November 13, 2015
Essay "Two Publishers: A Conversation between Polish Publisher Jerzy Illg and Douglas Messerli in Korea"
Although many, if not most of the writers I publish think of me primarily as a publisher, I think of myself as a poet, fiction writer, critic, and memoirist who is also a publisher. I love publishing, to which the 400-some books I have published to date attest. But my heart is in the process of writing, not in the art of publishing; indeed if I had a great amount of money (or even any money to spend on publishing) I would pay someone else to do everything except making the initial selection.
These feelings were apparent when I was invited as an author to the 2010 World Writers' Festival in Seoul, Korea. Similarly, Polish publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose Znak press publishes much of the writing of Czesław Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, felt delighted to be there as a poet—even though he had published just one thin book.
We both recognized that we (and perhaps some of other writers as well) were there only because of Ko Un's suggestion. Both of us publish Ko Un. But that didn't diminish the joy of being featured so prominently in banners and placards throughout the city and on the campuses of Dankook University. And I think we both admired each other's essay more than the writings of some of the prominent international writers and critics included in the event.
Both of us also shared a sense of humor about the conference, whose seriousness was, in some small way, subverted by the "continually reincarnated" boy-genius, who we both agreed Ko Un is, a man with the force and energy of eternal youth, accompanied by the attendant freshness of thought. Despite their roots in traditional Korean writing and their relationships with Western narrative, Ko Un's poems are full of an energetic spirit that break out impulsively with dissociative images and sounds. He is, consequently, both a traditionalist and an experimenter, in the Modernist sense of that word.
Although Jerzy seemed to take himself less seriously than I as a poet, we both shared a kind of mad passion for literature, and, consequently, for much of our lives we felt driven to become publishers. Despite the fact that Jerzy worked for a much larger and financially sounder publishing house, I felt, in the fact that for many years he suffered under the Soviet repression (a much harsher environment than my penniless one) that as an independent publisher he was one the few people I had met in a long time who could truly comprehend just how lonely and difficult (logically impossible) it has been to publish all the books I have without money and hardly any staff. Talking with Jerzy I suddenly felt very old and tired, but perhaps it was just the beer we were drinking that made me feel that way. Both of us enjoyed drinking, and were delighted to find the small bar where we chatted for several hours.
There we discovered, through those shared "difficulties," that in some profound sense we understood each other—not that we felt sorry for ourselves; we had both chosen, even if by accident, our roles. And both of us expressed our love and pride in our endeavors. We agreed we still love what we do—at least most days! Each of us, in our own different way, has lived a remarkable life, he as a close friend and ally to Miłosz, Brodsky, and others (he is the Polish publisher, for example, of Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature while we were visiting Seoul), I with a whole array of very different figures described in these pages. Accordingly, we felt a deep rapport.
Hearing Jerzy's descriptions of his youth when he joined an atelier in a Polish industrial town with no connections to culture, and where several evenings each week a woman sat reading the German texts of Hermann Hesse, studies of Eastern religion, and numerous other writings, translating them into Polish as she read—texts, totally unavailable in Polish, that revealed completely new worlds to him—brought tears to my eyes.
"When I first traveled to the West, to England," Jerzy continued, "I went into a bookstore and found, to my amazement, row upon row, in many editions, of my now beloved texts. I was astounded. There they were, in all their glory, waiting on the shelf for a people who no longer needed to care for them, while for me they stood upon those shelves as sacred artifacts. My wife was furious with me because I could not bring myself to leave that spot."
"How disappointed I was," continued Jerzy, "when I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was attending an editors seminar at Stanford University—an excellent series of courses—and called Ferlinghetti, out of my love of Ginsberg and the Beats, to ask if could meet him. Finally, he agreed, and I went quite expectantly to the famous City Lights bookstore.
"After introducing myself, he growled out, 'What are you doing at a dreadful place like Stanford?' I tried to explain the wonderful things I was learning, but he waved it away.
"I switched topics, attempting to ask him about the important events surrounding Ginsberg's Howl, its censorship and the trial.
"'That's old business,' he grumped. 'Let's talk about something more contemporary and important!'
"'What do you think is more important?' I innocently asked.'
"'I've just gotten back from San Salvador,' he pronounced, 'where the rebels are successfully overtaking the government....'
"'I'm sorry,' I responded, 'but I've lived years under Communist repression, and I do not sympathize with this.'
"He called me a Rightist.' "Tell me,' I came back, 'has there ever been a Communist or Marxist government that has lived up to its utopian claims? Look at Cuba or North Korea, etc. etc.'
"Needless to say, there was no more conversation between us. I feel saddened that one of my former heroes, who fought against government censorship, was now promoting governments that surely would not allow a Ginsberg, a Miłosz, a Brodsky, or any other poet I loved."
I have my own problems with Stanford, given what I know of the English Department and its negligent treatment of Gilbert Sorrentino and Marjorie Perloff, and when Jerzy began to praise the Hoover Institute, I reminded him that it had once been the home of Condoleza Rice. But I comprehended Jerzy's outrage and his dismissals of "correct" thinking. His perspective was simply more profound than Ferlinghetti's, an outsider's interpretation of reality. All of which reminded me that when it comes to international issues, an ignorance in world affairs is shared by both the right and the left. In order to understand another culture, one had to begin with humility, accepting one's stupidity along with any supposed insights.
Perhaps that's why, despite our vast aesthetic differences, Jerzy and I got on so well. I don't know how he felt, but I found in him a new friend.
Seoul, South Korea, October 7, 2010