Maria Jastrzębska was born in Poland but arrived in the UK in the 1950s at the age of four. Anna Blasiak arrived in the UK from Poland in 2003, age twenty-nine. Both women are poets, both are queer. In the following conversation (which they hold in English), they discuss the similarities and differences between their experiences as queer Polish poets in the UK.
Maria Jastrzębska: Anna, do you see writing as a political act?
Anna Blasiak: More and more so, the older I get. I write quite intuitively, without too much pre-thinking and planning, but I am beginning to see that it can be a useful political tool, and I need to use it as such. Of course there are triggers that have made me think like this, all those things happening in this country and in Poland, politically and, as a result, socially. I have written quite a few explicitly Brexit poems recently. And there will probably be more.
How about you Maria?
MJ: Well, I’ve always thought we are all accountable, which means as writers and artists too. When my first collection came out, years ago – a collaboration with visual artist Jola Ścicińska – my mother refused to go to the launch, because, she said, quote, it was ‘lesbijska propaganda’. And at the same time my local feminist bookshop in London refused to stock it, because, they said, it wasn’t feminist enough – not enough about women/lesbians for them! But there is a tension there. I also want to leave room for imagination and playfulness. That’s something I’m enjoying more and more.
AB: In your most recent book, The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingenue, there is a lot of playfulness and a lot of political engagement.
MJ: I don’t think they should be in opposition. There is your conscious intention and then there is some other process – call it intuitive or unconscious. You’ve got to make room for that other process, because if the authorial intention just bashes it on the head, it stifles the creativity.
AB: You grew up a Pole in Britain, feeling different. Another layer of being different is being queer. How did and how does this inform your writing?
MJ: I knew English people around me couldn’t see my world, couldn’t understand my language, our customs. To some extent that put us at odds; I felt under pressure to assimilate and I was bullied for being a foreign child. I’ve written a lot about growing up, but I didn’t set out to – it just happened that way. When I came out, that added a whole other layer. I was different not only within English society but also different within Polish society. It was the margins of the margins of the margins…
What about you? You came to England as an adult and then you came out. Does that influence your creativity?
AB: I’ve heard many stories about Polish queer people moving to the UK because they felt repressed in Poland, but that isn’t my story. Not just because I wasn’t out when I was still in Poland. It’s a complete coincidence that I came out while in England. I think it was just my time and I happened to be in England. Often when you read my writing you would have to look very hard to find any sign of queerness.
MJ: Yet when I read your poetry I get the sense that you are grappling with being outside and inside, you are looking at things from the outside, as a foreigner in the UK, and also looking at things from within both the UK and Polish contexts.
AB: I believe that when you move from one place to another you are forever misplaced. You don’t belong to the place where you came from and you don’t belong to the place you ended up in. It’s always one leg here, one leg there. That can be hard, of course, but it’s also an interesting position to be in. And I think you can use it creatively. There’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. It’s done, and you can’t undo it. I’ve gone through it a few times in my life. And I love it. I don’t have to feel that I belong to one place, I don’t have to have one community, I don’t have to fit into one box. It’s actually great to have this feeling of not belonging, or rather belonging to a few places, a few boxes at the same time. I would never ever go back to Poland. Not just because of the current political situation, although that is a very big reason. I would rather pack my bags and go somewhere else, start from scratch, create another layer of not belonging again.
MJ: Yes, we inhabit in-between places and being between here and elsewhere is always fertile ground for creativity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to distance ourselves, be snooty outsiders. We can be excited or committed to our cultures 100 per cent, but it means that we are not 100 per cent in one or the other culture. Or we are and we are not. There is a paradox here. When people say to me, are you Polish or English? I think it’s a false binary. Like you, I’m absolutely passionate about and fascinated by borders, and, particularly in Europe, with borders you can cross on foot – palpable, visible and yet at the same time sheer nonsense. That fascinates me and very much informs my writing. Growing up I was aware of different worlds not managing to communicate, so communication became hugely important to me. You and I both work as literary translators – but I have always been a cultural translator. I can’t help myself. It’s this sense that you are in one world in which people can’t see and can’t hear this other world that you know about. So you want to say to them: this is just round the corner from you, why don’t you have a look? At a lesbian event I feel at home, but at the same time it’s all in English, all with very English reference points, and I’m immediately frustrated. Then the same thing will happen to me in Polish contexts – the queer side of me just doesn’t feel like it’s getting enough of an airing. There is that sense of not only inhabiting an in-between place, but also wanting to invite other people into it or to take them across from one shore to another.
AB: I can understand the feeling of disconnection, of being with one group and thinking of all those other things, or feeling that you are only partially represented within the group, that only part of your personality belongs here and the other one or ones need to be quiet or are simply hushed.
MJ: When I go to Poland, everyone sees me as English, of course. Now, with the swing to the extreme right and fundamentalist Christian politics, I feel more isolated as a lesbian than I do here. It takes me back to how things were when I was growing up, when it was a nightmare to be LBGT+. It was very scary to come out. And this is still the case, whether in Chechnya or Brunei, or even pockets of the UK. Gay men faced prison, women were sent to psychiatric hospitals for being lesbian, struggled for custody of their children because they were lesbian. I know women who to this day won’t tell a soul about a lesbian relationship they have had. It was a very harsh world back then. In the UK it began to change through the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Front, through activism we took part in then. And through literature as well. At that time I was looking very much to the Americans for queer writing – for political writing generally – reading people like Michelle Cliff, Irena Klepfisz, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audrey Lorde. These were very important writers to me.
I’m not saying all the battles were won, but there have been huge steps forwards within my life. In Poland it’s gone backwards. That makes it hard going to Poland with my partner, for example. Our civil partnership isn’t recognized there. I know lesbians who’ve left Poland because they’ve just had enough. They’ve been fighting for so long and just at the point when things might have started to get easier, this backlash has come and they just thought, ‘we don’t want to go through this all over again’. Going to Poland is difficult, but for me it’s essential, because it’s contact with the language, with my roots, with my culture. So it’s also very enriching. I come back absolutely exhausted, but I have family and close friends there. That’s irreplaceable.
Anna, you said you would never want to go back to Poland, but you visit regularly. What’s that like for you?
AB: I’m not sure if my story is representative. Maybe it isn’t, but it is my story. I’ve never experienced homophobia in Poland, not before I left Poland, when I was still in the closet, nor after, when I came out. And I am out out. I go there with my partner, but we’ve never had any unpleasant experiences. I come from a very religious, traditional, Catholic family, but when I came out, it was all, ‘if you are happy, we are happy’. I guess I was just incredibly lucky. Of course, I know that nasty things happen, and that they happen more and more often nowadays.
MJ: When you write, is it primarily in Polish, or are you also writing more in English these days?
AB: I write in both languages – more and more in English, but I don’t think I’m ever going to stop writing in Polish. When it comes to reading, it’s quite fluid. Quite often I don’t even remember which language I read a particular book in. I have to stop and think. I get lost between the languages. I make a conscious effort to read in Polish, because a few years ago I had this moment when my Polish language started slipping away from me. And that caused huge panic. My way of dealing with it is to speak Polish as much as possible and, even more importantly, to read Polish books. But I read a lot in English too, also a lot in translation from other languages. I read quite voraciously and indiscriminately. This confusion between the languages also comes across in my writing – sometimes I start writing something in one language and then switch to the other, because the other seems to be more appropriate for this particular text. Or I dream things in the wrong language. It’s all very confused. Blended.
Maria, you often pepper your English poems with Polish words …
MJ: I think that’s to do with not feeling represented enough. Although English is absolutely my dominant language, it isn’t enough. In my last book there was Spanish all the way through. Not only because I couldn’t find a particular word but because I feel a frustration with the limits of English. Recently I’ve started writing multilingually, in a more organic way. It’s not just slipping in the odd word, but thinking differently. I’ve written in Ponglish, that language which Polish families here are familiar with, where you mix up the languages. It opens up new possibilities and makes you rethink language altogether.
AB: Do you believe that language indicates a certain mentality?
MJ: Certainly. When I speak Polish, my non-Polish friends have always said I sound different, that I’m louder, for example. They think I am having an argument with someone, so something must change!
By Maria Jastrzębska and Anna Blasiak
Maria Jastrzębska was co-editor of Queer in Brighton (New Writing South 2014) and co-founded Queer Writing South. She translated Justyna Bargielska’s The Great Plan B (Smokestack 2017). Her most recent collection is The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon Press/Liquorice Fish 2018). She lives in Brighton.
Anna Blasiak is an art historian, poet and translator. She runs the European Literature Network with Rosie Goldsmith. She has worked in museums and a radio station and written on art, film and theatre.
This review was originally published in The Queer Riveter in June 2019.