|J.M. Spalding: Could you talk about your
early years and your life before you realized you were a poet?
Charles Simic: Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my
head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom,
boom, and then they would go boom, boom. Even after the war was over, I went on
playing war. My imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in
When did you first feel what Pound called "the
impulse" to write?
When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking
girls by writing them sappy love poems.
How did you act on this impulse?
I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda
listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.
How did being born into a war-torn Europe affect your
writings later on?
My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin. Being one of the millions of displaced persons
made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty
of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.
In spite of all this, how have you managed to keep your
sense of humor?
It's not like I have much of a choice. Sobbing and biting my pillow won't do me any
Who are your influences?
The way Don Juan adored different kind of women I adored different kind of poets. I
went to bed, so to speak, with ancient Chinese, old Romans, French Symbolists, and
American Modernists individually and in groups. I was so promiscuous. I'd be lying if I
pretended that I had just one great love.
If you had not become a poet, what would you have done?
I would have liked to own a small restaurant and do my own cooking. The dishes I like
are mostly Mediterranean, so you'd have been served squid, octopus, lamb sausages,
eggplant, olives, anchovies.... I'd hire my poet friends to be waiters. Mark Strand would
look great in a white jacket wiping with a napkin the dust on some wine bottle of noble
the Black Cat you've created a collection in which the poems are stunningly surreal.
In The Street Ventriloquist, for example, an old drunk man speaks on a street
corner through passersby. Even the narrator is spoken through. Could you talk about your
intent, and your feelings about that collection?
I'm a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where
supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless
and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I
watch them and eavesdrop on them.
Who do you show your work to before you send it out to
I show it to Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson. If I catch them making faces, I hop
back under the blankets and scribble some more.
Do you find that the way poetry is received (via
readings, etc.) in America is much different from, say, the way it is received in Europe?
I suppose there's a difference, although here, too, most poems get to be read in
private. Frankly, I don't know. After 44 years in the United States, it's hard for me to
talk about Europe with any authority.
In terms of the propagation and perpetuation of poetry,
how important are readings nowadays?
I think they are important. Without them, poets and poetry would be pretty nearly
invisible in this country. That's how it was in 1950s, even in a big city like Chicago. It
was easier to meet a genuine Communist than someone who read poetry.
What do you think of poetry slams?
They are fun, but they have as much to do with poetry as Elvis Presley had to do with
Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
As a teacher, how would you say today's students differ
from students of 20 years ago?
They knew more. It's rare nowadays to encounter students who have read a lot of
literature on their own.
Who are some important Eastern European poets who get
ignored in the United States?
I recommend Adam Zagajewski in Poland and the Slovenian Tomaz Salamun.
Where do you find your inspiration these days?
Piece of cake. One needs inspiration to write when one is twenty. At the age of sixty,
there's the mess of one's entire life and little time remaining to worry about.
Do you ever sit down to write with the intention to write
about a specific thing?
What is the hardest thing for you to write about?
Everything is hard to write about. Many of my shortest and seemingly simple poems took
years to get right. I tinker with most of my poems even after publication. I expect to be
revising in my coffin as it is being lowered into the ground.
Do you ever write spontaneously?
Sure, all the time.
A British-Hungarian author named George Mikes says that
Central Europe is in or at the Balkans. Do you agree with this?
If I understand him correctly, he is saying Central Europe ends at the Balkans. Is that
it? Central Europe consists of a series of nice, upper-middle-class suburbs, and the
Balkans are the inner-city ghetto. In any case, that's the usual implication. Since I
would rather live in Harlem than in Westchester County, I have no objection to his saying
What is your favorite alcoholic beverage?
Have you ever read a poem and wanted to drink because it
was so bad?
That's it! Daily readings of all these awful poems I write has made me drink wine
I know that Paul Breslin's review of Walking
the Black Cat must make you gag. Is there anything you would like to sayin your
defense or punitivelyin response?
I would consider myself a total failure in life if Paul Breslin or someone like William
Logan admired my work. Everything I have ever done as a poet was done in contempt of what
he regards as "good" poetry. A man without a trace of imagination or original
ideas, Breslin is the incarnation of smug, academic mediocrity. He is as close to
understanding poetry as Lawrence Welk is to playing jazz.
What was your reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize?
Surprise, of course. Prose poetry is a fraud, and here it gets a prize. A lot of
literary people are still very upset about that.
What are some of your favorite magazines?
Field, Boulevard, Gettysburg Review, Raritan...
What happens now for Charles Simic?
He hobbles with his broken foot to the kitchen and opens the refrigerator, deep in
Any final thoughts?
Mangia molto, caca forte, I nia paura de la morte.