Zbigniew Herbert – sessions in Edinburgh secondary schools

In September I ran sessions on the poems of Zbigniew Herbert in four Edinburgh secondary schools (Broughton, James Gillespies, Drummond and Firrhill), working with older pupils.

Each session involved reading and discussing a Herbert poem, and a creative writing exercise which used the poem as a starting point. The poems we looked at were ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’. I used various activities to help them engage with the poems, including reading aloud in groups, and piecing together a poem like a jigsaw.

  

Pupils in two of the sessions gave written answers to evaluation questions, about what they felt they had learned about Poland, Zbigniew Herbert, and poetry, as well as what they’d liked, and what they’d change, about the session.

Their comments included:

  • Poland – invasion by Germany, and domination by Russia, as well as its shifting borders
  • Herbert – his time in the Home Army, and his travels to Scotland and Los Angeles
  • Poetry – poems can function without punctuation, rhyme and marked rhythm; their emotional content; a poem ‘doesn’t have to be complex and intimidating’
  • What they’d liked –interactive activities; writing using a line or lines from another text; reflections on immigration; ‘learning about a poem written by someone who is not Scottish’
  • What they’d change –include more poems; spend more – or less – time writing; less history, more biography
    One comment read – gratifyingly – ‘Polish people, more creative writing please’. We’ll do our best!

My own reflections on the sessions follow.

I had struggled to choose poems for in the sessions, in terms of finding a ‘representative’ Herbert poem; each shows as it were only one aspect of his interests. I enjoy his poems with classical references, but felt they might require too much explanation. Of the four poems I focussed on (‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’) some background notes were needed for all of them, perhaps most of all for the first (some pupils had read Hamlet, but none recalled who Fortinbras was). It became clear in the first session that Herbert’s language was simple enough, and his ideas complex enough, to engage the pupils, even if they didn’t understand all the references and lost some nuance.

I was able to evolve new activities for engaging with poems in the classrooms: reading aloud as a group, piecing the stanzas together like a jigsaw, using 2 or 3 lines from a poem to begin writing a new text. I thought these activities helped pupils engage with the poems: to read them carefully and think about how they were structured, where the emphases lay, who these characters were and why they did what they did, and how these poems might relate to their own interests and experiences.

When I was at school it was a rarity to read any Scottish authors; perhaps the pendulum has swung so far the other way that pupils now have an appetite for non-Scottish authors, and a curiosity about authors writing not in English.

My own interest in Herbert’s work was refreshed, thanks to the pupils’ curiosity.

I’ve also written a teaching resource on Herbert’s poems, which is available to download as a pdf.

Ken Cockburn

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A Morning with Żanna Słoniowska

Members of Zielony Balonik were delighted to meet with Żanna Słoniowska, the author of The House with the Stained-Glass Window at the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh on May 26th at an event hosted by Kasia Kokowska of Word Polishers and supported by the Polish Consul General in Edinburgh. 

From left to right:
Grazyna Fremi, Zanna Sloniowska, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Jenny Robertson

Żanna explained that her first novel was the culmination of a long process of living the first part of her life and thinking of its meanings in the embrace of the character of  her home city, Lviv, as it is now known and located in Western Ukraine. The human characters in her story  explore how four generations of women in the same family, living in one house, reflect the multiple identities, inherited or thrust upon them, as a result of geopolitical upheavals including war itself, imposed by external forces or generated from within through cultural conflict. 

Her book was written in Polish and expertly translated in fastidious detail by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Żanna’s  multi-language skills (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and English) demonstrate her own internationalism and her desires for cross cultural links to be expressed in freedom of thought and movement. Żanna’s book adds to the revelation of the role that the city of Lviv has played in the history of the borderlands of eastern Europe, and how for too long it became almost invisible in the aftermath of the Second World War.

 

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Joseph Conrad on St Andrew’s Day in Edinburgh November 30th 2017

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

The complexity of Joseph Conrad was revealed by experts Laurence Davies and Linda Dryden in two presentations highlighting his connections with people and places in Scotland and his transnationalism engendered by his personal family history of displacement and the twenty years of traversing the oceans. It was fascinating to see images of the young Konradek on his horse in the territory of the Russian Empire in 1865 and then the elderly Joseph Conrad relaxing in his garden in Canterbury, Kent with a cousin in 1924. In between his life resulted in writings which have been recognized not only for the quality of his use of the English language but also for his commentary on issues at the time which resonate today, such as racism and slavery, inequality and globalization. These multiple aspects were drawn together by Nick Barley in a Q and A session. 160 years after his birth there is no doubt that the works of Joseph Conrad are reaching out to a new generation and to a wider audience.

On the night we welcomed 65 people to this free event at Augustine United Church. Starting at 6pm the main event concluded at 7.30pm but we then welcomed 20 guests for a reception, which closed at 8.45pm. We distributed leaflets advertising the new publication Conradology and we are now looking forward to Nick Barley successfully inviting Maya Jasanoff to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018 to promote her book “ The Dawn Watch”.

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

Photo: Tom Duda/freshmintstudio.com

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A Celebration of Joseph Conrad

An evening of presentations and readings portraying the influence of Joseph Conrad as a European and his links with Scotland. Conrad experts Professor Laurence Davis of the Joseph Conrad Society and the University of Glasgow, and Professor Linda Dryden of Edinburgh Napier University will enlighten and surprise as thy reveal more of the life and times of Joseph Conrad.

St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 2017, 6:00pm – 7:30pm

Augustine Church, 41-43 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EL

To book contact: http://bit.ly/2zvv4RA

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Wiesław Myśliwski in Strzebrzeszyn

The Strzebrzeszyn ‘Capital of Polish’ festival, now in its third year, has just created and awarded the first Man of Word accolade to none other than Wiesław Myśliwski, whose A Treatise on Shelling Beans we discussed a few months ago.

In his word of thanks, Myśliwski suggested Jan Brzechwa, the author of the delightful and wicked Chrząszcz, as his successor for the award. There is already a statue of a cricket (świerszcz, or chrząszcz) in Strzebrzeszyn but. according to Myśliwski, it’s high time the poet got one as well, if only for popularising the town as our own Shibboleth. 

Myśliwski, who is currently finishing Ucho Igielne (Eye of the Needle) which by his own admission he may never submit for publication, was astonished to be described by the literary critic Piotr Biłos as an erotic writer. He eventually agreed. He also admitted that Biłos has discovered whole new worlds in his novels which he, Myśliwski, had no idea he had created. 

One of the points raised during the festival was the apparent disappearance of the vocative from the language of polite debate. Used correctly, this case shows respect for the interlocutor and promotes a civilised exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, these days it is used mainly to hurl abuse at (perceived) political enemies, i.e. anyone who does not support the ruling party.  

The festival took place in Strzebrzeszyn, 6-12 August. Other eminent guests included Hanna Krall, Dorota Masłowska, Szczepan Twardoch, Wit Szostak, Marcin Podolec, Urszula Kozioł and Rev. Adam Boniecki.

Ewa Sharwood Smith,  Wyborcza, 10 August 2017

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Where is Wioletta Greg?

For the whole hour of the ‘Outsiders’ session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 14 August, we wondered if Wioletta Greg would show up or not. Our heads turned automatically each time a shadow passed behind the two glass doors, hoping it might be her. To our great disappointment, however, she did not materialize.

Nick Barley, the Director of EIBF, who was chairing the session, told us that she was in Edinburgh and that he expected her to arrive any minute. Greg’s interpreter was on stage, along with the author Edouard Louis, with whom Greg had been paired for this session. Edouard took full advantage of the additional time available and gave us a fascinating inside into his working class background, family life, his metamorphosis and his view of the world. He spoke especially of the lack of understanding of the working class majority by the middle class minority, and of the fear, aggression and violence which are, according to him, an inherent part of the lives of poor working class people across the world.

Unfortunately there was no comparison made between his novel and Greg’s, very different in their style and the author’s perception of the world. Edouard read, in English, a passage of his book The End of Eddy, while Nick Barley gave a French reading of the same extract. Greg’s interpreter read from Swallowing Mercury in English, but nobody read it in Polish. Personally, I would have preferred to hear Edouard Louis reading his own French text, and the Polish interpreter reading Swallowing Mercury in her native Polish, as Greg wasn’t there to read it herself. It is important to hear the music of a foreign language read by a native speaker, rather than a non native speaker struggling to do so. I would still like to know what the point of the reversal was.

A Dutch lady, sitting next to me, had travelled all the way from near Dunkeld to hear Wioletta Greg. Her daughter-in-law is Polish, and she was hoping to learn about good Polish contemporary literature. There was six of us from Zielony Balonik, the Scottish Polish Book Club. We had all read Swallowing Mercury, some of us in Polish and some in English, and we were truly surprised and disappointed that Greg did not show up and had not communicated with the organisers. The only consolation is that we have discovered a great new French author!

Grażyna Fremi

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EIBF Miedzianka / Kupferberg

On the 13 August Philip Springer – the author, and Sean Gasper Bye – the translator of History of a Disappearance, appeared at EIBF. The translator was in the audience and signed the books, along with the author, after the talk. It was interesting to hear from Springer about his way of working and how he got inspired to write this story. Since it was published in Poland in 2011 he had written 6 other books! Springer is interested in interpretations of events, how myths  and different versions grow around difficult times and happenings. According to Springer, these mysteries and sometimes lays, are more reveling about the social history than facts alone.

Bye’s speciality is translation of non-fiction. In addition to Polish he also translates from Russian and French. He is American of Polish parentage on his mother side, and lives in New York. Bye read this book shortly after it was published and loved it so much that he kept mentioning it to various publishers and eventually, on a publishers trip to Krakow, it was taken up by Restless Books from Brooklin NY, which seeks  ‘extraordinary international literature that feeds our restlessness: our curiosity about the world, passion for other cultures and languages, and eagerness to explore beyond the confines of the familiar.’

The power of literature seem to be putting Miedzianka back on the map. A new brewery has been opened up by a young couple from Wrocław and a cafe / bookshop and art gallery is built by a hipster from Warsaw. So in addition to reading Springer’s book, Miedzianka or Kupferberg is a must destination on our next visit to Silesia!

Grażyna Fremi

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