Born in 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, he is no stranger to war and its effects on people’s lives. He also knows full well how poetry can transform pain into compassion.
His own life is an example of how poetry can give someone who grew up amidst rubble a chance to reshape his world even as war after war regenerates on the world stage around him.
GM: “Flying Horses” from your book [That Little Something] seems both casual and emotional about living with war. There are men looking at girls while families feel like sitting ducks in a war zone. Is that what it’s like in a war torn town?
CS: Of course, I grew up during the Second World War. When I was 3 years old bombs fell on our head because the war started that was Yugoslavia, in Belgrad. Nazis bombed the city on April 6, 1941. I was there during the war and after. I have a pretty good idea what war is like…what happens when cities are bombed, villages are bombed, what happens, life goes on. People go on as best as they can to live their daily lives but every night, when the bombs fall, it’s a lottery, who lives or who dies. This is something that I understood when I was very young. There have been many wars since 1941—when the wars started for me.
GM: This is why you are a great poet for people to be reading right now. Your poems show people that while the bombs are falling, there are also children walking with pull toys…Does the current world stage bring back these memories for you?
CS: Certainly. It never stops. There was the Korean War when I was young and worried about being drafted into the army and afterwards, the Vietnam War and lots of other wars. In the Gulf War I was worried about my son going to war. Then in the 90s, there was Yugoslavia and all of those wars, now Iraq and Afghanistan. I am always reliving my childhood.
GM: What can people get from reading a poem about war that they can’t get by watching the news?
CS: They can get the experience of a single individual who is caught in the midst of it. I remember once in the 90s, tuning in to the Bosnian wars on the television and there was a two lane road, which was empty except this woman who has a baby carriage and there is a 4 or 5 year old boy next to her. She is pushing (the carriage) and running with some speed. She is trying to get away from something. It’s not clear who she is or where she is going. But I remember her face. She was frightened. When I was young, my mother and I had to flee like that too. The poems try to convey the point of view of the innocent bystander.
GM: They put people in the experience.
CS: Right. Precisely.
GM: Does writing the poetry help you deal with it?
CS: Of course, you feel better.
GM: Besides the therapeutic effect of writing about the darker issues, what else has poetry done for your life?
CS: Everything. It is something that I grew to love. I cannot imagine myself living without poetry. Reading it as much as writing it, it’s an obsession. It has become a part of my life. I cannot imagine not thinking about it every day.
GM: You wrote in an essay on poets’ notebooks, that taking notes is compulsive for you…
CS: One forgets things immediately…My father used to say he had a lot of great ideas in his life, really brilliant ideas. But he never had a pencil and paper to jot them down so they are lost to humanity [laughing].
GM: You went on to say, “What is recorded in the notebook is the sense of the unique and unrepeatable experience of those rare moments of clarity.” Could you give an example of a moment of clarity for you?
CS: Sometimes, we are much smarter than we usually are. We have a feeling that we can understand something. We have moments when we see the world much better. The same old house, the same old room, the old view out the window…but there are days when it is more vivid. We look out and say to ourselves, “How strange, look at that!” Everybody has those moments, but they are rare. That is the sad part about it.
GM: They are moments when we don’t take things for granted?
CS: Yes, we are creatures of habit. We come into the house and we don’t see anything. Not only do we not notice anything, we don’t remember ourselves. We don’t know who we are. We are not present to ourselves. We are not fully conscious of the moment. We don’t live in the present. Sometimes we do, and when we do, we are astonished.
GM: When you said astonished, you reminded me of another essay you wrote, Charles the Obscure. In it you say that awe is your religion. Walt Whitman said something like that…the start was so great for him that he could hardly go any further. He always wanted to be at the beginning of the journey.
CS: Precisely. I remember that sort of vaguely, but yes.
GM: Is that like the awe that is your religion?
CS: Oh, I think so, yeah. That’s a nice way of putting it.
GM: So, again, it’s about not taking things for granted and seeing where you are, and having a notebook or reading poetry are ways you can do that.
CS: Yes, poetry is such a concentrated thing. The whole idea of a poem is to say everything in a few words. It requires a degree of self-awareness, of lucidity that is rare.
GM: I am fascinated by some of the things you’ve said about poetry and time, like “it seems to me that one of the major experiences that can make one into a poet is the experience of passing time. I am astonished that time passes. I can’t get over it.” Would you expand on that? Do you still feel that way?
CS: Are you kidding me? Even more so than ever! When you pass 70 you are aware more of time than when you were young. When you are young you feel like there is so much time. Time passes slowly and you are bored. When you pass a certain age it begins to speed up. It is moving faster and faster and faster.
GM: In the same interview you say that one of the advantages of writing poems is a “pleasure quality” that allows you to become everybody else, that by writing poems “you don’t feel alone.” How so?
CS: There are a lot of different ways to approach this, but some poets talk about themselves and they say things like “Here I am all alone in the world.” To me the most interesting thing is to feel a connection with other people. At some point, it should occur to you that this is a universal experience. You are not the first one or the only one. And that is what I find very interesting—that you can connect to other people’s destinies.