Tomaž Šalamun - Poetic form is absolutely free, filled with plenty of associations, extravagant mingled notions, often bizzare, ironic and shocking

Tomaž Šalamun, There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair (Counterpath Press, 2009)

«Slovenian poet Salamun has become an influence, and a mentor, for plenty of young American poets. One reason lies in Salamun's postmodern mix of giddy and global with the earthy retrospect he takes from his homeland. Salamun... makes his new collection a whirlwind tour of sites and moods, naming locales from Persia to the Grajena River to the Pacific coast and riffing on the work of other poets from Walt Whitman to Mark Levine» - Publishers Weekly

«What a strange turn of events that a poet who hails from a country of only two million and writes in a language that very few Americans understand should have such a profound impact on American poetry. But it is the case that Tomaz Salamun is one of the most influential voices now speaking to younger American poets.» - Michele Levy

«Poems born in “a time of abrupt needs,” There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair catalogues those individual and imperative fancies that, in the cosmos of Tomaz Salamun, eternity aims to replace: A genealogy of dressmakers and songbirds. A topography of hulking oil tankers and coldwater flats. A biography that locates the poetic "I’"as, at once, a primordial being and a tamer of beasts, a monster and a guardian angel. With uncanny and sometimes harrowing grace, Salamun plumbs every reach of the imagination in search of a space where we can simultaneously delight in and mourn the disintegration of the body. And it is here, in this borderland of the unreal and the everyday, that love is consumed so its contours might not be forgotten, that life carries on in the dying wish that a bicycle might be purchased. There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair brings nine accomplished translators into collaboration for a new book by this "major Central European poet" - The New Yorker
Tomaž Šalamun, Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, 2008)

«Tomaz Salamun was born in ex-Yugoslavia in 1941. He lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is distinguished writer in residence at the University of Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of over thirty books of poetry. Brian Henry, also of the University of Richmond and a noted poet, translated many of the poems in collaboration with the author and the remainder by himself.
The sixty-seven poems occupy seventy-seven pages. The shortest poem is two lines and the longer ones are seldom more than four pages in length. Salamun’s preferred format is that of a quasi-sonnet, that is, a poem of fourteen lines. As the following example shows the sonnet structure is elusive at best.
SHIFTING THE DEDICATIONS
The juice is sore. The stupor endures the bag. When you hurry, you stand up, smith yourself. The vault is still coming. You believe, you believe, you believe in your fruit. Exhausted, cruel, and lazy, do your eyebrows blaze with your loot? What else do you still know, incised one? You mellow from sores and pains, no longer mine. You bound yourself to nothing. Are you betraying me to awaken me? So I would squeal and hurt? You drown in your huge shoes, soldier, naked to the waist, drawn by the manuscript. One could hardly see water under the thick green August leaves and the flickering of the centurion.
You rolled, as a priest would sneakily count handfuls of earth. The sun was worn out. The language is hard and unyielding, characteristics (since Salamun participated with his translator on this poem) that the poet elects. The language here and elsewhere consists of short images delivered in the fewest possible words. One image hinges on another in associative ways that have no traffic with logical coherence. The poet’s message may be private but the subterranean emotions are powerful.
This poetry will fail the reader that cannot be open to these feelings, the reader who must have a sweeter coating with enough tickling along to be able to read with eyes half shut, but for the alert and careful reader this is a valuable collection from a fresh and startling poet.» - Bob Williams

«Some poetry is meant to be read on the page—to take only the most prominent current example, Elizabeth Alexander’s presidential inaugural poem “Praise Song,” the merits of which are far more evident in print than they were at the podium. Other poetry is written to be read aloud, the snap and hiss of the sounds savored at least as much as the words they comprise.
The poems that make up Tomaz Salamun’s Woods and Chalices are the latter sort, their sonic qualities impossible to ignore, to the point that individual lines threaten to overwhelm the poems that, structurally at least, contain them. Take these lines, which open “Ferryman”:
I know you toil and loiter. The mourner bids adieu. Or these, from “Boiling Throats”:
The cat and I, we scratch ourselves, she will wreck my jacket.
Or my favorite lines in the whole book, from “Paleochora”:
The blueness didn’t start to tremble only around birds, the bird itself turned blue, constituent. These lines, with their near-palindromic arrangements of consonance and assonance, are unquestionably delicious when spoken; they are simply fun to say, to the point that even a child would understand why they qualify as poetry. But at the same time they suffer from their self-containment. The way they trip along their own paths prevents them from feeling fully integrated into the larger body of the poems in which they appear; in their perfection, they exemplify both the promise and the problems of Woods and Chalices.
For more than forty years, Salamun has been the voice of Slovenian poetry, writing an energetic, surreal, funny, ecstatic, personal, political verse that has found surprising success—and been surprisingly influential—in English translation. From his first published lines—”I grew tired of the image of my tribe / and moved out”—to the present, Salamun has followed his own path, happy to acknowledge his influences but at the same time perpetually declaring and re-declaring his independence. As far back as 1973, he was writing,
Hey, my regards to the Slovenians, and to your loved ones. Tell them not to flap, everything is just and sufficient, let it drip out as it will. An overview of Salamun’s career offers an evolution from early Whitmanesque exuberance mixed with Rimbaudian rebellion—
Just like Clay who became a world champion because there was something wrong with his leg I’ll be a great poet because they screwed me up
—to a more sonically attuned descendant of Ashbery and O’Hara, writing a remarkably conversational poetry rich in fleeting, unexpected imagery. Even as the literary establishment accepted, even praised him—he is now distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia-Richmond—Salamun’s poetry kicked against the system, becoming more difficult and occluded even as the praise mounted.
Which brings us back to his newest volume, Woods and Chalices, which is revelatory and frustrating in equal parts. Even once one allows for the fact that Salamun is approaching these poems from the automatic, subconscious perspective of surrealism, they are, quite simply, too often inscrutable. As a reader of poetry, I tend to be focused on sound and rhythm as much as anything, a tendency that frequently deforms even my prose writing. Yet far too often in these poems sound is the only value on offer. Take these lines from “Odessa”:
. . . Crystals are mouths of sweethearts. An agave is cut down with a hatchet, too. A stomach, a sweetheart, an artichoke.
Say it aloud—it’s unquestionably lovely, to the point that it makes me wish I had facing-page Slovenian so I would at least know, consonant by consonant, what to credit to translator Brian Henry and what to Salamun’s original. Yet though I’ve read the poem several times, I can’t quite figure out how those lines fit in the whole, what context or additional meaning is carried through to the later lines about Barnes & Noble as the modern-day pyramids or the whales seen from Howard Beach.
With his unexpected imagery Salamun intends to disrupt our habitual apprehension of the world, our natural tendency to link objects and events and feelings, then unquestioningly turn those things and relationships into words. Just as he may write fourteen-line poems without their quite being sonnets, Salamun uses familiar words without their quite having the properties we’d previously settled on them. When the writing is at its best, it startles us into a new attentiveness, opening our eyes to landscapes, nature, and questions of mortality. But at other times, the invention flags, and rather than a new awareness, Salamun’s juxtapositions generate only confusion.
Time and again, that is the problem presented by the poems of Woods and Chalices. The translation, assuming rough accuracy, is brilliant: the clicking of consonants and the humming of vowels is first-rate, joy-making, resulting in lines that are impossible to forget, let alone ignore. And individual images here and there are the same—like this, from “Olive Trees”:
. . . With every layer of night a little coat is pulled on.
Or these, which close the first poem in the collection, “The Lucid Slovenian Green,” which considers the Irish influence on Western civilization:
They piled sagas at fire sites. Everything northern (Styria). There, in the forests, live char men with flashing eyes. They snack on the Book of Kells. But for every one of the images that works—that, as surrealism at its best should do, seems to activate a subconscious, uncanny, even physical, response—there are a couple that seem almost arbitrary. Take these lines, from “Tiepolo Again”:
. . . We shelled tweezers. Is there always skin under the skin? Is the situation in the deep Piranesi caves taken care of?
It’s not impossible to imagine a situation in which one could ascribe meaning, however fleeting, to the images conjured up in those lines. Piranesi caves, for example, are instantly clear as day, byzantine and unnavigable. But the surrounding poem barely acknowledges these images, running inexplicably through roe deer, Christ, Mormons, clouds, and a pet butterfly named Tasso (who, admittedly, clears up a confusing moment from an earlier poem, where the reader would be forgiven for wondering why Torquata Tasso, author of Jerusalem Unbound, would be killing a cricket).
There’s a degree to which these failures of meaning shouldn’t be all that frustrating. After all, poetry that simply sounds good, that understands the value of the interplay between meaning and noise, is worth appreciating—and I should be clear: I enjoyed this volume each time I read it, regardless of my criticisms. It does, unquestionably, offer substantial pleasures.
But Salamun is far too talented to settle for that, and it’s the poems where he succeeds in marrying sound and meaning, unusual imagery and emotional weight, that make the surrounding verse feel light. The occasional line—“love / is a red witness”; “The world wants to forget. / We want to forget / the dead and youth and freedom”; “diminutives strengthen, / they flood” – that rings true, the dozen or so poems that sustain a thought, they throw the rest into unflattering relief. They make us want more, whether it’s the moving elegy of “The Man I Respected,” which ends with “To pass from the world / means an earthquake. Yesterday he died”, or the ancient-seeming questioning of “The Dead,” which wonders whether “Maybe they press the buttons / to rescind the aberrations”, or the frozen urban scene of “Car,” which shows us the aftermath of a shooting, when “The young were worried. The police / were alert, as if they would train all night. / The air in the bus turned fresh.” These poems, along with a dozen or so others in the collection, achieve that synthesis of intellectual sense and gut response that the best surrealism, the best imagistic work offers—and they necessarily show up their less well-developed counterparts.
And yet I’ll admit to being unable to escape the question of whether this rational analysis is even appropriate. For, to return to the opening of this review, if some poems are meant to be read aloud, and some poems are meant to be read on the page, perhaps some poems are meant to be dreamed? As I sleepily rode the train home from work tonight, reading through Woods and Chalices for the third time, I found myself unwillingly drifting off... and as I hovered in that fertile borderland between sleep and waking, the images from the poems—so often images of nature, and of the awkward jointures we’ve forced between nature and human endeavor—flitted through my dreams, and in my dreams they made sense, perfect, natural, unquestionable sense. Perhaps Woods and Chalices is as much a dream book as a volume of poetry; all my criticisms aside, perhaps it deserves its place on the nightstand after all.» - Levi Stahl
Tomaž Šalamun, The Book For My Brother (Harcourt, 2006)

«The Book for My Brother is the newest collection from Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun. A deceptively thin volume, it holds between its covers rich, dense poetry which demands a committed and thoughtful reader. The poems vary widely in tone and style. Salamun alternates between long lyrical, image-based poems and shorter, more straightforward pieces. The former revel in language and invite the reader to simply bask in sensation and impression, while the latter dance up to the edge of prose poetry. Some are bleak and distant or rage at the sky. Others create characters, rooms, and scenes, blurring the line between poet and speaker. In another collection these differing styles might make the book feel like a hodge-podge, but these pieces are connected through themes. Words like "melancholy," "tremble," and "beatitude" are repeated in various poems in order to trigger certain images and to connect ideas in the reader's mind. Some phrases or images are reworded to link pieces together: "The fluff in the blossom is a little circle..." in "Coming Back" is referenced in "Jumping On The Cart Full Of Cantaloupes": "Fluff, if the blossom goes, bang if the thorn."
Salamun is interested in the brotherhood of existence, the oneness of all things. He continuously equates the speaker in his poems with the natural world. War and destruction of the environment are just ways in which we destroy ourselves. "The Lime in The Desert" is a portrait of a soldier and traveler's life: "we breathed wind, loved polite waiters/ smelled the pepper, meat, accompanied young ladies holding birdcages"; and their search for home when utterly disconnected from the landscape of their country.
A quest for reconnection to a homeland is central to many of the poems. The encouragement found in these pieces to appreciate and bond with one's country is a first step toward a larger union with land itself: "the rain transgresses the borders."
The flip side of this transcendental theme is the isolation and sadness found in duality. The poems "Home" and "Dog" are placed one after the other to juxtapose these two feuding ideas. "Home" argues that all wisdom and knowledge are contained within the natural world, that humanity itself is only part of the much larger universe:
There is no difference between a train speeding through a tunnel, the Milky Way expanding silently, and a drop that fell upon the brown leather in August last year.
"Dog" explores duality through the use of second person. The dog is "you," other, less than. This language and the accusatory tone of the piece create a split between the reader and subject, us and them. The speaker asks "Don't you have brothers and sisters? Did / they all leave you and go to sleep behind /some corner? ... ," which highlights the feeling of isolation when one is not part of a community; national, religious, or other. The true cause of suffering springs from this base place of duality, of materialism, of every-man-for-himself, or every country-for-itself: "Fear is / only a quarrel about / property."
The Book for My Brother is an eccentric collection graced by shifting voices and perspective. The variation speaks to Salamun's range, the fluidity to his skill. It's as if he's trying on all sorts of glasses, all with different shapes, tints, frames, and levels of focus. Occasionally the poems become esoteric, demanding a knowledge of French and Egyptian geography likely beyond what most readers will bring to the table, but the beauty of the images and the power of the wisdom contained in this book ("God is a perfect stranger, he is not planted by anyone. / I'd like to be planted like a willow") make any complaints feel petty.» - Sarah Moriarty

Tomaž Šalamun, Row (Arc Publications, 2006)

«Although the Austrian poet Georg Trakl died over a century ago, the mesmerizing imagery and haunting visions of his highly sensitive and morbidly introspective poetry are as powerful today as they were when he poured forth his extraordinary and unclassifiable volume of work. A source of inspiration for artists, musicians and writers throughout the Expressionist period and beyond, Trakl's poetry - bleak, yet full of tenderness and hope, nightmarish yet eerily beautiful - has steadfastly defied any coherent critical analysis. Will Stone's outstanding new translation, complete with contextualizing essays, promises to rekindle interest in the work of this seminal poet.»

"When entering a Tomaz Salamun poem don't reach for the handrail of narrative or grope for the light-switch of meaning. These are instinctive, sensory poems, poems of great power and surprise, appealing to the open mind and the trustful reader. Each phrase no matter how unexpected or even surreal has a deliberate force and a convincing relevance. Salamun is mysterious and enigmatic and he is a risk taker. With wit and wonder, and always with surprise, he renews our familiar world again and again and again." - Simon Armitage"
Tomaž Šalamun, Poker (Ugly Dukling Presse, 2004)

«Poker is Tomaz Salamun's first book of poetry, originally published in 1966 in Slovenia. This edition, vibrantly translated by award-winning poet Joshua Beckman in collaboration with the author, makes Poker available in its entirety in English.»
Tomaž Šalamun and Metka Krasovec, Blackboards, Trans. by Michael Biggins with the author (Saturnalia Books, 2004)

«Blackboards is the first in Saturnalia Books’ Poet/Artist Collaboration Series. Internationally acclaimed Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun wrote Blackboards in 1997, and two years later celebrated Slovenian artist Metka Krasovec painted "Trak," a captivating series of images spanning one long scroll of paper. Joined together, as poet John Yau writes in his introduction, "Salamun’s melancholia and Krasovec’s sense of longing set in motion… a dance of words and images, of words that evoke images we cannot picture, and images that define a world that cannot be contained in words."

«Tomaz Salamun, you've done it again!
I'm only kidding, of course. I NEVER review my own books, and I would have obeyed this commandment if it were not for the overgenerous kindness of this damn editor, flogging me with so many flattering e-mails. And so I promise I will write this review as if I have never heard of this poet or seen these poems before.
What a wacky fellow, this Salamun. He can make you think you had too much espresso and cough medicine and cell phonage when you read this stuff. Take, for instance "Stefanel Jacket." He talks about "broiling gilthead bream. Hardy meat shot through the sea." Okay, but then watch - all of a sudden he says, "I'm covered in basil." Is Salamun about to be sacrificed? Is this the bream speaking? Help! Then he tells us, "I yank my catch up the stairs. . ." Fine. But look what he does to us next: He adds to the end of that sentence the name "Metka," his wife, the artist whose artwork complicates terribly this book. Look at what he does to her - "I break down the door and fling her on the couch so it hurts her, / it hurts her, it hurts her, till she groans like a deer." Not to pry into the private life of this internationally respected poet, but why is he exposing for the world his deviant sexual activities? Has the fishing turned him into a rutting animal? Or are we supposed to think the "her" tossed on the couch is the fish and that's who he is hurting? Could this man be a sadist? What have the poor bream done to him lately? I find this very, very scary, but poetry like this is supposed to be scary, no?
In the closing poem, "Heated Passions," we find out why his passions are so heated. He writes here about a castle (I imagine spray-painted on a wall: "Franz Was Here"), and speculates on what a castle represents - apertures, soldiers, power. Ah, the P-word! Here is the key to the castle, to the poem, and who knows, maybe the whole book: "Power chews at everything." And so, even the great Tomaz Salamun must arrive at this sad truth (if it is truly true). Power attacks the castle, power in the form of nature, aided by the filth that comes out of humans and their creations, so that even stone erodes, erodes, erodes over time. But power also comes from the castle, the power of authority, words, rules. Thou shalt obey. This power chews on us all, even the poet with a nice grant to live and write in Umbria, who herds his dislocated words onto a blackboard, which means all his words keep changing, molting, goofing on him and us. Why are the lines so dislocated? Power rattles through the poet and messes everything up. It sprinkles him with basil. It makes the poet mount his wife on the couch. More than once!
This leads us to the very last line of the book: "What we've carved out will fall." Meaning, the very poems and illustrations in this book, all "carved" by Salamun and Biggins (is this a real person, or a play on "Begin, Big One"?) and Metka, who I shall assail in a moment. All words are destined, by the very fact of their wordness, to fail. Even the words of such a clever and horny guy as this Salamun. Not e how the last line flashes us back to the second poem of the book, "Pumpkin." (Do they really have pumpkins in the Republic of Slovenia? Or is this code for rutabaga?) Here the book is more hopeful - "The pumpkin is aspirin," "I lean on the birds' / song," and "Cream your belly as you jump." So power giveth and power taketh away, but poetry is power, too - at least when power kindly gooses the poet.
Visual art can also be jazzed and jazzifying. Take the curious figures that Metka Salamun set loose on these pages: These humanesque creatures are lean, bereft of arms, leaping about like a human flea. Usually hopping up, but a few times also down. In the larger, color illustrations, there are sometimes two figures who hint at a silent story. The picture that kicks me in the head is where a bluish figure (a "she" person?) bends over a collapsed pinkish figure (a "he" person?). She seems to be mourning his collapsed-on-the-groundness, while just above her head four poplars sprout from a snakey stick of earth. But wait. From a distance these four slender trees are green exclamation marks springing from the blue person's thoughts! Will her grief, her song awaken him? She needs to read Blackboards to him. Eurydice bringing Orpheus back from the dead.
Do not read this book, however, on a train or bus or car or plane. It will create motion sickness, even if you do not suffer from that malady. You would toss up the lines, though they might reappear in splendid—probably more splendid than in this book—new shapes and combinations. That is the power of this (I almost said "my"!) book. To make you say to yourself, Leave me in a room alone with Language. Let me see what I can do with her. And she with me. And she and me and Biggins. And she and me and Biggins and Metka, if Metka will go for that kind of thing. (She says probably not.)
My name is Tomaz Salamun and I approve the dissolve of these words.» - John Bradley
Tomaž Šalamun, Four Questions of Melancholy: New & Selected Poems (White Pine Press, 1996)

«Slovenia has always been a nation of poets (the oldest known musical instrument, a Neanderthal bear-bone flute, was discovered there). As their country was annexed, subdivided, and subjected to one conquerer after another, the Slovene language and literature held them together.
Of the many fine Slovene poets writing today, Salamun is probably the most prolific and best-known - and deservedly so. This anthology presents a well-chosen overview of his work, put into English by a variety of translators. My only criticism: their styles are so different that a reader may be left uncertain whether the dizzying variability of the diction is Salamun's or theirs. (An out-of-print volume, "The Shepherd, The Hunter" translated by Sonja Kravanja, I felt gave a better sense of Salamun's distinctive "voice.") Still, this is a good selection, nicely presented, and well worth reading.» - P. Lozar
Tomaž Šalamun, A Ballad for Metka Krašovec (Twisted Spoon Press, 2001)

«Like Dostoevsky, for whom consciousness was disease and salvation, Salamun celebrates art as both punishment and transcendence. Poetic vision assaults whoever would escape vital living... Imagining Salamun's wives and lovers, male and female, Ballad conflates and celebrates unrestricted art and love.» - Ethan Paquin

"Let various Marxists and the herd still/ shuffling outside my door gnash their/ teeth, but I'm living/ now. All I/ do is slightly/ rearrange the struggle for the seed flowing/ in the universe." Originally published in his native Slovenian in 1981. and just in time for May Day nowthis heartbreakingly wry set of verse letters from the poet to his wife, Metka Krasovec, and their circle finds the poet globetrotting from behind the iron curtain, an "awesome salesman from the least./ (I meant to write from the east/ but mistyped.)." In over 100 short missivessome written at Yaddothe poet elegizes Mayakovsky (dead at 37, the poet's age) and Mandelstam; wonders "Are you eating enough meat?"; and decides, with a smile, "I'd like to die with a red cap on my head." Psychic complexities ("suffering joins fear and disgust") and sexual longings complicate his travels further. All four of the other Salamun collections available in the U.S. are selections from among his 30 or so books; this midcareer volume is the first to be translated and published in toto. Aside from being wonderful poetrythe translations by University of Washington Slavic and East European studies librarian Michael Biggins have tremendous energy and easethe book gives immediate and fascinating insight (and hindsight) into the paradoxes of the cold war writer's life in the East: "I'm here./ My hands shine./ America is my fate." (May 1) Forecast: Based in Prague, 10-year publishing veteran Twisted Spoon maintains a series of English-language expatriate writers; another of Czech-based "Bohemicus" writers; a beautifully produced Kafka series; and "Contemporary Writing from Central Europe"of which this lovely paper-with-flaps edition is part. Salamun already has a large following in the U.S.; this book need only reach his readers for it to become their favorite.» - Publishers Weekly
Tomaž Šalamun, Feast: Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000)

«By turns brutal and coy, gnomic and blunt, the Slovenian poet Salamun's third English-language collection insistently dismembers the world, only to slyly recreate and celebrate it. Edited by Charles Simic, this volume presents translations of Salamun's recent and older work, as did 1997's The Four Questions of Melancholy and 1988's Selected Poems, the latter also edited by Simic. Uneven and variegated, Feast presents everything from throwaway one-liners to beautifully muted lyrics and wildly excessive, surreal investigations of daily life. Salamun excels when working in the last mode, and the strongest poems here offer a Whitmanic breadth steeped in an absurdity that is caustic yet humane: "A windowpane yields no warmth. Who// made it transparent? Who owns the energy/ nibbling under the teeth? Have you ever spilled/ a bucket in the desert? Like throwing snow to the hens." Though Salamun's approach varies, the poems frequently have recourse to fantastic questions, using the interrogative mode to aggressively probe ancient philosophical conundrums about form and matter, perception and reality. They lead not to reductive, systematically organized knowledge, but to reveries on the poet's ability to remake experience in a world that is endlessly destructive: "I felt blood under your chopping block. The doe turns/ into a bird and takes flight. It's heavy. It barely/ gets off the ground. Branches rub the belly of the doe." While Feast is rife with powerful transformations, Salamun's relentless pursuit of metaphor can lead to tiresome shaggy dog stories, and many poems contain both magical and infantile moments. But the best poems here simultaneously pursue and violently undermine knowledge ("...the enemy, logic and elegance, the beaten track/ of the perfect instrument. You have to crush it...") to create a fierce, intelligent lyricism.» - Publishers Weekly

«Feast, Salamun's 27th book of poetry, is a seamless collaboration between the poet and seven translators. The result is an arresting and often outrageous collection of surrealist lyrics, sonnets, aphorisms, and epigrams. For Salamun, "language is a hook, it catches nothing." So he proceeds to capture "the hidden," which always eludes "mummified academicians." Yet he is also capable of acerbic self-deprecation: "The greatest Slavic poet. Right." Salamun's daring poetics will transform the reader used to a diet of conventional poetry. Feast is strong, original, and always fresh: "I breathe and a poem jumps up." Recommended for all academic collections. - Daniel L. Guillory



«In the early days of Galway's Cúirt International Literature Festival, I suggested we invite Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti. The reply was that no one would understand him, as he wrote in Spanish! Thankfully, things have changed.
Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun seems to represent the opening of Galway and Ireland to the possibilities Europe offers. It's sobering to discuss poetry with a Slovenian; one of his country's bank-notes features a poet on it, a surprising juxtaposition of money and art.
Poetry, says Salamun, came to him as a revelation, dropping, 'like stones from the sky'. As a young man, he was uneasy about his vocation. It was 'socially so atrocious', bringing with it poverty and a bagful of misery. 'I think if you're a poet in a small language, it's so hard to think that you will be able to survive as a poet... We Slovenians speak only Slovenian. I cannot write poetry in another language. I had a moment when I began to dream my childhood in broken English, in Iowa in the early seventies. I became culturally 'schizophrenic', and went to Berkeley to see Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural father of Western Slavs whom we knew about through Kultura, a Polish magazine.' Milosz advised Salamun that he was 'too old' to change the language he wrote in. This settled the matter: 'it was really good advice'.
In the comfortable neo-hibernian surroundings of tinkling cups of cappuccino, it's hard to imagine a place where the writing of poetry might have been dangerous. But Salamun's early involvement with the Prespiktiva review created problems for him. Editor-in-chief, he was imprisoned in 1964. But harder times still fell on the country's writer during the Brezhnev years from 1973 to 1979: 'we were strangled, there were no liberties'.
America was a land of promise, and Salamun's links with the States go back as far back as the early seventies. Poets such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Simic and Phillis Levin have since translated him. However, America, and the recognition he found there, has not tempered Salamun's youthful daring. Here is a poet who has said of himself: 'Tomaz Salamun is a monster', a poet who investigates the darker side of the human moon.
Salamun is married to the painter Metka Krasovec. Her painting can be seen on the cover of an English translation of The Four Questions of Melancholy. I asked my Slovenian guest whether poets are frustrated painters? 'I don't think so,' he replies. 'But what I write I see in my head first. I'm constantly describing what I see. The first prompting is visual.'
What accounts for the style of his poetry, his involvement of himself in many of this poems? Take the title 'Happiness is a Warm Splattered Brain?', for example. Isn't the title fascinating in much the same way that a car-crash is fascinating. 'I don't know. There many wounds, strange miscellaneous things in my ancestors' background, tragedies. And also this awareness of being a member of a small nation. When my parents sent me to their friends in Paris or Brussels - they'd studied in Paris before the war - people asked me 'Where are you from?' I was fifteen, I said Slovenia and nobody knew where it was and I couldn't name anybody that they would recognise.'
We return to the subject of the United States of America, and I ask whether, given the current political climate, it is possible for a poet to possess an independent and imaginatively free mind in the United States? He answers the question but seems to avoid its essence. 'Very, very difficult. All the young poets are completely without money. They are in a constant war to survive. For poets who are not academics it is absolutely hard. American society is becoming more and more formalised, conservative. But nevertheless, young American poetry is immensely alive, strangely.'
What of Slovenia today? He considers it a 'lively' place. And Slovenia's irresistible vitality he attributes in part to the fact that the Slovenian nation was long stateless. Also, Slovenia, he says, produced the first Protestant translator of the Bible. Later, in the early nineteenth century, the great romantic poet Preseren wrote in Slovenian. But in Slovenia, as in other countries, Romanticism casts a long shadow. Today, 'young people think poetry is something which we needed in the nineteenth century, when we didn't have big novels and a State, and now we need brokers and architects and cinema. Literature is a thing from the nineteenth century'. 'On the other hand,' he continues, 'we have survived five thousand years. Even if we have to go three hundred years under the earth as alchemists, it doesn't matter to me'.
The question of poetry in our time seems worth pursuing. I ask what use poetry is in this information-sodden, sound-bitten age. 'Poetry - the language which has us, which marks us and comes out on those pages - is something which is much more than we know about ourselves, and is much more than we can say as a civic person. It's marvellous to have this instant connection through the Internet, it adds to communication. But nothing can replace this shock that . . . .something comes somehow from nowhere, that you almost don't understand, that you're trembling . . . what is it? And still it goes on.' This will not be destroyed, he thinks, by any intervention of a new age of advanced technology. 'The fire from poet to poet really passes through reading but also through talking. . . . like when poets read to young minds, some kind of initiation goes on; and one among three hundred listeners might be touched.'
Why does he think of poets' involving themselves in politics? Politics, he maintains, can contaminate the poet. He should be involved as a man. 'During these horrible Balkan wars,' he says, 'I couldn't write. I didn't write for four years. I had also to deal 'what if my violent and controversial language was not a good thing for this event'.
The dilemmas of being a poet amid the horrors of war are discussed, suddenly, against a background music of tinkling, comfortable cutlery; tables are being set for lunch.» - Fred Johnston

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