Like Stones From the Sky
Dcp_0606 photo ts by  fj11
Tomas Salamun (pic. F. Johnston)
Order The Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun.

Fred Johnston met Tomaz Salamun in Galway, Ireland, at the Cúirt International Literature Festival 2004 on behalf of Transcript. We print excerpts from their conversation about poetry, politics, and words dropping like stones from the sky.

In the early days of Galway's Cúirt International Literature Festival, I suggested we invite Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti. The reply was that no one would understand him, as he wrote in Spanish! Thankfully, things have changed.

Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun seems to represent the opening of Galway and Ireland to the possibilities Europe offers. It's sobering to discuss poetry with a Slovenian; one of his country's bank-notes features a poet on it, a surprising juxtaposition of money and art.

Poetry, says Salamun, came to him as a revelation, dropping, 'like stones from the sky'. As a young man, he was uneasy about his vocation. It was 'socially so atrocious', bringing with it poverty and a bagful of misery. 'I think if you're a poet in a small language, it's so hard to think that you will be able to survive as a poet . . . We Slovenians speak only Slovenian. I cannot write poetry in another language. I had a moment when I began to dream my childhood in broken English, in Iowa in the early seventies. I became culturally 'schizophrenic', and went to Berkeley to see Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural father of Western Slavs whom we knew about through Kultura, a Polish magazine.' Milosz advised Salamun that he was 'too old' to change the language he wrote in. This settled the matter: 'it was really good advice'.

In the comfortable neo-hibernian surroundings of tinkling cups of cappuccino, it's hard to imagine a place where the writing of poetry might have been dangerous. But Salamun's early involvement with the Prespiktiva review created problems for him. Editor-in-chief, he was imprisoned in 1964. But harder times still fell on the country's writer during the Brezhnev years from 1973 to 1979: 'we were strangled, there were no liberties'.

America was a land of promise, and Salamun's links with the States go back as far back as the early seventies. Poets such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Simic and Phillis Levin have since translated him. However, America, and the recognition he found there, has not tempered Salamun's youthful daring. Here is a poet who has said of himself: 'Tomaz Salamun is a monster', a poet who investigates the darker side of the human moon.

Salamun is married to the painter Metka Krasovec. Her painting can be seen on the cover of an English translation of The Four Questions of Melancholy. I asked my Slovenian guest whether poets are frustrated painters? 'I don't think so,' he replies. 'But what I write I see in my head first. I'm constantly describing what I see. The first prompting is visual.'

What accounts for the style of his poetry, his involvement of himself in many of this poems? Take the title 'Happiness is a Warm Splattered Brain?', for example. Isn't the title fascinating in much the same way that a car-crash is fascinating. 'I don't know. There many wounds, strange miscellaneous things in my ancestors' background, tragedies. And also this awareness of being a member of a small nation. When my parents sent me to their friends in Paris or Brussels - they'd studied in Paris before the war - people asked me 'Where are you from?' I was fifteen, I said Slovenia and nobody knew where it was and I couldn't name anybody that they would recognise.'

We return to the subject of the United States of America, and I ask whether, given the current political climate, it is possible for a poet to possess an independent and imaginatively free mind in the United States? He answers the question but seems to avoid its essence. 'Very, very difficult. All the young poets are completely without money. They are in a constant war to survive. For poets who are not academics it is absolutely hard. American society is becoming more and more formalised, conservative. But nevertheless, young American poetry is immensely alive, strangely.'

What of Slovenia today? He considers it a 'lively' place. And Slovenia's irresistible vitality he attributes in part to the fact that the Slovenian nation was long stateless. Also, Slovenia, he says, produced the first Protestant translator of the Bible. Later, in the early nineteenth century, the great romantic poet Preseren wrote in Slovenian. But in Slovenia, as in other countries, Romanticism casts a long shadow. Today, 'young people think poetry is something which we needed in the nineteenth century, when we didn't have big novels and a State, and now we need brokers and architects and cinema. Literature is a thing from the nineteenth century'. 'On the other hand,' he continues, 'we have survived five thousand years. Even if we have to go three hundred years under the earth as alchemists, it doesn't matter to me'.

The question of poetry in our time seems worth pursuing. I ask what use poetry is in this information-sodden, sound-bitten age. 'Poetry - the language which has us, which marks us and comes out on those pages - is something which is much more than we know about ourselves, and is much more than we can say as a civic person. It's marvellous to have this instant connection through the Internet, it adds to communication. But nothing can replace this shock that . . . .something comes somehow from nowhere, that you almost don't understand, that you're trembling . . . what is it? And still it goes on.' This will not be destroyed, he thinks, by any intervention of a new age of advanced technology. 'The fire from poet to poet really passes through reading but also through talking. . . . like when poets read to young minds, some kind of initiation goes on; and one among three hundred listeners might be touched.'

Why does he think of poets' involving themselves in politics? Politics, he maintains, can contaminate the poet. He should be involved as a man. 'During these horrible Balkan wars,' he says, 'I couldn't write. I didn't write for four years. I had also to deal 'what if my violent and controversial language was not a good thing for this event'.

The dilemmas of being a poet amid the horrors of war are discussed, suddenly, against a background music of tinkling, comfortable cutlery; tables are being set for lunch.

Fred Johnston © 2004

(Fred Johnston is founder of the annual Cúirt Literature Festival in Galway, and founder/manager of the Western Writers' Centre. His most recent publication is the novella Mapping God/Le Trace de Dieu (Wynkin de Worde). He will be a resident writer at the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco later this year.)

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