This issue features a “micro-interview” with Charles Simic, conducted by Joel Rice. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Charles Simic survived starvation and imprisonment throughout World War II. At age sixteen, he immigrated to Oak Park, Illinois, where he wrote his first poems in order to “get girls.” Over the ensuing decades, he collected nearly every award available to the contemporary poet, including the Pulitzer Prize, and was named US poet laureate in 2007, an honor he reflects upon in this interview. Not conveyed here is how pleasantly Mr. Simic’s charismatic voice abrades the ear with its odd intonations and cryptic laughter, or how much he enjoys tripe.
MICRO-INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES SIMIC, PART I.
THE BELIEVER: What was the most bizarre correspondence or phone call you received as poet laureate of the U.S., 2007–2008?
CHARLES SIMIC: They were all intense in the sense that people would say, “I want you to look at my poems. I want a close critique of my manuscript. I want to be able to send my poems to you every week.” So there was sort of a sense of assumption there, a sense that you’re there at their disposal. That was pretty odd, and scary too.
BLVR: Did you feel the impulse to use the office to make political statements?
CS: I always write political poems. I mean, I didn’t want to be officially present anywhere. I turned down invitations to the White House. And there were other occasions where I was to appear in some sort of official capacity and I didn’t want to go, so I just said politely, “No.” I just couldn’t imagine myself being in the presence of people I didn’t think very highly of.
BLVR: So you absented yourself from most of the surrounding ceremonies?
CS: Yeah. The nice thing is that it is not really an official government position. You’re attached to the Library of Congress, but it’s a privately endowed position, so you don’t even get paid [by] the government. So nobody complains if you don’t show up.
MICRO-INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES SIMIC, PART II.
THE BELIEVER: What did you like about the office, literally and symbolically?
CHARLES SIMIC: The office itself is a very nice place. It’s in the Jefferson Building of the library, a beautiful office overlooking the capitol. Physically, it’s wonderful. Capitol Hill is an impressive place. To go up there and to be in the Library of Congress, to be associated with an institution like that—a highly respected institution, and deservedly so— that was terrific. The most interesting aspect of the position is what I found out about the United States and poetry. I mean how many people out there read poetry and are interested in poetry. Poetry is not really marginal, as everybody assumes. There’s a lot of interest out there. A lot of interest. That was truly astonishing, how much.
BLVR: You didn’t have a full sense of how wide the audience was until you became laureate?
CS: I’d given readings for many, many years, and traveled around. So I knew there was a sizable audience. I had a sense. It’s just amazing how many people are out there.
BLVR: It was profoundly affirming?
CS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I really enjoyed it. It was very time consuming because of so many emails, so many letters, and so forth. But very gratifying. It was a good experience. I felt good about it
MICRO-INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES SIMIC, PART III
THE BELIEVER: Do you regret not implementing a formal plan to advance poetry?
CHARLES SIMIC: Plenty was already being done. I just felt that there really was no need to do anything in addition. Anything I could think of was either not feasible or not necessary. At some point I thought I should do some anthologies with major publishers. Regional anthologies. But that wasn’t feasible. And in the end I just thought there was sufficient interest in poetry. You just have to go on the Internet and see how much there is out there.
BLVR: There’s this generic narrative: American culture is in crisis, and poetry is in danger of extinction. It sounds like you reject that story line roundly.
CS: Precisely. I knew it wasn’t true even before I became poet laureate. But after being poet laureate I learned maybe everything else is going to hell, but poetry is fine.
MICRO-INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES SIMIC, PART IV.
THE BELIEVER: Now that you’re no longer laureate, are you able to return to a more robust writing schedule?
CHARLES SIMIC: Nobody writes anything when they’re poet laureate. Billy Collins didn’t write. Ted Kooser didn’t write. A whole bunch of others told me they didn’t write anything.
BLVR: So once the interference from the post fell away, you were able to write again?
CS: Yeah. Then you go back to being yourself.
BLVR: Is that why you declined a second year?
CS: It was that. It’s the travel. It’s just too far to go, New Hampshire to Washington. And they don’t have a place for you to stay, so you have to stay in hotels. You don’t get paid that much. So it’s an expensive proposition, and exhausting.
BLVR: And you experienced a quick transition back to civilian life?
CS: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. Certainly. The moment I stopped traveling and everything, in May. A couple of weeks later I was writing away.
BLVR: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were going to decline a second year?
CS: I knew by the spring. It was just too much. It was a lot of fun for the first year. And it was responsibilities. You want to sort of do the job OK. And the constantly traveling and answering queries. I had a staff at the library, and they would be in touch with me all the time. “There’s this, there’s that, and what do we do there?” and so forth. And I just couldn’t imagine doing it another year.
BLVR: So the post has an august reputation, but to actually be sitting in the office is a kind of harried, exhausting, and distracting experience?