My Connections with Sejny

My Connections with Sejny - Czesław Miłosz in conversation with Sejny youth.


Bożena Szroeder: For many years now, we have been conducting work with the younger generation on the memory of Sejny and the multicultural heritage of our region. In cooperation with our youth, we have prepared a book and a theatre performance of the Sejny Chronicles  built on the recorded tales of the elderly. Among the participants were young people people of Polish, Lithuanian and Old-Believer heritage. We have dreamt for a long time to have this opportunity to talk to you.

C.M.: In my student years, I used to spend my summer holidays in Krasnogruda, about 10 kilometres from Sejny, right on the Lithuanian border, in the estate belonging to the Kunats. Grandfather Kunat was born in Krasnogruda. My grandpa’s brother, Bronisław Kunat, is buried in Sejny, in the Catholic cemetery although the Kunats were originally Calvinist, that is the information given by the list of the Calvinist nobility from the 18th century. How it happened that they became Catholic, I do not know, one way or another, in the 19th century they were Catholic. My grandpa was born in Krasnogruda, but as a junior son he had no right of inheritance. He studied agronomy at the Main School in Warsaw. These were the times of positivism. Later, he emigrated north, i.e. to Lithuania proper, north of Kaunas and there he got married to Józefa Syruć, my grandmother.

I visited Krasnogruda most often in my student years. With the economic decline of the landed gentry, my relatives Ela and Nina Kunatówny (you modified the names for married women) set up a pension to somehow bolster the financial situation of the estate.  These are my connections with Sejny. And to Sejny, one would travel every few days.  I do not know how you envisage Sejny at the time.  At the end of the market, i.e. on the other side from the Synagogue, on the right, there used to be mama Fligieltaub’s restaurant. Have you ever heard about such a restaurant?

Yes. We have.

C.M.: And, more or less opposite the restaurant, something extraordinary was happening at the station. It was a big coach, starting at the market with a terrible racket. Crowds gathered round the vehicle! People squeezed, even on its roof, various baskets with poultry etc. usually on market days. And so, the packet coach would start towards Suwałki. I do not know, is such a picture familiar to you? The coach belonged, of course, to a Jewish company and the customers were, first of all, Jewish traders who brought various merchandise to Sejny.

My cousins were not very pious. Very tolerant, but not very religious.. they hardly ever travelled to the church in Sejny. And as for grandpa Kunat, I wrote a poem about him. I do not know whether some of you are familiar with it?

We read.

C.M.: Grandpa Kunat was a very tolerant man. And these were the times when it was quite difficult to be tolerant, there was a lot of ethnic tension, especially between the Poles and the Lithuanians, and our family, on both my father’s and my mother’s side, spoke Polish. So, there were occasional conflicts, not only with the Lithuanians, but also with our neighbours who accused my grandpa of Lithuanian sympathies, i.e. that he acknowledged the rights of the Lithuanians to exist as a separate nation. In Szetejnie, where I was born, the school was about one kilometre from the manor. Before the First World War, my mother used to run a small school where she taught reading and writing. In what language did she teach? In Polish, of course. At that time, Polish was regarded to be the language of culture, and Lithuanian to be the language of peasants. So she taught in Polish. As a small boy I would go with my mother on a tour of the neighbouring villages and then we were met cordially by her former pupils. But, there was also someone else at the school who taught in Lithuanian, and it seems it was my grandpa who paid that person. So it was, at the time.

My grandpa had, obviously, no conflicts with the Jews from the local township of Kiejdany. Perhaps, it was the matter of his Calvinism, ecumenical tendencies in our family were always present.

And my brother, Andrzej, he, in turn, and it is a colourful story, saved the life of an unknown person chased by the Nazis. The man turned out to be the chief of the Soviet partisans operating in the adjacent forests. His troops were composed mostly of the Jews from the town of Kiejdany. Andrzej helped them, sending them food for which they paid back by supplying him with a proper certificate that allowed him later on, in the Soviet times, to avoid deportation to the camps.

I must add here that my father worked for a few years as County Engineer in Suwałki. Sejny belonged to the same district.

You, naturally, have many questions you would like to ask, I’ll be glad to answer them. I’m not going to lecture, so you are welcome, let’s make the most of our meeting.

Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska: Have you ever travelled with your father in our borderlands?

C.M.: Yes, I sometimes travelled with my father to different places of the Suwałki county. So I might say I know it. I could tell you colourful stories from the war period. When the Soviet troops took Wilno I crossed the border illegally running away from Lithuania. It was 1940. Summer. The border was then the Soviet border, i.e. newly traced and agreed by the German occupants and the Soviet empire, it ran north of Wiżajny and Szypliszki. There were three of us, we walked all night through the bogs that were, more or less, waist-deep.  And we made it, we forced the border. But then it turned out that there was one more border to be crossed, this one running near Raczki. The Nazis multiplied all possible borders, but that is another story...

B.S.: Do you remember anybody from pre-war Sejny, from the times you spent your holidays here?

C.M.: I remember only my aunt, or mama Fligieltaub, only...

M.C.: But you visited her inn?

C.M.: Yes.

Magda Meyza: Did you come to Sejny for the fair? Do you remember the Cloth Hall?

C.M.: Yes, I do. Dimly, though.

M.M.: Can you remember some pictures from the fair?

C.M.: No, no, I believe I must have been engrossed in doing other things then. It seems to me that only later at an older age, one asks himself: why didn’t I watch more carefully the world around me then? When you are young you have plenty of worries, experiences. And you concentrate much more on yourself. It is a plague today. The plague of young Polish poetry, writers writing exclusively about themselves. Everybody is writing about themselves, only later regretting that you did not look back, regretting that you did not take notice of what was going around you. I was concerned only about the two tracks you could travel from Krasnogruda to Sejny. One ran along the road and was quite boring, the other one ran through the forest, Żegary and then back through the forest to Sejny. I followed that trail many times, it is what I associate with horses, carriages, riding etc.

B.S.: Did you visit the bookshop in Sejny then?

C.M.: There was no bookshop then, I do not remember.

B.S.: There was a bookshop belonging to Franciszek Nawrocki. He also published postcards of Sejny.

C.M.: Aha, I don’t remember. Opposite the synagogue?

B.S.: No, no, just next to the Cloth Hall. There is a greengrocer’s there today.

K.S.: Has Suwałki remained in your memory, somehow?

C.M.: Yes. Yes. It has. I didn’t go to school in Suwałki, though. My brother went to Gymnasium [Grammar School] in Suwałki, he took his maturity exams there. So, my brother is more connected with Suwałki. Not me.  When my father became County Engineer I just continued my studies in Wilno, at the King Sigismund August Gymnasium.

M.C.: So, your parents decided you should continue there?

C.M.: Yes.

Tomasz Wcisło: Did you live in Wilno alone or in lodgings?

C.M.: I lived in lodgings. Has anybody been to Wilno?

Yes. Yes.

C.M.: Are you going to study at Vilnius University?

M.C.: No, not everybody. The language barrier. Those who come from Lithuanian families speak both: Polish and Lithuanian. Whereas those who come from Polish families do not speak Lithuanian.

C.M.: I am in favour of the Polish studies in Vilnius, such studies open new different opportunities. First of all: research in the libraries. You can find their documents that are few and far between in Poland,  Or they are unknown and not easily accessible.

Weronika Czyżewska: Is there a place in Wilno that you particularly liked?

C.M.: Wilno for me, means, first of all, the university that, as you know, has an extensive labyrinth of courtyards and backyards of sorts. They say there are yards that no man had ever trod. It is a very strong experience for me, particularly now, to see the Polish Department and the Polish Studies Association located more or less at the same place that it used to be in the past, i.e. Wielka Street, on the side of the University courtyards. It is probably the most important place for me. Apart from that, all the hills surrounding Wilno, the Three Crosses, and those slopes we used to ski. Also the Wilja [Neris], a different river now, after the regulation, it used to flow so wide ...

M.M.: What did the Krasnogruda Manor House look like?

C.M.: It looked the way it looks today, although it was a completely different building. It is some sort of reconstruction now. But it looked the same, even the porch was more or less the same. Have you been there?

Yes. Yes.

C.M.: And, there was the park. Of course, not so wildly overgrown as today. When I was there last time - still, I don’t know what it looks like at the moment – so, when I was there last time the places we used to go to bathe were overgrown. You went down, to the right, and there was such a bathing place, you swam behind the reeds and rushes into the lake.

Adam Adukowski: What did you like best in Krasnogruda?

C.M.: I liked the lakes best, especially Lake Hołny, Krasnogruda is situated on, and also the other one, Lake Gaładuś. There used to be a forest between the lakes in the past. When they cut it down, I don’t know. But it was a long time ago.  Sometimes, I hunted ducks, even around this island in the middle of the lake, almost on the Lithuanian border. And there is a Lithuanian farm along the lake, Dapkiewicz’s, I visited it on my return here. Young Dapkiewicz, who welcomed me warmly, was very happy to see me as he had just heard the broadcast of Issa Valley in Lithuanian.

B.S.: I remember seeing Mr Dapkiewicz just before my departure. He told me about that meeting and about his parents and their connections with Krasnogruda.

M.C.: Can you tell us, did you like Issa Valley, the film by Tadeusz Konwicki? We know it was shot on the Polish side of the border, does it disagree with some of your memories?

C.M.: No, the reason I am not satisfied with that film is different. First of all, Konwicki used the convention of the memories of an emigrant and included there some of my poetry without my permission. The book has nothing to do with the nostalgia of an emigrant. My point was that certain distancing in time and space allows a more detached and objective description. And as for the nature, of course, I recognized the Suwałki region. The environs of my county are slightly different. As a matter of fact, they changed a lot, the manor houses and parks along the Nieważa [LIT: Nevėžis] are gone. The flat land that you know - have you ever been to Szetejnie?

Not everybody, some of us have.

C.M.: The plain was composed of villages with orchards, beautiful orchards, quite wealthy villages even. And there is nothing there now, all the villages were deported to Siberia. It seems that half of the population of the Kiejdany county was deported to Siberia. There are now kolkhoz fields, huge fields, nothing else. The local population calls this area Kazakhstan.

Magda Andruczyk: You were born in Szetejnie, Lithuania. Do you speak Lithuanian?

C.M.: No, I don’t. But I can understand a newspaper if I try to read it. But, I don’t speak Lithuanian.

M.A.: So, if somebody speaks to you in that language you understand it?

C.M.: I understand it more or less, but unfortunately I can’t speak it. As for the Miłosz family roots, the archives register its location near Kiejdany, in Samogitia (Kiejdany and Kaunas counties) since the 16th century, but even then they spoke Polish. This we know, because there are documents. It is not known, however, what language they spoke earlier. There is a legend that the family migrated in the 16th century from Lusatia, in the West, fleeing the German oppression. Anyway, since the 16th century the family has spoken Polish and I have never referred to my nationality as Lithuanian but always as Lithuanian Pole and that is not the same as Polish (from the Crown).

Rita Kalinowska: Do you remember any song from those times?

C.M.: I am tone-deaf …

R.K.: Would you like to hear us sing a song for you?

C.M.: Naturally.

B.S.: It will be a borderland song, the lyrics are in Polish, the music is Lithuanian. Zakukała ziaziuleńka, zapłakała sieroteńka… (they sing)

C.M.: It is very similar to those Lithuanian songs I know.

R.K.: We can also sing in Lithuanian…

C.M.: Oh, yes. (they sing)

I understand this song. I must admit here that my Lithuanianess, if such exists, refers to the songs heard as a small boy in  Szetejnie. As a matter of fact, the Polish folklore is unintelligible to me, I really understand only the Lithuanian folklore. The songs I heard in Szetejnie and now are really important to me, they really build my connection with Lithuania.

Ewa Adukowska: Did you attend Lithuanian weddings?

C.M.: I don’t think so.  Perhaps I did, I do not remember. Basically, the Lithuanian songs meant to me the songs I heard across the river, in the evening, when people returned from the fields. They sang so wonderfully, it is a nation with a great talent for group singing.  I read somewhere the description of a whole train of the deported Lithuanians, whose families from e.g. such villages like those around Szetejnie. When the train reached one of the Siberian towns, Irkutsk, I believe, these people on it gave a concert of Lithuanian song. Then they put them on barges and transported them to the place where the river met its tributary flowing across the taiga. They went farther, up the river to live in the taiga. They went farther, up the river to live in the taiga. They had to build huts before the coming of winter, to start everything from scratch. The fate of these Lithuanian villages around Szetejnie I found heart-breaking. I felt compassion and solidarity. And that is why I wrote in defence of Lithuania for the international press during its occupation. The Lithuanian part of me survived.

M.C.: Do you remember Sejny Jews?

C.M.: It was, after all, partly a Jewish town. At the same time, Sejny changed a lot in its history. I do not know whether you dealt with the 19th century secondary school in Sejny? It was one of the better grammar schools of that time and eminent persons graduated from it. I know, more or less, the story of that school in the early 19th century Sejny. The Kunat brothers completed that school. One of the brothers lived in Krasnogruda, or even bought Krasnogruda from his relatives, two others were active in the circles of the Parisian emigration. Krasnogruda housed the volumes of Stanisława Kunatt’s library, he worked as a lecturer in Paris, in the school of Batignolles. The other brother also emigrated to Paris. Apart from that, the school in Sejny produced such post-1830 uprising émigré activists as Kajsewicz and Niedźwiecki. So, your town became quite famous for the school and later important Jewish schools were founded.

Ilona Jodzis: There were also the Russian Old-Believers in the neighbourhood of Sejny. Do you remember anything about them? The villages near Krasnogruda, e.g. Sztabinki, belonged to the Old-Believers. There was a molenna there.

C.M.: Talking about the Old-Believers I need to refer to my family chronicles. My paternal grandfather, Artur Miłosz, was totally different to my maternal grandfather, grandfather Kunat. The former was quite a brawler and joined the uprising of 1863. But then, the uprising quickly expired, so he quickly returned to the manor. Then, it was only necessary to protect him from deportation to Siberia. And the most adjacent village was an Old-Believer village. He was on good terms with them and the whole village gathered to debate what to do: can a Christian commit perjury to save another person’s life? They came to the conclusion that a Christian may commit such a deed and they swore that he had never left his estate. In this way they saved him from deportation to Siberia. That gives an idea about sobornosti of these people, doesn’t it? This idea that was so strong among the Old-Believers, the spirit of community, the spirit of collective counsel.

And as for the neighbourhood of Sejny, I still remember the little church, and it makes me feel so sad. It was a wooden church, very pretty. And it burnt down, I don’t remember the circumstances, it was after the war…

M.C.: Yes, I managed to be there in the church and I recorded a mass with these Lithuanian songs, a part song we just recalled. That was in the early eighties. The church burnt in 1983 in unexplained circumstances.

C.M.: Did they build a new one?

M.C.: Yes, a brick one, but it is not the same…

I.J.: What are your memories of your school days, first friendships, first loves?

C.M.: My school was King Sigismund August Gymnasium in Wilno.  The terminology of that day was different: gymnasium meant an eight-year school leading to the final secondary school exams. My gymnasium was not co-educational. There were separate schools for boys and for girls. In the upper forms of the secondary school I joined a clandestine organization that grouped both gymnasium boys and girls, called Pet. What was the organization like? Its history is quite complicated. There was a clandestine youth organization founded already during the partitions of Poland called Pet, in secondary schools it was a branch of Zet [Union of the Polish Youth - ed.]. There were such self-educational and independence movements. But as we lived in an independent Poland, our organization did not have this pro-independence character but rather self-learning and slightly political aspirations, I mean, it was not a political organization but, I would say, more liberal-oriented. So, for example, I would give speeches against Sienkiewicz or about Darwin which was connected with my naturalist interests. So, Pet was not to exactly a leftist organization but, let’s say, a liberal one. Some of the members became later well-known personalities. There was, e.g. Małunowiczówna, a Belarusian as the name suggests. She became an outstanding professor of classical Greek and Latin literature at Catholic University of Lublin. Another one was Abramowiczówna [Zofia – ed.]. She also became a classical scholar - we have her four volume Polish-Greek dictionary, the best there was. Another personality belonging to that circle was and is Stanisław Stomma, a Catholic feature writer, later professor of law at Warsaw University. Those were the school days friendships.

W.C.: What did you read, with your friends, when you were our age, what books, what poems?

C.M.: That’s a very interesting question. Naturally, under your desk, you would read Nat Pinkerton. Those were cartoons of the time. The hero was an American sleuth called Nat Pinkerton, working in the twenties. Apart from that, I grew up on adventure stories. First of all came Karl May. I don’t know if you know Karl May at all?

W.C.: Some of us know some fragments by heart and wander around looking for Indians…

C.M.: There was also this writer called Thomas Mayne Reid, today probably forgotten, but incredibly popular at that time. In Szetejnie, I found an old pre-war trunk full of books with Mayne Reid’s adventure novels in Russian. It was my father’s trunk. The action of his novels took place in America; he was very popular in Poland and in Russia. There is even one story by the Russian writer Chekhov about two boys who having read Mayne Reid run away from home to reach America, to live there on hunting and robbery, but are caught at the first station. So, there was Thomas Meyne Reid. Obviously, I read Sienkiewicz, but I was not a great enthusiast of his writing. Later came the enchantment with our Polish Romantic literature that remained with me for ever. I think it is unavoidable when you read in Polish. First of all, Mickiewicz, all the more Mickiewicz stands for my home land. But I had some grudges against do Mickiewicza, e.g. his Pana Tadeusza, does not precisely reflect our natural world. For example, in the scene where Wojski plays [the horn] and the echo responds and the beeches respond to beeches ... What beeches? Where do you find beeches here? They don’t grow here. The beech boundary runs south of here, even further south than Nowogródek. True, there seem to be beeches in the Białowieża Park, but that’s south from us, that’s the northern boundary of the beech, further north you don’t find any beech woods.

Later came other books.  For example: I profited a lot from our religious education. They started with the first years of the secondary school. First, there was the holy history, but then, it was dogmatics and apologetics, practically on the seminary level. I locked horns with our priest... Oh, I can see our boys livened up at that moment. There was a priest who would throw me out of the class, saying: „Miłosz, you wear an indecent expression on your face”.

We used the textbook on the history of church by rev. Archutowski, with annotations printed in small print containing various heresies. So I read all about these heresies and I liked them very much, especially Manichaeism. So I profited from the classes a lot. By the same token I profited from our Latin classes.  Our Latin teacher, whose name was Rożek, came from Krakow, was fanatical about Latin and about translation into Polish. So I learnt his method, I used that later as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. I had a seminar there in translation from Polish and Russian into English. Rożek used to correct a translation collectively, I mean, he would put an utterance on the blackboard and then turn to the whole class asking someone to correct it and asking to give a better translation. Sometimes one sentence took an hour of discussion. It was a very good method which I used with my American students. Now it was a translation from Polish into English.

So much about the profit earned from teachers and textbooks. Then, as I went through a religious crisis, the book that was of great importance to me was the one I read in the final year of my secondary school, the title was Religious Experience [The Varieties of Religious Experience - transl.] The author was the American writer William James; this year is the centennial of its publication in English.  It was published in Polish, perhaps in 1913 [1918 - ed.]; the author, an American professor, collected various types of religious experience not discriminating any religion or denomination. He researched these experiences as a psychologist, though in fact it meant practicing those experiences, the religious experience.

These are my books, in a nutshell. And Romanticism: for some time I was taken by Słowacki, also because of my homeland. As for Mickiewicz, we have just completed a grand tour from Wilno by train southwards, to Bieniakonie. Why the Bieniakonie station? We got off and walked - almost all forms  through the forest, a few kilometres away from the Bolecienki estate. Why this estate again? Because it belonged to the Puttkamers. The wife of count Puttkamer was  Maryla with whom Mickiewicz fell in love in his youth, an there in the woods near Bolecienki, at midnight, took place the last meeting between Mickiewicz and Maryla. It is a little bit inappropriate to talk about such things to you, young people, isn’t it? So, our teachers thought it was a type of a sanctuary to Mickiewicz, and the pupils, fortunately, did not ask indiscreet questions.

As for Słowacki, I used to visit often Jaszuny, the Jaszuny station.  Jaszuny was an estate belonging to the Śniadeckis. The daughter of Śniadecki’s brother – Ludwika Śniadecka – was the adolescent love of Juliusz Słowacki. While in Wilno, I stayed for some time at the Zaułek Literacki, a few yards away from the house in which Mickiewicz wrote Grażyna.

R.K.: What languages did you learn at school?

C.M.: At school I learnt French, but I must say, I didn’t gain much from school. And later, while on a scholarship in Paris, I completed a course of advanced French and obtained the licence to teach it at school. So, I was very much into the language. To pass the test I had to write an essay in French. That’s as far as French is concerned. There was also Latin. We learnt Latin for several years, a very practical thing, but we didn’t have Greek. That’s because the schools then were divided into the humanist schools, with Latin, classical schools, with Latin and Greek, and the real , or something close to it) schools without Latin or Greek or any other classical languages. You probably don’t have any classical languages?

B.S.: No, though there are more and more schools that return to the humanist profile. We can learn Latin in Sejny but only as an extra-curricular activity.

C.M.: As a result I learnt Greek on my own, later in my life. I took it up when I was sixty. But I didn’t learn contemporary Greek, but the so called koine, the language of New Testament. I needed it to translate the Revelation of St John or Apocalypse and the Gospel of Mark, written in Greek. So it was Greek, I got down to it very late. Whereas Hebrew I did not learn at school at all. In spite of the fact that it should be one of the classical languages, I learnt only in Berkeley to be able to translate the Bible - the Book of Psalms, the Five Megillot and the Book of Job. So, in the end, you can learn even at an advanced age.

And as for English… well, I must tell you an interesting thing. In my youth, French was regarded the language of refinement. Intelligentsia spoke French, and those with some education behind them believed one had to know French so that the servants would not understand conversations of their masters! The Francomania lasted in Poland quite a long time, not unlike other countries of Europe. From the 18th through the whole 19th century. The crisis came with the 20th century and already in 1938, before the war, people of Warsaw started to learn English. It is very interesting, this ebb and flow of different languages. First was Latin - for centuries the international language of Europe, then came French, and now it is English. I took my first lessons before the war, but I learnt it pretty well only during the Nazi occupation. Incidentally, my teacher was “Tuś” [Jerzy - ed.] Toeplitz, a Jew with an Italian passport, he came from an Italian banking family. He could move freely around Warsaw and later became the founder and rector of the Polish Film School in Łódź. So I learnt then English and started to translate from it. And later, when I lived in America, I had to master the language well enough to be able to lecture in it.

As for Russian, I have never learnt the language. But I knew it from childhood as my father was mobilized during the First World War. As an engineer, sapper officer, he followed the front line and we with him. I spoke Russian unaware that I was switching languages. It is just from that time that my Russian has stayed in my memory to such a good degree that recently, during a festival of poetry, in the presence of Russian poets, I was acknowledged to have a good accent.

E.A.: Were you a good student?

C.M.: I used to be a good pupil in the early school days. I read a lot, so I was well-read. It is very important to justly assess someone’s abilities. Ability is not something inborn, it is, to a large degree, a matter of culture. A lot depends on child’s work on concepts, whether it works a lot on ideas and language. After all, it happened to my son. My son was born in America and coming to France did not know a word of French. He went to school in a small provincial town and even though he did not know a word of French he was a top pupil in French at the end of the school year. He heard in his home a number of languages at home: English, Polish etc., so he quickly learnt a new language. And  he surpassed his peers from the small French town who hadn’t read much and were not educated. So, not only abilities but the cultural environment are important.

So, I was a good pupil at the start. But later, a horrible, quite horrible, even a troublemaker who took part in the corridor fights. And then, again, I became a good student.

W.C.: We have seen a documentary in which you say you did not want to go to study Polish philology as you did not wish to become a teacher. And then, in life, it happened that you became an academic teacher. What kind of experience has teaching been to you?

C.M.: Yes, I must say, that today when you choose Polish studies you do not necessarily have to become a teacher, there are other options. In the past, however, Polish studies meant becoming a teacher. Besides, it was a "matrimonial" department. And I preferred to become a macho man. After two days of Polish studies I switched to law. And I completed it, I have a diploma and I never used that. Eventually, I became a teacher at Berkeley, California, and I discovered the talents of a teacher in myself. During the famous revolution in Berkeley, in the sixties, students for some time gave marks to professors and announced them in their bulletins. I always received good marks. I was really punished for wishing to become macho; these lady student went on usually to become mothers or teachers at secondary schools and I wanted something more.

I.J.: And what was your first love like?

M.C.: So, you asked that question, eventually. Such are the times.

C.M.: This happened in my student years, but I don’t want to go into details. Anyway, in the recent years, when Poland ceased to be a communist satellite I tracked down my old love and we exchanged letters.

M.M.: Was it a coincidence or were you looking for each other?

C.M.: Well, we were looking for each other a bit. I did not know where she was. We corresponded regularly until her death in the late eighties.

I also recently wrote a kind of a life history of a friend of mine from Wilno; her life was very complicated and strange. She was deported, imprisoned in Lubyanka, then sent to a Soviet labour-camp, then left the Soviet Union with the Ander’s Army and with it further went to Iraq, Palestine and Italy, decorated with military medals. Then she lived in England, Argentina, then in Australia... In other words, a life history typical for my generation.

I.J.: How did it happen that you became a poet? You once wanted to become a forester?

C.M.: Yes, that’s true. I changed this orientation quite late. For many years, during the secondary school, my interests concentrated on nature, forestry etc. Well, I would have to talk at length to describe how this came about. It seems the important contribution was the fact that my father was an ardent hunter and I hunted with him sometimes. It was then that I discovered the horrible cruelty of nature. So, perhaps, it occurred through an understanding that my fascination with birds, because it was mostly birds, was in fact a literary fascination. I mean, I was much more fascinated with the names of birds and phrasing their habits in words than the birds as such. As a matter of fact, I knew by heart the Latin names of all Polish birds. They are still with me a bit, though I did not suspect at the time that my fascination with the beauty of birds can be a beginning of my career as a poet. I wrote poetry in the final years of my secondary school, also impersonal ones, my poems were a sort of stylistic exercises that I can even still recall. Some of those were quite good.

I.J.: Do you often read your own work?

C.M.: Not much, quite rarely. My eyes are too weak, so I can’t read that. It was…

M.M.: Now we are reading…

M.C.: We have seen the film about the 1993 meeting at the seat of the Polish Writers Association where you read from your poetry. It was a fascinating experience for young people to hear you reading your own poetry.

C.M.: Well yes, I like reading poetry. I read then also poetry by other poets. I once recorded Mickiewicz’s ballads in a sound studio, in California. It seems, I read them very well. Those were ballads and poems by other Polish poets, such as e.g. Czechowicz.

Darek Miszkiel: Have your sons written any poetry, would they follow in your footsteps?

C.M.: Neither did I want nor they did they wish to follow in my footsteps. But they happened to have written some poetry, sometimes quite funny poems.

W.C.: What does the process of composition look like? How does a poem mature in you? Does it happen at writing on paper, or earlier?

C.M.: It can vary, most often it comes to me as a finished line which has to be written down and developed later.

W.C.: I have seen crossings-out on the manuscript of the Second Space...

C.M.: Yes, yes, it’s full of crossings-out…

I.J.: Is there a poem written by you that you find particularly exceptional, or written on a particular occasion, very important to you?

C.M.: It is very difficult to answer such a question, such things are usually well hidden. I don’t know. There is a poem, for example, that I wrote on my return to Lithuania, in 1992. I returned after fifty two years. Yes, fifty two years is a long time. Generally speaking, when I was your age, my present age would seem to be the age of an elephant... But after fifty two years I came back to Lithuania and in Szetejnie, I had this really authentic experience of the meadow, I mean, it was the particular pattern of the plants in the meadow that, I believe, occurs only there.  This is the memory of childhood , just like the things remembered from your childhood. It was an incredibly strong experience for me. I wrote then a short poem titled The Meadow included in the cycle Lithuania after Fifty Two Years.

Thank you very much for the conversation.

The conversation took place in Krakow on 26th of April 2002, edited by Czesław Miłosz and Agnieszka Kosińska. Published in Sejny Almanac 2003, no. 2, reprinted in the collection: Czesław Miłosz, Rozmowy polskie [Polish Talks - transl.]1999–2004, Kraków 2010


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