Interviews January 2001

Seeing Things

"Images, images, images"—for the émigré poet Charles Simic, they're the story of his life
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I'm wondering about how this frame of mind informs your poetry. Do you find yourself moving back and forth between lucidity and calamity as two different ideas of poetry—or are those two different ideas of poetry? Do you think it's valid to set Robert Frost's definition of a poem as "a momentary stay against confusion" against the persistence of confusion itself?

I think they're two different ideas that sort of play off of each other. The stay against confusion implies a moment of clarity, a moment when you see through the maze. But on the other hand, it's that wonderful confusion of images, the multiplicity of images, which one cannot reduce to a single idea, that makes one's life and experience interesting. The most haunting moments or memories in one's life are not those one can explain or reduce to some theory. It's when that sort of puzzlement, the sheer oddness of how all these events occurred, remains with one—when one is still under that spell.

Near the end of A Fly in the Soup, you suggest much the same thing: so many of the moments of one's experience are absolutely ineffable. Yet there's an ineffable attraction in trying to find the words to fit them.

Of course, of course. Language constantly fails me. That's why I continue writing. I'm completely convinced that language cannot convey adequately the deepest of our experiences, but that's no reason one shouldn't keep trying.

You write that when you'd encounter people who were certain of themselves and of the world, who'd never undergone the experiences you'd undergone at a very early age living in Belgrade, you would resent them on the one hand and pity them on the other. They had not yet internalized, as you had, how superfluous and insignificant every individual is—that at any moment it could all be turned on them.

Yeah, the idea that we're all walking on thin ice is more apparent in unhappy places, places of endless war, suffering, injustice. You get an idea very early on that we're just lucky to be around. But I don't know. Learning early about death and destruction certainly doesn't make people wiser. There was horrendous death and destruction in Yugoslavia between 1941 and 1945, and forty-five years later they couldn't wait to get back to death and destruction. What surprises me is that history, clearly, is not a lesson. You don't learn a thing.

Have you ever surprised yourself with feelings of nostalgia for moments that were horrifying at the time you experienced them?

It's the most perverse of all things, because after all, it's your own life. I'm sure if you spent part of your early life in a penitentiary, you would look back and say, "Ah, that was a great day. We were all out in the yard. The sun was shining, and I was sunbathing, and I said to myself, 'God, I feel so good!'"

You only have one life. One very foolishly grows nostalgic about days that were clearly, for others, days of horror. As I describe in the book, the first days after the Russians liberated Belgrade were pure hell for a lot of people. There was great danger, because there was the settling of political scores. People were being shot. There was nothing to eat. You name it. But for me, it was a glorious period. I was alone on the street with the kids, free. As I said in one of the essays in The Unemployed Fortune Teller, a review of two photographers' books of Sarajevo kids, all the adults look miserable. They just look worried, you know. The kids, on the other hand, are all beaming. Kids enjoy wartime—unless a bomb is falling on your head and you're really scared. The rest of the time, all this other stuff that looks awful to everybody else is paradise. A building that has been bombed becomes the ultimate jungle gym.

I wonder if from a very early age, without realizing it, you were getting a sense of the built-in absurdity of everything, a sense that continues to animate your poetry.

I think that's very well put. Now when I look back, that building across the street that we used to climb was dangerous, terrifying. Bad things happened there. I mention some of them: the kid who fell down and was never the same afterward. I mention that we were finding all this live ammunition, gathering it, selling it to older kids, and so forth. There were little grenades of some sort. One of the kids on our street lost both hands, up to his elbows, dismantling a grenade. It was a frequent occurrence that someone would suffer badly. But when you're young, thank God, you're stupid. You don't think about it. My poor mother was working and couldn't really keep an eye on me, and I had a grandmother who was kind of old and sickly, and so I did things that if I knew my kids were doing them when they were little, I'd go crazy.

But yeah, the total absurdity of things: if you're young, you can simply accept and adjust. So there was a building across the street; now it's a ruin. For grownups, an awful thing. They keep talking about it. It missed us by only yards. It could have fallen here instead of there. But for us kids, wow! What a terrific place!

Poets always talk about their influences, and they name chains of other poets. Was there ever a moment when you were coming into your own as a poet at which you recognized that as much as Apollonaire or Borges, your poetic influence was the blown-up building across the street?

No, it wasn't until I started writing memoir. When I wrote my first memoir, Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (1990), some of these things became apparent to me. I just hadn't thought about it before. Occasionally I would tell my children or friends some story about those days, but I didn't systematically try to reconstruct it. And I was very happy that I was asked to do it, because it forced me to start from the beginning and to remember, and I wanted to be accurate. I wanted to be sure I got things more or less right, for the sake of my children. My father had just died, and my mother was old. There would be nobody left to remember this. And it was only slowly that I began to realize what the biggest influences in my life had been: that building, and that crazy life.

There's this startling passage early on in your memoir, "We ran down to the same cellar, where today some of the original cast of characters are still cowering." As you were writing these essays, did you feel spurred on by the knowledge that history was repeating itself?

Yeah. In this century Belgrade was bombed four times. The first time was by Austrians in the First World War. Then in 1941, when I was there, by the Nazis. Then in 1944, the Allies, and in 1999 by NATO. And I still have an aunt who lives there, and an uncle, and a cousin, in the same building, and some of the other people in the building were there when I was there. I don't mention it in the book, but my uncle actually died of a heart attack when a NATO bomb hit a TV studio close by. He was old, and he could have died in his bed of a heart attack, but certainly when a bomb hits.... My aunt said that the whole building seemed to levitate. So yeah, it's incredible. I know that cellar so well. I know what it looks like. You watch CNN here, and you can call them up—I mention this—you call them up, and they say, "Uh oh, listen," and they stick the phone out the window and you hear the sirens.

Politically, your feelings about the Balkans must be very ambivalent. You said that your father believed in fighting for a just cause, and your mother, on the other hand, never abandoned her belief in the absolute stupidity of any sort of fighting. What goes through your mind, seeing a Milosevic who's wreaking terror, but then watching NATO bomb Belgrade?

Well, I was both against Milosevic and against the bombing. I don't think bombing accomplished what they think it accomplished. What they did—when, after a week or so they'd hit any military target that was worth hitting, they went after infrastructure—just destroyed the country economically. Anyone who's been bombed knows how the innocent suffer in any kind of bombing. I just don't have a stomach for that sort of thing. I don't believe in aerial bombardment as a cure-all. But as far as Milosevic goes, I've written a lot about him. He's a truly evil man. There's nothing good to be said of him.

In one of the essays in The Unemployed Fortune Teller, "The Minotaur Loves His Labyrinth," which consists of a series of journal entries, you wrote that when people talk about mnemonic devices in poetry, they always talk about rhyme and meter. But there's rarely discussion of juxtapositions that are so startling, so compelling, that they sort of burn themselves on the memory. It seems like the poetry you're writing is a poetry that seeks those images: you mention James Tate's "wheelchair butterfly," Bill Knott's "razorblade choir," two words that become unforgettable simply by standing next to each other. Maybe it's a shade of the old argument: Is poetry what's lost in translation, or is it what survives translation? It sounds as though you might be of the mindset that great poetry is what survives translation.

Mark Strand and I made that argument once in an introduction to an anthology. It's really not entirely true. Most generalizations about poetry are only partially true. There's always an exception. There are poets who rely so much on the sound of the language—the melody, the music of the words—that they cannot be translated. Or if they're translated, they don't sound like themselves, because hearing is so much a part of experiencing their poetry.

I can't imagine trying to translate, say, Wallace Stevens.

Well, Stevens has a lot of imagery and interesting words. They can work in translation. But someone who really depends so much on music—Hart Crane, maybe—it doesn't come across. Images are easiest to translate. If somebody has a red apple on a white plate, piece of cake. Where it gets a little tricky is when you deal with idiomatic language or complicated metaphors, where you realize that literal translation will not work, but some sort of equivalent can perhaps be found. But you can't find an equivalent in the dictionary; if you're looking for an idiom, it just has to pop into your head. But to come back to the original point, images have always been very important to me—movies, you know, I'm a twentieth-century kid. I wanted to be a painter when I was young, loved the movies, art, photography—it was images, images, images. And I really think of my life, my experience, as a story of images. Images juxtaposed. Images that tell their story by being brought side-by-side.

Was part of the appeal of writing poems in English—not your first language—a sense of an absolute clean slate, a fresh beginning?

I didn't think about it. It was just that I had a couple of friends who were writing poems, and I noticed that they were very successful with young women. And I said, "Well, let me give it a shot." Young women were all interested in literature, and talking about books all the time, so that seemed like an additional seduction technique or option. People say to me, "Why didn't you start writing in Serbia? What did you think at the time?" I didn't think anything. I didn't have a thought.

So when did the impulse to write poetry really set in?

After a while it becomes an obsession, or an extension of obsession. You need it for your own daily existence. Then it becomes an intellectual obsession. Like any other art, you're thinking of your contemporaries, and your very strong feeling, especially when you're very young, is that your contemporaries don't know what the hell they're doing. So you have to straighten out the world. And eventually you also have all kinds of aesthetic theories. So it gets complicated. It becomes an ongoing complication, and the literary world, happily, is unfriendly. It's not like, when you're young, people are jumping up and down, saying, "Oh, my God! Another poet! Aren't we lucky!" Essentially, it's, "Get away, creep! Out of my sight!" And this all fuels a kind of passion and soul-searching and obsession. It's a true obsession. At that point, you can't help yourself. You just work.

From time to time in the book, you'll begin to tell a story by announcing that you're going to tell a story. You'll actually set aside a sentence for it, and it helps create a feeling of intimacy by replicating something that really happens around the family table. People say, "I have a story about that," and all the attention is then drawn to them, and then the story proceeds. Was that a conscious effort, when you were writing—to simulate the sense of dinner-table conversation?

My grandmother on my father's side—not my father's mother, because she died when he was young, but the woman whom my grandfather married—she was an amazing woman and lived to be quite old. She lived in Switzerland and used to come to see my Uncle Boris. If you asked her a question like "Do you remember when the Germans bombed Belgrade, in 1941?" or "Do you remember seeing Gone With the Wind when it came out?"—any question about anything that had happened to her—she would say, "Yes I remember. The night before, Grandfather said to me, 'You know, Mitza, it's been a long time since we had veal chops. Why don't you make some veal chops tomorrow?' So I'm thinking to myself, Well, let's see, veal chops, I used to go to so-and-so, but last time the veal was so tough. Maybe I'll go and see this other butcher." So you have a 35-minute preface. Finally, she's leaving the butcher with the veal chops. It's very early in the morning—it's five o'clock in the morning on April 6, 1941, and the bombs start falling, and she has to retreat back into the butcher's.

I adored that in her—that she would connect every event, in her memory, with some sort of eating: "I was making pancakes when Stalin died." She had a large family. There were a number of small children, and they always had a full house. Her life consisted of constantly cooking large meals, and she was around the stove all the time. Anybody else would jump on her, and say, "Grandma, cut it out. Get to the point." And I would say, "No, wait, talk! Let her talk." She'd get more and more absurd. You could make her digress even more. Let's say she was going to make veal chops with sautéed mushrooms. If you asked her, "What kind of mushrooms? Where'd you get these mushrooms?" she'd say, "Ah, that's another story." And off we'd go! These stories of hers were epics of the ordinary. That's where I learned to tell stories.

Eric McHenry's poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Northwest Review, Orion, and Slate. He writes for Bostonia magazine.
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Eric McHenry has written about books for Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times Book Review.

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