Having the opportunity to email with the poet Charles Simic goes down as one of the biggest thrills of my professional career. I'm a huge fan of his poetry and essays, and I'm not sure how I will top it.
I've tried to figure out how to describe what Simic's poetry means to me, why he's my favorite, but it's difficult to put that experience into words. Here's the best I can d Throughout my life, I've been introduced to many poets by teachers and friends, I've stumbled upon others, but Simic is the only poet I feel like I've discovered, because he writes in a voice that I didn't realize was in my head until I started reading his work.
Of course, I'm not the only one who has discovered him (although I still claim him as my own). Simic"”who was born in Belgrade in 1938 and emigrated to the States when he was 16"”has won the Pulitzer and is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. He's won many other distinguished prizes throughout his very active career, and his most recent book New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 was published this past March.
(Ed. Note: I asked Charles Simic to send me a poem to include with the interview. He sent me two. They can be found beneath this interview.)
did you first start writing poetry?
my last semester in high school. I had already read quite bit of fiction by
that time, but hardly any poetry, but then discovered that two of my friends
who had literary ambitious were writing poetry, so I decided to give it a try.
would give to young men today?
Girls have their curiosity aroused if one
tells them that one has written a poem for them. Even if the poem is corny and
artless, they are impressed that one was thinking of them in poetic terms. So,
I would definitely recommend it.
writers do you admire? How have they had an effect on your own writing?
My favorite American poets are Walt Whitman,
Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. I can't say that Whitman influenced me,
but the other two certainly have. That's not the whole story, of course. I've
learned from so many poets and writers over my lifetime, I already had lost
count when I was in my twenties.
you have clear memories of childhood before moving to Paris and then the
States? What was your initial experience once you were settled in Chicago?
sure do. I was born in 1938 and on April 6, 1941 at five in the morning German
bombs started falling on my head. I experienced the occupation in Belgrade, Civil
War in Yugoslavia, Allied bombings in 1944, and the liberation of the city by
the Russians. As you can imagine, I saw things not even a child is likely to
was our second stop. We lived in New York for a year, before my father got
a job in the headquarters of the company he had already been working for in
Europe before the war. I went to Oak Park High School, an excellent public
school, which Hemingway once attended. Chicago was a huge factory town full of
immigrants, so being one of them was no big deal at all. Everybody seemed to
have an accent and a funny name. I felt right at home.
did you make ends meet before you started selling poetry and teaching?
first job was in 1955 counting airlines screws in a small company on Long
Island. After that, I worked in offices, bookstores, department stores, a
newspaper and a photography magazine. I knew bookkeeping and all the related
office skills, so I didn't have any problem finding a job. As for college, I
at night, first in Chicago and then in New York.
are very prolific. Is there a time of day when you write? How do you balance
essays, translation, poetry? Describe your process a little.
hard to generalize because over the last fifty five years my work habits have
changed. When I was younger I wrote at night, because I had to work during the
day. Now that I'm seventy-five years old, I work both in the morning and in the
afternoon on either poetry or prose. There's no rule. I do what I feel like
doing that day.
did becoming poet laureate mean for you? Did it put more pressure on the
I traveled a lot and gave even more poetry
readings than I usually give and spent a couple of days every month in Washington.
There was no pressure of any kind, because unlike poet laureates in England,
we are not obliged to write poems here wishing the President happy birthday or
congratulating him on his dog having puppies.
your time spent at The Paris Review. Did you enjoy choosing and editing other
poets? What did that experience teach you?
I did enjoy it, though it was a lot of work.
The number of poetry submissions a big literary magazine in this country gets
every week run into many hundreds, so one is always reading, always falling behind
and feeling guilty one has only read 50-60 poems that day. Still, every now
and then a poem comes along that makes it all worth it.
you say politics is weaved into all your poems or just some of them?
Just some of them. As a child of WWII and
someone whose life has been affected in some way by other wars since then, I
always pay close attention to what goes on in the world and that tends to be
reflected in my poems.
write with humor. You embrace absurdity. Is this how you are when you're
talking over breakfast?
No. I'm as serious as a cardinal in charge of
the Holy Office of the Inquisition when I chew on my toast and sip my coffee.
you feel you've got this poetry thing figured out?
If I ever thought that, I ought to be called
an idiot. My poetry is as much a mystery to me, as it must be to some of my
you feel like critics have your poetry figured out?
Some have and some haven't. Astute and
imaginative readers are rare. I know that from teaching literature close to
forty-five years. I'm not suggesting that one has to go to college to
learn how to read poetry. Far from it. The person whom I show my poems
to before I publish them and whose judgment I trust completely never went to
did you go about selecting the poems for New and Selected Poems, 1962-2012? Did
you have specific criteria?
I selected the poems that I thought were good
and that I liked and others that I wasn't sure how good they are, but I
thought were interesting. At one point, early on, I asked a couple poet friends
to give me lists of their favorites, but I knew that the final decisions had to be
mine. I started publishing poems in 1959, so the first three years of my poetry
are missing from the book, because I came to realize that they were no good.
bow to you
to everything that appears in you,
never again the same way:
street with its pink sky,
of gray tenements,
you, mirror framed in gold
carried across the street
someone I can't even see,
whom, too, I bow.
the fruit stand.
eat the smile
spit out the teeth.