The Border Between Sadness & Joy

by Ryan Van Winkle

Filed under: Blog, World Wide Poetry Studio |

When I met Adam Zagajewski I was humbled by both his work and his life story. Further − as we discuss below − he has an impressive list of accolades and awards which include the Bronze Cross of Merit, and he has twice received the Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. It is a joke among friends, says Polish publisher Jerzy Illg, “that Adam already won the Nobel Prize many years ago.” In the original podcast, you'll hear more about Zagajewski's work, but I wanted to share his thoughts on a how a poet deals with the (very rare) problem of recognition.

RVW: What resonates with me in much of your work is this vast, sad inner life, a loneliness that seems to come from a place of contentedness.

AZ: For me, the ideal poem is set on the border between sadness and joy. I think I keep an equidistance between a sad poem and a joyful poem.

RVW: I think that balance is why a lot of people are attracted to your work. Do you ever get jealous of other writers?

AZ: Sure! Being jealous is the main emotion I feel! I exaggerate, but yes.

RVW: Is there anything that makes you go, oh, I’m okay now, this is success, or is there always something more that you long for?

AZ: That’s the nature of being alive! You never stop. To say something like, “I’m okay now,” it’s like to die. Of course when something nice happens, you have a book with a good publisher or a rave review, you have this moment of pleasure, but it lasts maybe two hours.

RVW: Two hours! That’s it. You received a Guggenheim Award.

AZ: No, the Guggenheim Award is maybe two days! I feel I’m a slightly melancholy person, not deeply so, not depressed, but I think it’s the sadness of being alive: you’ll die some day; there are no literary prizes that will give you immortality. They only give you  money or a reputation, which are nice, but they don’t change your metaphysical prospects. We’re these beings that have to quit sooner or later. You shouldn’t think that every day I am brooding on it, though, not at all.

I think success is the enemy of the poet. Poetry arises out of inner life; out of some contemplation, sometimes out of lament, and success creates an artificial reality. It’s not you − if you happen to be acclaimed. I haven’t reached this degree of success, luckily, but I can imagine there is a degree of success that cuts you away from real life, from real people. Like Hollywood stars, I imagine, those poor people. They can’t even walk in the street − to walk in the street is one of the most fabulous things, just looking at other people. I see the dangers of success. But, for me, someone who writes poetry represents this part of mankind which is not Hollywood stars; it is the other part, it is anonymous people. Somehow by virtue of writing, you represent these people − I wouldn’t go too far, you also speak for yourself − but you are certainly not one of the princes of life when you write.

To hear more from Adam  Zagajewski you can listen to our full conversation on the Scottish Poetry Library podcast here:

You can get a copy of of Zagajewski's latest collection  'Unseen Hand':

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.