We’re Allowed a Little More 

28 June 2023

Michał Rusinek talks about events held as part of Year of Wisława Szymborska.  

Grzegorz Słącz: Centenary of the birth of Wisława Szymborska – sounds almost like a provocation, like a sardonic poem she might have written…  

Michał Rusinek: It’s true that Szymborska believed that celebrating birthdays, in particular “round” ones, is a “quaternary male sexual characteristic”, and she was known for mocking the custom. If we were to follow her thinking all the way, we wouldn’t have organised anything at all. In general I don’t think it’s sensible to worry too much about what Szymborska would or wouldn’t have wanted, because chances are she wouldn’t have wanted anything anyway. But since she’s been gone eleven years, we have her Foundation, we have the Wisława Szymborska Award which has become one of the most important poetry awards in Poland… We have the Szymborska “brand” – I don’t like the term but I do understand the mechanism. This year’s anniversary serves to recall and promote Szymborska throughout Poland and abroad. I can see how much is happening in Italy, for example, precisely because we are talking about this anniversary – it’s a great opportunity to also talk about Polish culture and Poland in general. The boundaries between the private and public spheres have shifted over the eleven years, in part because together with a few publishers we decided to publish some of Szymborska’s letters.   

How, then, would you define the mission of Year of Szymborska from the Cracovian, Polish and international perspectives?   

In terms of Poland, we want not so much to expunge but update her image in the popular consciousness. She was more than happy to be perceived as a giggling old lady, cigarette in one hand, a glass of brandy in the other… It was attractive to the media, and she used it to hide behind. To be honest, though, I think that today it doesn’t do her poetry any favours. I think our task is to balance it out; it’s important that the main focus of the celebrations is on what we consider to be the most important thing: the recent publication of her Collected Poems and the meetings and discussions around this important volume.   

In Kraków, many people and organisations have worked hard to prepare the Wisława Szymborska Park, which should open in July. In the autumn, the exhibition Fair of Miracles launches at the Małopolska Garden of Arts. On 2 July, Szymborska’s birthday, the venue presents a special surprise prepared by LEGO. The Juliusz Słowacki Theatre is working on a stage play about Szymborska – premiere also on 2 July! And we are working with the City of Kraków on several more events.  

When it comes to the rest of the world, since the publication of Collected Poems, we submitted proposals to our most important partners who are now considering whether to publish the entire volume, selected excerpts or just texts which haven’t been published before. There will be plenty going on, and some of it has already started in Italy. The director Sergio Maifredi from Genoa has written a play which will premiere in Rome and will come to Kraków’s Manggha Museum in September. The low-key performance features Szymborska’s poems and excerpts from her letters, starring the acclaimed Italian actress Maddalena Crippa. Work is also underway on an exhibition which will be shown in Milan and Genoa.  


So what will we see at the exhibition at the Małopolska Garden of Arts?   

On the first anniversary of Szymborska’s passing, the Szołayski Tenement House presented the modest exhibition Szymborska’s Drawer. The first flat she lived in on her own was so tiny, her friends jokingly called it her drawer. The exhibition told the story of Szymborska and her poetry through the medium of items she’d surrounded herself with. These themes return once again, but the Fair of Miracles will be considerably larger – we could almost say it’s going to sprawl all over the Małopolska Garden of Arts’s expansive spaces. We will see some of Szymborska’s “debris”, such as her celestial globe, as well as a selection of her vast collection of pre-war postcards, books and dedications…   

Let’s get back to Collected Poems. Tell us about the process of creating this volume.   

Prepared by the Znak Publishing House in collaboration with the Wisława Szymborska Foundation, it comprises three volumes. The first includes all of Szymborska’s poetry volumes in chronological order. We have also included two “social realist” volumes, even though Szymborska saw them as a document of a somewhat dark era and never allowed them to be reprinted. Additionally, the volume Black Song, published after her death, is a collection of poems she wrote before her official debut and which earned her the admission to the Polish Writers’ Union. She decided against publishing them at the time, because they didn’t fit the up-and-coming socialist realism craze… This part closes with the volume Enough. The second part comprises poems which were only published in magazines and journals, while the final third includes unpublished poems, transcribed from manuscripts and typescripts. To start with we thought we had too much material, but once we delved deeper into the file with archival manuscripts we realised only one is an unfinished piece of writing, while the others were simply ideas and sketches.   

What about other publications due to be released this year?  

In the autumn, Znak will publish a collection of Szymborska’s literary wordplays. It includes previously unpublished items, such as an one-act play from around 40 years ago; once upon a time we were gazumped to it at auction, but we have been able to obtain the content nevertheless. We chose to included it in this volume as a rather less “serious” text. The publishing house a5 is planning to release Szymborska’s correspondence with Krystyna and Ryszard Krynicki. I could say that we are aiming to publish almost everything Szymborska ever wrote, since Znak is also reprinting her collection of columns about novels Nonrequired Reading, and it will continue to re-release her individual poetry volumes. What remains is her other columns, literary letters she edited for the “Życie Literackie” magazine and her poetry translations. They will be released in the coming years.  

And let’s not forget books about Szymborska, such as the biography penned by Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna, which will be re-released by Agora in an expanded format. I should also add that I wrote a book introducing Szymborska to children through motifs from her biography and her poetry.   

The Miłosz Festival in July will be another excellent opportunity to discuss these books.  

That’s right. Most of the literary festivals held in Poland this year are planning to run streams dedicated to Szymborska, but there are also other accompanying events which are a bit more off-the-wall… Still, I think we can allow ourselves a bit more this year. The popular clothing brand Medicine is preparing an entire collection dedicated to Szymborska. They aren’t simply printing excerpts from her poems on t-shirts, but creating veritable artworks designed by artists and inspired by specific poems. These poems will be released as annotations to a notebook available from their shops. The Mint of Poland is publishing a commemorative silver dollar, Prime Line is producing commemorative sets of pens and notebooks, while the Cracovian artist Pola Zag has designed exclusive branded office materials. We’ve even encountered piracy of Wisława Szymborska’s brand! We strive to respond whenever such activities don’t live up to our aesthetic expectations.  

This year we are also marking the 10th anniversary of Kraków being hailed as a UNESCO City of Literature. Cracovian Nobel laureates for literature – Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz – must have been a strong argument in favour of Kraków receiving this accolade.   

I think that Szymborska and Miłosz can be seen as parent-founders of today’s literary Kraków. The events we see here, from the Miłosz Festival to the Szymborska Prize, have direct links to the Meetings of Poets of East and West which they were both patrons of. I’m delighted that we have been able to reclaim Wisława Szymborska’s flat after a few years, and that we had the idea to use it to host literary residences, bringing it back to life. We recently hosted Oksana Zabuzhko, and the next guest will be Tomas Venclova.  

I’m also delighted that the Szymborska Award is something poets can be proud of, even if they have only been nominated. We are fulfilling Szymborska’s will, since she herself wrote the foundation’s statute. She once said that if she were to read all the requests, manuscripts and typescripts she used to receive, she’d never had the time to work and write herself. She put us under an obligation that after her death, we would do what she could never find the time for: support others. As a result, the activities of the foundation started at the point of the opening of her will.   

Szymborska closed her Nobel lecture with the words, “It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.” We live in tumultuous times, so how should we read her works today?   

Goethe was wont to say that he only ever wrote casual poetry, and something similar could be said about Szymborska: her poetry touches on universal values which are relevant to us all. In other words, there’s a poem by Szymborska to fit pretty much any occasion or life event.   

A few months ago, Sanah recorded a sung version of the poem Nothing Twice, which has been viewed over 47 million times on YouTube. The young artist also sings a poem by Adam Asnyk – surely she deserves some kind of national prize! Since her release of Nothing Twice, I have been receiving emails from teachers of Polish literature at schools of all levels telling me about their wide-eyed students asking all about Szymborska.   

Szymborska herself said about Nothing Twice that it was the only “songlike” poem she’d ever written. And it’s true to say that all generations have their favourite performance of this text, with artists such as Kora and earlier Łucja Prus having performed it in the 1990s and 1970s, respectively. Szymborska didn’t really represent a specific generation, and her poems don’t need to be read in a historical context. The poem Writing a Curriculum Vitae, which I always took to be a satire on the bureaucracy of the communist period, is now very popular among young Italian students. As they near graduation, they send their CVs to myriad potential employers, and they read Szymborska as though she was writing especially for and about them, here and now.  

I think that if poetry has a goal, it is to provide us with language. Szymborska’s poetry is perfect for describing, ordering and understanding our world.   

Michał Rusinek is a literature scholar with a doctorate in the humanities; he was Wisława Szymborska’s secretary during the last 15 years of her life. Founder and president of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation, literary translator, columnist and author of children’s books. Member of the Polish Language Council.  


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