Issue 173, Spring 2005
Charles Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on May 9, 1938. His early childhood was, inevitably, dominated by the Nazi invasion, and some of his most powerful poems derive from memories of this period. In “Two Dogs,” for instance, he recalls watching the Germans march past his house in 1944:
The earth trembling, death going by . . . A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet. A kick made him fly as if he had wings. That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.
Simic’s father was arrested a number of times, and eventually fled Yugoslavia in 1944 for Italy, where he was again thrown into jail. On his release at the war’s end, George Simic spent five years in Trieste, and then moved to America; he was not to be reunited with his wife and two sons until 1954.
Simic attended primary school in Belgrade. His mother, Helen, made various attempts to escape postwar Yugoslavia, and was herself briefly incarcerated, along with her sons, by the Communist authorities. Eventually they were granted passports in 1953. Afraid the passports might be revoked, Helen hastily packed, and the family boarded a train that very evening for Paris. After a series of delays they were finally granted American visas, and set sail for New York in August of 1954.
The family lived in New York for a year, and then settled in Chicago. There was no money for Simic to attend college, so he worked as an office boy on the Chicago Sun-Times and attended night classes. In 1958 he moved back to New York, where he worked at a variety of jobs—parcel-packer, salesman, housepainter, payroll clerk—and studied and wrote poetry at night.
In 1961 Simic was drafted into the army and was obliged to spend two years as a military policeman in Germany and France. On his return to New York he enrolled at New York University, where he studied linguistics, and married the fashion designer Helen Dubin. His first collection, What the Grass Says, was published in 1967. In 1973, the University of New Hampshire offered him an associate professorship, and he has remained there ever since.
Simic, who has acquired a large and faithful following, has been astonishingly prolific, publishing collections of his poetry and of his reviews and essays at the rate of one, and sometimes two, a year. He has also translated the work of such writers as Vasko Popa, Ivan LaliÄ‡, Aleksandar Ristovic, and TomaÅ¾ Šalamun, and has been instrumental in bringing their writings to the attention of the English-speaking world. His own poetry has, in turn, been translated into most major European languages.
The following interview was conducted in November 2004, at my flat in Highbury, London. Simic was over to promote the publication of his Selected Poems: 1963–2001, and to read at Poetry International. He knows London well, and has many friends here. A longtime admirer of his work, I was delighted to find myself with an opportunity to discuss with Simic his life, his art, his politics, and his strongly held views on all matters relating to food, in particular rillettes, on which he discoursed over a serving of them I offered at lunch, at great and enthusiastic length.
I’d like, initially, to talk a bit about your childhood in Belgrade. What were your parents like and how did they meet?
My father came from a blue-collar background. He was the first child in that family to go to university. On the other side, my mother came from an old Belgrade family that had been living in the same spot for a couple of centuries. They were pretty wealthy in the late nineteenth century, but lost everything. My grandfather on my mother’s side, who was a military man, gambled it all away, as I only found out years later.
How did the different branches of your family get on?
To tell the truth, they despised each other. My mother showed her dislike for my father’s relations with sighs, the rolling of eyes, and meaningful asides, while my father’s side was more direct. They were a rowdy, hard-drinking bunch. I identified more with them. My mother’s family was fearful, paranoid, and secretive. They had lost their wealth and were worried about keeping up appearances. They had no sense of humor. Nothing was ever funny to them. My father’s family, when they got going at a dinner table, they were like a dadaist cabaret, so you can imagine how my poor mother felt in their company.
How conscious were you of the ideological positions of the combatants—of what Nazism or Communism meant?
Very much—not in an intellectual way, but everyone around me argued politics all the time. My father had Royalist sympathies. My grandfather on my mother’s side, the one who gambled all the money away and spent it on floozies, was a highly decorated World War I officer who thought we should’ve stayed out of the war since our allies were going to screw us in the end—as they did at the Yalta Conference. My mother believed all her life—and said so openly—that Serbs are political morons who are bound to make the wrong choice no matter what. On my father’s side, the young ones were all leftists and thus Communist sympathizers. They looked forward to the Russians coming to liberate us and shooting people like my mother’s family. So, as you can imagine, there was a lot of shouting, a lot of tears and slamming of doors.
How difficult were those years for you?
There’s a story they used to tell in my family. The war ended the day before May 9, 1945, which happened to be my birthday. I was playing in the street. Anyway, I went up to the apartment to get a drink of water where my mother and our neighbors were listening to the radio. They said, “War is over,” and apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, “Now there won’t be any more fun!” In wartime, there’s no parental supervision; the grown-ups are so busy with their lives, the kids can run free. A few years ago I reviewed two huge books of photographs of the war in Bosnia. Every face looked unhappy, except for some kids in Sarajevo who were smiling as if saying: Isn’t this great, isn’t this terrific! When I saw those faces, I thought, That’s me and my friends. Then, after the war, the fun continued. Yes, we had poverty, Communist indoctrination, but also a few American movies, jazz music on the American Armed Forces Radio, and gangs of kids fighting in the streets. I lived in the very center of Belgrade in a bustling, crowded neighborhood, so it was never dull. In school, there were pictures of Tito, Stalin, and Lenin over every blackboard, watching us do our schoolwork. Our teachers told us daily that these were three wise men who were bringing happiness to children like us all over the world. I, myself, didn’t know what to believe. At home, I was told they were bad men who were responsible for my father being away.
When you arrived in France, you were classified by the French authorities as a “displaced person.” Displacement, deracination, exile, not belonging are persistent themes in your poetry. Was it in Paris that you most acutely felt that you didn’t belong?
Yes, I think it was. I like the French, but they did enjoy humiliating us. Every few months we had to renew our permits, and would have to wait in line for hours only to be told that some document was missing, such as the birth certificate of my great- grandmother, which we had instantly to obtain from Yugoslavia, and then when we did, they’d say we didn’t need it after all. We spent a year in Paris living in a small hotel room, surviving on money that my father sent from the United States. We had no idea how long it would take to get our visas. In the meantime, we roamed the city on foot, went to movies and studied English. My mother bought us LIFE, LOOK, and other American magazines where my brother and I studied women in bathing suits, new model cars, and refrigerators packed with food. It was while at school in Paris, however, that I first got interested in poetry. We had to memorize poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud and recite them in front of the class. You can imagine what a nightmare that was for me with my accent. Still, those poems brought tears to my eyes.
You’ve often said New York is your favorite city: Was it love at first sight?
It was. It was an astonishing sight in 1954. Europe was so gray and New York was so bright; there were so many colors, the advertisements, the yellow taxicabs. America was only five days away by ship, but it felt as distant as China does today. European cities are like operatic stage sets. New York looked like painted sets in a sideshow at a carnival where the bearded lady, sword- swallowers, snake charmers, and magicians make their appearances.