An Interview with Charles Simic by Adele Kenny

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This interview appears in its entirety in the Fall 2013 print issue of Tiferet.

It is available for download in digital format here.
It is also available on Kindle.

Dušan [Charles] Simić was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938. His memories, as he noted for this interview “… begin with April 6, 1941 when he was three years old, when a German bomb hit the building across the street from his and threw him out of bed at five o’clock in the morning …” During World War II, his father was arrested several times and in 1944 fled from Yugoslavia to Italy, where he was again imprisoned. Simic’s mother attempted to escape postwar Yugoslavia but was imprisoned with Charles and his younger brother by the Communists. Charles, his brother, and his mother ultimately moved to Paris, where they lived for a year before emigrating to the United States in 1954 where they joined Charles’s father after a decade apart. Simic, now a prolific, as well as acclaimed, poet has published over sixty books in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to being a distinguished poet, he is also an eminent translator, essayist, critic, and editor. A 1990 Pulitzer Prize recipient, he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000. Charles Simic’s poetry is characterized by dark imagery and incongruity— a stunning blend of originality and genius that produces a style unmatched in contemporary poetry.

AK: How have the darknesses of your childhood in Belgrade, such experiences as being drafted into the U.S. army and serving as a military policeman in France and Germany, and Eastern Europe’s past impacted your poetry?

CS: Growing up in wartime, being bombed, seeing atrocities, going hungry and spending a little time in prison shaped my outlook on life. My poems are full of allusions to such experiences, not just mine, but to those of many other human beings in other wars and other times.

AK: It has been remarked that your style is characterized by simplicity and strangeness with an unsettling quality. Dark imagery and irony are seen in many of your poems, along with nods to the surreal and to the farcical. How do you view these elements as characteristic of your work?

CS: This is how I see the world. As someone whose memories begin with April 6, 1941 when he was three years old, when a German bomb hit the building across the street from his and threw him out of bed at five o’clock in the morning, this is an inevitable condition. My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts were the same way. History has made us into a family of cheerful pessimists.

AK: How do you see poetry as a place in which the poet can achieve freedom?

CS: Poetry is freedom. The best poems never imitate, never worry what other people think. That’s why there’s so much poetry in the world. Where else would human beings find a place where they can let their feelings and their imagination run free? That’s what attracted me to poetry when I first started reading it and writing it fifty-five years ago, and it still does today.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind While Sitting Down to Write a Poem from Charles Simic

1. Don’t tell the readers what they already know about life.
2. Don’t assume you’re the only one in the world who suffers.
3. Some of the greatest poems in the language are sonnets and poems not many lines longer than that, so don’t overwrite.
4. The use of images, similes and metaphors make poems concise. Close your eyes, and let your imagination tell you what to do.
5. Say the words you are writing aloud and let your ear decide what word comes next.
6. What you are writing down is a draft that will need additional tinkering, perhaps many months, and even years of tinkering.
7. Remember, a poem is a time machine you are constructing, a vehicle that will allow someone to travel in their own mind, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get all its engine parts properly working.
 
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