Well-known Polish poet and Nobel Prize nominee Adam Zagajewski shared pieces of his work and discussed inspirations and challenges with St. Cloud State students and community members Thursday in the Atwood Little Theatre.
Zagajewski recalled starting out writing as a novelist before discovering his passion for poetry at age 18, during a night in which he could not sleep. He described feeling excited and “intoxicated” with emotions upon writing his first few poems, of which he said were not very good.
“It was a very mystical experience. It’s not like writing a report or school essay, it engages your entire being,” said Zagajewski. “You get this moment of happiness, doubt and again happiness. It’s very deep. It gave me a taste of what writing could be.”
This would prove to be the beginning of a successful profession for Zagajewski, as he has received many awards and honors throughout the years for his poems. Some of his awards include a 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature nomination, winning the European Poetry Prize, Zhongkun International Poetry Prize in 2013 and among others.
Despite his success, Zagajewski still faced challenges in writing. Zagajewski spoke with the audience about the hardship he faced when Poland was communist and his work was subjected to censorship.
He explained that Poland was lucky, because most communist countries’ writers were subjected to the aesthetic doctrine of the party. This meant that they had to follow rules and write positive things about the country you lived in. Zagajewski said that for some reason, Poland’s writers had more freedom.
“For writers, it was a free country in one respect. You could write however you wished, you still went to censorship, but they were interested if you were attacking the secretary of the communist country, if you were critical of communists in general. You could be critical of minor phenomena, but not of the major phenomena of communism.”
For Zagajewski, being subjected to censorship was not pleasant, but it wasn’t as terrible as it could seem.
“There was still some freedom, limited, but existing freedom of expression,” said Zagajewski. “I quickly understood that even this limited censorship could be considered scandalous, that the human mind shouldn’t be censored.”
He shared one instance in particular with the audience in which censors banned three of his poems, telling him that they went too far. He described how he joined a movement that was against censorship, but he began to publish in the underground, which was free.
Throughout the panel, Mass Communications Professor Tomasz “Peter” Przytula asked Zagajewski questions. Afterwards, he read pieces of his poetry, along with taking requests from the audience.
One student asked Zagajewski if he believed modern media have influenced poetry in any way.
He answered the question saying that he did not believe media have “changed” poetry in any way, except for the way that it is circulated. With that, people have more access to reading and expressing poems.
Another student asked about the prominence and future of books and print with many things going electronic lately.
“Print is still growing and it has the prestige that the electronic book doesn’t. We don’t know the future, it is hard to predict anything, but I am optimistic,” Zagajewski answered. “I think the paper book will exist. I don’t think electronic books will disappear, they are very useful, but they don’t replace the other one.”
Another student from the audience requested Zagajewski read his poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which was published in The New Yorker magazine. The poem was written in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the poem was written over a year before the attacks, it is a statement reminding people to stay optimistic, to search for the beauty that exists in a flawed world.
After Zagajewski read his poem, the panel concluded.
It was Zagajewski’s first time coming to St. Cloud State University and second time in Minnesota overall. He shared that he enjoys the area as it reminds him of home, and that he enjoys the “Minnesota nice” attitude here. Although he lives in Krakow, Poland, he manages to make it to the United States once a year as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.
In this particular visit, he has split his time between SCSU and St. John’s University with poetry readings and class visits.
When asked if he would consider coming back to the area, Zagajewski said, “I like central Minnesota. We will see what happens.”