October 7, 2008

Conversation With a Literary Giant

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What with the ghosts of Nabokov, Vonnegut and Pynchon haunting its corridors, Goldwin Smith Hall must have felt quite comfortable to former Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who stopped by Ithaca on Thursday, October 2nd as part of the Creative Writing Program’s Writers at Cornell reading series. The poet, a native of Belgrade who moved to the United States at the age of 15, has won numerous accolades for his terse and often dark poetry, including the Wallace Stevens Award, a MacArthur Fellowship and the Pultizer Prize. Decked out in a brown leather jacket and his trademark tinted glasses, the 70-year-old poet sat down with The Sun a few hours before the reading in the office of English professor J. Robert Lennon:
The Sun: You’ve commented in the past on the special role of the American experience in the development of the lyric poem. I was wondering if you could comment on what makes the United States so suitable for the lyric.
Charles Simic: Well, I think the personal lyric — the I; the individual, solitary I — is an ideal type of poem for a huge country of vast spaces, [a] mostly sparsely populated country of loners; of people who know about solitude and who live lives that lack a kind of a community where they can change certain emotions, certain ideas; [and] where the people who they feel close to usually live hundreds if not thousands of miles away — [people] who are condemned to that strange American solitude. It’s not a situation that corresponds to perhaps any other place except Russia. It’s not the poetry of France, or Italy or England. I mean, lyric poetry’s always poetry of people who are loners, but not to the degree as in this country. Personal lyric is what everybody writes.
Sun: So you see it more as a function of geographic distance rather than institutions or a democratic spirit?
C.S.: Yeah, I think it’s more the predicaments of the people. You would not write that kind of poem if you were living [in an] urban situation where you had friends and family and relatives and you felt a community. I think it’s that lack of community. If you look at these poems, they always speak to nature, they speak to God, they speak to the moment in which the solitary I exists.
Sun: There are lots of images that recur in your poetry — dogs, wind-rustled trees, barber shops, bloody sunsets. After so many years of writing and reconsidering the same material, do you find yourself constricted at all by the images that you’ve chosen to write about in the past?
C.S.: Bloody sunset — that’s a proverb I’ve used too many times. [But] there’ve been more dogs in my poems for the simple reason that I always had dogs. I live in a village full of dogs. I know every pooch around because they kind of roam free, and so it’s inevitable they would appear in poems.
I don’t feel constricted. [When you] write a poem, you feel constricted because you have to start from scratch every time. It isn’t that poetry’s made easier by having written before. Certainly you don’t want to repeat yourself, but at the same time I know from reading other poets that everyone repeats themselves, because we’re limited — we have certain things that interest us, certain things that obsess us, certain images, certain ideas. So if it creeps in I’m not worried.
Sun: So you don’t feel the weight of your past work when you’re trying to create new things?
C.S.: No.
Sun: A little phrase I’ve noticed you repeat is a “greasy thumbprint” — in your poem “Cockroach” you talk about a little bug that has false papers bearing your greasy thumbprint, and in an interview with Michael Hulse you talked about leaving your greasy thumbprint on a seal for new poets at an imaginary academy. I was wondering: What would you want your greasy thumbprint to be on American poetry?
C.S.: [Laughs.] It’s interesting, I think the reason I had that recurring image [was] being fingerprinted when we left Yugoslavia. We were displaced persons and we didn’t have any kind of proper documents, [we were] just typical immigrants worrying about documents, and you get fingerprinted from time to time. I don’t know if you’ve ever been fingerprinted — it’s a kind of strange, humiliating experience. And then there’s the other kind of experience: When I was a kid I my hands would get greasy [from] eating something greasy and [I would] put it against the wall — “Oh my god, if my mother sees this …”
But my print — I don’t think I articulate it to myself. You hope that your way of looking at things, your irreverence, your something, some point introduces a new note, [or] my own print. But what that is precisely I wouldn’t know how to name.
Sun: From some of your poetry I get a feeling of discontinuity between this century and the past, especially in a poem like “Medieval Miniature,” where old depictions of hell are like nothing when you look at a dog walking through a bombed city.
C.S.: Well, the ability to destroy is much greater than in the past. It was hard work chopping off heads. You read in the history books, ancient Chinese or Indian history, king so-and-so, emperor so-and-so single-handedly chopped off a hundred heads off of his hundred top generals. That arm must have really ached after. It was slow, how fast can you do it? But he had help. He probably said, “Hey you guys, give me a hand.”
Sun: Now it’s more mechanical.
C.S.: Yeah, the kind of destructive power we have, and the killing, the slaughter. The other thing about this century and the more recent wars — more civilians died than ever before in the past wars. In the past wars in the 19th century, armies would line up one against the other, they would charge and [there would be] slaughter, carnage, but then they would retreat and sit down in some village and recover. Nowadays, with mass bombing and the kind of weapons we use, innocent bystanders — what they call “collateral damage” — die. Innocents, complete innocents.
Sun: This must have an effect on the human psyche.
C.S.: Well, I think it maybe has an effect on those who notice it, but what is also very strange is how we got used to it. We don’t really kind have the moral imagination and indignation to complain. During the Vietnam War people went out on the streets and screamed. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we dropped in the entire Second World War, so people there said, “Hey wait a minute, that’s killing a lot of people.” Which it did, depending who is counting, but it’s either two [or] three million. Now there are figures in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but no one seems to be terribly excited about it or outraged, and that really is strange. It’s very upsetting.
Sun: You’ve mentioned several times your trouble with insomnia. What has this sleeplessness done to affect your life and your work?
C.S.: It has made me what I am. I think my character, my identity, was formed between three and four o’ clock in the morning. But everyone’s a philosopher at three o’ clock in the morning, and four o’ clock in the morning is much harder because you realize this has gone on too long. “I better get some shut-eye — 15 minutes [of] sleep — otherwise I’ll going to be pretty in trouble the next day.” But I’ve grown to like insomnia.
Sun: Really?
C.S.: Oh yeah. Because these are times when I do my thinking, or when I remember. And when the thinking is done, the remembering is done, [I] lie there in the dark in that astonishment that I exist. And for reasons that are totally mysterious to me, I can’t fall asleep. It hasn’t been anxiety. I am very often sleepless after a long, lazy day when there’s no reason whatsoever to be awake, there’s nothing the next day and there’s no source of anxiety — and yet I lie there. As my father used to say (and he was an insomniac, too) “Well, we’ll all sleep plenty when we’re dead, so appreciate these moments.” And now that I’m over 70, I think he was right.
Much thanks to the Cornell english department for helping ot facilitate this interview. Check out more of this interview at cornellsun.com.