August 1998

Charles Simic

Charles Simic Charles Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938. He is the author of over 60 books including Walking the Black Cat, A Wedding in Hell and Hotel Insomnia, all from Hartcourt Brace. His book of prose poems The World Doesn't End was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. In addition to being anthologized many times over, his work has appeared in New Yorker, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry: for which he was the guest editor in 1992. Currently, he lives in New Hampshire with, among other things, a broken foot. This is his first appearance in an online magazine.

Charles Simic

J.M. Spalding: Could you talk about your early years and your life before you realized you were a poet?

Charles Simic: Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom, boom, and then they would go boom, boom.  Even after the war was over, I went on playing war. My imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in Belgrade.

When did you first feel what Pound called "the impulse" to write?

When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems.

How did you act on this impulse?

I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.

How did being born into a war-torn Europe affect your writings later on?

My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin. Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.

In spite of all this, how have you managed to keep your sense of humor?

It's not like I have much of a choice. Sobbing and biting my pillow won't do me any good.

Who are your influences?

The way Don Juan adored different kind of women I adored different kind of poets. I went to bed, so to speak, with ancient Chinese, old Romans, French Symbolists, and American Modernists individually and in groups. I was so promiscuous. I'd be lying if I pretended that I had just one great love.

If you had not become a poet, what would you have done?

I would have liked to own a small restaurant and do my own cooking. The dishes I like are mostly Mediterranean, so you'd have been served squid, octopus, lamb sausages, eggplant, olives, anchovies.... I'd hire my poet friends to be waiters. Mark Strand would look great in a white jacket wiping with a napkin the dust on some wine bottle of noble vintage.

In Walking the Black Cat you've created a collection in which the poems are stunningly surreal. In The Street Ventriloquist, for example, an old drunk man speaks on a street corner through passersby. Even the narrator is spoken through. Could you talk about your intent, and your feelings about that collection?

I'm a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

Who do you show your work to before you send it out to magazines?

I show it to Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson. If I catch them making faces, I hop back under the blankets and scribble some more.

Do you find that the way poetry is received (via readings, etc.) in America is much different from, say, the way it is received in Europe?

I suppose there's a difference, although here, too, most poems get to be read in private. Frankly, I don't know. After 44 years in the United States, it's hard for me to talk about Europe with any authority.

In terms of the propagation and perpetuation of poetry, how important are readings nowadays?

I think they are important. Without them, poets and poetry would be pretty nearly invisible in this country. That's how it was in 1950s, even in a big city like Chicago. It was easier to meet a genuine Communist than someone who read poetry.

What do you think of poetry slams?

They are fun, but they have as much to do with poetry as Elvis Presley had to do with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

As a teacher, how would you say today's students differ from students of 20 years ago?

They knew more. It's rare nowadays to encounter students who have read a lot of literature on their own.

Who are some important Eastern European poets who get ignored in the United States?

I recommend Adam Zagajewski in Poland and the Slovenian Tomaz Salamun.

Where do you find your inspiration these days?

Piece of cake. One needs inspiration to write when one is twenty. At the age of sixty, there's the mess of one's entire life and little time remaining to worry about.

Do you ever sit down to write with the intention to write about a specific thing?


What is the hardest thing for you to write about?

Everything is hard to write about. Many of my shortest and seemingly simple poems took years to get right. I tinker with most of my poems even after publication. I expect to be revising in my coffin as it is being lowered into the ground.

Do you ever write spontaneously?

Sure, all the time.

A British-Hungarian author named George Mikes says that Central Europe is in or at the Balkans. Do you agree with this?

If I understand him correctly, he is saying Central Europe ends at the Balkans. Is that it? Central Europe consists of a series of nice, upper-middle-class suburbs, and the Balkans are the inner-city ghetto. In any case, that's the usual implication. Since I would rather live in Harlem than in Westchester County, I have no objection to his saying that.

What is your favorite alcoholic beverage?

Red wine.

Have you ever read a poem and wanted to drink because it was so bad?

That's it!  Daily readings of all these awful poems I write has made me drink wine every night.

I know that Paul Breslin's review of Walking the Black Cat must make you gag. Is there anything you would like to say—in your defense or punitively—in response?

I would consider myself a total failure in life if Paul Breslin or someone like William Logan admired my work. Everything I have ever done as a poet was done in contempt of what he regards as "good" poetry. A man without a trace of imagination or original ideas, Breslin is the incarnation of smug, academic mediocrity. He is as close to understanding poetry as Lawrence Welk is to playing jazz.

What was your reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize?

Surprise, of course. Prose poetry is a fraud, and here it gets a prize. A lot of literary people are still very upset about that.

What are some of your favorite magazines?

Field, Boulevard, Gettysburg Review, Raritan...

What happens now for Charles Simic?

He hobbles with his broken foot to the kitchen and opens the refrigerator, deep in thought.

Any final thoughts?

Mangia molto, caca forte, I nia paura de la morte.


Charles Simic: Interview by J.M. Spalding
Copyright � 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FourThe Cortland Review