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Simic Reflects On Poet Laureate Honor

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Simic Reflects On Poet Laureate Honor


Simic Reflects On Poet Laureate Honor

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America's new poet laureate is Charles Simic. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Simic and his family immigrated to this country after World War II. As a teenager, he learned English and began writing poetry. Simic has published more than 20 books of poetry including "The World Doesn't End," a collection of prose poems for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

A professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, Charles Simic joins us now from New Hampshire Public Radio.

So good to have you with us.

Professor CHARLES SIMIC (15th U.S. Poet Laureate; Professor Emeritus, University New Hampshire): Thank you. It's nice to be here.

NEARY: And congratulations. Last week was a pretty amazing week for you. You also received the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award for mastery in poetry from the Academy of American Poets. Have you recovered yet from this double whammy?

Prof. SIMIC: No, not at all. I mean, I'm still, kind of, overwhelmed. I go to sleep very tired at night and then I wake up and just, sort of, think about my good luck. And I'm almost frightened to get out of bed. Too much good luck in one week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: You're worried.

Prof. SIMIC: Yeah, you know, you always feel that it should be balanced by some, you know, amount of bad luck, you know. I'll break my leg or, you know, something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about how you began writing poetry because as I understand, you were 15 years old when you began speaking English. And pretty quickly thereafter began writing poetry in English, which seems pretty amazing for a teenage boy, I have to say.

Prof. SIMIC: Well, you know, I started writing in high school. In Oak Park, Illinois. In my last semester, I had a very good English class - reading a lot of literature, not so much poetry, but, you know, fiction and I found that two of my friends were writing poems. And they were, you know, not only writing them to, sort of, please themselves, but they were also using them to seduce young ladies - impressionably young women. And this all - this seemed to be like a very good idea.

And - but then it became, you know, more complicated because what happens is that, you know, we write something, you think it was great, you like it, and then you realize, you know, shortly after that it's terrible, embarrassing. And so you know, I started going to bookstores and library to find out what poetry is really like and, you know, taking out anthologies or books of poems. So, you know, that's how it began.

NEARY: Did it help you to learn English better? I guess it must have then.

Prof. SIMIC: Oh, it certainly did. But (unintelligible) I was asked that question: When did I, sort of, stop, you know, taking in Serbian and - I don't know. I don't have its date. But I remember when I first writing poems, and I was writing it in English for the simple reason that the women that I wanted to impress are American. I mean, I couldn't read them poems in Serbian and tell them this is a beautiful poem, but too bad you can't understand it. And so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: No, but I bet the accent helped.

Prof. SIMIC: Well, it probably helped. But anyway, I used to - I would write an English word down and right away, I mean, the Serbian word too are, kind of, equal, you know, translation. A simultaneous translation would occur. So there were these two languages, you know, side by side. But at some point, I no longer heard Serbian in my head when I was writing.

NEARY: That's interesting. You know, I think it's really fascinating that given your background that you have been named poet laureate and in this country at a time when there's so much debate and discussion going on around our immigration policy. And I wonder, how does poetry speak to those kinds of public controversies, political discussions?

Prof. SIMIC: Usually, it doesn't. Poetry really for me, as long as I'm concerned, I mean, it's an affair between two individuals - the poet and the reader. This is one place where human beings, as individuals, they are experience of their own life, their existence. You know, it's a place where you can say something about it. So what we find the other poets - well, as we read them, we find someone who has been, you know, struggling with these eternal questions. The kind of questions that in some years ask themselves.

NEARY: Well, you know, a lot of people are, kind of, afraid of poetry. They think it's hard to understand. But I think a lot of your poems are really quite accessible. And I wonder if you'd like to pick one to read that, sort of, illustrates that.

Prof. SIMIC: Well, here's an old one that has been in many anthologies. It's called "Stone."

(Reading) Go inside a stone that would be my way. Let somebody else become a dove or gnash with a tiger's tooth. I am happy to be a stone. From the outside the stone is a riddle. No one knows how to answer it. Yet within, it must be cool and quiet. Even though a cow steps on it full weight, even though a child throws it in a river, the stone sinks, slow, unperturbed to the river bottom where the fishes come to knock on it and listen.

I have seen sparks fly out when two stones are rubbed. So perhaps it is not dark inside after all. Perhaps there is a moon shining from somewhere, as though behind a hill, just enough light to make out the strange writings, the star-charts on the inner walls.

NEARY: That's a good place for someone to begin perhaps. Just imagining what it's like to be a stone. A poem that's just imagines what it's like to be a stone.

Prof. SIMIC: I think they use that hatched(ph) in grade school is this poem. Just for - precisely in that way. They say, well, you think of something and imagine, you know, being inside it. And that's what the little kids - they write.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So you're not afraid to take this challenge on to promote poetry in the United States right now?

Prof. SIMIC: No. I don't have a clear plan. I've been amusingly getting from friends and e-mails who - suggesting some very interesting ideas of what I should propose as a poet laureate.

NEARY: What's the best one you've gotten so far?

Prof. SIMIC: I got it from someone that I know. And she said, I think you should give tax breaks to everyone who memorizes 12 poems a year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SIMIC: So they can recite to their lover or parent or dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SIMIC: And the lover, parent or dog should get an even bigger tax break for listening.

NEARY: That's a good one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SIMIC: I like that.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SIMIC: I don't know if the library's going to like it, but I like it.

NEARY: Charles Simic has just been named the new U.S. poet laureate. He joined us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire. Thanks so much for being with us. It was fun talking with you.

Prof. SIMIC: Well, thank you for having me.

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