Igor Malijevsky: a poet in words and images

Igor Malijevsky

This week we are joined by Igor Malijevsky, who is a poet and author, photographer and performer. It is very common for Czech writers to write in a number of genres. Often poets will write essays and short stories, but Igor has an unusually wide range of activities, and photography in particular is a central part of his life. So how do all these activities fit in with one another?

"I'm a photographer and poet, and now I have written my second book which is prose. These three activities are really connected. They are connected, I think, by style, by how I try to describe the world which I can see around me and the people I meet. The way I write is close to hunting, or something like that. I have to meet people, I have to see situations, and I try to be as close to reality as possible. But it doesn't mean that my short stories are a kind of naturalism. I think that if we are really close to reality, we can cut reality and get much, much deeper. Therefore my stories are closer to poetry than to normal short stories, and my poetry is at least sometimes close to my photographs, which are little poems written in another language."

Your second book is in fact called "Druzba" or friendship, and you've said communication between people is very important for you as a writer too. So you often read and perform your work in various literary clubs, but also stage happenings in more unusual places. Could you say something about this aspect of your work?

"I will start with the word communication, which I like very much. I think that especially nowadays we should know that art is communication. We can see it in galleries, we can see it in theatres and books, and we can differentiate between what is really art and what is not. In galleries very often what we can see there has nothing to do with language and communication. So for me art is communication and therefore for me it's great when I can communicate directly with people."

"Yes, I should explain the title, because I'm sure that people abroad wouldn't understand it so much. It's the name of Russian cigarettes, which I'm sure we can't buy in the European Union, because a European Union citizen would die after three cigarettes. They are really strange. They have no filter, but they have a kind of tube instead of filter. With your own fingers you can make something like a filter, and these cigarettes are something which for me represent a kind of "east" way of thinking. This is connected with a difficult life, with vodka, with cigarettes, but also with poetry and the really fragile soul.

"So this was my flashback to the time when we were full of the "east" culture. We are probably fed up with that nowadays - I don't mean me - but society. Society is trying to forget that we are a Slavic nation and that we have something to do with the east. For me it's a pity, because I don't like these movements in society which are led so directly by politics. I think culture is much more than politics, so for me the belomorka is a kind of Slavic flashback. And the cigarettes themselves are interesting too, because they are really strong, as I said, and I've been told that they were smoked by the prisoners in the Soviet gulags."

And when in fact did you first start to write, because I think you first started off taking photographs?

"It's not quite like that. First I started to study physics and I wanted to be a scientist, but after twenty-five years I was able to see that I am not so intelligent to be able to do two things, both science and art, because science nowadays is really difficult. It has come so far that you need really to capture a lot of information to be able to go on. Then I was confronted with the decision either to do just science or just art. I decided for art just blindly. At the time it was a tricky decision. Then I started to write poems, and more or less at the same time I started to take pictures, because I saw that I can't write such poems in normal language, and I should use the visual language. So I stopped science and started to write poems. It was a really romantic period in my life, because it was a big breaking point and suddenly I had no future, no money, but I could do something that I deeply loved."

Unfortunately there isn't as yet much of your work translated into English, but you do have one poem, which I'll end the programme with, called "The Signs". Could you say a little bit about it?

"This is the only poem I asked some friends to translate, because it's a poem that is deeply connected with my photography. I wrote it in 1998 in Berlin. It was also a really important time in my life, because in 1998 I decided to really focus on photography. That is really the language that I want to use in the future too. I moved to Berlin to my really good friend Reinhard Gorn, a great photographer, and he said that I could stay in his studio and work there. So I did it, but what was strange at that time was that I had no money. I only had enough to buy tickets for public transport and that was all. I was not able to buy any beer or something. Three times a week he bought bread for me and cheese and tea, and of course films and photo papers. I had my camera.

"So I was in a way a completely free person. I had enough to eat or to drink and a place to sleep. But I was cut off from society. I was not able to pick up a girl or go to a pub or somewhere. And this is something that is really important for photographers, because it's the way photographers are living at least part of their life - when they are taking pictures: you are an observer, you are not acting, but just observing. You don't change reality but you have to understand reality.

"At that time I was walking through Berlin and I was travelling in the Berlin S-Bahn and underground, looking at the people. Every day I saw some stories and some tragedies, and I tried to photograph them or to write about them. And at that time I also wrote this poem which is about walking in a foreign town and trying to find something which I called the "sign", that means an important, single situation or moment in the world, which could lead us somewhere."

The Signs

I was seeking signs in a foreign town

Looking into yards

Roaming the streets

Chasing light reflections

Playing the creaking gate

Howling and whistling

On a gramophone

I was seeking signs in a foreign town

Surveying door bells

Names of strangers only

I stopped at number thirteen

Whistled an old sign

Into the darkness

Sesame Sesame

I was seeking signs in a foreign town

A map on my palm

Sky overhead

Grasping at light reflections

From one lamp to another

With a stranger's shadow always behind

Each time different

Igor also has a website, in both Czech and English: www.malijevsky.com