Charles Simic Interview

April 01, 2009

Elaine Smokewood: I believe I read in an interview that you turned to Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens for advice about revising your poems. What sort of advice did Dickinson and Stevens give you? What have they taught you about how to make poems?

Charles Simic: Stevens giving me advice?

Habour Winn: Do you mean in the way he reads their poems and their essays?

ES: I think it was a joke you made in an interview.

CS: I see. Also Emily Dickinson and so forth. Well, I think that the idea there was that I was kidding. I get tips from Walt Whitman. But anytime you read a poet that you fall in love with, he becomes a mentor in a way. The great affection for the poet causes one to read the words over and over again to imitate it, to get very, very close to the poetry; so something rubs off, inevitably.

HW: When I read your poems – I teach films – I find that there are many references to cinema, like in “Club Midnight” there’s a line: “Do you put on wee hour girly shows with dead stars of black and white films”; another one, an untitled one, “Where is the undeveloped film of the few clear moments of our blurred lives”…there are many others, as you know. And then the poem like “Clouds Gathering,” it seemed to me to allude to Ingmar Bergman, repeatedly. I wondered, how has cinema influenced your poetry? Is it because you’re a film buff? Is it theories of montage?

CS: Certainly it has influenced my poetry. I think it has influenced a lot of poets, it has influenced a lot of fiction writers and we never talk about the influence of the movies on literature – contemporary literature – for the simple reason that it’s all we ever did; from the time I was four years old, five years old, my mother used to drag me to the movies and I remember kind of falling asleep in her lap and waking up over there and you see something like a train going through the landscape and I’d watch that a little bit and I’d fall asleep when people are talking – all this dialogue, boring! – then you see a horse and you think you’re happy. So images, images. From the earliest childhood being in the movies and once I grew older going by myself to the movies with friends – I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life, like anyone my age. That’s what we did; because we went to the movies. Friday night, Saturday night, that’s what you did: you went to the movies. You went to the movies on weeknights if you lived in the city. I remember when we first lived in New York my mother would go to the movies, I would say 3 times a week. So my memory, my life, my dream life, my inner life is just full of images from movies.

HW: So it’s more just the experience rather than studying cinematic theories.

CS: Well, I did the montage, too. I mean, the great cut, the way things are collaged together, the way even as one remembers the movie so many, many years ago, what one remembers are certain key scenes which then become emblematic of the whole thing. Yes, very much so, montage.

HW: You said last night that you write movie reviews, too; or you write about movies.

CS: I’ve written about movies but more about cinema. I’ve written about specific movies but I’ve written a lot about silent movies, silent movie comedy. I will continue to watch movies. It’s just something you can’t imagine…

HW: I’m with you.

Kelly Kinser: I think, from reading a lot of interview with other poets, they tend to either really fall into the category that images are what inspires them most, or really really poetry is all about sound, that’s what inspires them most. Do you feel like the distinction holds true for you?

CS: I think it’s hard to generalize. I think it would be deceptive if one simply said “all my poems start with images”. It’s not true. Very often I had something like a sound in my head even before I had words. Then words cam and I had no idea what would become of that, but that’s how it started. Other times it was an image. And other times it was not even an image or a sound but some notion that I had an experience – something happened to me – and I was going to write down what happened to me. And either that something eventually became a poem or that caused a totally different poem to emerge. If I knew – if I could say to myself “this is the way I work and this is what I need to do”, it would be much easier to write. I think most poets – and I include myself in that group – have no idea when the next poem is coming. I’ve checked this with friends who have been writing poems for forty, fifty years, and they haven’t got a clue! If you asked them this question, they would say “well, you know, sometimes this way, sometimes that way”. And I’m aware that there are poets who insist that there’s one way; I to hear a sound or music, I have to be in a certain state or kind of elevated conscience and so forth. Not for me.

HW: Another question I had that goes along with what Kelly is asking and what you’re talking about is: in the musicality in your poems, when I read them and people often describe you this way – are you a jazz poet?

CS: That question sounds terrific but it really…no. Because I love jazz; I have spent a great deal of time in my life listening to jazz, I’ve spent many nights in jazz clubs in my life, I’ve given readings, even as recently as January, in jazz groups in New York, and yet, you know, I don’t think there is really a connection. People always think because jazz is improvisation and this and that, that you sort of improvise, but I really don’t see the connection between the two. Somebody asked “is there an influence for architecture in opera?” and you can think “well, maybe, maybe there is.” But in a way I really can’t say so. I mean, music – old music, including classical music – can inspire one; I have written often with music in the background. To have Bach in the background or a little sonata by Mozart or a Haydn piano sonata, the rigorous quality, the measure, the precision is inspiring. You want to get a sense of form, of pace, you want to set down things on the page with a certain kind of elegance, but beyond that I’m really…I can’t imagine.

KK: In a number of interviews and in your own essays, you talk about poetry as a medium that attempts to use language to convey what can’t be expressed in language. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

CS: Well, I mean it’s a kind of mystical view of language, the relationship of language, to reality. I’ve always had an intuition – more than an intuition, a kind of experience – that, let’s say, when I’m deeply moved, when I experience a world with all my sense and my mind in an exceptional state of clarity, I look at the landscape or whatever it is I’m looking at, later when I do decide to write about it I feel like many others, like words fail me. That somehow language cannot do justice to these simultaneity, the richness, of the experience in which the intellect, the senses, whatever else is there are all together in a kind of way. When you write you have to pick and choose. You take a word, you put it down, or a little phrase or you say, you know, now, you try again. Yes, I do believe you can find an equivalent for it eventually, as a way you kind of evoke it, but there’s always this sense of loss, of something that’s left behind that’s ineffable, that cannot be conveyed. So that’s what I’m talking about.

ES: As a philosopher and a poet, I have to ask you some questions about philosophy and I know you’ve talked about your philosopher friend and there’s lots of philosophy throughout your poetry. So, you know Emmerson, you must know that he says: “The true philosopher and the true poet are one and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both.” I suspect you might disagree with Emmerson a little, here.

CS: Read it again.

ES: “The true philosopher and the true poet are one and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both.”

CS: Well, it sounds wonderful, but I think there’s a deep difference between philosophy and poetry. I mean, if Emmerson is a philosopher, and indeed he is a kind of philosopher, he was also a poet; I think in his own case it probably applies. But poets are not interested in what philosophers are interested in. Philosphers are, after all, interested in understanding certain fundamental issues like how do we know what we know, the nature of reality, how we perceive reality, the whole metaphysical series, the physical questions, the nature of being, and the kind of metaphysics that poets practice, I once read in an essay, is a kitchen metaphysics. Poets tend to start more interested in the concrete reality of the world, they begin with what is around them, and a good poet has a hunch, has a feel, for when something, an experience, a set of circumstances, lead to larger implications. Frost was a genius about that. So was Stevens. They take a little incident, a little thing, and understand that this will raise the great questions, epistemological questions and so forth. But a poet will not draw the conclusions. They will stop at some point. Don’t press it up for the reader. I let the reader experience fully the weight of these questions. A poet will not put a label on it. I think that – and this is not true of all poets, nothing is true of all poets – talking about American poetry, Emmerson, too, that’s where it all starts, it’s really kind of an empirical approach. You begin with *taps on table* with this; “no ideas, but in things “ said William Carlos Williams. Let’s look at things first, then it will lead to ideas. They’ll come later. That to me is a fundamental difference. There’s also, another thing, too, which is also equally interesting, there has always been, as you know, from Plato on a kind of quarrel between philosophers and poets. I remember once, this was many, many years ago when I was at University of Idaho, at Bookatella, I went out to a long and jolly dinner party after the reading, and everybody had a lot of wine and I was sitting next to a fellow who was a chairman of the department of philosophy, he was a little bit tipsy and so was I, I suppose, and he turned to me and he said angrily – jokingly – he said, “What do you poets really want?” It is a very good question. We want to say everything the philosophers say without saying it the way philosophers say it.

HW: Must have been a heretical Mormon, or an alien in Mormon land.

CS: Yeah, I don’t know if he was a Mormon. I remember that question. That was a good question.

ES: It’s occurring to us that yours is a poetry of peripheral vision. You often focus on seemingly marginal details in the world around you and your poems frequently generate surprise when you go shifting from one peripheral detail to another. What, in your view, does an artist gain by focusing his attention on the periphery rather than in the center?

CS: Good question. I don’t know if I have a theory about it, but I think it’s an early sense of experience of the world. Like, I remember very early, when I was ten years old my grandmother died and I liked this grandmother very, very much because she basically took care of me for the first ten years of my life. And the sitting, in those days, they wouldn’t take them to funeral parlors but it was at home, laid out and everybody’s in the room and this and that. And I’m sure I’d had these experiences before but I remember, some reason, that particular day and the kind of, as you were sitting there a long time, you’re beginning to notice the little things about the room rather than looking – I guess I was afraid to look at my grandmother. But people around and somebody’s shirt collar is frayed; there’s a stain on the wall in the corner that you never noticed before and yet you spent a lot of time in this room. And I always had those kinds of experiences. So, developing almost a kind of belief that what the key to the scene, to the experience, occurs out of sight. That, it’s right there, but we sometimes don’t see it. And only in moments of great emotion, or for other reasons, we’re simply bored sitting someplace waiting for someone and bored out of your wits, and looking around, and suddenly you begin to notice things. I think noticing, again Emmerson himself and Thorough, of course, speak about these things. The world is, the most ordinary reality is miraculous if only we can open our eyes and notice what is in front of our eyes all the time. We are creatures of habit. We don’t see much. And then in extraordinary moments there it is. We’re stunned. How is it that I never noticed this? And it becomes incredibly moving when one notices these things. Something is slightly broken, something is frayed, something is aged, an object, a person, whatever it is. So I wouldn’t write a great theory around this. But it is a fundamental aspect of my aesthetics.

HW: As I listened to you last night I was thinking of several things and you spoke of the healthy necessity of a new generation of poets always existing in tension with the generation that is in place; that that’s the way the form evolves and moves. I’m wondering, what do you see new poets wanting, or even needing to question, that current poets espouse? What do you see them wanting or needing to question, even about you, in your poems?

CS: Well it’s up to them to find out what annoys them the most. It’s hard for me to say.

HW: Let’s have some antenna.

CS: If I were young and starting out reading contemporary poetry, I think I would get a bit annoyed with the overuse of the first person pronoun. There’s so much “I, I, I, I,” you know, “I suffer,” “nobody loves me and yet I’m so sensitive,” “I have such deep thoughts and can’t share them because the world is so stupid and different.”  There’s a lot of poetry that kind of whines, in a very artful way – I’m not saying that this is worthless stuff; in fact it’s very, very well written. So that comes to mind. There are probably other mannerisms that I’m not aware of, certainly about my own work, where I can see somebody saying “Oh, to hell with Simic, no more of that stuff.”

HW: Something else you said last night, it’s an image I’ll never forget: the shoebox. The poems that you carried and eventually you said you had one of those moments of clarity when you felt you could really see your own work, that it was imitative. And that was the moment you became a critic and you became a poet. And so I wonder, then, as you have aged and you’ve continued to write, have there been a succession of moments like that where Simic says, “Hey, I don’t want to imitate myself anymore.”

CS: I’ve thrown things out. It’s just amazing how one can delude oneself. You get this idea, you get this notion, that you want to do a certain kind of poem, and you get busy. I remember writing a fairly long-ish sequence some ten years ago. I wanted to write a group of poems about various cities where I lived. And it seemed like a good idea, almost like a series of odes through cities. And I wrote six or seven poems at least a page or longer, and I showed them to some friends and they said “Oh, this is really nice” and so forth, “Keep working” and one day I woke up and looked at it and I realized that it really wasn’t working. It was repetitive. What I liked about every city was essentially the same thing; it should be one poem, not a sequence. And I threw them out. I’ve done this very often – later on I’ve regretted it. I’ll finish the story about the box.  When my old poems, when I got in the army, after a year of being in the army, and I looked at them and I realized they were all imitative and I threw them out. And then as years passed occasionally I would think about this and I said to myself “Maybe there were some good wires in these poems.” Again, years go by. All of a sudden I get in touch with a fellow I knew in those days whom I used to send poems. He writes me back, when we were getting back in touch, and he said “Charlie, I have a lot of your poems – copies of your poems; do you want to see them?” and I said “Sure.” And when I got them, they turned out to be not exactly, but pretty much the stuff I threw away twenty years before. So I got the package and opened it up with great anticipation, sit down thinking “Let’s see, maybe there’s a poem; I’m sure there’s going to be some good lines.” To my great surprise, I realized my original act was completely correct. I did get maybe two or three lines but everything else I threw out again. So you have to trust the moment.

HW: And you’ve then had successions of moments like that.

CS: Yes, yes. I love throwing things out. Poems.

KK: You said last night that every poem has a plot. And you’ve talked about the narrative sequencing of Serbian and American folktales, as well as your grandmother’s nonlinear, digressive story telling style as having a significant impact on your poetry. Can you talk about these influences, and how they influence the structure and the narrative energy of your poems?

CS: Well, I don’t have a clear sense – I’m sure they’ve influenced me, unconsciously. This is a different grandmother, not the one that I described but a different one who continued to live quite a long time. She was still alive in the 70s and used to come to this country to visit an uncle of mine. So I would go down to see her. This was Brownstone in New York, just outside New York. So I would ask her questions about, just those days during the war, the second World War, when I was a kid, just what happened, different kinds of events, and she had a wonderful way of telling – not intentionally – some people would go absolutely crazy listening to her but, for example, you would ask her “Grandmother, do you remember when WWII started?” and she would say “Yes.” She says “Yes. This is the way the world war started in poor Yugoslavia, Hitler attacked Yugoslavia without declaration of war April 6, 1941, that’s how the war started.” But she would say “I remember, I guess it was the night before, your grandfather said to me, ‘you know, we haven’t had any veal chops – or lamb chops, I forget – for a long time. Why don’t we have some lamb chops tomorrow.’” And she says “Hmm. OK. Well, to get any good lamb chops I have to go to that butcher.” So she will describe what’s so fantastic about this butcher, and then the lamb chops and what happened to this butcher, his wife and you still haven’t gotten to the war. And then you would get to where she’d say “I got up early in the morning, I might have gotten up early, so it was early, and I walked down the street and I heard this, like planes, or something, some motor in the air” and you would think that then she would continue and say that bombs fell, I mean she would say something like “and then I looked down, I said ‘these shoes, I walk all the way, wherever the place was, a two-miles walk to go to this butcher,’” she said “No, I think the shoes are going to hurt. So I’m going to go back and change my shoes.” And I forget, there was some more stuff. The bombs start falling. And other people listening to this would say “I give up!” Everything was like that. Any question you asked her; if you asked her “what’s the best way to make a particular dish?” again, she would go into a wonderful series of digressions. Eventually she would get around to it, but I really found that fascinating because it was never boring. There are people who digress and drive you nuts. They never get back on the subject! But it was so unexpected, it was so full of surprises, what turns it would take, that it was almost like a comic routine. And she was a very serious woman. She almost never joked or anything like that. So yes, it must have left an impression.

HW: I haven’t read all of The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, but I really find myself drawn to those little snippets, those aphorisms, those questions, and one of them  in this notebook entry series,  you say, “The hope is that the poem turns out to be better than the poet.”

CS: You bet. [laughs]

HW: Are there bad poets who write great poems?

CS: You know if you have any sense,  you know your limitations as a poet, as a craftsman, as everything else—as a human being, your imagination, your brain, you name it. So you hope that somehow a miracle occurs and this poem transcends these limitations. And I think there are many many good examples from history, of poetry. If you’ve read biographies of poets, many of them were…not exactly the most admirable human beings and, or particularly smart, or anything else. Not the sort of people you want to introduce to your mother or father, and then they wrote great poems.  Lots of people wrote great poems. So that’s the spirit of that remark.

KK: So we really like the “Little Sun [can’t understand]”  poem, about the woman searching for her pearl, and it seems in this poem, as in a number of others, you allow a something like a yearning for transcendence to enter in. To what extent do you feel that your poetry or your life has been shaped by such a yearning?

CS: Well I think so, I mean I am…I think I suffered from that malaise. I’m kind of a transcendentalist monkey, you know, with all the skepticism and suspicion of epiphanies. I mean I hate poems and stories that are in a rush to get to a moment when the poet declares that he’s [can’t understand] his universe and so forth, and so I’m very careful about that. Temperamentally I’m like, someone like Elizabeth Bishop, you know, she had the knack for that stuff, and she just could not bring herself to take those leaps, those flights, and yet she was always on the verge [can’t understand]. So I can understand that temperament, and uh, and that’s my attitude, too.

KK: You said you feel a malaise. I’ve seen your poems termed as “dark joyfulness”- I don’t know how you would describe it…

CS: Yeah, I think I’m a cheerful pessimist.

KK: A cheerful pessimist! And I see a few little existential strains in there, it reminded me of a quote by Camus. He says “In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Do you feel like maybe poetry is that invincible summer, for you?

CS: That sounds good to me. Yeah, I’ll accept that.

HW: Sounds like that certainly fits New Hampshire, too. I’ve got a couple of questions about this poet laureate stuff. I think since Pinsky was poet laureate, that some people, many people perhaps, have the sense that the high expectations that a poet laureate invents, you know, are an incredible project, and I was wondering, what do you think of this kind of burden and how did you approach the expectation of this burden, of a poet laureate?

CS: Well I, you know, there were a lot of ideas that people had. I mean Ted Koozer wanted to put poems in news papers. Bisque was very successful because he had a very good idea.  It was that ontology and so forth had [can’t understand] people reading and so forth, more than people reading great American poems. And I was sort of skeptical for two reasons. First of all, most of those terrific ideas written work out.  I mean, [ Broskie? can’t understand] taught there should be poetry ontology in every motel room in America, next to the Bible. Wonderful idea, you know, but who’s going to pay for all of this? Who’s going to produce these ontologies? Even Koozer, you know, couldn’t get poems in news papers because, you know, news papers didn’t even have book reviews. Now they’re all collapsing. So what sounded like terrific ideas were not realized, and some did. And so instantly they said “what is your project going to be?” and so forth. I felt American poetry is in pretty damn good shape. More people read poetry, have read poetry. You just have to go on the internet and see the thousands of websites and blogs, and so forth. They’re terrific, there’s terrific stuff out there. There are: The American Academy of Poetry, The Poetry Magazine, a webpage called The Page, The Daily Poet. Incredible places where, for example, every poet, if you understand the English language, in Australia, England, the United States; it’s right there, you can read it. There are poems, there are websites, there are…you can get poetry by almost every living American poet yet, [can’t understand]. Thirty of my poems, forty of my poems, and other poets and not to mention the early poets. It’s an astonishing fact to realize how much of that there is out there. I mean, who are these people? Where do they find the time to put this down? No wonder we have such a huge divorce rate in this country. Obviously one of the spouses is being in bed, sitting up at night and typing their works of our crave, or [can’t understand]. How is it done? It’s work, it’s huge, it’s incomprehensible! So once I became aware of that, it seemed to me to say we need more, when it’s really beyond human imagination to see how much there is. It’s ridiculous! And I really enjoyed being interviewed by the big media, because they know nothing about anything, including poetry. So they’ll ask you a question like, “What does it feel like being a poet laureate in a country where no one reads poetry?” So I was ready, that I would enumerate all this stuff. I said, “You know, just go on google, put in American poetry, and you’ll find two million entries, or something like that.” And then they get very nervous and change the subject because they realize they don’t know anything about it, on the subject. So I told a few things at first, but then I realized no, it can’t be done.

HW: Another point on the same general topic, [turned tape over]. Do with this what you will, if you don’t want to respond I understand it, but do you think that poets don’t become poet laureates because of political reasons within the academy of poetry, or within the political climate of Washington and the White House…

CS: The white house has nothing to do with it. The poetry, the poet laureate is probably endowed. And the selection is made by the library of congress and there is no connection to official Washington. The decision comes from the librarian of congress. There’s no question that there are poets who would be a little nervous having them there as poet laureate. I don’t think anything political – it took a long time for them to get a lesbian poet; Kay Ryan, there was no one before her who was “officially” gay – I think the reservations would be if the poetry was extremely difficult, obscure, there would be a reluctance to have someone like that because obviously people out there would say “Hey, what is this about?” and there are probably other considerations having to do with the personality of the poet. But if you look at the list of the fifteen poets, it’s very broad.

HW: A couple of people before you have suggested that there was a person that would have been poet laureate but in the early 2000’s she participated in Poets Against the War – foreign – and she was passed over.

CS: I have no idea because the deliberations are private. The librarian of congress consults with people and the librarian, I’m sure, somebody outside. But it wouldn’t surprise me that there would be some consideration like that. I didn’t have any problem. For example, I’ve receive invitations from the white house to go to some event or dinner and I turned them down and I told the library that I would turn them down and they said “it’s up to you.”

KK: You’ve said many times that you are an obsessive reviser of your own poems. In an interview with Mark Ford in The Paris Review you said “Even when I’m stretched out in my coffin they may find me tinkering with some poem.” Is the revision process pleasurable for you, or painful?

CS: It’s mostly pleasurable. Sometimes I can get annoyed thinking “is this thing ever going to be finished?” but I like tinkering. I like doing that.

HW: You talked last night about your love of teaching literature, how you have, over time learned to love this poet or that poet. I think you were saying that – and if I am interpreting you incorrectly, tell me – that in teaching literature you’ve become a better poet.

CS: I think I have learned and I have read poetry in a way that I would not have read it by myself. When you read for yourself – anything – it’s different. The way you read it when you – when you read a poem you like certain lines, you like certain things, the way it does this and that. But then you have to teach every week, let’s say, or every two weeks, a different poet, and basically be a sales person for that poet; tell them “today, there is no one more exciting than so-and-so; today I’m going to make you believe that so-and-so is the greatest poet who ever lived. And we’re going to read Elizabeth Bishop, or whoever.” And you have to read the poems very carefully because a student is going to say “Now what about…” or “I don’t understand this image” or “this line” and this and that. And you have to be prepared. If you don’t understand it yourself, you have to have the confidence of saying “I don’t get it either.” But it’s really a kind of way of reading that is very different. You have to make conscious and deliberate things that would absorb, if you do absorb it, without giving it a thought.

HW: I look at these kinds of people; Kooser spent a lot of life in an insurance company, and I may be wrong, but I’m not sure that any one of these other people has devoted continually – like thirty years plus – of teaching in a University. Many of them are writers in residence. You’re really distinctive in that sense, I think.

CS: There are others; I think of Mark Strand, I mentioned James State –  a lot of people in my generation. The difference between many of my contemporaries – most of my contemporaries were in a University were younger than me—they wanted to take creative writing. I lucked out. I taught American literature, I taught competitive literature, and even literary criticism for a while, years ago. So I read. I was forced to read. You know how it is when you teach; you don’t just read the poetry of the poet that you are teaching, but you feel obliged to go to the library and read books, and there are always new works about – critical works about – the poet. So if a poet’s been around a long, long time – I used to give seminars on Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman – there’s always a lot of stuff to read. New stuff to read. But I’ve learned. I would complain “So much work, so much work!” But I’ve learned a lot. And I’m glad.