Julia Szychowiak

- Poland -

Julia Szychowiak (b.1986), a poet. Her debut collection Po sobie (After Myself, 2007) received the Silesius Poetry Award and the Prize of the Polish Society of Book Publishers in 2008 as well as the Gazeta Wyborcza wARTo Award in 2009. The collection was previewed by the 2006 pamphlet entitled Poprawiny (The Breakfast After), winner of ‘Połów,’ the project run by the Biuro Literackie Publisher to showcase new poets. In 2009 Szychowiak published Wspólny język (Common Language) and in 2014 Intro, nominated for the 2015 Silesius Poetry Award. Her work appears in various journals and anthologies, such as Poeci na nowy wiek (Poets for a New Century, 2010), Rozkład jazdy. Dwadzieścia lat literatury Dolnego Śląska po 1989 roku  (Itinerary: Twenty Years of the Lower Silesia Literature after 1989, 2012), Miłość nie jest tym słowem (Love Is Not the Word; a bilingual selection of Polish and Bulgarian poetry published after 1989, 2014) and 100 wierszy polskich stosownej długości (One Hundred Polish Poems of Appropriate Length, 2015). Her poems have been translated into English, Spanish, German, Bulgarian and Slovak. She lives in Księżyce and Warsaw.

Julia Szychowiak was born in 1986 in Wrocław and lives in Księżyce near Strzelin in Lower Silesia. She is the daughter of the poet Mirka Szychowiak. In 2006 she published an author’s sheet entitled Poprawiny [The Breakfast After], a forerunner to her debut volume Po sobie [After Myself] (2007) which in 2008 earned her the Wroclaw Silesius Poetry Award, the Polish Book Publishers Association Award and the Gazeta Wyborcza wARTo Award. Two years later she published Wspólny język [Common Language] and more recently the collection Intro (2014). Szychowiak’s debut is accompanied by a motto from Krystyna Miłobędzka, a poet distrustful of the official languages of life and literature, who shows the way to her distrustful young female followers. A fragment of the motto contains a phrase (“Complete, but there is no complete”) which aptly defines the nature of Szychowiak’s quest. A quest for the certainty of being able to utter statements about oneself and the world. In the light of these laconic notes, one might come to see that there never is such certainty and that every statement is ephemeral and fragile. It is from these shards, these momentary flashes or shreds of consciousness, that identity is built. The word “self”, which comes up in various combinations, clearly highlights the nature of this quest, asking for the person who speaks or rather who is spoken about. Does this person come into being by speaking and thereby defining the boundaries of sensitivity and imagination, or is spoken, created and fabricated on each occasion because of a sudden need to “come into being”? And if it comes into being, is it then for the self or someone else? This is merely the beginning of the questions about the possibility of conscious existence and the boundary conditions of cognition. In this sense these mainly short texts, scratched onto the skin with a blade, may be seen as footnotes to a philosophical epic which describes the adventures of one who becomes and is aware of the limitations of crippled language and identity: “I do not remember this woman inside whom I walk / and with whom I sleep.  I breathe in someone else, in someone else’s  / hair I slide in my hands. Who am I writing as, / as who will I read it?”. With such a writing style it is easy to embrace exhibitionism and sentimentality, yet Julia Szychowiak strives to do her utmost to steer well clear of this. In conversation with Agnieszka Kołodyńska, she has stressed that the constraints of form should conceal the excessively literal need for expression and that expressing oneself does not necessarily have to translate into exultation: “I want to trust the poems and that is why I don’t invent stories which I would have to attach myself to. And although my texts are very personal, I try not to reach exhibitionism and, consequently, not to abandon form”.

     Anna Kałuża, in comparing Szychowiak’s writing style to the poetic language of Miłobędzka, has remarked: “In their texts both authors exhibit a similar awareness of I. It is most often an I isolated from the world, experiencing emptiness and detachment but wishing to overcome this isolating barrier. In this kind of writing, although we have a very distinct figure of the subject in the foreground, both poets struggle with the narcissism and egotism of the omniscient I. It has always been the strongest element in traditional confessional poetry. One can therefore consider both these authors as important reformers of this genre”.

     Her second book (Wspólny język) lived up to the expectations of readers and critics alike, although changes were observed related to the emergence from the intimate interior and suppressed language towards the world and other people around the author. The poems seemed to be testing the conditions for the existence of a community, by starting with a “common language”. This process was neither literal nor linear, with the changes taking place rather in form, which, having become more condensed and closed, at the same time opened up to the observation of people, behaviours and gestures. The critic Pawel Kozioł stresses that the “level of brevity and abstraction which Szychowiak attained in this book stops you from treating these poems purely as direct statements about herself. At times the condensed, enigmatic structures bring to mind the poetry of Paul Celan. What is also worthy of attention are the effects reminiscent of the poetics of surrealism, made up of slightly tattered words, though at the same time still giving them a chance for a revival”.

     In 2014, after a break of several years from writing, Julia Szychowiak published her third book of poetry Intro. In conversation with Marta Koronkiewicz she comments on her several-year-long disappearance as follows: “After Wspólny język I gave myself a break from writing but without a specific reason or motivation, with, however, the thought that it wasn’t going to last long. It didn’t work, I missed the moment of return. (...) Which means more or less that after all those years I was forced to start everything from the beginning. That’s just what it was all like for me”. This subsequent “seeking and finding oneself” was highly acclaimed by the critics, who nominated the author for the 2015 Wroclaw Silesius Poetry Award in the “Book of the Year” category. This brought about renewed interest in the author and her works. It is worth extracting a few sentences out of the numerous reviews. Alina Świeściak draws attention to the fact that the poet “tries to place the disgraced language of poetry back into life, to test it with herself. She is looking for a new formula for gnomic poetry, she takes up a different place from which she speaks in a new way”, and achieves surprising and fresh results by abandoning predictable modernist staffage. 

     Szychowiak’s progressively shorter annotations seem to be regressing to the beginning, starting to speak about the same subjects again and uncovering previously hidden sense. It could be a return to the inside, while remaining perfectly conscious of what one has seen and experienced outside. Restoring the “honour of God and Motherland” symbolises a return to what is primeval and intimate. The aggressive and crude world of generalisation, simplification and facilitation is rejected. In this sense, albeit indirectly yet matter-of-factly, we learn of the wounds received, the traumatic events and the misunderstandings experienced. What remains is elemental values: a private, somewhat inbred language and scope of observation, a child and childhood, the courage to be different, or dreams elevated to symbols with clear existential meanings. 

     Szychowiak’s modest oeuvre of several dozen short poems is, however, exceptional and noteworthy amidst the ongoing changes in the language of contemporary lyrical verse. One of the most interesting critics of the new generation, Paweł Kaczmarski, sums it up as follows: “For several years Szychowiak has been creating very specific, conscious but frugal narrative which does, however, bubble and crackle under the barrage of meanings and emanates a special energy. By no means do her linguistic miniatures suggest that they are a mere whisper of a fading voice or approaching total silence. On the contrary, the author seems to be saying that the fewer words we utter, the more resonantly we have to deliver them and the more responsibility we take for them”.


Karol Maliszewski

translated by Magda Moran, Sean Moran