RA: Your poem in the magazine, ‘Eternities’, is a panoramic vision that travels across landscapes and time. It is a vast poem for its size. How do you balance the large thematic concerns – generational and geographical scope – with its eight-line constraint?
CS: Of all the things ever said about poetry, the axiom that less is more has made the biggest and the most lasting impression on me. I have written many short poems in my life, except ‘written’ is not the right word to describe how they came into existence. Since it’s not possible to sit down and write an eight-line poem that’ll be vast for its size, these poems are assembled over a long period of time from words and images floating in my head. A brief poem intended to capture the imagination of the reader requires endless tinkering to get all its parts right.
Helen Vendler described you as a ‘lover of food who has been instructed in starvation’, and you’ve called yourself, when it comes to writing, a ‘monk in a whorehouse’. It is as though you revel in the restriction of working with as few words as possible. What do you find is gained from this restriction, and how do you know when to stop?
It’s both a matter of temperament and aesthetics. In the kitchen, I like simple dishes cooked to perfection rather than elaborate culinary creations. In music, too, the fewer the instruments there are, the better. Someone practising a piece of Bach’s on a cello as one walks by under their window, or a late-night bluesy piano in a bar with hardly a customer left, is bliss to me.
Your poems align a sense of the inanity of existence with the small, enduring hopes of being human. I think about your poem ‘December’, which begins your collection Unending Blues, comparing two ‘derelicts’, ‘one proclaiming | the end of the world | the other | the rates of a local barbershop’. Why do you feel drawn to balance warmth and play with this terse and pared-down style?
Because life is like that. Two little boys pummelling each other happily in the back yard while their mother sits crying in the kitchen because a phone call made her realize her husband is cheating on her. Comedy and tragedy are never far from one another. Spend a day walking around any city and you’ll find dozens of examples of what I have in mind.
You’ve said of your poems that ‘I wanted something seemingly artless and pedestrian to surprise the reader by conveying so much more. In other words, I wanted a poem a dog can understand.’ Has this been a difficult principle to maintain?
Not particularly, since I wish to be understood. I learned that as a young man trying to seduce women with my poems. How were they going to fall in love with me if they didn’t understand what the hell I’m talking about? That ‘artlessness’ and the ‘pedestrian’ quality are a ruse. There’s nothing to be afraid, the poem says to the reader, until they are hooked and it begins to dawn on them that there’s much more going on in the poem than they first thought.
You’ve been called a ‘going away from home writer’, and your childhood surviving World War II in Belgrade is much commented on in interviews and profiles. Do you still feel yourself dealing with both the trauma of war and of being separated from where you were born?
I know that it has become fashionable in our day and age to pretend that everything bad that we experienced in our youths stays with us forever and haunts our lives, but it’s not my experience or the experience of many others I’ve known who’ve lived through greater horrors than I did. Time heals, as the saying goes. The war ended when I was seven years old, in other words almost seventy years ago. Many other things have happened to me since then, both good and bad, so I’m more likely to think about them than of the helmet I lifted from a dead German in the fall of 1944.
You’ve lived through many poetic movements, schools, changes in style, tone and ideals. How have your opinions changed on poetry and poetic movements over time? How do you feel your own poems have changed?
Poetic movements are great fun for their participants. Like dogs barking in unison in some village at night at some real or imaginary adversary, after a while they just bark for the pure enjoyment of it. My discovery teaching twentieth century literature over many years is that good poems can be written from radically different and even contradictory ideas of poetry, so I keep an open mind. What bores me to death, however, is the view that poetry needs to keep changing to accommodate itself to new technology and the short attention span of today’s readers.
Do you have plans for another book?
This spring my Selected Poems 1962 – 2012 was published, so I’m in no hurry to publish another book of poems for a while, though I have written plenty of new ones.
Who are you reading at the moment?
Dean Young’s terrific and just-published selected and new poems, and I’m rereading Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, a huge book that came out in 2008 consisting of twenty-six smaller books most of which I greatly admire.