publishers: a conversation between polish publisher jerzy illg and douglas
messerli in korea
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
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
"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
"'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
"'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
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