Maintenant #32: Primož Čučnik
“In the luxury of mild drunkenness
they drive” – an interview with Primož Čučnik by SJ Fowler.
One of the most literate nations in Europe, Slovenia has made significant contributions to the landscape of European poetry. As well as producing figures like Tomaž Šalamun (who along with Zagajewski, Tranströmer, Venclova et al can easily be said to be the great figures in European poetry of this generation), they have developed and maintained what many nations have not. A distinct and vibrant scene of young poets, replenished, year after year, decade after decade. More recently, the work of Aleš Šteger and Primož Čučnik has acted as a marker for the growing reputation of Slovene poets across the continent. A gifted and precise poet, Čučnik manages to be both graceful and free enough to catch the ear and yet rigorous and languid enough to seem resonate. He is a reputed translator and we are pleased to welcome him as the 32nd edition of the Maintenant series to discuss his own work, Slovenian literary identity and how a country can have often have more poets than readers.
3:AM: Your poetry is marked by a feeling of focused intuition, that is you employ relatively rigorous and specific language but the nature of your poetry often appears free and colloquial. Do you wish to maintain a certain pace and freedom in your work?
Primož Čučnik: My operations with an old language, I think, sometimes use fresh technical approaches. The collection of words is mostly ‘old’ but I try to use them in a ‘new’ way, in a modified context. I was raised (or, to put it better: I’ve raised myself) in a spirit of understanding that poetry is something that has outlasted, so to speak. Yet I’ve discovered that it changes itself too, vitally. I begin to see it as relatively changeable activity: fragmented, varied in style, and open in this sort of way. What you call free and colloquial in my early work, in our space, wasn’t something obvious. That’s why my first book wasn’t free and colloquial but rather something that was written in a manner of a late settling with post-romanticism. Later on it occurred that that were actually post-modern problems for me to confront. Today I have bigger problems not with romanticism as it is, but with so called forms of ‘hard, high’ modernism that predominates in Slovene post-war poetry. That issue is quite different and much more boring than historically interesting interweaving of modernism and the avant-garde. Answers and solutions for such problems I’ve mostly found apart from my very own tradition, i.e. in contemporary American or Polish poetry which, under varied circumstances, I have studied the most, as a reader and translator. I think that my sense for the free and colloquial arises particularly from dealing with translation, i.e. with poems of M. Białoszewski, Piotr Sommer, Adam Wiedemann or E. Bishop, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and John Cage. Partially – Bishop may be an exception, for she is rather strict – all of these authors are using language in all of its wideness, in its whole scale, from the lowest to the highest. They don’t draw distinctions of value among these idioms. I too, lean toward using the language in its whole scale. The language must be refreshed and become faster than thoughts. Text must be wiser than we are.
3:AM: How did you come to write poetry? You were awarded a prize for the best first collection when you were aged 28, is that correct? Had you written poetry for years before?
PC: Yes, I was writing before, for almost ten years. I’ve started somewhere in the second half of a high school. You cannot study poetry here (in any form of school) and I didn’t know other poets or writers back then. I’ve studied philosophy and sociology of culture because I was afraid that if I would go and study comparative literature that it would had a bad influence on my own experience of literature. So I was self-educating and exploring the fields of poetry by myself. I had to feel to my very bones how hard the tradition can be when observed face to face. If you are looking back, it is obstinate, because it is something that it’s already concluded, defined, cultivated and clear. But I didn’t feel at all that I lived in such a settled, clear illustrative world. So it took me a very long time before I finally showed or even published something. My early experiments were various seeking, exercises in styles, which mostly ended in my stove, or in a trash can.
3:AM: What role does Ljubljana play in your work? As the landscape of where you live, is it definitive?
PC: I would say that Ljubljana doesn’t play a special part in my work. It is just the closest thing I know, only natural, because I’ve been living here all my life. That’s why I sometimes use it as a space for naming something that is relatively familiar. Ljubljana is a small city, not even the real city in which one could get lost. Yet I’ve discovered, when traveling through some bigger cities, that the size doesn’t matter at all, and that you can always create your private circle where you will move more or less feel like home. So the thing about Ljubljana is perhaps the feeling of a real home. I’ve cycled and walked through it endlessly as a kid, and that you cannot erase or deny. With its fog and sunny days, with its views, that takes you to the mountains side… and I think that this feeling takes an important role in the landscapes of my poems, which often happen somewhere in between the city and non-city, in between an undetermined space of mixed reminiscences and provinces… which is not so far to go to. Staying in foreign countries I very much enjoyed living in the bigger cities, but, when coming back, I’ve always found new reasons to praise the smallness of Ljubljana.
3:AM: Slovenia is statistically one of the most literate nations in Europe, is this reflected in the popularity of poetry? Does poetry have a wide readership?
PC: The problem with poetry, or literature in general in Slovenia is, that there are so many publications that nobody manages to read them at all. The reader population is simply too small. That goes for the critical population as well. So I wouldn’t say that the poetry is well read here, but it certainly has a faithful audience. Poetry books mostly come out in 300 printed copies and it’s difficult to sell or distribute all of them. Bigger editions are an exception. Editions which are well sold are the sonnets for example, maybe because sonnet is the main Slovenian national poetry form. The problem with Slovenia and its literature is partially hidden in its formation as a country which was ideologically grounded on literature and writers. But that hasn’t had good effect on younger authors and literature which doesn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of ideology, except financial support for their writing. I don’t know if the problem is to found in writers who aren’t interesting or in audience who is ignorant, but I think that the latest output exceeds the receptive capability of readers. I deal with poetry “professionally” as an editor, but I can hardly follow all of what is published. If you have more people who write than those who read it might be positive, but that certainly isn’t always a recipe for good literature.
3:AM: What is the influence of Tomaž Šalamun on contemporary Slovenian poets, younger poets? He is one of the only, if not the only, Slovenian poet to have a world wide reputation and if of course considered to be a modern great. Is he deeply influential / involved in breeding new poets in Slovenia?
PC: The reception of Šalamun is long lasting and contradictive. He won recognition soon after his first book Poker. He was sort of enfant terrible of Slovenian poetry. He had many followers already back in 70s and 80s. But in such tiny territory that Slovenian literature is, there isn’t a place for another Šalamun. All of those who imitated him too much were drowned in his shadow. In 90s there wasn’t as many followers, or so it seemed, but they again appeared in the past five years. Younger poets are enraptured with him of course, almost like he is with them. Šalamun is not just the most important living poet abroad, but also the most important reader of our contemporary poetry, and motivator of young authors. His influence sometimes goes beyond the literature itself and has rather practical consequences. Because we are generally known as the introverted ones, Šalamun, on the contrary, is quite an exception. He has something of an American nature. His advice is worth listening to.
3:AM: Could you detail your involvement with the press Šerpa?
PC: Šerpa was at first planned as a collection of low cost books, mostly poetry books to which other publication houses didn’t show any interest. So in the start there was an idea of a pocket book that is cheap. Now we print five or six books of different formats, not only poetry, but also prose, plays, etc. As an editor I try to find works & authors that were somehow overlooked here but I think should be translated. So I’ve published quite a lot of translations, i.e. American poets (John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, James Tate, Joshua Beckman, Mathew Zapruder), a Polish anthology of contemporary poetry and a premiere edition of a quite unknown classic by Miron Bialoszewski. Among more important translations I see two Pessoa’s books, Banker-Anarchist, and The Education of the Stoic. Šerpa also published translations from Russian, German, French, Serbian and Croatian language, i.e. not well known Croatian poet Nikola Šop (who was translated by Auden in the 70s). And, of course, some Slovenian poets, myself included. Lately Šerpa has published two important English books on avant-garde music of 20th century, New Perspectives in Music and Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music (by Roger Sutherland and Derek Bailey).
3:AM: You have been involved in translation and are certainly multilingual, what is your feeling on the Slovenian language as it is for poetry? Does it lend itself to the medium? Do you think it will thrive and be maintained over the growing use of English in the next century? Will poetry maintain it?
PC: As I mentioned before, here poetry is pre-destined to be the center of a national identity where language takes the main role. That is the heritage of romanticism. I personally have nothing against that myth, but I don’t see it as being so important. To me writing in my mother tongue is just the only possibility, because I’m not that good in any other language to take it as my own. I have nothing against Slovenian language (perhaps only the lack of sense for irony sometimes). It offers me independence and possibility for experimenting. And those experiments aren’t as dangerous as many older colleagues or some university professors used to claim, and definitely not irresponsible or arbitrary. I think that Slovenian language should just discover new positions and paths in old and new poetry, so it can spread its horizon widely, and (if so) automatically confront its destruction. There will always be some exceptional individuals needed, capable of taking language to its end in exciting adventures. The English language became a fact that we cannot live without. But for the poet, I think, it is particularly useful to translate and listen to different languages, so he can see above his fence and spread his own tradition. But smaller languages have the act of saving their language and identity probably inborn, in their blood, otherwise they would’ve disintegrated a long time ago. Maybe this is absurd to say, but I’m an optimist when thinking of that future without me.
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, October 17th, 2010.