Saturday, November 16, 2013

An Interview with Charles Simic

Here we are in mid-November, approaching the most festive, celebratory, and busiest time of year. It occurs to me that many of us won’t have time to work with prompts or on our poems, so I thought I’d offer slightly different fare for a while—some poetry-related reading and then a short hiatus in December. For starters, I’d like to share an interview that I did with the great poet Charles Simic. This appeared in issue XXIII of Tiferet (autumn 2013) and is reprinted here with the permission of publisher Donna Baier Stein. There are some great tips for poets from Charles Simic at the end of the interview.

An Interview with Charles Simic

By Adele Kenny

TIFERET: Literature, Art, & The Creative Spirit, Issue XXIII
Copyright © 2013 By Tiferet. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by Permission

Dušan [Charles] Simić was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938. His memories, as he noted for this interview “… begin with April 6, 1941 when he was three years old, when a German bomb hit the building across the street from his and threw him out of bed at five o’clock in the morning …” During World War II, his father was arrested several times and in 1944 fled from Yugoslavia to Italy, where he was again imprisoned. At the end of the war, he went to Trieste where he lived for five years before making his way to the United States. Simic’s mother attempted to escape postwar Yugoslavia but was imprisoned with Charles and his younger brother by the Communists. Charles, his brother, and his mother ultimately moved to Paris, where they lived for a year before emigrating to the United States in 1954 where they joined Charles’s father after a decade apart.

The family lived in New York for a year before moving to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park where Simic graduated from the same high school as Ernest Hemingway. His first poems were published in the Chicago Review in 1959. Working nights at the Chicago Sun Times, he attended the University of Chicago but, in 1961, was drafted into the US Army and served until 1963. In 1964, he married fashion designer Helen Dubin, with whom he has a son and a daughter. He earned a bachelor’s degree from NYU in 1966, and his first poetry collection, What the Grass Says, was published in 1967. He became a US citizen in 1971 and taught at the University of New Hampshire for 34 years. He and his wife live in Strafford, New Hampshire.

Prolific as well as acclaimed, Charles Simic has published over sixty books in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to being a distinguished poet, he is also an eminent translator, essayist, critic, and editor. A 1990 Pulitzer Prize recipient, he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000. He has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2007–2008 and, among other honors and awards, he has received the PEN Translation Prize, the International Griffin Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the Frost Medal.

Imagistic and terse, Charles Simic’s poetry is characterized by dark imagery and incongruity—a stunning blend of originality and genius that produces a style unmatched in contemporary poetry. A post-modernist and a surrealist, Simic is also a minimalist who trims away everything “extra” to create a streamlined effect intensified by surprising concurrences of language and imagery. His poetry is like waking in a darkened room and unexpectedly recognizing the strangeness in familiar furniture forms.

Adele Kenny: My mother’s family came from Eastern Europe and suffered greatly during the First World War. (My grandfather spent six and a half years in a Siberian prison camp.) When they came to this country, my grandparents and my uncles (who were children) felt an enormous sense of displacement. Did you feel similarly when you came to this country and, if so, did that make itself felt in your poetry?

Charles Simic: Not in my case. I was sixteen years old when I came in 1954 with my mother and younger brother to join my father, whom we had not seen since 1944, so it was a happy occasion. Plus, everything that I was in love with, American literature, jazz, movies and girls, were waiting for me in New York City. Neither then, nor now, have I had any nostalgia for Europe.

AK: How have the darknesses of your childhood in Belgrade, such experiences as being a drafted into the U.S. army and serving as a military policeman in France and Germany, and Eastern Europe’s past impacted your poetry?

CS: Growing up in wartime, being bombed, seeing atrocities, going hungry and spending a little time in prison shaped my outlook on life. My poems are full of allusions to such experiences, not just mine, but to those of many other human beings in other wars and other times.

AK: How are you “the last Napoleonic soldier?”
CS: I and my family belong to the great masses of defeated humanity who fought in every war in history without wanting to and came back home either in a coffin or without an arm or a leg. When I wrote that poem this destiny of ours struck me as very funny.

AK: As a Post-Modernist poet, you successfully avoid the obsessive biographical preoccupation with “I” and “me” that has dominated poetry in recent years. How do nonrepresentational awareness and personal experience co-exist in your poetry?

CS: A poem is a work of art made up of imagination and reality. I’m more interested in writing a good poem then telling the reader about myself. Of course, I use my own experiences, but I also make up things.

AK: It has been remarked that your style is characterized by simplicity and strangeness with an unsettling quality. Dark imagery and irony are seen in many of your poems, along with nods to the surreal and to the farcical. How do you view these elements as characteristic of your work?

CS: This is how I see the world. As someone whose memories begin with April 6, 1941 when he was three years old, when a German bomb hit the building across the street from his and threw him out of bed at five o’clock in the morning, this is an inevitable condition. My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts were the same way. History has made us into a family of cheerful pessimists.

AK: Your book The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1990), received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. What is it about prose poems that appeals to you?

CS: Because they’re not like any other kind of writing and thus impossible to anticipate how they will turn out. I never sit down to write a “prose poem.” I scribble in my notebooks and some of these scribbles every once in a while strike me as being able to stand alone and are worth keeping. What shall we call them? I asked my editor. Let’s call them prose poems, she said, so that’s what they became.

AK: Is there anything in your poems that has surprised or startled you?

CS: My returning again and again over the years to certain moods and images like Edward Hopper whose paintings share the same limited subject matter and the same atmosphere.

AK: How do you see poetry as a place in which the poet can achieve freedom?

CS: Poetry is freedom. The best poems never imitate, never worry what other people think. That’s why there’s so much poetry in the world. Where else would human beings find a place where they can let their feelings and their imagination run free? That’s what attracted me to poetry when I first started reading it and writing it fifty-five years ago, and it still does today.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind While Sitting Down to Write a Poem
from Charles Simic

1. Don't tell the readers what they already know about life.

2. Don't assume you're the only one in the world who suffers.

3. Some of the greatest poems in the language are sonnets and poems not many lines longer than that, so don't overwrite.

4. The use of images, similes and metaphors make poems concise. Close your eyes, and let your imagination tell you what to do.

5. Say the words you are writing aloud and let your ear decide what word comes next.

6. What you are writing down is a draft that will need additional tinkering, perhaps many months, and even years of tinkering.

7. Remember, a poem is a time machine you are constructing, a vehicle that will allow someone to travel in their own mind, so don't be surprised if it takes a while to get all its engine parts properly working.

Acknowledgment: “A Few Things to Keep in Mind …” is reprinted with the permission of Charles Simic and the Library of Congress

Poems by Charles Simic:

Tiferet offers five digital issues and one print issue every year.  Each issue is packed with high quality fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, interviews, reviews, and visual art.

Contributors have included Robert Bly, Ray Bradbury, Gerald Stern, Nikki Giovanni, Ilan Stavans, Stephen Dunn, Alicia Ostriker, Robert Pinsky, Ed Hirsch, Jane Hirshfield, Dorianne Laux, Renée Ashley, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Laura Boss, Robert Carnevale, and Joe Weil (among many, many others).

Be Sure to Visit Tiferet Online


  1. ADELE! this is BRILLIANT! I'm a long-time Charles Simic fan, and I really enjoyed reading your interview with him. Thank you!

    P.S. I think your idea to waive the prompts and substitute with poetry "reading" during the holiday season is a great one! There's always so much wonderful poetry material on this blog.

    1. Thanks so much, Jamie! So glad you like the idea of "substituting" essays and poetry thoughts for prompts during the holiday season. Your comments are always appreciated and gratefully received!

  2. Fantastic interview, Adele. Congrats.

    You really did your homework and asked great questions.

    I wasn't much familiar with Simic's work before reading this, but now I'll definitely make a point of seeking him out online and at Barnes & Noble. Interesting stuff ...

    1. Thanks much, Rich! I enjoyed doing the research and the interview. Do read more Simic—his style and content are fascinating.

  3. What an enlightening interview. I especially liked "A poem is a work of art made up of imagination and reality." I recently read Aharon Appelfeld's THE STORY OF A LIFE, in which the author's preface states that "memory and imagination sometimes dwell together." Reading Simic's poems and Adele's astute interview let us know that he has taken the steps to merge these two elements, sometimes with humorous and/or surprise detours. The result: beautiful imagery, a sense of galloping through history, and comfort. Thanks, Adele, and thanks, TIFERET, for letting us in.

    1. Thanks so much Gail for your kind words and insightful comments! Memory and imagination do, indeed, sometimes "dwell together." And, yes, Simic's sense of humor and/or surprise does create a kind of magic in his poems.

    2. Gail Fishman Gerwin,

      So perfectly expressed, love the "galloping through history and comfort."

  4. Ciao Adele, I love Simic and I have translated some of his poems in my blog.
    For example Autumn Sky

    Ai tempi della mia bisnonna
    Tutto quello che ci serviva era una scopa
    Per arrivare a vedere luoghi
    E inseguire le oche nel cielo.

    Le stelle conoscono tutto
    E allora cerchiamo di leggere nella loro mente
    Per quanto così distanti
    Scegliamo di sussurrare alla loro presenza-

    Oh Cynthia,
    prendi un orologio che ha perso un giro
    delle lancette
    Prenotami una stanza all’ Hotel Eternità
    Dove al Tempo piace fermarsi ogni tanto.

    Venite, amanti degli angoli oscuri
    dice il cielo,
    e sedetevi in uno dei mei angoli oscuri.
    Ci sono stuzzichini molto leggeri
    nel piatto delle noccioline stasera.

    1. Ciao, Jago! We've missed you here on the blog and thank you for sharing your amazing translation of "Simic's "Autumn Sky."

      I saw on Facebook that you had a birthday recently—all good wishes for a wonderful year and many happy birthdays to come.

      Here's the Simic poem in English for our readers:

      Autumn Sky
      In my great grandmother's time,
      All one needed was a broom
      To get to see places
      And give the geese a chase in the sky.

      The stars know everything,
      So we try to read their minds.
      As distant as they are,
      We choose to whisper in their presence.

      Oh Cynthia,
      Take a clock that has lost its hands
      For a ride.
      Get me a room at Hotel Eternity
      Where Time likes to stop now and then.

      Come, lovers of dark corners,
      The sky says,
      And sit in one of my dark corners.
      There are tasty little zeroes
      In the peanut dish tonight.

    2. WOW, JAGO! I was wondering where you'd gone (missed you here on the blog), and I'm so happy to see another of your great translations. My own Italian isn't perfect, but I can see that you've found the essence of what Simic does in his poetry. Thank you for sharing your translation with us.

    3. Ciao, Jamie.
      I don' t know... sometimes I feel so blue and I don't find words to explain.

      " The translator is a close reader
      He wears thick glasses...

  5. I heard Charles Simic read in New Your City some time ago. He was fantastic -- what a mind and what amazing use of language. He's one of the most innovative and exciting poets I've read and heard. Thanks for posting your interview with him. Your blog is great!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Marie! So glad you're enjoying the blog!

  6. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)November 22, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    Lovely, Adele! I'm impressed by your intro and the research you must have done to ask such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. I'm not familiar with Simic's poetry but I intend to seek it out after reading your interview. Thanks for posting this.

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    1. Thanks, Maire! I'm so glad to know that you enjoyed the interview and that you're interested in reading Charles Simic's poems. You'll find them startling and truly unique.

  7. Adele Kenny you did such a great job.

    Thanks for Sharing.


    1. Thanks so much, Josh! I'm glad you enjoyed it!