Saturday, September 19, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Charles Simic

Charles Simic talked about his current work on translating Serbian poetry. Central Europe, he said, has its own very unique poetic traditions. Byron & English poetry in 19th C, 20th C -- large French influence, a few Germans, Russians, Eliot, "some kind of modernist tradition," Rilke. "Communism as a shock to tradition." Mostly, communist era resulted in didactic poems with a message, but "when they were writing about injustice (done to them?), their ranting got very interesting."

There were not very many poems written about the war in the 1990s. "Profound feeling of evil emerging, evil coming."

Simic talked about shifts that occur in one's own writing over a period of a lifelong career (his own). Early years -- series of discoveries. Impulse to imitate your favorite poets. Years of learning & then over the course of your life themes come up. In 1975, he started to write about his own childhood during WWII in Belgrade. "Not just the past that happened to you, but also the past poems you've written -- a feeling that they are not very good -- so you want to do something better." Lately, his poetry is all about death.

Simic left Belgrade when he was 15, and in 1963 started going to the Slavic Section of the NY Public Library and read "every anthology of contemporary Yugoslavian poetry." This was his initiation into translation. He copied poems (of a specific poet, I think, whose name I didn't catch) & translated them at home. It didn't sound the same in English! In the original, every word seemed totally inevitable, precise, beautifully phrased, very simple. The poetry (of this particular poet whose name I didn't catch -- Popa might be the last name) came from "very deep in the language." Particular kinds of precise constructions that evoke references, echoes of other sources, connotations, etc. As a translator, this is very difficult -- you have to suggest another layer. Also idiomatic poems, idioms that are somewhat twisted.

"I've learned more from translation than from anything else."

"American poems switch from one level of diction to another very easily, which in translation to French is very hard because it becomes just not good French."

Somebody asked him a question: "How important is it for you to be transparent?" His answer: "If you're writing something that you don't understand yourself -- that too gets boring. [I write as if] I am speaking to someone. The ideal other, some reader or someone. The only time it's impossible to be transparent is when the subject itself remains not transparent (deeper meaning, truths)."

"Majority of my poems probably have something autobiographical in origin, but a lot have been made up."

"Music always gets me in shape. I'm going to write like Scarlatti today." "A series of madrigals for voices; I read a poem & then sing it. It's very ingenious. Some of them I like very much."

Question: "Do you feel there are limitations in relying on the 1st person pronoun?" Answer: "I have held less of it when I was younger. It's inevitable, you can't avoid it." "But then too much I, I, I -- we have to find ways so that it doesn't become overbearing. Any time you can get away from it, get away from it."

This is about it for my Skidmore notebook, and what a good place it is to stop, with translation. Dave stayed up all night backing up our computers, buying our tickets for the next-next trip, packing. I'm browsing instead of sleeping. What comes next will be new and shiny.

1 comment:

  1. Vasko Popa is the name you're trying to remember. He's a great poet; Simic has published some of his translations. Another excellent poet Simic translated is Ivan Lalic.