Conversation / 20 November 2016

Writing is a Compulsion

Interview with one of the most unique poets writing today, Charles Simic

Charles Simic is widely recognized as one of the most visceral and unique poets writing today. Simic’s work has won numerous awards, among them the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” the Griffin International Poetry Prize, and, simultaneously, the Wallace Stevens Award and appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate. He taught English and creative writing for over thirty years at the University of New Hampshire. Although he emigrated to the U.S. from Yugoslavia as a teenager, Simic writes in English.

You've been writing poetry for 55 years. What makes poetry so compelling? You are one of those authors who rarely deviates into other genres.

It is a kind of obsession. It is mostly connected to this feeling that one has never quite done it as well as one has hoped for. It is certainly connected to a sort of an ambition to write better poems. But none of this is really conscious, it becomes a form of compulsion. Some people have been playing an instrument their whole lives and they are still struggling with some tunes sometimes.

Margaret Atwood once said that if she would strive for perfection in writing, she would never write a word.

I can agree with her in a sense that writing is not about taking a piece of paper and saying “this either be perfect or I forget about it.” No, it's never about that. You write because of this compulsion I have mentioned earlier. Your eyes, your imagination have seen things you want to put down and that takes you places. In writing I revise a lot. To me a poem is a sort of a mystery. With most of them I had no idea where I would end. For instance, I thought I would be writing about my grandfather and his dog, but by the time the poem is finished, there is no grandfather and certainly no dog in it.

But you do have a poem with a cucumber in it, much like your contemporary Robert Hass. What is it with cucumbers and poets?

(Laughter) That is a kind of a joke poem. Sea cucumber is not a vegetable, it is actually an animal. The narrator of the poem is writing a love poem to somebody called Ellen.

What sort of a responsibility is it to be one of the most read and translated poets?

These things are a great compliment, but most of the time I don't know about that anyway. Very often I do not see the books in translation nor do I meet the readers. Once I was at an international poetry conference in Spain. I was sitting next to a guy and suddenly he exclaimed he translated my books into Romanian and I had to admit I never saw it. He promised he will send me some of the books, but it never came to that. It's a typical Balkan thing, they would promise you everything, but they never do it.

Are you very attached to your work? Some of the poets I've met so far claim they used to or still have a problem with their poems in translation, because the translations change the meaning and the effect of their verses – even if they are made with diligence.

I can only judge the translations if the texts are in French, Serbian, a little bit of Italian, because I know these languages. But most of the time I have no idea what happens to my poems in translation. For instance, my poems were translated into German by a great poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger and, over the years, people have told me that he made a lot of mistakes in his translations.

Since you have mentioned the Balkans – how tied are you to the region today?

It's been 50 years since I've left Yugoslavia, very eventful years because of the WWII, the German occupation, the Italian occupation. All that made a tremendous impression on me, as it did on everybody. I spent many years translating poets from former Yugoslavia – I needed help with Slovenian and Macedonian. That sort of kept me in touch, but today I don't visit very often.

But you still made an observation about the Balkan people: they promise, but don't necessarily hold their promise.

Oh, yes, people promise and they can be very loud in doing so. I don't get upset about it, but it is still very obvious. I think Slovenians are slightly different in this area. Anyhow, my brother was a European agent for jazz musicians, Miles Davis for instance, and he brought them to the Balkans and he once said that signing a contract with Slovenians was very secure, whereas signing a contract with Serbs or Romanians was like signing a contract with Sicilians. This is just the way it is.

Music seems to be very important to you, your family was musical, your poems are musical.

I was surrounded by music. My mother was a teacher of singing and students would come home to have classes. There was always someone singing – everything from opera to modern songs. My father had a beautiful voice, my parents even met in a music school. The radio was always on. As soon as we've moved to the US, my father took me to a jazz club. So, musicality derives from my family partly.

What sort of an environment do you need to be able to write? There is this general image of the lonesome poet locked up in a room somewhere far away.

Most of my life I've worked. My parents split up and united in the United states. At the beginning it was very hard, but then my father made a lot of money, but spent it all. He was one of those people who couldn't keep any money, which drove my mother nuts. But when I went to the university – they were in Chicago and I was in New York – I had to work during the day and study at night. I had a full social life and found time to write. I have no complaints about this. Once I finished school, my rhytm was similar, work during the day, writing at night. I don't need a kind of a special setting really. Me and my wife have a house in New Hampshire, it's near the lake, it's really picturesque, but I don't like my cabinet with that fantastic view, I can't write there, so my wife started using it and it turned into a storage place.

This interview is part of the Versopolis Confession eBook which you can download for free under this address:


Ana Schnabl

Ana Schnabl is a writer and editor, based in a lovely alpine town of Kamnik, Slovenia. She received Best Literary Debut Award for her short story collection "Razvezani". She is also the author of a novel entitled "Mojstrovina". Currently she is working on her third book.