Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic told more than 50 audience members at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea that he has a romantic reason for writing in English rather than his native language, Serbian.
“What would I say to a girl in high school who I wrote a poem for?” Simic said. “I wrote you a poem in Serbian, it’s a beautiful language, too bad you don’t understand it.”
Simic, who was born and raised in Yugoslavia until he came to the United States during his high school years, read some of his earlier and later poems to the audience and discussed his path to becoming a poet.
Despite having written more than 60 books of poetry, many of which have been translated into various other languages, Simic said he has never written a poem in another language nor translated one of his poems himself.
“One of the great pleasures of poetry is when you get that right word and you know what’s going to happen when it goes out into the world,” he said. “I am hesitant to translate my own poems because I don’t know what would happen to each word and how that would change the experience of the poem.”
Because he grew up watching American movies and listening to American music, Simic said he developed a tremendous liking for English before he even moved here.
“I never questioned whether I would continue writing in English because it was not even a choice for me,” he said. “I fell in love with the language, and everyone I knew was American.”
Although he read a few of his early poems at the tea, Simic said he does not usually read his early pieces because it depresses him to see how many poems he has written and how many of these he does not like.
“I began writing poetry because a few of my friends were writing some really bad poems, but to my surprise mine were equally bad,” he said. “The first time I came back to these poems, I had a critical clarity that let me see how awkward they were, and in a fit of passion I threw them out right away.”
Adam Eaker ’07, whose poetry has appeared in the Yale Literary Magazine, said he was encouraged by Simic’s comments about the beginning of his career.
“It’s always good to hear that even an award-winning poet hated his earlier poems,” Eaker said.
Many of the poems Simic read aloud were about everyday, ordinary objects such as a fork and a clock. He concluded with a poem called “Unmade Beds,” which he said he was inspired to write after wandering down the hallway of a hotel one morning.
“There is nothing more interesting than looking at ruffled sheets where someone tossed and turned the night before, or God knows what else might have happened,” he said.
Liana Epstein ’05 said as a creative writer herself, she loves to hear what motivates poets to write.
“I really enjoyed Simic’s talk because he has such a unique and interesting perspective,” she said.
Many audience members were familiar with Simic’s poetry but said they were unaware until now that English was not his native language.
“I would have never known from reading his poems that English was not his first language,” Carolynn Molleur-Hinteregger ’07 said. “It is incredibly impressive that someone could win a Pulitzer Prize in a language he didn’t grow up speaking.”