News from Krakow – UNESCO City of Literature. 2020 in a nutshell

Program experiments, the search for new media and strengthening close, albeit virtual, contact with the audiences were the main experiences of the cultural milieu in Krakow UNESCO City of Literature in 2020.

At the outset of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, we rapidly prepared a toolkit to support the local cultural sector, aptly named Kultura odporna – or Resilient Culture. The municipal initiative constituted a rapid response to the needs of cultural communities – including the literary one, which suddenly had to face an unexpected crisis. Small bookstores, antiquarian bookshops and literary projects run by writers, artists, translators and cultural managers associated with the city were all supported financially within the framework of the project.

The Księgarnie odporne — Resilient Bookstores program, which was carried out between April and June, helped 23 Krakow bookshops through the most difficult first months of the pandemic. Last year also brought us the Krakow UNESCO City of Literature Award, which was presented to 41 book projects that refer to the city’s literary heritage. The total prize pool exceeded 200,000 PLN and the support was granted to established authors, as well as new names and faces on the literary market.

The changing times present new opportunities for innovative technologies, which we found out when we once again organised our national campaign for promoting reading — Czytaj PL! — Read PL!. In autumn, our virtual e-book library was used by more than 47,000 readers from 30 Polish cities, who downloaded a total of 110,000 books made available by the publishers, who joined us in the campaign. Other UNESCO Cities of Literature, including Nottingham, Seattle, Lviv, Manchester, Heidelberg, Milan, Norwich, Reykjavik, Edinburgh, Quebec and Exeter have joined the initiative, allowing readers around the world to discover new Polish publications for free.

In spite of the circumstances, which left a lot to be desired, we continued to carry out international cooperation and exchange programmes within the framework of the UNESCO Cities of Literature Network and the ICORN International Cities of Refuge Network. In the summer of 2020, a two-year residency of the Syrian poet Kholoud Sharaf in Krakow came to an end. In autumn, we were joined by two poets — Ana Llurba from Barcelona and Brynja Hjálmsdóttir from Reykjavik, who spent two months in Krakow pursuing their creative endeavours, getting to know the city and working on their personal projects.

Krakow was present at several important international events, most notably at the UNESCO Cities of Literature virtual meeting, where we showcased the Resilient Bookstores programme. In November, we attended the City of inspiration conference organised by Lviv, where we talked about our membership in the ICORN network. We also joined the conference organised by the Norse Freemuse organisation, which announced its report on the situation of LGBT artists in Krakow.

The international CELA — Connecting Emerging Literary Artists — project, which we are partnered with, also launched in 2020. The aim of the project is to help young writers and translators from nine European language communities to grow their international careers under the guidance of experienced mentors. In spite of the fact that the ongoing pandemic somewhat thwarted our plans, all participants managed to meet twice – live in Brussels in January 2020 and online during the Re-connect meeting. The first translations of the texts by the writers involved in the project were also already prepared – we are looking forward to them being published soon!

Last year’s editions of the two largest literary festivals in Krakow were particularly special, as for the first time in history they were held entirely online. The virtual edition of the Conrad Festival (1925 October 2020) was inspired by writers, translators and literary critics from Poland and abroad, including Elif Şafak, Etgar Keret, Roy Jacobsen and Adeline Dieudonné. The festival culminated in the traditional Conrad Award galawhere the author of the best Polish literary debut of the year selected by the readers receives the prestigious prize. The festival was enriched by a number of accompanying events, including another instalment of an innovative project that brings together the worlds of film and literature — Word2Picture, as well as the Book Congress, during which we talked about the challenges faced by the publishing market and the literary community in Poland. The thirteenth edition of the festival took place on Facebook and the new VOD platform  – PLAY KRAKÓW. This has led to more than 80,000 views and a total coverage of more than 500,000 – all thanks to videos, animations and electronic content shared via social media.

Last year’s edition of the Miłosz Festival was also organised online, held under the apt headline New Focal Point; however, this time around the events were spread from June to December. As a result of the festival, 5 new poetry volumes by distinguished international guests were published in Poland. These include works by Agi Mishol, Alice Oswald, Peter Gizzi, Ivan Štrpka and Anthony Joseph.

Literary education holds a particularly important place in the programme of Krakow — UNESCO City of Literature. We took care of the well-being of parents and children, who had to endure closed kindergartens and schools during the first surge of the coronavirus cases together with the guests of the web series Czytanie na drugie śniadanie — Reading for Lunch (March – April). In 44 episodes of the series broadcast daily on the KUCL Facebook fanpage, some of the best-known and popular Polish writers read for the youngest audiences.

Work on the Planeta Lem Literature and Language Centre  in Krakow is slowly picking up pace. A modern educational facility under the patronage of the author of Solaris will be built in Krakow’s Zabłocie district by 2024. The traditional September birthday celebrations of the most translated Polish author of all times encompassed premières of theatre plays prepared by Teatr Ludowy, Groteska and Łaźnia Nowa. These events were accompanied by debates and a popular science convention Filozofikon, developed by the Pedagogical University of Krakow. These events heralded Stanisław Lem’s 100th birthday and a number of events and initiatives planned as part of the Year of Lem in 2021.

These are just some of the activities we have been able to carry out together with our partners. We dare say that literature is doing surprisingly well in the new normal – at least in Krakow. This does not mean that the work is over – 2021 with even more exciting literary challenges and ambitious plans is just starting!

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