Maintenant #23: Ana Božičević
for this: not to feel a thing
for Brooklyn Bridge. It snaps (a rubber band.)
– an interview with Ana Božičević by SJ Fowler.
Each European nation has acclimatised to the immensity of the modern American poetic tradition in its own way. To some the role of American poetics is one of political and functional liberation, to others quite the opposite. Perhaps more interesting than the mutual passage of poetries between continental outputs so varied and immense is when European poets find home in America and the influence of that vast poetry is begun before the page, in the very essence of that poets life and therefore the essence of their work. In an interview series imposing fluid but arbitrary geographical stipulations it is fascinating to encounter a poet who, through their subtlety, their poise and eloquence, exposes such arbitrations as just that. Ana Božičević is a remarkable poetic talent, unmissably so – enthused and liberated, her poetic draws from such a cultivated series of traditions that it reduces the notion of style, nation, school to mere critical bandying. Objectivist, meditative, assured, she is a Croatian who has long resided and written in America, but in no away can she be called an emigre or exile. She is a European poet as Europeans are, and American as best an American poet can be. For the 23rd edition of Maintenant, we present Ana Božičević.
3:AM: You’ve developed a poetic vernacular that appears both minimalist and effervescent. Certainly your tones are reminiscent of work from the New York poets, or perhaps Radmila Lazic, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns – you have maintained the freedom of expression implicit in the best sentenced free verse but somehow you incorporated the succinct images more often associated with more structured poetry. Did your poetic style evolve naturally? Are there distinct influences on your technical methodology?
Ana Božičević: Firstly, thank you for your comments on my poems. It’s always heartening to hear that I’m being “heard” so insightfully! About my poetic style: it evolved very much on the go, and it’s still in flux (I hope). Growing up, I was drawn particularly to European and (then) Yugoslav surrealist, lyrical and folk verse, and so this is the heritage I brought to my English poetry. Among my few early English-language influences I count Poe, the Romantic poets, Plath – and Philip Larkin. And, of course, the river of American pop culture that flowed into the Adriatic…
I experienced a pause in my writing life in the first few years after I moved to the US; I found was unable to write in either Croatian or English – I was between languages. Once I metabolized English (for lack of a better word), the poetry just sort of took off. I enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts poetry program at Hunter College and had a crash course in the English-language literatures of the 20th and 21st centuries. I read New York School poets and Black Mountain poets and the Beats… These “schools” resemble to me one of those pictures that from a distance looks coherent, but up close turns out to be made of infinite rows of other images – I suppose I prefer the word “movements” to “schools,” and I love to hum along with the patterns they inscribe without taking them at face value. Of contemporary poets, I learned a lot from Franz Wright, Brenda Hillman, Eileen Myles, Diane di Prima – I read a lot of Transtromer, Šalamun… A daily teacher is Amy King, who is also my partner, and a very unique poet, a genus all her own.
Though I’ve certainly been influenced by, say, Frank O’Hara’s use of the vernacular, I’ve understood from the beginning that as an ESL (English as a Second Language) poet I had a fundamentally different handle on English – more questioning, more elementary and thus elemental. The rules (the following or the breaking of) didn’t quite apply to me, on those occasions that I even grasped what the rules were. To keep writing, I had to accept this state of affairs as a permission, strength, tool; for example, it informed my reliance on images – sometimes they’re the most effective shortcut to mainline meaning into the cortex (and this might be a sort of “Language as a Second Language” trope). So I’d say I was a true poetic mutt – there’s a whole quilt of heritage(s) I’m encouraged by, but a great deal of the groping and figuring out I do on my own.
3:AM: What are your feelings on traditional verse as opposed to experiment forms of poetic expression? You maintain a distinct style, do you think it might change as you grow as a poet?
AB: I have a hard time distinguishing my “style” from myself. It grows alongside. So I do hope it keeps changing, just because I’d rather not be the same person always. I also regard poetic traditions/styles as something that evolved along with the generations who wrote them – they all were and are vitally important in some way. I don’t see a point in attaching value judgment to form; I want to be free to open a book of Keats and a book of Stein and learn rhythm from both equally on the same afternoon. And, vis a vis the terminology of “traditional” versus “experimental” – I question the value of those words to poetry – I question the extent to which the linear language of some literary theories, its reiteration, gives justice to what poetry does and is, to the exclusion of other vocabularies. Of course, sometimes writing a cutting-edge flight manual is necessary; but sometimes it’s simpler just to be a bird.
“Traditional” verse – especially the Romantics and the Metaphysical poets – was the place I first entered and fell in love with the English language. And without an “old-type natural fouled-up guy” like Larkin I would never have been bold enough to try my hand at those first few “simple” poems in English. And the avant-garde and contemporary “experimental” poets, especially women, lent me freedom by example to deploy any word & syntactic construct & emoticon that rightly belongs in my poems. I really do think-feel that the imposition of value judgments on style – here I picture a clichéd tableau of traditionalists holding the fort against postmodernists – has much more to do with the enforcement of class norms, that poetry is just a pawn, an infant prince, in that power struggle of dualisms. Poetry is the child having fun on that battlefield, the only one who understands it’s all a game. Often I talk of surrealism, but I don’t really believe there is such a thing – I use the word as shorthand & a wink at that tradition, I’m playing… Ultimately I don’t wish to define my style linearly with or against another’s. Love, and write what you will.
3:AM: What are the circumstances surrounding your departure from Croatia? You were twenty I believe, had you already began establishing your poetic voice?
AB: I was a few months shy of twenty, yes. I was writing already, in Croatian – it was juvenilia, but it wasn’t too bad, I think – and in fact, the more comfortable I am in English, the more I’m making my way back into the imagination I was writing from then. I left Croatia after the war, after finishing two years of college there; legally, it was the last moment for me to emigrate and join my mom, who was already in NYC, before I came of age – and so I decided to go. I’m not entirely sure that there was a single clear motivating factor; I remember feeling that the structures of my life-as-it-would-be-if-I-stayed were already forming around me at that point, and I wasn’t ready to accept them. I wanted more space. I was just a kid still, really; I remember thinking I wasn’t in love with anyone at the time, so there was no real reason for me to stay. Probably the truth is I knew I wasn’t entirely “of Croatia” even then, and so I was free to go.
3:AM: How well did you come to know the poetry scene in Croatia? Was there a sense you might have prospered had you stayed?
AB: At the time I emigrated, I didn’t know the poetry scene in Croatia well at all. I was a deeply awkward closeted queer who spent most of her time in her room, studying and reading, shy and proud and secretly ambitious about her work. My one foray into poetic communion had failed comically – I had sent some poems in prose to a local journal, and the editor told me I was clearly overly influenced by Kafka – whom I hadn’t even really read at that point! I withdrew even further, and the pressure built – until I bolted. I guess I was a bit of a loaded gun. I think I knew, consciously or not, that I needed the shock immigration dealt me – I might not have made it out of my shell otherwise, and it took me a very long time as it is. Recently I have become much more aware of contemporary Croatian poetry, and have especially studied the women poets who form a very rich constellation of elders and young stars – poets like Vesna Parun, Dorta Jagić, Darija Žilić, Sonja Manojlović, Božica Jelušić, Anka Žagar, Vesna Biga, Marija Andrijašević, Barbara Pleić, Ljuba Lozančić, Asja Bakić – too many to count… And with delight and wonder, in their work I’m encountering the same kind of freedom that writing from the margins here in the US has afforded me – and this is exciting and gives me, perhaps for the first time, a sense of continuity, if not of belonging. In my perceived isolation, I made my way into this constellation somehow. I’d love to see a book like Feminaissance or the UK’s Infinite Difference collecting the work of these poets.
3:AM: You have been showered with praise from the poetry community in New York, certainly in the US you seem to be establishing yourself as a formidable poet. How has this process developed? Is there a maintained sense that you are European in this environ?
AB: I certainly can’t complain – mine hasn’t been the splashiest of debuts, but things have gone remarkably well nonetheless! Not being American has been both helpful and detrimental; though you run the risk of being fetishized/exoticized as “other,” at the very least you’re sticking out from the heap. Along the way, I’ve been very lucky to meet friends/editors who supported my work, published my chapbooks & my first book – poets like Justin Marks, Mathias Svalina and Zach Schomburg of Octopus Books, Christian Peet of Tarpaulin Sky Press… All these poet-publishers are well-read in European poetry and, I’m pretty sure, situated and understood my work in that context — and “translated” me, helped me find my place in the American poetry scene.
I guess I have now become some kind of American poet, at least in this moment in time, because this is where I live and write. A great deal of American tradition trails back to European village yards (or those of any other “country of origin”) and in that sense, I am no different than the other poets of this country. Recently I wrote an essay about how and why I am an American poet. But if I look at it very closely, the picture is much less coherent, and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in an impermeable identity emphatically enough to call myself American, European, Croatian…or else I am part of all those patterns.
3:AM: Croatia had an excellent modern poetic tradition, certainly post WWII. What are your feelings towards the likes of Miroslav Krleza, Zvonimir Golub, Slavko Mihalic? Do you feel you are maintaining a tradition that began in Croatia earlier in this century, following on from the work of these poets?
AB: As I mentioned, my early influences were a sort of Euro-Slavic medley of Tsvetaeva, Remizov, Mayakovski, Schulz, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Eluard, de Chirico, Salinas, Jimenez, Lazić, Popa, Pavić… I must admit I was never a true fan of Krleža; there is a great deal of Croatian national awareness (even when critical) in his work that I could never fully identify with. I am not a local patriot; as fiercely as I might love my grandparents’ village, as often as I may write about it, the notion of identifying with the idea of a national destiny does not appeal to me in the slightest. This might be a reaction to living through the war in the Balkans as a teenager – even then I felt that this was the business of patriarchy, a bid for power cloaked in the language of honor & homeland, and in the absence of a vocabulary for how I was feeling, I retreated into depression. I saw the whole of a national identity (Yugoslav) regroup and sink.
My egress into tradition and political awareness was through folk tales, Slavic mythologies & lyrical surrealism – I do like Slavko Mihalić a great deal, as well as Dragutin Tadijanović, Ivan Slamnig, Jure Kaštelan, the émigré poet Viktor Vida, the storyteller Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić. Growing up, I felt that Bosnian poets like Mak Dizdar and Serbian poets like Branko Miljković were also part of my heritage. I keep thinking of David Foster Wallace, who said that after he first saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet he realized that being a surrealist “didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities…in fact it upped them.” I guess that, in a nutshell, is my poetic lineage: I’m interested in surrealism that’s passionately of the world, in lyrical excess/subversion with a beating bleeding heart.
3:AM: I’m interested in your relationship with Croatia, emotionally, creatively. There appears an emergent tradition of female expat Croat writers and poets who maintain an enthused contradiction of feeling toward Croatia – I’m thinking of Slavenka Drakulic, Dubravka Ugresic. Do you feel an indelible nostalgia for Croatia?
AB: If by nostalgia you mean, do I feel like crying when I look at pictures of Croatia, then yes. Sure. Especially the seaside, where I grew up. It’s a bit like looking at photos of an old flame, the familiar face whose significance, at this point, is latent, rehearsed. I’m both deeply suspicious of and empathetic with the sentimentality of the word “nostalgia.” It’s a kitschy emotion, and I am not immune to the power of kitsch. Nostalgia thinks there’s a place where there is no place, and in its honest, touching delusion it’s no different than any other lover. In a recent interview with Darija Žilić, Dubravka Ugrešić writes of Zagreb as a “between-space;” when she was first treated as a stranger there the town had become defamiliarized for her, and consequently she felt it no longer belonged to her. I feel like that too – visiting Croatia is like walking into my past that has moved on without me. Similarly, moving to New York was like traveling to an unfamiliar future.
Over time, I’ve learned to allow myself to be buffeted and overwhelmed by all these contradictory emotions without trying to make sense of them; that’s where the “experiment” of contemporary literature, the breakdown of narrative, the neo-surrealism – that’s where they come in handy. What the French call “effet monde” – world effect – well, matter does a really convincing job of creating the effect of a world, and a poem can aspire to do the same. There is some kind of Croatia made of floating dust motes in my poems, but I am hesitant to define myself as an immigrant writer – that, again, would be to identify with or against a place, and language doesn’t stand in place. I read that animals in the wild are too busy surviving to grieve – and I am mostly too busy to be nostalgic… I’m too busy telling the story that there is no story.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 15th, 2010.