Two of Snow Q’s founding artists, fine artist Dagmara and writer Maria, are Polish-born and bilingual, actor Rita is a more recent arrival from Poland and the composer Peter has strong Polish connections and knows Polish. We’ve drawn inspiration for this collaborative project from The Snow Queenby Hans Christian Andersen (written in Danish, translated into many languages including Polish and English.) At our meetings we often switch between languages. Not surprisingly perhaps Maria has been writing poems for the project in somewhat macaronic language or what she calls Ponglish… Peter asked her to explain a bit more about this:
You know how it is with artistic decisions – you go on your nerve then rationalise later. Originally Gerda was going to speak with words simply missing (her difficulty in finding/expressing herself) but it didn’t work as well out loud so I had to think again. And I wanted to write something that explores the bilingualism of our project anyway.
I’ve been drawn to Gerda and Kai, the two young people in the original story but there is another character who immediately caught my imagination too. I haven’t wanted to post spoilers but some background could be helpful.
On her quest Gerda is helped by the Crow, whose first language – naturally – is Crow. “it is so difficult to speak your language”the Crow says to Gerda. Sadly, although her grandmother understands Crow, Gerda has never learnt it. How many migrant families struggle with communication across generations as well as with their host countries? How many languages become erased?
I grew up between two cultures, two languages. We children would mix those languages as I hear young Polish people doing today. My parents discouraged this, hoping to preserve our mother-tongue. Largely thanks to them I’ve maintained a good level of Polish, but of course there was something deliciously transgressive about mixing the languages – Ponglish has that charm for me.
I’m obviously not the first poet to write about a Crow… but am hoping mine has its own identity. (More Shakespearian Fool than naturalistic animal.) Incidentally, in Polish Crow takes the feminine pronoun while animals in English are generally ‘it’ (Ted Hughes’ Crow is ‘he’ of course) which adds another dimension to thinking about it/her!
My Crow is old – in Timelord (sic) fashion – and has managed to learn a mix of Polish and English as additional languages. Being a bird gives it a wider perspective on the world it has flown over. Gerda and Kai are more typically second generation so mix in a bit of their mother tongue but speak mostly English. Kai’s Polish has become almost a form of punctuation – the way London kids say ‘innit’ etc – while Gerda uses Polish for emphasis or when searching for a word.
I am also by no means the only writer working with a plurality of languages: among others, poets such as Vahni Capildeo (equally at home in Old Norse and the various languages of her Indian diaspora/Caribbean background) or Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese (using English, Polish and Danish) spring to mind. I write in English but Polish is always there at my shoulder. Mary Jean Chan* calls Chinese a ‘foil or fraternal twin’ to her English. She too has written on the importance of multilingualism for children.
In the poems I’ve been writing for our installation Polish words are preceded or followed by English translation though it’s not always quite so literal. Writing like this has allowed me to be playful, enjoying both languages, (plus a few in Crow) which I hope the audience will pick up on. As the words are mainly spoken – not on the page – the sound matters as much as meaning.
Myself and actor Rita Suszek will be presenting a sneak preview of this work in Lewes on Dec 1st.
Entry is by invitation as numbers are limited – If you’d like to be invited, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Maria Jastrzębska
Thank you to Dagmara for all sketches.
*Mary Jean Chan New Poetries VII Carcanet
& Queerness as Translation: from Linear Time to Playtime in Modern Poetry in Translation House of Thirst Focus on LGBTQ+ Poetry, No 2 2018