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On September 15th during a gala ceremony held at the Teatr Polski in Warsaw, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afro-American poet, inspired by jazz and the Blues, who participated in the event virtually, accepted the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award 2021. The laureate received a statuette and a cheque for 50 thousand dollars. The PZU Foundation is the Award’s strategic partner.

The Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award is a distinction on the literary world stage, presented in recognition of outstanding artistic and intellectual achievements, inspired by the ideals which Zbigniew Herbert’s work exemplifies: independence, love of freedom, intolerance of deceit, inequality and violence.

Conferred since 2013, the Zbigniew Herbert Award is Poland’s only truly international award, with a uniquely global reach, underlines the presence, role and position of Polish literature – and more widely Polish culture – on the international arena. The Award is conferred by a jury, composed of poets, essayists, translators and publishers from Europe and the United States. This year’s laureate was chosen by Yuri Andrukhovych (Ukraine), Edward Hirsch (USA), Michael Krüger (Germany), Mercedes Monmany (Spain), and Tomasz Różycki (Poland).

The Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award was presented to the laureate, who participated virtually in the ceremony, by Maja Komorowska and Grażyna Melanowicz, respectively board-members of the Zbigniew Herbert and PZU Foundations.

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. He grew up in the American South, at a time of racial segregation and terror promoted by the Ku-Klux-Klan. Enlisted into the military in 1969, deployed in Vietnam as a correspondent, and later appointed managing editor of the »Southern Cross«, earned him a Bronze Star. It was during this conflict that he began to write. His first volume of poetry was published in the mid-1970s, whilst American critics discovered him in 1984, following the publication of “Copacetic” a poetry collection, whose title (which in professional Southern jazz slang translates as: “very satisfactorily composed”) invokes the jazz tradition. Komunyakaa has to date published over a dozen volumes, authored librettos for a number of jazz operas, edited numerous poetry anthologies, won the Pulitzer Prize (in 1994 for “Neon Vernacular”), and is a university lecturer. His work inherently places him in the tradition of African-American literature, all at once crossing its borders, eagerly partaking, say, of European culture, antiquity or Shakespeare.

The Polish reader might learn of his works, among others by delving into “Pochwała miejsc ciemnych” [“Praising Dark Places”], a volume published in 2005 (translated by Katarzyna Jakubiak). Cracow based »Znak« has prepared a new, substantially expanded edition of this retrospective selection of poetic works, published in recognition of Komunyakaa’s receipt of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, that is about to hit bookstores, titled “Niebieska Godzina” [“Blue Hour”].

In his speech Yusef Komunyakaa frequently alluded to Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry that he knows well and greatly admires: „I love the fact that the many voices of modern and contemporary poets have pursued the quest for freedom. This is especially true of Herbert’s poetry. And, yes, not only does he stay in the psychological realm of true poetry that crosses historical and intimate borders, questioning who we are in times of tribulation, intoxicating beauty, (…), and the everyday woven into truth. He feeds us the poetic – here and there – and then he delivers the payload that helps to keep us in this world, and that I cannot help but embrace” – noted the laureate.

“Like Zbigniew Herbert, he [Komunyakaa] is an avant-garde classicist with a strong »tablet of values«. One can read his work as a lifelong quest for peace, freedom, and social justice. His artistry is unique” – underscored Edward Hirsch, co juror, American poet and essayist.

A laudation in honour of the laureate was given by Tomasz Różycki, Jury Chairman of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award.

“For Komunyakaa, poetry is an instrument that sings, drums and screams. With its help, good spirits are summoned, evil spirits removed, and they, as we know, are sensitive only to true tones, and so the song will only be heard when it tells us about true love, true suffering and pain.”. – remarked Różycki in his address.

“In the 1970-71 academic year, together with Herbert, we lived in Pasadena. My husband was employed at the local California State College, whilst also working on a volume of »Pan Cogito« [»Mr Cogito«], whose hero fell to the heart of this year’s prize laureate. Though Herbert’s interest lay principally with European culture, he was obviously very much aware of the tragic fate of Afro-Americans, and was instinctively on the side of, as he put it, ‘the humiliated and beaten’. I am convinced that he would be delighted that an award bearing his name falls to a representative of this particular culture, that is presently regaining its full rights” – reminisced Katarzyna Herbert, the poet’s widow, and Foundation’s founder.

The evening was also enriched by a premier performance of three songs composed by Włodek Pawlik, set to Zbigniew Herbert’s poems, performed by world renowned singer Robert Gierlach (baritone) to the piano accompaniment by the composer.

A full recording of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award 2021 Ceremony is available to view on the foundation’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

PThe PZU Foundation is the Strategic Partner of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award 2021.

The Zbigniew Herbert Foundation Partners include: the Warsaw based Arnold Szyfman Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski im. Arnolda Szyfmana), The Society of Authors ZAiKS (Stowarzyszenie Autorów ZAiKS), The Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Instytut Adama Mickiewicza), and Poland’s National Library (Biblioteka Narodowa).

Polish Radio (Polskie Radio) is this year’s media patron.