Bronislava Volková is a woman of many talents. She has had numerous collections of her poetry published and translated into no less than eleven languages, at the same time as writing widely on linguistics and semiotics and teaching at a number of American universities. She has translated many Czech poets into English and for nearly three decades she was director of Czech Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is also an artist, working in particular with collage. In Czech Books this week David Vaughan meets a Czech Renaissance woman.
Exile has been a defining feature of Bronislava Volková’s life and work. In 1973, at the age of twenty-seven, she fled Czechoslovakia, first to Germany and then the United States. Only now has she gradually been finding her way back home. Exile also marked the beginning of her life. She was born in Czechoslovakia, but only a few months after her parents had returned home from wartime exile in London. And this was where our conversation began.
“My dad was in the Czechoslovak Army in Britain and my mum managed to escape and ended up spending five years in London which was being bombed at that time.”
And your parents decided to come back to Czechoslovakia for all the problems that existed in Europe directly after the war. So you were born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in the 1950s and 60s, a very complex time in communist Czechoslovakia.
“Yes, I grew up in Prague in those not very nice years. The worst years were the 50s, but I was a child and I really didn’t know. The sixties were actually relatively good years and I was lucky because I started studying at the Philosophical Faculty in 1963 when there was a little bit of a thaw.”
I think that a lot of people from younger generations see the 60s as a golden age to be a teenager.
“Well, I didn’t experience it that way actually. I was very focused on my studies at that time and I was just glad that during those years when I was studying – because it went on to 1968 – the material we were able to cover was a little bit more interesting than what I would have been presented had I been there five years earlier or later.”
You were always interested in languages and studied linguistics, along with Spanish and Russian.
“Actually, I wanted to study English but they didn’t let me because there were always rules about what you could sign to, so in the year that I was entering English was not an option. So I ended up studying Spanish.”
You are now going to read one of your early poems. In the English version it is called Exile.
on a thin rope; the leprosy
of not belonging,
stretched from the shore of breath
to the shore without breath.
halts my speech
foot by foot.
And the sounds of other mouths stumble against mine.
There is no secret, no obvious agreement.
Grain fields belong to others.
And I roll my plains onto the road.
Neither the postman nor the wind
will deliver the unpaid debt.
[translated by Bronislava Volková with Willis Barnstone]
Exile was a very real experience for you, because you ended up in exile yourself.
“I could see that after the Russian invasion of 1968 there was not an easy way for me to continue doing my work and remain intact, so to speak. And I was not willing to enter the party. So, basically, when I finished my work on my Candidate of Sciences degree, which I was not awarded because I was not a communist, though I had finished all the work for it, I could not get a job. It was 1973 at that point and if you were not already working, and if you were in the area of languages and literatures, then you pretty much had to collaborate – or otherwise become a taxi driver or just leave.”
How did you manage to leave?
“By chance. We were trying to leave for a few years but it so happened that we managed to just go on a trip and not come back.”
And this poem was written after you’d left.
“Yes. And many poems, especially from those first years, are reflecting that experience.”
Did you feel as if you had lost a part of yourself?
“Yes. Definitely. I was cut off from everything. I was cut off from my language, from my family, from my friends, from my possessions, from everything I knew.”
And how long was it before you started writing in English?
“It was several years. Even today I possibly write more in Czech than in English. It was after several years in America – I think it was about my third book or so – that here and there a poem began to appear that was written in English. But it was a rare occurrence at first.”
I know that Hannah Arendt, who also experienced exile, said that she found it harder to write between the lines in English than she could in her native German, because German was the language that came naturally to her, and she could feel the nuances of meaning and slip between them. Did you have that same feeling in English?
“You know, as far as poetry is concerned, I only wrote it in English when I had an emotional experience that came in English. So, what I have noticed is that my English poems were usually using simpler means.”
So let’s hear you read one of the first poems that you wrote originally in English.
“I will read a poem from the book Transformations which was my first bilingual book. What I mean by that is that there were enough poems written originally in English – even though it was the minority – that I felt that I had to do a totally bilingual version of it.”
I am the far-away awakening of seafoam
I am the poet of transformations which
place their steps only with difficulty
in sweat and in the depth of a struggling heart
when they step on splinters
and dare into a countryside, in which the blood freezes over.
the day in which the sun has woven its
and opened the palm
of first communion.
I am the one I am.
This particular book is really about civilizational healing, I would say. So it addresses quite a number of what I would call civilizational diseases – violence and similar things.”
You mentioned the relative simplicity of the language, but I have the feeling that any simplicity in your poetry is deceptive. You are a very philosophical poet.
“On one hand this is definitely true. I’m philosophical and my ideas are complex, but there is also a simplicity to it, and in some ways verbally it can be expressed in simple words. Actually the reader has to go within and think about what’s behind it, but the words themselves don’t have to be complicated.”
Which brings me to another aspect of your poetry. It also has a very strong metaphysical element.
“Yes, a metaphysical element as well as an existential element. And I do work – that’s another thing I think that saves me in terms of being able to work in several languages – with metaphors a lot, with images that are striking and new, and yet translatable. I’m always surprised how relatively well my poetry works in so many different languages, though I’m sure that it’s stronger in Czech. But it still works.”
Returning to the metaphysical side of your writing, you have a very interesting website in both Czech and English: www.bronislavavolkova.com. When I was looking through it, I was intrigued by the section on psychology and energy healing. I was wondering how this all ties in with your poetry.
“Well, it’s difficult to tell. I have studied different healing energies, which I can apply to myself or to others – better to others than myself sometimes! – and I feel that they have affected my poetry, that they do reflect in what I write about, how I write about it and in the visionary qualities of my later poetry.”
You’re now living between the United States and the Czech Republic.
“Yes, I am. I’m having a difficult time deciding whether I should settle here or settle there. I have been settled there involuntarily for many, many years and eventually couldn’t leave because of my job and other reasons. But now I really can, but I’m still in between for now.”
Let’s finish with a last poem. This is slightly different from the two poems we have heard so far.
“Yes, it is slightly different, but it is truly a metaphysical poem, even though it’s put in a jocular style. It even has a title, which is not entirely typical of my poetry – most of my poems don’t have titles. And this one has a title with a question mark:”
Oh, my head is empty and it doesn’t even want to be any other way!
“Empty head” is a pejorative expression, but I see it differently.
Since it’s been continuously filled, it needs to be emptied now.
Clean it up. Sweep it out. Nothing is more beautiful than nothing.
Nothing more. Merely nothing now. Nothing, which doesn’t wear out.
Nothing, which doesn’t get lost. Nothing, which doesn’t get stolen.
Nothing, which doesn’t get asked for.
How beautiful it is to have nothing!
To have nothing is the same as not to have anything.
It is impossible to err with it or to be deprived of it.
It is impossible to acquire it, to earn it or to reach it.
It is not smaller or bigger, it is not worse or better.
It is quite perfect, complete and magnificent, that nothing.
Some languages have a word for nothing, like “das Nichts” in German, but in English we don’t. We have no thing.
“Yes, but it’s nothing. The word is nothing. It works quite well in English. Nothing. In Czech it’s ‘nic’, which is very short compared to nothing!”
So nothing is something.
“Well, nothing is nothing. It’s ‘nic’!”