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.