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Magnetic Pole

Adam Lizakowski, Poland's most famous living poet. Among Poles. In America



"My name is the first name in Polish literature," says Adam Lizakowski. "Not only in Chicago but in the whole United States."

When he recently went to Cafe Lura, a cozy, if dungeonlike, restaurant on Milwaukee near Belmont, in the heart of the north side's Polish neighborhood, patrons and staff greeted Lizakowski with respectful recognition. He's known here, and in much of Chicago's Polish community, as "Adam the poet."

The generally self-effacing Lizakowski says he doesn't mean to imply that he's on a par with his onetime mentor, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz. "He is 50 years older and a million times smarter than I am," says Lizakowski. He just means that he's the best known of the Polish poets who came to the U.S. after the beginning of the Solidarity movement in 1980. And only among Poles. He's virtually unknown outside that community.

Since moving to the U.S. in 1982, he's published several books of poetry in his native tongue, and his work often appears in Polish journals, though few of his translated poems have been published. In 1997 a portion of his prose diary describing his immigration and first years in this country took first place in a Polish government-sponsored competition titled "The Western Fate of Poles, 1939-1989."

if I had your love, America

if but a beam of your love

struck my heart, enflamed it

if once, only, only once

I found your feather, America, gold-feathered bird

I'd race from San Francisco to New York

declaring, you are love,

you are beauty

you are wisdom

you are truth

you are health

--from "If I Had Your Love, America"

In 1981 the 24-year-old Lizakowski left his home in Pieszyce, a small industrial town in southwestern Poland, on a trip to Austria--one of the few Western countries Poles were allowed to travel to. He says he went there to quickly make some money, then "get back, get married, buy some furniture, and have a little easier life than everyone else."

But the Polish government was feeling threatened by the growing prounion Solidarity movement, and that December prime minister Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law. Borders were sealed, and Lizakowski wound up in an Austrian refugee camp with other displaced Poles. In 1982 he landed in San Francisco.

Lizakowski's broad, sturdy head lifts and his light eyes open wide when he talks about his days in San Francisco. He says there were poetry readings "on every corner" in the Bay Area. "I had the experience of going to these readings, from one place to another, from Berkeley to Oakland, from Oakland to San Francisco--seeing all the stuff, being part of the stuff."

He got a scholarship and took journalism classes at the City College of San Francisco and later got a job with the post office. "I was an artist," he says. "I was a poet. When I was in California there was no single day in my life without drinking at least a glass of wine."

His landlord, a Pole who'd immigrated years earlier and had fought in Vietnam, helped him adjust. "He was the first one who introduced Bob Dylan," Lizakowski says. "He was the guy who was telling me what Dylan was singing about. He was the first one who taught me tai chi, because he was a master of tai chi. He introduced me to Chinese cuisine."

Lizakowski discovered American poetry on his own, reading masters such as Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, and began concentrating on writing his own poems. In 1984 he went to a reading by Milosz and introduced himself after following the poet into a rest room. A year later Lizakowski enrolled in courses in the Slavic studies department at the University of California at Berkeley, where Milosz was a professor. "He was very friendly to me, very nice to me and wishing me well," he says. "He was the first one to start sending my poems to Polish magazines."

Lizakowski eventually published four books in California, started a Polish literary journal--the first of its kind in San Francisco--and was written up in the San Francisco Review of Books for poems of his that had been translated into English. He was poor, and the poetry he wrote then reflects a meager, often lonely existence, as well as his ambivalent feelings about his new life and his old. In "From Pieszyce to San Francisco" he writes: "I am an old-fashioned immigrant. / I suffer alone, / I don't complain, sometimes the old country's my 'beloved,' / sometimes a 'slut.' / I prefer books over other immigrants, / I love poetry more than myself."

A few years after arriving, he fell in love with an American from a middle-class family who was flirting with a bohemian lifestyle. Perhaps Lizakowski seemed exotic to her. But after over a year together she told him she was pregnant, she didn't want to have the baby, and she was leaving him.

Wojciech Wierzewski, the editor of Zgoda, a Polish newspaper put out by the Chicago-based Polish National Alliance and distributed across the U.S., has followed Lizakowski's career closely. "By this relation," Wierzewski says, "he felt that he is equal to Americans. After that illusion, [he found out] that he's not good for practical life in America, that he's not important [enough for her] to devote life to relation with him and to bear his child." He says Lizakowski wrote about the relationship in his published diary, which hasn't been translated. He also says that this kind of painful personal revelation is one reason Lizakowski is an important immigrant writer.

"This is not a unique story," Wierzewski says. "But everyone is silent because everyone is considering that this is the biggest shame of my life. But he was an artist, he was able to take advantage of the experience to communicate with others, to say, 'Look, this is the price you are paying for entering a new society when people sometimes are showing you a little heart and you think it's whole.'"

In the late 80s Lizakowski met and married a Polish woman. She spoke little English, and in 1991 the two decided to move to Chicago. In the 2000 census 210,000 people here claimed some Polish ancestry--the largest Polish population of any city outside Poland.

Do I have friends? Naturally.

I'd like to write you about the squirrels.

In Chicago we have only gray ones, never red.

Near Logan Square (where I live) there are

many trees and even more squirrels.

Often I feed them. They're

experts in saying goodbye.

--from "Tenth Letter"

"When I got here to Chicago, the [Polish] poetry community was, in my opinion, sleepy," says Lizakowski. "So I started to organize poetry readings, open mikes. The last Sunday of every month we'd have poetry readings at many different places, including the Polish consulate, Polish cafes, Polish galleries."

"He exhibited at that time a talent of a leader," says Wierzewski, "and many strange people came to him. Some were painters, some were very young, some were just students, and some were--this is interesting--with their parents, who were crazy about the talent of their kids. He was like a good spirit, saying, 'You can. It's fine. People will read it.' There was nothing like that in our community."

Lizakowski organized a group of Polish writers that he called the Unpaid Rent Poetry Group, and for the first time in years Polish and Polish-American writers in the city started meeting to discuss and promote each other's work. "You know what that title Unpaid Rent means?" says Wierzewski. "Those who are penniless. In that title he was saying this is a group not for snobs. This is for those that are suffering--and poetry is a hope."

Slowly the group attracted writers of different generations, from people who'd immigrated after World War II to high school students who'd never seen Poland. One of those students was Adrian Wisnicki, whose father had met Lizakowski at one of his first readings. "I think there were only four or five people at that poetry reading," says Wisnicki, who speaks Polish. "Adam didn't know anybody. Pretty soon though there were a lot of people starting to show up. Poets and fiction writers just started popping out of nowhere."

Lizakowski says that at the height of the group's popularity, in the early 90s, more than 100 people would show up for a reading. The group even started a quarterly journal with work in English and Polish, Two Ends of the Language, and began publishing books by its members. Wisnicki, who recently received his PhD in English literature from the City College of New York, saw his book 28/6 come out in 1993, when he was only 18. Lizakowski, he says, "took my poetry seriously in a way that nobody had ever taken it before." He also helped Wisnicki translate some of his poems into Polish. "There was this stuff that I just thought sounded cool or whatever, and it didn't necessarily make sense sometimes," he says. "Adam, going over them, would ask, 'What does that mean?' And me trying to translate them really helped me think about the fact that I would have an audience and that I actually need to try to connect to other people."

Around the same time, Lizakowski was trying to connect with Chicagoans through his own poems. They were still often personal reflections on his immigrant experience, but they also broadened in scope. He delved into the poetry of Carl Sandburg for inspiration, writing about other immigrants and about the city as a whole. Milosz wrote a blurb for Lizakowski's 1992 book Contemporary Primitivism, saying, "Even from a reality as brutal as Polish Chicago something worthwhile can be created."

In one of his most compelling poems, "Three Mexicans With a Refrigerator," Lizakowski writes: "I met them at the corner / of Damen and Division / (the one-time Polish neighborhood). / Three Mexicans with a refrigerator / they found somewhere on the street / or in the garbage. / Like gigantic ants, / a pine needle on their backs, / they march the path of the human jungle."

In "Chicago" he writes: "In how many dreams and fantasies will you appear, / O city promised, to those who long to change / a worse life for the better, how many of the naive / and overeager do you deceive and seduce: / many passed through life with a dancing step to the rhythm of your music, / and how many grew dizzy from dancing?"

In 1994 Lizakowski opened the Golden Book Store on Archer Avenue in the center of the Polish neighborhood near Midway Airport, and it became a gathering place for the Unpaid Rent Poetry Group. A couple years later he opened another store with the same name on West Belmont, which his wife, who'd been working as a cleaning woman, managed. Soon he closed the south-side store and began running the Belmont place with his wife.

By the mid-90s the commitment of the members of the Unpaid Rent Poetry Group had begun to wane. Wisnicki, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, remembers infighting: "Part of it, I think, is there's kind of this old-school audience, and they see Polish poetry as--well, there's some really big romantic Polish poets. And to some, poetry should either be that or nothing. Anybody who comes after them and doesn't use rhyme and meter and all that are kind of degenerates."

Lizakowski says he got tired of trying to persuade people in the group that they needed to expand their horizons and hold readings in the English-speaking world. He also hints that he felt pressured because people in the larger Polish community didn't always look kindly on his unromantic, often bleak portrayal of immigrant life. "They are looking for, in my poetry, successful people, people who are happy, very happy, and never unhappy, never sad," he says. "And I am writing about people like Carl Sandburg or Walt Whitman [did]. About people who have dreams, who realize after five, ten years that their dreams are getting further and further from them."

When the group finally stopped meeting in the late 90s, Lizakowski says, it was a load off his back: "My wife was always blaming me over not selling enough books [at the store] because people were upset with me and my poetry and what I was doing with the young poets."

But other problems had developed in the marriage, and in 1998 he and his wife divorced. She got the store. He began to drive a cab.

I let strangers peek

beneath the skin of my thoughts, dreams,

poetic integrity and pride.

It is neither comfortable nor ethical,

but shameful and embarrassing; I yell, Look!

It hurts right here, give me medicine!

My poems are a suicide

cyanide tablet,

formula for perfect tragedy

--from "My Poems"

Lizakowski doesn't tell anyone in the Polish community that he drives a taxi. "I am not ashamed of the job, but the expectations are much, much, much higher," he says. "Everybody knows that I am a poet. I don't want to tell anybody that I work so hard--12 hours a day, six days a week. They wouldn't believe it because their idea is romantic idea of a poet--you know, candles, wine, beautiful roses on the table, and beautiful women.

"And I don't want to tell them because I have some kind of education, and I don't want to talk about it with people who will say, 'You see how important you are? You are the first poet in Polish community in the United States, and you are just taxi driver like any idiot from other country who doesn't speak in English well or doesn't even know the city well.'"

Of course these people can't possibly think Lizakowski makes his living as a full-time poet. But in the Polish community the subject simply doesn't come up. On the rare occasion that someone does ask how he earns money, Lizakowski says he works for the city--which, he notes, isn't exactly untrue.

His current relationship with Poles in Chicago seems full of contradictions. He often says he feels people disapprove of his work, yet Wierzewski says that Lizakowski is "probably the most prominent person" in the community. Rather than resenting Lizakowski's work, Wierzewski says, "everyone was astonished how he was able to speak so openly about some almost intimate elements of his life, that this is immigration--you are paying the price of loneliness, of alienation, of broken relations."

Lizakowski says he writes for common people, not academics, but he wavers between feeling frustrated with and compassionate toward the majority of Poles in America. "Here mostly people come for work and for money. They came over here not because they liked poetry or opera but because they have more money for their children, for grandchildren." But later he says, "You escape Poland and finally you find out you can write whatever you like to--and nobody listens to you. Everybody turns his or her back, because if you want to buy the book it's $10, and people say 'Ten dollars for your poetry?' They could afford to buy 1,000 of my books, but they won't buy even one--because they don't need it."

He admits to feeling jealous of the immigrants who've worked hard, made money, and achieved the American dream--leaving him and his tales of poverty and struggle behind. When he refers to his poems as a "suicide cyanide tablet," he says, it's because "writing poetry and going to school at the same time was keeping me from working hard and collecting money. I find out that poetry keeps me from the people who were around me. And I wasn't sure which was the good way--the materialistic world or the so-called poetic world. I find out that poetry is stronger than I am."

In his cab Lizakowski spends most of his time talking about the things most people talk about--the Cubs, the Bulls, the weather, construction, and where Oprah lives. "This is a very easy subject to talk about, Oprah," he says. "I like it because people talk about it. All these small things are not really important to me, but people are talking about. This is like [my] second personality."

the fatherland--a magical word which endows you with meaning,

the enchanted key to the land of emotions,

home of childhood ghosts, of visions beheld,

unfulfilled dreams which should have come true

twenty years later, in a place ten thousand miles away.

--from "The Fatherland"

Lizakowski hasn't been writing much poetry lately. In the few hours he has between work and sleep he reads or he translates poems by American greats for journals in Poland. Earlier this year a book of short stories he wrote years ago about Polish immigrants in Chicago was published by a small house in Poland.

Poland has been on his mind a lot recently. He owns some property in his hometown, and he often considers moving back. He smiles and says it would fit the American trend of searching for one's roots. But he also believes that in Poland he could work less and concentrate more on his poetry.

In the past few years he's made frequent visits to Poland. He says his books are available there, and they've given him a good reputation, at least in Pieszyce. And he says that even though the percentage of Poles who read poetry is no greater than that of Americans, everyone there speaks the language he writes in.

Pieszyce, like much of Poland, is very poor. Lizakowski has taken an interest in the town's affairs, and he's bought a computer for the public library and books for students. Asked whether he wants to move there to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, he laughs. "They will be disappointed," he says, "because I am an American who is here over 20 years, and I didn't bring two Mercedeses with me, and I don't wear ten rings on my ten fingers. Probably they will think I am crazy and I am idiot."

Wisnicki has translated 50 or so of Lizakowski's poems into English, including the ones cited here, and he's tried, without success, to find a publisher for them. The market for poetry, especially translated Polish poetry, isn't big. But Wisnicki says he keeps trying, because he believes in the work. In the preface attached to the manuscript of these translations he writes, "Though I am now a literary scholar by profession...whenever I read Lizakowski I discard the tools of my trade. Words like ideology, transference and critique seem inappropriate, even sacrilegious when describing Lizakowski's project. He is private but not obscure, terse but not evasive, candid but never sentimental or mawkish."

In person Wisnicki expands on that idea. "Adam takes people you would just kind of walk by and don't notice on the street just because they're poor or they're immigrants," he says, "and he shows you that those kind of people suffer because of that, and that they too have very deep emotions."

In "The Poet," Lizakowski writes:

The poet should be a dog

who pokes his nose in the garbage can

smells the roses in the emperor's garden

barks and howls at the moon

even if it

ignores him

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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