Interview with Charles Simic — December 21, 2012
Charles Simic is a poet, essayist and translator. He was born in Yugoslavia in 1938 and immigrated to the United States in 1954. His first poems were published in 1959, when he was twenty-one. In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and in 1966 he earned his Bachelor’s degree from New York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition. Since 1967, he has published twenty books of his own poetry, seven books of essays, a memoir, and numerous books of translations of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry for which he has received many literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship and Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. Simic is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New Hampshire where he has taught American Literature and Creative Writing since 1973 and the Distinguished Visiting Poet at New York University where he teaches every fall semester. Since 1999 he has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Simic was the Poet Laureate of the United States 2007–2008.
Christopher Nelson: You begin a recent book, Master of Disguises, with an epigraph by Wallace Stevens: “Everything as unreal as real can be.” It seems to me the perfect statement for what I enjoy most in your work: an atmosphere both macabre and human. Talk to us about this atmosphere that is so characteristic of your poems, so consistent and unique.
Charles Simic: That’s how I see things. We are here today, gone tomorrow. “All that remains of these cities is the wind that blows through them,” Brecht says in a poem. I’m of a generation that saw whole worlds disappear in our life time. When I was a kid my grandmother would take me to watch silent movies with Chaplin and Keaton in a ratty old theater while Nazis hanged people from lamp posts on the street outside.
Nelson: Given your personal history—born in war-torn Belgrade, a childhood of emigration, military service during the Cold War, the Yugoslav wars of the ‘90s—a reader might expect your poetry to be more explicitly political. Why have you, for the most part, written otherwise?
Simic: I have written hundreds of poems that have to do with war, slaughter of the innocent, firing squads, bombing of cities, torture and being a displaced person. I don’t mention names or places, but it’s all there. Often I’m explicit: “The President smiles to himself; he loves war / and another one is coming soon,” begins one poem; “The butchery of the innocent / Never stops,” starts another. I’ve written about every war this country has fought since the Vietnam War.
Nelson: I’m fascinated by the recurrence of the homeless, undertakers, butchers, insomniacs, cellar dwellers, et al. in your poems. How do you think of these … friends? Do they have an allegorical presence?
Simic: Not at all. These are real people. There has always been a lot of misery in this country. They used to be called bums or winos; now they are the homeless. The sight of them breaks my heart. I have a lot of them in my poems. The butchers have always interested me because I find myself incapable of killing a fly. As for insomniacs, I have been a bad sleeper all of my life, so the subject comes up again and again.
Nelson: Helen Vendler describes your style as “vulgarity cheek by jowl with sublimity.” Why do these, surprisingly, work in concert?
Simic: Because they exist in concert. Only a hypocrite would claim his or her thoughts are only devoted to higher things. I don’t like poetry that forgets that we eat, fuck and shit as well as kneel down to pray.
Nelson: Like you, as a young man I was more interested in visual arts than in poetry. Did those years of painting shape your poet’s vision—your images, your sense of setting and scene?
Simic: Yes, very much. Painting, photography and the movies have taught me as much as literature ever did. I painted from the age of fifteen to the age of thirty and still think of a blank page as comparable to a blank canvas.
Nelson: As childhood is one of my poetic obsessions, I’d like to hear your comments on a circumstance in some of your poems: the child left behind, maybe at a school now decrepit.
Simic: As a child who grew up during the Second World War and moved from country to country afterwards, I attended several schools where I was the new kid, the foreigner who barely spoke the language, the one who got punished even when he was innocent, so school was no fun for me. Played hooky every chance I got, hated most of my teachers and my classmates. If someone had told me then that I would spend my adult life being a professor, I would have thought they were insane.
Nelson: God, the absence of God, the mysteries and terrors of consciousness—you address these fairly directly in your essay “Charles the Obscure,” published nearly twenty years ago now. Here are a few of its evocative moments: “It has always seemed obvious to me that we are alone in the universe. I love metaphysics and its speculations, but the suspicion at the core of my being is that we are whistling in the dark.” And: “If I believe in anything, it is in the dark night of the soul. Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church.” And lastly: “The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about [gods and devils] even as it acknowledges their absence.” Has your thinking changed as you’ve continued to move through time—or as time has continued to move through you—however that works?
Simic: That’s still my position, though I come from a long line of Eastern Orthodox priests on my mother’s side and ought to have drawn closer to the faith of my ancestors as I grew older. To me the Christian belief in God is a blasphemy against the mystery of the universe. I’m perfectly content that the mystery remains unsolved, that we will never find out what the meaning of the cosmos and everything else is. Emily Dickinson used the word “awe” when contemplating such possibility. That “awe” is all we have, eyes and mouth open in wonder at the majesty of the ineffable.