Maintenant #54: Tomica Bajsić
An interview with Tomica Bajsić by SJ Fowler.
It would be a reduction to call Tomica Bajsić a war poet. It is true that his poetry is a voice of record, and undoubtedly, his former profession as a special forces soldier during the most tumultuous days of his nations recent history have shaped him and his work in general. However, Tomica inhabits a wider archetype, of which his war experiences are just one element of a much grander ideal. He is a poet of exploration, of challenge. He is a poet who makes his primary medium a full and unrelenting exaltation of experience, and his poetry follows from this worldview. In a generous interview, Tomica Bajsić, for the 54th edition of Maintenant, discusses his unique life and poetry.
3:AM: Travel and adventure seems to be a primary part of your worldview, you have published a lot of travel writing and seem to follow in the footsteps of poets like Blaise Cendrars. Do you believe in this romantic vision of the poet, creating a myth around the poetry itself?
Tomica Bajsić: Not only travelling, but walking is also very important to me. A person who walks is a free person. I discovered Cendrars poetry a bit late, in my late twenties. I was walking through one of the oldest quarters of Rio de Janeiro, dating from the colonial times, Lapa and Santa Teresa, and in one of the antiquarian bookshops, small and narrow with an absurdly high ceiling, I found his book of poetry entitled Panama, and the Adventures of my Seven Uncles. That was a revelation to me. Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) lost his right arm in the WWI, but soon he learned to write with the other arm. He retained a very optimistic view on life, his writing is joyful and also socially sensitive and profound. He was a mixture of an adventurer and a bookworm, always astonished with even the simplest things in life. It is the truth that Blaise Cendrars was one of the first to introduce modernity into twentieth century poetry. I think he was not creating the myth, he just had a nose to drive the story to the most unexpected destinations, preserving the beauty of the scenery with cinematic insight. Poetry needs sometimes to be rescued from the invisible obscurity. Henry Miller said that “reading Blaise Cendrars is like stepping into another universe.“ I saw that, like Cendrars, I have travelled to Brazil six times, and I share the similar admiration for that magnificent, but somehow tormented country. The important thing that I learned from Cendrars is that “language is not something dead, frozen, but something in motion, fugitive, attaching itself always to life and reality.”
3:AM: Your poetry seems to maintain a wanderlust, a freshness of expression and description which follows embattled and bombastic poets like Cendrars, Apollinaire, Char…
TB: I believe that if we accept life as an adventure, as they did, good poetry and art in general is a voyage to the unknown. Cendrars, Apollinaire, Char, Camus, Sonia Delaunay and Modigliani (who made an excellent portrait of Cendrars), they are poets, writers and artists whose trails are not so difficult to follow, because they left the road open to others, just like Orwell, Dos Passos, Miller did, to name a few. I wouldn’t call Cendrars, Apollinaire and Char bombastic, not at all. Three great poets that were searchers, inventors, they have created unique languages, embracing all the good from the heritage of literature, promptly forgetting the bad. They dived deep into the troublesome waters of their time, believing that art grasps reality more clearly, since imagination approaches the scene in more dimensions.
And they were doing it without second thoughts, unlike pretentious thinkers and writers amongst their contemporaries – Sartre, for example, and his clique, that were fond of damaging the human consciousness to at least the point of blank boredom, being blind to the colours of life.
3:AM: You engage in many artistic mediums, poetry, painting, drawing, filmmaking – you studied Fine Art I believe. Do you see poetry as a separate element of your work or are they all emerging from the same desire to write and create?
TB: Poetry is not a separate element, it is more an axis of my life and work.
3:AM: How do the visual arts interweave with your poetry? Do you think they are space?
TB: Drawing, photography, video… they are all important parts of creative expression as I see it. I cannot just cut out points of interest, especially when they have a lot in common.
3:AM: Who has influenced your poetry most? Are you greatly influenced by the Croatian tradition, like Dubravko Horvatic, Miroslav Krleza, Danijel Dragojevic?
TB: Recently I read excellent poetry books by Delimir Rešicki, Gordana Benić and Damir Šodan, my contemporaries. From the older ones, Šoljan, Golob, Dorotić, Devide, Gotovac and Nikola Šop, who was wonderfully translated into English by W.H. Auden. There is a very strong and diverse poetic scene in Croatia. Also, many good poets from various countries influenced my writing. Although I write something different, reading many books by all kinds of writers helped me to climb the ladders and to have a clear overview what it is all about. When I was wounded for the second time in the war – it was in the summer of 1993 – lying in bed after operation and reading poetry books, I stumbled upon T. S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. I wrote four lines of that exquisite poetry on my room door and drew the figure of Merlin the Wizard beside it, thinking that author was surely a wizard. If I only could write something nearly as good as this – to breathe so much life in a space so little – I will be a happy man.
I felt that the art of poetry is the media for me now because in drawing or painting I could not efficiently express what I lived through and experienced during the war years. That’s how my first book of poetry The Southern Cross, came about, which was praised as the first anti-war book in Croatia through the eyes of the witness. In the time of war, I was reading a lot of English WWI poets, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves etc. Also the French (Char, Cendrars, Apollinaire), the Spanish (Alberti, Hernandez, Machado) and many Latin American poets. Also the Polish, their poetry is very profound, intertwined with their culture, and I regard it as a foundation of contemporary European poetry: Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Swirzyinska, Zagayevski and many others. Here in Croatia we are sensitive to US poets too, we have some great translators of the Beatniks, Vojo Šindolić (who was a part of Beat circle) and Damir Šodan for example. Some Croatian contemporary poets drew roots from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, La Loca… Leonard Cohen is a cult author in Croatia, as a singer/songwriter, and as a poet.
We try to keep up to date with the world poetry in a paper magazine entitled POEZIJA / POETRY that we publish in Croata, in which poets Ervin Jahić and Ivan Herceg are executive editors. Damir Šodan and I are editors for translated poetry.
One issue of POEZIJA was made in English, as anthology of contemporary Croatian poetry. We presented it at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam two years ago.
In Croatia we publish many anthologies of poetry, because commercial reasoning in this grotesque form of capitalism that we pass through now, has almost banished poetry books from libraries and bookstores, and media. To popularize poetry we should have something like Poems on the Underground, but Zagreb has no Tube like London does. I think that in all the world only one percent (more or less) of the population reads poetry. In Croatia we even have high school and university professors that openly state they don’t teach poetry because they don’t understand it. As a small culture and language (four and a half million people) we rely a lot on translations that we make: Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, G. M. Hopkins, Rilke, Enzensberger, Levi, Transtromer, Arabic and Chinese poets, great ancient ones like Li Po and Du Fu, and contemporary, like Liu Xiaobo, Nobel prize winner who is recently in jail in China, because of his efforts for democracy. Also Alberti, I think Rafael Alberti’s book Sobre los angeles, that he wrote in 14 days of fever, is one of the best poetry books ever written.
3:AM: You shot the documentary, the school at the end of the world, in the Amazon, for Croatian television. Could you tell us how that project was conceived?
TB: I made this footage in August 2010 but I still need to edit it. It will be a poetic documentary, and I will send it to some short films festivals. I plan a drawing book too, in the future, on that subject. I have to finish one novel, Okavango, first, I am late with the publisher. I am working also on a book Homage to Blaise Cendrars that will contain all of his poetry and texts of various artists, poets and translators on Blaise Cendrars. One very fine contemporary Greek poet and translator of Blaise Cendrars, Yannis Livadas, is helping me on that, among others. So, as you see, Blaise Cendars is nowadays not very well known in the world, but he is still here, and his footsteps can be found resounding in every place in the world, just like he would have liked it.
3:AM: Could you outline the Carvings anthology? It was about war and slavery and repression I believe and you translated most of the material yourself from various languages, is this correct? How did you make the selections for the anthology?
TB: That’s correct. Regarding the other question, to make selections from poetry written in ancient China all the way to contemporary India – the youngest author is Meena Kandasamy, born in 1984, who writes about the caste system in India (she is a Tamil) – you have to read a lot, from various sources. African poetry for example is still very unknown here, and so are many world poets that are not canonized in official anthologies. So, this is my personal selection, from what I had available. There are many other poets who could be inside as well but I had to close the book with approximately one hundred poets and three hundred poems. I think war, slavery and repression are closely united. It was Wilfred Owen who said, “all a poet can do, is to warn.” I believe those words are inscribed in the score of Britten’s War Requiem. I don’t think poetry anthologies can terminate the cruel deviations and devastations of humanity, put a requiem on war and slavery but I tried to present how things happen pretty much the same, no matter what geographical location or historic timeline. So the poems in the book are essentially anti-war, anti-repression, and anti-slavery (slavery exists nowadays as never before, it is just disguised in many clever forms, all using the other for selfish purposes.) Carvings is published as a project of the Croatian PEN Centre, of which I’m a member of the Board.
3:AM: You were in the special forces in Croatia, how did your military service affect you artistic output and your world view in general?
TB: In 1991, at the beginning of the war, I was a third year student at the Fine Arts Academy in Zagreb. The Serbian president Milosevic’s doctrine that all Serbs have to live in one state, and that wherever there is one Serbian grave that is Serbia, ignited the war in former Yugoslavia. Although he rose within the Communist Party, Milosevic was gathering mass support as a nationalist, and we all know what happens when radical nationalists and proclaimed socialists fuse in one party. The same kind of National-Socialism was brewed as that notorious one in Munchen Bürgerbräu Keller Beer Hall 88 years ago. To achieve a Greater Serbia, Milosevic used the loyal generals of Yugoslav People’s Army and their war machine to start aggression at first against Slovenia, after Slovenia announced that they will proclaim independence, then against Croatia and Bosnia. Under these circumstances I enlisted to the newly founded Croatian Army. Although in the first year it was no real army, it was groups of volunteers protecting their homes and families. In those days European community turned their back on us, there was no help, we were on our own. Although they knew very well this is an aggression and not civil war, some of the EU and US officials even said: ‘let those barbarians (Serbs, Croats, Muslims) exterminate themselves, there is no interest for us to interfere.’ As Czeslaw Milosz wrote (having in mind some western politicians who, when they were young, in 1968 were rebelling for a just world, but now they turn their backs to suffering in their near vicinity) in his memorable poem ‘Sarajevo’,
“… Perhaps this is not a poem but at least I say what I feel. / Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool. / While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn. / While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name. / The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself. / Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other. / And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving…”
Since in former Yugoslavia military service was obligatory after High School, and being a sport parachutist in youth, in 1987 I was sent for one year to the Parachute Brigade, and trained in that elite unit of the Army. It was a year before the Berlin Wall fell, and two years before Yugoslavia started to disintegrate. I never thought that there would be a war, and that I will ever in life have to use any of the military skills taught in the Army. The autumn before the war I was with friends, also students, drawing watercolours in London and Rochester, and spent winter in Amsterdam where I drew people’s portraits in the square, to fund my stay.
So in 1991 when the war began, I ended up in the Croatian Special Forces until the end of the war in 1995. By then, I had two children to raise, the third one was born in 1998, so I stayed in the Croatian Army as an instructor, until I was pensioned in 2000 on account of my war wounds. I translate and run a small publishing entitled Druga priča / Another Story.
There were writers who went to war so they could write about it, like Hemingway, as a best known example, who uses experience of the war as a subject for creating a literary career and creates vague images of himself that fit the frame of Life or Playboy magazine, but there are also poets and writers who fought for freedom, defending their countries, and the horror of war made them waterproof for trivial explanations. The youth of their generation was stolen and their lives offered in the butchering roulette where there is no winner, ever. That’s the way Sasson and Owen were writing, or Primo Levi, Miguel Hernandez and Blaise Cendrars, of course. To illustrate it better, Hemingway was fond of drinking champagne with the generals in the Paris Ritz after the liberation of France and did such things in all sorts of occasions. On the other hand, Sassoon was opposing the military authority to the extent that he was prosecuted by a military court. He would have ended up in jail if it wasn’t for Robert Graves who pulled some strings. So the authorities just proclaimed Sassoon crazy and he went back to front, to join his comrades in the trenches. His views on warlords are precise and truthful, as we see in his poem ‘The General':
“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”
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, March 20th, 2011.