Spotlights, sparks, intensity and fear of missing out
Author of the Week: Slovenia
On Slovenian poetic debuts
As I am writing this text on debut poetry collections, I am 31 years old and, ironically, have yet to write my own. I have been writing poetry since I was 14, albeit in small doses, so I do consider myself a poet, as well as a critic and an editor. My peers keep asking me when my book will be published, but I always reply playfully that there is no rush at all. I firmly believe it is never too late to publish a debut collection. Just look at our renowned poet Tone Škrjanec, who published his first book at the age of 44, and is now the author of twelve poetry books and the recipient of important literary awards. However, when I converse with younger Slovenian poets, many of them are in a hurry to get that first book over and done with. Sometimes they feel peer pressure as it has become a bit easier to make a name for yourself at a young age. One could say that the fear of missing out effect is also showing in poetry. I am encouraged and delighted by the many possibilities and opportunities young poets now have, but I do wish they would publish their first books for the right reasons, because in the best case scenario the first book should be followed by a second book, not by a shocked or sad silence. As an editor I try to sense – no matter how absurd this sounds – when someone is ready to step into the spotlight and not get blinded. With some of the authors the determination and readiness are visible, so I encourage them to finish the manuscripts, but with others there is some hesitation and uncertainty, so I give them space and time to consider, to rewrite, to toss the poems around and sleep on them as long as they need. This way, I hope, disappointments can be avoided or at least made bearable. Having said all that, I hope I do not come across as too grumpy or cynical, I only wish for a smooth and bright start for everyone. Bursting the bubble is inevitable anyway.
My undying love for debut poetry books started at the very beginning of my career as a literary critic around ten years ago. First, because I felt somewhat equal to the authors – I am just starting to find my own voice and so are they, right? I could comfortably relate to them and their slip-ups and uncertainties, as I had my own to contend with. I feel that I learnt a lot writing about debut books, since I was discovering fresh voices, current topics and sometimes totally bizarre and unimaginable ways of expression that kicked me out of my comfort zone. When you write about a renowned author, you can prepare by reading their opus, other texts about their work, some forewords, articles and interviews. But with a debut, you are more or less blissfully left on your own, you have the responsibility but also the freedom to try to interpret and understand this sparkling brand-new voice that is just waiting to be discovered. The sheer joy of it! When writing about debuts, the most important thing for me is to not be patronising and too forgiving but also not too harsh, and finding the balance is always tricky. I have discovered it helps me a lot if I try to forget it is a debut and just enjoy the unravelling of the many layers the verses offer. As a literary critic, my goal is also to shed light on some overlooked or marginal literary genres (that is why I write a lot about poetry in general, genre, graphic novels, and such), and debut poetry collections do not have that many opportunities to be reviewed in-depth, and they can go unnoticed. Most importantly, the love and attention I devote to debut poetry collections is simply personal as I am always on the lookout for the next bright spark that will light up the sometimes murky sky. It may sound naive, but it is also a bit romantic.
As much as I am a woman of words, I am also a woman of numbers, so I would like to provide a short statistical overview. Thanks to Goodreads, I was able to count the number of poetry books I read in a year, and the number of debuts in proportion to that. Looking at the last five years, I have read an average of 45 poetry books per year, and 13% of those were debuts. These numbers may not seem high, but since I try to read most of the current production, which also means translations, classics, re-reads and tracking all the new books by the established authors I like to read, I think the debuts make up a relevant and substantial part of my reading list. I also read a lot of manuscripts and individual poems published online, and none of those are included in the statistics. I checked the bibliographic catalogue database COBISS.si and tried to compose a list of all debut poetry books published in a year. The numbers were surprisingly high, around a hundred books a year (including self-published books, children’s books, books published by schools, etc.), but only ten poetry debuts or so a year are worth the attention and therefore receive it. Most of the time the amount of attention depends on the financial support the publisher receives, and the duration and intensity of the author’s presence in the literary space, which I think is fair. I believe books should be published by publishers who can provide full support and are professional. There are a few publishing houses in Slovenia that are always willing to give a chance to new authors. I work for LUD Literatura as the editor of a collection called Prišleki (Newcomers), whose very name suggests an openness to debuts. A lot of now-established authors published their first books here, and out of the six books we put out every year, two are debuts. There are also other publishers who have been publishing relevant debuts for years, such as LUD Šerpa, Litera, Center za slovensko književnost, Škuc and Hiša poezije. Hiša poezije established a special poetry series called Sončnica, vsa nora od svetlobe (The sunflower mad with light) in 2017, which also gives space to young poets – one out of five books a year is usually a debut. Our Public Fund for Cultural Activities (Javni sklad za kulturne dejavnosti) organises a festival called Urška where young unpublished writers compete and are mentored, and every year since 2002 the winner’s debut book is published as part of the prize package. As of last year, there is a new exciting publishing house called Črna skrinjica, which focuses on poetry. Five out of ten books they published last year were debuts. Debut poetry collections are regularly nominated for awards such as the Veronika Award, the Jenko Award and the kritiško sito award (the only literary prize awarded by literary critics for the best literary work of a Slovenian author in the past year). There is also a special award at the Slovenian Book Fair just for debut books. With all that in mind, I think debut poetry books in Slovenia are supported and seen.
Moving on from numbers, I would also like to provide examples of some of the most surprising and refreshing poetry debuts in the last few years. Speaking in general, I am sensing some new directions and themes in poetry that reflect the world we live in. A lot of the debuts are socially critical, they treat consumerism, capitalism, mental health, feminism, individuality, identity, housing issues, precarity, violence, alienation and similar topics. There are also more LGBTQ+ poets and themes present than in older generations, which shows that society is slowly but surely becoming more tolerant and accepting. The poetic voices are somewhat individual, so I cannot speak of any clear new movements or currents. Some are more metaphorical and coded, others more direct and raw. Irony and self-irony are quite common as they help the authors find a way to be critical but not moralistic.
Firstly, I would like to focus on some more metaphorical poetry, such as Poznati kot voda (To Know Like Water) by Lukas Debeljak. Just as water can take the form of any object, so can his poetry – it fills up the reader and the poetry itself. He uses different poetic approaches, such as (self-)citation, questioning the form, enumerating using indents, dissecting discursiveness, and the like. These may seem cold at first glance, but they prove to be necessary means of capturing the world. To know like water is not to stop for the sake of beauty, poise or elegance but to spill all around while a first-rate play with fiction and metafiction takes place. Nevertheless, his poetry does not suffocate itself with pretentiousness but gives rise to sleepy vain thoughts and lures us into a world where a lost plane could be seen stuck in mid-air, if only we dared to look. Some debut collections are in a certain sense conceptual, such as Anatomy (Anatomija) by Aljaž Koprivnikar. The book is divided into sections named after anatomies of different things, for example, the anatomy of a family, of memory, of poetics, of duality, of migrations. Through these topics, the poet writes his own body anatomy and shows us the meaning and pain of being human. Even more on the conceptual side is the book Rane rane (you can read it as both Wounds Wounds or Early Wounds in Slovene) by Anja ‘Anjuta’ Novak. The book is visually stunning, reminding us of a flesh wound – a white book with a bloody gash in the middle. Again, there are different sections for different types of wounds (entry and exit wounds, love wounds, dreamy wounds, empty wounds), and there are also wound care instructions. The main theme is the body and physicality, and some of the poems are written in the form of ballads, lullabies or prayers. It’s also very playful, albeit dark, and it talks about the wounds that society inflicts on us. Another book dealing with the physicality is Ekosistem tišine (Ecosystem of Silence) by Urša Majcen. The ecosystem of the book is built upon the fragile inner balance of the lyrical subject herself; she feels trapped in a world that wants to break and subjugate her, cut her down like a tall poppy. The intense tension is palpable from the very first to the very last verses. The images in the collection are direct and often violent (dismembering, biting, tearing, cutting off, bleeding, impaling, stabbing, vomiting). The body is nobody’s and everybody’s at the same time, and the silence of the violent acts oppressive. A debut collection that marvellously resonates with Majcen’s is Trgetanje (a portmanteu of the Slovene words trganje, ripping, and trepetanje, shivering) by Pino Pograjc. He deals with trauma and difficult themes (psychological disorders, illness, violence, dysfunctional family) through poems that pack a powerful punch to the stomach. It is possibly the most cynical of the presented books but also emotional and sensitive. In contrast to these two, we also have a lot of very gentle, sensitive new voices, such as Čisto potiho (Quite Quietly) by Aljaž Primožič. With its sensual verses, the book does not announce great movements but dives into deep intimacy. The collection, which deals with the theme of (constant) growing up and relationships, takes us on a search for identity and meaning. Layer by layer, the realisation that we will never be fully satisfied is revealed, but, ultimately, that will not necessarily kill us. I also have to highlight two more socially engaged debuts; the first is Zaroletano (With Blinds Down) by Sara Fabjan. As the book raises its blinds, you can see all the modern problems young people have to face on their own: underpaid precarious jobs, housing issues, consumerism and alienation. This collection shows us the human in the city and the city in the human while exposing the absurdity and the loneliness of our endeavours, and it does so with delicious irony. Finally, there is Natalija Milovanović’s collection titled Samoumevno (Taken for Granted). The book deals with identity through mother language and addresses the issue of xenophobia and immigration. She makes a subtle connection between language and man – they are related in a sense that is evasive and often unjust, illogical and also exclusive.
These are just some of the boldest, most original, provocative, intense, enchanting and innovative debut poetry books in the last several years. Even so, they should not be taken for granted but read and reread until they ignite the sparks that slumber within.
Veronika Šoster (1992) is a literary and film critic, editor, comparativist and poet. In 2020, she received the Stritar Award for literary critics and became the Name of the Week on Val 202 radio station. She writes reviews for different literary magazines and general media. She took part in various juries. She is the editor of the Knjigogled section in Literatura magazine, which deals with books based on movies and series, the poetry editor of the Nebulae magazine, and the editor of the book collections Prišleki and Piknik, published by LUD Literatura. She runs a genre book club and organizes annual literary festival Prepišno uredništvo.
Photo by Ana Geršak