer us any unique channel of communication when writing about the War?
I think what poetry can do best is give you a quick and intimate sense of war. Poetry is a hammer that says, listen I have seen these terrible things and I am here to make you feel them. I think every war poet – from Homer to Wilfred Owen to me – wants to wake you up with some lightning so you will now say, “Good lord, no more war.”
Does poetry do the job?
Nothing does the job. No poem or movie or song or painting can stop people from buckling on their armor and grabbing their guns.
I can tell you about what it felt like for my mother to be raped by a German guard in exchange for a piece of bread, but I can’t make you decide that you will never be like that German guard. No writing or art or philosophy or religion can. They are all failures.
If poetry could have stopped war, it would have when Homer finished reciting the bloody Iliad.
But we have to try. Like I said above, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.
Optimism is a crazy writer’s mother.
10. What are your future poetry projects?
I have too many projects. Sometime this year, I have a novel coming out about two German lovers separated by war. He’s on the Eastern Front fleeing the Russians, and she’s being bombed daily by the Allies. And another mystery novel is also coming out, about a Chicago detective in the 1960s who suffers from PTSD.
My poetry projects?
I’ve decided to write the poems that I’ve put off writing. For the last 30 some years, I’ve been telling my parents’ story and now I plan to tell my story. I’m finishing up a book about the things I’ve experienced and felt in my life, and how I see them now as I get closer to 70. It’s a sort of old man’s book.
I’ve also started a book of short zen poems about a real 15th-century Japanese Buddhist monk who some people suspected was mad, the Monk Ikkyu.
Let me end with a poem about him:
a black cherry
a dead friend
how much he loved
early in the morning