Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

7 April 2010


Filed under: SWIP (Supposed Work-in-Progress),Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 6:46 pm

(Fifth and last in a series)

This is Frankowka. It is an artists’ retreat, a bed-and-breakfast (Agatha cooks the most unbelievable vegetarian meals, as well as the softest and moistest cakes ever). It is an antique and art gallery, art renovation studio, home away from home (see previous four posts). You can go there. You can rest and find yourself here, in the Polish countryside, 900 km from Amsterdam. Beautiful en-suite bedrooms, art that opens your eyes, long walks in the countryside, all on the road to Warsaw. You, too, can enjoy this magic place–but I won’t give you the phone number–you’ll have to email me for it.

In future years I will return to Frankowka with more students and we will write on. There will be open-mikes for our poetry readings in the jazz cafe-slash-art gallery. There may even be a twinning between Webster and the local university, where the grandfather teaches Aesthetics.

When I came home from Poland, my family and friends and colleagues asked me how the writing retreat went. “It was an extraordinary week,” I told them all. But the secret is, I came home filled with words, filled with peace, filled with hope.

That there is a place on earth that give such gifts, deserves to be advertised.

Here’s the poem we all wrote:

Ode to Frankowka
Tears in my fire, voldka cried when I saw the art.
Calm art, sweet art, dream of my art.
Words and all that jazz.
You pay a price for things in life,
Be it illness or be it strife.
Zulu’s in my bed,
Can’t wait to rest my head.
Philosophy in the air,
Came before religion, so there!
Don’t down too much emotional engagement
Where you go, in Malibu
Lola, lola, lola,
Everything we say comes true,
Can’t wait to spend my time with you.
Practicize, you snobbistic woman.
Old eyes of wisdom, but young at heart,
Never fell in love, but loves his art.
Polski pierogi pasta platcki petrol
Oh my pregnant belly!
Szymon says, szymon you.
Szymon’s bed says, who ARE you?
Unexpected gifts at unexpected times
Is the way to a woman’s heart.
A longer second toe, have we all,
It helps us balance, not to fall.
Kelsey kicks ass at soccer,
Yeslek skcik ssa ta reccos.
She has a way of pulling emotions,
Kelsey and the grandfather are crying oceans.
Agatha bakes
Delicious cakes.
Never-ending homework, lousy internet connection
Why can’t Szymon get this done, intellectual masturbation.
Wroclaw fever,
Tire pressure weaver
Can’t go home
Gotta leave her.

6 April 2010

Process of renovation

(4th in a series of five–Written in Poland 13 March 2010)

Interview with Jurek Ludwikowski:

First, look at the frame itself and imagine which picture it will fit and the right period and color. Imagine a hidden image. For example, the frame near the dining room has a lot of brown in it and silver, old silver on the edges.

Secondly, look at the quality of wood—what can be improved and renovated Once you decide to renovate a frame, you must be very careful because when you renovate a frame, you change the character of a frame. He has to change anyway, but you want to change it without losing the essence of the frame, without changing the soul of a frame.

For example, Impressionist painters like to have Baroque-style frames. But you must also keep the differentiation between the painting and frame—consider the tone and color of the painting and the tone and color of the frame, as well as the paspartout. There is a separation between the expression of the painting and the expression of the frame. This separation is important

What is the soul of a frame? It’s not just the frame; the interaction of the paspartout plus frame plus picture, all of this together is the soul.

Here is an example of the process: I bought a painting that expressed a classical idea. Would this fit in a normal frame? So I asked myself, “What can I do?” I decided to extend the picture. I used the paspartout to put an oval painting into a square frame. The painting itself is highly symbolist, it’s expressing something of high quality.

Art and imagination, the combination is so important!

This painting was a coincidence. I went to a framing store in Brussels, and decided what they were asking for was ridiculously expensive and I could do it himself in my own workshop, since he I the tools.

Look at the framework. Ask what the connection is between the frame and the picture. Keep the soul of the painting.

Is there a golden rule, what sets you apart from bad renovators? I don’t differentiate—I use different sources. What you are doing with poetry, I do here. I spend hours to bring more feeling—it’s the same process as asking over and over again, what am I really trying to say? It’s a matter of interpretation; you and I just use different materials.

What is art? Beauty is intellectual (K: it has to do with the associations), but a decorator is fighting for his own beauty; a combination between humanism and softness, this is beauty.

How do you feel when you get it just right, the right combination of frame and picture? I always have a “but” to my own work. Never satisfied. I could always do better.

To create beauty is the highest motive in life. I have failed a lot of the time; it’s a matter of emotion, that of the creator, and that of the person who sees the final version. It’s a combination of work, emotion, and intellectualism (associations).

Art is the element of two creators:  the one who gives, and the one who receives.

5 April 2010

Falling off the map

(3rd in a series of five–Written in Poland 10 March 2010)

Today we left the safe-haven, poetic retreat and visited a nearby town. Wandered between patches of melting snow and ice and looked up at gables and pastel-colored houses, medieval architecture poking its head around every corner. Visited a farm where they made wine in 1665. Thought of the 17th century and what happened then: Hendrickje Stoffels (see painting) and young Titus, the beloveds of Rembrandt, both of whom died of the plague before him; explorers falling off the map into the New World; the Dutch Golden Age.

This is what I noticed: when I was last in Poland 11 years ago, there were fewer billboards and gas stations. There were more prostitutes along the highway. More children now. No mobile phones then. More cars now, and traffic. When I used to crisscross Poland for stories and interviews with elderly people, I drove too fast on empty roads. I lined up for hours to buy gas. The U.S. embassy sold me gas in Warsaw. Now it’s the gas stations lined up along the road instead of the cars.

But there’s something more, something beyond the youth and the technology and the shopping malls, soft toilet paper, double-paned windows and mod-cons. My student friend said it has to do with a new attitude: “Polish people have always been cynical and negative. Lately people are more positive.” I wonder if this is hope, hope for a future, hope to build something, hope of freedom.

My Poland, the one I traveled to several times a year from 1988-1998, the one I brought vacuum-packed meat and vitamins and bananas and oranges and morphine to, was a poor Poland, downtrodden, beaten into submission by Soviet humiliation. The daily indignity of not having enough toilet paper, waiting in endless lines for everything from bread to deodorant, the unreliability of flows of electricity and water, all served to keep an entire population from hoping.

What I saw today was a third-dimension Poland, one enjoying normalcy. No longer a crisis-state, bent beneath martial law and fear of the secret police, a dread of the shaking ground preceding the oncoming tanks, this Poland revels in daily debates among the different political candidates for the upcoming election—what fun to argue like this! This Poland has opinions about everything, outspoken—of course! With shoulders shrugged high—opinions. I only saw one little old woman wearing army boots today—they used to be walking down every street. And instead of half-empty shop shelves, now the most chique boutiques and department stores line the cobblestoned streets.

Isn’t materialism delightful?

So what I feared all these years in my staying away, was that a cheap, plastic, imitation-America longing would have replaced the sincerity and integrity and deep devotion of the friends I knew here twenty years ago. This afternoon we visited a jazz café-slash-art gallery, owned by friends of the grandfather for 18 years. All these cigarette-smoking, intellectual-looking women sizzled their stares down at us from the walls, appearing as if they knew more than we ever would about the ways of the world. I could see the crowded, blue-with-smoke evenings, intellectual conversations about politics, hear the crooning jazz.

What the grandfather has done this week is open up to us about his life: the jazz café, the architects in the restaurant where we ate, his theories about love of art, the family photos of barbecues and short-sleeved laughter.

I wonder at my own falling-off-the-map reaction to the art here, to the grandfather. For years Poland drew me home, and now I have returned again, a prodigal daughter in search of some soft reconciliation of mind and heart, spirit and soul.

4 April 2010

Language of the heart

(2nd in a series of five–Written 9 March in Poland)

We hunted poetry Sunday, driving 900 km to find this place of peace, wondering at the words of poems read in the car. I’m told that after I went to bed the first night, poetry was recited by heart in Polish before a crackling fire and emptying bottle of vodka. We find ourselves in rich hunting grounds. I passed fields full of deer and thought of betrayal and communism and empty villages where people sold their souls.

“No prostitutes standing along the highway anymore,” I said. “We don’t do that anymore,” came the answer.

The one piece of research I still needed for my novel was how old painting frames could be renovated, and yesterday, after falling asleep in rooms with 200-year-old hardwood floors, every plank a story, we went to the grandfather’s studio and old frames looked back at me through hollow eyes

And winked.

Old and new.

Renewed, rejoicing, resurrected, rehabilitated, renovated, relaxed, rested, resuscitated, revelatory, redeemed, revealed, reborn, and released.

Sunset, orange with purple hues seen out of a snowladen window: dried-up well, trees, fading sky,

Back home.

So tonight he cried. The grandfather. And so did I. And then my student friend also. “She has this effect on people,” she said, I think about me. For a few precious seconds we spoke the language of the heart. It had been two days of Polish, French, and English, words all around us, some invisible, others so tangible they cut us open, poetry and vodka at night before an open fire place until 1:30 a.m., poetry our own, poetry by others, words like balm over the wounds of time.

La langue du cœur. She: “That was such a powerful moment. Did you see his eyes, they watched his grandfather and filled with such emotion.” It was the first time he’d seen his grandfather cry in 20 years.

The letting go, the white-hot power at the table; we all sat so confused, struck dumb with compassion, even the words did not know what to say.

This after the grandfather told about being asked to write a book about his childhood during the war and surviving the Warsaw Uprising as a child living in the sewers. I sit beside him now and watch him laugh, tortoise-shell round glasses, a cap patchworked velvet with holes around the sides, “so my head can breathe,” slippers gray with white embroidery flowers. “My way of creating is a mess, a catastrophe. I have no method, no regimen,” said the man who roams the flea markets of Brussels and rescues his prizes like released hostages. Labors of love, the paintings restored, the frames enhanced, wooden sculptures, refurbished furniture, polished wood, all these sculptures and carvings and Italian Renaissance and Art Nouveau and Impressionist artists, they crowd around us, a cloud of witnesses to the words whispered and sighed, poets present, poets past.

Last night one of my student friends heard the news that an article he wrote would be published by one of the top Foreign Policy journals in the world. We celebrated with vodka, of course.

I asked the grandfather how he decided what to work on; so many projects calling to him, what filter did he use?

But the other student said to me, “Anne, your writing is different than his workshop. If he doesn’t work on something, it’s still on the table a week later when he returns to the studio. If you don’t write down what is there when it shows up, you lose it.” So what I’ve heard today is 1) to follow my heart, 2) to do what is burning brightest, like a child builds a fort—work your hardest, and when you’re finished, you walk away.

I’ve known this. I’ve known that the writing is supposed to be played like music, in childlike abandon. I unburied this treasure all those years ago, yet again and again I squandered the knowing, imposing schedules and deadlines, restricting the flow, damming the Living Water to a stagnant hell.

I told the grandfather in a previous life I was a mafiosa. He told me in a previous life he was my servant. I told him, “You are mistaken; in a previous life, we were brother and sister.”

3 April 2010

Like a lover

Filed under: SWIP (Supposed Work-in-Progress),Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 4:38 pm

My previous blog entry says October. October what? October, pre-2010. The world I’ve landed in this last year is one of students, papers, a rhythm of 8-week terms: steady, then work like crazy, relax—another 8 weeks. I have wanted to write, often wanted to write about my students and their stories: the one who might be very sick, the one who flew home to be with a dying father, the one who learned how to cook from YouTube, the ones who laugh at all my jokes, the ones who write, the ones who don’t write, the ones who fly when they write. It’s a privacy thing and I’ve probably already written too much here; if you recognize yourself, forgive me.

I just need to say, I love my students; I have the best students in the world. They come from India, the Philippines, North and South America, the Caribbean, the EU, Africa, and the Middle East. We share our worlds in writing. I read poetry and essays of longing. I tell the men if they want a woman, then they should learn to cook. I tell the women to find a man who cooks and never let him go. A little short-sighted maybe, but it makes them smile.

In my graduate classes I’ve been privileged to get to know students who have MBAs and are lawyers and are soldiers and are experts, looking for more—all of us looking for more…what? Knowledge and understanding, a grid to hang our questions on? I have learned and written about war and diplomacy, the Middle East, and my own young theory of the role of youth in International Relations—I call it the YPs’ Theory, and YPs stands for Young People; it’s pronounced, “why peace.”

But a month ago, the first day of break between terms, I found myself in my husband’s car speeding on the German autobahn at 170 kph on the same corridor of highway to Berlin that used to be patrolled by helicopters making sure no car stopped so East Germans might escape. I wasn’t behind the wheel. A student was, and another student sat beside him, and I fell asleep in the back seat, smiling to myself, on a road trip to Poland.

I wrote this the day after we arrived: Haven’t been back in Poland for 11 years. Used to make this drive four times a year to interview elderly people about their memories. Wrote three novels to get this place out of my system. We came here in the summers when the kids were small and swam in lakes and “dobbered,” floating like a cork, in a rubber boat full of children, turned it over to laughter, grilled sausages and felt like we’d gone back in time.

Sometimes the many parts of your life come together in a synergy: Poland, my love and heart and favorite family memories, my students and Finders Keepers, the novel I set aside six months ago like a lover I didn’t know how to talk to anymore. I told myself if I waited and studied and taught I might find the words again.

So I came here. And what am I doing here? Me and my two young friends are here to write, and to talk and breathe poetry. The grandfather of one of the students has this amazing, 200-year-old country home he renovated from scratch and filled with antique paintings and sculptures, like you fill you heart with kind thoughts. And now the house is like its owner, full of grace, creativity, and wisdom.

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