Interview with Charles Simic on Teaching, Translating, and the Mystery of Writing Poetry
This telephone interview with Charles Simic was conducted by Timothy Gillis on October 19, 2013. Simic, 75, is a Serbian-American poet and was co-poetry editor of the Paris Review. Since 1967, he has published 20 books of his own poetry, seven books of essays, a memoir, and numerous of books of translations of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2007–2008, Simic served as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He is a professor emeritus of English who still teaches part time at the University of New Hampshire.
TG: You’ve been teaching at UNH for more than 30 years. How have college students changed over that time?
CS: Students were better educated. They read more in high school. They read more in middle school. We read Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare and lots of stuff like that. Now, there’s none of that. Nothing. Unless, on their own, you know, or somehow they just love to read and got into books. It isn’t just literature they don’t know. There are lots of things they don’t know. They don’t know history. They don’t know the history of ideas, politics, on and on. When I started teaching at UNH in 1973, this was the end of the Vietnam War, and student protests were still taking place, so back then students were “veterans” [i.e. experienced]. They were on the ball. That’s the biggest change.
TG: Tell us about your writing habits. Do you write every day? Morning or night? What’s your inspiration?
CS: I still write each day, but it has changed so much over the years. I’m 75 years old, you know. I’ve had many different habits at different phases in my life. I’ve pretty much covered all the possibilities. I’ve worked late, late at night for years. I’ve worked early, early in the morning, afternoon, midday. As for inspiration, things percolate slowly and then something happens, and I begin to scribble down words or phrases or lines of poetry, so it has evolved as a mystery how these things come about. Most poems that I’ve written I have no idea how they started or why. There’s nothing clear cut. Nothing where I could say, “Yes, this is the way I work.” Writers, artists really need to have habits and routines, but poets are different in how they work. Some have to have a routine, sit at a particular desk with a particular writing notebook, some kind of ritual associated with the writing work. I have none.
TG: No rituals?
CS: Nothing. [Laughs.]
TG: Do you carry a notebook with you?
CS: I have a notebook. I just scribble things. . . . At some point, I use a computer.
TG: Your work was published in The Café Review (10th anniversary issue, Spring 1999) Two poems: “Soup Kitchen” and “And Thou Art My Lord.” What is the importance of the small press as a vehicle to reach an audience?
CS: I think it’s the future, not big press. Not just in poetry — my publisher cut down their poetry listing, not just poetry, but literature, serious literature, has a hard time finding a publisher these days. The future is with small presses.
TG: You write your poems beginning in English, but you have also translated the writing of others.
CS: When I was young I did some French, I did some Russian. It’s mainly the languages of the former Yugoslavia Those published by small presses and grants from foundations — big presses won’t touch them.
TG: Is it possible to capture the essence in translation?
CS: It depends what kind of poetry it is. There are poets who are easier to translate than others. If a poet is influenced by [W.H.] Auden or T.S. Eliot, then you know how it would sound in English because you have an English model. So that’s much easier to do. But if you have a poet who comes from a native tradition, then it’s much harder because then you have to find an equivalent. Some poets are very difficult to translate, some poets are impossible to translate, and some poets are even better in translation than in the original.
TG: Can you think of a poet who gets better with translation?
CS: Well . . . [pauses to consider] I have to think about that. That’s something you want to be very careful about saying. [Laughs.]
TG: One of your poems begins “Monk at the Five Spot.” So you also love the plunk of Monk and jazz music?
CS: I heard [Thelonious] Monk a lot of times at The Five Spot [a jazz bar in New York City]. I used to live three blocks away. On cold, windy nights, in the fall, mid-week, or raining, I knew that if I went there it would be halfway empty. I could nurse a beer at the bar for an entire set. If I had money for another beer, I would listen to another set. I love Monk. He was a very, very strange fellow, and very interesting to look at, his presence, his appearance. I saw him once at the bar, between sets, nursing a beer, and I said, “I really enjoyed the way you played . . . ,” [forgets now what the song was], and he looked at me like I could have said, “I really liked the way to played Beethoven’s Sonata.” You could see that he was seriously detached. He was completely out of this world. I was kind of mortified. It was really troubling. But then, later on, I saw him again and realized he was meant for something special.
TG: Do you listen to music while you write?
CS: Oh yes. Not all the time, but I listen to a lot of jazz, some classical music too. Country music. I love all kinds of music. Never hard rock or big band music. A huge band, a lot of brass instruments: I can’t do that. I need something quiet.
TG: Would you consider yourself a lyric poet or a narrative poet?
CS: My impulse is the lyrical. I’m a lyric poet, but I also have an interest in stories. The thing is I like to tell them quickly. I don’t mind narrative things, but I don’t like them to go very long. Many of my poems have a hint of emphatic note, there is a slight plot line, but being lyrical, that’s my deep love.
TG: You came to the United States [from the former Yugoslavia] when you were 15 years old, right into high school. That must have been a bit of a jolt.
CS: That’s when you’re a kid, no choice, so you go to school.
TG: When you came to America, who were some of the first writers you were exposed to?
CS: I read fiction: Jack London, Mark Twain, [Ernest] Hemingway, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald. It was fiction. A couple years later, I started reading poetry. The first poet who blew my mind was Hart Crane. I had read [Robert] Frost and the others. But I love Hart Crane. I didn’t understand a thing he said. They are obscure. He was hermetic, and the language was so gorgeous, so I loved that.
TG: Who are your favorite artists?
CS: A lot of people. I wanted to be a painter.
TG: Until what age? When did you shift from painting to poetry?
CS: I continued to paint into my late 20s. And I was really painting when I was 14 and 15. I was interested in, typically: Impressionism, Post-Impression, and Cubism. That was all very exciting to learn about the late 19th century painters: [Vincent] Van Gogh, [Paul] Gauguin, so many other names — paradise, so many great artists.
TG: Many of your poems have enduring images of your life as a young boy in Belgrade during the Nazi invasion. In “Two Dogs,” you write:
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.
CS: That’s the thing: if you go to a war, world war, big armies clashing, civil war, bombs falling out of the sky, you learn some things. If you go quietly and sit down in some corner of the world, reflect on a childhood when you go fishing with your dad, there’s not a lot to say [about] when you’re three or four or five. When the entire world is going crazy, and it’s happening all around you, that’s when the memories start early.
TG: From a newer poem, “The Foundlings,” you write “Time’s hurrying me, putting me to the test / To picture to myself what comes next.” You’re 75 years old, still teaching and writing. . . . For Charles Simic, what comes next?
CS: You know, to quote Rodney Dangerfield. He says, “Look, if I take terrific care of myself, watch my health, I’ll be dead in six, seven years.” [Laughs.] Who can tell what comes next for me? I knock on wood a lot, during the day, and I hope I still write a lot of poems.
Note: This is an edited transcript. Portions of this interview appeared previously in the Portland [Maine] Daily Sun.