Charles Simic moved to America at the age of 15. One of his earliest memories is the German bombing of Belgrade, followed by memories of hunger, selling gunpowder to buy toys and displacement as his family left Yugoslavia for a new land. He got his first glimpse of naked flesh in Paris and then moved to New York where he lived the bohemian life until he was drafted into the Army. A born observer, he took note of all of life’s inconsistencies, horrors and beauties. His first poem was published in his twenties and he has won awards too numerous to mention, including the Pulitzer Prize. He currently teaches English at the University of New Hampshire.
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 I’m writing.
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 scary.
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 US?
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.