The poet will complete everything the city cannot
Author of the Week: North Macedonia
‘The garbage in the streets, the neon lights, the pavements – it’s all poetry,’ states the Macedonian poet Jovica Ivanovski in his poem ‘Escape from…’ (Human, 2019).
Urban poetry is deeply rooted in the genetics of contemporary Macedonian poetry. From the youngest generation of poets, all the way to what is considered the ‘classics’ of Macedonian poetry. In this piece, the limelight falls on the younger and middle generation of Macedonian poets, simply because so much has already been said and written about the founders of the poetic word.
The world around us is reflected within us. Hence, it is not at all strange that what we see and what we experience should pass through us.
According to Aristotle, all art (poetry) represents an imitation (mimesis) of people and nature. However, this is not simply a passive reflection of nature and the human world, but rather an upgrade of nature, which then completes (fulfils) the things nature cannot finish. What Aristotle calls nature, we might nowadays define as the nature of the world which we inhabit, and quite often this world means the urban environment, the city. The poet will ‘complete’ everything the nature/city cannot.
When someone mentions a poet whose hallmark is their writing about the city, almost instantly one thinks of Jovica Ivanovski, a poet who has worked for nearly three decades, and has won the prestigious Miladinov Brothers Award of the Struga Poetry Evenings for his collection Human. So far, almost all of the critical reviews of Jovica’s poetry have focused on two of its distinct characteristics. The first is its urbaneness or the thematic setting of the city (the Skopje of today) as a chronotope in which the poet lives. At the recent presentation of Buff Moon, a book of selected poems taken from the books Ivanovski wrote over the last 15 years, Bogomil Gjuzel said that Jovica’s verses possessed an ‘authentic urban sensibility’, while Elizabeta Sheleva concluded that the poetry of Jovica Ivanovski was the fruit of a continuous urban relationship with a specific space.
About this ‘Skopje setting’, Olivera Kjorveziroska argues that the poems of Jovica Ivanovski ‘are long-time citizens of Skopje,’ while Vlatko Galevski asserts that his poetry is like a verse museum of the defeats of a city and its citizens. The second characteristic of this poetry is what Duško Krstevski calls a ‘metonymical’ writing style, narrative, descriptive, even epic at times, as opposed to the ‘metaphorical’, lyrical, largely abstract one. Most critics define these two things not just as constant features of Jovica’s oeuvre, but rather (or above all) as the quintessential qualities by which this poetry separates itself from the rest of the contemporary Macedonian poetic production.
‘I will no longer write poems about my city. / Asked if I still love it, I won’t list examples like some ambitious writer / I will simply wave my hand, / like it’s something completely trivial. / The most popular poets of today / write in general, about themselves and the world, / so why should I boil myself down to a simple urban poet. / I will pause and leave the city, / go into the world, real or imaginary. / I will only come back to it in my old age / and I shall be ruthless, / a hundred times worse than I am now.’ This is what Ivanovski writes in his poem ‘Why I love it, and why I don’t’ from his collection The City That’s No Longer Mine (Templum, 2016).
‘Perhaps, at first glance (or first read, rather), Jovica’s poems seem like an outpour of rage, disappointment, anger, pessimism even, but in essence, they are little etudes of love for the city, filled with so-called lovable hate, which he shares with his fellow citizens…’ argues Vlatko Galevski about the book The City That’s No Longer Mine, and a similar impression might be gained from Ivanovski’s other collections.
Vasko Markovski is another author who constantly carries the impulse of the city within him. The city is his eternal inspiration, not only in poetry, but in prose and travelogues too. In his poetry, two types of travel are intensely felt – an inner travel through the city, and a physical one. In his collection of haikus titled A Corporate Morning (Dobrivesti.mk, 2013), Markovski brings the smell of the city to our noses.
In his review of A Corporate Morning, Nikola Madžirov said this about the collection: ‘Vasko Markovski brings the city into our room, embeds the room in the balcony, the balcony lives in flower pots, and the flower pots live in the roots of the lindens. He travels through the streets or his childhood in order to remind himself there are things which will forever remain in one place. After reading, each of his haikus brings silence, in the form of a smile, different from the ones in photographs, or a glimpse into the distance, different from the one in portraits arranged into family trees. Only in this manner does personal time defeat the historical hunger for eternity.’
‘I started experimenting with haikus. Living in a city, which is quite fast-paced, I was unable to arrange long, experimental nature travels for myself as the Japanese masters did. Therefore I gave myself a challenge – my haikus had to be inspired not by nature, but by society’, explains Markovski about his poetry. His second collection The Streets of Skopje (Begemot, 2022), is a multi-layered story of Skopje, rebellious but also zen.
‘In The Streets of Skopje, the city is sprawled before the reader like a labyrinth ready to be explored, but one which, nevertheless, contains some guideposts. Vasko Markoski approaches his birth city like a place he has never before seen – a rare and distinct a skill – in order to avoid the banality of writing about the city. The author sharpens his eye as if focusing a camera, discovering what cannot be seen at first glance. Sometimes this is an association, or some analogy, scene, sight, music or a pop-culture reference. Yet, it always results in a small, urban epiphany’, wrote Nikolina Andova Šopova in her review of the book.
Markovski states that the city is the mirror of the soul, and that it mirrors its citizens. ‘For me, “urban poetry” epitomises the public dialogue between the poet and the city experienced as a person, a dialogue which reflects us, its citizens, as a unity. Sometimes we are happy with what we are, sometimes we feel resigned because, while aiming higher, we are ultimately defeated by the mundane proof that, as we grow, we let ourselves go quite a bit, each one of us, and this is reflected in the general state of the city’s persona. The city is, inescapably, the mirror of the soul. As such, it shows us the parts we would like to identify with, but also the parts from which we would like to distance ourselves as soon as possible. At times, we dream of finding free time for a guerrilla intervention which would restore more of the city’s nature, the people’s kindness, hoping later to find those city parts beautified. This would make things much nicer for us all.’
The topic of urbaneness is characteristic of Macedonian poet Nikola Madžirov’s poetry, who, according to Jovica Tasevski-Eternijan, holds a distinctly Manichaean view of the city. Poetry is a way of discovering new means of transport between realities, and when it’s woven like a fabric of metaphors and images which set up previously unknown relationships between different fields, it allows us to perceive reality with an inexplicable vigour, and the city as a motif is perhaps the key to Madžirov’s body of work. Madžirov has five poetry collections to his name and in all of them he praises the city subtly, though at times also in a quite straightforward manner.
‘In foreign cities / thoughts calmly wander like graves / of forgotten circus performers, / dogs bark at the containers and / the snowflakes falling in them. / In foreign cities / we are invisible / like a crystal angel locked / in a dusty dresser, like a second earthquake / that only shuffles what is already destroyed’ (‘The Cities Which Do Not Belong to Us’, Translocated Stone).
Madžirov performs a vivisection of reality, spurred on by the urge to overcome material limitations. The foundation of his work is his spiritual curiosity, his desire to discover new horizons. ‘In parallel to this idea-motif axis of Madžirov’s poetry, in many of his lyrical works there is the consciousness of the transience which he accepts as the indelible characteristic of the material world and approaches it as a homo ludens, rejecting its tragic cover’, notes Tasevski-Eternijan in the foreword of the Young MK poetry.
The poet Ana Golejška Džikova, in her first collection Street Love (Kultura, 2013), directly addresses her hometown Skopje, often calling it ‘her lover’.
‘I walk over you / in red shoes / I spit on you with / a cold-filled throat. / I wish / to hide / in your hidden corners. / You excite me / and you disgust me / when overnight, you turn grey. / I would ask you a thousand questions / but I know that / you will only answer one of them. / Do you love me, my lover? / With the wind, you’ll respond – Yes. / And because of the noise from the excavators / and your unfinished ornaments / I will hear – No. / And we will live thus, / in sweet misunderstanding’ (‘Skopje, my lover’).
Existing in the city as a poet is the topic of her following book A Written Home (Antolog, 2018) as well. ‘This urban and at the same time micro mentality of empathising with the city in the poems was more of a desire to be outside of myself and inside the city’s stories. That was probably a phase which I abandoned later in writing about the city, but not in experiencing it. My poems now have a stable foundation, from the street players to the traffic jam, they are like a fragmented, conserved ether of my poetic expression. When the city inspires me, it is not some strong emotion, but rather a raw connection between the socio-political conditions and the vibrancy of life as I grow and develop as an organism in an environment that is less than comfortable, yet almost always ready to inspire a poem in me. The city is my guard. And at the same time, the largest stage I conquer whenever I wish. I no longer feel the need to cosy up to anyone. Quite the contrary, I am now able to recreate using my influence, energetically, mostly through the circles in which I move. The poems about Skopje were and will remain my symbol, a mark of youth in which I strongly protested the horrible architectonic shifts, the lover’s quarrels causing me pain, the systemic gaps which swallowed me, but also the view of the stars which is always the best from under the sky of home’, explains Ana Golejška Džikova.
In her debut book On the Sleeve of the City (PNV Publications, 2021), the poet Ivana Jovanovska, who belongs to the younger generation, presents the city as a reflection of her own inner world. The city is merely the place where life happens. The relationships between the inner and outer world, between oneself and others, between the body and the space, the home and the city are quite effectively set up in the poems from the cycle titled ‘New Beginning’. In the title poem of the collection, the lyrical subject feels an unbreakable bond with the urban chronotope through her body: ‘Peer into yourself. / The gaps in your body await your return… / The pangs of the body dream of you being born / as the first free person in the city. / As the first one who became aware of personal places.’ In the poem ‘Stars’, the sky and the stars articulate a sense of connection to the world: ‘At every corner of the city / we draw breath under a shared sky. / The stars watching over us are alike everywhere…’
Snežana Stojčevska writes poems about the city and the urban pulse beating in her lyrical subject. ‘Skopje has a magnetic force / keeping me in the place / where I have been. / I won’t let me leave’ (“Skopje, My Dear City”, Empty Space, 2022). She writes about the harsh reality of the city, and its economic and spiritual contrasts. ‘Reality is more apparent through the bus windows. / The lady in the BMW is counting her money over the steering wheel. / Next to me sits a Roma woman, holding a beautiful, chubby baby. / I wonder who is richer? Happier?’ (“In Motion”, It Should Be Easy, 2017).
Julijana Veličkovska’s book Open Letter (PNV Publications, 2017) is a collection of poems about the city around us, but also about the city within us. ‘Paper aeroplanes / fly / and fill the air / someone’s doves / fly through them / with wings / stained / by automobile oil…’ (‘Kapištec Commune 2001’). In ‘Blues Poem’, one can almost directly sense the city smog in a lover’s embrace. ‘My hair smells of smog / oh, baby, / you said to me: / Your hair smells of Skopje. / You said: / Your hair smells of the Skopje smog / oh, baby / I said: / I’m sorry.’
‘The poems and the poetical writings carry the burden of revenge on the space, the burden of travel, of a traveller who, tired from moving across borders, has lost the will to travel and so has set out on a search for inner peace, seemingly like a river flowing into the sea, like the joining of an ataman and a brahmin’ notes Katica Kjulavkova in her review of the poetry collection House of Migratory Birds (Antolog, 2013) by the poet Đoko Zdravevski. This collection is brimming with urban motifs, although they are not its primary goal. ‘The bus smells of a worn shoe / and the morning yawn of a / canned beer’ (‘Border’). Travelling through cities, as the motif in the House of Migratory Birds, is constantly present, however, not as a ‘revenge’ on time, but rather as a ‘revenge’ on space.
One of the most important topics in urban poetry has been the condemnation of social injustice. Contemporary urban poets have a tendency to focus on issues which negatively impact the lives of minorities. Instead of expressing their own opinion, many of them tell the story of somebody who lives in a city, enabling the reader or listener to gain a deeper understanding of urban issues by learning about the personal experiences of the lyrical subject.
Istok Ulčar, one of the younger Macedonian poets, often reflects on social injustice, the city as the system, but also towards those who ‘rape’ the home of those born on the concrete. ‘A desert island of science; / renaissance of fascism; / pearl of pornography; / This is not a city that never sleeps. / This is a city with a normal biorhythm. / This is a city of dead souls,’ decrees Ulčar in ‘A Short Skopje Poem’ from the collection The Verses of Horvje (PNV Publications, 2018).
As with many other poetry forms, it is not unusual to see rhymed urban poetry. And while it was not originally meant to be accompanied by music, contemporary movements do exactly that, treating poems not just as texts to be read, and stressing the performative aspects of poetry. This approach to poetry is nothing new, and has enjoyed prominence since the Beat Generation.
The influence of hip-hop lyrics is evident in poetry slam, a form of poetry competition quite popular nowadays. Slam is an art performance that involves several disciplines, such as music, poetry and theatre, brought together in an intimate relationship with hip-hop culture. Slam poetry performers are required to be MCs, to present their rhetorical and theatrical skills, so as to draw the attention of the audience and keep it. Gorazd ‘Kenny’ Kitanovski put on a memorable show of these skills when he promoted his book Бетер Times in a packed city bus, in an attempt to bring poetry to those members of the public who may not be inclined to seek it out actively.
Macedonian slam scene boasts names such as Cvetanka Koleva, Pero Sardžoski, Marija Grubor, Lile Jovanovska, Istok Ulčar, Igor Trpčeski, Elena Prendžova, Gorazd ‘Kenny’ Kitanovski, Afrodita Nikolova, Anica Blaževska, and many more. There are ample opportunities for them to showcase their art; the Struga Poetry Evenings festival hosts Nights Without Punctuation, a regular event dedicated to urban poetry, and new initiatives, such as the New Kids in Town open mic recently launched in Skopje by young poets Andrej Medić Lazarevski and Ivana Jovanovska constantly appear. Last year, twelve poetry films dedicated to the capital were screened at the Skopje Poetry Festival. In May this year, the film Summer Sonata About my City, directed by Marija Šakleva and based on a poem by Andrej Al-Asadi, won the Director’s Choice Award and was shortlisted at the Los Angeles International Poetry Film Festival.
Urban environment was an important source of inspiration even for Virginia Woolf, who wrote that the city was forever attracting and stimulating her, providing her with inspiration for new literary works. What you see is what passes through you. The city and the poet will forever remain in an unbreakable relationship, regardless of what may come to constitute a ‘city’ and a ‘poet’ in some utopian future.
Translated by Gorjan Kostovski
Biljana Stojanovska was born 1984. She graduated on the Macedonian and South Slavic literature department at the Blaze Koneski Faculty of Philology of the University of Skopje.
In 2015 she published her first collection of poetry The words have no meaning by Antolog. In 2017 she was the recipient of the Todor Chalovski award for her second book of poetry The decaying apartment (Galikul, 2018).
Her poetry has been translated in English, German, Chinese, Serbian, Polish and Slovenian and was also selected by numerous Macedonian literary journals and anthology collections. She is one of the founders of the Skopje Poetry Festival. She currently works as a journalist.
Photo by Goran Atanasovski