Maintenant #27: Zvonko Karanović
“I wanted to tell you
I’m used to the solitude
it doesn’t hurt”
- an interview with Zvonko Karanović by SJ Fowler.
Perhaps with some validation it is often suggested we currently inhabit an onanistic poetic culture. Mere decades ago there are innumerate examples of poets and their work changing the political landscape of their time, their words serving as a vital and indelible representation of protest, change and rebellion. It is unlikely that this phenomenon has become obsolete. Rather the poets creating this unforgettable work, which aims at the very heart of what they must suffer and observe, that they will not let pass unanswered, are off the radar of the zeitgeist. Yet in Serbia, in counter-cultural circles, Zvonko Karanović is a near legend. Working in the rebellious, revelatory manner of the Beats and the German new-wave, postwar poets, Karanović has been a relentless critic of Serbia and its actions over the last two decades. A Beat poet, in the most stringent and expansive manner, and an accomplished novelist, his work is resonant, dashing and singular. In an extraordinary interview, Karanovic speaks of his influences, the context of the Balkan wars and his experience of how Serbia, and Serbian poetry has altered in the countries tempestuous recent history. We are honoured to introduce Zvonko Karanović as the 27th edition of the Maintenant series.
3:AM: You are direct about your influences, that the Beat generation had an indelible effect on your poetry. Is this due to the philosophy behind their work directly, or to their approach to the conception of a poet as an entity, that is, is the Beat culture something you were drawn to?
Zvonko Karanović: Jack Kerouac’s advice on writing: Telling the true story of the world in interior monologue… Something that you feel will find its own form… Submissive to everything, open, listening… was the powerful bulldozer that crashed the walls of the image of literature as I preceived it in high school. I got the impression that Kerouac addressed himself to me directly, encouraged me to start writing on my own. As though he were saying: look, it’s not hard, just be what you are. Write the way you see the world, neglect the rules. The pure democratization of literature.
Also, the myth that spread around the Beat movement was very significant. The former Yugoslavia, my birth country where I grew up, was the country of “soft” socialism with more freedom and a higher living standard than the rest of the socialist countries. Books, movies, and rock music particularly created the myth of America as the country of freedom and numerous opportunities. The Beats fit in perfectly with this vision. The openness to the new experiences, music, drugs, Zen Buddhism, denial of authorities, anti-war attitude, the demystification of all types of taboos, as well as the Beats’ alternative way of life were a powerful philosophy. The sign of equality between living and writing, spontaneity and freedom of expression became the foundations of my writing.
3:AM: Your poetry very specifically maintains the freedom, the rhythm disjunction of the Beats, when read in the Serbian language does it alter? Are there intonations your mother tongue can bring to this sweeping, colloquial poetic?
ZK: I have never mystified the process of writing, nor was I overburdened by literature conventions. I have been guided by these simple principles: I consider experience as the core of writing and the language as the tool. As thematically nothing new can be invented, and as I’m not inclined to structural and linguistic experiments, I focus on emotions. I strive after the “story” in the poem, to maintain its visual and narrative harmony and render it as rhythmically impeccable as possible. In longer poems I use enumeration in order to preserve the kinetic level of the poem. I consider myself a director who guides poetic images in his own way
The Serbian language is linguistically “poorer” than English and easily accepts colloquial phrases, borrowings, slang. On the other hand, this makes it all the harder to translate, as the meanings are less precise, “blurrier” and more general. For certain Serbian words there are several synonyms and one has to know what was the poet’s specific point and context. As for the melody and rhythm, my poems sound “harmonious” in Serbian, but that doesn’t help their conversion to a new language – perhaps only insofar as they might inspire a parallel effect in English. Despite the best will and proficiency of the translator, the melody and rhythm of the poem often don’t transfer well, while sometimes it is completely impossible. Even so, I was very happy when, while reading recent translations, I found out that they “fit” into English after all. The greatest merits go to Ana Božičević, translator, who is a great poet herself. The poets prove to be the best poetry translators.
3:AM: To whom does your poetic most closely lie? Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Snyder, McClure, Burroughs?
ZK: I returned to three poets most frequently, to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman. Ginsberg’s influence was prevailing primarily because of his poetic principles like: My poetry is an effort to reproduce the work of mind… Everything crossing human mind is suitable for poetry… Everything is subjective, there is no objective reality… If Kerouac initiated me, Ginsberg broadened my horizons, demolished the walls between “high” and “low” literature. Ginsberg is a great seismograph of the 20th century, man-delta, fascinating language energy. The life of Gregory Corso, who also wrote an exquisite poetry, served me as a model in my hardest moments. He was enlightened by the poetry, it saved his life by drawing him out of delinquency and stumble (guttersnipe, convict…). Bob Kaufman is philosopher, mystic and a leader of one subtle, profound rebellion.
I am very close to the German poets of the new subjectivity: Jorg Fauser, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Nicolas Born, Friedrich Christian Delius, Jurgen Theobaldi… I found many poetic and thematic similarities with them. They wrote in late 60s and early 70s in an unstable period of German history (political turmoils, students’ protests, The Red Brigades, traumatic inheritance of the Nazi past…), while twenty years later I faced a similar, more difficult situation in Serbia (dictatorship, mobilization, street protests, gloomy everyday life…). Beside these social themes we were tied by the mutual love of pop culture, comics, Hollywood B-movies. They testified courageously and uncompromisingly about their time, while I tried to do the same for mine.
3:AM: Has your work synthesised both the Serb and American traditions? That is do you maintain an influence from Serb poets like Vasco Popa, Miodrag Pavlovic, Stevan Raickovic, Desanka Maksimovic?
ZK: The American poets had the largest impact on me, primarily members of the Beat generation and the Black Mountain group, as well as the New York undergound poets. I should add the influence of German, Polish and French poetry. As for the Serbian poetry tradition I have to say that the classics never “touched” me. In the formative days I was interested in poets who wrote between two World Wars, primarily the surrealist movement Zenith, as well as the Novi Sad school of neo-Avant Garde from the 70s (Vojislav Despotov, Vujica Rešin Tucić, Vladimir Kopicl). Along with a couple of young poets of those days (Raša Livada, Duško Novaković, Novica Tadić, Nebojša Vasović) that was practically all the Serbian poetry I could read.
Very important are also some influences outside literature. Charles Simić said that his poetry was influenced by all the things he loved – every good book, movie, record, every meal worth remembering … That is, actually, the great truth. Everything that passes through you, either mentally or physically, leaves a trace, alters you a bit. That is why I can say that the merits for the development of my poetics go to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed…
3:AM: The influence exerted over Europe by the Beats, the Black Mountain group, the New York poets appears immense, and many in Europe, both traditional and contemporary voices, have lamented this impact on European poetry. It appears often appears political as well as cultural, and in Serbia, considering the actions of America in the 1990’s, this must be all the more tense, this American presence in your work?
ZK: When in the late 80s I stepped into the poetic scene, the Serbian literature paradigm was already modifying at a fast pace. In the fight for high state goals, the retrograde nationalistic matrix was promoted. New voices that weren’t tackling “serious” historical and national issues weren’t taken into serious consideration. Because of my “American” poetry I was marked and I only barely and sporadically published in Serbian literature magazines. However, I was excellently accepted in Croatia. In Quorum, the leading literature magazine of that time, I regularly published my poems and practically was a home author. In spring 1991 the war in Croatia broke out and I was left deprived of the cultural space I was most present in. In Serbia I faced rejection and misunderstanding, Croatia was closed. I was lucky because my first collection of poems Silver Surfer was already in the printing phase. It came out in summer 1991 and provoked a large positive reaction among readers. The book soon sold out, it was copied, read in night radio programs, it went from hand to hand, verses were quoted and rewritten. It bacame a cult book among youth. In 1991 the Silver Surfer fan club was established, and is still in existence. The response of the Serbian literary public and critics to this book was mild, almost nonexistent. Despite great turbulence that seized my life at that time, along with the neglect by the literary establishment, I kept on writing, even more intensely. I found a great pleasure in standing against the establishment literature and the political mob.
The situation didn’t change for the better after the collapse of the communist regime in 2000. The poets and critics who were serving the old regime were in hiding and laundering their biographies, while the incoming “old/new” voices were preoccupied with grasping new positions of literatury power. The chaos left over in the value system from the previous decade was no one’s concern. Only recently, twenty years later, some anthologies started to appear that attempt to shed a new light on the period of the 90s in order to place some authors in a proper literary/historical context (From the Museum of Noise – an Anthology of New Serbian Poetry 1988-2008 (VBZ, Zagreb, Croatia, 2009), as well as contemplated significant, but tacit topics in Serbian poetry (Stars are Beautiful, But I Don’t Have Time to Watch Them – an Anthology of Urban Serbian Poetry (B92, Belgrade, 2009). The most interesting thing about these is that they haven’t been collected by the official critics. Both anthologies were prepared by poets, extraordinary poets Nenad Milošević and Radmila Lazić, who are well known for their uncompromised poetic and political attitudes.
3:AM: You have written with great acclaim of the lost generation of Serbians in the 90s. What was your personal experience of the conflict in that decade? Did you remain in Serbia? Were friends and family embroiled in the conflict?
ZK: In order to understand why Serbia lost a generation of its best people during 90s, one has to be aware of the fact that the 80s, especially the beginning of that decade, were the best years of the 20th century for Serbia. Tito died in 1980 and the restraints of the loose-form socialism were practically gone. People had money, they were travelling without visas all over Europe by interrail, hitchiking, as tourists. The red Yugoslav passport was valid everywhere, domestic currency was convertible in all exchange offices abroad. Bookstores offered an excellent selection of literature in translation, record shops were filled with albums of the most famous world rock bands. The trust in civilization and world was something that went without saying. In that kind of atmosphere a whole layer/generation of cosmopolitan youth formed that was preparing to start their own families, to start to work. I myself belong to the generation that grew up in that marvelous, but from this distance – innocent and naive time. The sobering came in the late 80s. The horrible explosion of nationalism that erupted caught us napping. In the first parliamentary elections after the Second World War in the 1990 we were greatly outnumbered. The spinning of public opinion started along with the speech of hatred, media darkness, wars, economic sanctions, hyper inflation… Serbia became Matrix, a virtual world with real flesh and blood people living in it.
300,000 emigrated from the country. We who remained, were condemned to cope with life that meant standing in queues, buying petrol packed in plastic bottles, avoiding military engagement, depressions, self destruction, escape to the parallel worlds of music, film, drugs. Everybody tried to manage somehow. The reality constantly overwhelmed imagination producing insane, mad, surreal, absurd, tragic stories. In the fall of 1991, I received a military summons to take part in the war in Croatia that I refused to respond to. I had to hide from the MP for a whole month. I was saved by my high school classmate who was an army doctor working in the recruiting commission; he wrote a false diagnosis and gave me the faked medical papers. I was released from active duty for a period of one year. The army had forgotten me until the NATO bombing in 1999 when I received another draft notice. It was impossible to avoid wearing a uniform this time. I had my family and my job. I had no place to hide. Refusing to respond to the general mobilization meant 10-20 years in prison. I thought that it would be better to wear a uniform for 2-3 weeks instead of staying in prison for years. Luckily, I was assigned to the rear, far away from the war activities. However, the mental survival was very hard. When the collapse of the regime happened in 2000, I was exhausted, depressed and almost broken. A decade of bad experiences, hard existential situations, strong emotions gave me an incredible quantity of literary material, but brought no consolation. Neither is it a consolation that none of my family members and friends had perished, nor that they were never on the wrong side. The dark and gloomy 90s should not have happened at all.
3:AM: How had the early 90s conflict and the Kosovo conflict affected you personally in your poetry, away from the direct influence of war, more conceptually, did you feel poetry was more vital, more necessary, or did it appear for a time futile in the face of such horrific circumstance?
ZK: The great zest and energy in writing that were conceived in me in the 80s went on simply by inertia into the 90s, but the topics I was dealing with changed. I was terribly striken by the emerging situation, collapse of the country, emigration of some friends. The original feeling of rage had withdrawn into this terrible feeling of frailty. My youthful fascinations were replaced by the thoughts of death, war and transience. I was caught by the crisis of my thirties, I felt claustrophobic and felt that life was elapsing ever-faster. That became a part of my writing. The poems became darker and more melancholy, I started writing politically engaged poetry. Maybe it was because of Bertolt Brecht and his anti-fascist poems that I read in my youth, or maybe because of punk and Beat attitudes on truth as the leading ideal in art that were reminding me that I, as a poet, was obliged to go after the truth. The horror can be surpassed only by testifying about it.
These were absurd years. I was a captive of a shifted reality where I was just physically existing. By writing poems I had an impression that I was doing the one thing that had meaning in the overall absurdity. In my poems I started to bare myself naked, to turn deeper into myself seeking and questing for emotions. I exposed all my weaknesses, dilemmas and delusions. It was not a poetic concept but an understanding that only a weak man can be a winner. The main combat is inside, on the “soul” level and not outside on the level of state and society. The man becomes strongest when he is the most vulnerable. That is where the poetry became a great teacher and powerful instrument.
3:AM: Is there a poetry of the right in Serbia? Are there nationalist voices engaged in poetry?
ZK: The Serbian literati disgraced themselves in the 90s. There were no real disidents, nor any kind of radical resistance to the dictatorship. The most ingratiating to the authorities were the nationalistic poets. They seriously took it as their task to establish the highest national goals. In the late 80s and early 90s the rivers of patriotic verse in an archaic/neo-nationalist language were flowing in books and literature magazines. The maintream of poetry had turned back to the 19th century from modernism and post modernism, towards the romantic zeal needed to establish a national identity. For their activities the nationalistic poets were awarded flats, membership in the Academy of Sciences, saw their poems published in anthologies, canonized by literary prizes. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the former regime the literature did not undergo any significant renaissance. In the small incestuous environment of the Serbian literary scene, there was no strength for subversion. The consequences of the moral black hole that swallowed the literary Serbia in the 90s are felt even today. It is hard to avoid its gravity field that lost its strength, but left chaos in the value system. Hanging on to the literary tradition, shut to the new methods of writing and performing poetry and ignoring the spirit of the times are still some of the largest obstacles that the new generation of poets has to cope with. The generation of the new literary critics, or those yet to be born, will have just one task: to consider the 90s in a serious critical manner, to systematize and revaluate artistic achievements, to unmask the new fake classics. The infestation of the cultural zeitgeist by political ideologies in the 90s created a great discontinuity in the development of Serbian poetry. This development must be jumpstarted, if for no other reason but to reinstante & continue the line of great and honorable predecessors.
3:AM: What are your thoughts on Europe, on the concept of the European continent becoming a cultural and political entity? What is the climate in Serbia now, in the arts, in poetry and socially towards European inclusion?
ZK: Europe consists of nations very well acquainted among themselves, whose economies and culture have been mingling for decades. But in its current form, it is a still-young union that needs time to firm up and carry out all its proclaimed goals. The process of unification has been initiated and I think that, regardless of the obstacles and disagreements that occur here and there, no one will go back. The majority of citizens in Serbia are oriented towards Europe. For most of them it goes without saying that Serbia is a part of Europe, as it has always been, and that is the fact by itself.
On October 5, 2000, the communist regime was dismantled and for a brief period a euphoric attitude to the future sparked. Today, ten years later, people realize that their expectations of the higher standard of living and the rule of law happening just like that were unrealistic. Many European laws were enacted, but they must be carried into action. The climate in art is similar to the general climate in society. There is more space for breathing, but the past debts are still being paid. That is the reason why more and more artists, particularly film artists, turn to foreign countries. No one wants to waste time in waiting, modern technologies enable new ways of expression, as well as fast reception.
There is more writing going on in Serbia then ever. That is probably self-therapy for what we have passed through in the past twenty years. The annual number of published novels rates from 110 to 140 and from 500 to 600 collections of poems; that is quite an extensive production for a country with the population of 8 million. The poetry scene came to life again. Poetry is fashionable again – internet portals for poetry, performances, public readings, poetry festivals gather a large number of interested young people. The problem lies in the fact that these happenings are still at the margins, having almost no touch with the governing poetry scene.
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, September 12th, 2010.