John Guzlowski‘s writing appears on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac and in Rattle, Atticus Review, Joyce Carol Oates’ Ontario Review, North American Review, and many other journals here and abroad. His poems and personal essays about his Polish parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees making a life for themselves in Chicago appear in his memoir Echoes of Tattered Tongues (Aquila Polonica Press). Echoes of Tattered Tongues received the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Foundation’s Montaigne Award. Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz – in a review of one of Guzlowski’s poetry books – wrote that Guzlowski’s writing astonished him. In this interview with Koel Sheth for Advaitam Speaks Literary, he talks about his poetry, creativity, his source of inspiration, his poetic journey so far and much more. Please read below the whole interview.
Koel : Hello John, a warm welcome to you! Were you always aware of the writer in you ? If not, what was the turning point of your life when you realised that you can be a writer?
John : I loved words from the first time I became aware of them. My parents were not educated people. My father was illiterate, and my mom could only read a little. We had no books, or magazines, or newspapers in our house. I remember the first time I saw a book. It was a horror comic book, and on the cover was a zombie coming out of a grave. I was 4 years old, and the comic was on a stack of comic books on a floor in the bathroom of a friend I was visiting. For an hour, I sat in that bathroom looking at this comic book, the zombies, and the words splashed all over the book. I didn’t know what these words meant, but I knew they were part of the magic of this book. Finally, I heard my friend calling me and calling me, and I left that bathroom, but never left behind my love for words.
After that I was always reading. I got my first library card when I was 6, and my favourite thing to do on Saturday mornings was to walk to the library and look for the books I would read during the coming week.
For me, reading and writing were part of the same experience. I was always doing both, recreating and mimicking and extending the stories I was finding in the books I loved.
It’s still that way. I love to read, and I love to write. The perfect day for me starts with writing and ends with reading.
Koel :As a writer, what are the other means for you to connect to the ideas you explore in your poetry and your books?
John : I find inspiration everywhere. Right now, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction and memoir. I love to see other writers telling me what they have seen and felt. It almost feels like I’m sitting in a coffee shop somewhere and having a conversation with someone who feels he or she has a story that I must hear.
But it’s not just books. I love watching documentaries and movies and listening to music (especially traditional folk songs and blues, the everyday music of real people) and walking through a forest following a stream and going to an art museum and looking at paintings.
There’s inspiration everywhere. Even on Twitter and Facebook. I find social media always pointing me at some thought or image or idea or word that moves me.
I keep a notepad with me all the time, and I’m always writing down something that touched me.
Koel : Your writings tell us that your parents’ sufferings created long lasting impact on your mind, but you started writing about them at the age of 31. Was your experience with their struggle so deep that you remember everything? How have those experiences influence your writing?
John : I wish I could remember everything my parents told me about their experiences. I think what I remember most are the worst things, the things that shook me as a child when I first heard them. My father started telling me stories about his time in the war and in the concentration camps when I was just a kid. He had no control over himself when he started talking, and he would tell me things that he shouldn’t have told me. One of the first things I remember him telling me is about a German soldier cutting off a woman’s breasts with his bayonet. I must have been around 6 when I heard this. That image is locked into my memory. I will never forget it. In fact, in the first poem I wrote about my parents I talk about that memory. I was 31 years old, and the memory was there.
Dreams of Unhurried Memories
Too many fears
for a summer day
I regulate my thoughts
and my breathing
regard the humidity
Somewhere my parents
are still survivors
living unhurried lives
of unhurried memories:
the unclean sweep of a bayonet
through a young girl’s breast,
a body drooping over a rail fence,
the charred lips of the captain of lancers
whispering and steaming
“Where are the horses
where are the horses?”
Death in Poland
like death nowhere else—
cool, gray, breathless
I listened to my father and my mother tell me about what they had experienced, and I wrote about that. What’s interesting to me is that I was completely uninterested in writing about them for a long time. When I was first in college, my dream was to write science fiction novels. I wanted to be the next Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. I wanted to write about silver space ships moving through the endless darkness of space toward a jewelled planet of creatures not even I could imagine. And then in grad school I became obsessed with writing about literature and all the great writers of the American past. I never wanted to write about my parents and their tortured lives and memories. It was the last thing I wanted to write about in fact. But writing doesn’t always ask you what you want to write. In my experience, it tells you to write and you must write what it wants you to write.
So now I write about my parents and their world, and even when I’m not writing about them the other things I write about are somehow related to their experiences. For example, my forthcoming novel Road of Bones (Kasva Press), about 2 German lovers separated by WWII, is connected to my mother’s story of the war. In an indirect sort of way. The novel began as my attempt to imagine what happened the day the Germans came to her house in the woods west of Lwow and killed her mother and my mom’s sister and the sister’s baby. It began with that intent, and then it became something else, a novel about one of the soldier’s who did those terrible things and his attempt to work through his guilt.
Koel : Being a literature student, I also feel that literature allows us to experience multiple lives in our lifetime, helps us to acknowledge ourselves and point of view of the other better. You were a student of literature, then you became Professor of literature and now you write yourself and your writings inspire us. Would you say that the tough life you have experienced made you extraordinary from the literati in general?
John : I think that all the writers I truly love have lived extraordinary lives: Whitman, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. They have experienced those extraordinary lives and they have come back to tell us what they felt and thought.
I think I have had a life that is not like the lives of most people, most writers specifically. I think this is one of the things that keeps me writing. I remember one time toward the end of my mom’s life when she was telling me a story that she wanted me to turn into a poem. I was writing it down as she spoke and when she finished she looked at me and said, “Tell them this happened, not only to us, but to many many people. Tell them.”
I feel that obligation all the time.
Koel :Amongst all your poems which one do you think has come out as the best of you; which one is closest to your heart? Why?
John : I do many many poetry readings, and there are two poems I love to read: “What the War Taught Her” and “What My Father Believed.” I love these poems because for me they encapsulate so much of who my parents were and how their experiences shaped them, and finally shaped me. The first is a poem about my mother’s loss of faith in God and man. The second is about my father’s faith and how he believed we should help people even though we know that helping won’t save them. When I read these two poems, I am with my parents again, listening to their sorrows and their pain and their struggle to survive.
Here’s “What the War Taught Her”:
What the War Taught Her
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don’t pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
Koel :Do you re-read your poems and ever regret for writing something, which you should not have written?
John : No. The only thing I regret is that one time my mother was going to tell me something that was going to be the story of the worst experience she had during the war, and I told her that I couldn’t listen to this story, that I knew the story would break me and I wanted her to stop. And she said, “Don’t be such a baby. I’m going to tell you the story,” and I said that if she told me the story I would leave and not come back. And she looked at me like I was the most worthless person on earth, and she said, “Ok, I won’t tell you.”
I regret now not letting her tell me the story.
Koel : What are the other themes apart from the traumatic experience of way you would like to include in your upcoming writings?
John : I’m going to be 70 years old in a few weeks. In all the almost 40 years I’ve been writing about my parents I have never read at a poem at a poetry reading that was not about them. Recently, I have been writing poems of course that aren’t about my parents, and I think I would like to read one or two of these the next time I do a reading.
They are old man poems, poems about death, dying, aging, coming to the end of things. I would like to read one of these poems at my next reading. Here’s one:
Death and Poetry
Somewhere there are shadows,
My mother in a doorway, my father
Standing by a fence. You must have
Your own shadows. The dead in one
Another’s arms. The black hearse.
Someone you love behind the curtains.
I remember Abbott and Costello,
Two dead comedians, joking about curtains:
“It’s curtains for me, curtains for you,”
Then the curtains part and the killer
Appears and says, “Slowly I turn,”
But it’s never slowly enough,
And suddenly you’re there
With your own dead and your own
Dying, and nothing feels closer to you
Than the wow moment when you won’t
Be you but some scattered, tattered
Discombobulation of purposeless ions,
The dust that suddenly is last week’s lunch
And this week’s memories of everything
That will not last, and you’re not laughing
Although you once did at Abbott and Costello
Or maybe it was the Three Stooges grinding
On about how slowly death comes.
Less carriage ride than bullet, it’s here now
And all of these words are so purposeless
That it’s a good thing I’m writing all of this
Down now because if I were to wait
Until the moment of my own death
I would just wave these words away.
Koel : Have you ever been rejected by publishers? What advice you would like to give to the aspiring poets/writers about dealing with success as well as rejections?
John : Rejections! Oh yes! They are a constant factor in writing. I got my first rejection in 1978. I got my most recent rejection this morning, forty years later. I expect to get rejections next week, next month, next year, next decade if I’m still writing.
Rejections are a part of writing, just as inspiration is a part of this writing. If inspiration is the muse calling to you, then rejection is her evil twin sister responding to that call.
My advice to an aspiring writer regarding rejection? Keep writing. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop sending things out. Just keep writing. There will be months and years when you think no one wants to read your words, but you still need to keep writing.
Koel : There are many aspiring writers, poets and novelists who look up to you, who adore you and aspire to become like you one day. When you started your career as a writer, whom did you look up to as your role model?
John : I loved a lot of writers. But I think the two that most shaped me were Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman. For years, I carried a book by either one of these writers with me at all times. When I was riding my bike, or taking a bus to work, or hitchhiking across America, I had a copy of Whitman’s Song of Myself or Kerouac’s On the Road or one of their other books in my pocket. What moved me in their writing was that they both had a real sense of how chaotic and unforgiving life could be, but still they both had a dream that there was beauty and love and forgiveness in the world. That message of Whitman and Kerouac still inspires me.
Koel : Lastly, as a matter of formality, we are proud to share with our readers that you were the first poet featured in the inaugural issue of Advaitam Speaks Literary Journal. Please share a few words with our readers on Advaitam Speaks Literary journal.
John : What I admire about Advaitam Speaks Literary is that it brings together writers from all over the world to share their joys and sorrows and to remind us that all writers are brothers and sisters.
Bio of the Interviewer:
Koyel Sheth is a graduate in English literature from Motilal Nehru College (Evening), DU. She is currently pursuing her masters from the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. You can always find her reading in the night and writing in the day. Along with reading and writing, music is another passion she strongly pursues.