Charles Simic, 70, currently the 15th poet laureate of the United States, was born in Belgrade, Serbia (then Yugoslavia), where his earliest memories involved ducking bombs, playing in ruins, and watching the grownups alternately cope and grieve. He immigrated with his family to New York City when he was 16, then moved to Chicago and graduated from Oak Park High School, where the famous writer Ernest Hemingway went to school. Some 60-plus books later, he is still processing culture shock. Both his poetry and his casual conversation are infused with a mordant humor, a background of it-better-be-good jazz, an affinity for fine wine, and an occasionally discordant New England sensibility, thanks to more than three decades as a faculty member at the University of New Hampshire. Simic’s publications and other links can be found on the Library of Congress website.
Q: Where were you in 1968?
A: In New York City, working for Aperture, the photo mag. I’d graduated from NYU in 1967, after a not-very-linear college education, which started in 1959. Then I spent two years in the Army, stationed in Germany and in eastern France, in Toul. This was in 1961 to 1963, the peacetime army, but by the time I left, they were talking about Vietnam. I remember translating for an American officer who was having dinner with a French colonel. The French guy said to the American, “You guys do not want to go to Vietnam, you’ll never get out, it’s a big mistake for the U.S. to go to Vietnam. But if you do? The women there are very beautiful!” I had four years of reserve duty after that; I was worried that they’d call me back in. I’d walk past the newsstands and see the headlines: “McNamara calls 300,000 reserves.” Here we go, I thought. Uppermost in my mind was my brother in the Army in Saigon, and then all this other stuff going on in the world. Even in Paris, the people were in the streets. Prague Spring, too.
Q: What are your particular memories of that year?
A: Martin Luther King’s death stunned me. The tension, the riots in the city, the whole ugly issue of race finally coming to bite America’s ass. But even more, Bobby Kennedy’s. Not because he was better, but because it was the second in a row, in a month. Like a one-two punch—you barely stagger up, get your breath, then comes another one, and you’re flat again, you cannot breathe. Your heart breaks, it has a physical feeling to it. As far as the world being a rotten place, I didn’t have to be convinced. The mess looked familiar—flashbacks to childhood, the bombs over our heads, the uncertain future.
Q: Did you have a sense of being part of the national upheaval, or apart from it?
A: Both. Coming from Eastern Europe, sailing into New York, what struck me right away was the color—everything was in such bright color. Postwar Europe, even England, had no color. It was gray. The skies were gray, the people were gray. Nutrition was bad, everything was a struggle to survive, to rebuild. In Yugoslavia and Germany, you stumbled over bodies, bones, in the farm fields. It was grim. In America, it was like all the lights were on.
And in 1968 everything was incredibly alive in America. A sense of hope or energy—whatever it was, it really did transform the politics, the food, the art, the music, theater, books, maybe even how Americans looked at things, even through the tragedies. Let’s look at the results: the civil rights movement, that worked. Not perfect, but things happened, a shifting, an opening up. The anti-war movement made a tremendous impact—Johnson decided not to run again. The women’s movement, it changed everything. So, despite the awfulness, the sorrow, the losses, you felt the beginnings of a different kind of civilization, and so, okay, you felt hopeful.
And the demonstrations. I’d never seen anything like that—the freedom of being angry, being out in the streets and saying so, and nobody shoots you! I remember standing on Seventh Avenue and Sheridan Square when an anti-war demonstration came down the street. Huge, passionate crowd. Of course, they were greeted by some nasty people on the sidewalk, a few Bleecker Street storekeepers, some construction guys. Giving the finger, yelling “Go back to Russia!” Like the only people who would demonstrate against the war would be communists. It fascinates me how they always want to send kids to die to defend democracy, but have no tolerance for dissent. When you can send other people’s children to die, you can maintain your hypocrisy.
Q: Tell me about your students these days.
A: They’re very smart, good kids, but somehow there’s a disconnect about many things. In the last 10 years of teaching, I’ve discovered they know less and less about relatively recent history. For instance, kids from Lawrence and Lowell didn’t know there had been labor issues in those towns, or factories that made wool and cotton and shoes. That the rivers powered those factories. They didn’t know that Jack Kerouac was a local boy. What separates the United States from every other country now, the TV’s on all the time, in every room—they don’t even fight about what to watch. Nobody even has that conversation. Just go to another room and watch there. It’s as though there’s nothing anybody cares enough about to fight about. There’s this terrible disconnect with who’s fighting the war, and who’s here not paying much attention. Back in the ’60s it mattered—whole holidays and family dinners would be ruined; everybody took political positions and fought; somebody always marched out the door mad. I don’t think this happens much anymore.
Q: Do you think Iraq, or the Middle East, is this era’s Vietnam?
A: I don’t know. Only history knows. The biggest difference is that we saw Vietnam; we don’t see Iraq. Back then, you saw war footage on TV every night—black-and-white, graphic and frightening. Helicopters, gunships, shooting each other down—you’d see them, hundreds of small figures running, some in black pajamas. Being killed. They were hit, then they fell. You knew you were seeing people dying. That’s why they don’t show anything anymore. Now we’ve got video images, heavily edited, no one sees a bomb destroy a building, or what it’s like after. In this climate, war can be idealized—in literature, in the way pundits talk about it, the way the politicians market it. But it will come soon, the truth. We’ll see the Tim O’Briens and the Denis Johnsons, the novelists and the poets; already, the books from the returning guys, and the blogs, are extraordinary. When truth is hidden, it doesn’t vanish, it just comes back later—and you pay for it. I feel sometimes darkly. Despair. We’re a few years into this mess, and no closer to ever getting out. I’ve had students who go to war, and they come home maimed. How are they going to manage this legacy? I don’t know.