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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic talks to Belgrade Insight about the function of poetry in America, and how a spell in the US Army taught him to stop thinking in Serbian.
Charles Simic has the appearance of a serious New York intellectual but he smiles with boyish joy. When he turns from the person he is addressing and looks into the distance, the expression in his eyes seems to hold many miles of poems.
He moved from Belgrade to the US at the age of 16 in 1954. He has lived there ever since.
Since the 1970s, he has been regarded as one of America’s foremost modern poets. He writes in English and draws inspiration from the big cities of his adopted homeland.
He recently visited Belgrade to present a Serbian - language collection of his poems, entitled Awaiting Verdict. During a press conference in the capitol, he spoke of his childhood in Serbia and of the condition of American literature.
He said good books were still produced in the US despite the financial difficulties faced by many publishers. Their debts, he said, involved numbers “so big that I have to forget them every time I hear them”.
Asked why he refused an invitation to the White House from Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush, he said saying “no” was sometimes easier than one thought.
He spoke to Belgrade Insight about how he adapted to a new country and a new language.
How did you make the linguistic transfer from Serbian to English?
At the beginning, I was translating. When I thought of an English word, a Serbian word would pop into my head.
And this went on for some years, I have no idea when exactly it stopped. I suspect that it really stopped when I was in the army between 1961 and 1963. I have to thank the US Army for accomplishing that. I guess it would have taken longer had I stayed a civilian. (Laughs.)
So, I then only thought in English and this is logical, since I spent most of my life with Americans. I wasn’t speaking Serbian and it was easy to always have your inner life in English. Now, when I come here, the language [Serbian] comes back, but I still have immense difficulty picking up on intellectual conversation.
Would you be able to follow any poetic inspiration in Serbian?
Not really. I mean, I’ve written poems in a couple of different languages, but English is my language. Next year will be 50 years of my poetry in English.
What is the difference in the perception of poetry between New York and Belgrade, and also between the US and Europe in general - given the fact that in America top poets have the status of stars?
This is a funny thing. Despite the decline in education, the decline in just about everything, we have this interesting poetry. As you say, our poets are very well known. Many sell thousands of books. And this is a total paradox.
Take Paris for example. If you have a reading there, it is usually in a bookstore and 15-20 people show up. If it is a reading of a fairly well-known French contemporary writer, you get 30 people. In United States you can be in some obscure place in upstate somewhere where there is a college you haven’t heard of, but they’ve been having reading series for years. Packed! Three hundred people show up. I once had 400 people in one of those places. They crave culture.
They’ve got enough readings of both poetry and prose to know that it’s not going to be boring, something interesting will happen there and also that’s where they meet other interesting people who would come to those kind of places.
I think that the explanation for why Americans read poetry has to do with a certain American solitude, with loneliness, with the way people are scattered around the country, the way they feel isolated and alone.
Poems, as you know, are much about solitude and being alone, but in some way tend to bring people together.
You have been translating works of notable Serbian poets. How well acquainted are you with young Serbian poets and how do they seem to you?
Serbian poetry now is very strong. They seem to produce truly talented poets. There was a strong generation of poets in the Fifties and Sixties. Maybe there was a bit of falling off in the late Eighties and Nineties but in the last 10 to 15 years, I was amazed at how many fine poets there are. It is not just because I’m a Serb, but I think that young Serbian poetry is stronger than other poetry around.
It may be a transit zone for truck drivers right now but Savamala was once the beating heart of Belgrade - and will be once again if a group of artists have their way.
Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…