Charles Simic and Barry Lopez, on a Roadtrip, 1972
A Conversation Between Greats, When They Were Unknown
The following interview took place at night, in the back seat of Charles Simic’s Volkswagen on Interstate 5 in Oregon. Mrs. Simic was driving and the Simics’ five-year-old daughter, Nicki, was asleep in the front seat. Mr. Simic had just finished a reading in a Salem sorority house and was on his way home to Hayward, California, where he had a class to teach the next day. Interviewer Barry Lopez joined Simic in Salem and rode south with him on the Interstate to the T&R Truck Stop, where the interview was concluded over coffee. After the Simics left, the waitress pointed to the tape recorder and asked if Mr. Simic was an important personality. Told he was a poet, she said “We get all types in here.”
Barry Lopez: You are an apolitical poet. In light of that: how do you see your function as a poet in 1972?
Charles Simic: I don’t like the word “function.” It implies choice. I have no choice in the matter. I have ambitions, but no idea to what extent I fulfill them. For example, I can say that my wish is to remind people of their humanity, to preserve the freedom of imagination, of spirit, without which it would be difficult to live.
Each poem is addressed to an ideal reader. You are reaching out to tell someone something you passionately believe in and there is something religious about it, something sacred. In a sense you want to tell the truth. These are all very big words—I think I’m getting away from the question here—but I’m tired of crap, of imprecision, of dehumanization. I want to simplify; I want to return to and communicate some basic human content.
All poets are guardians of the language—Pound said something like that. They keep certain channels of communication open. If there were no poets, how would the unconscious be articulated?
BL: Do you see that as a primary function of poetry?
CS: I think what I’m really asking for in poetry is more life. More life! Heightened consciousness of my own existence and my existence in relation to others.
I feel poetry is, ultimately, optimistic. Despite the fact that I may write a series of very gloomy, dark poems, the gesture itself is a positive one. One celebrates—even living in despair. In some curious way that gesture is anonymous. There’s a level on which we wish to further ourselves, our own egos—but there are moments in which we feel very lucid, simply disarmed, where that gesture is so much greater than our destiny. You realize the greatness of poetry. We make the gesture then in the name of everyone who has ever lived. It is a selfless act.
BL: Do you have a sense as a poet of filling a space in time, that there have been other poets before you and that there will be others after you?
CS: I think I do feel that, but I try to avoid dwelling on it too much. It can become an obsession where the poet feels that he has to make deliberate, chess-like, moves. Still, the source of faith in the continuing possibilities of poetry comes from that long tradition. To read a poet who, let’s say, wrote 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, and to feel how contemporary he still it well, an astonishing experience. The great gesture, the selfless poetic act, is timeless, a moment outside history. With poetry we are still back in the cave, we still understand very little about the universe, we’re wondering, we’re astonished at the stars, everything is new everything is beautiful, complicated, mysterious.The poet wishes secretly to be a philosopher—in other words, to understand the universe fully.
BL: Perhaps the freshness of good poetry derives from that timelessness, that sense ever-present.
CS: Yes. The freshness comes because poetry, after all, is an essential human activity, arising out of an equally elemental human condition. We still have our bodies to contend with, we still live in the same way, we still get tired, we still eat, screw and puzzle over these things.
The poet wishes secretly to be a philosopher—in other words, to understand the universe fully. But poetry differs from traditional philosophy in that it realizes that ideas have to be tested in daily existence, in simple ordinary human experiences. You sit one evening and string together a series of beautiful statements about life and go to bed kind of sublime, moved. Next morning one wakes up and, usually forgetting all that, goes his very grumpy way through simple daily tasks. Later on in the day, one remembers the ideas he had before and somehow . . . there’s some great gap. We don’t know how to incorporate it into our daily existence.
Let’s put it this way: philosophy is an intellectual activity, poetry an activity of the emotions. The ultimate aim of the emotions is to digest ideas. To take a great idea, a great proposition about the universe and feel what it means in relation to life on earth—well, that’s quite another matter.
Ideas very often try to explain feelings—explain from the outside and they are very arbitrary, they don’t penetrate. We find periods of history where there is a great desire to eliminate feelings from rational discourse, today they are not precise, they cannot exist in our scientific universe. The problem with philosophy is that it generalizes about everything including feelings, but poetry has no choice. It has to particularize. Actually, its magic comes from that faith in the concrete.
It seems to me that if you cut the man in half, if you throw a part of him out the window, pretty soon that other half is going to rebel and assert itself and you are going to have a lot of problems. But I think poetry is aware of that lace of balance and so it searches for the whole man.
BL: Which is why you can for instance consider the positiveness of gloomy poems?
CS: Yes. Poets are very patient. They realize that man is complex and there’s no point in pretending that he isn’t. Philosophers are in a rush. They would like to solve the problem, cut through with a knife. It simply can’t be done.
BL: To change direction a little bit, you were born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, then moved to Chicago when you were eight and then on to New York when you were twenty. What precipitated the move to New York?
CS: I don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do. My father—this is really a trite story—but my father applied to Columbia University back in the 1920s and was accepted, but he never managed to raise the money and come to the States. So I wanted to leave Chicago and I applied for Columbia, and I didn’t get accepted. But I figured I would go to New York anyway. It was very silly. I just wanted to do something different. All my friends kept asking what the hell do you want to go to New York for? And that seemed to be enough reason to go. I also wanted to get away from home. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That was in 1958.
BL: You’ve been on the road for the past ten days on the Pacific Northwest Poetry Circuit. Did you do any writing on the road?
CS: I was hoping to do some work. I didn’t do any. I’m easily distracted, suffering from amnesia. I can’t remember where I’ve been yesterday or what people I’ve seen. Also I’m insomniac; I don’t sleep well in new places. Tends to create problems.
BL: When you’re working at home do you have any schedule you try to adhere to?
CS: I try to work a little bit every day. I keep a notebook and try to jot down whatever occurs to me during the day. Then if I feel very fresh and lucid I will work a little bit more, depending on how much energy I have available at the time. But I do try to keep a continuity. You need to maintain a certain sensitiveness toward words. And if you don’t do anything for two weeks then you lose it and it takes a long time to get it back. Each day we all have a certain amount of poetry in ourselves. It might be no more than one image or one word. At one time, I didn’t pay much attention to these daily gifts I thought I would remember them. Well, I found out otherwise.
So now if I wake up at 4 am in the morning and something occurs to me, I will leap out of bed and write it down. You never remember it later. It’s too fragile. And very often the next day it doesn’t look like much. It’s hard to return to that same inner place where the thing had its birth. But it’s good to have anyway. It might take a few months and I might come back to it and see it as a seed, a possibility, even a whole poem.And this is one thing young writers very often don’t understand, that fortunately, we are not poets all the time.
BL: How does the process differ in your eyes from the process of writing fiction?
CS: Fiction seems to have other requirements. With poetry there is no need to sit down every day for so many hours, just to put it all down on paper. Poetry is so concentrated, so elusive. One couldn’t possibly work for eight hours. One has to wait for moments of heightened attention and capture them. On the other hand, there are periods when I’m working for a long time on a poem and I’m very upset by the way it’s going. I will sit for days and spend my entire time revising. But I have to be really deep into the material before that happens. I know the poem is there, but it needs work, something to make it stand up straight.
BL: Do you draw strength from the works of friends, like W.S. Merwin?
CS: I do draw strength. To read a good book of poems by a friend is a great source of energy. You feel, well, here poetry is possible. Optimism enters.
BL: Does teaching help you at all?
CS: Yes. Teaching forces me to formulate ideas about poetry and craft. Not once, but repeatedly, from different angles. It keeps you alert. So far that has been very good.
BL: How do you handle the image of yourself as poet, your sense of duty, with other things that impinge on your life?
CS: Well, like everyone else I wish I had more time. But this is not possible. I’m used to it, being divided, playing the role. I do feel a responsibility to my students. It would be nice to teach them something. I’m never conscious of myself as a poet. First, I’m a poet occasionally, when I’m writing. The rest of the time I’m just anybody, paying bills, eating, arguing with my wife. And this is one thing young writers very often don’t understand, that fortunately, we are not poets all the time.
Solzhenitsyn has a wonderful thing about nationalities. One is not a Russian by being born one. Ultimately, you’ve a responsibility to learn to be a human being. You cannot hide a certain creepiness or selfishness behind being called French or German, American, whatever. In the same way, as a poet, I think you have to understand; you have to learn to be a poet. It’s a very old profession, a very sacred one. It’s not an occupation.
All in all, I would welcome more solitude. I’m happiest when I’m staring at a wall.
BL: Any thoughts on the last ten days you’ve been on the road?
CS: Well I enjoy giving—how shall I say—when I give to an audience and get back. It’s a good moment. My faith is restored. I feel that these poems, which are occasionally difficult, in which I don’t want to compromise in any manner, still reach people. The rest of the time it’s rather tiring, trying to stay lucid, make all the readings, preserve your energy, not catch colds. The ideal way to travel on a circuit would be with a beautiful nurse who would give you shots and vitamin pills.
BL: How do you select the work you will read on the tour?
CS: I have a base, a sort of skeleton. If I expected the audience to be less sophisticated, for example a high school audience, I will select very descriptive, lyrical poems, and if I have the illusion that the audience is going to be very interested and responsive, I will read very difficult poems or recent poems I’m still working on. It happens also that I underestimate the audience and change my program in the middle of the reading. I can sense in five minutes if the audience is responding. There’s a kind of vibration.
BL: What sustained you over the last ten days of readings?
CS: What kept me going was the beautiful landscape. Each day, it wasn’t so much that I looked forward to reading but to seeing new country. These mountains will stay with me a long time—I’ll draw material out of that.
BL: And the future?
CS: I want to go home and write.
The Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World, a manuscript collection at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University, is the official repository for the Barry Lopez Papers.