Interview by Michael J. Vaughn
Introduction and About Poet Laureate Charles Simic
My only meeting with Charles Simic was—much like his poetry—surreal and brief. Arriving at UC Berkeley on St. Patrick’s Day, 1993, I realized I had nothing for him to sign. (As a Simic evangelist, I routinely gave away his books to anyone who expressed an interest.) Rooting around in my back seat, the only thing I could find was a baseball. To his credit, Simic barely blinked an eye at my spherical offering, and today it sits in one of those plastic-globe trophy holders on my mantel.
Of course, what I had already received from Simic was vastly more important: a vision of what poetry could be. This came in the form of his 1990 Pulitzer-winning collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End (Harvest Books, 1989). Simic took the plainest form available—the common prose paragraph—and filled it with one startling image after another, using everyday language and a sculpted brevity to seemingly double the firepower of each word. The book also revealed a rich wry, humor; the selection that always comes back to me describes a childhood so impoverished that he “had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.”
“These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear.
I came to understand that Simic’s use of surreality was not the wild, world-shifting experiments deployed by the initial Surrealist movement of the early 20th century. It arrived, rather, in brief, image-laden flights that were used to expand and enrich the discourse of an otherwise “normal” poem. “The poems are like self-developing Polaroids,” wrote a reviewer for the New York Review of Books, “in which a scene, gradually assembling itself out of unexplained images, suddenly clicks into a recognizable whole.”
Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1938, and spent much of his early childhood under the shadow of World War II. During the 1941 bombing of Belgrade, a blast next door threw him off his bed and knocked him unconscious. He emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 16. He grew up in Chicago and received his B.A. from New York University. He is professor emeritus of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, and lives on the shore of Bow Lake in Strafford, New Hampshire.
Along with the Pulitzer, Simic has received a MacArthur Fellowship (1984-89) and a Wallace Stevens Award (2007). He is co-editor of the Paris Review, and has also worked as a translator, essayist, and philosopher. In 2006, New York Review Books reprinted his 1992 tribute to American collage artist Joseph Cornell, Dime-Store Alchemy. His most recent poetry collection, That Little Something, was released by Harcourt in early 2008.
On August 2, 2007, Simic was named the 15th Poet Laureate of the United States, a position that carries a $35,000 honorarium but no specific requirements.
Our interview was carried on through an email correspondence. No baseballs were exchanged.
Terrain.org: In many of the news articles about your laureate announcement, your work was described as “dark.” That doesn’t seem entirely accurate.
Charles Simic: I’m a cheerful pessimist. Life is wonderful, but every day we are surrounded by tragedies, if not ours then other people’s. It’s up to the reader to figure out how it all comes out from poem to poem. I simply report my own sense of the world, its beauties and its evils.
Terrain.org: Speaking of beauties and evils, many of your poems seem to take place late at night, and to elevate common settings and objects to an almost sacred level. Is this one of a poet’s jobs, to illuminate the unobserved, the taken-for-granted?
Charles Simic: Yes, it is. We see little ordinarily of what is around us. A good poem restores our sight and our hearing. That is, indeed, one of the achievements of poetry. I always liked rundown stores in impoverished neighborhoods: pawnshops, pet shops, groceries, barber shops, greasy spoons. I’ve written all my life about them. As for late-night settings in my poems, it’s my lifelong insomnia speaking. I’m usually up when everyone else is snoring away.
Terrain.org: Like many, I first discovered your writing in The World Doesn’t End, your collection of prose poems. There’s something about those plain-looking paragraphs, so packed with imagery—how did this collection come about?
Charles Simic: These “poems” were not intentionally written as prose poems. They were scribbled over many years in my notebooks and later found by me. Of course, once I got interested in them, I tinkered endlessly to get them right. The nice thing about that book is that I had no idea I was writing it, so I could be free as never before.
Terrain.org: Another aspect of that book is the use of surreal imagery. But surreality seems to be ever rarer these days. Do you have a hard time getting your students to take these “flights” in their work?
Charles Simic: They are not used to using imagination. Most have plenty of it, but they are embarrassed by it, so my job is to convince them it’s all about taking chances, risking making a fool of oneself and going for broke. Otherwise, why write?
Terrain.org: The brevity of your poems, the feeling that they have been sculpted down to their essences, is breathtaking. Does this come through hard work, or is your approach minimalist and spare from the beginning?
Charles Simic: I revise endlessly and yes, in the process, my poems get shorter and shorter. At some point, I realize that whatever I had there is all the poem needs. The challenge of saying “everything” in a few words continues to tempt me.
Terrain.org: The line break seems to be the most confusing aspect—to the beginning poet—of free verse. Some poets use them to jar the reader or throw off the usual rhythms of speech, whereas yours are supremely smooth and unobtrusive. Is this intentional, or just the way they come out?
Charles Simic: I take great care with my line breaks as I revise the poem. I tinker with them endlessly. The ideal is to make the reader forget that they are reading a poem.
Terrain.org: You wrote a book of essays and poems on the collage artist Joseph Cornell. Do you generally find inspiration from artists and musicians? Do you find yourself applying the senses of music to the sounds of your words?
Charles Simic: Not music. I listen to it all the time, but for the music of language, I read the great poets of the past rather than listen to Bach. As for other arts, photography and the movies have always been important to me as well as painting since I love images.
Terrain.org: What is it about Cornell’s work that appealed to you?
Charles Simic: The collage technique. The notion that objects found by chance can make a work of art.
Terrain.org: Who are your favorite poets?
Charles Simic: Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens.
Charles Simic: I wrote some poems in rhyme and meter when I was younger. I may do it again.
Terrain.org: Is there a favorite kind of music you listen to while working?
Charles Simic: The sound of pots and pans while my wife is making dinner.
Terrain.org: Is there something particular that drew you to New Hampshire?
Charles Simic: It was a job at first, but then I grew to love the place.
Terrain.org: Is there a favorite recreation that you pursue when you need to harvest ideas?
Charles Simic: Walking.
Terrain.org: Do you find bits of your Yugoslavian childhood—or aspects of the culture—showing up in your work?
Charles Simic: I left Yugoslavia 54 years ago, have written about my childhood now and then, but rarely think about it any more. It wasn’t the culture that made an effect on me, but bombs falling on my head from 1941 to 1944, plus all the other nasty things that went on in occupied Belgrade.
Terrain.org: Do you enjoy giving public readings? Do you find yourself editing poems after reading them out loud?
Charles Simic: I have given over 1,000 readings in 40 years, so yes I do enjoy it. And, of course, I change poems as I read them and have always done so.
Terrain.org: What’s the most frequent piece of advice that you give to young poets?
Charles Simic: To read everything.
Terrain.org: What’s the biggest single obstacle standing between the average American and poetry?
Charles Simic: Education. Not enough poetry is being read in school, even though children love poetry.
Header photo of New Hampshire woods and stream by Simmons B. Buntin.