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The City and the Writer—In Łódź with Mark Tardi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Łódź as you feel/see it?

Grit and gray octaves. While the industrial backbone of Łódź has faded in many regards, the sensibility is still in the DNA of the city. If Americans are famous for a kind of unearned optimism, Poles in Łódź don’t harbor such delusions. The symphony is in the key of no nonsense.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My most heartbreaking memories are the deaths of both my parents, which I had to absorb at a distance because I live outside of my home country and which in a way bookended my time in the city and in Poland. My father died a few months before I left Łódź the first time after living and working there for four years; my mother died less than two weeks before we bought our first house in the summer of 2016. My mother’s death is more recent, and so my thoughts drift in her direction often. For years I had unsuccessfully pleaded, prodded, and cajoled her to visit Poland, her ancestral homeland, and it’s been difficult for me to process that she never visited––and never will.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Several years ago my brother-in-law recommended we all get together at a new pub that had opened, and shortly after entering the place, Prince’s “Sexy MF” started playing. Apart from the fact that I would put it on my personal “Top 5” list of Prince songs, in my entire life I’d never heard that song played anywhere in public. There are also a huge number of art nouveau buildings dispersed throughout the city, and so it’s worth it to look up when walking or riding around the city. The level of decorative detail and craft and human care that’s visible in any number of structures is astounding.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Władysław Reymont and Julian Tuwim are perhaps the most famous writers associated with Łódź from earlier eras. These days, more contemporary writers I would suggest are Jerzy Jarniewicz, who is a rather foundational figure here in Łódź, and contemporaries like Kacper Bartczak, Monika Mosiewicz, and Przemysław Owczarek. They’re all doing very different things; there’s a healthy divergence in their work.


Is there a place here you return to often?

For years I nursed ritual and routine, especially growing up in Chicago. I loved the idea of having a regular coffee shop or pub or cinema, but moving to a different country disturbs those predilections—mostly in a good way, I think. So I’ve become increasingly adaptable. There are a few cafés that I lean toward, but there has been so much change and development in the time I’ve known the city that every few months there are new options. What I like most in Łódź is taking walks.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Dom Kultury has been a strong presence in Łódź for a long time. There’s also a bench with a sculpture commemorating Tuwim on Piotrkowska Street, the city center, which is charming. And there’s the famous film school, which isn’t purely literary, but certainly iconic thanks to people like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda, Cezary Pazura, and countless others.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Oh yes, like a fractal. For starters, there’s Księży Młyn, the sprawling old factory district that is being repurposed and refitted for various things. Then there are the courtyard shops and cafés tucked away and invisible from the streets, which are too numerous to count. Plus there’s the ongoing Urban Forms public art project where street artists and their imaginations are basically given free rein throughout the city. I see and revisit many of the implementations, as they’re called, during my tram rides to work and travels around the city. It’s wonderful to stumble upon one that I haven’t seen before, but I also look forward to seeing ones that I’ve viewed and pondered many times, like seeing an old friend.


Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in persistence and attention to detail and the necessity to get on with life. When you have a language that has thirty-five ways of saying my, details matter. Sometimes this manifests itself in small ways, like the penchant for giving exact change in the supermarket checkout line, which borders on ritualistic. Passion is also visible in the moments a middle-aged bureaucrat stamps a document with an intensity I have never seen anywhere else in the world, as if always asking the question “Can ink be impaled into paper?” but never quite being satisfied with the result. (I may only be partially joking.) And there’s a passion for saying good-bye on the phone as a kind of idiosyncratic sonata of hums, half notes, and well-wishes that makes every conversation feel like an ellipsis to be picked up later.


What is the title of one of your works about Łódź and what inspired it exactly?

“Clown Song (Jednym Słowem),” which is in my forthcoming book, The Circus of Trust, has a lot to do with my relationship to Łódź, the Polish language, and my fascination with the platypus, which in Polish is called dziobak. I simply love the word—it’s one of my favorites in any language. And I love the animal, the startling and peculiar mix of characteristics, absurdity alongside not to be trifled with; I began to see the various elements of the city cobbled together as a kind of analogy.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Łódź does an outside exist?”

This is an incredibly complex issue to consider in the context of Łódź and Poland. Levi’s comment speaks to something almost somatic, a deeply painful past that is still being worked through generationally and cellularly. The Nazi-installed ghetto in Łódź was the second largest ghetto in Poland during World War II, and like much of Poland, history is everywhere. A friend once described Poland to me as “the place where there was a tragedy on every street corner,” which might have a tinge of hyperbole but isn’t entirely off the mark. Poland being doled out to the wrong side of the Berlin Wall certainly didn’t help improve things. The Russian administration of Poland has left a deep-seated and palpable distrust for Russia and its government, the mix of aggressiveness and recklessness. So I would say in the context of Łódź, “outside” and “inside” are more like a Möbius strip, and memory runs much deeper than the mix of historical amnesia and historical fantasy I’m used to in the US.


Mark Tardi is originally from Chicago and earned his MFA from Brown University. His previous books were Airport music (Burning Deck, 2013) and Euclid Shudders (Litmus Press, 2003). In the fall of 2017, his newest book, The Circus of Trust, will be published by Dalkey Archive Press. He guest-edited an issue of the literary journal Aufgabe devoted to contemporary Polish poetry and poetics and has translated poetry from the Polish by Kacper Bartczak, Miron Białoszewski, Monika Mosiewicz, and Przemysław Owczarek. He has received fellowships from the Djerassi Artist Colony, Millay Colony for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Recent work has appeared in the Berkeley Poetry Review, Sukoon, and diode. A former Fulbright scholar, he lives with his wife and two dogs in a village in central Poland and is on the faculty at the University of Łódź. 

Published Aug 18, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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