Fans of Charles Simic have recently been treated to not one but two new volumes. Hotel Insomnia and Dimestore Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (both 1992) clearly affirm Simic's reputation as street-wise visionary and learned prankster. Indeed, if these two latest books share anything with Simic's previous work, it's that their materials (the images, the people, the plots) have a quirky immediacy about them, a comfortable here-and-nowness; and that in this daylight clutter and ordinariness, he consistently finds subtle and wide-ranging resonance. Poetry is everywhere, Simic shows us once again; "the question," according to Thoreau, "is not what you look at, but what you see."
That is to say, like his previous work, Hotel Insomnia and Dime-Store Alchemy are both profound and profoundly free of pretense. "The encounter between philosophy and poetry," Simic reminds us elsewhere, "is not a tragedy, but a sublime comedy."
Such eccentric homilies are essential Simic. No wonder, then, that after three decades of poetry, he remains unclassifiable. Or as one critic intones, "Simic's poetry is not read with specific critical vocabularies in mind." How could any language system possibly capture the essence of a poet who, by his own measure, has been equally influenced by Emily Dickinson and Surrealism, Pablo Neruda and Fats Waller?
Charles Simic is currently Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. For his poetry and literary translations, Simic has won awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Poetry Society of America, and has received the Edgar Allen Poe Award as well as the P. E. N. Translation Prize. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 1990, Simic was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of prose-poems, The World Doesn't End.
The following conversation took place on March 16, 1993 during Simic's visit to Memphis State University as part of the River City Writer's Series. Editors J. Patrick Craig and Eric D. Williams asked the majority of questions; other questions were taken from the audience of students and faculty.-J. P. Craig
Eric Williams: In your book of essays, Wonderful Words, Silent Truth, you talk about your love for jazz and blues, and you mention names like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Fats Waller. With this being Memphis, home of the blues, it seems fitting to begin by asking you how jazz and blues has influenced your poetry.
Charles Simic: That's a good question. Where to begin? It's a music I've loved from the first time I heard it. I was born in Yugoslavia, in 1938, so I was there during the war, and the first jazz I heard, I believe-and this was early 1944 or 1945-I heard on the radio. There was an American Armed Forces station in Italy, and you could pick it up. And I remember my mother and I had a terrific, old German radio; it was a huge thing, and I was playing with the dial, and I heard something and I wanted to figure out what the hell it was. It was Big Band music, a kind of bluesy thing, maybe something like Jimmy Lunsford. I remember instantly liking it. I had no idea what it was. Of course I wasn't the only one who was experiencing that music; as you grew older, this was the sort of music everybody loved. Yugoslavia was then a Communist country and in the first years of Communist rule, it was prohibited to listen to jazz. Jazz was regarded as a kind of decadent art form, an invention of the capitalists to undermine socialist youth. You could go to jail for listening to jazz. I know, for example, one of the poets I translated, Ivan Lalic, was then a student at the University of Zagreb and was a Com-munist party member. He was thrown out of the party for listening to jazz records. Which made it even more fun. So this, like a lot of for-bidden things, became a secret pleasure. I remember later on going to houses of older boys who had records and listening to something like Bessie Smith with the volume turned down really low and the poor mother fretting in the next room saying "Oh God, those kids are going to get us all in trouble." So this is how it all started. And then when I came to this country, my father was also a great lover of the music and the first evening we were in New York-I described it in my memoir-he drove me to a jazz club late that night and we listened to jazz.
Now to your question: let's talk about the blues rather than jazz-classic blues. I always admired the economy. In a great song, how much you can say with a minimum of moves. It doesn't take much, a few chords, a few lines of lyrics, and an incredible context is established. That economy is something I always try to emulate. Now let's take it back to jazz. All the years I lived in New York, I used to go to clubs. I heard a lot of Thelonious Monk because I lived very close to The Five Spot where he played. Late at night I would just go down, drink a little beer and listen for a half hour, forty minutes. If you listen to Thelonious Monk or someone, say, like Sun Ra, there's a kind of exuberance, a wonderful sense of tremendous freedom. Granted there was a kind of discipline-because these people were great musicians. It wasn't just that they were being reckless. Instead it was only a kind of seeming recklessness. Underneath there was a structure. But still, I think what appealed to me before I even learned about the structure was the sheer recklessness of it, the freedom, the wildness. I always thought of a poet as somebody playing at two o'clock in the morning in a dive holding a saxophone and playing for a bunch of drunks. I mean the poet is in kind of a similar situation. So jazz is one of the most important things in my life. It's a music that I have been listening to for more than forty years. And when you pay attention to something for a long period of time, your knowledge grows, you begin to understand certain things, how different things work. And when you understand how different things work, you realize what mastery means in an art form.
J. P. Craig: On the subject of influences, you seem to make an im-plicit connection in your memoirs between blues and jazz on the one hand and Serbian folk tales on the other-the connection being that each medium takes a story in a distinctly non-linear and illogical or alogical way-that there's a Surrealist quality to the imagery and narrative structure of each of these forms-
Simic: Well, I think so.
JC: -and that this Surrealist free-play is what creates influence in your own poetry.
Simic: Yes, I think that is the attraction of folklore. There's almost a kind of folk surrealism. I mean look at the craziness of riddles. There is a connection between very inventive blues lyrics and folk material that always interested me. But I also think there was another thing about the blues., the connection between Serbia, my background, and the blues and jazz. The minor key. Music in the Balkans is in a minor key. My father was not a person given to prejudice. He was not a person who would say, "I don't like Norwegians." It was stupid, a waste of time. He might dislike individuals, but he was never capable of disliking people because of who they were. But he did make one distinction. He divided the world into people who could hear the minor key and people who could not. That was the real objection he had against Germans. Not so much that they came and bombed us, but the fact that they couldn't appreciate the wonderful Macedonian songs and all the Muslim songs which were in the minor key. So when I heard blues, right away it was very familiar to me, because of the minor key.
EW: In 1965 your object poems like "Fork," "The Spoon," and "Knife" didn't receive much praise. But you said that you felt the object, "the irreducible itself," was the place to begin. How does this strategy relate, if at all, to Imagism? Also, do you still feel that this approach to poetry is valid?
Simic: Well, I think for me it was a useful way to begin again. What happened was I got tired of my work, and I had this feeling that I needed to begin again with something simple. One day in my apartment I was sitting in my kitchen and I noticed these things-you know, knife, fork, spoons, other things. Objects. So I said, let me write poems about this. Now, yes, Imagism did the same thing-although I wasn't too hip about that. I wasn't really then thinking about William Carlos Williams and Imagism. The more immediate influence was French Surrealist poetry written in the 20's, al-though my approach was different. It was an enormously important moment: to discover a whole area of these objects and to write poems about them because, well, nobody wrote poems about forks and knives, or an axe or a pair of shoes. It gave me a kind of freedom. I thought at first I would have a whole book just on these object poems. But I found I was repeating myself, that I could not duplicate quite the same quality of attention, or simply that I didn't have interest in some objects. Take brooms. I remember one day I noticed a broom in the corner of the kitchen and I said "Aha!" I now had a poem called "Broom." But then I had to have a book, I had to have a lot of object poems. So I kept looking around, going to other people's homes. I'd see an ashtray. Okay, let's try an ashtray. Toothpick, let's try a tooth-pick. And then I found out I really didn't give a damn about tooth-picks or ashtrays, but that I did care a lot about brooms. So, I couldn't do very many poems. It ended up that I had a only about ten poems, maybe a dozen.
JC: But elsewhere you say that objects are an impediment to insight. A character in one of your poems says "'We reach the real by over-coming / the seduction of images.'" If you get too obsessed with images you're sort of missing the forest for that tree, or that broom, or that toothpick or whatever.
Simic: Well, the character who says that in the poem happens to be a philosopher friend of mine. The person telling the story in the poem, however, knows that what this character says is impossible. It's certainly impossible for me. One of the wonderful things about objects is that they are like drawing. You really have to look at them with your eyes open, and then you have to look at them with your eyes closed, and only then can you begin to see more. The object is the task master. If you're writing about a fork, or a knife, or a spoon-or whatever you're writing about-you can't be arbitrary; you have to be faithful to that thing itself. There's a tremendous struggle back and forth-temptations to imagine too much, to invent, to dis-tort. On the other hand, if you simply look at it, there's not much to describe beyond a certain point. So back and forth, back and forth you go, between the impulse to be realistic and the imaginative impulse. Through such fundamental, opposing impulses there comes an incredibly interesting "other thing." But, like anything else, it's only interesting for a period of time. You get to a point where you just can't do it anymore.
EW: I wanted to ask you about the nature of the narrative thread that seems to binds these images together in your poems. Typically the reader of your poems is hit with a dazzling series of loosely connected images, and then often there's that final line that some-how connects everything. Is this in fact the logic of your narrative movement? And, if so, is it a conscious construction?
Simic: Well, depending on the poem. I mean, if one believed only in one kind of logic one probably could not write a poem at all. I want all of my poems to communicate. I am not interested in not communicating. But I also know it's possible to communicate on levels that are unpredictable. The simplest answer to your question would be to say that when I feel these things connect, I feel deeply that they connect only at some point. After revising the poem end-lessly, endlessly, endlessly, I say, "Aha, now it works." But I'm not interested in stepping away and saying, "How did you get that to work?" I just know intuitively it works. One should never under-estimate the imagination of the reader, the intelligence of the read-er. The reader can pick up on these seemingly unrelated images. For me it's a process of paring things down, moving things around until they seem to click together in some sort of fashion.
JC: On this subject of composition and audience, you said of trans-lation in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth that poetry is what transcends cultural context. Then there's Robert Frost's opinion that poetry is what is lost in translation. Do you still believe that a poem can safely cross the frontier into another language?
Simic: Well, it's my belief that it can. Certainly poetry is lost in translation to a degree, but so what? If that was the end of the story, we wouldn't be enjoying Japanese poetry, Chinese poetry. In my own case, I remember when I first read Chinese poetry in a big way. It was just after high school and I remember I got an anthology-I think it was called White Pony. I still have it. This was in Chicago, a hot August afternoon, and I was reading this anthology of poets dat-ing back five centuries before Christ. I read one poem and loved it. God, what a poem! And then another one and another one,. Later on I thought about it. This was incredible in a sense. I mean, here I am in Chicago in 1957 reading ancient Chinese poets. I loved this poetry, and I didn't know who the hell this poet was. I knew noth-ing about China or seventh century b.c. or fifth century. I didn't even know what century it was! Certainly, a lot had been lost in trans-lation-obviously-because I knew nothing about China. Neverthe-less, I had read something unlike anything else I had ever read before. I was deeply moved. I was deeply in love with these poems. Something occurred. Something happened. This event gets repeated again and again, and again. The notion that we can only under-stand things in our neighborhood is sort of dopey. I've read Nor-wegian books, I've read poems from Sri Lanka and from God knows where. This is something very beautiful. Going back to blues or jazz, Belgrade in 1944 and 1945 was full of teenagers who were just mad about the music. Nobody forced them. Nobody said "You must love blues." In fact, the whole system said "You are going to go to jail if you listen to this stuff." So I think poetry is maybe what gets lost in translation, but you have to add that poetry is also what transcends culture. Poetry is universal. It travels. The Japanese translated Emily Dickinson! They love Emily Dickinson. If you stopped and thought, "What the hell does Emily Dickinson from Amherst, Massachusetts, have to say to some contemporary Japanese?" you'd have to say it's im-possible, forget it. Yet it works. How does it work? It works because it's poetry.
EW: In Wonderful Words you quote Wittgenstein as saying "What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language." Do you believe language cannot do justice to heightened consciousness? How is the poet at the mercy of language?
Simic: I do. I really think that language cannot say or produce or convey the complexity, the depth of an experience, of heightened con-sciousness. When you feel exceptionally lucid, when you feel truly present to yourself and you see the world and you see yourself watch-ing the world, there's a kind of plenitude of consciousness. So you step away from yourself and say "My God, I exist!" But, saying I exist is an impoverishment. There is so much more there; the experience itself is much larger than whatever words you have uttered. So I always feel that language does not quite equal the intensity of ex-perience-that words are approximations. But this is a very compli-cated subject. The paradox that occurs is that attempts through words, through language, cannot instantly, simultaneously convey experi-ence. One attempts by manipulating words in some fashion to find a way in a poem to recreate what the experience felt like originally. But it's no longer the same thing. It's coming to it in a very dif-ferent way.
EW: But, although you say here that language is an impoverishment of the feeling, of the experience, you say elsewhere that metaphors are smarter than the poets who wrote them.
Simic: Yeah, thank God.
JC: This doesn't sound like an impoverishment, but something being heightened. Do you think you could explain that?
Simic: Well, I can try. It's complicated. I think what I am saying is that I cannot convey what happened to me at that moment. And that inability, and the memory of that inability, drives me to play with language in a certain way. It involves the belief that I'll find a way to recover that lost paradise, that original experience-which of course probably is no longer quite that experience, but something new that I have made up.
Gordon Osing: Somewhere between recollected and rigged in tran-quility?
Simic: Yeah, exactly. More rigged than recollected. It starts as a recollection which then quickly gets contrived.
JC: In Wonderful Words, Silent Truth you say that, in trying to recreate a moment on paper, language takes over and the words have a mind of their own. Can you explain how language becomes the controller and the poet the receiver of language?
Simic: When you start putting words on the page, an associative process takes over. And, all of sudden, there are surprises. All of a sud-den, you say to yourself "My God, how did this come into your head? Why is this on the page?" I'm delighted when this happens. And I do not resist it; I just simply go where it takes me. Let me give you an example. I have a poem I've been working on today. The speaker of the poem takes a walk after midnight in lower Manhattan. Dark streets, almost a desire to experience danger, the fear of the dark. He walks these deserted blocks in lower Manhattan on a cool winter night. When I started the poem, I had certain ideas of what he would find along the way. I saw him coming down Broadway to go to Canal Street. But, as I work on the poem, totally surprising turns take place. I mean, his walk takes surprising turns. Surprising sights pop into my mind. Then words on the page make love; they are attracted to one another. Also, my handwriting is so bad that some-times I misread my own writing and I think "Oh it's this," and then I say "No it's not," and something else comes to my mind. And the poem gets more interesting as a result. This is how these things happen. It's the sheer adventure of seeing where it's going to take you, of what will happen.
EW: Did you start by writing poems in English, or in Serbian and then translating them into English?
Simic: In English, always in English.
EW: How do you feel the fact that you didn't grow up speaking English has affected your writing poetry?
Simic: It's hard to say. My own experience has been so multiple, so crazy, that I have absolutely no ability to imagine what living in the place where I was born for the rest of my life, speaking the same language, would be like.
Gordon Osing: There's the famous example of Freud's abandoning Yiddish for German as being-in one linguist's theory-perhaps a nourishment to the growth of his subconscious by having a complete-ly repressed language in his imagination. An abandoned language becomes another language, so to speak.
Simic: An abandoned language becomes another language. In general, knowing other languages is important, reading poetry in dif-ferent languages definitely has an influence. I know French pretty well, and I know Russian. The more you know of the options you have the more you realize the range of options in what you can do. Ezra Pound used to advise young poets to hear poetry even in languages they did not understand. I once had a girlfriend who was Italian, and she used to read me Italian poetry. I know a little Italian just from knowing French, from living in Little Italy in New York. But it was just pure pleasure to hear Dante, or Calvalcanti. Beautiful.
JC: It's been commented that in your poetry there are a lot of plays with words and the sounds of words. You obviously just like to have certain words roll off your tongue and onto the page, and often this gets translated into a kind of jokiness. Do you think that this play-fulness comes from not having English as your first language, so that you're more acutely aware than a native speaker of the contours and ironies of English sound and sense?
Simic: Yes. But this could be also said in a different way. I think there is a kind of self consciousness if you are not a native speaker. One is aware of learning a language. One is aware of the beauty of certain expressions and certain words in a way that I suppose a native speaker is not.
EW: A lot of your work, including Dimestore Alchemy, isn't readily plugged into any one category. In fact, in his essay on you in New Literary History, Kevin Hart says that you remain unclaimed by this or that school of poetry.
Simic: Right. I like that.
EW: You wanted to be "unclaimed?"
Simic: At the airport, just like a suitcase. You come there and you see this bag that has been sitting there two hours and no one has picked it up.
EW: But how might you define your writing in Dimestore Alchemy? I know you talk about it as a "distillation."
Simic: Well, I don't know how to define it. Let somebody else define it. I always like these things that are neither one nor the other. I wanted to write a book which was neither prose essays nor prose poems-but something totally made up of all sorts of different things. There are passages that are expository prose, art history, critical writing-passages that sound like prose poetry, fables, anecdotes, God knows what else. I always love things that are kind of fragmented, that are bits and pieces. I guess I'm impatient with just proceeding in one direction. The only thing I ever did where I consistently moved in a linear fashion was my memoir "In the Beginning. . . " in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth because, what the hell, you have to begin where you were born, then you move on. But most of the time when I begin essays, it as if they are going to be regular essays proceeding in the way these things are usually written. Beginning here and moving the subject in a fairly predictable way. But then when I look at it, I find this linearity very boring and I chop it up. I usually take things out. I move things around. I approach it as a poem. In fact, every essay I've ever written was because somebody asked me to write an essay. "We're doing an issue on the pleasures of reading. Why don't you write an essay?" And I would say "No," and they would say "Come on, write something." Then I would say "Okay, okay." So I write it. And they are usually quite short, but not in the beginning draft. For example I have an essay on Emily Dickinson, "Chinese Boxes and Puppet Theatres;" it's the last one in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth. I think it's maybe three pages long. But I really like it. I think I say something really important.
JC: Isn't that where you claim to be Emily Dickinson's lost lover?
Simic: No, this is a different essay. It's true, but I said it in a differ-ent book. The essay I'm talking about here is on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I've taught her poetry for many years, and I had a lot of ideas and so I wrote an essay that was about fourteen pages, maybe more. And, when I was looking it over, I became impatient, because I'm a poet who likes short forms. I looked at the essay and said "Let me just cut to the chase and cut all this out." And I did. And what I had left pleased me.
JC: What about the essay that's called "Why I Like Some Poems More Than Others." It's such a wonderful anecdote. Did it start out in the same way?
Simic: Well, again I was stuck. I edited an issue of Ploughshares maga-zine and at the last minute, the editor comes to me and says "You have to write an introduction to this-why you picked out these poems." What a drag. It's hard to write those kinds of essays. So I had a little memoir. It wasn't quite like the assigned topic, but I realized that I could employ it through the title-and since it's about very strange connections being made in life, how strange connections are made in poetry. I like certain poems very much because of the strange connections that are made in them.
JC: But the essay never says that. There's just the title and then the story of the pig and tuxedo.
Simic: Right. But it was still an inspired way to solve the problem without writing an introduction to the issue of Ploughshares.
EW: You employ a wide range of forms in your poetry-from your early object poems to the prose poems you have written recently. Do you think about form when you begin a poem?
Simic: Well, I do, but not consciously really. Sometimes critics seem to think Shakespeare or Yeats started out by saying "Today I'm going to write iambic pentameter. Let's see, how does iambic pentameter go?" No. At most you have a feeling that this thing that's been bugging you is going to come out in short lines-or is going to be in long lines. It's a kind of an intuition, a hunch. And then, of course, in the process of writing this initial impulse or hunch is revised. A lot happens on the level of intuition. Form is the way in which the content, which is invisible, is made visible.
EW: On this subject of form, perhaps we could discuss the series of prose poems which make up your recent book Dimestore Alchemy ?
Simic: They're not prose poems.
EW: What would you call them?
Simic: Prose pieces. Prose fragments.
JC: Prose fragments about artist Joseph Cornell, whose idea of form was boxes filled with found objects arranged in strange and haunt-ing ways, little wooden boxes with glass faces and other things in them. Was there something about the form Cornell was working in-a very fixed form-in which he puts all of these strange things that attracted you to him?
Simic: Yes, sure. I mean the book is basically about me, too. It's about Cornell, but the reason I love Cornell is because I do something like that too.
JC: You saw a connection.
Simic: Yes, I saw a connection. I mean, a poem is a box. In a poem you're endlessly rearranging words and images. Cornell would have several boxes that he was working on at the same time, and he would say in his journals what he did that particular week after looking at these things in his basement. He'd look at them, and he would just move one little marble, a little ball or something, just move it this much, and then he would say "Now it all makes sense." And he would feel exhilarated. That makes perfect sense to me, too.
Joey Flamm: Is there an effort to give each book a feel of its own?
Simic: Yes, you try to give it a feel. What you do is write all the time, but then you begin to see some things that go together. There is a pattern or something interesting that ties it all together. So then I put those poems together. Yes, I want a book to be a unit, to be some sort of a whole, not just a collection of poems written between a certain date and a certain date.
Bill Davis: When did you realize that you had a talent for writing?
Simic: In high school. I was a senior in high school, and I had a couple of friends who were, I thought, just normal kids, clean-cut boys. And late one night they confessed to me that they had written some poems. I was shocked. They showed me the poems and I didn't think much of them. So I said, "Well, I'm going to write a poem, just to show them how it's done." But to my great surprise what I wrote was even worse. That really puzzled me. So being a smart kid, I went to the library and got a lot of anthologies of poetry, you know, to see if I could steal some lines. Who was going to know? So that is how it started. Then I got really interested: why are my poems so bad? I kept trying, and then I was spending most of my time writ-ing. But I still wasn't quite sure about poetry. I started writing a novel very early-when I was twenty years old. You've really got to be stupid to start writing a novel at twenty years old. I remember I wrote out a plot, to page 55. Then I ran out of ideas. So that's how it started. Then you meet other people who are interested in writing and in books-and little by little you talk about it all the time. Then somebody says, "This is my friend Charlie. He's a poet," and you say, "No, no, no, not me, not me." And they say, "Oh yes you are."
Greg Heartman: What are your creative writing classes like at the University of New Hampshire? Do you always have all kinds of students coming up saying "Read this" or "What do you think?"
Simic: Well, creative writing classes there are like any place else. I think now it's pretty standardized, the way we conduct classes. I love to teach the beginning workshops, just to convey this complicated thing in a simple way without distorting the complexity at the same time. It's always a challenge. One great thing about New England are these states like Maine and New Hampshire filled with little out-of-the-way places which have winter for nine months. You dis-cover that these poor children in these places have inner lives, an in-wardness, because there is nothing else to do but scrutinize the self. Introspection is a big thing, even though now cable t.v. has come into New England. That's going to be a problem because until recently you could count on the fact that all those kids in northern Maine and northern New Hampshire had never been exposed to stuff like that, so they had had to spend the long winter months using their imaginations, having secret lives.
Lynette Black: I'd like to go back to your comments on audience, on the active involvement of the reader in your poetry. Do you try to de-fine audience? And, second, do you agree with Paul Valï¿½ry that the work of creating a poem is up to the reader?
Simic: Well, I didn't always say this-I'm sure there are interviews that I gave twenty years ago and even more recently where I used to say "I don't write for anybody but myself." But it's not true. I've al-ways wanted to seduce the reader. I don't have a particular reader in mind, though I do have an intelligent reader in mind, an ideal reader. What gave me tremendous confidence as a poet was the Poets in the School program back in the 60's. We were given the opportunity in New York City to go to slum schools, schools that not even school inspectors dared visit. And you would go there, and the teach-ers before you went into the class would always apologize and say, "Oh it's a terrible class! I think a couple of them are murderers! That one over there, I think he killed his mother!" And then they would turn around and scream, "You there! I'm going to wring your neck if you don't sit down!" And then they would say to me, "Excuse me, excuse me." So you were thrown into this situation. You did it for money. It wasn't because we were going to educate the poor. I was poor myself. You're thrown into these classes and you're terrified because the teacher says, "We have a poet with us today," and they hadn't been told that anybody like this was coming. And there would be silence. So I went to schools where there were kids who were totally given up on by the system, but I found that they had ab-solutely no difficulty understanding poetry. Now, we're talking about simple poems-I wasn't reading them John Ashbery, or T. S. Eliot. I was reading them Whitman. I was reading them Emily Dickinson. And this happened repeatedly. I found that these kids understood poetry much better than the kids in Westchester, because occasionally they would send you up to Bronxville or White Plains or these suburban high schools, which were excellent. But these kids, if you gave them the simplest poem, would want to know what it "means." You know, "Is this a symbol?" It was very sad. They did not know how to read poetry. This is not just my experience. I shared this with other poets who had been in similar situations. And we really feel that there is a kind of American poem that has been written since Whitman and Dickinson that those kids in the slums understand extremely well. Let me give you an example. I have a poem called "Knife," And the best exegesis of that poem was in one of these class-es by a real tough guy. He was listening to a young lady asking some-thing about the poem because she didn't quite understand, and he said "Look"-I mean, he interrupted her, he was getting a little impatient with her-and he said, "You know when you get a good knife, how nice it feels to get a good knife in your hand, you know, a nice little switchblade." He was right! He was perfectly right! I mean that's the whole spirit of the poem, the feel of the object itself, of the knife in your hand. And he went on talking and he was per-fect. So that is my lesson-trust the reader's imagination and ability.
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For this fifth installment in a monthly series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler talks with Charles Simic. Charles Simic is a poet, essayist, and translator born in Yugoslavia. He has received many literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Wallace Stevens Award. Simic is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and in 2007 was chosen as Poet Laureate of the United States. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught since 1973, and is a distinguished visiting writer at New York University.
Peter Mishler: Your new collection features something I hadn’t noticed in your work before: eroticism and sexuality; and when I went back through your body of work, I started finding it everywhere. Do you recognize the erotic in your poems?
Charles Simic: I’m surprised how many poets never allude to sex in their poems, as if they never think of it, and as if there is not already a long tradition of eroticism in poetry going back to the Greeks and Romans. If somebody put all of mine together it would be a thick book.
PM: And yet in essays, reviews, and even jacket copy, your poetry is often characterized by readers and editors as haunting, ominous, dark, sinister.
CS: I imagine this has do with my ever-present sense of evil in the world. I grew up during the Second World War in an occupied and bombed city in Europe and have seen little since then that would make me believe that our species has learned a lesson from those horrors and that this century will be any better.
PM: How do you understand the regularity of children as subjects in your poems?
CS: I was not aware of that, but I’m not surprised. Like anyone who grew up and spent years living in a city, watching people continues to be my passion, and that goes for children too. They interest me as individuals, little mysterious beings who’ll grow up to be whatever they’ll grow up to be. In this mean world I feel sorry for them more than I do for the grownups.
PM: What are your thoughts about the consistency of particular images in general across your body of work? Is obsession a fair word to use in this context?
CS: Yes, obsession is a fair word to use. All poets, if they live as long as I have, tend to repeat themselves. Behind those images and subjects one returns to again and again, there are mysteries one cannot solve, mysteries of one’s identity and one’s fate. We have one life and that life continues to be a riddle, so it becomes impossible to leave all that behind and start anew as a poet in each new book.
PM: In reference to the title of your new collection Scribbled in the Dark, does the title reveal something about how you compose poems?
CS: I scribble in little notebooks or on pieces of paper with a pencil or a ballpoint pen words, images, lines of poetry wherever I happened to be. At night, since I don’t want to turn on the light and wake up my wife, I do so in the dark. Of course, I could get of bed and go to another room, and I do sometimes, but mostly I just stay put because if I do so, I know I’ll have a hell of a time falling asleep.
PM: I wonder if you think your difficulty sleeping has contributed some quality to the poems you’ve written in the night.
CS: I differ from the other insomniacs in that I don’t complain about my predicament. My secret for being able to function the following day is that I don’t allow myself to become fully awake. I lie in the dark without turning on the light. I may scribble something, but I don’t write whole poems. On the other hand, an inordinate number of them take place at night, so my insomnia must be the explanation.
PM: American poetry has lost Mark Strand, James Tate, and Bill Knott in the past three years, and I understand they were your friends, and that you knew their work well. What legacy do they leave behind?
CS: Do your own thing. That’s what the legacy of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson was too. The last hundred years have been the golden age of American poetry, so there’s plenty to choose from. Strand, Tate, and Knott had little in common as poets, so they follow in that tradition. My advice for a young poet would be read everything and then do what you want.
PM: I know you were ambitious as a young poet. Have you found that you’ve needed to keep that ambition aflame to continue writing decades later?
CS: Yes and no. Of course, I want to be unlike anybody else, but I don’t think about that when I’m writing. Perhaps I did when I was young, but after 60 years what keeps going is the fascination of making something out of nothing. A word comes into my head, then a phrase, and eventually a poem begins to take shape I may tinker with for years. My only ambition is to make something I have not done before and make it good.
PM: You write so precisely and presciently about American society and politics in The New York Review of Books. In your poems, a different kind of witnessing occurs, but never, it seems, to explain some witnessed truth or fact. Is there a relationship or tension between these two kinds of writing?
CS: Not at all. I dislike didactic poetry, poetry with a message, so I don’t make sweeping statements about our national predicament. In poems I try to convey how it feels living here and now in a country that has lost its way and may yet end up on the trash heap of history as so many empires have. It’s that dark vision that haunts the poems. I know many people who feel the same way. “We are fucked, Charlie,” a neighbor told me and he didn’t have to explain to me what he meant. In the meantime, the lilacs have blossomed, the children are chasing each other and laughing in the school playground and I’m going for a nice long walk in the woods.