At Play With the Toy of Language

WHAT'S missing is the laughter.

I can describe the setting for the interview - a small house in a rural New Hampshire town; the pine slope beyond the window runs down to a quiet lake. I can transcribe the words of the conversation. I can even offer you a glimpse of the poet's face, his dark quizzical eyes. But I can't give you the deep, Slavic voice, still heavily accented after so many years in the United States. I can't show you how his hands suddenly spring to life, punctuating an idea with a quick gesture. And, most crucial of all,

I can't include the eruptions of laughter that accompanied so many of his responses.

Sometimes the laughter is dark, ironic, echoing distant memories or nightmares. But often it is the deep, throaty, unbridled laugh of a grown-up child, savvy to the ways of the world but delighted by its quirky beauty, its undiminished sense of possibility.

The poetry of Charles Simic has garnered a good many of the prestigious awards the literary world bestows, including a Guggenheim Foundation Scholarship, the P.E.N. Translation Prize, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. "The World Doesn't End" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) earned him the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. His writing combines the Surrealist's flare for startling imagery with the lyric poet's sense of the immensity within the particular, the power of the small, well-crafted moment. His imagination bea rs witness to the awesome effect the 20th century has had on the life of the individual.

Since I first began reading Charles Simic's poems two decades ago, I have always admired the vivid, humane vision of a man who is capable of wringing so much mystery from the quotidian. It's clear to me our native tongue has been greatly enriched because of the daring he brings to its exercise. But I'd never really heard how much laughter was simmering behind the sad, absurd, mesmerizing moments of his poetry. Despite the wear and tear of survival, Mr. Simic is still playing with the toy of language. Rea ding the poems now, I am able to find a measure of redemption in the sound of that laughter.

Steven Ratiner: The sensibility in your writing is so unique, I find myself thinking of your poetry as Eastern European. But you've been in America since you were a boy.

Charles Simic: Right. I was 15 when I came here. I left Yugoslavia in 1953 and spent a year in Paris and then arrived in New York in 1954.

What made you leave your homeland?

[My father] was in Italy during the war. And his options afterward were to return to Yugoslavia, which was communist, or come here. We could not join him for a long time because of the so-called Iron Curtain. In 1948, Tito broke with Stalin and eventually ... allowed the [families] to leave.

The relationship between life experience and language is so subtle in your poetry, it's impossible to tell if the "I" narrator is describing memory or fantasy.

Sure, because I don't make a big fuss over the line between one and the other. There are poets who feel it is important that they say what truly happened. For me, very often I may have started with something that really happened. But then, if a more interesting fictional twist offers itself, I follow it. It's the logic of the words on the page, the situation as one writes the poem - whatever they offer, suggest, I'll take it.

In the opening poem of "The World Doesn't End" you say, "My mother was a braid of black smoke." The reader's natural impulse is to picture your real mother, to match our reality against that line.

Well, I was thinking of my mother there, yes. I think in those poems I was thinking of her, but perhaps not in the most literal fashion. I do not want to give the impression, create the sense that the "I's" story is authentic. But that "I" is very often a sort of creation somewhere between what really happened and what was invented during the process of making the poem work.

By "authentic," you mean that the words match some inner truth, not necessarily some event in the world.

The consistency is in the poem. It's not enough for us, when we're reading a story or poem, to have a sense that "this is true, this is deeply moving, I believe in this voice, this character." We want some sort of certificate to go along with it, that this really occurred. Well, sure it occurred - but not that way! But so what? It doesn't matter!

What about the poems "St. Thomas Aquinas" and "Shelley" from your recent book, which seem to describe a young immigrant's experience in first coming to America?

Yes, those are very much autobiographical in a more direct way. I came to New York in 1958 ... and it suddenly hit me: I don't know anybody! So I had crummy jobs, and it was hard to make ends meet. I was very lonely, as those poems convey. I never thought much about that period. It's not a heroic period in my life - or interesting even! But then it became interesting remembering it. I saw myself as an absurd, naive character. It wasn't even me anymore. And those poems were wonderful to write because I co uld look at this character and describe him in that space without really feeling anything personal - except compassion! Like compassion for a character in a book. I just kept laughing.

But there was also the sense of something redeeming in that experience. In the cold, impersonal city, you take refuge in Shelley's poems.

Yes, those were the days of glorious enthusiasms, of momentary epiphanies - like when you discover a new author. There were so many books that seemed like they were going to be the keys to all the mysteries. You go: "My God! Got to get that book!" ... And you run out of there into the night: "This will solve all my problems now!"

But many of the poems imply that, without that perpetual freshness in one's vision, then life is hopeless.

I agree, you have to preserve it. For me, the delightful thing about that period ... it allowed me to write a certain kind of poem which I can't quite write in the same way now. I mean, there's a kind of "mysticism" in there, almost a religious kind of longing which was present there. Those [experiences] had a combination of foolishness and purity of heart and a dopiness of youth - it's a wonderful combination.

What I've always admired in your poems is that, even in the most fantastical scenes, the images are so delicate and so convincing. They make you feel as if you are seeing the real world, but through a dreamer's eyes. The first prose poem in "The World Doesn't End" opens:

His mother was a braid of

black smoke.

She bore me swaddled over

the burning cities.

The sky was a vast and

windy place for a

child to play.

We met many others who

were just like us.

They were trying to put on

their overcoats with

arms made of smoke.

It provokes all sorts of afterimages - the child's sense of a dreamy security coupled with a hint of the crematoriums and Europe aflame. The ordinary objects of the world often take center stage in your poems - a rock, a fork, a table, a pair of shoes - as if the simplest experiences have the potential to erupt in your imagination. How does that sense of the world come up in your life?

Any feeling of imagination is simply a way to clear one's sight, to restore a certain kind of vividness and intensity to the world around you. The visual presences of these simple things have always meant a great deal to me. ... It's a beginning point. In the sense of William Carlos Williams's famous line, "No ideas but in things." Every thing begins with some kind of rock-bottom reality which is the reality of what's in front of your nose.

My family ... and our experience during the war. ... When you're being bombed and you live in a place where there's not much to eat, one lives in a kind of confinement. You have to run across the street, buy some bread, run back, looking over your shoulder. And inside this room, there's not much. You keep seeing the same things over and over - the same walls, the same chair. It is a kind of reduction. Everybody sleeping in the same room. It's cold, so you keep your overcoats on all the time. You've got y our little corner, your little air! That's about the only thing that's occurred to me over the years as a cause for this predisposition, this attention to physical objects and space.

Then how must your mind respond to this? Inside that small corner, you've got to create a whole world.

Right, you've got to make things interesting. Like da Vinci's advice to his students to study the cracks in the ceilings and the walls. That's where the imagination gets engaged. You have to renew the object every day in order to make life bearable. As for a child - a child plays with these objects. You don't have toys, obviously, in a situation like that. So whatever is there. There's a cup - I remember, as a little kid, going [making an engine noise, he moves his teacup across the table]. Turn it on it s side, it becomes a tank. The parents are saying, "Put that back, leave that alone! I can't stand that noise!" It drives them nuts because the real [tanks] are on the streets!

And you're bringing the war inside!

You need something to play with. So everything becomes transformed in your mind into some toy!

Which is wonderful because I think you play with language as an infinite toy - to see what can happen if you turn it on its side.

Exactly! I never thought of this, but one could say, "Simic, all you've done is to continue to play in that room of your childhood!" [A storm of laughter follows.]

Reading through your work, I was struck by how certain images or situations reoccur. "The Stone," for example, is an icon that reappears from your first collection through your most recent.

It feels as if there is something you're reaching for or struggling to reclaim.

First of all, this is true of all poets. ... You will find certain obsessive things: words, images, subject matter. We have certain things that are almost like amulets, magic objects, that we return to over and over again - it's like you never got it right. You never quite conveyed the fullness of the experience. Or maybe you did, but to your great surprise, you find that it still generates mental activity, imaginative activity. For me, the stone is one.

But there seem to be deeper yearnings that reoccur. "To All Hog-raisers, My Ancestors" begins "When I eat pork, it's solemn business/ I am eating my ancestors/ I am eating the land they worked on." Two decades later, you're writing "My ancestors, meanwhile, are eating cabbage. They keep stirring the pot looking for a pig foot which isn't there." Having been dislocated from your childhood homeland - could part of your poetry be a desire to recreate your sense of home?

I don't really talk about it that way, but it's true. My early life seems like some sort of dream because I left [Yugoslavia] and all that disappeared. The people who knew me then, for the most part, have died. I went back there twice, but never found anybody. And so there's an element of unreality about it. Well, this is not just my story but many people's story. Now, recently, for example, even this country where I was born, Yugoslavia, has been erased. So, with my past, the war and everything, there's

no place I can really come back to.

Though I don't think of yours as "political poetry," I can feel the gravity of politics in your work. In a subtle way, you describe the experience of people whose lives have been shaped by history and the affairs of governments.

No, I don't think of myself as a political poet. On the other hand, I do write a great deal about history. Twentieth-century history is a major subject for me, all the wars, atrocities, the horrors of the century - that has always been important to me for the simple reason that, given the casualties of my neighborhood in Belgrade, I could have easily been a casualty of war. My first memory in my life is when a German bomb hit across the street. It was 1941, I was three years old. And I flew out of bed, t he crib, with the impact and my arm broke. [Laughing] Flying in the air! I was asleep. I remember being on the floor and the room being brightly lit from the fire across the way.

That's exactly the sort of connection between life and language I mentioned. You have so many poems with characters that rise up and fly across the air. And the images are at once wondrous and terrifying. They must be rooted in these early memories.

[Laughing, with great pleasure] Yes, I started flying!

In reading your most recent collections, I kept detecting an undercurrent, almost a warning about the conflict between the individual's consciousness and the fantasy-machine of mass culture. Has the modern mind swallowed so many 30-second commercials and prepackaged philosophies that we have forgotten who we are?

You know, I always find it difficult to blame everything on the "modern mind." Sure, the modern mind is as you've described it. We have our superstitions, television, and other kinds of nonsense which we believe in. But I have a sneaky suspicion that human beings have really not changed that much in many respects. That's a wonderful thing and a horrible thing about them. It's wonderful in the way they're so sturdy, and it's horrible because they don't learn any lessons from history. They still love viol ence, they still like to hurt each other. It's essentially what they were hundreds of years ago, if not thousands of years.

Even though our country may not regard poetry and art as essential to its survival, when you are alone at your desk scratching away on your poems, do you feel this work makes a vital contribution to what goes on in the world?

I think so. I think poets have always been incredible historical witnesses. There's a way in which they take the pulse of the age better than anybody else. I've said this before: future historians, if they want to know the truth of our age, will find it more faithfully rendered in the work of many poets or novelists than in the pages of daily newspapers. Poetry has to be close to some kind of daily reality. [It's] the place where individuality, an individual's experience is defended, protected. That's wh y it survives.

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