Literature : Interview

Charles Simic and Tomaž Šalamun

Weeks before the end of Simic’s Laureate run, he and fellow poet Tomaž Šalamun caught up with each other over the phone.


Left: Charles Simic. Photo: Philip Simic. Right: Tomaž Šalamun. Photo: Kari Klemela.

In contemporary poetry, a whisper often creates larger ripples than a shout. Charles Simic and Tomaž Šalamun, hailing from Serbia and Yugoslavia respectively, spent years on the verge before finding success with an American audience. That Little Something, Simic’s newest release, is his nineteenth collection; Šalamun has penned and published over 30 books of poetry to date, including his latest, Woods and Chalices. Simic’s appointment to the position of United States Poet Laureate in 2007 was significant on many levels—the apex of his rise to the highest ranks of contemporary poets, and a sign of America’s investment in world literature and its widespread influence on new generations of writers, by now simmering for decades. Šalamun’s own star has risen thanks to his distinct popularity with younger poets, as well as the help of his friends, including a certain Poet Laureate.

Weeks before the end of Simic’s Laureate run, he and Šalamun agreed to catch up with each other over the phone. A simple chat about the weather grew into a conversation that dwelled on the past, looked to the future, and often spilled over in warmth and laughter.

—Nicole Steinberg

Tomaž Šalamun How are you, Charlie?

Charles Simic Good. It’s raining in New Hampshire. Finally, we’re having a real good, solid summer rain.

TS Well, it’s the opposite here in Slovenia. We had a lot of rain and today is better.

CS Speaking of weather, I had to introduce Charles Wright recently at a reading. I was rereading his poems, and what struck me is that almost every one is a weather report. It’s sunny, it’s cloudy, it’s getting windy, it’s winter, there are a few snowflakes… Have you ever been a writer obsessed with weather to that degree?

TS Not in writing. But I use weather, somehow, when I don’t want to talk about other things. And this is kind of a form; a type of English way of establishing neutrality and distance. But Charles Wright, he puts himself into the weather, in his backyard, and that weather forms the whole picture.

CS It’s really an old trick. Early poetry—Chaucer—or medieval Serbian folk songs often mentions weather in the beginning. Right? “In May, when birds are singing, I took a little girl with me for a walk,” or something like that. After I read Charles, I began to notice it in my own old poems, as if the time of day and the condition of the sky was something inevitable in poetry. And yet, I’m a very different kind of poet than Charles Wright.

TS My instinct is to only be dependent upon my internal weather. I don’t notice what is outside. When language wakes up, it just has its own weather. Then I don’t even know what the weather is around me. In your poetry you do not talk about weather because everything is so clear. You can taste, even smell history, and then there’s the presence of your mother, for example.

CS Yeah, my father used to haunt my early poetry, but as I grow older, it’s more my mother. Anyway, the reason I mentioned weather, I guess, is because it’s raining so hard. In the country, changes in weather are much more dramatic and important than in the city.

TS Several times you told me that you are now a New Hampshire poet. Your weathers are, for me, incredible. For example, your weather is what you told me about your father, how he studied Gurdjeff. Your weather is even connected to Paradjanov or Armenia. But strangely, I don’t feel any New Hampshire weather in you. I feel Paris, of course I feel Manhattan, and even Maribor, when you were in jail, about which you write, “I was lying on the floor when I was 10 years old in jail in Maribor,” which is in Slovenia, where I come from.

CS I haven’t been in Maribor since 1948 (laughter), but I agree with you. I’m not really a New Hampshire poet because my imagination is elsewhere. My imagination is far busier with New York City than any other place. But when you live surrounded by trees and the woods, as I do, you can’t help but write about trees and woods.

TS But your New York, this New York of the ’50s has disappeared. Just like Paris from the ’50s disappeared, and that was partly my Paris, too. To be able to read you, to experience how you carried some garment and escaped, how you slept with different women, how you sensed how this woman breathed and you were afraid and went away—this world doesn’t exist anymore. Or when you went to that special occult bookstore; now I forget. I had a similar experience in Paris, when I went to a gathering of astrologers. Those people were very different but looked like a tribe. They had a totemistic basis somehow.

CS It’s true. That particular New York: the esoteric circles, the people interested in Eastern religions, the occult and so forth—when I’m in the city nowadays I don’t know anybody who is interested in any of that. When I write about the city, I often think back to the basement of the Wiser Bookstore, where I spent so much time.

TS Yes, I remember I couldn’t even look at the books because the people were so special, so different.

CS Let me change the subject. How do you write? I know you like to isolate yourself and spend periods of time writing poem after poem.

TS Well, it was like this. Now I don’t need isolation. I usually write while I’m traveling. I’m not writing when I’m a middle-class father, a grandfather, a husband. But as soon as I move, when I travel, I start to scribble something.

CS Can you write on a plane?

TS Yes, I can. But with the ups and downs and the pressure, maybe it’s not the best for my heart. But yes, I do write in the plane. I write best when I’m anonymous: in a big city, in a café, looking around, losing myself. For the real intensity, I go to those Italian places: Civitella Ranieri, Bogliasco, Santa Maddalena Foundation. Only it’s so beautiful that there’s a danger that the poetry will become too aesthetic.

CS I can only write at home. I have to be in my room, close to my bed, because I love lying down when I write. It’s my favorite spot. (laughter) A few years ago I was in a very beautiful place on the Mediterranean. I was thinking of lots of things I wanted to do that day, but it never occurred to me to start writing, because I associate writing with being home.

TS I can write at home, too, especially if I’m alone in my bed; the language just attacks me. Also, I cannot write anything else except what I then publish as poetry. Vasko Popa told me when I was a very young man, “Tomaz, you might be a good poet, but stop writing those small reviews, because you’re from a very small culture. If you do this, you will never succeed as a true poet, you will become kulturnik.” I listened to him. He crippled me! Now I am an invalid. I have only my poetry, nothing else. But I still think it was a good advice.

CS I started writing poetry in English, but of course English was not my first language. I had two languages in my head: English and Serbian. The good thing was that I then did not know Serbian poetry; I had studied some in school when I was in Yugoslavia, but not much.

TS But you knew French poetry, right?

CS I knew French poetry thanks to being in a school in Paris. They tortured us by making us memorize poems by Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. I hated it.

TS Me too, but I loved Rimbaud. We had a really good French professor, and the only real influence when I was a teenager was Rimbaud, especially Rimbaud and Lautréamont and not the other Slovenian poets, except Župančič who was the Whitman of Slovenia. So I was influenced by Whitman through Oton Župančič.

CS That’s interesting.

TS When we met in 1972, in Iowa, I was reading you and I read you as a French and a Serbian poet. And for me this was very strange and very different than other poetry I was reading, like Bob Perelman or Ashbery’s Three Poems. Slowly, really slowly, I think you tectonically disrupted the continent. Like a stone falling in the center of the American heart. In three, four, five decades, you completely restructured not only American poetry now, but the history of American poetry. Would you agree?

CS That’s too high a praise for me to take seriously. Everything I ever did was kind of an accident. I really had no possibility of becoming a Serbian poet because I knew nothing about Serbian poetry when I started out. I was an immigrant kid who had an awful foreign accent, so reciting these poems in front of a class in Paris was humiliation; it was horrible. Only later did I realize, My God, I really love these poems and these poets. Once I started writing in English, I became curious about American poetry. The first poet that I loved was Hart Crane, which is kind of crazy because I didn’t understand a thing he said; I just loved the way it sounded. (laughter) And then Wallace Stevens and Williams were influences. The moment I moved away from home, to Chicago, in 1956, I met people involved with literature and we argued about American poetry. I got so involved in American poetry, and kept changing my mind about how I wanted to write. It was only years later that I stopped and said to myself, Well, wait a minute, let see what Serbian, Slovenian, and Croatian poetry looks like.

TS But maybe we do carry something in our genetics. Because even if you didn’t read Serbian poetry, you were somehow not that far away. Also, I want to ask about this 1957 picture in Oak Park, Illinois, with some paintings you did.

CS (laughter)

TS With these paintings you could practically finish an academy in Europe.

CS Well, I first started painting long before I wrote poetry, and I kind of imagined that I would be a painter. So that was the center of my attention until I was about 25 or 26 and I realized that poetry was more important to me.

TS Amazing. We never talked about this and I didn’t know this. You had to have studied Cezanne very carefully. I am formally an art historian, and I much preferred studying art than literature.

CS Oh, yes, of course. I learned about modern literature and surrealism not through reading books about modern literature and surrealism, but reading books about cubists and dada and whatnot, by looking at visual arts.

TS I had an episode of being a visual artist, and this is how I first came to America. I came into America in 1970 as an exhibitor in the Museum of Modern Art as a conceptual artist. As a member of the Slovenian OHO group.

CS What was the work that you were exhibiting?

TS There was a group called OHO and their leader Marko Pogačnik was in the army. When, as in a revelation, I saw a stack of hay from the bus, I knew. I said, I am one of yours; let’s find the best gallery in Yugoslavia. And we’ll do it differently! So we got the best gallery in Yugoslavia, a catalogue was printed, and it was seen by Kynaston McShine in Germany, a curator from MOMA who was preparing the first big international conceptual art show called Information. And in July of 1970 I was asked to be in the show and spent the whole month in New York, which turned my life around. Because New York was such an incredible explosion compared to what I knew in Europe during that time.

CS So what was the piece you exhibited?

TS It showed my foot above a fire on the snow and said “42 degrees.” Or it showed one photo and it said “From here to here…” I forgot! It’s so dull now after 40 years of repeating such Duchampian salon work, but then it was pure fire. Without knowing it, I was very close to Michael Heizer and On Kawara. I measured myself every morning and sent a postcard to my younger brother Andraž, a painter, then one of five members of the OHO group every day for a month with the sentence: “Today I’m 180,3 cm high”, or, “Today I’m 180,1 cm high.” And I didn’t know that On Kawara at the same time had written, “I’m still alive, I’m still alive, I’m still alive.” But what stopped me from going on with this was that other artists like Heizer, Cristo, Sol LeWitt were all looking for $100,000 for their next projects. And I was a Slovenian, some pauper. I realized that this was not a cup for me. History had already chosen the heroes.

CS Amazing. Didn’t you also get in trouble over some political poem when you started writing poetry?

TS Yes, this was in ’64. There was a very important cultural literary magazine called Perspektive in Ljubljana, which was battling with the official communist line. Heidegger was translated, Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes, Tel Quels authors. When they came to the border of being abolished, I was named editor in chief because they wanted to save the journal by putting an innocent young man in the position. And then I published a poem, which I thought was a kind poem, nothing special, but the government ideologues thought the poem itself and the gesture of me being put in charge as editor in chief was so transgressive that I found myself in jail. But the reaction from Le Monde, from the New York Times, from Corriere della Sera was so strong that they just pushed me out of jail after five days. I came out as a culture hero, and it was a very cheap glory. I realized, I have to become a really good poet to earn my fame. (laughter)

CS Was there anything in the poem?

TS It was a line: “Socialism à la Louis XIV.” And in one line: “dead cat.” But I had no idea that the interior minister was named Macheck (Maček), or “cat.” So he took it personally. The really bad years were the mid-’70s, which I think were also the darkest political years in Europe; when Aldo Moro was killed, when Schleyer was kidnapped, when the Brezhnev doctrine was so strong. Coming back from America, from Iowa in 1973, I was annihilated. I couldn’t make any money. The repression from Slovenia on me only stopped because of American PEN. So America really saved me several times.

CS You started out not wanting to be a political poet, right?

TS Yes. But because the system was very sophisticated then, when I came out of jail people from the Secret Service—the Udba—said, “Oh, you lost your steam, you don’t write any protest poems anymore.” My second book, still published by myself, was about butterflies, about nothing. It was more subversive than if I would write protest poems, since the government needed to show its pluralism and democracy. One has to be very precise not to be corrupt or used.

CS Your poems since then, too, have had moments when they would be interpreted politically. Do you think of politics?

TS Well, I was fighting to be free within my writing. And just this was subversive, and therefore political. But, for example, during the Balkan wars, when Brodsky and Milosz were able to write something, I was completely silent. I didn’t write a line of anything from ’89 to ’94. I just stopped writing.

CS It was too depressing. I get upset on almost a daily basis about things going on in the world. But to say, “I’m going to write a poem about the injustice in whatever place in the world” isn’t how it works with me.

TS And I think if you did intend to show that anger or depression, you wouldn’t be able to write good poetry. But just being what you are, to be free within your writing, this is also the center of the real responsibility of the world. Therefore, your freedom is a political act.

CS I also think that for us who have a memory of communism, programmatic political poetry is an awful association. You think of all those terrible poets…

TS …or even great poets who have done great things, like Neruda or Eluard.

CS Right, who ended up writing shitty poems in support of some dictator or policy. Here’s something that interests me: the experience of being a poet in the United States as compared to the rest of the world. What do you think about the notion that poets in the United States are marginalized and that poets elsewhere are more highly regarded?

TS Not true. So many people are studying poetry, there are so many new magazines and new daring authors. There’s a very vibrant scene.

CS I agree. Look at all the writing programs, all the readings, all the websites. Being Poet Laureate this past year—it really surprised me how comfortable Americans have become with the idea of poetry. When I started out in the 1950s, people interested in contemporary poetry were like a cult.

TS Even what my undergraduate students at the University of Richmond discover on their own is incredible. Their motivation, competition, love for it, and admiration for older poets is incredible. You don’t get this audience in Europe for poets, at all.

CS (laughter) When I became Poet Laureate, the first people to interview me were the big television stations: ABC, NBC, the usual places. The reporters would say, “How’s it being a poet laureate in a country where nobody reads poetry?” I didn’t say what I wanted to say: “You’re full of shit.” Instead, I would say, “In this country there isn’t a college or a university that doesn’t have a poetry reading series or hasn’t had one for 20 or 30 years.” I’ve been in the audience when you’ve given a reading, Tomaz, and your poems are original and not the easiest to follow and yet, I never had the impression that the audiences had any problem with them.

TS Absolutely. But I’d be nowhere without my friends, specifically you, because you put me on the map. In 1984 I went to a seer with a young Slovenian poet, Aleš Debeljak, and the seer said to me, “The letter will come from the country where you already spent a lot of time. A friend will write you a letter that will change your life.” And she started to describe you exactly. I knew who she was describing. And in 1986 you wrote me a letter: “I met Bob Hass and we talked about you, and we talked to Dan Halpern; he will do the book.” And this book of my selected poems, published in 1988 by ECCO Press, changed my life.

CS Well, you really have a huge following among younger poets.

TS Because of this support. And I had another generation that was interested in my work. I am one of the luckiest European poets; I’m incredibly grateful for how I am treated in America. It’s almost unbelievable.

CS According to a mutual friend and editor, your books also sell well in this country.

TS Well…relatively. (laughter) I’m looking at Amazon. You sell well and Bob Hass sells well, but translations don’t sell well. But maybe enough that I can hope to go on. By now I have 10 American books, and there are not many living European poets who have this.

CS There’s a question I’m very curious about: do you think American poetry is changing?

TS Yes, American poetry is constantly changing. So many poets disappear, the scene changes, yet it remains immensely strong. It’s also much more healthy compared to visual arts, where curators are terrorizing artists. They don’t allow paintings anymore. Poetry is much more honest, much more healthy.

CS What’s happening in Slovenia?

TS In Slovenia I’m very lucky to be accepted by America and the world, translated a lot, so allowed to go on with my new books. I was lucky to be able to be a bridge. For example, Richard Jackson and his students have been coming to Slovenia and we have two international festivals: Vilenica and Medana. Slovenian poetry is very present in the United States, and American poetry is very present here, more so than in Germany, for example.

CS What of the European poetries, both East and West? Where do you think the most interesting poetry is being written?

TS Poland.

CS Still?

TS Yes. Irish poetry, Polish poetry, and then… I don’t know enough about the Romanian basin, but it seems that Romania has very, very strong poets. They haven’t had a lot of contact with the West in the last 20 years but there are great poets. Younger Polish poets are really strong. How would you judge?

CS I agree, Slovenian poetry is very, very strong. I think Serbian poetry is still very strong. I mean, you have Milan Djordjević, Dusan Novakovc, Radmila Lazic, Nina Zivancevic, and few others. Do you know Milan’s work?

TS Oh, definitely. I adore him. Especially over the last 15 years. He is a major world poet and also the best living Serbian poet at the moment.

CS I agree. The surprises are still to be found in the former Yugoslavia, or whatever you want to call the place. Russian poetry is interesting. I’ve seen a couple of anthologies with a great many poets that are very young who I’ve never heard of. Russian poetry seems to be much more intense, much more lively than what goes on in France and Italy, and Spain too. I was talking to a Spanish writer recently, and he said, “There’s not much going on in Spanish poetry.” Of course, one can never be sure about these things since often translations of recent poetry are not available.

Tell me about your own work as a translator. You translate your own poetry?

TS As a writer, I’m a moonwalker. I don’t know what I’m doing. As a translator of my own poetry, I just do it like a lumberjack with a dictionary and try to be accurate and precise. I mostly have to translate myself, because I write only in Slovenian.

CS I’ve never translated myself. I’m always amazed that somebody actually makes the effort to translate me. I mean, I have translators in a number of places, people I’ve never met before, who translate me Into Arabic, Spanish, Norwegian, Hungarian. A labor of love, I suppose.

TS Yeah. I remember I was very sad when I translated your selected poems into Slovenian and I was doing it slowly, slowly. It seemed easy, but it didn’t really work—I was not satisfied until the end, and then I don’t understand what happened. But after half a year of not working on your translation, I spent maybe 10 days on it, made changes, and it worked. And I was very happy.

CS I think that has to be the way one works on these translations. I’ve had the same experience many, many times. There’s a simple explanation for this. One is always looking for some equivalent, a language that, in some way, approximates what is being said in the original. And very often you just don’t think of the right words or the right idiom at the time.

TS I try to be as direct as I can, as literal as I can. I still remember how Marguerite Yourcenar, for example, translated Catullus. It was as if she would read the page, and then she would do something else on her own. It’s a French tradition of translation. German tradition is very different. Slovenians translate more like Germans. It all depends, but I am afraid of those translators who think that they can improve, or use the other language to do it another way. Usually it doesn’t work.

CS I agree. I always begin humbly. I want to be as literal as possible. I don’t want to impose myself, and I’m really afraid to take any liberties, even when it seems necessary. Even then, it’s almost a blasphemy; it’s a sacrilege to take freedoms to change something drastically in the translation. I try to be faithful. And, of course, sometimes it’s not possible.

TS When will we see each other? Will you go to Bellinzona in Switzerland this year? I told them they should invite you, and they told me they would.

CS I wouldn’t go now. I’m so happy to be home this summer after nine months of constant drama. I commuted every week between New Hampshire, New York, and Washington. It was exhausting.

TS What is the situation? Being Poet Laureate, you have an office in Washington?

CS Oh, I had a very nice office in the Library of Congress facing the Capitol, but I stepped down. I’m not gonna stay for the second year.

TS Can you step down?

CS Yeah, sure I can step down. It’s a free country. (laughter)

TS So you were there only one year?

CS Yeah, I was Poet Laureate until the first of July. It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.

TS Yes, yes…

CS Like, you know, sit quietly with a glass of wine and talk to my cat. (laughter)

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