What is it about Slovene poetry that has attracted so many American poets?


The fall poetry season in New York City began in earnest at the gloomy end of September with a Slovene Poetry Weekend at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the Bowery Poetry Club and other charmingly named venues. Four men represented their country: Tomaz Salamun, Tone Skrjanec, Primos Cucnik and Gregor Podlogar; Ana Pepelnik, the only woman, was unable to travel for the event. I’m a poetry lifer who’s drawn to readings like a mosquito to standing water. But what piqued my interest in this festival was a forensic curiosity to find out not only why Slovenia but what about Slovene poetry, exactly, has attracted so many American poets. Or rather, whether the answer was as obvious as it appeared. It was.

At any given point in the past twenty-five years, it’s been hard to cast a sidelong glance at a newsstand in New York City without spotting at least three literary journals featuring Eastern European poetry. In a country where most citizens are not many generations removed from their immigrant kin, this interest in foreign languages is a good thing in itself, even when the work, like all other poetries, varies widely in quality. Add to that the general resistance in American culture to poetry of any kind, though, and you have a real mystery.

Poetry tends to work as a star system, when it does work. This is partly the result of the apparently natural unequal distribution of excellence and partly a reasonable tendency of poets and other readers toward laziness. Even poets don’t generally want to think about more than a few poets at a time.

Occasionally, through enterprise, luck and sheer ambition, an ambassador emerges–a T.S. Eliot, an Allen Ginsberg–and makes a diplomatic connection to the general public from the ever-present caste of people who can’t help making words fizz. The 1980 Nobel laureate, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, was the beneficiary of the Swedish Academy’s habit of honoring one nation’s letters when it wishes to punish another nation’s policies. After the émigré Berkeley professor received the prize, American editors began to warm to his work, then to his countrymen and women, and eventually to writers from across Eastern Europe–a situation that was just beginning, with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (née Karol Wojtyla) and the subsequent rises of Solidarity and international Reaganism, and that has continued well past the end of the Warsaw Pact.

The twin American habits of triumphalism and chasing success, then, account for some of the outsized interest in poets forged in the crucible of Soviet Communism, as opposed to those who came of age under Franco or de Gaulle or the first fifty governments of Italy. Some of the success has to be attributed to the intelligent marketing of remarkable work, such as that of Ecco’s influential series from the 1980s of selected poems by international poets from Milosz and fellow Pole Zbigniew Herbert alongside others like the Slovenian shaman Tomaz Salamun.

The Slovenes are a well-to-do, literate people less encumbered than most by the usual nationalist narrative. The fact that the small nation of Slovenia came into existence in 1991, when it withdrew from Yugoslavia in the face of Belgrade’s fiscal and military aggrandizement, has something to do with it. Where other countries put up statues of generals on horseback, Slovenia’s monuments honor writers. At the moment, its principal export is the Lacanian contrarian Slavoj Zizek. Of Slovenia’s 2 million citizens, no fewer than twenty have seen their verses translated into English. What is more curious, where traces of foreignness invariably cling to the translated poems of their counterparts from elsewhere, Slovene poems, preoccupied with daily life and idiosyncratic indirect speech, often sound uncannily like American poems.

Salamun’s poems start anywhere, go anywhere and are liable, in the middle, to say anything. That they do this and still come across as poems–likable, integrated ones–is no small achievement. “Scent of flowering buckwheat,/why do you lure Transylvanian vampires?” is a typical daffy beginning; “Only the one who/splits the mirror with a diamond can sleep soundly” is the gratifyingly mystifying ending.

“I never wanted to be a poet,” Salamun told me. In 1963 he was 22 and had published two poems in Perspektive, a journal that Tito’s state, to allay fears of seeming too aggressive, had allowed young people to publish and had even helped fund. When the original editor fell into disfavor with the commissars, he named Salamun editor. “It didn’t help. They took one of my poems, which starts ‘I am fucked by the absolute,’ and because of this poem they threw me in jail. The interior minister took [this poem] personally.” Upon his release a few days later, Salamun was a bit of a national hero.

Then still identified as an artist, he pursued poetry as a violon d’Ingres, delighting in and studying the French enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud and the poets of the Russian Revolution, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky. Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to Salamun, twenty years earlier in America these poets were exerting an influence on Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Barbara Guest, the poets who would come to be known as the New York School. Salamun published four books before a trip to America ruined him for anything besides poetry.

Invited to take part in “The Information Show,” the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 conceptual art trailblazer, Salamun found himself at the opening party among art’s rising stars, overhearing discussions by the likes of Christo and On Kawara about raising capital–hundreds of thousands of dollars–for their next projects. “The judges had decided who was who. I just went back to poetry,” Salamun said, “this was not for me.” Before heading back to Ljubljana to write, however, Salamun took a detour to the West Village: ” I naïvely went into the bookstore on Cornelia Street and asked if they knew Slovenian.” A protracted silence followed, then a phone call, and suddenly Salamun was extending his stay, co-translating his oeuvre.

When co-translation works well, one or both parties are nearly bilingual. The poet provides what speakers at the Slovene Poetry Weekend referred to as “literals” or “verbatims,” which the co-translator then adapts to sound less like translatese and more like a poem in the target language. (As it happens, in addition to the usual single and plural first person, verbs in Slovene are conjugated with a separate dual first person, an intimate me-and-you case that applies perfectly to this collaborative approach.) While most American co-translators have more than a passing familiarity with Slovene, there is invariably some learning on the job, and probably just as much forgetting afterward.

Salamun’s co-translating accelerated when, after he had returned for a year to Yugoslavia, another writer’s spot at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa opened up in 1971. In all, Salamun says he “crossed the ocean twenty-seven times,” sometimes on his own dime but often with American money. As he mentioned, eyes atwinkle, at a panel discussion, there was an uneasy sense among his contemporaries, not to mention the authorities, that someone, the CIA maybe, would want something from him. Nevertheless, he traveled fairly freely under Tito. After Slovenian independence, he served in New York City as the cultural attaché to the United States from 1996 to 1999. His most recent collection in English, Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, $22), appeared this spring. A translation of his first book, Poker, was also reprinted by a Brooklyn independent, Ugly Duckling Presse, the organizer of the weekend.

As for the other poets, I had at least as pleasant a time at the weekend’s events as I generally do at poetry readings. There were some good performances, some vain pronouncements and a lot of promising though still embryonic work. According to Podlogar, an energetic black-haired poet in square-framed glasses who, like the rest of the Slovenes, looked completely at home in the East Village, there has been at least one book of American poetry translated into Slovene every year since 1991. It’s a start, and a subject for investigation another day.

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