Poet in Motion: MATC Lecturer Burzynski Receives Fulbright Fellowship

Mark Feldmann, feldmam1@matc.edu

September 05, 2023

Peter Burzynski

I was flabbergasted to receive the Fulbright, and I am so grateful to be granted this privilege. There’s nothing more valuable than time for poets and painters.

Peter Burzynski, Ph.D. MATC instructor, 2023-24 Fulbright Scholar

Taking small bites of poetry never satisfied Peter Burzynski.

When he first discovered the lyrical, beautiful and astonishing compositions as a high school student, he consumed them, devoured them.

“I would read poems for four and five hours at a time at night,” said Burzynski, who grew up on Milwaukee’s far south side. “I’d sleep for two hours, then do all my homework at school in the morning.

“Poetry was the perfect outlet for my excess energy, for my sadness, for my darkest feelings,” he remembered. “Poetry helped me find my true self.”

Burzynski’s true self is a mosaic of many colorful pieces: an energetic lecturer of English and communications at Milwaukee Area Technical College since 2019; an accomplished chef who learned cooking in his parents’ Polish restaurant; a man of many college degrees; a published author of poetry and nonfiction; and manages the book collection of a nonprofit store, gallery, and performance space.

And recently another piece was added: Recipient of a prestigious, yearlong Fulbright U.S. Scholars fellowship.

Burzynski is among more than 800 U.S. citizens who will teach or conduct research abroad during the 2023-24 academic year through the international exchange program.

“I was flabbergasted to receive the Fulbright, and I am so grateful to be granted this privilege,” Burzynski said. “There’s nothing more valuable than time for poets and painters. We’re not on a schedule. When inspiration comes, it comes. You need the time and space to be ready when it comes.”

Fulbright alumni include 62 Nobel laureates, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners, 78 MacArthur fellows and thousands of world-renowned experts in academia and other fields.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Peter,” said Sadique Isahaku, Ph.D., dean of MATC’s General Education Academic & Career Pathway. “We are proud of his achievement.”

MATC has had several other Fulbright Scholars. Phil Blank, who taught mathematics and advised international students at the college for 35 years, traveled to Turkey from September 1963 through June 1964. He received a second Fulbright in the spring of 1982 and went to what was then called West Germany.

Charlie Dee, who taught American Studies at MATC, was Fulbright Guest Teacher in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1992-1993. He taught at the Aalborg Seminarium, a teachers college, and the Aalborg Katedralskole, a secondary school for university-bound students. In 2003, he served as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. He travelled the country giving seminars and workshops on American Literature, American History, Current American Politics and Pedagogical Techniques.

In 2004-2005, Barbara Cannell, who now serves as executive dean, academic systems and integrity, received a Fulbright to study at the Commission for Educational Exchange in West Germany.

In 2019, Dr. Jacqueline Robinson, instructional chair of MATC’s Social Sciences Department, won a Fulbright and traveled to Senegal. She  conducted ethnographic fieldwork examining food knowledge, practices and traditions of women in the city of Dakar.

In September, Burzynski will travel to Slovakia in central Europe, teach at a university, do research at several museums and work on a book about growing up in his parents’ restaurant. “I needed to experience the cold, suffocating atmosphere of Cold War Eastern Europe to complete the book,” he said.

Burzynski was born in Milwaukee and grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood, near Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue. His parents, who immigrated from Poland, owned and operated Polonez, a Polish restaurant, from 1983 to 2022.

At 10, Burzynski worked as a busboy at the restaurant. At 12, he was a  waiter. At 20, he became a cook and worked beside his father creating classic Polish dishes such as bigos (hunter's stew), czarnina (duck-blood soup), dill pickle soup, pierogi and more.

He attended Pius XI Catholic High School, where he discovered literature and poetry. “I was really good at math, and then I took a creative writing course,” he said. “It corrupted me forever.”

He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, prepared to study architecture. But he had learned to love literature, and the college had a wonderful creative writing program. “I made a rash decision that ruined my life in all the best ways,” he said.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Wisconsin, a master’s degree in fine arts in poetry from The New School in New York City, a master’s degree in Polish literature from Columbia University in New York City, and a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Peter’s writing is smart, historically inflected and highly imaginative,” said Mauricio Kilwein Guevara, the UWM English professor who supervised Burzynski’s doctoral thesis. “His work as a writer and translator can help close gaps between people.”

While finishing his doctorate and searching for teaching jobs, Burzynski took a job as book center manager at Woodland Pattern Book Center, a poet and artist-run nonprofit store, gallery and performance space in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood.

In January 2019, he started at MATC as an associate lecturer, teaching communication and English courses. “I love what we do at MATC. I’m a middle-class, blue-collar guy, the son of immigrants, and I get along best with solid, hard-working students,” he said.

“Peter Burzynski is honestly one of the best instructors I've had,” wrote an MATC student on the Rate A Professor website. “He cares about students and really communicates with us as adults and writers and puts great thought into his words and feedback. He cares about what he does and our class had a great sense of camaraderie thanks to him.”

Burzynski incorporates creative writing into his communication classes, and many of his students seem to enjoy that, he said. But he understands that literature and poetry aren’t for everyone.

“Not everyone can write poetry,” he said. “There is an art and a passion to it. For people who want to be poets, I tell them to read, read, read until you come across something that reaches you.”

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 28,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.