The Wolf Interview: Charles Simic
Photo credit - Helen Simic
Seeing as it’s where I met you, I’d like to start with New York, a city you first saw from the deck of a ship in 1954 ‘speechless with excitement’ after laboriously attempting for years, with your mother, to emigrate from a war-addled Europe. You’ve described NY as your favourite city—a place where you have been influenced by everything from the butchers’ shops of the East Village to notorious jazz bars like the Five Spot. Living here I’ve frequently heard poets hark back to the ‘good old days’ of Beatdom and Village bohemianism. As someone who has presumably logged 50 years or more of NYC living into your creative subconscious, does The City still influence you as a writer and how?
It does, very much so. New York City is a place where my imagination feels at home. I’m a big city boy and I grew up in the heart of Belgrade, which to me, as a kid, felt like a huge city. Our house was two streets away from the main avenue and so I was taken in by the bustle—Belgrade back then was lined up with movie theatres, cafés and restaurants, a place where I could people-watch from a young age. In 1953 when my mother, brother and I left Belgrade we spent a year in Paris. And I thought ‘well this is bigger than Belgrade.’ Then, after a year we came to New York, which, again, was so different. Europe was quite grey and impoverished back then. We arrived in the summer and the colour of the city immediately struck me as a feast for the eyes. I was very interested back then in painting and the visual arts and even now New York is the place that excites me visually. I spent a good deal of my time roaming the city and it is always a supreme pleasure and an inspiration.
You're still connected to New York, where you teach part of the year at NYU. But for some time now your main base has been New Hampshire. Has living in the wilds helped develop your rurality as a poet?
I've been living up here since 1973 so it's been going on for some time. During the summer the small village we live in doubles in size because of a very large lake that gets used. The rest of the year there’s really nothing here (there’s only one store). It’s a place where, out of sheer boredom, you could become a philosopher and a poet! Never, as a young man, did I imagine I’d grow to like somewhere like this. I’m surrounded by miles and miles of woodland and not too far from the lake and I feel very much at home. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere in my life. A couple of times there were very serious offers from universities to take me away from here. And I was interested because they were attractive schools in great locations and the salary was big. But as I returned home to think about it I realised that I would miss a particular tree, a particular view. All sorts of things that might make me suffer psychologically!
Soon after you arrived in New York you began to take painting seriously whilst simultaneously writing poems. Surely the painterly instinct never left you and is useful to the writing?
Yes. Painting and photography too. But as a young painter, without a studio, working out of a small apartment you’re limited by the size of the canvas you can have. I would think to myself: 'what can I achieve on this small canvas?' About this time poetry became more and more appealing.
Where did you store those paintings? Did you give a lot of them away?
Every time I met a girl. I’ve now lost touch with at least 90% of them!
But recalling what it was like to work as a painter was useful for when I was editing my poems. I'd remember, for example, how much red I'd want to use in a painting, or even when I’d have to paint over the damn thing. And there are some obvious parallels there with editing. Early on I wouldn’t know when to leave a poem alone, which is a real problem but, perhaps, having some of the instincts of the painter proved useful there.
As I often do when I read you, I gladly assume the role of detective in going through your most recent collection Master of Disguises. Many of the poems in the book appear to be set in an anonymous, rural America and many characters seem caught at various precipices—it’s as though life could free them entirely or fold in around them. Often I was left wondering where the characters go after the short film of the poem ends its reel. How intentional has it always been for you not to offer too much resolution to the characters you introduce?
I want the reader to imagine the rest. I always liked movies one starts watching in the middle, photographs one finds in town dumps and antiquarian stores, scenes and faces one glimpses in the street and then cannot forget. So, yes, it’s intentional.
I loved the poem 'Nineteen Thirty-eight' and am now convinced that everyone should write a poem about the year they were born, if only to disguise themselves in a series of events...
It came from thinking about my early life, the astonishment that Hitler and Stalin were busy ruining millions of lives when I was peeing in my diapers, plus all this other stuff was happening that I mention in the poem. The difficulty of that kind of poem that deals with history is that there’s so much one can include, and of course one cannot.
Another recent book, That Little Something, opens with a gem of nostalgia, beginning: 'I never run into anyone from the old days.' Many poems cleverly intersperse past and present, like 'Wire Hangers' and the stunning sequence 'Eternities'. What was this collation of the book like, as a kind of time travel?
Well it’s inevitable at my age that the poems deal more and more with memory. Actually I remember a reviewer of one of my books about ten years ago summarising with something like: 'Simic used to be funny, but now he just writes about death.' And I thought 'you just wait until you get older and go to funerals once a month, punk!'
There was a novel, Ferdydurke by a Polish writer Gombrowitz, who wrote about an adult who is visited by an old professor who asks: ‘why aren’t you in class anymore?’ So the guy goes back to school as an adult. This story had a lasting impression on me since my own life has always been full of odd turns and sudden interruptions. Parts of my own life just stopped and I found myself somewhere else.
Did these interruptions begin during the war in Belgrade?
Yes, I grew up in an old family with old roots for whom things changed significantly during and after the war. Some went abroad and the ones who stayed could never get used to Communists. And my life changed dramatically, too. My mother, brother and I spent a little time in prison.
Yes, I remember reading in your memoir, A Fly in the Soup, that you were caught near the border in Belgrade and put in a cell with grown men who demanded stories of your escape?
I had to tell lies on the spot to keep them all entertained! But, yes, it was a difficult time. My father was already in the United States and we were back in Yugoslavia treated with suspicion. Even after we were allowed to leave, we were stuck in Paris for a year. In those days it was really hard to get into United States because there were quotas and the Yugoslav one was something like 850 admitted every year. There was the possibility that we would have to stay in Paris, which really worried me. French schools were very tough and they weren't particularly friendly to foreigners like me.
Wasn't the system also quite corrupt, so much so that each day they would check your papers and find another reason not to let you emigrate?
Not only the French bureaucracy drove us nuts, but we worried we would fail the medical examination at the American Embassy. We were healthy, but one never knew what they might discover. There were so many real and imaginary things that could impede our immigration that I hardly slept in the weeks before that examination.
The second section of That Little Something seems to have war looming over it at every turn. 'Dance of the Macabre Mice', with its 'mortuaries scrubbed clean' and the absurd wittiness of ‘sharpshooters on rooftops scanning for pigeons’, stand out as a comment on the endlessness of war. How difficult have you found it to constantly reverb war and restrain from overtly referencing actual war zones in your work?
I quickly decided that it was pointless to refer to a particular place when writing about war. I grew up during WWII and soon after my brother was fighting in Vietnam (I myself would have been called up if they asked for the Reserves). After that I was worried for my son during another dose of wartime. So war has been with me throughout my life and I figured that it wasn’t right to distinguish in my poems between Vietnam, Bosnia or Iraq. All wars are essentially the same war in which bombs fall, innocents get slaughtered and a few bad guys too. I get very tired writing about these things, but inevitably with each new war I get freshly outraged, freshly angry. What is deeply disturbing to me presently is that in America we’re getting very used to being a country permanently at war. When told by some general or politician on TV that our military involvement in the Middle East might go on for 60 years or more we react as if one of the most horrible things a person or a country can experience is the most normal thing in the world. This is why I continue to write about the horror of war and our indifference to it.
I think it's fair to say that you've had a tricky relationship with Serbia since leaving as a child and I particularly admire how you’ve denounced the rise of nationalism (by essentially inferring, in your memoir, that nationalism breeds racism). How useful has it been—perhaps even reconciliatory?—in the face of barbs and petty insults, to keep learning more about your country through translating its major poets?
Well, I started translating Yugoslav poetry, as it was then, in the 1960s, long before all this nationalist madness started. In 1990 I started to write for opposition papers in Serbia and kept going. I spoke out against the lunacy and the nationalists attacked me, claiming, for instance, that I was being paid huge sums of money to say these things against Serbia. Actually my favourite of these smears was that I went to Washington to see Bill Clinton and ask him to bomb Belgrade. I just walked into the White House and Clinton said to me ‘Charlie, what am I to do in the Balkans?' and I told him, Bill, for starters, you ought to wipe my hometown Belgrade off the map.
That's utterly preposterous and it must have hurt just a little?
Not really because it was so ridiculous. I mean, even here in the US people believe crazy things, like the one about Obama being a fanatical Muslim who plans to declare Sharia law in United States one day soon. It’s the same kind of madness. But none of this affected my work as a translator. The only sad thing about all this was that when the wars started, I could no longer publish an anthology of Yugoslavian poets, since the poets no longer wanted to be in the same book together. My translations of Bosnians and Croats had to fall by the wayside.
How about publishing a Collected Translations?
I don't know if it's so easily done these days, if there’s a market. I mean lots of books of translations are geography-specific. I suppose Merwin has done that kind of selection.
A republished and extended anthology of your translations of Serbian Poets, The Horse Has Six Legs, has just been published in the US by Graywolf. The previous incarnation stopped at Nina Zivancevic, but here it includes some great additions to the book, like Danica Vukicevic. Because translation is never finished—in the sense that we could spend several lifetimes translating poetry and there would always be more to work on—how pleasurable was it for you to rework existing translations whilst including new(er) Serbian poets into the latest edition?
It was a great pleasure to work on the new edition and particularly on those poets who had not been translated into English and who needed to be read. I wish I had done more revising of the old translations in the book. For example, Vasko Popa, whom I translated in the early Seventies, I’d really like to do over again, especially the earliest poems of his I had done which now strike me as awkward and in urgent need of fixing. You’re right though; one could spend the rest of one’s life revising the same set of translations and adding new ones.
Popa and Ivan Lalic have greatly influenced you and were friends of yours. What more did you learn from these two great poets through translating them? Did the act of translation help you see any harmonies between their writing?
Popa and Lalic come from two different traditions, two different aesthetics. Lalic was really part of a tradition going back to French symbolists of the nineteenth century and earlier Serbian poets who were under their spell. He was an incredibly erudite man who knew German, Italian Russian, English and even American poetry very well. In any case, I knew how his poetry would sound in English.
Popa was a modernist who came from the Surrealists, many of whom he knew personally when he was in Paris after the war. This he combined with profound knowledge of Serbian folklore, riddles, songs, nursery rhymes, magical incantations etc., a kind of native surrealism, which he mined for imagery. He was one of my own early influences together with the American poet, Theodore Roethke, who used folkloric elements as building blocks in his poems. But Popa's poetry was much more rooted in Serbian language than Lalic’s and therefore harder to translate.
I love the idea planted in the Introduction to The Horse Has Six Legs that translation is an 'actor's medium' - that a translator can, sometimes, transmute into the actual poet they’re working on. Can you explain a little more about this: what are some of the dangers and liberations in poet-translator amalgamation?
The translator, like the actor, has decided to take on this particular role so it must be seen through to the bitter end. When you’ve been translating someone for a while they get under your skin and you have (or think you have) a clear sense of who they are. Often you discover that you don’t particularly like this person and that there is an element about them that really puts you off, but you have to go all the way if you want to do the poem. Sometimes you go too far in your impersonation and begin to write like them. Luckily, in my case, this has never lasted long. But the dangers arise from it being such a close relationship. Fortunately, because of this closeness you get to find out how very different kinds of poems are made. And if the translation is successful, you fall in love with that kind of poetry.
I gather you've been a lifelong radio addict. I’ve read about how jazz has affected your sense of economy as a poet, but I wonder how music has affected your sense of rhythm and timing?
Well, I don’t think it really has, but certainly if you're listening to a Mozart sonata its elegance and conciseness might affect your composition of the poem. I think, too, that the arts are finally very distinct, and you'd learn much more about rhythm and timing from reading other poets than listening to music. It would be silly to point to a poem of mine and claim that it was influenced by the minimalist piano of Thelonious Monk, and yet in some way it may have been. Maybe painting and poetry have more of a relationship, but even there I’m not so sure.
As I see it, your poems have always tended towards impersonality more than a clearly intentioned exposition (or exploration) of the personal. Did you consider the ambitions implicit within a tone of impersonality from the outset or is it something that naturally occurred?
I was always interested in invention. I didn’t care if the poem was about me or someone I imagined. Besides, I suppose I've always had a bit of reticence in talking about myself in any great detail. That probably comes from growing up in the war where it would be indecent to go around saying: 'oh, you have no idea how much I've suffered!'
You’re a self-confessed insomniac (one of my favourite of your numerous references to insomnia over the years is from ‘A Wedding in Hell’ where the 'cat with the mouse in its mouth is merely passing through'). How is insomnia an advantage or a companion to your writing?
It has definitely been an influence. Insomnia forces you to become a philosopher and teaches humility.
Like the English poet Peter Redgrove, you’ve been mislabelled a 'surrealist' over the years. Also like Redgrove, I’d contest that the reason your poems (their vision) succeed is because the realism can be (perhaps this is a generous deception on your part) morereal over surreal.
In the Sixties when I was labelled a surrealist, some forty years after the Surrealist movement itself it seemed ridiculous. It has always seemed to me that there are two ways of looking at the world: one is with eyes open, where of course there are a lot of interesting things to see, while the other is with eyes closed, where sometimes you can see things even better. With my writing I never declare to the reader: ‘okay, now I’m going to close my eyes.’ Instead I go back and forth between the two as I please. Of course I accept reality, yes, but I've seen too much reality in my life not to do so, but without imagination one couldn't make sense of what one has seen.
In That Little Something I notice your black cat makes another cameo: 'Mother is knitting me / a sweater in the dark / father is on all fours / looking for a black cat'. Now what the devil is going on there?!
Just as we’re talking now one of my black cats is sitting here intently watching me.
So, the cat is real?
Sure. But I like what you just said. Perhaps the poem should have had that additional, closing line...'Now what the devil is going on there?!'
So, what are you working on right now?
My publishers are planning on bringing out a Collected Poems in a couple of years. That will be fifty years of work.
Congratulations. What will be included and what will be edited out, if anything?
Well, I don't want to put everything in. There are some things I've published which I'd like to hunt down and destroy! But this is an exciting occasion and with that excitement comes decision-making responsibilities - I'm presently trying to work out if it’s worth revising some poems I wrote thirty years ago. They are awkward and yet that awkwardness is what gives them a certain charm. I'm afraid if they were cleaned up, they wouldn't have that limp, or that facial tick that makes some people actually fall in love with them. So it’s going to be a bit complicated and will, no doubt, involve further sleepless hours.
You know, maybe that's my title for it. Or perhaps I should wait for…Complete Insomnia!
Questions by James Byrne