Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Interview with John Z. Guzlowski: "Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”

I know this interview with writer/poet John Z. Guzlowski is long, but I found myself incapable of chopping it in half, as I had planned. His new book, Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded, is an extraordinary collection of poetry and brief essays about his parents’ experience as Polish slave laborers in the German work camps during World War II and their subsequent life as refugees, eventually coming to Chicago. (John was actually born in a refugee camp.) 

Rather than me blathering on about how amazing John is (he is a generous advocate of Polish-American and Polish writers!); how remarkable this book is (I read it in one fell swoop, without taking a breath); and how important these stories are (eyewitness accounts of atrocities may be our only hope to put an end to such horrors)—I urge you to get straight to John’s words.

Or maybe start here, with the 3-minute book trailer, which offers some context about the war and what was going on in Germany:

  1. I know this is unfair, but someone asked this of me, and it was an interesting challenge: Please describe your book in 10 words or less. (I’ll spot you the words of the title, if you’d like.)

No problem.  I have a very active twitter account (@johnguzlowski) and spend most everyday squishing my life experiences into 140 characters or less. 

What’s my book about?

Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded is about my parents’ experiences as slave laborers and refugees.

  1. Many might call these poems “poems of witness,” of you reporting on events that participants were unable to express and/or share for any number of reasons. Here you’re using facts and, of course, your imagination as well. What differences might there be between being a “witness” and being a “writer”?

What’s the difference between a “witness” and a “writer”? 

My parents saw and experienced things that were as terrible as anything you or I can imagine.  My father saw men die singly and in large numbers.  He had seen his friends hanged, shot, castrated, beaten to death with clubs, and left to stand in the snow till they fell to their knees and died.  On the day the Germans came to her town, my mother saw the women in her family raped and killed, her infant niece kicked to death.  Later in the slave labor camps, my mother claimed to have typhus or VD just so the guards wouldn’t rape her again. 

They were witnesses.  They had seen something, and that something would never let them lose.  It would hurt them and kick them and bleed them every day of their lives.  When my dad was 77 years old and dying of liver cancer in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona, he was sure that the nurses who came to bring him comfort were Nazi guards who simply wanted to take him to the ovens.  He fought so hard to get out of the bed that they had to tie him down finally.  When my mother was in her 80s, she wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t forget to tell her story and the stories of all the women and men who were in the camps.

My parents were witnesses. 

I’m a tourist in their lives. I poke here and there, looking around for some souvenir, a poem.  The truth of their lives in all of its misery and suffering is something I’ll never know.  No poem I ever wrote can tell what my parents’ experiences were like.

As my mother used to say to me, “You weren’t there.” But still I feel a need to write these poems, and people tell me they need to hear them. And my mother recognized this. Even though she knew that there were things that I wouldn’t know about her experiences and that I could never capture what had happened, she felt that that little that I could tell was better than the nothing people would know if I didn’t write what I could. Before one poetry reading, she told me, “Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”

And how do I do this?

I think one of my first obligations as a writer is to tell these stories in a voice that is like the voice of my parents.  My parents weren’t educated people.  My mom had a couple years of education, my dad had none.  In talking about my parents’ lives, I’ve tried to use their language, 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 plainly in straightforward language.  They didn’t try to emphasize the emotional aspect of their experience, or their heroism or their suffering; 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.”  Also, I’ve 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.  An early poem in the Echoes of Tattered Tongues, “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 four quotes from my mom starting with the quote in the first stanza:

“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 book, the first thing she commented on was how much she could hear our parents in it.  To me, this was the highest praise.

  1. Many of these poems are based on stories, either directly from your parents or stories told by your sister or grandmother, and even stories that seem simply to have been “heard” in some way. Ultimately, of course, YOU are the storyteller, and I wonder what burdens—and gifts—that role might have, within your family and also within our larger culture. I mean, we live in an age of reality TV and while there are dark undercurrents thrashing along, America definitely lives under a veneer of sunny optimism, and these stories are hard to hear.

“Sunny optimism”? 

One of the early reviews of my Echoes of Tattered Tongues complained that the book had no happy ending.   The critic asked repeatedly “Where is the ray of hope?” 

I was surprised by this because for me there is hope in the story of my parents, there is optimism.  It’s not sunny.  True optimism seldom is.  True optimism shows itself most clearly in a world that’s dark, threatening, chaotic.  As my mom says in my poem “My Mother’s Optimism,” the poem I mentioned above, “optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”  It appears when people have no hope, no basis for optimism.  You don’t need optimism when you’re shopping at Walmart or going to see a movie filled with super-heroes bouncing around like life is a bounce house. 

Regarding the gifts and burdens of telling my parents’ story:  One of the central gifts is something I alluded to above.  Telling the story keeps my parents with me.  Sometimes when I’m writing about them, I hear their voices, see the way they looked when they told me the stories that I’m trying to recapture.  This for me is a gift and a blessing.

The burden?  The sense that I’ve failed them, failed my parents.  They spent a lifetime telling me about what had happened, and I wasn’t really listening.  I was thinking about a ball game I wanted to go to or a comic book I wanted to read, but I wasn’t listening.  And now it’s too late.  My parents are gone, and all I’m left with are these fragments of the stories they told me, fragments of the lives they shared with me.  I fucked up.  I should have been taking notes, asking my parents’ questions, making sure I heard and understand every word, remembered every image as clearly as I remembered that image of a young girl’s breasts being cut off by a German soldier that appears in the first poem I wrote about my parents.

  1. I’m thinking of how hard it must have been for you and your sister to grow up in this family, given all the loss and terror and, as you write, fear, that your parents lived with. Beyond that, there’s also the fact of having no extended family (as I understand it) from whom to get other stories, or to offer a view of your parents in a larger context, as children themselves, say, or from a point of view different than what your parents present or your own point of view as their child. While you allude in the preface to “running from my otherness,” and there are glimpses of “you” in this work, as hard as it was to write these stories, I wondered if it might be equally hard to reveal yourself and dwell upon this “otherness” you felt.

This is probably the hardest question you’ve asked me. 

Like I say in the Preface to Echoes of Tattered Tongues, I tried to run away from my “otherness,” but I failed.  Every time I write about my parents and every time I read a poem about my parents to an audience, I reveal my otherness. 

Is there more to me than my “otherness”? 

Probably, but it’s not something I share often.  I’ve written all of these poems and stories and memoiristic essays about my parents and their lives, and I guess they speak to my “otherness,” but I’ve also written probably more poems and essays and fiction not about my parents, and they probably represent my “sameness.”

So what’s my “sameness” like? 

Interestingly, I’m not interested in sports of any kind.  I’ve never written a poem or a short story or a piece of a novel about any kind of sport.  Except maybe birding if birding is considered a sport.

My “sameness” writing -- if my unpublished book of poems not about my parents is any indication -- is about my wife and daughter, my teaching, my existential quarrels with God and the Universe, shopping, the seasons, the things I’ve learned.

Here’s a sample poem that appeared in North American Poetry Review:

Advice to My Daughter, a Sonnet

Dear Lillian,

You stay up too late.

The wise and the broken
Know there are only
Two commandments:
Early to bed, Early to rise. 

The world doesn't skip
To the master's tune--
It marches in lockstep
With head bent to the dirt.

Remember:  The sting
Of the whip of the world
is only a flick away.

Love dad


I’m not sure I answered your question.  I’m not that good when it comes to talking about myself.

  1. In the Epilogue, you refer to one last thing your mother seems to want to reveal, one last terrible event and you tell her that you’re unable to listen to that thing, this worst thing. (She calls you a “baby.”) I wonder if you might speculate on how that event might work within the context of this book: the things you describe are so horrible, so leaving to our imaginations the idea of something worse feels purposeful to me.

I suspect that what she wanted to tell me was something about my dad that she suspects would have changed the way I see him forever.  Earlier that day we had been talking about how my dad and my mom met toward the end of the war when the camps were being liberated.  I had mentioned the way my dad had at one time described how he met my mom. 

He had made it sound like a party almost.  He had said something about how first they all found something to eat and then they got married.  Her view of that first meeting was very different, and she wanted to tell me about that difference.  I felt that it was going to be something so bad about my father that I’d never be able to think about him without this new thing that my mom wanted to tell me.  The two of them had had a very, very stormy relationship for as long as I had known them (you can see this in my poem “Why My Mother Stayed with My Father”), and this new thing – I felt – would somehow paint my father in such a dark light that I would never be able to love him as I do. 

Thinking back on it now, I wonder if he had raped her or was a part of a group of prisoners who had raped the other girls in the camp when it was liberated. 

Maybe she was going to tell me he killed someone, a guard maybe. 

I don’t know. 

Now I wish of course that I had let her tell me.  Better that than the questions I’m asking myself now.

  1. It probably is not possible to answer this question, but I must ask. What do you think keeps people alive in such dire circumstances?

I asked both my parents how they were able to survive. 

They both said the same thing.  They didn’t know. 

My father spent 5 years in Buchenwald concentration camp where every year, something like 25% of the prisoners died because of starvation, exhaustion, executions, or cruelty.  At the end, there was almost no one left who had come in with my father.  They had all died in one way or another.

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 weak and 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 fell down and then another collapsed, and then more and 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.

Did he have “meaning and purpose” to his life?  Did that help him survive?  Maybe.  He loved Jesus, and often referred to him as Baby Jesus.  He hated the Germans.   He loved the other prisoners he was in the camp with.  They were his brothers, his family.  Did this keep him alive?  Maybe.  But he saw other men in the camp who had meaning and purpose, dreams they lived by, faiths that would keep them safe, die in the camp every day. 

Here’s something I said in an interview I gave a couple years ago to Rattle: "I’m sure hope and courage were important in the camps, but probably what was most important was luck." 

  1. It was fascinating to me that your mother couldn’t find herself in your poems or open up about her experiences until she read your words in Polish. Was it the Polish writing or something beyond that that helped her unleash the floodgates? Was she finally for whatever reason, ready? What do you think made her so?

I think one of the things that opened her up was my dad’s death.  He died in 1997.  He was the story teller for the family.  When it came to the job of telling anyone about what he and my mom had experienced in the war, he would start talking and wouldn’t stop till he was done.  Sometimes my mom would leave the room so she wouldn’t have to hear the stories.  It was always my dad talking about the war.

And then he was dead, and the stories stopped, and just after that my mom started telling her stories.  I remember the night she started talking.  We were sitting there in her house in Sun City, Arizona, watching the film Schindler’s List.  There was something terrible going on on the screen.  Women being shot or bodies being burned or maybe it was the shower scene.  Whatever it was, it was hard to watch.  I remember I was crying, 50 years old and crying, and my mom turned to me and said, “This is bad but it was worse than this.  They can never make a movie about how bad it really was.”

I paused the movie then, and she started telling me some stories about the liberation of her camp and what it was like in the refugee camps. 

And the next night there were more stories.

It got to the point that a lot of times when I visited her she would ask me to take out a legal pad because she wanted me to write down something she wanted to tell me about the war.

  1. There is much conversation in these poems about what to leave behind, what to bring, what to hold onto, what to carry forward to in the next life. I’m speaking literally and metaphorically, of course, and this tension of “things” spills over into your life as well, with the steamer trunk that you decided not to keep, even though it seemed to be the one thing your parents owned that they hung onto. And yet, the poems conveyed such a strong sense that so much is utterly inescapable, that the things you grab or leave or clutch are meaningless in the face of what can’t be escaped. Can you speak to that tension?

There’s a poem in Echoes about the day the Germans came to my mom’s house and killed my grandmother and my mom’s sister and niece.  The poem ends with the word “bullshit.”  For me that word summarizes a lot about how my parents saw things, the material things around them.  Objects, possessions, the things we accumulate and save through the years were just bullshit.  Those things were meaningless. 

Let me tell you a story.  When I moved out of my parents’ house and went off to grad school in Indiana, I left behind my boyhood collection of Lionel Trains and science fiction novels and comic books.  These were the things I spent years collecting and saving and cherishing.  When I came back home after my first semester, I went down to the basement to look for some of those comics.  I planned to take some back with me to college.  They were gone.  Along with all my toys and trains and books. 

I couldn’t believe it.  I asked my mom where the stuff was, and she shrugged and said she gave them to some neighbor boy who was passing by.  She couldn’t remember who.

That’s how she was about stuff.  Stuff was useless.

And people?

Let me tell you about the way my mom used to hug.  She would simultaneously draw you into the embrace and push you away.  She was always that way.  Always ready to lose you. 

  1. Why poetry? Why not, say a novel or a memoir? What are the things that poetry can do here that those other forms cannot?

I really can’t explain why poetry and why not fiction or memoir.  I wasn’t planning on writing anything about my parents, and then I did.

One hot August afternoon in1979 toward the end of my graduate school career, I was sitting at a desk and I started wondering about what my parents were doing back in Chicago, what they were thinking of, and I wrote the first poem about them and put it aside.

A couple of years later, I wrote another poem, and then another and another.

And by 1999, I had about 20 poems.  7 years later I had 20 more.  10 years after that I had 20 more. 

Poetry, I think, allows for a slow growth.  It allows for an idea or a feeling or a set of feelings to gradually evolve, age, mature, take a path that they have to take.

For me, that’s unique.  I’ve written fiction and I’ve written non-fiction, and it’s always – for me – driven by a need to conclude, to wrap things up, and set them down in a final and permanent way.

Poetry doesn’t work that way for me.  It’s about exploration, weighing ideas, considering possibilities and complications.  I can do that in a poem in ways that I can’t do it in prose. 

And then again maybe it’s just me. 

  1. What is one of your favorite pieces of writing advice and how did you apply it in the course of writing this book?

Here’s the short answer to that question:  

Write -- always be writing.  Write all the time.  Don’t stop.  Write now.  Write 30 years from now.  Write when you’re 60 and 70 and 80.  Write.

Here’s the long answer.  It’s a poem I wrote to a creative writing class I was going to visit:

Advice to Mary Ellen Miller’s Poetry Writing Class

First, listen carefully to the advice of older poets, like me.
Some of what they say will be the most important thing
you’ll hear about poetry.  Some of what they say
will be useless.  How can you tell the difference?
You can’t right now, but you will in five or ten years.

Second, find someone who believes in your poetry,
a wife, a lover, a friend, and believe what they say
about your poetry, the good and the bad both,
and keep writing, writing all the time, writing emails,
letters, notes on the backs of books, term papers
about Dostoevsky and the rise of realism, write jokes
about mules that speak only French and teachers
that wear red ties and white wide-brimmed hats,
and writing like this, you’ll find you’re writing poems,
all the time, everyday, everywhere you’re writing poems.

Third, write a poem everyday, and if you can’t write one
everyday write one every other day, and if you can’t do that
write one every third day, and if you can’t do that
write one when the muse hits you—when two words
explode in your head, appear from out of nowhere.
Whatever you’re doing when that explosion hits,
stop, and write down the sound of that explosion
because if you wait ‘til later it’s lost--absolutely.

Fourth, find a muse.  I’m not kidding.  Mine is a mother
of two who died in the snow outside of Stalingrad,
shot in the forehead by a German foot soldier
from a little town in Bavaria.  She comes to me
when I’m busy grading papers or talking with friends
and she begs me to remember her children, all the children.

What will this muse do for you?  Ask her, she’ll tell you.


YouTube of presentation John gave in Hamtramck:

Buy the book: 

John Z. Guzlowski’s poems and stories have appeared in such national journals as North American Review, Ontario Review, Rattle, Chattahoochee Review, Atlanta Review, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, Marge, Poetry East, Vocabula Review. He was the featured poet in the 2007 edition of Spoon River Poetry Review. Garrison Keillor read Guzlowski's poem "What My Father Believed" on his program The Writers Almanac.

Other published books include Language of Mules (DP Press), Jezyk mulów i inne wiersze (Biblioteka Śląska), Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Books), Third Winter of War: Buchenwald (Finishing Line Press), and Suitcase Charlie (White Stag/Ravenswood). Guzlowski's work has also been included in anthologies such as Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Time Being Books), Cherries with Chopin (Moonrise Press), Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos), and Longman Academic Reading Series 5 Student Book (Pearson Education ESL). For more information:


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