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Inspiring Conversations with Maja Trochimczyk of Moonrise Press

Today we’d like to introduce you to Maja Trochimczyk.

Hi Maja, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
If you look at my “cover” photo, what do you see? I see a very happy woman in gold – that Sunday of September 12, 2021 was a blissful day for me. First, I just heard an excellent concert of music and poetry celebrating the birthday of poet, flautist, and Poet Laureate of Sunland Tujunga, Alice Pero. The pure sound of the flute heard live washed over my mind and body like healing water. There are few joys in life that can exceed that of the beauty of classical music – I was immersed in Chopin, Faure, Piazzolla interpreted by the lovely Windsong Ensemble. pianist Shushana Hakobyan , violinist Svetlana Oganesian , actress and singer Sisu Raiken, soprano Veronica Bell, and the group’s founder, poet and flautist Alice Pero are all musicians that love the music and love playing together. I was in a community of poet friends – with Amibka Talwar, Bory Thach, Elsa Frausto, Toti O’Brien and many others… Second, I was shining with golden joy at the exact time when my granddaughter Aurelia was born in South Bay, with gold in her name, and quite fittingly, though accidentally, welcomed by a golden aureole around me, the ecstatic Grandma (before coming to the concert, I spilled water on my green dress and had to change, then suddenly found a gold scarf my Mom made long ago and I never wore since it came to me after her death…).

I was born in Warsaw, Poland, and raised in the city suburbs in a small house with a garden full of flowers – daffodils peeking from the ground and the golden rain of forsythia in the spring multi-hued asters and bright sunflowers at the end of the summer. There were fruit trees – apple, pear, cherry – and fruit bushes underneath: red and white currant and the bizarre gooseberry. Just like a village, but so close to downtown Warsaw, with its art galleries, museum and concert venues. My parents were from Poland’s eastern Borderlands (now in other countries, the borders shifted, history changed). My Dad Aleksy Trochimczyk was Belorussian, but his father came from the Ukraine, and his grandfather was a schoolboy in Odessa. Some members of this extended family ended up in Argentine; two uncles of my grandma went to Santa Barbara through the Ellis Island in 1906, but the contact was lost due to the communist government’s ban on corresponding with “capitalists” in the 1950s. My Mom’s mother, Maria Anna, came from “petty nobility” living on small estates near the current border of Lithuania and Belarus. Sudnik-Hrynkiewicz, Hordziejewski, Glinski, Ignatowicz, Wasiuk – these were some family names of the clan. My Mom’s father though, Stanislaw Wajszczuk, came from a huge peasant family living near Lublin since the 16th century (the family tree has over 7,000 names in it, including the famous heart surgeon Prof. Religa). Before WWII, my Grandpa worked for the Polish radio station in Baranowicze and for the Polish railroads. He was quite feisty, played the folk fiddle at weddings, and gave my Mom’s a heroic name – Henryka.

My parents met in the early 1950s when going to college in the still ruined Warsaw that had been emptied of all residents and destroyed by Germans after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – there was not a street with undamaged buildings, rubble everywhere. Students, including my parents, picked up these bricks by hand, passing them along human chains, slowly clearing the city for new residents. The city was rebuilt gradually, everywhere bearing the wounds of the war and revealing the indominable spirit of its citizens.

I still remember the last broken wall of the Royal Castle, with a hole for a window pointing at the sky in the 1970s… My tram stop was right there by the ruins, and I waited to go home after music lessons while looking up at this strange shape. Several times per week, I walked to my music school through the Old Town streets that were already rebuilt and full of shops and restaurants; I loved the human scale of these three-story buildings, surrounded by parks with ancient oaks and chestnuts. In reconstructing Warsaw, the brave city that Hitler had wanted to completely erase from the world’s maps, Polish architects used as a model 17th century paintings by Canaletto. This, as well as the ruined Royal Castle pointing its last wall at the sky, convinced me of the importance of the arts for the survival and strength of the spirit, both of an individual and the nation. My Warsaw was a city where monuments to civilians shot by Germans during the 1944 uprising marked every street corner: about 250,000 people died then (about 450,000 Jews were murdered earlier in 1942-43). Unimaginable. My city has cemeteries and monuments to the victims of war everywhere.

The countryside was more peaceful, with fewer material signs of the war. I loved spending vacations at the village homes of my maternal and paternal grandparents, one month in each village. There were trips to the forest to pick mushrooms and blueberries. I had small jobs – helping to take cows out to pasture, making strawberry preserves, raking hay and straw at harvest… All this marked a serene, rustic life close to nature, where all food was organic, and an old wheel served as the storks’ nest atop the barn…

But this peace was also an illusion. It was communist Poland, after all. During the war, my mother and her parents escaped from their home further east, in Baranowicze (now in Belarus), after Soviet forces invaded Poland in September 1939, splitting the country with Germans. My Mom’s uncle was shot in the street by Soviets, his widow, Aunt Tonia Glinska, was taken to Siberia with her two sons within 24 hours, leaving behind their farm, home, orchard, almost all possessions… German occupation was less dangerous for former Polish government officials, like my Grandpa. But his ancestral village to which he escaped with his wife and two children could hardly support all the refugees. In a small wooden house 20 people lived in two bedrooms, with wall-to-wall beds and a pot of hot water with a spoonful of flour and some weeds to cheat hunger at lunch. Hunger. Fear. Danger.

After 1945 when Soviet troops “liberated” Poland, they never left. There was no freedom. No reparations for farms and land and homes taken over in the east. But the people survived; it is their resilience that I inherited in my Polish DNA. These war and post-war years were not easy for my parents; I keenly listened to their stories as a child. These events could only be described at home, never shared with strangers; that was the rule. You know what you know. You do not tell. This is how you survive communism: oral history at home, quietly listening to propaganda outside, without comment.

The inter-generational trauma caused by the German invasion and atrocities and the Soviet invasion and occupation that lasted for almost 50 years after the war officially ended in 1945 (to 1989) created the canvas for my early life. I sought refuge in reading books and enjoying the arts – learning English to read Faulkner and e.e. cummings in the original, playing music, going to concerts and art exhibits. I had artistic friends; for us, politics was a dirty word, we stayed away from organizations and shared artistic interests and activities. In the summer, we went sailing on the lakes or hiking, with long evenings spent by the bonfire, singing songs, telling stories. An illusion of freedom.

The West, where everything was better – clothes were nicer, cars and buildings prettier, cities cleaner – seemed like a place way up above us, somewhere and something to aspire to. Westerners, too, seemed to belong to a higher layer of humanity. If all their material things were better than ours, of course, their education and culture must have been better, as well – or so we thought. In 1987, I married a Canadian composer and left Poland for Canada, enrolling in a doctoral program in musicology at McGill University. I already had two masters’ degrees in sound engineering specializing in recording classical music and in musicology, or music history, writing about the most avantgarde contemporary music that was complicated, difficult to comprehend and inspiring, each piece like a puzzle to be solved. I had worked as a translator for a contemporary music society before I left.

The culture shock after losing the home ground of family, language, culture, and tradition was enormous. Yet, while attending graduate school in Montreal, I realized that my Polish education was in many ways superior to that of my Canadian peers. It was more comprehensive, and thanks to the incessant presence of propaganda, I knew how to “read between the lines” and form my own opinion about what I was being taught. Who wants me to believe something? Why do they want me to believe it? What will they gain if I believe them? All important questions to ask when reading just about anything. I found Canadians or Americans oblivious to propaganda, lacking this vital skill, gained through exposure to “double-speak.”

At McGill, I got scholarships, aced my doctoral qualifying exams, won the first prize in a student essay competition and wrote an award-winning 450-page dissertation, overseen by Prof.Bo Alphonce in music theory and Prof. Susan McClary in music history. Then, I got a post-doctoral fellowship, as one out of twenty candidates, I was better than so many native speakers! In Canada, I started rebuilding myself with a new identity as an immigrant, a Canadian from Poland, not a Pole living temporarily in Canada. During my doctoral studies, I had two children, reaching a total of three great human beings that I’m honored to have brought into this world, two sons and a daughter: Marcin Depinski, Dr. Anna Harley-Trochimczyk and Ian Harley-Trochimczyk. My “clan” is growing now, as I have three grandchildren…

After completing the Ph.D. program in Montreal, I got a job offer from the University of Southern California to manage the Polish Music Center. I persuaded the family to pack up and go. This was yet another difficult moment; from that time on, I started becoming an American from Poland, not a Pole living temporarily in America. The trauma of displacement and the commitment to becoming fully fluent in English led me to writing poems; I felt that only poetry could capture all nuances of feelings and the most troubling experiences. Things that cannot be said otherwise can be captured in verse. Furthermore, deeply painful memories can be tamed by writing poems; limited by words, they lose the sharp edge of raw suffering.

I never thought I’d become a poet, a poetry publisher, a community activist, and the President of the California State Poetry Society. Life is indeed very strange. To become a poet without any formal training in literature or poetry writing would have been completely impossible in Poland, with its fixed sets of rigid expectations of what’s allowed and what is not. Here, in California, everyone can remake themselves, pursue and excel in new interests, build an identity they feel is fully their own. I like this fluidity and freedom of America. Is it because “the pursuit of happiness” is written into this country’s founding documents?

There were many waves of emigrants that left Poland for the promised land of America since the early 19th century. In 1795 to 1918 Poland was divided between its three neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria; Poles did not accept this foreign rule especially in the most oppressive Russian partition and kept rising against it. Insurrections and wars decimated Polish nobility and intelligentsia in each subsequent generation: 1795, 1830-31, 1848, 1863-4, WWI (1914-1918) and WWII (1939-1945). Each failed effort to regain independence caused yet another wave of emigrants, forcibly exiled by the foreign rulers, or leaving the country to seek fortune abroad. There are over 10 million people of Polish descent in the US; Chicago is the second largest Polish city in the world. California holds fewer Poles: before the advent of air travel, only the most enterprising and with the highest levels of education went all the way to the West Coast.

I am grateful to those who came here before me and established organizations for the community. Dr. and Mrs. Wilk founded the Polish Music Center at USC and brought me here from Canada. As a result, I could transform my life, create a new identity and become a poet and community activist in the center of a network of cultural and artistic connections. After eight years at USC, I left the academe: a great move considering what’s currently going on at universities nationwide. Instead, I became a professional grant-writer and found fulfillment working for nonprofits that specialize in helping the homeless, addicted, formerly incarcerated, and others. My research experience continued through publications of books and articles for almost 20 years after leaving the position as an USC Assistant Research Professor. This has translated into excellent grant-writing skills. I’m proud of millions of dollars in government and private funding that I have been able to raise. The 14 years as Senior Director of Planning and Development at Phoenix House California have been well spent, well invested into helping others. But this work has also allowed me to pursue my cultural interests in spare time, expanded due to working only 5 miles from home.

Through the past 25 years, I have continued being a music historian – and tended to work on collaborative projects, editing collections of essays, interviewing composers, and tracing the impact of ideas on music, starting from the concept of space, studied in my doctoral dissertation, but including various aspects of nature, birdsong, ecology, philosophy and history. Even my books about single composers – Chopin, Andriessen, Górecki, Lutosławski – are edited collections, not designed to stake and claim my academic territory. The topics of my research evolved and I never stayed still, following what captured my attention – as shown in the list of my books and other publications.

My interest in working with many others resulted in ongoing involvement in the Polish American community – as a President of the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club and member of other organizations. Since 2007, I have appeared in and organized many poetry readings by Poets on Site, Westside Women Writers and Village Poets. I joined a writing group, founded a small press to issue books of poetry written by me and my friends, and promoted poets and poetry via a series of blogs. The end result of all this activity features 5 volumes of poems and 4 anthologies that I edited and published, as well as hundreds of poems in many journals. These years of volunteering activities are also my service to the community, creating venues for poets in which they can share their work and learn from each other. It is being a “community poet” without ambition of winning prizes and receiving honors that I find so enjoyable now, at 63, after having lived so many different lives. A cat has nine lives they say, I’m on my 7th now, I think, so there are still two metamorphoses for me to go through in the future. . .

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
The most difficult task that emigrants and immigrants face when leaving the Old Country and coming to the New World is remaking themselves and becoming true citizens of their new homeland. It requires a lot of work, reading, studying, visiting different places, talking to many people. You have to learn and master the new language. You have to absorb the “vibe” of your new homeland, try to understand the various people that came here before you, try to figure out what and who you are now since you are no longer a citizen of your Old Country. . . I had to go through this experience twice, after moving from Poland to Canada and from Canada to California. It was very hard but also rewarding: in this process, I re-defined myself, learned new skills, discovered who I really am, and established new, closer connections to many people I love. An immigrant does not have to bring their home with him/her as a snail or a turtle brings their shell. Immigrants also do not have to forget the past completely and pretend that they have always been American. The accent will betray them, anyway!

One conscious decision I made at the beginning of my American adventure was not to lose my Polish accent. I am an American from Poland, a first-generation immigrant that came here with some Ikea furniture and thousands of books in boxes, shipped across the ocean from Poland and taken by truck from Canada. So, I want this double identity to be heard when I speak. It might bother some people who are not used to the different sounds of English in the mouths of immigrants. But I’m happy with that. Another difficult decision has been to serve others – I am very involved in the local community, a perennial volunteer working for free each evening on one project or another. The challenge is to find enough time in a day to do all that needs to be done and to do it all with a smile, out of kindness, and not with any kind of power-seeking ambition. This required overcoming another obstacle along my way: that of myself, my old habits and harmful beliefs. Life is so simple if you let love be your guide! Love, not greed for riches, not quest for power and fame.

I am content here in California: I’m an owner of a home with a garden, near the mountains, in a friendly community where people care for each other and help each other. Sunland is a bit like those villages of my grandparents, only with brighter sunlight and exotic fruit trees – oranges, grapefruit, pomegranate, or loquat. The roses here are unparalleled, the beauty of ever-changing mountains and the antics of birds in the garden are a constant inspiration. I love watching and describing in poems the adventures of my house finches, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, scrub jays, mourning doves, woodpeckers, and red-tailed hawks, plus transient orioles, western bluebirds and red-winged blackbirds. So why should I miss Poland and the extended family I left behind? Why should I be homesick for what does not even exist, since the Poland I left is not the Poland I could ever come back to? No reason at all. Instead, I can find a place for me, find a job that supports me and my children while helping others… From boxes of books to a sunlit home near the mountains with ever more books, rose bushes, and fruit trees – that’s my version of the American dream.

As you know, we’re big fans of Moonrise Press. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
I was wondering whether to define myself primarily as a music historian, non-profit director at Phoenix House, a poet-photographer, or a publisher of Moonrise Press. I am glad to be wearing so many hats and most of these things I do by myself. Moonrise Press, however, serves many poets and artists. I founded my small press in 2008 and issued about 20 titles by now. Not so much, but not negligible either. In the past, as a music historian, I published several books with major publishers and was quite nonplussed by the experience. How come a book that costs $150 only brings me $3.50 in royalties? How come the editors do not listen to my comments or requests? So, the transition to establishing my own press was easy, especially that I initially just wanted to share my poetry with friends.

The first two books were my own, but I soon started editing poetry anthologies – one to commemorate the 200th birthday of Frederic Chopin, a Polish-French pianist-composer beloved worldwide (“Chopin with Cherries” in 2010), another one to collect and compare meditations on diverse “Divine Names” (2012). With Marlene Hitt, I edited an anthology to commemorate the 10th anniversary of our Village Poets readings in Sunland-Tujunga (“We Are Here: Village Poets Anthology” 2020), with Kathi Stafford I worked on “Grateful Conversations” – an anthology of female poets from our writing group (2018). For Moonrise Press books, I do all layouts, cover designs, proofreading, and marketing. Some poets were so pleased with these anthologies that they asked me to publish their own work. And so I did: Beverly M. Collins, Margaret Saine, Ed Rosenthal, Toti O’Brien and Cindy Rinne all have books by Moonrise Press.

Meanwhile, I decided that looking for publishers of my music history texts was a waste of time, so I issued those books myself and published some non-fiction books on Polish American topics. There is a history of first Polish pilots to cross the Atlantic in the 1920s; several books of music history and an album for the 50th anniversary of the Modjeska Club. I would like to grow the number of 20 titles Moonrise Press issued so far to at least 200, using the “long tail” approach to marketing specialized volumes and the “print on demand” system that does not burden me with storing and mailing every copy. The royalties are split between me and authors at 50/50, so for a book that costs about $20 for a paperback, the author could get about $3.50 in royalties (depending on where the book was sold). Remember that I made a comparable amount from books costing $150! This is good for the authors, good for the readers, and good for me as publisher. Everyone wins! I think that there is room in the market for the types of books I’m interested in publishing: poetry by California poets, poetry anthologies on topics that interest me, and non-fiction books about Polish and Polish American music and culture.

After I retire from my “day job” of writing million-dollar grant proposals, I will have a lot more time to expand my small press, increase the number of titles issued every year, get grants for translation projects to highlight more aspects of Polish culture and share information about it in the English-speaking world. I will also be able to promote more California poets, especially women whose writing resonates with me. I do not accept every submission, of course, I only work on projects that I like, that I find engaging. I do what I love, I love what I do. What could be better?

What do you like best about our city? What do you like least?
Let me tell you about my first week in Los Angeles. After seeing many American films before coming here, I thought this city was a wasteland of barbed wire, graffiti, freeways, and desolation, with a crowded beach as its sole saving grace. I was so surprised to discover that it is a city surrounded by lovely hills and mountains and full of beautiful parks and gardens. It is really angels’ paradise if you know where to look. I arrived in October, from Montreal’s wet snow and sleet, in soaking wet boots. I walked off the plane into a sunny landscape of roses, bougainvillea, monarch butterflies, birdsong, and as many exotic gardens with strange plants as the owners could design and cherish. Some people miss the four seasons… but we do have four seasons in California, though they are somewhat more subtle, as the summer takes more than half the year and the fall merges into the spring… We have the most beautiful landscapes any city can have – the yucca’s 12-feet-tall flowers open in May and June and bloom just five minutes away from my home!

Here, I can drive to a concert at the Disney Hall, Music Center or Hollywood Bowl in 30 minutes. Then, I’m back home at the edge of the Angeles National Forest, looking at hills, going to fly my kites from halfway up the slope, watching the quiet sunset, or taking care of my garden and my birds. This year I even have a wild hare that took refuge among my bushes since the stream in the Big Tujunga Canyon dried out. Let’s not forget the ocean. From Sunland, it takes an hour to drive to the beach down Topanga Canyon, enjoying the rustic views along the way and the endless repetitiveness of the waves, so calming and serene. The Pacific is a wonder to behold. I can also see it at a distance, from the Getty Villa or the Getty Center, not just from the beach… There are so many places I have discovered and loved (Montrose, Old Town Pasadena, Huntington Library, Descanso Gardens) and so many that I have yet to visit. Los Angeles is huge, so much greater in area than Warsaw. But when I go to my neighborhood, my Back Door Bakery, the owners know me by name. At Joselito’s, they serve my favorite ahi tuna salad. I remember seeing the hills from the plane flying above when coming back from visiting Poland and thinking: here’s my home.

Yes, there are areas full of garbage, with tents of homeless surrounded by thrash. Yes, our city governments have millions if not billions at their disposal to help the homeless and make our whole city a true angels’ paradise – and they do not seem to do very well spending these resources in ways that actually help people. That level of corruption and waste, and nonsensical rules that our “rulers” keep trying to impose on the residents – is something to be regretted and changed. The criminal behavior of multi-national corporations that rob and steal and destroy families, communities, nations, and the whole Earth is another danger to our world. The law should be changed, the concept of “corporation” entirely removed and replaced by personal ownership, so only people can be people, not such trans-human monster institutions. The financial system is also overdue for major reform, The huge agri-business needs to give way to small organic farms and everyone should be able to live in a home with a garden, close to nature, enriched by community ties. This means that hedge funds should not be allowed to buy homes and drive families out of the market. So many transformations wait for the courageous ones – I will not make them and will not be angry about it. Indeed, it is my job to be loving and lovely in my own love-filled life. Our world is abundant and beautiful, it is the human-made systems that make lives so difficult and poor.

But I am only responsible for me, my own life, my own actions, my own attitude. There is a rule to follow: “no anger, no hate, not even a slight dislike…” (St. Germain). It is difficult to master, but if I do, I will live in complete serenity, I’ll be in heaven, regardless of what’s going on around me. By being happy and kind, I help making our City of Angels a true sanctuary for poets, artists and Polish immigrants. I work very hard, both at my “day job” and at my many volunteer positions to make Los Angeles a better place, where people enjoy living, sharing their art and ideas, and being members of a vibrant community, full of creativity and joy.

Contact Info:

Image Credits:

1. Maja Trochimczyk, photo by Maria Kubal 2. Modjeska Club Board with Yoder family of pianists, photo by Wojciech Kocyan 3. Big Tujunga Wash, photo by Maja Trochimczyk 4. Maja Trochimczyk, photo by Maria Kubal 5. Moonrise Press logo, artwork by Abby Diamond 6. Maja Trochimczyk, photo by Beverly M. Collins 7. Kath Abela Wilson and Maja Trochimczyk 8. Marlene Hitt, Joe DeCenzo, Dorothy Skiles, Maja Trochimczyk

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