Associate Professor of Humanities Ewa Chrusciel’s whirlwind of a sabbatical took her to many European countries, including her native Poland. It also gave her the opportunity to put the finishing touches on her book, Contraband of Hoopoe, released in 2014.
A mix of prose and poetry, fact and fancy, Contraband is Chrusciel’s meditation on the act of smuggling, and her second collection in English. In it, she explores the porous borders between countries, languages and historical eras. Her poems surprise in the best ways, and her metaphorical leaps are unique. I had the chance to talk with Ewa about her new collection, her writing process and her sneakiest memories.
Where did this collection begin for you? What got you interested in the image of smuggling?
It started with the act of smuggling a sausage from Poland and being caught at customs at Logan International Airport. I didn’t get fined, as I stubbornly claimed that my sealed sausage was a sealed sausage, instead of being a meat. The whole smuggling project transpired out of this one experience.
Contraband of Hoopoe contains poems that allude to historical places and events: Ellis Island, Katyn, the Warsaw Ghetto. Can you talk about the research you did for the collection?
I read a bit about the history of smuggling. For example, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon’s The Compleat Smuggler: A Book about Smuggling in England, America and Elsewhere, Past and Present. I also visited Ellis Island a few times. On my first visit in 2011, the face of Al Capone jumped out at me when I walked in: the museum was having an Alcatraz exhibit. The conjunction of Ellis Island and Alcatraz gave me some new ideas and made me visit Alcatraz and Angel Island that same year. On my second visit to Ellis Island, I started to observe and write down the things the immigrants took with them. Tracking these historical objects transitioned then to tracking ideas, undeclared beliefs and secret messages that immigrants throughout the centuries have smuggled through customs. I started to recall smuggling in Poland under the Stalinist and communist regime.
I also read a book in Polish on the history of Ellis Island written by Małogorzata Szejnert. After that, I visited the Tenement Museum in New York; in fact, I visited it so many times that the museum offered me a free membership. A year later or so, I was invited to New York for a fundraiser for a documentary on Jan Karski by Sławomir Grünberg, “Karski & The Lords of Humanity.” Karski was a Pole who tried to prevent the Holocaust—he disguised himself as a Jew in order to get into the ghetto and carry evidence of Nazi crimes to powerful world leaders. That documentary gave me the idea of elevating my concept of smuggling to a noble activity, recording how Jews were hidden during the Holocaust. In November 2013, I also saw an exhibition on the Righteous Among the Nations at the Museum Factory of Oskar Schindler in Krakow, Poland. This visit gave rise to two poems in my book: “Those They Carried” and “The Righteous among the Smugglers.”
Going all the way back to the Lascaux painters, you talk about the ways art is a kind of smuggling. How exactly does that work in your mind? How are acts of smuggling and acts of imagination connected?
Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds. The price is the ceaseless border crossing, a constant mental shifting and shuffling between two languages, between these two different conceptualizations of the world. Linguistic smugglers are those who are unable to let it go, who nest in two cognitive places at once. Language is the best smuggler.
Words are multilingual and multivalent immigrants as they cross-pollinate and migrate.
Contraband of Hoopoe, like all of your poetry, is full of animals. Birds pop up everywhere in this collection: parrots, the albatross, the blue-footed booby. What draws you to birds and to the other animals you write about here?
Animals are the source of awe for me. Birds are apparitions of evanescence and beauty. One of the guiding totems of my book is the hoopoe, the bird that King Solomon sent to the Queen of Sheba to convert her to his faith. Hoopoe is also the main protagonist of Sufi mystic Attar’s Conference of the Birds, in which a hoopoe leads all the birds of this world on a pilgrimage to see the Ultimate Mystery. It is also a national bird of Israel, but for Palestinian authors, such as Mahmoud Darwish, the hoopoe stands for exile. In his poem “The Hoopoe,” Darwish writes: “But, among us there is a hoopoe who dictates his letters to the olive tree of exile.” Right now, Darwish is on the reading list of Israeli high schools. The hoopoe continues his mission of transgressing the borders.
Much of Contraband is made up of short prose poems, though you also write poetry using more conventional lines. What intrigues you about the prose poem? How do you find the shape a poem is supposed to take?
For the last eight years, I have been fascinated by the condensation of imagery in prose poetry. The form allows me to experiment and border-cross. It is a more spacious form than formal poetry. It is a hybrid. In prose poems, I can focus on the eruption of images, which takes me to unexpected places. They, again, transgress the borders. In Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman claims that we can have a new beginning in a new language. We can be free of constraints. In my case, prose poetry in English gives me a new beginning.
Could you talk about your own history with smuggling? How much of this book comes out of autobiographical experience?
In high school, we smuggled quotes from Orwell’s Animal Farm. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” for example. The communist establishment banned books that slandered the Soviet Union or undermined the glory of Russia in general. Books that showed the West as an attractive place were banned. Citizens’ thoughts were banned. In all, 2,482 books were banned.
Growing up during the communist regime in Poland, I saw the whole country change into a gigantic contraband. My parents were rather insignificant smugglers. My mom would smuggle lipstick from Poland to Bulgaria or gummy bears from Czechoslovakia back home where we did not have them. I believe that the smuggling mentality prevailed in Poland and sometimes still does. It might run in our blood. My high school friend and I smuggled a kitten from Scotland to Poland on a scout trip.
You grew up speaking Polish and have written in Polish. Contraband of Hoopoe and your last collection, Strata, were written in English. How do these two languages shape your poems? In what way does the movement between different languages illustrate a type of smuggling to you?
There is a lot of shifting between Polish and English conceptualizations of the world. The translation or mistranslation somehow takes place in my head. Perhaps the images that transpire in my mind are migrant and feisty, a bit like a flock of Cossacks with gleaming sabers looking for new linguistic territories to conquer. But perhaps, in the end, out of this constant shifting, the third language arises: neither Polish nor English? Some kind of blend? Just to give you an example, recently I tried to describe to a friend Czeław Miłosz’s bushy eyebrows, but I instead called them “eye-bushes.”
The next time you go to Poland, what are you going to smuggle back for me?
A hoopoe? A hedgehog carrying a horse sausage in its spines?
To learn more about Ewa Chrusciel and Contraband of Hoopoe, visit echrusciel.net.
Michael Jauchen, associate professor of Humanities, joined the Colby-Sawyer faculty in 2009. He holds a B.A. in English from Wheaton College (Ill.) and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana–Lafayette. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times and 3am Magazine. He is also the book review editor at The Collagist.