e-Interview with Charles Simic

Matos is perhaps his country’s most promising poet. Jorge Amado has called him one of the greatest young Brazilian poets. Mr. Matos’s collection Ladies and Gentlemen: the Dawn was awarded the Jorge Amado Foundation Prize, and published by the same institution. The collection No Acampamento Das Sombras (At the Camp of Shadows) won the Xerox Award of Brazilian Literature, the most prestigious university literature award in Brazil.

Charles Simic’s poetry came to me through the hands of Tomaž Šalamun. The first time we met in Brazil he said: “You should read one of the strongest voices of our times.” Or course I did it and felt immediately what Tomaž meant. Simic goes to the inside of things, peels off their skin. The maturity of his poetic vision enchants at first sight.

Three years later I asked for Simic’s e-mail, wanting to talk to him since there were many questions. Later on I formalized some of them, and what resulted was an interview.

How did the experience of leaving Yugoslavia influence your way of writing? How was it for a 15 year old East-European boy to move to the US?

When you grow up with bombs falling on your head and seeing people hung from lamp posts, that makes an impression. America was the place where they made all that jazz music I loved, plus the movies, the skyscrapers, the big cars. I was very happy to be there.

It seems hunger has been most inspiring muse for several great poets, including you …

There were stretches after WWI when we had little to eat. I never forgot about that. I know lots of people in the world still go to bed hungry every night

A poet in the Army … tell us, as a blueprint for the poets that will join it in the future, how to survive once there!

You had to learn to make yourself invisible to your superiors. It’s just like living in a totalitarian state, so, you could say, I had plenty of experience.

Your poetry has the strength of an earthquake. Where does this strength come from?

It comes from being lazy and never passing up an opportunity to take a nap.

Where is America’s direction from here on?

A bleak economic future and a paradise of self-delusion and lies.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently sent me a poem called speak up, criticizing the silence coming from the American people regarding the loss of several individual liberties … What do you think about this matter?

It’s very alarming. For the sake of “security” people are willing to give up their civil liberties. It’s not yet clear how far it’ll go, but there are a lot of reasons to worry

How do you see American poetry nowadays? What’s the basic difference between your generation and that of today?

In 1960’s, the poetry scene resembled the warring factions of the Mafia. Most of us belonged to “families” with gang names like Confessional Poets, Black Mountain Poets, New York Poets, Deep Image Poets, etc. We had our bosses, of course, and we fought in pages of literary magazines. Now peace reigns. Young poets take whatever they please wherever they can find it and write their poems.

Some people say my generation is much more worried about how many copies their books will sell than about how many social/ political questions they can help to solve. Do you think that writers have become excessively individualistic?

Poets have always been individualistic. Look at Whitman and Dickinson, or go back to Ovid and Catullus. Every one of them a loner. Poetry has always been a refuge for people who can’t get along with others. As for solving social/political questions, all I can say is good luck. What choice do we have but to try?

Do you know Brazilian literature? And if so, what do you think of it?

I read mostly poetry. Mario de Andrade, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, J.C, de Melo Neto, Jorge de Lima—all terrific poets. Of course, I read Jorge Amado, Machado de Assis—I forget what else. I always had a soft spot for Brazil.

In 2001, I was at the International Writing Program, Iowa, in a workshop with Derek Walcott. There was a huge fight between all the writers in the room and Derek. He was basicly defending the idea that poetry should be simple and clear, while the writers were trying to convince him that they preferred to do difficult things. I noticed my generation thinks it can understand anything, and I realized this type of madness has been always followed human kind–that’s why I supported Derek. Where do you think poetry is going?

Derek was right. Poetry needs to be accessible. I’m not saying easy, but an intelligent reader ought to be able to grasp it sooner or later. Total hermeticism is a waste of time. It’s also the easies thing in the world to write.

Do you think powerful nations will ever notice that while millions of people live in absolute misery there will never exist peace for anyone?


Charles Simic
e-interviewed by Narlan Matos
Fall 2003