Today The Thornfield Review is thrilled to share an excerpt from Michal Rusinek’s upcoming memoir on Wislawa Szymborska, Nothing of the Ordinary.
Translator Mark Ordon, who lives in western Poland, recently sat down with Rusinek to discuss what life was like as personal secretary to the tour de force poet.
Your first memory of Wisława Szymborska’s poetry?
Just before graduating from high school, I was taking a bus to visit a classmate who was dying of cancer. A few people would visit her at a time, in rotating shifts. She would ask a favor of every one of us. Her request to me was to bring her some of Szymborska’s poetry, because she knew my parents had an extensive book collection. I grabbed a few volumes, No End of Fun and People on the Bridge for sure. At the time, I was into literature of a completely different kind. I don’t know why, but at the time I didn’t think Szymborska’s poetry was for me. My friend lived on the other side of Kraków. Out of sheer boredom, I opened up No End of Fun:
“We used matches to draw lots; who would visit him./
And I lost. I got up from our table./
Visiting hours were just about to start (…) // He seemed embarrassed about dying./
What do you say to someone like that?/
Our eyes never met, like in a faked photograph// My head started aching. Who’s dying on whom?/
I went on about modern medicine and the three violets in a jar./
I talked about the sun and faded out. // It’s a good thing they have stairs to run down../
It’s a good thing they have gates to let you out.”
(“Report from the Hospital,” translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)
It was a poem about me, at that time. But other poems were talking to me as well, and about things which I was too embarrassed to speak or even think about. They swept me away. And I missed my stop. By a few stops!
Your first encounter with Wisława Szymborska was…
In May 1996, with a trembling hand, I was dialing Szymborska’s number. She would go on to receive the Nobel Prize half a year later. She didn’t have any type of automated answering service. Nor any type of non-automated answering service. I only knew that if she was home, she would pick up the receiver. She did. I introduced myself and invited her to a meeting of a secret limerick lodge created in honor of Teresa Walas, who was an expert in literary theory and history at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and was also a literary critic. She was amused and excited about the invitation. I even received proof in writing:
“Excellency! It is with delight and appreciation that I accept the title of Honorary Member of the Association of Admirers of Teresa Walas which has been bestowed upon me. I shall hold it in high regard, carry it proudly with my head up high and make use of it at every possible occasion and also without occasion.
- Attached, please find a recent limerick, which, as most of my limericks, came to life as I was traveling. The train carrying me to faraway places had just passed the city of Slupca.
Slupca’s for sale along with its station
But there is no buyer in the nation
So the young people there
Don’t dance in the square
If they do – they cry with no explanation.”
The letter was written on 1930s Zajączek & Lankosz Cloth and Wool Products Factory Warehouse letterhead.
The apartment of Agnieszka Fulińska at Świętego Tomasza Street in Kraków. Present are university professors Teresa Walas, Władysław Stróżewski and Stanisław Balbus, along with students Magda Heydel and Ewa Mrowczyk, the host and I. And above all WS. Limericks were read, anecdotes told, accompanied by wine (rather cheap), which we had all pitched in for. I recall that the conversation focused on memory. WS argued that a novelist remembers things differently than a poet. She explained how she was once traveling with Kornel Filipowicz (Polish writer and Szymborska’s long-time life partner) to some new place and when they discussed it later, they found that Filipowicz remembered a number of details, as if he were preparing to accurately describe the setting of a plot. She only remembered certain moods, sometimes anecdotes. But not things like the fact that the doorknobs were brass.
Memory . . .that of course is a theme in one of her poems, or rather in many of her poems:
“Everything’s mine though just on loan, / nothing for the memory to hold, /
though mine as long as I look.”
(from Travel Elegy, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)
It was then that I first noticed how a poem was created: a theme was approached from all sides and discussed at length and discussed in a language which did not steer far from Szymborska’s language in her poetry. Her writing followed the rhythm of speech. The rhythm of breathing, which became shorter and shorter with every year that passed and with every pack of cigarettes she smoked.
And then the Nobel happened…
The phone first rang right after one in the afternoon on October 3, 1996. Naturally, it was a Thursday, because Thursday is when the Swedish Academy meets. It was on that day that Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On behalf of the limerick lodge, I immediately wrote a letter of congratulations to the poet, in which I suggested that her limericks no doubt must have had an effect on the Academy’s verdict. A few weeks later, as her secretary, I found the letter in a pile of congratulatory correspondence, giving me the unique opportunity to respond to myself.
The archives of the Polish Radio hold a telephone conversation between Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska recorded on that day. Miłosz is congratulating her, with sincere joy in his voice. “Czesław,” WS says, “my Nobel is like a little minnow next to an enormous pike. You are the pike.” Miłosz laughs heartily, but seriously adds that “what has happened is a good thing, because it confirms the status of Polish poetry,” and feels sorry for her, because now she will have to write a Nobel lecture. Szymborska responded that she wants to speak about others. Miłosz replied “There is one wonderful thing about you, you really aren’t conceited.” She quickly flashed back, “That’s because I have no reason to be!” I have just found the letter addressed to the secretary of the Swedish Academy Sture Allén, written in capital letters to make the translator’s job easier. She probably still wrote it in Zakopane (Polish mountain resort where Szymborska was vacationing when the verdict was announced):
“It is with an emotion that is difficult to express that I received the news that the Swedish Academy awarded me with the Nobel Prize in Literature. No writer creates for herself, but rather has the desire to share her emotions and thoughts with even the smallest group of readers, who understand and value her for specific reasons. My creative ambitions never reached far and never aspired for international honors and awards. Therefore, I consider the fact that my poetry has been honored with an award of the highest prestige in the world as a beautiful and astonishing gift of fate. This is a great joy not only for me, but for my native country as well. Thank you!”
Was Szymborska ready to embrace the prize?
When only a year earlier, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska heaved a sigh of relief. The chances that the prize would go to another European poet (Barańczak adds from a Catholic country with a turbulent past, where the potato is the staple food) were quite slim…friends joked that Szymborska is most likely the only poet in the world who does not want a Nobel; that’s because she was afraid of the confusion the award would bring to her life.
But the Swedish Academy had a different plan…
Meanwhile, the Swedish Academy decided to grant the award to Szymborska a year later: “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Heaney was interviewed by Jacek Żakowski at the time. He congratulated Szymborska, yet warned of the problems that would await her now: “Mail becomes the biggest issue. After the verdict is announced, the great flood starts to rush. You have a set up an office. You have to hire a secretary, who will answer thousands of calls. From the verdict until the New Year, the flood will fill up your house and block your phone, and the fax machine will run 24 hours a day. Anybody whom you had met practically since you were born will write, call, send telegrams and faxes. Friends from school, from kindergarten, from your childhood neighborhood, everybody (…) will now miraculously appear. As if you went to Heaven. As if you had found yourself in some abstract center of your life. As if you were standing in a stadium full of friendly human faces who you know better or worse.” The interview ends with his striking words: “Poor, poor Wisława.”
Was it really that bad in the end?
A year later, Szymborska wrote him a letter: “My ‘Nobel year’ has happily passed by. When you wrote last year what I should expect, and described your own experiences, I was suspicious that you had exaggerated a bit. But no, you were absolutely right – confusion, noise, not a moment of peace, unexpected obligations, travel, piles of letters, problems and annoyances. This period did not foster my writing, or even my train of thought, and yet that’s what we live for. I hope you are now able to work at ease and write your beautiful poems.”
To a question posed once in a letter, “Why did you receive the Nobel prize?” she didn’t provide an answer. But she told me that was very tempted to respond “because obviously Swedes are weird.”
…and this is where you came in….?
She herself wished for things to be normal, so she could write her poems. After returning from Zakopane, the search for a secretary began, for a person who would above all manage the mass of correspondence, as well as the preparations for the trip to Stockholm in December. Applying for the job (in addition to me) was a certain diplomat who happened to have a few months’ hiatus and who would be capable of organizing the office. I met him several years later in New York. His name is Krzysztof Kasprzyk, he used to work with my father. It was thanks to his efforts that we were able to meet Woody Allen and register a conversation for a movie by Katarzyna Kolenda-Zaleska (Polish journalist and TV personality). At the end of his term at the Polish Consulate in New York in 2010, I presented him with a collage especially made for him by Szymborska.
In 1996, my application was put forth by Teresa Walas, who was mentor for my just completed Master’s Thesis and under whose supervision I would be writing my PhD dissertation. A month earlier I had started my PhD studies, which had in fact extended the non-adult phase of my life. I remained a student, so I didn’t to have to endure the nerve-wracking search for a job like most of my fellow graduate students. I received a PhD scholarship, which was at the time (and probably still is) the source of a bitter joke: what’s the difference between a PhD candidate and a balcony? The balcony can support a family.
So I agreed without hesitation. Well, maybe with a bit of hesitation. I had just remembered what I was afraid of when I was a child: the black rotary telephone which was at my grandmother’s home in Zakopane. If I happened to be home alone and I would hear its sharp ring, I stood frozen. What should I do? What should I say? How would the person who was calling react to my voice? And now, a mere 20 years later, my work would primarily involve talking over the phone and working through that anxiety. Just like in an American movie about psychoanalysis.
So this was to be a part-time job? Or did you already envision the long-term commitment?
It was supposed to be just for a few months, the craziest ones, from the day the verdict was announced to the award ceremony. Everything should have gone back to normal afterwards, the way it used to be. It never went back to normal and it was never the way it used to be. It seems that you become a Nobel Prize winner for life. And those few months turned into fifteen years.
I borrowed the title of this book from one of her poems without a title, a poem about nothingness, which grew into even deeper nothingness. Fifteen years of being secretary to a person like that?
Truly, there was nothing ordinary about it.
Tell us about your first encounter with your new employer?
When I first came to Szymborska’s home, to that small smoke-filled apartment at 19 Chocimska Street in Kraków, Teresa Walas opened the door. Szymborska had just finished giving an interview for the American poet Edward Hirsch. After a while, she stepped out of the room, with a slightly crazed look in her eye, holding a cigarette with a long cylinder of ash. She didn’t know what to do first: say hello, find an ashtray, answer the stubbornly ringing phone, or say goodbye to Hirsch. She finally managed to gain control of reality, only the phone continued to ring. We stood there, the three of us with Teresa. Szymborska explained that the phone jack was behind the bookshelf, so she had no way of unplugging it. Her number was unlisted, but everybody knew it; I understood that the phone even rang at night, because a number of people thought it was a fax number or some office number. At that moment, I politely asked for a pair of scissors and promptly cut the phone line.
“Genius!” Szymborska exclaimed. And that’s how I got the job.
Cutting the cable wasn’t the end of the story, though.
I bought an answering machine and installed it in place of the phone. And I installed a fax machine in the Kraków Branch Office of the Polish Writers Association on Kanoniczna Street. That office became a kind of mailing address, a poste restante, a place where all official correspondence to Szymborska would be directed. On the home answering machine, I recorded the greeting in a rather ominous and official tone: “you’ve reached number such-and-such. Please leave a message after the tone or send a fax to the following number…” and provided the number to the PWA office. The greeting changed three times over the course of the fifteen years: after Szymborska moved and her phone number changed, when faxes became outdated, and finally when she became bored with the recording. The second greeting included a slightly discouraging phrase: “please leave a message, and if necessary, slowly and clearly state your phone number.” The third message became a joke; it was recorded when she became bored with the previous one, or maybe when it started to irritate her. Here I added: “…and please consult your doctor or pharmacist.” It didn’t last long, however, because a few of Wisława’s friends would call worried about her health.
And your most important job was…
The most important task was to handle the correspondence. This was at a time when e-mail was not that common yet (as I look into my inbox from 1997, I see one hundred fifteen sent e-mails and ninety six received – during the final years, that amount was one hundred times more), so traditional letters would flow in, which needed a reply.
When I started working for Szymborska, we quickly established the poetics of the negative response. The challenge here was to make sure that nobody felt offended and that everybody understood why she said no. Therefore, she started to invent a variety of strange excuses. Once she suggested that in response to some invitation, I write that her current mental structure does not allow her to accept and moreover, she is not feeling emotionally fit.
At the time, she had been writing or contemplating a poem and knew she needed inner peace. She never said anything out loud to avoid hurting the feelings of those who invited her. But that’s really how it was. Yet when I once mentioned her delicate structure in some interview, she denied. “My skin is as thick as a crocodile’s,” she bluntly stated, while drawing heavily on her cigarette.
The faxes arrived at the PWA office. The machine didn’t split them into pages, so I would end up receiving thick rolls, which I would take to WS, unroll in front of her bewildered eyes and read while standing for an enhanced effect.
I purchased multi-colored folders to file current correspondence. That was a stupid idea though, because I quickly realized that I needed boxes. So I brought over some diaper boxes I got from the neighborhood market. They filled an entire room (actually it was a tiny room) on Chocimska Street. Personal, official (officials, as Szymborska called them), publications and miscellaneous. Rather early on, we found the need to create yet another folder (which turned into a small box later on) called “nutcases.”
This category included, for example, letters like this one:
“Madam, I summon you to a public poetic tournament, with an even 1 hour for you and 1 hour for me, in Kraków. I leave the designation of the address (venue) and time, and organization of the event to you.”
And how about the preparations for Stockholm?
The trip to Stockholm was for the most part coordinated by Teresa Walas. The itinerary of the visit still needed to be negotiated, and the lecture, or Nobel speech, still needed to be written. This was a literary genre which happened to be completely foreign to Szymborska. Her efforts produced the essay called “The Poet and the World”. WS will later say that she had to sacrifice one feature article and one poem for it. Indeed, towards the end of the lecture you could detect the rhythm of a poem.
A few jokes started circulating even before the trip to Stockholm. A fisherman catches a goldfish and she grants him one wish. “I want to have a woman,” he responds,” but I want her to be polite, modest, intelligent, rich and famous. He comes back home and finds Szymborska sitting on his porch.
A sense of humor is the best weapon for stressful situations, especially a macabre sense of humor. She once told Teresa on the street, “Teresa dear, please don’t get run over by a car. Instead of going to Stockholm, I’ll have to bury you…” In the meantime, Marek Bukowski, a copyright specialist recommended by Prof. Ryszard Markiewicz started to manage publication matters. When I had a hard time contacting him once and mentioned this to Wisława, she gave me a playful smile and asked, “Have you glanced through the obituaries lately?”
…and the big day finally arrived …
In line with the age old tradition, Wisława flew to Stockholm on a SAS Scandinavian airlines flight with a companion, who finally ended up being Teresa. The only press conference during her stay in Sweden had taken place at Arlanda airport after she had arrived. There were a variety of questions, including what she planned to do with the money. Wisława replied that she intends to set up a foundation. Yet another question concerned the poetry of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). I understand she replied that “the Pope is unmistakable in matters of faith, but not necessarily in matters of literature.”
Wisława experienced a small crisis after the second day of the trip. Indeed, for a fragile person who lives alone and restricts her time spent with others, the reality in Stockholm was difficult to bear. Mika Larsson, who had spent a number of years at the Swedish Embassy in Warsaw and was taking care of Szymborska during her stay, decided to cancel all appointments on the day preceding that most important day.
Even then, the official program of the visit was too fatiguing for Wisława to eat dinner outside of her room. So she would order a dish proudly called “Steak à la Wallenberg” (in the menu to this day!) to her apartment. A lovely cart would arrive, the silver dome would be lifted, the steam would dissipate and to the astounded eyes a… hamburger would appear! But she would on occasion have dinner in the restaurant, where the selection was wider. There was one more small issue – there was no electric kettle in the apartment. Theoretically, a guest could always order tea, but Wisława enjoyed having tea in the middle of the night, and she didn’t have the heart to call room service. So she prudently took a thermos along. It was a Chinese model, slightly rusty, with a kind of yellow plaid pattern. She would take it with her to the hotel restaurant, and at the end of dinner ask to have it filled with hot water. I will never forget the look on the waiter’s face when he brought it back. He had certainly seen it all and was aware of the fact that writers tend to be eccentric. But I don’t believe he had ever seen a Chinese thermos in such an elegant restaurant. And he had certainly never held one in his white-gloved hands.
The next day was a culmination of events. The ceremony rehearsal took place at ten in the morning, with the proper steps and sequence of bows. Taking photographs of the Nobel Prize winners was strictly prohibited. The real ceremony at the Philharmonic started at four. Laudations were interrupted by arias from Alfred Nobel’s favorite operas, and diplomas and medals awarded. I was sitting somewhere at the end of the concert hall. Tears filled my eyes when Wisława stood up. And I burst into laughter when she made a pirouette and bowed to the audience first, then to the members of the Swedish Academy, although it should have been the other way around. The feeling of being moved and amused – that special mix of emotions would accompany me many times during that trip.
At the Nobel banquet, you cannot do anything the King wouldn’t do first. So you cannot reach for your wine glass until the King offers a toast to Alfred Nobel. You couldn’t smoke either if the King didn’t light up first. But indeed soon enough the both of them, the King and Wisława, were puffing away at their cigarettes. Apparently it is common knowledge in Sweden that the monarch smokes, yet he cannot be photographed with a cigarette. So only the bolder Swedish newspapers ran a photo of Szymborska blowing up a cloud of smoke at the Nobel banquet. The conservative titles did not print it, because then each and every Swede would know that the King had to be smoking as well. The horror of it.
When I came back to the hotel after the banquet, there were a few people in Wisława’s apartment. She was tired, but was happy to listen to everybody’s stories, concluding that “at least you had a good time. I had to entertain the King!” She told him her favorite joke about the Scotsman (who went on his honeymoon alone, because he married a widow and she had already been on a honeymoon before). And she asked whether he enjoyed such receptions and if he wouldn’t rather be out hunting in the woods, which he was planning to do a few days later. It seems the King smiled apologetically and admitted that he would rather be in the woods. She found that very charming.
On the return flight, the airline spokeswoman tried to conduct an interview with Szymborska, of which the poet finally authorized only one sentence. She also had a crisis on board (“Please do not talk to me for a while”). A car was waiting for her on the tarmac in Kraków, so we managed to bypass the journalists, photojournalists and gawkers, though some of them were waiting in front of her house, hoping for a quick comment.
I take it Szymborska was not thrilled with giving interviews?
Interviews – an absolute nightmare. They were her least favorite form of expression, right up there with speeches and lectures. She very rarely agreed to them, that is, unless one of her books appeared in translation in some country and she just had to “help the translator make a buck.” I would set up appointments with journalists, sometimes translators. Usually around 10 o’clock in the morning. They would all be served instant coffee and a glass of brandy, and be interrogated on their private and professional life. All this would usually throw them off queue right from the start. Then they would be surprised by the reactions to certain questions. “That is a very good question, but I need a moment to think about the answer,” WS would say. Because the journalist would wait, with microphone in hand, WS would explain, “No, I will not answer now. Please come back in the fall.” Such reactions are not very common in times when everybody is expected to have an instant answer ready. To other questions, she would respond that they are too good for her to answer them directly, because they deserve an answer in the form of a poem. Some journalists would feel offended by such a response, while it was meant as a compliment. Poetry is the medium in which WS would say things which were most important to her. Szymborska would almost never agree to interviews for Polish media. She even had an excuse ready for them: “I gave an interview in 1975. I’ve had nothing new to say since then.”
How did she handle all of the hype around her?
“Nobody visits me anymore now,” she lamented to somebody over the phone once, “it’s rather that I’m being visited.” But it’s true: I would get calls from agencies organizing sightseeing trips around Kraków asking me whether a group of foreign tourists could visit the Nobel Prize winner, right after their tour of Wawel Castle, the Wieliczka salt mine and Auschwitz.
To her friends she wrote: “I am like a cat that is being petted to death.
Here they want me to drive a nail into some flag, there they want to give a school my name…to all that, I answer ‘no.’ I want to be a normal person as quickly as possible, and not a “personage.”
Wisława wasn’t fond of anything that had to do with her being honored. She didn’t like when her name became, as she would put it, the engine of various initiatives, even the commendable ones. She simply felt uncomfortable with it; it wasn’t her style. When these types of offers would appear, I wouldn’t even consult them with her, only send a reply with that in mind.
One day I received a call from a woman who asked if she would participate in some honorary committee of a youth initiative. I replied as politely and delicately as I could that Wisława would not accept the honor and began to explain why. The woman interrupted, saying, “Nah, that’s OK, I’m just checking off the list.”
Szymborska had a different engine in mind – a foundation which she had already been pondering. She wanted the institution to not only continue the work she had already been doing (such as supporting writers who were in a dire financial situation), but also take on everything she didn’t want to herself, or couldn’t, because it would have been too much of a mental burden on her. She had already been talking about some scholarship or award. For a second book, because a successful debut doesn’t always mean that the author will become a writer. “The second book is more credible,” she would say.
What else changed for Szymborska after she became a Nobel Prize winner?
Szymborska decided that she needed to move.
A journalist once came by to the apartment on Chocimska Street to conduct an interview and couldn’t believe that this was where a Nobel Prize winner lived. He was convinced that she really lived in some luxurious house, and this was merely a pied-à-terre, a base used to meet with journalists and discourage them from staying too long.
We had three apartments lined up by a real estate agent; she wasn’t thrilled by the first two choices.
The third apartment was in a relatively new building, not far from the previous one. In the same neighborhood, with her favorite farmer’s market nearby and the same bookstore. The agent set up an appointment to see the place, but didn’t tell the owners who the potential buyer was. We rang the bell, a woman opened the door, recognized Szymborska and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I’m reading your book just right now!” Indeed, we saw a copy of Nonrequired Reading on the armchair. And in the end, this very apartment is the one she bought.
The move from Chocimska to Piastowska Street turned out to be a long-time affair. Every time I came to see WS, she had two cloth bags prepared for me to take to the new house. They would for example hold two vases, four bowls, while THE globe (a beautiful one presenting not the Earth but the sky!) would be packed separately, because it was too big. I knew that wouldn’t work. I brought bigger bags and urged her, for example, to pack Kornel Filipowicz’s archive into them together with me. She protested for the first fifteen minutes saying that I’d get a hernia. The resistance weakened after a while though, so I was able to transport a large portion of her belongings to Piastowska Street. That way, we were able to move most of the things out of the old place in the course of a week. All that was left was the furniture and books.
What did she did enjoy doing, in addition to her poetry?
Around the end of the year, usually in November, WS asked me not to visit her for a few days and not make any appointments during that time, because she will “be an artist.” That’s when she would create her collages. Her wish not to have any visitors didn’t really have anything to do with her creative concentration, but rather the technique she used. The floors throughout the apartment were covered in clippings from old newspapers and catalogs. Szymborska would tread between them like a flamingo, pair them up, burst into laughter and glue them to cardstock. That’s how her collages came to life.
She claimed she started to produce them towards the end of the 1960s, when it was hard to find nice postcards. It wasn’t easy to get good materials then, either. She had plenty of graphic materials: catalogs of old pre-World War II mail order stores, old magazines, current newspapers. But getting your hands on good quality glue or proper cardstock, which wouldn’t be too flimsy nor too thick was nothing short of a miracle (in Poland at the time). So friends would bring her glue from Germany (West Germany, naturally), and cardstock from Sweden.
She would always be happy to talk about her collages. She saved one of her first, vintage late 1960s: an open door with a figure standing in it is set on an antique column. I found it after she died in an After Eight tin along with a dozen new ones which she hadn’t sent out…how many of them had she created? Very hard to estimate. She regularly worked on collages over the course of forty years, around one hundred per year over the past few years. I’m sure a few thousand, if not even tens of thousands of Szymborska’s collages are dispersed all over the world, in the hands of the heirs of her friends and acquaintances.
Szymborska was also the victim of her love for kitsch. So much so that her friends had decided to give her kitschy gifts only, or flowers which she didn’t appreciate. If she received any flowers during any public event, she would for the most part offer them to stupefied taxi drivers. When Joanna Olczak-Ronikier (Polish book author and screenwriter) was once invited to her party and gave her a non-kitschy present, Wisława was astounded and exclaimed, “Look how beautiful that is!” All kitschy gifts were subject to a rigorous selection process. The most horrible ones, which lacked any sense of humor and generally were not funny, would be thrown into the trash immediately, as they had to disappear from the face of the earth. Those which were not too funny, yet potentially useful, would be put away in the closet for one her famous raffles. There were a few cases in which a guest would win an object which he or she had brought as a gift to a previous party. The highest form of recognition would be to set the object on a shelf, between her books. Only those objects which represented sophisticated and highly amusing kitsch would experience this grace. I tried to bring her a souvenir, if only a small one, from every trip I made. The highest esteem went to a wind-up nun which I bought in London during a short scholarship stay. She would wind up the nun and let her run across the table after dinner. That would usually significantly liven up the conversation.
So she enjoyed having guests for dinner?
Szymborska hosted a kind of 19th century salon. Parties at her home entailed not only raffles (where each guest would win a small, often kitschy prize to take home), dinners or wine evenings. They would always highlight a specific theme which she had been interested in at the time, or focused around a special guest who didn’t visit that often. Serious issues would often be discussed, sometimes literature or even poetry (never her own poems though, she wouldn’t allow it). She would organize these evenings even twice a month. She would make up the guest list with great care and always called each guest personally to extend an invitation. The guest sets would change, but each guest had the impression of belonging to a circle of close friends. Yet many of these acquaintances never met each other, because they had been assigned to different, non-intersecting circles. When we organized the very last raffle after Szymborska’s death at the Foundation for women only, many of them met there for the first time.
When Szymborska revived the raffle nights in her new house, we knew that the big move was over and that life was getting back to normal. She finally had a new dining table, which could seat more people (around ten). Before the Nobel Prize, she claimed that anything more than eight people is a crowd. After the Nobel Prize, she changed her mind and increased that number to ten. In my mind, it wasn’t the award itself that made the difference, but rather the new house and the new dining table with an extension.
The ritual was always the same. First, she would select a date (the visit of an out-of-town acquaintance would sometimes be a pretext to organize a dinner). Then she would write the guest list in her calendar, and personally call each of them with an invitation. The evening would consist of three elements: a cocktail to start (usually a martini, Campari or gin & tonic), then the main course and finally the raffle, during which tea and brandy would be served. The main course would usually be ordered from the tried and trusted Pod Baranem restaurant (Beef Stroganoff or Beef Bourguignon), or the host would cook herself. It became a tradition that in the spring, in honor of Czesław Miłosz, who would usually visit from California then, Szymborska would prepare a Polish beef roulade with buckwheat and serve it with chilled vodka, in addition to the traditional wine. He liked it that way. And it indeed was her showpiece dish (along with her sauerkraut and chanterelle mushroom salad, which was marvelous).
The evening would usually end around midnight. She would send a few discrete signals that it was time: either by telling an anecdote about Kornel Filipowicz, who would at one point simply tell his guests that “he won’t keep them any longer” and would turn on the TV where a game was being broadcast; or by initiating a ritual in which she would count all the people who were gossiped about or at least mentioned (usually over twenty). Sometimes somebody would try to stay longer and offer to help with the dishes. She wouldn’t agree, claiming that “a poet needs to have some contact with real matter once in a while.”
Right after she had moved to Piastowska Street, she became thrilled with the option of being able to order carryout by phone. So she would order Chinese or pizza from Pizza Hut. When her guests arrived, two pizza boxes would land on the table (one meat, one vegetarian, because “you never know if somebody didn’t go veggie all of a sudden”). The host would bring a large pair of tailor scissors and cut off the box cover, so everyone could conveniently reach for the pizza. The expressions on the faces of guests, who didn’t expect it because they had been invited for the first time, were priceless.
Sometimes there were more guests than chairs available. In such cases, the host would bring a tiny chair from her bedroom, which was very unstable. She was the only one who could sit on it; she wouldn’t let anybody else try it out. I’m sure the chair was one of the few things she took from her family home, maybe from her childhood bedroom, but I never found out for sure. Maybe that’s why I’ve always associated it with Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
Tell me something about a typical workday with a great poet?
I usually came by every other day, mostly in the afternoon. I would bring the stack of letters which were forwarded to the PWA, and took the letters Wisława wrote in the meantime. She wanted to thank everyone for their congratulatory wishes. She responded to friends most of all, but also to representatives of a number of institutions from all over the world. She had me print two versions of thank you cards – in Polish and English. On special thicker stock paper, the kind she used for her collages. I would spend a lot of time in line at the post office during that period.
I didn’t have a cell phone yet then and I wouldn’t buy one for another two years. At the time, I bought myself a modem which also doubled as a fax and answering machine. I saved most of Wisława’s messages in sound files. I listen to them even now: “This is a certain poet from the Kraków area…”, “This is…well, you know who…”, “Hello, this is your….well, I don’t know what to call myself.”, “This is your tormentor speaking!”, “Michał, if you should still be in Kraków in the afternoon, please call me. But if you don’t call, the world will not come to an end.” She was from a different time. She did not like electronic devices; it took her a while to learn how to use the answering machine. Since my answering machine was on my computer, I told her how it worked, referring to it using the masculine ‘he’: he records, he registers, he reads. Wisława listened for a while and then asked “Who’s he?” I explained. She responded, slightly disappointed, “and here I thought you meant God…”
What did your role as secretary change for you, personally?
When the first articles about me started appearing in newspapers, I started to be recognized. I was then asked during a radio interview if that recognition had changed something in my life. I truthfully answered that not much, aside from the “personally known” annotation applied to registered mail, meaning I didn’t have to present my ID when I would pick it up. I later even became friendly with one of the clerks at the post office, who not only didn’t check my power of attorney every time, but even helped me take care of things without having to wait in line. In exchange, he would ask for autographs on books once a year.
I also understood very quickly that there were risks associated with this job. Including the question which resurfaces to this day: Don’t you feel that you lived in her shadow? That you didn’t live your own life?
Yet it always very important to Wisława that I lived my own life, that I didn’t neglect my academic career and other work on her account. She would come to my book promotion events (she even read a limerick dedicated to me during the promotion of my “Limericks” volume). She would read the interviews I had given, even those associated with my own work. About one of them, on rhetoric, she said “I read your interview. It was a bit boring. I actually prefer when you talk about me.”
Six years later, she came to the presentation of my PhD dissertation, creating slight confusion amongst the members of the Department Council, and then presented me with a bottle of champagne and a collage.
What thought or emotion comes to your mind when you think of Wisława Szymborska?
It’s hard not to think of her without being enchanted by her. She was witty, sometimes sarcastic, but she tried to never hurt anybody. She was surprising in her reactions; I actually never knew what she would like or how she would decide in one matter or another. She made the impression of being a fragile and delicate person, yet gifted with a strong character.
The model according to which we usually define the relationship between ourselves and others is family. We say that somebody is “like a mother to me,” or somebody else is a “good uncle,” decrepit “grandpa” or “aunt”. Szymborska steered clear away from any kind of family shelving. Maybe it’s because she herself had no close family, or maybe because she maintained the same non-family relations with everybody. She never behaved like an aunt or grandmother towards anybody; she would only build relations which you could call friendship.
Did anything change with time?
Szymborska was beyond any age. If somebody would ask how the “elderly lady” or even “old woman” was doing, I wouldn’t know at first who they were talking about. I think everybody who knew her had the same impression. This was certainly thanks to her ability to be constantly amazed by the world and be delighted with the world, to her lack of bitterness, her irony deprived of cynicism. She was not infantile in any way, though her eccentricities, pulled out of context, could have been perceived that way.
Her eyes were the only thing which stood the test of time; till the very end, she looked upon the world with the eyes of a teenage girl – the girl, who, as she claimed towards the end of her life, she no longer had anything in common with. Except maybe for an old scarf. That’s not true. They both shared the same twinkle in their eyes. I knew the end was near when that twinkle started to fade away.
Then there was her smile. It certainly changed over time, though I could only tell from old pictures. Age changes the skin after all; it puts on a wrinkled mask, a delicate net, an ink drawing, which highlights facial expressions and clearly outlines a concern, as well as a smile. Much more clearly than on a young smooth face. “My distinguishing marks are delight and despair,” Szymborska wrote.
About Michał Rusinek
Michal Rusinek was born in Kraków in 1972 and still lives there with his family. He was personal secretary to poet Wisława Szymborska and currently manages her Foundation. The author works at the Department of Polish language at the Jagellonian University in Kraków, where he teaches literary theory and rhetoric. On certain days, he becomes a translator from English, on others he writes books for children and adults, or creates poetry or song lyrics – to date, he has written and translated around 100 books. Rusinek is also a celebrated columnist, writing articles on books and language.
About Mark Ordon
Mark Ordon grew up in a bilingual and bicultural family in Detroit, Michigan. He pursued his interests in foreign language and culture, with special focus on literature from Poland, the country of his ancestors. Though focused first on classic pieces, he quickly discovered the wealth of contemporary Polish literature. He now works as a full-time translator, sometimes journalist and writer, and lives with his family near Poznań, in western Poland.
Though much of Mark’s work concerns technical subjects, he has been shifting focus to translations of excerpts and sample texts from Polish and German literature in an effort to introduce these valuable works to readers in the English language realm. Thank you for your good work, Mark, and for bringing the voices of phenomenal authors such as Olga Tokarczuk to our attention!
You can find more from Mark here at the Thornfield Review in our book club vlog reviews.