Kraków’s celebrated Miłosz festival of literature underway

Czesław Miłosz visiting Poland in 1981 Jerzy Undro

Thousands of literary and poetry lovers have recently arrived in Krakow to take part in the "Miłosz Festival" - the largest celebration of poetry in Poland and in Central Europe, taking place in Kraków until June 14.

The Miłosz Festival is Poland’s biggest and most important festival of poetry and one of the flagship literary events of Kraków, UNESCO City of Literature. Each year, the festival attracts translators, literary critics, Miłosz scholars and most importantly - the foremost poets of various countries, languages, aesthetics and generations, some of whom have received the highest honors, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. The festival is the successor to the famous Meetings of the Poets of the East and the West, held under the patronage of Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska in 1997 and 2000. The aim of those historic gatherings was to enable an exchange of experiences under the new possibilities for dialogue that emerged after the fall of the totalitarian system and the Berlin wall that separated the East from the West.

The festival, named after Miłosz and inspired by his work, was created in 2009, five years after the poet’s death, from an initiative by Jerzy Illg and Grzegorz Gauden and with the support of Anthony Miłosz – Czesław’s son. Each edition was themed after one of the poet’s works: The Captive Mind (2009), The Native Realm (2011), The Land of Urlo (2013), A Book of Luminous Things (2015), Road-Side Dog (2016), Beginning with My Streets(2017). Among the distinguished guests along the festival’s years were poets from all over the world: Adonis, Breyten Breytenbach, Bei Dao, Andrei Khadanovich, Oleg Chukhontsev, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Juan Gelman, John Gray, Tomas Halik, Seamus Heaney, Edward Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Michael Kruger, Christopher Reid, Gary Snyder, Wislawa Szymborska, Zadie Smith and many more.

The event is organised jointly by the Krakow Festival Office and the City of Literature Foundation. The idea and programme of the Festival is created by the Artistic Director of the Festival Krzysztof Siwczyk and the Programme Director Olga Brzezińska. “The increasing popularity of the festival and its importance on the international scene inspires us to prepare a rich program of events, which will hopefully allow us to both live up to the expectations of the regular audience and to attract a host of new poetry lovers. We are proud of the way the festival is created and of its extensive network of associates, including publishers, non-governmental organisations, libraries and bookshops as well as the bodies behind the country’s most important literary awards such as the Wisława Szymborska Foundation and the Zbigniew Herbert Foundation” said Brzezińska in an interview with The First News.

Olga Brzezińska, the Programme Director of the Miłosz Festival
(Adam Golec)

Apart from the events, debates, poetry readings and concerts, the festival yields translations and publications, many of which are premiere editions of works by the world’s foremost poets and are created in cooperation with the translators and Poland’s leading poetry publishers. Brzezińska says that the organizers of the festival strongly believe that the wealth and the diversity of every year’s edition will satisfy even the most sophisticated tastes and will be a source of many luminous things as well as a contribution to creative debates and discussions.

The theme of this year’s festival is “A Year of the Hunter”. A reference to Czesław Miłosz’s text presenting a critical picture of the world of his time, evoking figures important for the author, and proposing an exceptional manner of experiencing everydayness and melding a careful insight with intellectual consideration.

“Now, thirty years later, we want to get closer to this perspective and recall it during the festival’s meetings and debates, and look at the world through the eyes of the author of Unattainable Earth” says Brzezinska.

Kraków is currently hosting eminent poets, representing six languages and a great number of visions of the world and literature, among them: Jane Hirshfield and Ron Padgett from the US, Eugenijus Alisanka from Lithuania, Katja Gorecan from Slovenia, Maria Stiepanova from Russia, and Olvido García Valdes from Spain. The volumes of their poetry translated into Polish will be published as part of the Miłosz Festival publication project. The polyphony of foreign guests will be amplified by Polish poets: Marek K.E. Baczewski, Marcin Baran, Tomasz Bak, Jerzy Jarniewicz, Marzanna Bogumila Kielar, Urszula Koziol, Joanna Oparek, Andrzej Szuba and Ilona Witkowska.

Brzezińska said the decision to choose Czesław Miłosz’s “A Year of the Hunter” as this year’s topic of the festival was because: “It is an exceptional diary of one year in the life of a mature poet. It contains a still valid model of experiencing the world. Yet, what we experience is a radically fragmented reality. The world seems tangible only at the present moment. Moreover, we are accompanied by a sense of growing menace. We are trying to build our own identity in close contact with the reality that is escaping from us. To tell the truth, we do not know whether reality is a projection of our fears and things imagined, or perhaps it holds a hard core of sense that we can discover through literature”.

Brzezińska: “In every act of reading and writing, we hunt a world that is evidently escaping us. Every day we experience the fear of shifting roles in that hunt. We become the hunted when the ideological gravity reduces the complicated image of reality to simple, existential prescriptions that disenfranchise us from the right to the complexity of attitudes and choices. We become the hunters when we try to implant our own perception of the world on our neighbour outside dialogue and without respect for somebody’s distinctive language and the values expressed within it. We do have one thing in common, namely, we participate in a game of changing rules, where the stake is either coexistence in diversity or the blind violence of an institutionally decreed truth”.

The organizers of the festival believe that as in the previous years, this year’s edition of the Miłosz Festival will become a celebration of poetry of various traditions: the time of meeting and conversation about literature, about ideas, and about the world. A time that speaks in polyphony and not the rhetoric of exclusion and political stigmatisation.