It’s hard to think back to a time when Šalamun was anything but celebrated, but back in 1997 he had only one book in English, a 1988 selected collection put out by the Ecco Press Modern European Poetry series. The larger American poetry establishment had not yet discovered and embraced him.
We reached out to Šalamun, who lived in New York City at the time, and he took part in a series we put together at Biblio’s, an independent bookstore cafe, to a small but appreciative audience, most of whom we strong-armed into attending. I then asked Šalamun if he would be interested in sitting down for an interview, and he graciously agreed. The slate at the beginning of my recording tells me this interview took place in June 24, 1998 on the fourth floor of the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I worked as a lowly secretary.
While the microphones were being set up, Šalamun investigated a Picasso poster framed in the hallway. Going by the profile of a horse and the color palette, he whispered that it’s from the 1950’s. He guessed correctly, which made sense: he trained as an artist, and was part of the legendary conceptualist OHO Group, with whom Šalamun traveled to the United States to take part in the Museum of Modern Arts Information show in 1970, which Šalamun discusses here. When presented with a transcript from this interview, Šalamun asked that we hold off on publishing the interview. He never gave a reason, but my best guesses at the time were that he was unhappy how his English came off on the page, or that my questions, which I composed with Christopher Connelly, somehow misunderstood his work.
We never got the chance to work things out. Re-visiting the interview more than two decades after our conversation, and five years after his death, Šalamun’s English reads just fine, and the questions, except for maybe a couple, do the job they’re supposed to do, which was to shed more light on the poet and his work. It’s a bit of a time capsule: from question to question Šalamun tells his life story, a story of displacement and home-seeking that is perhaps more timely now than when we first had our conversation. Like his poems, Šalamun requires a special kind of attention.
DN | I would like to talk about the process of putting together The Four Question of Melancholy (White Pine Press), your 1997 collection of new and selected poems. It had been almost ten years since your last book (Selected Poems, published by Ecco Press in 1988). Was there more of a concerted effort to present the complete history of your career in poetry than there had been when Selected Poems was published? Were there specific poems or portions of your career that you wished to give more exposure?
TS | The first book was edited by Charles Simic, so I didn’t have any influence over how the book was put together. I think it was assembled in various stages and nothing was ever really planned. It wasn’t until I was at Yaddo, in 1986, when the first book was already in preparation, that I heard about a linguist named Michael Biggins who had mastered Slovenian in one-and-a-half years. I thought that this was so miraculous that, while he was teaching at some college in Vermont, so I wrote him a letter asking if he might be interested in translating me. He had never dealt with poetry before, but said, “Yes, let’s try.” Also, the way he started to work was to choose the poems that he liked, so his influence showed in which poems were translated.
Basically, the difference between the first book and the second was which poems Michael Biggins chose to translate. I had met Michael in the late stages. Christopher Merrill, Michael, and I all worked together only on the last section of The Four Questions of Melancholy, which was Ambergris. I have worked with Michael for years and our translations have been published in magazines. But, because Michael is not a poet, he had a hard time interesting a publisher. So it was incredible for me to meet Christopher Merrill. It is miraculous how much he improves the poems that he works on; I fell completely in love with what he did with my poems and Aleš Debeljak’s Anxious Moments. But still, the result is what happened in the process. Some poems that I had wished would be translated are in the book and some are not.
I think, basically, the poems in The Four Questions of Melancholy represent me well. Now, looking at the book, I think there some stronger poems in it and some weaker poems, but this will be corrected, since I am now trying to prepare new translations.
DN | Four More Questions of Melancholy?
TS | [Laughs]
DN | Do you re-translate poems perhaps when you are not happy with a particular translation?
TS | No. I cannot re-translate at all. I work with Chris Merrill. I prepare my own translations, then we sit down and practically every third, every second word, is changed because I trust Chris completely. We just spent four days on the sea coast in North Carolina, and we worked on twenty poems. We are trying to prepare a new book.
DN | I wanted to ask if you were working on anything now.
TS | No, not as a poet. I don’t have time, and I don’t have the energy. The last time I was writing was last summer in Italy. I worked a lot. I wrote a new manuscript, and I was completely happy. Before that was in March 1996 in Saint-Nazaire, France, at a writers’ colony. And from these manuscripts – two of which have already been published in Slovenian – we’re now preparing a book in English.
DN | There seems to be a faster turnaround now – from your Slovenian volumes to the ones in English.
TS | Well [laughs], nothing has been accepted yet. It’s very difficult to get published in America.
DN | One of my favorite poems of yours is “Jonah.” It feels like a poem that came out of your unconscious, fully-formed. Is the source of the poem as mysterious to you as it seems to me?
TS | I think it is a poem about friendship. It’s a poem about someone who is close to you and perhaps at the same time a friend. This is a poem which I thought as I had written it as maybe a friendship and love poem, as a friend, really, or as I was writing it, I was not aware. Actually, the title was the name of a specific person, and then I changed it. The title was originally a name in Slovenian, which is actually not Jonah. The title is the combination of the Greek and something else. Basically it’s hiding the name!
DN | So in hiding the name you somewhat add more resonance to the poem?
TS | I don’t remember how or why it was done, but the titles of my poems just come out. I wait and never know the title beforehand. Sometimes I have to wait a long time because I can’t think of a title. Sometimes I don’t give the poem a title or the title comes out of the poem. It’s that, you know, the material that’s very light, it comes, pops up, and I just I just take it.
DN | That’s kind of a painterly approach.
TS | Yeah, I think so. The title forms from itself.
DN | I think that what makes your poetry different from American poetry is that you ask questions in your poems. And often these questions appear throughout the poem and do not make sense in a linear sort of way. I was wondering if you’re conscious of this as a technique, or if you could address this technique with regard to particular poems – “Sky Above Querétaro,” “The Neck,” or “The Four Questions of Melancholy”?
TS | Well, about technique I know practically nothing. In the beginning, you know, I didn’t want to be a poet. It happened to me. It is something that happened because I was 22, and I was unhappy. I didn’t know what to do. I was at some sort of existential zero point.
These two things, my total unhappiness with my studies, started the process of my becoming a poet.
The process started as if, literally, some kind of stones from above would fall, on some kind of rough material. The first four or five poems came out of something. I was very afraid. It took a long time for me to acknowledge that writing poems was important.
In the beginning, I worked at promoting the poems of my best friend. We took them around to Slovenian magazines. I would say, “This is the genius of contemporary Slovenian poetry, you should read these poems.” And then somebody asks me “Do you write also?” Later, I sent my own poems.
So I never studied poetry. I studied art history and art theory, but my background is completely different from that of an American student of creative writing. I think that it is the result of the terrible history of 20th century Central Europe. For example, my grandfather had to leave Trieste because of Mussolini and suffered through two wars, fascism, communism – the center of Europe was really crushed, as it had been in the 19th century. My background is very, very chaotic. My great-great grandfather was a general and an Austrian baron, and then some Slovenian private citizen just grabbed his daughter and married her in Slovenia. There were terrible mésalliances. There were a lot of unhappy people, some suicides. Three generations back there were twelve children. Two were successful, one of them drowned, and another died in the First World War. So, all over the place, the memories are terrible and traumatic. If you compare this with the historical experience to that of a peaceful American…
DN | Right.
TS | But I think, happily, I do have a sense of form, which come from the Mediterranean part of my background. I love the extremes. I really like the most crazy poets – like Artaud, like Khlebnikov. Many of these poets died tragically. I like to experience the utmost borders of sanity, to test my courage, then try to come back and still, in some gentle way, to expose myself to the most extreme dangers, but save this world for the balance between the two. To increase the human experience, I guess. And maybe, I don’t know, that’s very Foucaultian. When I was young, when I was a student, I remember that Einstein had a big influence on me.
DN | Albert Einstein?
TS | Yes, Einstein. Also, Barthes’ first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, and the young Derrida of the late 60’s – L’Écriture et la différence, De la grammatologie. These were texts that really exploded something in me, to such a degree that when I came to America in 1971, I was so happy to escape Derrida and the French influence, because the whole atmosphere, the whole cultural scene, seemed more powerful. It was much more practice over theory; it was so overbearing in France it killed poetry. It was great for philosophers, but not for artists. And artists here were still untouchable and untouched.
DN | Your first exposure to the United States was in 1970, when you came as part of OHO, which was, should we say, a performance art group?
TS | Conceptualist group.
DN | What were audiences’ reception?
TS | The story goes like this. I started to write poetry in ’62-’63 and produced my first two samizdat books – Poker in 1966 and The Use of a Cloak in ’68. Then I got a grant to study art history, and I was supposed to earn my Ph.D. in Paris. My professor of art history said, “One day you will escape into your poetry.” He gave up on me, and I let him. I was passive because at that point I wanted to become a poet and wanted to devote myself completely to poetry. I dealt with art history as practical, social mimicry. I said to myself, I will do my Ph.D. in French historical painting. I studied in Paris, and it was something that didn’t impress me at all. It was burdening, and at one point I looked at an armoire – help me with the word – bookshelf?
DN | Yes.
TS | And I perceived it as a piece of sculpture, and I wanted to exhibit it. This was at the moment that Donald Judd had his first shows in Paris and he impressed me terribly. So I tried to situate my work in a theoretical context and, of course, it wasn’t successful. When I tried to do this, everyone thought that I was crazy, and I lost my sense of euphoria.
Then about a year or so later, it happened again, on the bus from Ljubljana to Koper, my hometown. I looked at a hay – you know how they put together hay in Europe? What is the word exactly?
DN | A haystack?
TS | Yes. I looked at a haystack from the bus, and it had the same illuminating effect upon me as the bookshelf had a year earlier. At that point I was strong enough to say, “That’s it.” I joined four younger artists who already had this OHO Group. They were all younger.
DN | And one of them was your brother?
TS | One was my brother, Andraž. One was an American student in Ljubljana, David Nez. The other was Milenko Matanović. He’s now living in Seattle. The last member was Marko Pogačnik, who was the leader of the four, but at that time was in the army. They were working on a small scale, so I grabbed them and said, “Now we’ll do this on a grand scale. This is really important – I’m now one of you. We’ll have the best gallery in Yugoslavia do our show.” So we put together a show and a catalogue was printed. Kyneston McShine, who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was preparing this show, “Information,” and by chance he had seen our catalogue in Frankfurt on someone’s desk. He wrote us immediately and invited us. MoMA gave us a grant and paid for the trip, and I spent one month in New York. It was a tremendously powerful experience for me. This was July 1970 – everything was hot, everything was naked. It was completely different from everything I knew. I knew Rome. I knew London. I knew Paris – but the energy was so great.
Also, as quickly as I had stepped into conceptual art, I stepped back out, in New York in July 1970. I think I was afraid. History had already decided who were the big guys in the Art world. It would be, you know, six, seven Americans, two Japanese, two British, one Dutch, and we were just kind of… [trails off]. Maybe I was too afraid. I spoke English poorly, barely at all, because I had had a very bad professor in my native city. I was raised a Francophile. I lived on the Italian border. Part of my family is Swiss. My nephew is a Polish poet – he’s had three books published and runs a magazine. Everyone in my family three generations back is nervous. My grandparents were lawyers and bankers. My father is a doctor, but has some son who is a bohemian.
So where was I?
DN | OHO?
TS | There were documents presented as pieces of sculpture. There was material, background material, and there were photographs of what we had done.
DN | And this was in your poem, “My First Time in New York City”?
TS | Yes, and I had become scared of being a sculptor, a conceptualist; you have to deal with a corporation to raise $10,000 for a project, and I wanted to escape this. I took Ferlinghetti’s letter, and I tried to find someone to help me translate the poems. Nothing came out of these translations, of course, because Ferlinghetti, when I had finally prepared a manuscript about two years later, Ferlinghetti said, “I’m snowed in. I receive four manuscripts every day.” [Laughs] He vaguely remembered that he had liked my poetry. Also, I think the translations were not good enough. But this experience definitely pushed me to write poetry and to get my poetry translated into English.
DN | Well, I guess that answers my “When did you first decide to concentrate on poetry question”!
TS | Yes, yes, you know, I knew that somehow this conceptual art thing was an episode, but I enjoyed it so much because it was so social. It was so beautiful – we were like five racing horses, having a great time together. And practically every week we thought of something interesting.
DN | I do think poets seem to miss collaboration.
TS | Yes.
DN | I wonder if you could elaborate a little more on something you said in a 1989 Denver Quarterly interview with Christopher Buckley. You were referring to the beginning of your career, when you thought it was necessary to open up Slovenian poetry to the “European tradition.” But then later in the interview, you said, “I don’t believe in avant-garde aesthetics anymore.” Do you think it necessary or inevitable that poets change their aesthetic stance as they move along in their careers?
TS | Well, for instance, when I started, we had influences, of French poetry, especially Rimbaud and Lautréamont, and to a certain degree Slovenian poetry. But Slovenian poetry, unlike Serbian poetry, didn’t experience surrealism until the ‘60s.
You know, I was just twenty-two. I began playing the piano as a kid, at twelve, with an insanely ambitious mother in a small provincial town, where I was a wunderkind. Everyone knows me as the big pianist. So I revolted and stopped completely when my father wouldn’t let me row twice a day for my heart. So I never touched the piano again. Because of this experience, between my twelfth and twenty-second years, I was not connected with the arts. Somehow, when I started to write poetry again, this was connected. But nothing like this [makes quotes] “Slovenian poetry needs.” It just came normally with an evolution of things.
I grew up between two worlds. Koper was part of the “Special Territory” called “Zone B,” which was not Yugoslavia – it was run by the Yugoslavian army but it had not been decided whether it would be part of the West or the East. What really defines me, basically, is that I grew up on the border between two worlds in the Cold War, at the moment where this window was quite soft. All the other lines were terrible – hard communism, like the Czech’s and the Hungarian’s, was terrible for young artists. But Yugoslavia did not have hard communism, and the borders were open with Italy and Trieste. Half of my relatives lived in Trieste. I had these rich Italian and Slovenian relatives in Trieste, and on the Yugoslavian side of the border we were these intellectuals. My father was a doctor. We were living on one salary, we were absolutely poor, and there was a tremendous mixture of backgrounds. My family had started exchanging their children before the war… I was fifteen and went to Brussels and Amsterdam, and the shock was enormous. We lived in poverty in Koper, this small town. A sister of my brother’s friend worked for Shell in Europe, and at fifteen I spent the summer in French castles. Then I came back to Koper. This produced great confusion [laughs]. And lots of bitterness, because I couldn’t understand these two worlds.
My chaotic background shows in my language. I have never thought that the life of the middle class is very interesting poetry. So in a way I adore castles – Yaddo is a castle – or totally bohemian places, really dark streets. What an artist is for me, basically, is the way bohemians lived in Paris.
DN | I am interested in your untitled poem that begins, “Whoever reads me/as ironic/will be guilty//before God”, which originally appeared in your 1976 collection Celebration. Does this poem address a particular, perhaps American, misreading of your poetry?
TS | No, exactly the opposite. This poem was written at Yaddo in February 1974, and it was directed against Slovenians who didn’t understand my poetry. First of all, it was a scandal. The Slovenians treated my poetry as this completely playful, silly game. So this was a shriek against the Slovenian perception of what I am doing. America was incredibly gentle with me. I got invited to MoMA. Just a year before, I had decided to have fun with conceptual art. I was invited to the Iowa International Writing Program. These were immense privileges that were given to me by America. So this poem is definitely not against Americans.
DN | I suppose It’s an insecurity complex some American poets have. We’re afraid that we’re not serious enough.
TS | Well for you, the pressure is from Americans, and for me the pressure was Slovenian. There’s pressure on poets, on young people who are doing completely crucial and existential things, that the public perceives this as junk and playing around, and tells us that they we should be doing more important things.
DN | And this untitled poem caused that much of a stir?
TS | Well, not that poem really. What did? Well, let’s start with this. After I had written twenty poems, this magazine, Perspektive, which was one of the most important magazines of literature, sociology and politics not only in Slovenia but in all of Yugoslavia, came under a huge attack by the party line. The editors of the magazine, who were ten years older than me, tried to save it by making me the editor-in-chief and another person from my generation.
DN | I never heard this part of the story.
TS | [Nods] Yes. But it didn’t help the magazine. The magazine was closed down. But because one of my poems, and because of my being editor-in-chief, I was put in jail for five days.
DN | For which poem?
TS | It’s not in a book. It’s called “Duma.” It’s not very…it’s an angry poem, but also a gentle poem. It’s very free. The Interior Minister – his name is Maček, which means “cat,” and in this poem I deal with cats. He took it personally. He felt that he was attacked personally, and he put me in jail.
There was reaction from the international press. This was Yugoslavia in 1964, and we were not supposed to behave like a Stalinist country. The reaction to my imprisonment from Le Monde and The New York Times was immense. They pushed me out of jail as a cause celebre, a cultural hero, and I had written only twenty poems in my life. From that point on, I knew I had to take writing seriously so as not to completely cheapen the experience [laughs].
DN | I can’t help but think that from where I sit as an American, this story sounds odd or funny. Just the idea of someone being a poet is an alien concept to public officials here. That a politician would read a poem, and read it thoroughly, that’s not something that would happen in America.
TS | Well, you have to take into consideration that the communist elite were all intellectuals. In Slovenia, the chief communist, [Edvard] Kardelj, was very aware that one day he might be fired because of culture. The system was too repressive. He was completely paranoid about poets, thinkers, and politicians who were Christian Socialists and others. But at the other side of the political establishment, poetry was read carefully. They were always interested in what the younger generation thought or did. Because everything was happening at this crucial moment. We knew what could happen in Eastern Europe, because of one name in one line in a poem.
DN | I wanted to ask about Mexico. In 1979 you lived for two years in Mexico on a study grant. I’ve read some of your comments on the differences between the U.S. and Mexico. What of that experience has remained with you?
TS | Again, it’s a very strange story. Basically when I came back from the States in ’73, from Iowa, the situation in Slovenia had changed dramatically. That was the beginning of the Brezhnev era, and I was politically suspect. I was under attack. The mid-’70s were very miserable. I was divorced and completely unhappy, and then the real repression began – my first experience with state repression was fun, but for a year-and-a-half in ’75-’76 I was oppressed Then in ’77, a friend of mine, a Serbian poet, said, “You do have some Slovenian readers. Don’t be so paranoid. I know a woman who is a fan of yours, and she’s running a grant program–she will find you something. Escape, get out of Slovenia.”
Mexico, at first, seems completely different than the United States because when I was there I was reading everything in Spanish. I tried to identify with the pre-Columbian past, and it was basically two eight-month periods of living and reading in Spanish. I didn’t investigate the cultural scene – only at the end of my visit did I visit [Octavio] Paz and other people. It was two beautiful years. I was free to write.
DN | Robert Hass, in his introduction to your Selected Poems, has mentioned your connection with Khlebnikov, a Russian poet who is not so well known to U.S. audiences.
TS | I’ve read him in Serbian. I’ve been told that the German translations are good. Khlebnikov’s a total genius. For me, he’s almost as powerful as Duchamp, but only recently discovered in the West. I remember an introduction written by Susan Sontag to a book of his poems in French. At a certain point for me, Khlebnikov and Mandelstam provided my background, just as Whitman and Dickinson for this American background.
DN | So Khlebnikov was, in a sense, your Whitman?
TS | No, Whitman was my Whitman.
DN | Does visual art and painting still influence your writing? Does it have an importance, for example, in how your poems appear on the page?
TS | Well, I’m constantly nourished by painting. By Cézanne, who was my first, by Picasso, who I think will be considered the century’s master. But not on how poems look on the page, not at all. When I first have the impulse to write, I have to reach a threshold and then wait. They usually come toward me. They describe what I see – this is the beginning of the process – and then, sometimes, some sentence has enough authority to break through and carries over twenty other sentences.
Things for me start by my seeing things. I don’t hear them. I don’t hear words. I don’t hear sounds. Sometimes when I am completely on fire and I’m in the process of writing, I can take in even whole sentences, which I have heard in random conversations or which come from memory or from some poem, but the process is I describe what I see in my head and just trust this.
DN | This seems to relate to a statement you made: “The poet is a hunter, not an expresser.”
TS | He is both. Sometimes I feel almost like a surfer, or that I’m running to escape a huge avalanche, moving as close as possible to danger. It’s the magic flute. The scent of God. In this way, maybe you’re a hunter. Basically, writing is a total joy. It’s a dance, an opening up, a standing and taking in of light, total delight.
Literally, sometimes when I’m in the process of writing, I smell my fingers, and I think I smell manna. [Pauses] This is why I like Rumi so much. Even reading Rumi makes my feel like I’m smelling physical grace. I even enjoyed him when I first discovered him in the very early ’70s, when Rumi was not read among poets and the translations were not good. But the power of his work slices through.
DN | I can’t help but think that, as a Slovenian poet, reading Rumi must resonate in different ways, having come from a part of the world that less than a hundred years ago was on the border of the Ottoman Empire.
TS | Maybe, probably so. The origin of my name, Šalamun, is not clear. It’s very clear that we came to the country in the sixteenth century. But were we Sephardic Jews or were we simply Turks? It’s not clear, because everything is described in seventeenth-century terms. My ancestors had already converted to Catholicism. I think we were in part Turks. It’s not clear, though.
I played this game with my brother while writing my last book, which was published in Slovenia, a book for my brother. It happened that we were both in Paris at the same time. It was very strange. He came as a painter and I as a writer. We lived in the same building, fifty meters apart. I had to [finish] a book, so we had not planned to be there at the same time.
My brother thinks we are Turks. I was also reading St. John of the Cross and writing this book, and I was doing this – some kind of amateurish, dervish dance in the morning just to wake myself up. Usually I started at 4:30 or 5:00 o’clock, and I was able to work two or three hours, and then I had to be very careful to slow down and not hurt myself, to be ready for this dance. I liked this situation, reading the 15th Century Spanish St. John of the Cross, feeling that [my family] may have come from Spain at that time. I feel as if we did.
It may be very pretentious, but I do have this reaction. When I was in New York and I heard Jewish music played for kids in school – I was on a Fulbright in ’86 – it was as if something melted, four centuries melted. And I cried two, three hours out of a strange kind of compassion and humility. I literally felt that some kind of connection had been made, between the distant past of my ancestors and now.
DN | You’ve said that as much as sixty percent of your poetry is written here in the U.S.
TS | Well, when I live in Slovenia I have many obligations. I have to make money, and very rarely can afford to be a poet. So to be a poet, I have to run far away [laughs], and the best faraway place around is Yaddo. You’re so protected and everything comes out and what comes out is so true. I think about fifty percent of my poems were written in the United States, twenty percent in Mexico, and the other thirty, thirty-five percent were written in Slovenia, Europe, the Italian Coast, and in France. I need to go far away to be able to open up. Everything I write is in Slovenian. But I like the silence, because then you know it’s untouched by the world around, to have Slovenian only for my writing. It doesn’t mix with the other civilian language or non-sacred languages.
DN | You said in an interview with Bob Holman earlier this year at the World of Poetry Reading Series that Czeslaw Milosz had encouraged you to keep writing in Slovenian. Had you entertained the thought of writing in English?
TS | Yes. It happened in the second year of my studies at Iowa. I started to dream about my childhood in broken English and this was a very schizophrenic moment for my writing. I went to Berkeley to meet Czeslaw Milosz and asked him for advice. And he told me, “Young man, Tito is not Stalin, you’re too old to change languages.” I was twenty-nine at the time, and I cherish this advice. And I think it was good advice.
DN | I have heard that some of the younger Slovenian poets use traditional verse forms. In corners of American poetry, there has been a movement toward formalism as well. What do you think about using traditional verse forms in poetry? Do you ever use them in your own work?
TS | I had one book – this was in the beginning of the ‘80s – and was at a moment when I thought that I had so destroyed language with free verse and my exuberance that I wanted to become a formalist. And it didn’t really work for me. But I understand that this is a moment when new forms of art [are] taking shape for new times. I’m reading New Formalists. For example, I really love Phillis Levin, who is not really a formalist, but is close to them.
One shouldn’t get too anxious about trends. The most important thing is to get to the source of yourself, even if it’s completely strange and crazy and not adaptable to the Zeitgeist. If what you write is true, the Zeitgeist will follow you. This is literally true. Because nowadays, Zeitgeist is older than you are – for at least fifteen years. Your are the Zeitgeist, though it’s not obvious yet, because it’s not out. So you must trust yourself.
DN | What other American poets do you admire? Also whom do you consider your masters?
TS | A lot of people. [Pulls out a list, laughs] For example, at this moment, I like Mary Ruefle. Mark Levine – I spent the whole summer with his book Death. I had the feeling that he’s my younger self, but he’s so much faster, much more intelligent. I want to try to reach the place where he is now. He’s great. I enjoyed having him close to me. I like Durs Grünbein, a German poet, Billy Collins, Ralph Angel. Then I have – I have a list of masters – Cavafy, Ritsos. I like Joshua Beckman; you probably don’t know him.
DN | I know him. He’s very good.
TS | He’s a very young poet whose first book is being published by APR.
DN | Here’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask. The reception to your poetry here has been very positive – people enjoy your poems. But I think – I know – that what younger American poets enjoy about your poetry is that it seems to circumvent a lot of the “big debates” in American poetry. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the main currents in contemporary poetry: narrative poetry, image-driven poetry, abstract poetry. There are debates about whether or not it is necessary to “make sense” or not, even whether it is okay to ask questions in a poem. To what extent do you realize that this is a source of Americans’ appreciation of your poetry?
TS | I’m immensely grateful for the appreciation. First of all, because Americans are so wonderful and polite, and I don’t quite believe that I have a really deep readership. But now I realize that yes, apparently, the book means quite a lot to some young poets, and I’m most pleased. But explain these debates to me.
DN | In broad strokes, it’s a continuation of what Robert Lowell called the divide of the “raw” and the “cooked” branches of American poetry, to be confessional and raw or to be an expert craftsperson. You might make the same remarks regarding slam poets and academic poets in MFA programs, or to be like Sharon Olds or John Ashbery…sometimes in my world, these seem like big divisions. Feuds, almost.
TS | That’s not a question you have to answer. It’s cultural politics. You are you at this time. All these debates are about twenty years older than your world, you know, and the world of aspiring artists. It’s important to be open and to absorb as much as you can. It’s so wonderful to be influenced by another writer, to jump into Blake’s belly, to be a part of Blake, or whomever you like.
Ashbery, to me, was an absolute god! I discovered him in ’71. I’ve read all of his poems. I have a strange anecdote that involves him. During my time at MoMA, Kyneston McShane, who was a friend of Frank O’Hara and a friend of John Ashbery, who was writing for Artforum. Kyneston told me he was going to arrange an interview with Ashbery. But I didn’t want to speak to any journalists! I didn’t know who John Ashbery was, and my English then was so poor. Then in ’71, a year later, I was reading these three poems that blew my mind, and I realized the writer of the poems and the journalist who wanted to interview me were the same person! I did visit him on the way back from Iowa, and we had two lunches together, which was very inspiring. He talked about his life, about art, poetry.
DN | Do you believe that there is a transcendent being that has power over the things of the world, a God?
TS | Yes. I’m not able to say much more.
DN | One last question: do you think poets have any obligation to their audience, to the world?
TS | [Pauses] Now, I think the blessing we artists do have is the gift of being able to write. To do this is, in itself, important, for what, we are in the world. It doesn’t mean only poets. And I really have to be faithful to what happens in my writing as it happens. I think that’s my only responsibility. Because if you have other reasons for writing, it can really confuse you. I grew up in a world that at six or seven, at eight years old, we were told you should do this, you should know your social responsibilities. What are the social responsibilities of a nine-year-old in Yugoslavia? What are the social responsibilities of a ten-year-old in Yugoslavia? I grew up with a tremendous skepticism of the power of the state or the moral majority or whatever would like you to do something different from what you do. No, I am grateful that I am on the planet. If I open up and listen carefully to what happens in the process of making art, I am an artist. I hope that I heal the world, and I hope that I don’t damage it. And, maybe, basically, that is it. I’d be very afraid of not being humble enough and having to do something for others. I’m very distrustful of politics.
DANIEL NESTER (Estados Unidos, 1968). Writer, editor, and poet. Nester is the author of two books about the musical group Queen, and his obsession with them: God Save My Queen: A Tribute and God Save My Queen II: The Show Must Go On. His other nonfiction work has appeared in numerous anthologies on gaming, poetry, and rock and roll. His first book of poetry is The History of My World Tonight. His poetry has appeared in jubilat, Crazyhorse, Open City, Slope, Spoon River Poetry Review, Best American Poetry 2003, Poets & Writers, Time Out New York, and Bookslut. Nester published and edited the now-defunct online journal Unpleasant Event Schedule, and served as Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas for McSweeney’s. In the past he has edited for La Petite Zine, Ducky and Painted Bride Quarterly. He also served as editor and wrote the foreword to Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam Movement. Interview originally published in The Critical Flame – A journal of Literatura & Culture.
AGNES ARELLANO (Filipinas, 1949). Escultora conocida por sus agrupaciones escultóricas surrealistas. Una tragedia familiar ocurrida en 1981 determinó el rumbo de su carrera y los temas principales de su arte. Sus padres, su hermana Citas y una empleada doméstica murieron en un incendio que arrasó la casa ancestral de los Arellano en San Juan, Metro Manila. Arellano recibió la noticia del incendio mientras estaba de vacaciones en España. En memoria de sus difuntos padres y hermana, decidió establecer las Galerías Pinaglabanan sin fines de lucro en el sitio de la casa ancestral. Allí se exhibirían muchas obras de arte filipinas y extranjeras inusuales, y también se otorgaron subsidios a artistas talentosos. Arellano conmemoró la trágica muerte de sus padres y su hermana 7 años después con un evento multimedia llamado “Fuego y muerte: un laberinto de arte ritual”. Creó una instalación única que consiste en un laberinto de santuarios temáticos en el jardín Arellano, combinando esculturas, poesía, fotografías, esculturas sonoras, plantas y recuerdos familiares. Esto demostró el profundo sentido del precario equilibrio entre la muerte y la vida del que había tomado conciencia después de la tragedia. Este tema también encontraría su camino en muchas de sus otras obras. Agnes Arellano es la artista invitada de esta edición de Agulha Revista de Cultura. A ella agradecemos por su cariño y complicidad.
Agulha Revista de Cultura
Número 217 | novembro de 2022
Artista convidada: Agnes Arellano (Filipinas, 1949)
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