INTERVIEW WITH JOHN GUZLOWSKI
ON LIGHTNING AND ASHES
Steel Toe Books
Department of English
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling O’REILLY, KY 42101-1086
2007, 96 pp., $12.00
The following interview was conducted over email by Rattle editor Megan O’Reilly and John Guzlowski, author of Lightning and Ashes, a collection of poems that bear witness to his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany.
Born in a refugee camp after World War II, John Guzlowski came with his family to the United States as a Displaced Person in 1951. His parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. Growing up in the immigrant and refugee neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, he met hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead comrades and women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. His poetry, fiction, and essays try to remember them and their voices.
His poems also remember his parents, who survived their slave labor experiences in Nazi Germany. A number of these poems appear in his books Language of Mules, Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Books), and Third Winter of War: Buchenwal (Finishing Line Press).
Winner of the Illinois Arts Award for Poetry, short-listed for the Bakeless Award, and nominated for four Pushcart Prizes, John Guzlowski is a Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University, and currently lives in Danville, Virginia.
O’REILLY: In the epilogue, you write that you began thinking about your parents’ history when you were in graduate school. How old were you when you wrote the first of the poems in Lightning and Ashes? Were you able to speak with your parents about their stories as you wrote the book, or did you write about their experiences mostly from memory?
GUZLOWSKI: I didn’t start writing about my parents until I was 31 years old. Before that, I didn’t want to have any contact with them and their lives and what my mother used to call “that camp shit.” I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago full of survivors and refugees, and as a kid growing up I felt hobbled by all that sorrow and all that difference, all that apartness. We were called DPs and that stood officially for Displaced Persons (people allowed into the US under the Displaced Persons Act of 1947), but in the streets we were told repeatedly that DP stood for “dirty pigs” and “dirty Polacks.” I didn’t want to be a DP, a displaced person; I just wanted to be an anonymous American kid, a placed person.
School helped me get away from all of that DP world. In college and grad school, I turned to books and literature, a world where there were no survivors, no refugees. During all those college years, I seldom thought about the lives my parents had lived during the war. At least not until the very end of my college career.
I was a year short of finishing my dissertation on postmodern fiction when I wrote my first poem about my parents. I guess you could say that I had to be “placed” before I allowed myself to be “displaced.” I had to overcome their world, before I could enter it.
But even then, it was a slow process. It took me another 25 years to write the poems that became my book Lightning and Ashes.
O’REILLY: And where did those poems come from?
GUZLOWSKI: The first poem I wrote about my parents was “Dreams of Warsaw, September 1939,” and it gives a sense of where the poems come from. Here’s the second stanza:
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?”
O’REILLY: There are many mediums through which one might document the experiences in this book. Why did you choose poetry?
GUZLOWSKI: I hate to sound pretentious, but I think poetry chose me. There wasn’t a lot of choosing going around when I wrote that first poem about my parents. It just sort of happened. I was sitting at a desk working on an essay I was writing for a class, and the next thing I know I’ve written a poem. And then a year later, it happened again, and there’s a second poem, and then again, and there’s a third poem, and twenty years later I have twenty poems, and my mom sees Language and Mules, the chapbook I wrote about her and my dad, and she starts talking about her experiences and I start taking notes and seven years later I’ve written Lightning and Ashes.
Looking back on it, I can honestly say I’m happy poetry chose me to tell the story of my parents in a series of poems. The poems allowed me the possibility of conveying some of that sense of fragmentation that you get in trying to capture and convey memories. Take for instance the poems in Part III of Lightning and Ashes, “What the War Was Like.” There are two poems about the Nazis coming into a village and killing people, then a poem about neighbors who collaborated with the Nazis, then a poem about my mom being taken by boxcar to Germany, then a poem about my dad being taken to Germany, then my mom’s grief, then my dad’s hunger, then the castration of one of his friends, then my mom looking at herself and realizing that she’s worthless–and all of that flashes across the page quickly and terribly like lightning, one flash after another after another. No explanations, no summaries, just one terrible thing after another.
Maybe that’s the way it felt to me when my dad first started telling me these stories when I was a kid. I know that’s the way it felt when my mom picked up his stories 50 years later and gave me her version of the stories. One terrible thing after another, one flash of lightning after another.
I remember one of the last conversations she and I had about the war. She was 83 years old and dying of all the things she was dying from, and we were sitting in her living room in the evening and she was telling me about the war. This time, she was telling me about what it was like just before liberation. She was telling me what the German soldiers were doing to the girls in the camps. One terrible thing after another. And I looked up and saw that she was about to tell me something so terrible that it would just about be the worst thing I’ve ever heard, the last flash and stroke of lightning, and I said, “Mom, I don’t want to hear it.” And she said, “I’m going to tell you. You want to know what it was like, and I’m going to tell you.” And I said, “Please don’t tell me.” And she said, “I’m going to tell you,” and I said, “If you do, I’ll leave and not come back. I’ll stand up and leave and you won’t see me again.” And she said, “Okay, you’re 58 years old and still a baby, so I won’t tell you.”
O’REILLY: The line “hope is the cancer no drug can cure” from “My Father Dying” struck me, because it so contradicts the way most of us define hope—as a sort of karmic wish that will aid in bringing us what we want, rather than the role it serves in the book as a foolish and fruitless burden. It interests me that our society, while overtly acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust, seems to take a sugarcoated view of it: our films about it often temper the overwhelming suffering with “the strength of the human spirit”; we tend to toss around words like “hope” and “courage” when we talk about it. Your book, however, is unflinchingly raw and honest, refusing to do the cheap work of shining artificial light on darkness. Do you agree that the American view of the experience of the Holocaust is overly redemptive? Was it a conscious decision to write about such horrific events in an unapologetic way?
GUZLOWSKI: I was brought up on those redemptive books and movies about the Holocaust and the world of survivors that was depicted in films like Exodus, Diary of Anne Frank, Life is Beautiful, and Schindler’s List. I remember watching Schindler’s List with my mother and asking her at the end of the movie what she thought. She looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “They can’t make movies about what really happened.”
I’m sure hope and courage were important in the camps, but probably what was most important was luck. I asked both of my parents how they were able to survive the war, and they both said they didn’t know. My father didn’t know why he didn’t die when so many of his friends did. He once told a story about being hauled out of his barracks with hundreds of other prisoners for a roll call. It was a January night, snowing and below zero, and the men were in rags. The guards started doing a roll call, and as they read the names men began to drop from the cold, falling to their knees. A man here and another there and then more. When the guards finished the roll, there were dozens of dead prisoners in front of the barracks. But they didn’t let the men go back in the barracks. Instead, the guards started the roll again, and more men collapsed. That roll call went on for six hours. At the end, garbage trucks came to pick up the dead. My father didn’t know what kept him alive.
What I’m trying to do in the poems is stay true to my parents’ experiences. My mother was especially unsentimental about what happened to her. As a girl, she had seen her family killed, and then she went on to suffer for two and a half years as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany. After the war, she lived for six years in refugee camps, camps where they had mass graves for the babies that were born to the women following the war, women whose bodies weren’t strong enough to carry their pregnancies to fruition. I think it’s hard to believe in hope and courage when you have that kind of experience.
I hope you don’t mind but here’s a poem I wrote about my sense of what my mom believed:
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.
Of course, not everyone had the experiences my mom had. Some, I’m sure, survived through hope and courage. I’ve met and spoken to a lot of survivors over the years. What it’s taught me is that different people looked at what happened differently and tried to make sense of it differently.
O’REILLY: You mention that you were not especially interested in your parents’ lives as a child. Why did that change when you became a young adult? Did something trigger that interest or did it just naturally come with the maturity and distance that growing up bring?
GUZLOWSKI: As I mentioned in answering that first question, I needed to get some distance from my parents and their experiences. I described it earlier as being “hobbled.” There was all of that sorrow that my parents carried around. I started running away from that as soon as I could, and for much of my life I continued to run. As I started moving into my early teens, I didn’t want anything to do with my parents and their past. I thought of it as all of that “Polack” or immigrant past. It was sad/terrible and also so old world, so old-fashioned. I had parents who couldn’t speak English, couldn’t talk about baseball or movies, didn’t know anything about Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, couldn’t spend a night without fighting with each other in Polish, the language of misery, poverty, and alienation. I wanted to spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and what my mother sometimes called “that camp shit.”
I think aging had something to do with the change in my attitudes. I started feeling something like “homesickness” for my own past and my parents’ past. I had been away from my parents’ home for almost ten years when I wrote that first poem about them, “Dreams of Warsaw.” Writing it brought them close to me. And for all the years I worked on the poems that went into Lightning and Ashes that was one of the feelings that I always felt writing about my parents. That sense of closeness—writing the poems and talking to my parents about them. And now that they are both gone, I love reading the poems in front of a group because the poems bring my parents back to me, their voices, if only for a moment.
O’REILLY: You do justice to the power of the content of these poems by keeping the language simple, unembellished—where it would be tempting to be verbose and dramatic, the writing is conservative and unaffected. The narrative appears to speak for itself, which is a feat that requires great skill and discipline as a poet. How is the experience of writing poems that tell a true story, particularly when that story is largely comprised of other people’s histories? It seems to me almost comparable to translation, in that it must require certain creative limitations and a willingness to keep one’s own identity out of the focus.
GUZLOWSKI: Thank you.
The voice of the poems came pretty naturally. In talking about my parents’ lives, I’ve tried to use the language that I first heard their stories in, language free of emotions. When my mother and father told me many of the stories that became my poems, they spoke in plain language, straightforward language. They didn’t try to emphasize the emotional aspect of their experience; rather, they told their stories in a matter of fact way. This happened, they’d say, and then this happened: “The soldier kicked her, and then he shot her, and then he moved on to the next room.” I’ve also tried to make the poems story like, strong in narrative drive to convey the way they were first told to me.
Another thing about the voice of the poems that’s important to me is that I’ve tried to incorporate my parents’ actual voices into the poems. A number of the poems contain some of the language they told those stories in. The first poem in the Lightning and Ashes collection, “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg,’” is pretty much written as she spoke it. I’ve cut out some of the things she said, polished others in that poem, but the poem has her voice.
The poem “My Mother’s Optimism” is another example of using my parents’ voices. The story of my mother’s cancers and her recovery that the poem includes is given a sense of reality, for me, because I included in the poem things my mom actually said. Here’s the end of the first stanza for example:
“Listen, Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
Your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”
When my sister Donna read the collection, the first thing she commented on was how much she could hear our parents in it. To me, that was the greatest compliment she could pay. I wanted the poems to be about my parents, not about me talking about my parents.
I once gave a poetry reading, and during the Q & A afterward, a student asked me why I didn’t write about myself. It seemed like an odd question to me because the poems weren’t about me, didn’t pretend to be about me and my story.
O’REILLY: Are you working on any writing projects right now that you can tell us about?
GUZLOWSKI: I’m still writing poems about my parents, but I’m a slow poet. There’s a poem or two a year. Three of them appeared in War, Literature and the Arts, a journal produced at the Air Force Academy. You can read them at the journal’s website. Here’s the link. Probably, there will be more poems too. I took notes of the conversations I had with my mom toward the end of her life, and sometimes I open those notebooks and find an image or a line of dialogue that wants to become a poem. I’m just finishing up a poem about how my mom and dad met at the end of the war.
I’m also working on two novels. One of them is called Suitcase Charlie, and it’s a crime procedural about a serial killer working in the survivor and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago that I grew up in. The other is called This Rough Magic, and it’s a fictional portrait of one of the Nazi soldiers who killed my grandmother, my aunt, and my aunt’s baby. The novel picks him up at the end of the war when he’s retreating from Russia and finally coming to feel guilt for the terrible things he’s done. I finished this novel two years ago and am happy to say that I finally found a publisher interested in it. Cervena Barva Press will have it out in 2015.
I wish my mother and father were still around to tell me what I got wrong in the novel.
For more information:
John Guzlowski blogs about his parents’ experiences as Polish slave laborers and DPs at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/. Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War are available for purchase on Amazon.com. A video of his reading at St. Francis College in Brooklyn is available at youtube.com.