With a backpack, a journalist's keen eye for telling detail and a poet's love of language, Paris writer Anna Polonyi set off on the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Wayword, her stunning new book of poetry, is the result.
A talk with Anna Polonyi, author of Wayword.
Laurel Zuckerman: Which came first for you, poetry or journalism? Is there a link?
The link, I suppose, is that I am a reporter at heart, in the literal sense of the term: it’s by observing and documenting the world that I find my place in it. I have been told that my poetry feels reported in that sense: it’s fairly visual, concrete and draws on daily scenes.
I’ve always written in English, despite growing up in France in a Hungarian-speaking household. It was important to my parents that we preserve the English we had picked up at an early age in the United States, and so most of our books and movies at home were in English.
What is your writing/revision process?
I tend to write a lot in one go. And then pare down and rewrite and tinker and polish. The collection of poems as it is being published by Finishing Line Press is in its 19th version. You can (kind of) do that with poetry. But I can only hope, as I keep doing this, that I won’t have to write 19 versions of a novel before feeling ready to share it with the world.
In college, we were made to do imitations of Brian Teare’s poetry, which plays a lot with white spaces on the page. That’s when I realized “Oh, you can be experimental without being obnoxious” and I’ve been going back to him ever since.
I recently started reading Svetlana Alexievich - I was astounded by how she takes herself out of what she’s reporting on: it’s beautiful and moving, and you feel grateful for her for having done all that work, without standing in the way of it, saying: “Hey, look at all this work I’ve done.”
Of all the places you've lived, where are you the most creative, and why?
My old neighborhood in the 18th, la Goutte d’Or. It was not necessarily great to live in (there’s a lot of petty crime and male aggression and police and crowds) but it was bubbling with creativity: you could go out on the street and stand still for two minutes and something was bound to happen that would be worth writing about later.
Sure. I was working for the New York Times at the time, though not in a reporting capacity. When the attacks happened, they needed every hand on deck. So I volunteered to do the rounds of the hospitals: we were trying to find victims or victims’ families to speak to. It was still too early to even know how many victims there had been and who they were. I met people who had been going from hospital to hospital all night, trying to find their friend or daughter or lover. Most people didn’t want to talk, but those who did, you could feel that they really needed to.
If you could be anything you wanted, just by clicking your fingers, what would that be?
Fungus. Wouldn’t it be nuts to inhabit the conscience of a vast, telepathic, underground network? (As long as I get to click my fingers again and not be stuck as fungus forever, that is).
What is your favorite place in Paris?
The Jardin des Plantes. There’s a statue there with a secret.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel based on a true story about a man-eating creature from rural 18th century France. Yes, that’s right: true story. Check it out: La Bete du unsettlingGevaudan.
Anna Polonyi is a Franco-American-Hungarian writer based in Paris. Her first collection of poems, Wayword, is forthcoming with Finishing Line Press in February 2017. She is the former recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and the 2015 Sylvia Beach Short Fiction Prize. As a freelance journalist, she has previously worked with the International New York Times, Radio France Internationale, the French news agency AFP and other outlets.