Rachael Allen interviews Charles Simic in Granta:
Charles Simic’s first poems were published in 1959 when he was twenty-one; he is now one of the most prolific poets writing today. He has published over thirty collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The World Doesn’t End, alongside fiction, essays and translations, having translated the works of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian poets. His poem ‘Eternities’ appears in Granta 124: Travel. Here he answers questions for online editor Rachael Allen about poetic movements, simple dishes and tragicomedy.
RA: Your poem in the magazine, ‘Eternities’, is a panoramic vision that travels across landscapes and time. It is a vast poem for its size. How do you balance the large thematic concerns – generational and geographical scope – with its eight-line constraint?
CS: Of all the things ever said about poetry, the axiom that less is more has made the biggest and the most lasting impression on me. I have written many short poems in my life, except ‘written’ is not the right word to describe how they came into existence. Since it’s not possible to sit down and write an eight-line poem that’ll be vast for its size, these poems are assembled over a long period of time from words and images floating in my head. A brief poem intended to capture the imagination of the reader requires endless tinkering to get all its parts right.
Helen Vendler described you as a ‘lover of food who has been instructed in starvation’, and you’ve called yourself, when it comes to writing, a ‘monk in a whorehouse’. It is as though you revel in the restriction of working with as few words as possible. What do you find is gained from this restriction, and how do you know when to stop?
It’s both a matter of temperament and aesthetics. In the kitchen, I like simple dishes cooked to perfection rather than elaborate culinary creations. In music, too, the fewer the instruments there are, the better. Someone practising a piece of Bach’s on a cello as one walks by under their window, or a late-night bluesy piano in a bar with hardly a customer left, is bliss to me.