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Maria Jastrzębska's tattoo poem - Iwonka

I don’t have a single tattoo. Yet..?

I was born in Warsaw and came to the UK the child of Polish immigrants. Growing up between two cultures has formed the backdrop to most of what I write. I'm interested in those places or moments where people from different cultures or backgrounds meet and I believe everyone crosses different thresholds one way or another, even within the same country.

In my 20s I came out as a lesbian and that experience of difference has become interwoven with being Polish in the UK. I'm bilingual, though having grown up, lived and worked in England for so long I write in English, mostly (I have written in Ponglish!). I've always been a writer, even as a small child I was writing squiggles and calling it ‘my book’. Hard to say if I chose poetry or it chose me. While poetry is very precise – you have to find exactly the right word – I think there is an open space in it which goes beyond any individual language. You’re always reaching for what can’t be said. That’s why I feel at home there. Somehow freer.

Some of the poetry I write is also cross-genre, genre-fluid. I’ve written a lot of prose poetry and it’s something about balancing along the edge between two forms, poetry and prose, which is so exciting. You have to pitch it just right – it’s not any old-thing-goes mush, it has to sparkle, be edgy.

I really wanted to contribute to this amazing anthology. Most – though not all – of the younger people (plus some older) in my family and among friends have tattoos. Of course the history of tattoos goes back such a long way but in the West it’s relatively recent that it has become much more accepted, celebrated. For my generation there was real stigma attached to tattoos. They were seen as very working class (sic), associated with criminals and had some sinister connotations. To me now, self-expression, sometimes spirituality or politics as well as creativity are such a crucial part of it. I’ve seen lines of poetry tattooed and think you could see any tattoo as a poem in itself – such an important aspect of body art.

But the more I thought about it the more I realised I needed to write something about the violent, coercive side of tattooing. Under slavery people were branded as a form of punishment, to make their inferior status visible and show who owned them. At Auschwitz, the Nazis used tattoos as a way of identifying – and so better controlling, preventing escape – those prisoners selected for forced labour. The prisoners who were sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered or tattooed.

I wanted to write something about the joy, the sheer variety and richness of self-expression while also showing this devastating and terrifying history. I found myself writing a sonnet. I think the violence in the poem required the contained formality you have to craft even in a modern sonnet. The opposites of joy and terror needed to be tightly held. My poem was based on a real life encounter experienced as a child. One of those moments when you meet someone whose life has been different from your own and it changes everything.

If you’d like to know more about me and my work please visit:

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Poet, editor, translator, Maria Jastrzębska came to the UK from Poland as a child. Her most recent book is Small Odysseys (Waterloo Press 2022). She co-edited Queer in Brighton anthology (New Writing South 2014). Her work is translated into Polish and Romanian. She was writer for ACE-awarded cross-arts project Snow Q.

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The Transformative Power of Tattoo will be released by Guts in September 2023 (sooner if we can swing it!) and you can pre-order a copy here:

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