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Maintenant #64: Željko Mitić

An interview with Željko Mitić by SJ Fowler.

Whether birthed in collaboration or contradiction with its culture, a nation like Serbia is bound to produce iconoclastic and intractable poets. In Željko Mitić, the new Serbia has found a poet that speaks with a vitality and energy few can match, and in whom a generation has found representation. One of the very most exciting and imperative writers emerging in Europe, Mitić is a critic, a poet, a persona and his work is intense, humourous, satirical and pointed. With Zvonko Karanovic and Ana Božičević, he is amongst the many fantastic poets emerging from the Balkans in the new millenium, who are piece by piece overturning the proprietorial dominance of formal poetry and forcing themselves into recognition. A poet truly representative of the spirit of the Maintenant series, we welcome Željko Mitić as our 64th edition.

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3:AM: Read in translation, your poetry appears, at first glance, to have a lot in common with a contemporary American poetry, perhaps Beat, New York school and post-Beat poetry, do you think this is true?

Željko Mitić: I would be very glad if that was the case, and I take those comparisons as a big compliment. Actually, that may be a logical consequence of my fascination with American culture. I first got interested in poetry at the beginning of the 1990’s when I got introduced to the Beats. For me it was a discovery of a brand new world, something completely different from anything I had had a chance to read up to that point. If one can trace certain parallels between my writing and contemporary American poetry, I suppose it is because that poetry has engaged my attention for the longest period of time and I’ve always kept coming back to it, because American poetry is a continent one can explore all one’s life. That was also the main drive behind the idea of publishing a multivolume anthology of American poetry authored by poets of a younger generation, whose first volume, as a result of co-editorial work with poet Ana Božičević and me, will come out this year in Serbia under the title The Day Lady Gaga Died – an anthology of NYC poetry of XXI century.

3:AM: Your work utilises a colloquial cadence, it seems to pick up the rhythms of speech, is this deliberate?

ŽM: When I first sat down at a typewriter, I wasn’t planning my poetry to turn out like this. So, it is rather a product of circumstance, a sum of sensibilities and influences. When I think about it, I see that music and film have had a much bigger influence on me than literature per se. For two years I was quite arduously preparing for the entrance exam at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of books on film theory. Film has shaped my way of thinking from a very early age by teaching me to think in film frames, to follow the narrative, pay attention to the structure. This has left a deep mark on my comprehension of poetry. Like in a film, the crucial thing in poetry, for me, is the story a poet tells using his own poetics and employing emotions and his own sensibility. Kieslowski has said that a good director is the one who can tell a story. That’s pretty much what my poetry is based on – I try hard to make every poem a concisely told story or a confessional mini-essay in verse.

And later, after I had given up on directing films with the excuse that the dated communist educational system was not capable of creating good directors, I expanded that idea further: no school can make one a director, just the way no school can make one a writer. You’ve got to find it in yourself, or, like John Milius said: you’re either born a writer, or you’re not. Everything else are skills you acquire to use language.

3:AM: It also seems to maintain a informal tone, though you do use poetic imagery often are you trying to escape the appearance of profundity that many poets seem to feel is necessary within their writing?

ŽM: The biggest credits for this go to Sandburg, punk and the surroundings in which I grew up. When I talk about my literary influences, I always point out Carl Sandburg as my biggest and strongest influence of all. I remember that, when I was seventeen, I used to hand-write his selected poems into a blue notebook I still have today, until I copied all of the poems. I could have simply gone to a copy shop, had the book photocopied, and then returned it to the library. For some strange reason, I used to copy those verses all night.

A number of Sandburg’s quotes have provided very useful pieces of advice concerning writing. First of all, he values writing about everyday things. By quoting John M. Synge, he explained to me that when people lose their poetical sense for everyday life and they can’t write about common things, their grandiose poetry will lessen in power and genuine elation. He also said that the difference between him on one side, and Dante and Milton on the other, was that they had written about Hell without living in it, while he wrote about Chicago after years and years of observing it. I truly believe that it is essential for a poet to speak sincerely and know the thing he’s writing about through and through.

Punk has influenced me in forming an attitude. It has deprived me of limitations, encouraged me to think more freely. The punk movement was based on the idea that you didn’t have to know how to play an instrument as long as you had something to say, because the message is the most important. That’s a very democratic idea, and very encouraging, especially if you are just starting.

As for the surroundings in which I grew up, the guys I used to hang out with thought poetry was for weaklings, for women and queers. They only knew Bukowski, since the topics of drunkenness, fights, hookers, and sex were very familiar to all of them – and were deemed appropriately masculine. I was trying to preserve my ’social stature’ among them, so I avoided talking about my writing. And when they would ask me about it, I would say “It’s something along the lines of Bukowski.” Under such pressure I was very cautious about what I would eventually put on the paper. The sum of all those influences and circumstances has defined my poetical expression.

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?

ŽM: I was fortunate, or unfortunate, not to study literature, so I didn’t have to read too much Serbian poetry. The few examples I read while I was in high school were insufficient for me to be able to claim a thorough knowledge of Serbian literature. I moved between the poles of film, music, American literature, and everyday life. Serbian poetry did not interest me in my formative years, but I eventually made up for that by discovering some outstanding poets and a lot of good poetry. Among XX century poets I would single out surrealists Marko Ristić and Rastko Petrović, symbolist Branko Miljković, modernists Vasko Popa, Midorag Pavlović and Aleksandar Ristović, then Raša Livada who wrote excellent critical, urban poetry, also masters of textual experiment like Vujica Rešin Tucić, Judita Šalgo, and Vojislav Despotov, as well as Vladimir Kopicl, Novica Tadić, and Duško Novaković after them.

3:AM: You wrote a fascinating piece recently called a Postcard from Belgrade, about the state of contemporary Serbia… (reprinted below with generous permission from Brendan Lorber and lungfull.org)

“A Postcard from Belgrade (for Edmund Beriggan)
Dear Eddie,
Your guys bombed the hell out of us in 1999. But we survived that. Now, our commerce and agriculture are being destroyed by the concept of neoliberal economy, so we most often eat Chinese vegetables even though we have been known as the land of farmers for centuries. Enormous shopping malls are sprouting everywhere and soon no one will be able to buy anything there apart from several big capitalists who hold all the power in their hands together with political parties. This land is turning increasingly into a land of hopelessness, which is great if you’re a writer. You always have something to write about.
There are almost no culture programs and channels on TV anymore. Instead, reality shows and an odd win by our tennis players are what’s offered in return, and what for a moment seem to take the mind of the public off of the fact that we are living in a devastated country trying to wash its face with the water from the European democratic well.
The rollercoaster of transition and shaky knees of fragile democracy leave us but one choice: TO STRUGGLE FOR A GRAIN OF DIGNITY.
But let’s not even start talking about the literary scene, about bestsellers written by ex strippers, war criminals, Big Brother participants, and TV hosts, while the government does so little for culture. In such an environment, poetry has become a refuge for narrow circles of dedicated people regarded as transmitters of rare skin diseases by the wider public.
Yet, creativity grows from adversity.
A happening arises from the ephemeral mundane. It takes place in the badly-lit basement of the club Akademija, in the center of Belgrade. It’s called Poetic Clubbing. A group of people supports this project, a genuine movement of resistance. And all this is happening right at Akademija, a place that nurtured the new wave musical scene in ex-Yugoslavia, where everyone who has ever fought for modern urban spirit and strove for artistic and intellectual independency in Belgrade, whether in rock culture, art, film, or literature, has gathered for decades. What the Marquee or CBGC once stood for, that is what Akademija was and still is in Belgrade.
Gathered around the website Poezin.net, Milan and Sinister came to an idea to organize poetic parties once a month. Their mission is clear: Communication! Young male and female poets don’t want to write in the silence and loneliness of their workrooms anymore. They are provided with a place where they can try out their peculiar, out of sync voices. Clubbing is open to all forms of poetry, as well as experimental merging of text, music, and video works. And it’s not just slam. It is a dialogue embodied in the free and unhindered performance of poetry.
The atmosphere is a blend of rock‘n’roll concert and boxing match. Not surprising, since ‘fist fighter’ is one of the meanings of the word ‘poet’ in Serbian. And the participants and the audience are allowed to do whatever they please – from smoking and drinking beer to loud cheering. Participants with published books can leave them at the bar to be sold at a symbolic price. Usually, a band or two is there also, and one can always perform something with them.
The terms are clear – anyone who wants to perform their poetry in front of the audience can sign up and do their best for the fans of unconventional forms. While “regular” poetry readings are attended by no more than a dozen people (even if a big name in Serbian poetry is in question), Poetic Clubbing is visited by 100 to 250 people each night.
So, if the road brings you here, you’ll know what to do.
Look for Akademija and descend into the poetic underground. Don’t be afraid. There’s usually no fist fighting.”

…and so you are widely known for your criticism and knowledge of contemporary Serbia and contemporary poet. You are seen by many as one of the most necessary of the current generation of Serbian poets, in that your style and your philosophy is singular, independent and perhaps rooted in the future, rather than the past. Do you think this is true?

ŽM: In Serbia the premium has always been placed on the past than the future. It is a conservative, patriarchal, homophobic environment. Reformers in every area, including literature, have never been met with enthusiasm. That is why a lot of poets and prose writers have been marginalized over the years. The aforementioned surrealists were spat at and slapped on the streets of Belgrade between two world wars, and the most significant Serbian prose writers, as a rule, ended up either in prison or emigration. That is, in a way, part of our tradition. If you stand head above the rest, if you are ahead of your time, if you pose a threat to the status quo – prepare to be overlooked, put aside. But, that doesn’t demoralize me. I mind my own business, I write when I have something to say. I feel a part of the literary scene, and at the same time I don’t. To be honest, things have started to change a bit. A new generation of Serbian poets is trying to bring necessary changes into the established canon of Serbian poetry which was dominant in 1990’s. The process is very slow because of the obstacles we’re facing.

3:AM: How do you feel about contemporary poetry in Serbia? Is there a feeling of optimism towards some of the work being produced?

ŽM: Contemporary Serbian poetry has something new to offer, first of all a new energy. The scene is alive, a lot of new voices have emerged. Two new anthologies came out, one in Croatia titled Iz muzeja šumova, antologija novije srpske poezije 1988-2008 (VBZ, Zagreb, 2010) compilied and edited by Nenad Milošević, and another one, bilingual, in Austria Eintrittskarte, ein Panorama der zeitgenössischen serbischen Lyrik (Drava Verlag, 2011) compiled and edited by Dragoslav Dedović. The latter was presented at the recent book fair in Leipzig. Both anthologies offer an insight into the contemporary poetry of a different Serbia, one which did not support the regime and Yugoslavian wars of 1990’s. But, the anthology by Nenad Milošević has been overlooked in academic and critical circles. Dedović’s anthology will probably meet the same destiny. For those who can read between the lines, it is enough to say that neither of them have been published in Serbia.

3:AM: What was the reception to Neon Insomnia when it was published?

ŽM: Taking into account that the poetic scene here is mostly conservative and divided among clans – I am satisfied. There were a few reviews in literary magazines, a couple of interviews, appearances, and almost every critic of the younger generation mentioned the book at the end of the year in their retrospective reports on that year’s literary production. What was most important to me was that the book was read, especially by peers who were as old as I had been at the time that Zvonko Karanović’s seminal book of poetry Silver Surfer came out. In a way, I recognized myself in them. It seems natural to me, since Neon Insomnia is in great part a book about maturing, struggling with one’s environment, and not being accepted – about the struggle of the young lyrical subject within the confines of their reality. Somebody dubbed it a Catcher in the Rye of Serbian poetry, and that is a very big compliment for me.

3:AM: Could you talk about your engagement with martial arts? How long have you trained? Has it interacted with your poetry?

ŽM: I grew up in the vicinity of the Old Graveyard in Niš, in a problematic, hard neighborhood with a long tradition of street criminal and youth delinquency. My first neighbors and some of my pals were thieves, junkies, drug dealers, football hooligans… I spent my childhood and adolescence with them, often on the verge of crossing the line and becoming one of them myself. Knowledge of martial arts, which we practiced back then, was employed for street fighting, in order to survive or hurt somebody. Today I see those things differently. I have two sons, a beautiful family, I am turned toward the future. I recommenced practicing karate after twenty-two years, but this time for the reason of maintaining good health through physical activity. The whole tradition and philosophy of karate represents a process of constant learning and improvement, so the very physical training is not primarily based around fighting an opponent, but on overcoming one’s own abilities and limitations imposed by mortality. From the standpoint of themes and motivation, my poetry does not have a direct link with karate, but the idea of constant improvement, respect for others, struggle with oneself with the purpose of spiritual awakening has a lot to do with writing…

3:AM: Your relationship with Zvonko Karanovic seems a significant bridge between generations of cutting edge poets in Serbia. Could you describe his influence on you, how your relationship came about and how it evolved?

ŽM: My first meeting with Zvonko Karanović is probably one of the most important moments in my life. It happened in 1991, when I was fifteen. I discovered the music store Happy House owned by Karanović, and instead of going to school I began skipping classes and going there. That shop was, for the majority of young people in Niš, the most important cultural institution. It promoted alternative rock music, distributed literary magazines, beat and underground literature. It was there that I discovered The Ramones, The Stooges, The Smiths, and many other exciting bands.

That same year the book Silver Surfer by Zvonko Karanović came out, and soon achieved cult status. Kids were learning its verses by heart and used them in their everyday conversations, they stole copies of the book from bookshops, gave them away as birthday presents… Up until then nobody had tried to introduce into Serbian poetry themes and cultural markers such as The Ramones, Marlboro, Marvel, NBA, Coca Cola, John Milius, street life, cars, drugs… I realized that poetry could be exciting, that it could speak to me, and not to muses or heavens, that it could speak about my life too, and not only about ancient myths.

At that time I was not interested in Serbian poetry at all, because I found it boring. In a certain way, Karanović released it. That was my first impetus toward verse. I started looking for other authors whose work would be suitable for my sensibility, and I started writing down a line or two. Zvonko encouraged me to write from the very start, supported me in my attempts to create an original poetic expression… With time, our friendship evolved out of that.

3:AM: What are your thoughts of Niš, your home city. Is it a culture at some remove from Belgrade and the rest of Serbia?

ŽM: In antiquity Niš was a metropolis (Naissus), the city in which Roman emperor Constantine the Great was born. It is the capital of Southern Serbia, a regional center, a university center with 40,000 students. Niš is also familiar for its hospitality and open-mindedness, as well as for its long tradition of urban and alternative culture. But, like so many other cities in Serbia, it was ravaged in 1990’s. The best of its people have moved either to Belgrade or abroad, and 30,000 refugees from Kosovo settled in. The economy has faltered, unemployment increased. The cultural climate has changed overnight. Despite having a rich cultural and historical heritage and a significant tourist potential, Niš has turned provincial. Lack of organization and motivation have prevailed. The cultural life has come down to individual attempts. Self-deceptively and with accusations, Niš often compares itself with Belgrade, the only vital place in Serbia. Maybe precisely out of spite to prove that things can be set right, Zvonko and I have founded a literary association and non-profit publishing house in Niš called ‘The Fifth Wave’, whose purpose is publishing and promotion of the best world and regional poetry. In the light of the present situation in the city and the whole country, this project may seem a bit utopian, but I believe that at times a town’s, or a country’s, true enthusiasm may be alive only in poets, the last of the dreamers – and it is up to us to keep that vitality alive. And Only dreamers can move mountains, says the motto of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

 

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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, June 5th, 2011.