Vladimir Martinovski on Writing and Music

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Macedonian writer, Vladimir Martinovski, about the music of verse, as well as writing in Macedonian literature.

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Vladimir Martinovski Interview Transcript

I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

This episode of Origins features Macedonian writer Vladimir Martinovski.

Vladimir MARTINOVSKI Владимир Мартиновски (fiction writer, poet, critic, translator; Macedonia) teaches comparative poetics at Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, and is the secretary of the Macedonian PEN Center.  The author of ten poetry collections and many volumes of literary criticism and theory, he has received awards for poetry (at the International Struga Poetry Evenings) and for literary criticism. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Vladimir, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.

MARTINOVSKI : Thank you for inviting me.

MERRILL: In your 5Q Interview with the Writing University, you said some of your poetry derives from Balkan and Macedonian rhythms. Since poetry is both read to oneself and out loud, I wonder how much of your poetry is based on sonics, or sound? What role does the music of verse have in your writing?

MARTINOVSKI: It’s one of the essential roles. First of all, I would like to express my gratitude for inviting me for this interview, and also I’m very, very honored and I can even say blessed to be a participant this year for the anniversary edition.

For me, music is very important because I am also a musician. Sometimes when I work on my poems I know that I would like to use some particular rhythmical pattern but most of the time, I don’t think of it. When I write the original poem in Macedonian, the rhythm is inside the poem and sometimes when I read the poem at the end, I just feel that I need to do one or two corrections to have the whole rhythm. Sometimes I don’t do any corrections, I feel that the rhythm is already there. The sound for me is important because it helps me create the images as well. Sometimes the rhythm of the poem is linked with the rhythm of the montage, of the poetic images, and that’s why it’s important. Sometimes I’m also writing lyrics for music, in some cases I already have some music in my mind, sometimes it’s my own music, sometimes it’s the music of my friends, but sometimes I have the poem in some rhythmical pattern and then I try to find the proper music, that’s why it’s so important.

MERRILL: So when you’re writing a poem and you have a rhythm in mind, is it derived from traditional poetic forms or is it something that you invent or is it coming from folk form? How would you characterize those different rhythms?

MARTINOVSKI: It really depends on the poem. Sometimes I also work in some canonic forms, like haiku and sonnet as well, so of course I try to respect the tradition. But sometimes I try to invent some new aspects. I don’t want just to repeat the same poems. Also in the prose poems, sometimes I’m aware that I’m using some rhythmical patterns from traditional music, and so called irregular rhythms. They are not irregular, they are rhythmical and they are repeating, but the point is that they are mixed with three syllables and two syllables. That’s why we have two eight, seven eight, nine eight, or up to seventeen eight and that’s the nature of the Macedonian language and also of the accent. And that’s why I’m not the only one who is doing this. We can see many poets in the Macedonian tradition doing this, even though not all of them are musicians. It’s this link between the language and the written. But also another aspect is the traditional dances because the steps are very linked with this rhythm as well.

MERRILL: So you would have heard those tunes from very early in your childhood.

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, yes, I mean, in every marriage or when I started to play traditional instruments when I was a high school student, I already knew all those rhythms because I already knew many traditional songs and dances.

MERRILL: And you play a number of different kinds of instruments and you also collect instruments. Can you tell us a little something about that?

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, it’s a great passion, like poetry, like art. I have a feeling that we are all obsessed some way by what we do, but in a good way. Because okay, the first instrument was a gift from my grandmother.

MERRILL: What was the instrument?

MARTINOVSKI: It was a guitar. She was on a trip in Russia and she came from Moscow and she gave me a guitar and I was very happy. And I wanted to play bass guitar and a friend of mine did a handmade guitar and I was first playing punk music. Then I was also writing lyrics for some hip hop bands. But when I was a student, I started to play traditional instruments from Macedonia. It was a time when the film Before the Rain was a very big hit and I liked the sound of those instruments and I met those musicians who were making the soundtrack and I also had a chance to meet Pece Atanasovski, he was actually my musical guru or teacher. I always play only by hearing music, I don’t read notes. Then I bought my first tambura, my first kaval and then I started to collect first instruments from the Balkan region and now I collect instruments from all over the world because I travel everywhere and today I have bought one very nice French clarinet in one antique shop in Iowa. It’s here, in the studio.

MERRILL: Do you know how to play the clarinet? Or do you have to teach yourself?

MARTINOVSKI: A bit, a bit. I always try to play all the instruments that I collect because I don’t bring them as souvenirs, but as something that can produce sound. For me, playing different instruments is also an adventure.

MERRILL: And I imagine that the playing of these different instruments inspires you to write different poems, with a different sound.

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, yes sometimes only I hear the sound and I have some image. Because for me, I belong to this, how can I say, maybe it’s the heritage from the Symbolistic poetic, that the sound and image and this correspondence, the ideas of Baudelaire but previously of Theophile Gautier and many other Romantic poets as well, Hoffman and many others. I feel like the sound can produce image and the image can produce some other. And that’s why I like poetry because I think in poetry, we try to work with images, sounds, notions, emotions, concepts, and everything at the same time.

MERRILL: Is there something you look for in particular when you collect an instrument, is there a particular kind of instrument that interests you, or is the whole world open?

MARTINOVSKI: I collect mostly wind instrument because I found them very, I like the sound of all wind instruments. For me, they are the most meditative and more spiritual, and for me they are very connected to poetry as well. But I also collect string instruments and percussions as well.

MERRILL: I know you brought ten instruments to Iowa. How many will you be going home with?

MARTINOVSKI: I don’t count. But I was very happy that I was playing with many different musicians here. The first week I met one brilliant band at the Ped Mall street. They play every Tuesday and they improvise music and I was playing whenever I was here with them and now they are very close friends of mine because with music you bond with people very, very fast. And I was playing with my IWP fellows almost every night, different music, we had a small concert at the barn party. And that’s really nice.

MERRILL: Well in addition to music, you also gave a presentation at the Iowa City Public Library on the topic of writing in the field of optics. And you mentioned that there is a risk of writing ekphrastic poetry, poems based on paintings, because the person reading the poem might not understand or fully grasp the intention the poet was trying to create or build upon. So how do you take this risk into consideration into your work? I mean, you have talked about sound inspiring a poem but also now paintings and I wonder, since so much of your work is in relationship between other art forms, how does that inform your own work?

MARTINOVSKI: I can answer this question in two perspectives. One is from the perspective of scholar because I have worked in this field for maybe more than fifteen or twenty years. My PhD thesis was on three different poetry traditions: French, American, Macedonian. I was working on Baudelaire, John Ashbury, Williams, and two Macedonian poets, Slavko Janevski and Vlada Urosevic on their ekphrastic work. Ekphrastic poetry is one of the old forms of poetry as well. It’s not something new; even Homer was creating brilliant ekphrastic images as well. There are two kinds of ekphrasis. One is actual ekphrasis when a reader is supposed to know the source of inspiration, the artwork. Nowadays it’s not a big deal because we live in the digital era and we need to adjust a couple of seconds to see the source of that poem. But maybe two centuries ago, it was a big privilege to see the original, even now it is a big privilege to see some. And I know that in a way it can be seen as elitist poetry. But on the other hand, there are so many beautiful poems. And I have done first whole collection, anthology of the Macedonian ekphrastic poems, some of them are really beautiful. Even for a reader from another country, because it was released by the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival and poets coming from very distant countries, they told me they liked those poems even though they are related to sometimes frescos they have never had a chance previously to see.

Then I can try to answer from perspective of poet. Sometimes I write poems not only on works of art which are known, I also write poems when I like to because we all actually write and have the possibility to write about anything we want, that’s the freedom of art, that’s the freedom of expression as well. And that’s the way we share values. Maybe somebody will discover a young painter from my country or from America because I have written a poem about her or his work. And I really don’t care about it because we can ask the same question about the reference of each poem in the history of literature. As a reader, we never know what exactly was the starting point. We just get the final result and I think that’s also very nice about poetry because it can transpose something but it can also give us completely new experience.

MERRILL: That makes me think of late American poet William Matthews who wrote some ekphrastic poems on paintings that didn’t actually exist. “The Photograph of the Author with his Favorite Pig”. There is no painting called that, but it becomes alive on the page.

MARTINOVSKI: That’s so-called notional ekphrasis and Homer was doing the same. We cannot see the weapon of all those warriors, the shield of Achilles. But that’s really interesting, it also challenges, it shows that the arts are really connected. We can also paint with our poems, we can also make music, that’s the case of some poets. When a composer came to say that he or she did some music one friend’s poet says, “It’s already music, you shouldn’t waste your time.”

MERRILL: You wrote a dissertation on three different literary traditions but you also spent a lot of time on writing about writing haiku in Macedonia and editing books about the phenomenon of Macedonian haiku. And I wonder how was the experience of writing in another country’s literary form, because you also have another book on haibun…

MARTINOVSKI: …actually, three books of haibun.

MERRILL: …which is another Japanese form mixing prose and haiku.

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, for me all art is universal and international although of course every literary form, every artistic form has its roots and of course we have to respect that. And it’s very important that haiku was created, it’s a very long tradition. I have worked on this for many, many years. But for me it’s interesting even now, it’s a huge challenge to write in a very elliptic and condensed form, and I think that’s why I’m attracted to poetry mostly. Because you also work with image, you also work in a pattern, you only have seventeen syllables and sometimes you feel like it’s an endless thing, even though you have frames. You have many rules and you’re trying to obey, but at the same time you feel a freedom, you can write about anything, about any season about any moment of your life. And I actually started writing poetry with haiku by chance and I never knew that I would publish them. It was while I was in France, actually, and I sent those poems to one of my friends and he said you must publish this, this is good. And then all of a sudden, one day I realized that I’m really attracted to these hybrid forms, poetry and prose. And I actually write prose using haiku techniques.

MERRILL: How does that work?

MARTINOVSKI: Well, writing about the moment. In haibun, one of the first rules is to write in the present. Sometimes I also use the past forms but I’ve realized that my haibuns are really different because I also use something from my musical heritage but I also mix something, because I’m very fond of prose poem, French tradition as well. I was translating a couple of authors and I’m aware that also influenced me. I feel that when I write these forms, it’s a new way of writing haibun, but I really don’t take it as a scene. Why? Because when we find every literary form was changing and it was transferred in many different literary and language traditions. Let’s take the sonnet, it was done in Italy but many beautiful sonnets were written in hundreds and hundreds of languages as well, as well as haikus. That’s why I really enjoy exploring these forms.

MERRILL: So what literary cultures are you exploring now in your reading and do we await new poems in forms from other traditions?

MARTINOVSKI: While I was here, I was working on two different poetry collections, and I’m very happy that I have finished both manuscripts and I have sent them to very close friends. The first feedbacks are good. In the first book I was working on, I can say, is linked with Dante. There is a cycle of twenty-four tercet poems and they are all with eight stanzas. The cycle is called Dream Yachts because they are all poems about dreams. Actually, the first poem was written the day when I came here. I couldn’t sleep because of this jet lag, and I was in that zone for the two first weeks. I was never sure whether I am dreaming or whether I am sleeping or not and that was the first starting point for that book. And actually my friends told me that while they were reading the poems, they were also uncertain whether it was a dream or reality. And the second cycle is Awakenings, they are also twenty-four poems but they are in quatrain tradition and some of those quatrains are also rhymed.

MERRILL: So I want to shift a little bit to talk about writing in Macedonian literature. A very old language but only recently codified on the world stage. And I wonder as Macedonian writers have created and now maintained a Macedonian identity, I wonder where you fit in that identity, that unfolding identity. For example, there would have been a time fifty or sixty years ago where Bulgaria would say that you’re speaking Bulgarian, but the languages are distinctly different and have distinctly different literary traditions.

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, you’re right, they’re distinctly different. I have many writer friends [from Bulgaria], when they want to translate the poems, then they realize it’s really, really [different]. Even though when we talk, we all talk in our native languages and we can understand. They are close languages in the same group of South Slavic languages. Macedonian language and Macedonian literature, even though it’s a small country with about two million inhabitants and we have also a very big diaspora like all Balkan countries. Half of the population is outside, all over the world, including Australia and America as well. So maybe there are not more than four million speakers of Macedonian language, the literature and the literary tradition are very interesting and it’s very rich.

MERRILL: Beginning with Cyril and Methodius and their translations of the Bible.

MARTINOVSKI: And the first translations into Slavic languages. Of course it’s a heritage not only of Macedonia, but of all Slavic people and I prefer to talk about old Slavic language because nowadays in all national traditions they are trying to say this is old. Of course it’s old Slavic language and it’s really important because that heritage, I’m aware of that heritage that is very, very important, this medieval culture. And also in the field of ekphrastic poetry in Macedonia, there are hundreds of poems related to frescos, related to these monuments, and they’re really nice poems. Most of them were written in the period when my country was still a socialist country but they are talking about religion in one very interesting way, about spirituality, about universal messages. That’s why I think that medieval aspect is very important as well as the huge folk heritage. The nineteenth century literature in Macedonia but not only in Macedonia, in all these Slavic countries, Bulgaria, Serbia, it’s very important for the beginnings of the first big authors.

MERRILL: Of literature across the board.

MARTINOVSKI: Yes, and from the nineteenth century like Konstantin Miladinov, his poems which is longing for the South, which is in a way fundamental for Macedonian poetry. And what is really interesting is that even though Macedonian language was codified after World War Two, it was a very intensive and very inspiring period to see how many different poetic approaches were in such a tiny period of forty or fifty or sixty and now even seventy years already. All kinds of modernism, of very early post-modern poetry, very early post-modern prose as well. And now it’s a very rich literary scene. I’m very happy that we have the bards like Meteja Matevski; he’s my neighbor, I go to see him very often. He has very good new poems as well. His poetry is the fundament of Macedonian modernism. He’s still in good shape. Or Bogomil Gjuzel. They are very productive, they have a book every year and I look forward to reading their books. They write as a young author, producing very nice poetry books and very nice novels as well. We have also very good authors from all generations and also many writers who are known internationally as well.

MERRILL: And some of them have been in the IWP, like you! So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could tell us something about what you’re reading now and any other recommendations for our listeners?

MARTINOVSKI: Well I am trying to read the words of my colleagues, of my fellows. And I am also trying to collect their works, especially poetry because I translate poetry. And I am aware that we are leaving Iowa in less than a week and leaving the U.S. in two weeks, most of us. But I really want to keep those, these bonds, these connections and one of the ways I want to do it is by translating their works. And I already collected poems from seven or eight poets and I send them mail for all of them. All of them told me they are going to send me something. I will be happy to translate first of all but also to see the response from the Macedonian readers of their works. And I also had a chance to, it was one of the best experience, to meet many American writers here. I was reading different, very interesting short stories, very interesting poetry as well. Actually, my first suitcase that I sent today is full of books and I will enjoy to read their works as well.

MERRILL: So you’ve been collecting musical instruments as well as books.

MARTINOVSKI: And books, yes.

MERRILL: Vladimir Martinovski, thank you so much for making time to speak with us today.

MARTINOVSKI: Thank you, thank you Christopher, I’m really honored and really grateful. Thank you.

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available April 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with Hungarian writer Kinga Tóth. 

Additional Information

Vladimir Martinovski
March 15, 2018

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