Q&A: Anna Frajlich and Ronald Meyer, Author and Editor of The Ghost of Shakespeare: Collected Essays

The Ghost of Shakespeare: Collected Essays by poet Anna Frajlich, edited by Ronald Meyer, is out now. Meyer, Frajlich’s Columbia University colleague, conducted an interview with the author over the New Year holidays. Their discussion on the book, the significance of its title, the origins of the essays in the volume, and more follows below.

Ronald Meyer: Let’s begin at the beginning with the title. How did you choose this title for your book of collected essays? Why Shakespeare’s Ghost?

Anna Frajlich:  My essay the “Ghost of Shakespeare” investigates the intertextual relations between certain poems of Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska and Jan Kott’s well-known study Shakespeare our Contemporary. Generations of Polish writers had been seduced by the ideology of socialism in the postwar period, and after Khrushchev’s famous Secret Speech, when they learned about the innumerable innocent victims, they felt the need to cleanse themselves. In Hamlet it was the ghost of his father that appeared and revealed the truth. At this particular time the structure of Shakespeare’s dramas inspired and permitted many writers to deal with their own guilt. My generation from childhood had been brainwashed by socialist ideology. These poems by Szymborska to some extent were dictated by the Ghost of Shakespeare. Inspiration comes from the word spirit and “spirit” is the ghost. Each person/writer creates his/her own Shakespearean text. And I found more examples of the Shakespearean element in Szymborska’s poems than I had expected. Some of the poems I discuss, for example, “Rehabilitation,” were seldom reprinted, and never translated into English. This essay is very important to me, and I think it brings out important elements in Szymborska’s work. Another of my Shakespearean readings relates to Michał Choromański’s novel Jealousy and Medicine. I asked myself: What is the most classic example of jealousy in literature? And my answer to that question was Othello. While going over both texts I realized that Choromański reversed each element of the action in Othello, and built his novel on that structure.  I think this is my discovery.

RM: The book is comprised of your essays on Polish poetry and prose, Russian symbolism and a final section about autobiography and exile. Let’s start with the poetry section. We begin with three greats of twentieth-century Polish poetry: Miłosz, Szymborska, and Herbert. Would you care to say a few words about the final two in this section who are not as well knownBronisław Przyłuski and Vasyl Makhno, the latter the only non-Polish poet—their importance as poets for you and how you came to write these pieces?

AF: That’s a good question, to which the answer is one and the same. In each case, I was asked to do it. And I enjoyed tremendously analyzing Przyłuski’s poetry and applying different styles and schools of analysis. I learned about Bronisław Przyłuski when I got involved with émigré literature after coming to New York. I had never heard about him in Poland, since he was an émigré writer, and not published in Poland until a few months after his death. He passed away in 1980 in London, and in 1981 his poems suddenly were cleared by the censorship to appear in a major magazine in Kraków. Przyłuski’s six books of poetry published before World War II had received positive notices. During World War II he served as an officer of the Polish army, was imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Murnau, and spent the rest of his life in emigration. I met him once in London, once in New York, both rather formal encounters. I was asked by his daughter here in New York to write an article. I truly admire his poetry, his language. Before the war in Poland while he studied in the Army Academy, he was associated with a very interesting poetic group in Poznań. He was also a playwright and translated Rilke. I wrote more analyses of his poetry, organized a lecture and reading about him, and one of my articles was placed as the preface to the collection of his poetry published in Poland. He deserves his rightful place in Polish poetry. I am happy I could do something to bring attention to his poetry. I don’t remember exactly when I met Vasyl Makhno. But it was soon after he came to the United States in 2000. Someone introduced us, and some time later he came to visit us. I don’t read Ukrainian; he reads Polish and he even translated some of my poems into Ukrainian. I just found out that one of my poems in his translation is published in the seventh-grade textbook in Ukraine. A volume of my poetry in his Ukrainian translation is ready to be published. I read his poetry and prose in Polish, or English translation.  This particular essay of mine was published as a preface to Makhno’s Polish book, translated by the Polish poet Bohdan Zadura.  I don’t remember whose idea it was. Makhno is very open to different world cultures, to religions, to history. His poems about New York and the Brooklyn Bridge are equally fascinating as his poetry about cows eating grass on a football field. What attracts me in his writing is his openness, his unique perspective and his compact, dynamic and illuminating texts. He has been translated into many languages and his point of view fascinates readers here in the U.S., as well as in Eastern European countries. As I wrote “there are conscious choices and there is conscious bearing of their consequences.” I admire his poetry and his prose. He sees the world in all its tremendous complexity.

RM: “On Polish Prose” features a wide range of writers, ranging from Józef Wittlin, Bruno Schulz, and Michał Choromański to Andrzej Bobkowski and Henryk Grynberg, with whom you were acquainted. Bobkowski is the most recent essay. How did you come to work on Bobkowski’s Notebooks?

AF: Professor Grażyna Drabik twisted my arm to write about Bobkowski. Grażyna was in the process of translating Bobkowski’s major book, and wanted me to prepare a paper about him for the PIASA conference. It was a bit complicated for me because while I did admire Bobkowski’s language: metaphors, his imagination and documentation, at the same time I felt that I had to address his anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Bobkowski’s outlook on everything is fascinating. I learned a lot about France during World War II, but what was most important was his language and his talent. And he had the courage to look at the world and express his view.

The most important texts for me in the prose section are the ones dedicated to Wittlin, Choromański and Grynberg. The comparative structure of my essay “Two Unknown Soldiers” brings together two great writers, Wittlin and Camus, and looks at the remarkable affinity shared by the two protagonists. I also think my analysis of Choromański’s novel demonstrates the influence of Shakespeare and Weininger on the major structural elements of the novel. And I believe that my essay on Grynberg’s work represents an important contribution about this major writer of the twentieth century.

RM: Let’s talk about the significance of Rome for you in both your personal life and in your writing.

AF: You’re right. There are many aspects to my Roman experience. In November 1969 my husband, my sister, myself and our two-year-old son arrived to Rome as stateless refugees in order to apply for a U.S. visa. The background check took seven months. We were in deep despair, did not know what awaited us, and letters from Poland from family and friends were our only spiritual support. One letter came from a blind man, whom I had met when I worked for a magazine for the blind. He was a World War I veteran, and an editor of an Esperanto Braille magazine. And this much older man wrote to me: “Don’t despair, raise your head up and look at this beautiful city that so many poets have admired.” Somehow his words stayed with me. We started to look at Rome, to travel a bit in Italy, and we observed this fascinating city and country. Our depression was still there, but I noticed that the trauma of exile, the beauty of the architecture, art and the country influenced my poems. When I came to New York, I sent my poems to a major Polish literary journal in London, where they were immediately accepted.  That was my second émigré debut.

Some ten years later when I was finishing my postgraduate program in Russian literature at NYU, my professor Zoya Yurieff came up with the topic for my dissertation, she suggested that I should write about the legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age. Teaching Polish at Columbia University, family obligations, and writing my own poetry and publishing, caused my dissertation defense to be delayed for years, but I did manage to publish a few chapters. And with your editorial expertise, and assistance the book came out in 2007. Throughout the entire process the city of Rome was with me. The fact that I lived there for seven months allowed me to feel the air, to remember the landscape. 

When we were still working on my book The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Silver Age, I came across an announcement from the University of Haifa about the conference on the topic of the Russo-Japanese War. Suddenly I realized that I have a lot of material on that topic, because many poems I dealt with in my dissertation were written during and because of the Russo-Japanese War, and the Roman costume helped the poets to avoid the censorship. I wrote my essay “The Scepter of the Far East and the Crown of the Third Rome: The War in the Mirror of Russian Poetry.” Thus, my Roman topic took me to the conference in Israel and was published in the conference proceedings.

A few years ago, Marcin Wyrembelski, a young Polish scholar and translator who teaches Polish in Italy, “fell in love,” as he put it, with my poetry and translated it into Italian. In 2019 I was invited by the Polish Cultural Institute in Italy, and presented the book in four cities, including the World Congress of Poetry in Rome. I travelled with my husband; it was our second visit to Italy and a deeply emotional experience. Among other things, I was invited to the Church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice to which I had dedicated a poem in 1969. I read only that one poem. The priest and the people gave me such a warm welcome. It became an act of an incredible symbolic return.

RM: The final section, On Writing and Exile, is much more personal. “My Native Realm” was translated for this volume by your former student Ross Ufberg, a well-known translator and publisher. The title has associations with Miłosz—how did you come to write this essay?

AF: This particular essay was commissioned for an anthology created in 2011 by two critics and scholars, Anna Kałuża and Grzegorz Jankowicz, under the title The Native Realm Five Minutes Later. The title is taken from Miłosz’s essay “Native Realm.”   The goal was to find out how the much younger generation relates to major issues brought up by Miłosz. They placed my text in the chapter titled “Place of Birth,” the editor wanted to examine whether the geographical place of birth defines our identity. I think this anthology of prose, poems, philosophical digressions made an interesting contribution. The other chapters were titled “Catholic Upbringing,” “The Borders of Peace,” “Young Man and Secrets,” “Marxism.” I don’t remember if I choose the title or they suggested it, but this was a challenging commission. On the other hand, I appreciated the invitation, and was happy to have my text appear alongside the works of other writers and scholars.

RM: And to choose one last essay, “March Began in June.” Again, could you tell us about the genesis of this essay—and perhaps bring it up closer to the present when you visited Poland for the 50th anniversary of 1968? I suppose we should begin with what March 1968 means for your generation.

AF: For my generation of Polish citizens of Jewish origin it was unforgettable trauma. We all considered ourselves loyal Polish citizens and Poland was our country. Polish culture was our culture. Some young people were not even aware of their Jewishness, and it led some of them to suicide.

The genesis of this essay is complex. Some statements and accounts came into existence at different anniversaries of “March 1968,” which initially related to the brutal police attacks against student protests caused by the ban of Mickiewicz’s play, and ended with the primitive brutal anti-Semitic campaign, that caused the so-called Jewish exodus. Initially we hoped to wait it out, but the Communists’ goal was to get rid of the Jews, and when they realized that not enough Jews had left, they began using political intimidation. And that worked. Why “March began in June”? The Soviet Union took the anti-Israeli side in the Six-Day War of June 1967 between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Poland had to support the Russian stand, and took advantage of it by converting it into an anti-Semitic campaign. The Communist Party did it by playing between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  First Secretary Gomułka started to call the Jews a fifth column, and accused them of lacking loyalty. A few months later in March 1968 when students protested the censorship, they started by selecting all the Jewish names, and converted the entire situation into a full speed anti-Semitic campaign by expelling students from the universities, and firing people from their jobs.  These actions were needed to gain popularity among the anti-Semitic layers of society, and to buy loyalty in return for positions, apartments, and to satisfy their anti-Semitic sentiments.                                                    

We all had to renounce our citizenship in return for permission to leave. How do I feel after 50 years? It is complicated. For the last twenty-seven years I visit Poland regularly; I publish books, articles and poetry there. I am respected and rewarded, and I have close contacts with old friends and gained many new close friends–people and institutions. Nevertheless, I have never gone to see the train station from which I left Poland on November 12, 1969.

RM: Finally, could you say a few words about the artist responsible for the engaging cover of your book?

AF: Janusz Kapusta is a Polish artist and illustrator, who lived in New York from 1981 to 2019. His works have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Nature and other publications. In 1985, Kapusta discovered a new geometrical shape, an eleven faced polyhedron, which he called the K-dron. He has exploited the use of the K-dron in many of his works and has presented many K-dron exhibitions. I met him soon after his arrival to New York, and this is the second cover he has done for my work; the first was Laboratory, my collection of short prose. I admire his work because in addition to his artistic talent he has a deep philosophical and humorous approach.  

Anna Frajlich (Senior Lecturer Emerita) taught Polish language and literature at Columbia University for over three decades. She is author of ten books of poetry and three bilingual editions (English, French, Italian). In 2002 she received The Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, awarded by the President of the Polish Republic. Frajlich is also the recipient of literary awards from Kościelski Foundation, Turzański Foundation, and the Union of Polish Writers in Exile.

Ronald Meyer is Publications Editor at the Harriman Institute. He teaches the seminar in Russian literary translation at Columbia University.

The Ghost of Shakespeare is available from Academic Studies Press or wherever you buy books.