“I take paeans with a grain of salt”
"When I was there last November after many years, I found Beograd, despite the signs of dire poverty, a bustling and attractive city. There’s no war, there are no Communists, so it feels much like a European city."Guest: Charles Simic, Journalist: Veran Matić
B92: To what extent are you as a poet affected by the radical social changes we face, at least by the changes occurring for the last two decades? How these changes reflect in your poetry?
Charles Simic: Immensely. I have always paid attention to what goes on in the world, but now with the Internet, I read a dozen newspapers and magazines every morning.
All that I read affects me. I’m not one of those poets who write about birds singing and their feelings as the night comes down without once mentioned that innocents are being slaughtered.
B92: How do you assess the significance of the intellectuals in that period worldwide, especially in USA which you are most familiar with, and Southeast Europe, where you come from?
Simic: Many of our intellectuals in United States are servants of our imperial ambitions. They dream up excuses for wars and justify policies of domestic oppression.
I think that has nearly always been the case everywhere despite the myth of the intellectual as a fighter for truth and justice. In my life, I’ve meet only a few independent-minded intellectuals and they tended to be marginal figures in whose opinion no one was interested.
B92: You are very well acquainted with the U.S. literature, and you also translate the works of Serbian authors into English; can you compare these two literary scenes?
Simic: They are impossible to compare mainly because of the unequal size. American poetry includes everything from traditional formal verse to avant-garde poetries. Serbia has a number of supremely gifted poets writing today, but it lacks the range and variety of American poetry.
This is not an argument for one or for the other. Great poetry transcends borders. A poet like Radmila Lazić, whom I translated two years ago, has been read and reviewed both here and in England.
B92: In a review of an International Griffin Poetry Prize, it is said that you are among rare contemporary poets equally acknowledged both by the audience and the critics. How much is it important for the poetry in general, especially given that the art of poetry is being considered marginal lately?
Simic: It is, and it is not. Some poets are more read in their lifetime, while other who are not, turn out to have a much greater influence on literature in the long run. I take all these paeans with a grain of salt. I trust more the voice at 3:00 A.M., who whispers to me that my poems are not so hot.
B92: You’ve been awarded with numerous recognitions, starting from the Pulitzer Prize for poetry to the membership in American Academy of Arts and Letters as a second Serb that achieved such a thing after Mihajlo Pupin.
However, you’ve been awarded only one literary prize in Serbia, although you’re quite present in translation. This is rather awkward as we are faced with a profuse number of literary prizes in Serbia. This phenomenon is greatly dealt with by Predrag Čudić. How do you comment on this?
Simic: True, I only got one from the town of Vršac. However, you must remember that I write in English and have been a part of American literature for almost fifty years, that most of my poems have not been translated, so it would be strange if I was also collecting awards throughout Serbia.
B92: What’s the difference in recognitions here and there? And in the position of a poet in general?
Simic: Writers and poets are only noticed in totalitarian regimes. They are either imprisoned and shot, or they become highly-privileged flunkies of the regime. In Democracies, they are marginal figures without any influence. That suits me just fine since I like and need my solitude.
B92: Which are crucial moments of your life and how do you remember them?
Simic: World War II in Beograd, starting with April, 1941 when a bomb fell and destroyed the building across the street and I was thrown out of bed after the explosion.
Like others at that time, I saw so much death, violence and terror, I myself find it difficult to believe. That war made me what I am.
B92: Mihajlo Mihajlov had returned to Belgrade. Do you think of that sometimes?
Simic: No. After 54 years, I feel too much at home in the United States.
B92: You said recently that you came back to the Majke Jevrosime street several decades after leaving Belgrade, only to find out that the window you had broken as a boy still isn’t fixed, despite all those years.
You’ve visited Belgrade several times, have you noticed any changes, evolution, or you’ve only experienced the feeling of status quo?
Simic: When I was there last November after many years, I found Beograd, despite the signs of dire poverty, a bustling and attractive city. There’s no war, there are no Communists, so it feels much like a European city.
As for the window, I’m sorry to say, it has been fixed after the NATO bombing which, at least, for the building where I was born, served.
B92: What was your Christian name before your departure to the U.S.?
Simic: My name was Dušan (actually, Dragoljub was the name given to me at baptism). I turned out to be Charles, as my father (I don’t know why) thought that it was proper interpretation for Dušan in Serbian.
Vreme weekly's Dejan Anastasijević on Charles Simić, in Serbian