Over the course of our call for pamphlet proposals, we'll have some of our existing pamphlet authors writing about their experience of having a pamphlet published with us. Here we have Zosia Kuczyńska talking about her pamphlet, Pisanki!
Turning your family history into a poetry pamphlet is hard. There’s the ethics of it for a start: you may have the strongest claim in the world on what is after all your own heritage, but when push comes to shove you’re still telling the story of something that didn’t happen to you. When I first submitted the poems in the then-untitled Pisanki to The Emma Press, the fact that it opened with a poem about Daedalus’s precocious nephew Perdix inventing the saw by appropriating fish skeletons (and ultimately being shoved off a cliff) was a very deliberate foregrounding of the anxieties I was wearing on my sleeve.
It was also far too self-important. The poem is still in the pamphlet, along with any number of poems that, obliquely or otherwise, try to navigate the moral mirror-maze that is the act of storytelling. The finished pamphlet, however, is a reflection of The Emma Press’s commitment to something I’d forgotten in amongst all that sort-of-a-little-bit-maybe-comparing-myself-to-a-Soviet-scientist-who-sends-dogs-into-space-to-die-just-because-they-can: that it’s about your reader way more than it is about you.
What the editorial process of Pisanki brought to these poems was context, clarity, and a realisation that I was going to have to give the running order something of an overhaul: if I was going to do justice to the story I was trying to tell, I needed to get out of its way a bit. It was a task made more difficult by the fact that, by the time the editing stage came around, I’d been recently bereaved. When you have no emotional reserves left and your brain is turning itself inside out on a daily basis, being asked to rethink a comma feels like being asked to perform laser eye surgery on yourself with only your reflection in the back of a teaspoon to let you know how you’re doing.
Rachel Piercey was a superb editor. She was thorough, sensitive, astute, and—most importantly—stuck to her guns. Bernard O’Donoghue had already been more than accommodating in incorporating my babcia’s (grandmother’s) account of her wartime experiences into his introduction; Rachel convinced me that the pamphlet should also have not only a ‘Notes’ but also a ‘Further Notes’. It sounds silly now, but agreeing to both was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. Of course I’d never intended for the reader to tackle what is, to the Anglophone world, a largely unknown chapter in European history without some help. However, the insidious idea that has crept into poetry criticism in particular that Googling, say, Nerval and/or his lobster is something that should be done in secret—that all those furtive hours spent trawling Wikipedia ought never to be admitted—is a difficult one to overcome. Giving the historical context of the poems a dedicated space in the pamphlet took an enormous amount of pressure off the poems themselves, which were only ever always about how to tell a story and never the whole of it.
Working with The Emma Press was an experience for which I will always be grateful. Rachel and Emma understood what I was trying to do and worked with me to help me understand how to do it. (I hope it’s not too insulting to Emma’s artwork that quite a few people who know me well asked me whether I’d illustrated the cover, which is a testament to the pamphlet’s coherence as an object.) Their approach was hands-on but with a lightness of touch that meant I never felt pressured to take the pamphlet in unwanted directions. Their confidence in the poems gave me the confidence to say ‘here is a pamphlet with a Polish-looking name by a Polish-sounding person that engages with parts of Polish history you won’t necessarily have encountered before; reader, I’ve got your back’.
Pisanki is available to order on our website. You can also find out more about our call for pamphlet submissions here.