wybicki playing softly in the background
Author of the Week: Poland
Women’s poetry, the poetry of protest
On 3 October 2016, almost 100,000 people took to the streets in Poland to manifest their sisterhood and solidarity in opposing a crackdown on the abortion laws recently adopted by the government. In the same year, Staromiejski Dom Kultury published the With Braids anthology of new poetry created on the basis of the Common Room feminar, which was founded in November 2011 to analyse women’s literature and its transformations from the 1800s until present. With Braids is the second anthology of women’s poetry, the counterpart to the 2009 volume titled Solists (also published by SDK). The powerful, often angry voices of women poets are becoming more audible both in society, and in the debates on literature, its role and the significance of gender. The dearth of women in historical literary statistics – as noted, among others, by Karol Maliszewski in his critical essay ‘Breakthroughs and Generations without Women’ – calls for opposition. Treating women poets as guests in the male-dominated canon is increasingly at odds with reality. Passing over the role of women used to be a transparent and self-explanatory practice in literature, one that did not provoke any reflection, as indicated by the title of Czesław Miłosz’s book on the poet Anna Świerszczyńska: Jakiegoż pięknego gościa mieliśmy (What a Beautiful Guest We’ve Had, 1996). The title may serve as a symbolic summary of the situation of women in the realm of public attention, where women’s poetry made guest appearances, while female authors were denied both permanent status and equal rights. This status quo must fall. Women poets are successfully creating spaces for themselves where they are not merely guests but where they feel at home – a home to which they are ready to invite others. And so appears a new space for diverse and multi-layered narratives about rebellion and hope for change – a story written in many different poetic languages. In parallel, the idea of sisterhood as a new type of community is growing more prevalent too, also outside closed feminist circles. No longer discussed in seminar rooms alone, it has spread to the streets, homes and workplaces. In 2015, Joanna Mueller wrote a poem titled ‘It’s Not How You Think, Sister’, dedicated to the inhabitants of the Common Room:
and even when
I confuse choice with capitulation, embrace me
with a narrative that does not exclude:
BEING A WOMAN IS IN ITSELF AN ACT OF EMANCIPATION
Semantically related to Mueller’s manifesto, the slogan of the protests against the abortion ban – you’ll never walk alone – permeates broader literary circles alongside the call to make some noise – a clear encouragement to rebel against the established order, shaking up politics and poetics alike. Undisguised frustration is increasingly palpable in the air and in poetry. I Am Desperate for a Change. This confession devised by Marta Jalowska, Edyta Jarząb and Sebastian Winkler appeared on billboards around Warsaw in the spring of 2020. The three artists behind the I Want project created a manifesto that employed presidential campaign tools to ask questions about how minorities are represented in public life. The project was inspired by Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem ‘I Want a Dyke for President’– a direct reference to the campaign of Eileen Myles, a non-binary candidate running for president of the United States. Myles mostly campaigned through letters sent to voters. In them, poetry mixed with political demands in line with the belief that ‘both protest and poetry are a language.’ And these languages may, and sometimes even should, meet.
Alongside quoting Leonard’s text, Warsaw streets – tired after the pandemic yet still engulfed in protests – once again resonated with the question of whom a non-binary person, lesbian, feminist, and woman president represents in the public space. A question that simultaneously calls for poetry understood as a radical weapon, an important instrument in the fight for change. However, in the social realities of Poland, this change is not self-explanatory, nor does it work as a backlash, a violent reaction to the ongoing breakthrough. In 2020, following the change of director in Staromiejski Dom Kultury, the Common Room lost its seat and institutional backup. In 2021, despite the wave of protests, abortion laws in Poland were restricted. In the same year, Agata Jabłońska published her poetry volume For My Girls with the following resounding phrase:
fuck this shit – I’m going to the streets; we cannot
just stand there: let’s shout our cunts off,
let all the horns sound
This is also when Joanna Mueller published her volume Hista & Her Sista, where the rebellion against patriarchy simultaneously expressed an objection to the narrow framework of rationality designed by patriarchy. What follows is that the rebellion takes place both outside (in the streets, workplaces and poetry – its language and subjects) and inside, as expressed by Mueller in her invitation to come in droves to rebel travel to my mind. The invitation to take part in this journey at the same time refutes the male-centric, binary narrative that divides discourse, literature and the world into a rational tale of abstract values and the emotional voice of hysterical women screaming from the margins of history. These hysterical women create a community. Once excluded, they regain their voice in Mueller’s poetry, and the language they use to defend their sisters is far removed from the traditional canons of literary beauty.
In post-2016 Polish poetry, one can no longer ignore the political, rebellious voice of women who openly write chick poems – feminist protest songs that have to be written until women in Poland stop being afraid of ever giving birth to a daughter. They are openly chick, no longer hiding behind the masculine (and thus ‘universal’) subject typical for the 1990s or attempting to elude being pigeonholed as women’s literature by posing as a narrative that goes beyond gender categories. Women’s poetry of rebellion is very much aware of exclusions cunningly hidden behind the veil of universality – exclusions generated by sex, class, psychosexual orientation and social background. In Polish poetry of rebellion, feminism grows ever more intersectional. It is aware of the fact that these exclusions intersect, forming an oppressive net obscured by supposed universality. This specific type of vigilance, identifying the different widespread behaviours that are discriminatory, dehumanising and nipping any potential rebellion in the bud, is perfectly visible in Marta Ewa Romaneczko’s book I Will Hire an Oil Magnate. This poetry-volume-cum-reportage, a tale of labour conditions in 21st-century Poland, showcases the intertwining narratives about being a worker, someone from outside a large metropolis, a mother, a poet and a person abused both by the system and by individual people. What is typical for these poems is the unmasking of the falsehood of general statements, the capitalist corpospeak meant solely to generate profits, and good advice – also in the context of writing poems about work (especially by a woman).
Romaneczko also writes about invisible privilege, including the privilege of writing poetry, in her poem ‘I Hate Miłosz the Nobel Prize Winner’, which was published in the poetry collection Poetki na czasy zarazy in 2020:
I hate Miłosz the Nobel Prize winner
Who kept boasting about what he had read
Like an uncompromising boomer
He had time to grind through all this,
When others had to grind away.
Creating elegant verse modelled on antiquity requires time – time devoured by work, often in a heartless and completely deregulated environment. The lyrical subject in I Will Hire an Oil Magnate does not act upon the good advice of her critics – she does not write lofty stanzas or strophes filled with her personal experiences, unmasking such requirements as one more instrument of oppression. Oppression of the state, patriarchy and capitalism are the subjects that, albeit not very antique, become important for poetry, no longer ashamed to be involved in describing the world in all its cruelty and injustice.
Poets of the protests, including Romaneczko, write about socially topical issues: exploitation, systemic exclusion and violence. Their poetry responds to the injustice of the war in Ukraine (Aneta Kamińska), they create anthologies of queer poetry as an expression of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, they write poems about women’s sexuality, including the aspects of it that have been traumatised by toxic masculinity (Kira Pietrek, Dominika Dymińska), they create communities of people who write and argue about literature (Common Room feminars were moved from Staromiejski Dom Kultury) – they are to be found wherever there is a need for an audible voice and a change of narrative. Does this mean that there has emerged a separate school or group of poetry defined by a common manifesto? Despite the emergence (sometimes in the face of institutional obstacles) of communities such as the Common Room feminar, that does not seem to be the case. There is no single poetry school of women writing as a gesture of rebellion or protest, nor does this text aim to look for cohesion among contemporary women’s writing. Its objective is to show a panorama in which one can see a clear shift in what defines the canon and how it should be understood (most often, as an instrument of exclusion). In this poetic landscape of rebellion, what is particularly important is to hear the variety of voices, including (perhaps most importantly) the excluded ones. Protest poems are not the only voice of women who write in Poland, nor do they claim to be the sole or universal message. They do not speak in unison, they cannot be seen as the voice of a generation, a communal banality sometimes seen as a hot take. Protest poems, each in its own way, disrupt the established poetics. They are different in their tone, colour, the way in which they highlight social problems, and their poetic language – yet when read as an anthology, in large doses, they make a lot of noise in the reader’s mind. Like every protest. Like resistance. Like rebellion. Like hope for change.
Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska
The title of this article is taken from Patrycja Sikora: ‘Proszę sprawdzić folder inne’ (Check in the ‘Other’ Folder), in Instrukcja dla ludzi nie stąd (A Manual for People from Elsewhere), WBPiCAK, 2020.
 Karol Maliszewski: ‘Przełomy i pokolenia bez kobiet’ (Breakthroughs and Generations without Women), in Bez zaszeregowania. O nowej poezji kobiet (No Classification. About New Women’s Poetry). Uniwersitas, 2020.
 Joanna Mueller: ‘To nie tak jak myślisz, siostro’ (It’s Not How You Think, Sister), in Warkoczami. Antologia Nowej Poezji (With Braids. An Anthology of New Poetry). Staromiejski Dom Kultury, 2016.
 Rudka Zydel: Babskie wiersze (Chick Poems), http://haart.e-kei.pl/
 See Ida Ślężak: ‘Protest i poezja’ (Protest and Poetry), in Dialog, available at: https://www.dialog-pismo.pl/przedstawienia/protest-i-poezja.
 The Polish feminative for president – prezydentka – is still underlined by the spell check feature in text editing programs as an error that should not happen in a text and, by extension, probably also in life.
 Agata Jabłońska: ‘Apostazja w weekend’ (Apostasy on a Weekend), in Dla moich dziewczyn (For My Girls). Biuro Literackie, 2021.
 Joanna Mueller: ‘O Dniu W Którym Pękła Żyłka To Piosenka’ (About the Day I Burst a Blood Vessel), in Hista & Her Sista. Biuro Literackie, 2021.
 Rudka Zydel: Babskie wiersze (Chick Poems), http://haart.e-kei.pl/
 Marta Ewa Romaneczko: Zatrudnię barona naftowego (I Will Hire an Oil Magnate). Stowarzyszenie Pisarzy Polskich Oddział w Łodzi i Dom Literatury w Łodzi, 2020.
 Poetki na czasy zarazy (Women Poets for the Time of Cholera), ed. by Jolanta Prochowicz and Bartosz Wójcik. WBPiCAK, 2020.
 Ewelina Krupska and Patrycja Sikora: Poetki i poeci dla LGBT+ (Poets for LGBT+), available at: https://www.yumpu.com/xx/document/view/64435117/jak-dlugo-bedziemy-musieli-antologia-wierszy.
 This interpretation of contemporary women’s poetry was offered by the anthology Poetki na czasy zarazy (Women Poets for the Time of Cholera), ed. by Jolanta Prochowicz, Bartosz Wójcik (WBPiCAK, 2020).
Jolanta Prochowicz is philosopher, feminist, activist and culture animator. Co-editor of the anthology Poetki na czas zarazy (Women Poets for the Time of Cholera, WBPiCAK 2020). She is also the initiator and co-organizer of Demakijaż. Festiwal Kina Kobiet (Make-up removal. Women's Cinema Festival).
Photo by Helena Ganjalyan