Photo by Abigail Simic.
I first met Charles Simic in 1994 at a dinner to celebrate the Harvard Review’s special issue dedicated to Simic. I had written an essay for the issue titled “He Who Remembers His Shoes” that focused on several of his poems and so was invited to this dinner and seated next to him. While we were eating, a small black ant started crawling across the white table cloth. Simic became mesmerized by this ant. We both wondered if the ant was going to “make it” to the other side, and then, suddenly, our waiter appeared and swept it up. Simic almost wept. (I later learned that ants were his favorite insect.) What an object lesson it was for me in Simic’s compassion for the smallest creatures, what Czesław Miłosz called “immense particulars.” I stayed in touch with Simic off and on after this night, inviting him to read at the M.F.A. program I cofounded in 2001. Simic declined at first, saying he was “too pooped” after a reading tour in Europe, but then agreed to come in 2005. He read at The Fells, John Hayes’ elegant estate overlooking Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire which New England College rented for the occasion. The indelible image of him with the lake and gardens behind him has stayed with me ever since.
On November 21, I interviewed Simic on Zoom after several failed attempts to meet with him in Strafford, New Hampshire, where he lived. He was already having health issues, then but assured me that he was well enough—and eager—to chat. For an hour and twenty minutes we talked about everything from his local dump to his childhood in Belgrade during World War II. He told me, for instance, about what a “blast” he had playing in the streets of Belgrade even as it was being bombed by the Nazis. While transcribing our conversation, I realized that he never stopped playing in those streets. What a genius he was at witnessing to horror with wit, humanity, and a cold eye. I so envied and admired the way he transfigured such “immense particulars” as a fork, shrimp, breasts, ants, “bare winter trees,” and an alarm clock at the dump into powerful synecdoches.
We ran out of time to talk, and made plans to continue the conversation. But he was rehospitalized several days later, and died in New Hampshire on January 10. I can’t think of another contemporary poet who wrote with such stunning sprezzatura, wit, and compassion. There is no one who can replace him, and he will be deeply missed.
Have you been writing much lately?
That’s all I do.
Your new book has a foreboding title, No Land In Sight. While there are no overt references to politics or current events in the book, your title seems to imply that the world is lost at sea. Am I reading too much into it?
It’s not pessimistic. Everything is just fucked up.
Here is line from a poem titled “Could That Be Me?” that captures your self-effacing, tragicomic style—“An alarm clock / With no hands / Ticking loudly / On the town dump.” Is the dump a metaphor for your study?
It’s not a metaphor. The dump is a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. I’m about five minutes from the dump. It used to be a very different dump. It started out being just one little place filled with garbage. And then it became more complicated, with everything sorted out. But I’m an aficionado of the old, old dump where many, many years ago I found a big alarm clock, an old-fashioned alarm clock, happily ticking.
Poetic lightning seems to strike you often. Have you ever had to pull over by the side of the road and write something down?
I once stopped on I-93 in New Hampshire. I was going to Boston to see somebody. I was there on the side of the road, and I had nothing to write with. I was thinking, Where’s my pencil? Then I looked up. There was a policeman, and he said something like, “Can I help you?” I laughed. “I’m sure you can,” I said. “But I’m not sure how.”
Did he give you a pencil?
He said, “You’ve got to move on.” But it was friendly.
You’ve written so many memorable poems about poetry and about writing poetry, one of which includes this definition—“Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written.” How exactly would you describe the cat concert?
Look at it this way: I have a cat that’s twenty-five years old. She’s a black cat. She complains. She comes in and she says to me, You’re still here? Poetry really is a comic scene where you, whoever you are, pretend to be in control, but really the speaker is at the mercy of things that are completely out of his hands. But he pretends that he is in control. We’re schmucks.
You and your family immigrated from Yugoslavia to New York City when you were sixteen in 1954. You’ve said that Hitler and Stalin were your travel agents. Despite moving to a new country and having to adapt to a new culture, you never lost your love of Slavic folktales and fables. What enduring influence would you say Slavic folklore has had on your work?
I wouldn’t call it a steady love of Slavic folklore. Much of it is great but it’s predictable. I should explain something about where I grew up. Belgrade was a modern city where there were movies. You could hear jazz, all sorts of stuff. Modernity. Then the war happened—April 6, 1941. Bombs hit the building across the street from me. Fire. I flew out of my bed onto the floor. My parents were in the next room. The room was in a building four stories high. I don’t know what I did but I remember my mother picking me up from the floor and running down the stairs. That day, strangely enough, is still vivid to me. We were running down the stairs of our apartment house, four floors. We were running down some streets. It was war. Bombs were falling. That’s how it started. My war, and my life.
Belgrade was under attack throughout the war. The Americans bombed it in 1944 also.
Yes. The Americans, our allies, were bombing us. We applauded this. We were happy when they hit something. It was a kind of war that was impossible to figure out. Everything was in great confusion—people were disappearing. And at the same time—being a kid, not totally aware of how scary this all really was—me and my friends, we had a ball. Which was nuts. Only later in my life when I put two and two together, did I realize how crazy this time in my life was. My mother used to tell this story to our neighbors and relatives about what an idiot she had for a son. It was May 9, 1945. The war had ended. I was playing in the street. That’s the way I always played. The only reason I would run up to the fourth floor was to get a drink of water, and then run back down. That day the radio was loud. There was so much jubilation. Everyone was saying, “Hey! The war is over, the war is over!” We all stood around the radio. She said to me, “Now there won’t be any more fun for you!”
Were you going to school?
No, that was the great part of it. No school. I remember once in New York there was a party, a long time ago. I started talking to a Polish woman who was a little bit older than me—she grew up in Warsaw during the war. She also said what a great time she’d had. She leaned into my face with a smile and said, “There was no school.”
You won the Pulitzer Prize for your book of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End. In an essay on the prose poem you wrote, “They look like prose and act like poems because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination.”
Why did you stop writing prose poems?
Prose poetry was just something I tried. I always knew it couldn’t go on forever. I wanted to write something that was very entertaining. I think all of us prose poets—Russell Edson, James Tate, Peter Johnson—we all love to entertain the reader and to proceed without any knowledge of how it’s going to end. You start something and surprise, surprise, surprise.
Was there something about prose as opposed to verse poetry that made that easier for you?
Lying, inventing things. That always attracted me. I like, for example, Emily Dickinson and other poets who were really just wonderful liars. Who knew how to make up something delicious.
If you had a chance to spend a few hours with Emily Dickinson in her parlor or maybe on a walk around Amherst, what might you like to ask her?
It would probably be something about what to drink. I don’t know. I never believed I could become friends with someone like that. She’s too strange. She’d be too scared of a walk, you know. She was scared of snakes.
Would you say that your poetry emerges from your unconscious?
Possibly, but I’m not a surrealist in the sense that my unconscious is constantly supplying stuff to my consciousness. No, poetry is just what happens. Poetry is a miracle. I think of some of the lines I wrote in my life. I say to myself, “Did I write this?” It just came.
It sounds like it’s almost unexplainable.
It is unexplainable. Especially when it is a bad poem, it’s unexplainable—a bad poem that turns out to be a pretty good poem.
Do you keep a notebook to write down your anecdotes and stories and sayings?
I can show you my notebook. I’ll open it. What it consists of are fragments. I’ll be reading something and I’ll like the way it sounds. Reading about Saint Augustine who couldn’t comprehend God’s purpose in creating flies. Or, for example, here is just a phrase: “Something tells me!”
“Something tells me!” Something just clicks.
And what the fuck! This is where my short poems come from.
I talked to Carolyn Forché this morning. She said to say hello and she was wondering why you write such short poems.
I get bored very quickly.
I will tell her that.
I once wrote this piece that does not exist anymore, thank God. I wrote a poem that was something like sixty pages. It was a poem about The Inquisition. An awful, stupid poem. It sounded a little bit like Pound. Thank God I threw it out. Somebody would have found it.
How old is that notebook you showed me?
I like to have good-looking notebooks. This one happens to be from when I was in high school in France. These notebooks might go on for months and years. Here’s a group of titles: “A Little Thing Like That,” “Beyond the Reach of Words,” ”Slow Hurry,” “Budding Leaves at Night,” “Leaving Blanks” and on and on and on.
In addition to your poetry, you have written just as much brilliant criticism over the years, which has been published in The New York Review of Books, as well as in several volumes of books. How were you able to balance both of these enterprises?
The truth is, everything I wrote in books–it was the money. I was tempted by the money. And then also Bob Silvers of The New York Review of Books knew how to mention something so tantalizing my brain would run away with it. Why else write? I liked writing prose very much. I was always arguing with somebody and that was the big thing.
It’s always been so refreshing to read your reviews and your essays for that reason because there’s just no bullshit in your work.
Sometimes a little bullshit is fine.
Chard deNiord is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently In My Unknowing (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020) and Interstate (U. of Pittsburgh, 2015). He is the co-founder of the Ruth Stone Trust and Ruth Stone Foundation and Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Providence College. He co-founded the New England College MFA Program in Poetry in 2001, where he also served as the program director until 2008. From 2015 to 2019 he served as the poet laureate of Vermont. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife, the painter Liz Hawkes deNiord.
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