The new book of essays by Charles Simic, a Serbian-American poet, is called “Where the Fun Starts”, published by Arhipelag and translated by Vesna Roganovic, and in it the poet reminisces about Serbia and Belgrade, and talks about his views of the American South, New York, Serbian and foreign poets and writers, and the situation in the world.
Simic’s attitude towards America is often quite critical, while in his essays about Belgrade he reminiscences about his own childhood and family members. Although Simic oftentimes defends poetry, he also criticizes its self-sufficiency.
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“My theme is actually poetry in the time of madness. Because I am fascinated by it, I notice that most of today’s poetry doesn’t even acknowledge history. Poets write about nature and themselves (with a pronounced self-sufficiency), but they don’t write about their executors”, Simic writes in one of his essays.
Charles Simic is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, MacArthur Fellowship, and Edgar Alan Poe Award, among others. He was also appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2007.
You left Belgrade at the tender age of 15. Much later you were quoted as saying that you never missed your homeland. Do you think that the reason for that is that you found what you were looking for in America, or maybe that you did not like what you had left behind?
Neither. After we immigrated to America, my parents got divorced, I left home when I was 18, and since then have been living on my own, first in Chicago, followed by New York. I worked during the day, and went to school during the night. I was very busy and overjoyed at the prospect of doing everything myself while not even being able to remember my roots.
Although you have been absent from Serbia for decades now, you view the country from a distance, and say that there is a sort of frightfulness in the Serbian mentality when it comes to facing the totalitarian nature of its leaders, or rather becoming aware of the reason why so many Serbs are carried away by their own historic mistakes. If it is really that “exhausting” to be a Serb, as you say, do you still feel as one, or do you feel like a full-fledged American?
Serbia and Serbs continue to fascinate me because I was born as one of them and I have this innate understanding of how their mind works, and where it doesn’t work. I am annoyed by Serbs because they are obsessed with their own history, and yet they have never learned anything from it. As things are, Americans suffer from the same disease so I do feel like home in the United States of America.
You don’t come to Belgrade that often but when you do, do you notice any changes? You wrote about a window that was broken several decades ago, and it still hasn’t been fixed. Is there any symbolism in that?
Many things have changed in the last 64 years, and yet a big part of Belgrade has remained the same. To my friends’ surprise, I have no problem finding my way around Belgrade. I used to skip school a lot when I was a kid, and spend an entire day walking around until it was time to go back home. I got to know Belgrade very well then. As far as the window goes, I think it wasn’t fixed because the families that lived on different floors of that building were feuding for decades and could not agree to share the costs of the repair because they did not talk to each other.
You also wrote about the American South. It seems that things change very slowly there. They are still dealing with the same problems with racism, the same conservatism. How do you interpret the contemporary “American dream” in big cities, in cultural and industrial centres?
The American dream was a fairytale that we used to tell ourselves and believe that it existed in the form of determination and self-initiative. We believed that it guaranteed every American an equal opportunity at attaining happiness in life. However, that did not apply to most of us. There were periods when the American dream sounded more convincing than today when our children have it worse than we did and when the pay inequality has never been greater.
What is the future of the United States run by Donald Trump, and what kind of destiny to do you think small countries like Serbia will have in that context?
I can’t see anything good ahead. The United States of America is embarking on new wars, the rich will become even richer, and the country has never been so divided. In regard to Serbia, if any of you think that Trump really cares about you, or can even find Serbia on the map, than you don’t you the first thing about our Donald.
The craziness of ideologies and the injustice of wars are the topics that you write about in your poetry and essays. You say that poets are still in exile. Do you really feel that way?
No, I don’t. I like this country and I feel like I was born in America which, by the way, has never prevented me from criticizing it. Since the time of Plato, poets have been accused of spoiling the youth and igniting basic instincts instead of conscious thinking which is why they had been expelled from various countries. For me, that is the best recommendation that poets could ever get and the real reason why people read poetry.
Your favourite Serbian poets are Vasko Popa, Ivan V. Lalic and Aleksandar Ristovic. Do you consider them your spiritual family in a way?
I have translated all three of them in English and I love their poetry. But they are not the only members of my spiritual family which includes at least 50 poets of different nationalities.
You have also written about the Serbian folk poetry from the Kosovo Cycle. How, do you think, the Kosovo myth corresponds to Kosovo and Metohija of today?
A myth never corresponds to reality. Centuries have gone by and Greeks don’t live in Troy anymore. I like the Kosovo Cycle, but it serves no purpose in resolving the problems of today.
Are you still in touch with the Serbian language? In which language do you dream?
I am in touch with the Serbian language because I read books and newspapers and translate poetry. I seldom have an opportunity to speak Serbian, but I haven’t forgotten it. I dream in English, apart from when my long deceased parents show up in one of my dreams.
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