An Interview with Charles Simic by Dejan Stojanovic

Charles Simic, Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

Charles Simic (1938) is one of the most respected and beloved contemporary American poets. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his book The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among many other honors. He was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2007. He has published more than 60 books.

Stojanovic: You arrived in America as a child. How did your assimilation into a new society turn out?

Simic: On a superficial level I felt quickly comfortable. My English improved to a point where I could read books, have friends and know what is going on in popular culture and so forth. That took two to three years. The rest of it came slowly as I lived the same kind of life my contemporaries did. I was in the army, then there was the Vietnam War, the 1960’s, etc. etc. After almost forty years in this country and all that history, I feel completely at home.

Stojanovic: You are the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. How much did getting so many awards affect you?

Simic: My books sell better. My poems are in more high school anthologies. People think I’m very smart. I’m not. Essentially, as our people say: “Every miracle only lasts for three days.”

Stojanovic: To what degree in America is there a balance between the hierarchy of values based on materialistic principles and those based on spirit?

Simic: There is no relationship whatsoever. America is not a country; it’s a continent inhabited by multiple traditions, cultures and religions, a place full of contradictions and paradoxes. The biggest one, I suppose, that we somehow get along together. That’s the only unifying vision. The idea of one people, united and different.

Stojanovic: What kind of a role is there for literature today in the most powerful country in the world?

Simic: Literature is not very important, especially poetry. I mean, it’s nothing in comparison to film, television, religion, sports. Still, we have a huge publishing industry. A lot of good books come out every year and many very bad ones, and there are readers for both.

Stojanovic: Are the intellectuals in America in a position to affect important trends in American society or are they predestined to live life in their intellectual enclaves?

Simic: There are always, of course, certain kinds of intellectuals who attach themselves to power, the political science types, the Russian experts from major universities, Kissinger, Bzezinski and that company . . . But the majority of us, thank God, stay home and write our books.

Stojanovic: Does technological progress, in this country and around the world, produce true wisdom, or is there a disconnect between the two?

Simic: Are you kidding? Technology is a product of little wisdom and a lot of greed and stupidity. In this country, for instance, we had the best train system in the world which we closed down so we could all drive big cars that use a lot of gas and pollute the environment. Los Angeles and its freeways is a monument to that folly.

Stojanovic: How much are these current times convenient and favorable for the world of art and progress in the deeper sense?

Simic: I’ve no idea. Our age is probably no worse than any other age. I don’t believe in Good Old Days, nor do I believe in Progress when it comes to the arts. I’ve no nostalgia of any kind.

Stojanovic: Do you think that Serbs who have prestige in the world can do more to better the picture and image of Serbia?

Simic: Only to the degree that they can occasionally correct in public some misinformation. You realize that Americans don’t care much about the events in Yugoslavia. This is to be expected. It’s a big world. There are a lot of troubled places out there, and we have plenty of our own problems, too . . . So it goes. I speak out but I’ve no illusion that I’m making a large impact.

Serbs are not well organized here and their lobby doesn’t have big money and therefore the clout that others have. If we could make a large campaign contributions to Senator Dole he’d change his tune about Kosovo, he’ll even put a picture of St. Sava on his office wall. These senators and representatives are like lawyers. Some of them are honest, and some are crooks. We pay them money and they represent our interests. American Congress is not interested in historical justice. It may say it is, but it is not. It simply represents powerful constituencies. Serbs with their perennial lack of unity do not represent one, and so they get no support.

Stojanovic: How do you view the current situation in Yugoslavia?

Simic: There’s nothing good to be said about people who hate each other and cannot get along. Now you have a civil war. I think all sides are to blame. All these Communists turned democrats, turned neo-fascists nationalists, and the rest. I think Yugoslavs are being fooled by the same people who fooled them and terrorized them yesterday. No one has much to be proud of. I see a lot of vileness and stupidity, and there is, of course, tragedy. People of good will and the innocent suffer as always.

Stojanovic: What, in your view, is most important for Serbia today?

Simic: Serbs cannot go on voting for the same old Communists. They will not get much sympathy anywhere that way . . . What Serbia needs is, of course, democracy and especially the so-called “formal liberties”: freedom of thought, expression, association, etc., the most one which is to say NO to the ones in power and suffer no consequences.

Stojanovic: Ideologies and leaders come and go, but central values stay and often remain the only light shining in an often foggy world. How does one return to the basic values that the Serbs hold to be true?

Simic: Serbs are talented people with an honorable history. They’ve produced exceptional individuals. They’ll survive. I have no worries about that.

On the other hand, I’m not a fan of nationalist euphoria. Nationalism is the last refuge of scoundrels, as we know. I don’t care for that chest-beating either in America or in Yugoslavia. Nothing good comes out of it. That’s how tragic historical mistakes are made by countries and peoples. I wish they had more cool heads right now.

Stojanovic: There is no ideal society, and there are fewer and fewer ideals today in society in general. What kind of society would you fight for?

Simic: Democracy is an imperfect system, but there is no better one. You really have to be a first class idiot–and I met many among Western intellectuals, for instance–who used to assure me thirty years ago in Paris or New York that there was more freedom in Bulgaria than in Sweden. Or the argument, you hear from some Serbian politicians that now that Serbia is under attack democracy would be too divisive. American presidents during the Vietnam War and the Gulf War have used the same argument and were told to go to hell. Democratic institutions are the greatest strength a nation has. They require an alert, vigilant, well-informed, and articulate citizenry. That’s an ideal worth fighting for.

Stojanovic: What questions bother you the most–as a poet and as a man?

Simic: I have a grocer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from whom I buy Italian sausages and olive oil. He takes me aside at times and asks me in a kind of a whisper: “Professor, what does it all mean?” I tell him that I’ve no idea, but that I think about it all the time.

-Dejan Stojanovic

Pogledi (Views), Serbian Magazine, August 9-23, 1991 (No. 89)



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