Carlye Archibeque: In your recently released
memoir, FLY IN THE SOUP, you start your introduction by saying that
given the proliferation of acts of war and aggression around the
globe, your "victim status" so to speak is not that strong anymore(forgive
me if I misinterpret). I was wondering what you thought about the
idea of being a victim in poetry. Confessional poets are very popular,
and some are genuinely worthy of praise, but your poems seem to
be less a revelation of victim-hood, than a statement of a fact
as it happened. What do you think of confessional poetry, the works
of Plath or Sexton for example.
Charles Simic: Both Plath and Sexton are
great poets, but not because of what they had to confess-but almost
despite their exhibitionism. The problem with playing the role of
the victim is that one ends up by telling the world, I suffered
more than anyone else, I was always misunderstood and yet I'm so
deep, so sensitive, so kind, etc. It's embarrassing. Who would want
to have a friend like that? Nevertheless, there are clearly readers
who enjoy the spectacle of someone making an ass of themselves There's
also envy involved. If only I could whine like that in public and
get away with it, they say to themselves.
CA: Your most recent collection of poetry
has more of a settled feel that your past work. There is not quiet
the air of the traveler in it that there was in say, HOTEL INSOMNIA,
which seemed like a world of American experience. How did your current
collection come together?
CS: I write poems and then down the line
after 2-3 years, it slowly dawns on me that I may have a book. Life
goes on, things happen, one has new experiences, new thoughts and
memories. All that influences what I write. Only after the book
comes out do I begin to understand what went into it, but not while
CA: HOTEL INSOMNIA is also an interesting
collection, it seems so themed, how did that collection come together?
CS: Well, I've been an insomniac all my
life, so I thought I'd write about that. I've done my best thinking
and imagining while lying sleepless, so it was inevitable that it
would my eventual subject.
CA: You have released quiet a few books
of poetry, several of which have been rewarded with prizes. What
does the release of a new collection mean to you now as compared
to your early publications?
CS: It's still very exciting, although
not as exciting as it used to be, since now I can spot the book's
faults quicker than I once did and takes away from my good mood.
CA: Where were you when you learned that
you had won the Pulitzer and how did it feel?
CS: I was at a friend's house in Delaware.
There was no time to feel anything since the phone kept ringing
for the next three days and I had to come up with the expected answers
that I was surprised, happy, etc. I'm sure I was, but at the same
time, it's like winning the lottery. It wasn't like I was due to
get one and deserved it. It was mere luck and being lucky is a little
CA: For me personally, not that I've won
a Pulitzer, after I've written something especially good, it is
hard to write again for a while. Do you ever feel like you've written
all of your best and wonder how to go on writing?
CS: Yes, of course, but since there's no
chance I can ever stop writing, I don't worry much about it. I don't
have a choice any more. I'll go on writing even if nobody reads
it. I never took myself seriously enough to have a writer's block.
CA: What is your writing process like.
I read somewhere that you never sit down to write a specific poem,
is that true?
CS: I have hundreds of drafts, notebooks
full of jottings, so the poems assemble themselves out of such verbal
fragments. Does anybody really sit down with a blank piece of paper,
writes the title, say something like STILL LIFE WITH ASPIRIN or
WY FLIES DON'T FIGHT, and then to tries to think of the first line?
I must have done it once myself, but that's not how I work.
CA: How do you come up with the titles
for your poems? Sometimes they seem far removed from the subject
of the poems themselves.
CS: If the poem is clear then the title
is supposed to suggest some other dimensions of meaning and make.
On the other hand, I have many straightforward titles: SPOON, FORK,
KNIFE, STONE, CAR GRAVEYARD, etc. What more could you ask as a reader?
CA: Do you hit on a title first and then
write a poem or the other way around.
CS: Only in a few cases that I can remember.
I read once the phrase PAST-LIVES THERAPY and I though aha! I can
guess the rest.
CA: I assume that you were not a native
English speaker when you came to the US, yet your poetry is able
to grasp the nuances of satire and metaphor that many American born
poets never manage. Do you think that learning English as a second
language gave you a better relationship to its use in poetry. I
guess I am just curious about what you think of the language.
CS: I love the language, always have and,
yes, in the beginning I was very self-conscious writing it, but
not any more after so many years. It all sort of happened without
my thinking about it very much. At the age of 18 I did not know
what would become of me. I wrote poetry, but so did plenty of others.
I was a poor kind who had to go to night school for ten years to
get my college degree. I was too busy making ends meet and that
turned out to be the best preparation one could have had to be a
poet in a language not one's own.
CA: Are you aware of the work of our newest
Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, or his Poetry 180 program in the schools?
I wonder, if you were chosen as the nation's Poet Laureate, what
kind of things do you think you would do to further poetry in the
CS: I'd turn it down. I can't see myself
as Poet Laureate because I never have any constructive ideas like
the one you just described. Billy Collins is the prefect choice.
CA: What do you see as the purpose of poetry
in the world, and what do you think happens to people denied the
ability to express themselves artistically, the people under the
rule of groups like the Taliban for example. When the Northern Alliance
took Kabul recently, one of the first things people did was hook
up the radio station and broadcast music. What is it about the human
condition that demands art? What is it within you that demands the
writing of poetry?
CS: People everywhere like to sing, make
up jokes, love poems, write graffiti, draw pictures, etc. Why? Because
life would be boring otherwise, which, of course, is the ideal of
every fundamentalist sect everywhere. A society in which there's
no flirting, no art, no literature, only the endless recitation
of some sacred text. The only artistic activity allowed is killing
and torturing of infidels. I'm not just thinking of Taliban. We
have people in this country, too, who rage against "secular humanism"
and dream of shutting down the libraries and the museums.
As for me? Why do I write? For that very same
reason: Because I like to sing and joke around then think what about
what it all means.