Anne Colwell: John, your poems are full of strong voices and are particularly dramatic, giving us whole scenes with these voices, wrought beautifully in concise form. Can you talk about the creation of voice in your poems — not just your voice as the poet, but your parents’ voices?
John Guzlowski: The voice of the poems came pretty naturally. In talking about my parents’ lives, I’ve tried to use the language that I first heard their stories in, language free of emotions. When my mother and father told me many of the stories that became my poems, they spoke in plain language, straightforward language. They didn’t try to emphasize the emotional aspect of their experience; rather, they told their stories in a matter-of-fact way. This happened, they’d say, and then this happened: “The soldier kicked her, and then he shot her, and then he moved on to the next room.” I’ve also tried to make the poems storylike, strong in narrative drive, to convey the way they were first told to me.
Another thing about the voice of the poems that’s important to me is that I’ve tried to incorporate my parents’ actual voices into the poems. A number of the poems contain some of the language they told those stories in. The first poem in the Lightning and Ashes collection, “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg,’” is pretty much written as she spoke it. I’ve cut out some of the things she said, polished others in that poem, but the poem has her voice.
The poem “My Mother’s Optimism” that r.kv.r.y published is another example of using my parents’ voices. The story of my mother’s cancers and her recovery that the poem includes is given a sense of reality, for me, because I included four quotes from my mom starting with the quote in the first stanza:
“Listen, Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
Your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”
When my sister Donna read the collection, the first thing she commented on was how much she could hear our parents in it.
AC: Speaking of drama, I haven’t had the chance to see you read in person yet, but I watched the video of the reading from St. Francis and I know that you are a powerful reader. Could you say a few words about what reading poems out loud does to the process of writing a poem for you?
JG: What I’m trying to do in a lot of the poems is to recreate my first hearing of the stories my parents told. I want to capture what they said, and I want to make the reader feel the way I felt when I heard the stories for the first time.
When I read the poems in front of an audience, I’m trying to channel my parents, their voices, their emotions, their inflections. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m conscious of the drama of their lives and the stories they told me, and I’m trying to pass that on to the audience.
Many of the poems were painful to write. My parents were troubled people who never fully recovered from what they experienced in the war. Writing those poems about them, I knew when I got them right because I was pretty much emotionally a mess. I knew when a poem was done if I was sitting at the desk with tears in my eyes.
Reading the poems aloud in front of an audience is sometimes hard for me because I remember the times when my parents told me their stories, and I remember the emotions that were going through me when I was writing the poems, and I remember my parents.
I sometimes hear their voices coming through the poems, and that’s hard.
AC: Both of us, I think, in different ways use poetry to try to understand and perhaps overcome the world our parents gave us. I was haunted by the designation “Displaced Persons” when I read it in your biography as a term applied to your parents and yourself, your community. It seems such a heavy burden at one level, but it has also been traditionally a very powerful place for the artist — standing outside society, looking in with a different perspective and insights impossible for “placed persons.” Can you discuss the way that placement and displacement have shaped you as an artist?
JG: The thing about displacement that has really shaped my writing is that I didn’t start writing about my parents until I was 31 years old. I didn’t want to have any contact with them and their lives and what my mother used to call “that camp shit.” I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago full of survivors and refugees and displaced persons, and as a kid growing up I felt hobbled by all that sorrow and all that difference, all that apartness. I fled displacement.
I turned to books and literature and college, a world where there were no displaced persons, no refugees. During all those college years, I never thought much about the strange lives my parents had lived during the war. At least not until the very very end of my college career.
I was a year short of finishing my dissertation when I wrote my first poem about my parents.
I guess you could say that I had to be “placed” before I allowed myself to be “displaced.” I had to overcome their world, before I could enter it.
But even then, it was a slow process. It took me about 20 years to write the first 20 or so poems, the poems that became my first chapbook, Language of Mules.
AC: I love the way that your poems — I’m thinking here of poems like “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” and “My Mother Reads ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg'” — look at different versions of the past and also the silences that surround them. Can you say a few words about the ways that your poems explore the past, what is recoverable and what is unrecoverable? This is especially interesting for the readers of r.kv.r.y.
JG: The process of writing the poems about my parents has been pretty amazing. It’s been going on for 33 years, and in some ways it even extends further than that. Some of the poems are based on stories that I heard when I was 5 and 6 years old. At the time, my father was the one telling me the stories. My mother didn’t want to have anything to do with telling the stories. I think she didn’t want to tell her stories because she was afraid of the effect they would have on us, her children, and I think she was afraid of reliving the horrors she had gone through. All of this changed after my dad died in 1997. My mother started telling me about her experiences then, and her versions were of course different in some ways from my father’s.
All of this complicates the stories and the telling of the stories and my reception of the stories.
The first poem I wrote about my parents is called “Dreams of Warsaw.” It addresses some of this complexity. It talks about my parents “leading unhurried lives” of “unhurried memories”—memories that are dreamlike.
The poems are like that for me. They are memories but memories recast almost as dreams.
There’s my parents’ years in the camps, my father’s retelling of that story, my mother’s retelling of that story, my childhood memories of their retellings, and then my adult attempt to place all of that within the context of my life and of course in the context of a poem.
So what is recoverable?
I wish I could say that everything is recoverable but that would be a lie.
Finally, I think that there’s very little that is recoverable.
When my parents were still alive, I felt that I could get to the truth of their experience, but now that they are both dead, I realize that I will never know what happened to them. And I realize also that finally I will never understand what they experienced. I’m pretty much only a tourist in their lives—poking here and there, looking around for some souvenir, a poem. The truth of their lives in all of its misery and suffering is something I’ll never know. And I think my parents would be happy with that.
But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop trying to understand their lives. Every so often, I open up the folders that contain the notes that I took of my conversations with my parents and study them, looking for some clue to who they finally were and what was it that happened to them.
AC: So . . . maybe one question that’s more fun? It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and you are sitting somewhere watching the leaves fall and reading a book of poems. Whose book of poems is it?
JG: That’s an easy one. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He was the first poet I really loved. After I discovered him in college, I carried around a thick volume in my backpack for years. I read him in subway cars, on beaches, in dark rooms with blue party lights. I especially loved the opening sections of “Song of Myself.” They were perfect. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
What do I like in Whitman? The sense of openness, possibility, inclusion, confidence, equality, love, and hope. His world is never damned.
And here are some links to John’s other work: