Monday, 28 June 2010

Q&A with Poland and UK based Spoken Word poet - Bohdan Piasecki

Bohdan Piasecki writes and performs very well… and some of it is in Polish.

He’s studying for a PhD in poetry translation, any Spoken Word artist that pulls that off gets a double head nod from me.

There is something very mysterious about Bohdan, you only see him occasionally, he likes to talk and he’s got a lot to say but you have to provoke it out of him. He organized what – to this day is possibly the best Spoken Word gig I’ve done, the Warrick University Slam in 2008.

Q. YO BOHDAN! Why don’t I see you very often? You’re like Big Foot!

Yo back at you, Ray! So let me get this straight: you’re saying I’m a hairy mythical creature that probably does not exist? I know I haven’t had time to come down to London much, but I had no idea it’s been that bad. And is it my fault if I hate shaving?

The reason I’ve not been taking too many gigs recently is pretty dull, really: I have been insanely busy with my PhD, and between this and the European tour with Smoke & Mirrors, there was very little time left for anything else.

I will be all over the place when I’m done, though, so be careful what you wish for. I have an ever-growing mental list of projects, gigs, and other stuff I intend to do when I finally submit. But for now, “When I’m done with my dissertation” has become a mantra of mine – ask me any question, I dare you, and odds are this is the answer you’ll get.

Q. What inspired you to study poetry?

I’ll tell you when I’m done with my dissertation. Sorry, that was a knee-jerk reaction.

Well, I don’t really study poetry – I study poetry translation. What attracted me to this field in the first place is that so many people say translating a poem is not possible. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything literature-related that so many people agree on so readily: if you trot out the old Robert Frost quote, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, you will get heads nodding very quickly. “And it’s true, because it can’t ever be the same”, most people will say, and leave it there, acting as if this were the ultimate argument. My problem with this was that there seemed to be plenty of easily available evidence to show that it’s simply not the case: to take a British example, Shakespeare is known and loved around the world, so either he had really, really good PR, or his translators must have been doing something right.

As I grew up in between languages anyway (I went to a French school), the subject appealed to me anyway, so I decided to see if I could make any sense of all this. Since then, I’ve found translation an amazing activity, one that forces you to question your understanding of the poem, look for the features that make it what it is, and rewrite them so they still work as a good poem for another audience, another culture, another way of looking at the world – in another language. And the fact that “it’s never the same” is true of any reading of any poem worth your time anyway, translated or otherwise.

Q. How’s the poetry tour with the Smoke and Mirrors crew? I want roadie stories! I want to know about poets with groupies!

The Smoke & Mirrors tour is now over, and what long strange trip it’s been. There were nine poets and one musician involved (and at the beginning, also a mentor/director, Felix Römer, although sadly he did not get to travel around Europe with us), but we mostly travelled in groups of three; my companions were Dominique Macri (from Germany & Romania) and Paula Varjack (from the UK & the US), and together we have been to Germany, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, France, Austria, Spain, and Italy. We covered the spectrum, from tiny gigs in front of bemused audience in small cafés with no sound equipment (I’m looking at you, Vienna) to massive events in XIX century ballrooms (that was Madrid).

But you want groupie stories. Well, I’ll give you a groupie story.

In Lisbon, our show started at midnight, and then there was a concert, and an open mic… And so we left the club after 3 am. Everybody sensibly retired to the hotel (we had to be at the airport at 6:30), but I was hungry. I set out on a quest for a kebab place, a takeaway, something, but somehow I failed to find anything, despite the fact that the city was so rush-hour-crowded. On my way back to the hotel, though, I was stopped by this girl, who asked, wide-eyed, whether I was one of the poets who had performed that night at the Music Box. “It’s finally happening,” I thought, “I got recognized on the street!” So I cautiously acquiesced. “Wow,”, she said, and I prepared my best modest smile for accepting compliments. But then she continued: “I just wanted to tell you that you friend from Germany is so great! Her voice is beautiful, she moves like a dancer, and…” She went on about Dominique for a good five minutes, then spun around on her heel and walked away. I didn’t even get an “Oh, you were ok too.” So there… that’s my groupie story!

Q. You are young, you’re married and you’re a poet. How have you managed to balance those things? Is your wife into poetry? Does she have to shut you up about the amazing stanzas you’ve just crafted in your poetic notebook?

It’s funny how often I get asked this question – but the answer I haven’t had any problems balancing this at all, actually. In fact, I can honestly say that if anything, having my wife there to support me has been an enormous help in growing as a spoken word poet. Karolina was there for me from the beginning, when I was setting up the first slam in Poland, and she is still a source of strength, motivation and inspiration from me. Also, she can be a very shrewd critic, especially when it comes to the performance side of things, so I try to profit from that as much as I can.

As for the second question, I don’t really test my poems on humans until I think they are ready, and then I tend to try them out during performances. However, K. does have to endure a nearly endless stream of half-baked puns, limericks, nonsense poems, freestyle raps, songs, etc. on a daily basis. This is how my brain works, with bits and pieces of lines and random rhymes flying in, and the filters I put in place to protect society are off around her. She endures this without complaining. Yes, I’m lucky to have her.

Q. What are your plans once you’ve finished your PhD? Do you become a professor and go into publishing?

Well, I would really like to conduct a research project in the field of spoken word translation. No-one has done any serious work on this, and there are so many great non-English speaking poets to whom it never occurs they could come and tour over here because they think their texts will not penetrate the language barrier. To go through with this, I’ll probably need to get a university job, which would be great – I enjoy teaching, and academic life has many perks that are well suited to a touring poet’s lifestyle. Humanities post-docs are few and far between, however, so we will have to wait and see what happens.

I also started a new job, I've recently become the new Apples & Snakes programme co-ordinator for the West Midlands.

Q. Are you running any more events? How can we get involved? The 2008 Warwick University slam you put together was AMAZING!

It was a good night, wasn’t it? People are still talking about it three years later.
Anyway, I am likely to run many more events soon, both in the UK and in Poland (where we’re trying to set up the country’s first slam nationals). I’ll be sure to keep you posted when I know more!

Q. You’ve done lots of travelling with your poetry so you must have explored many scenes in other countries – What can you tell us about that? Any surprises? Does Poland have a Spoken Word scene?

That’s a topic for a whole other interview. Scenes are very different from country to country, even from city to city. For example, Germany is incredibly impressive: spoken word and slam are extremely popular over there, and normal monthly events have regular audiences of two or three hundred people, with a couple of thousands usually showing up for the German-language Championships. People can actually make a decent living as poets over there. Poland, meanwhile, still has a young scene, with a few established names and many, many new poets still trying to find their voices and to master stage fright. I love it, though: it’s still at the stage where people still sound very different from each other, and any given slam or open mic can showcase wildly different styles of poetry.
In general, I’ve found I can learn a lot from visiting international scenes: there are so many different approaches to spoken word, to performance, so many rhythms and melodies, that even if I don’t understand a word of what is being said, I can usually still find something to glean from the evening.

Q. Bohdan you’re a legend and an absolute inspiration – prove it to everyone else RIGHT NOW!

Umm. Can I not?

Q. Does Spoken Word have a future? If so, what is it?

Spoken Word has a future at least as long as its past, and that is very, very long indeed. What I’m trying to say is – we’re good for a while.

For more on Bohdan -

Polowanie (The Hunt) - recorded live in Witten (@ WERK*STADT) & Arnhem (@ the ArtEZ academy), 2007 from Bohdan Piasecki on Vimeo.

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