Maintenant #78 – Damir Šodan
An interview with Damir Šodan by SJ Fowler.
Though his work is utterly modern and could only be of the now, Damir Šodan, as a man, recalls a different age. Cosmopolitan, engaged, political, satirically adept and poetically versatile, he is a poet who defines and embodies one of Europe’s great, surging contemporary traditions, that is Croatia since the turn of the millennium. One of the most active and veracious translators and editors on the continent, he has won international awards for his plays and finds employment at the Hague, as a translator for the United Nations War Tribunal. This is beside his reputation as a poet, which is considerable and deservingly ever growing. His work is striking for its elasticity, its precision and its ability to retain power amidst a wit rarely found in modern letters. In a typically generous and eloquent interview, discussing everything from war crimes tribunals to the Croatian poetic tradition, we present a locus of modern European poetry, Damir Šodan.
3:AM: How long have you worked at the Hague, in the Netherlands, and how did you come to be a translator for United Nations War Crimes Tribunal?
Damir Šodan: I have worked for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague since 1996. Prior to that I already had a job with the UN protection mission UNPROFOR in Croatia. I heard from inside sources that the UN’s Commission of Experts had already started investigating war crimes in the region and that this would eventually lead to the creation of an independent tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed in the region. As soon as recruitment began I sent in my application for a translation job and luckily got it. Perhaps the fact that I have BA in history also helped me in this regard because the investigators not only needed people who knew the language, but also those with in-depth knowledge of the historical background to the conflict. On the other hand, as a writer one inclines to be drawn by the extremes in human behaviour and a war crimes tribunal provides you with plenty of opportunity to really delve deep into the subject matter. Jokingly, if that is not too inappropriate, one might add like William Blake that every poet, wittingly or unwittingly, resides in the vicinity of the Devil. Humor aside, once you become acquainted at close range with atrocities of such magnitude, you begin to realize that there is a part of our reality, if not our very nature, that indeed poses – as Octavio Paz would have it – “a threat to the fragile edifice that goes by the name of Good and Evil”! On a more mundane level, the job presented me with an opportunity to see the world outside my own backyard, so I took it wholeheartedly and I did visit some amazing places and met some incredible people over the years.
3:AM: Could you outline your work with Quorum and Poezija? It seems they are publications really dedicated to expanding the reception of Croatian literature and widening the knowledge of world poetry in Croatia.
DS: Quorum and Poezija are perhaps the two most forward-thinking and up-to-date literary magazines not only in Croatia but in the entire region. Quorum already enjoyed a cult status back in the 80ies in Yugoslavia, when some now quite accomplished names regularly used to publish there. What we’re doing now is merely an extension of the original concept of our editor-in-chief Miroslav Mićanović, which can be basically summed up by two principal notions: diversity and contemporaneousness. With this in mind, one can conclude that Quorum has been and continues to be a breeding ground for new talents, both creative and critical. The indelible mark that Quorum has left on artistic tastes of several generations cannot be underestimated and is perhaps best reflected in the attitude of some important contemporary writers from the region, such as the excellent Serbian poet and novelist Zvonko Karanović, who often stresses his allegiance to the Quorum generation from “the golden 80ies”.
Poezija [Poetry] on the other hand, founded in 2005 by the Croatian Writers’ Association (HDP), is the only literary journal in the entire region of the former Yugoslavia dedicated exclusively to poetry and all things poetic. Its impact on our literary environment has been so significant that we who are on the editorial board (editor-in-chief Ervin Jahić, Ivan Herceg, Tomica Bajsić and me) are still trying to fully comprehend and digest the effects of this prolonged positive feedback. Nowadays, poets from Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia regularly publish there, alongside with many well-established international names, so we are exceptionally glad that in the last six or so years we managed to prove to all those skeptics that poetry as an art form is by no means dead. On the contrary, it is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
3:AM: You seem to have your finger on the pulse of much of European poetry, and seem as though you have ties with some of the best poets from across the continent. Have you traveled extensively, or did this happen at poetry festivals?
DS: Well, I do happen to know a bunch of literary people in various places, but that is mainly due to my tasks as a literary translator and editor. When you are active in those capacities you have a natural need to connect with authors, sometimes even for the simple reason of having to verify things. So over the years I did have the pleasure of corresponding with a number of great poets whom I greatly admire and some of whom I translated into Croatian, such as Charles Simic, Donald Revell, Dan Fante, Dinos Siotis, Eugenijus Ališanka, Yannis Livadas, Mindy Zhang, Zvonko Karanović, Jurij Hudolin, Aleš Debeljak, Nikola Madžirov, Željko Mitić and last but not least Leonard Cohen, who readily helped me fix some rough spots in my translation of his great Book of Longing. I also consider myself privileged to have met in person some truly grand poets like Homero Aridijis, Tomaž Šalamun, Ledo Ivo, Adam Zagajewski…
Never mind the negative stereotypes, poets are in my experience very approachable and communicative beings and I hope a lot of them will stay that way. As for the festivals, I do go when I’m invited, but one must be careful not to overdo it and turn into a “festival rat”, i.e. someone who continuously repeats his “greatest hits”, because recycling ones poetic self is not the most desirable thing for a writer. Recently Bob Dylan rightfully pointed out in an interview that as an artist “you always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming… and as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll sort of be all right”.
3:AM: Your poetry seems quite imagistic, it maintains an informal tone but with a real sense of focus, especially around the imagery. Do you work from images or in one flow of ideas when it comes to poetry?
DS: Thanks for throwing in the epithet “imagistic” since a number of imagist poets, from Ezra Pound to W. C. Williams, I liked a lot as a kid and I still do. When it comes to the very act of writing poetry, in my experience there is always a certain calculation at play when trying to combine your rhetoric with imagery. Generally, poets tend to lean more towards either one or the other. The great linguist Roman Jakobson talked for instance about the metonymic and metaphoric aspects or poles in language, whereby the first was reserved for prose and the second for poetry. In my opinion, there should be a fluent exchange between these two poles if you want to make it really work, otherwise you will end up writing either prose or “language” poetry, the latter being a little more than a play of signifiers and thereby to my liking less significant. Personally, I would want to remain on that “Aristotelian” middle ground between the two “extremes”, but that is not always achievable. In my experience, it is more often than not a case of hit and miss. That’s probably why I find rewriting and revising a healthy and refreshing enterprise.
3:AM: There seems to be a wit underlying even some of your most considerably profound work. Is this important to you?
DS: Perhaps wit (thank you!) is there to alleviate the seriousness of tone and to lighten up the subject matter. Sometimes it is there I guess almost like a cloud-bursting rocket that is capable of dispelling a potential air of pretense that I am quite allergic to. I am generally of the opinion that verse should be brought down to earth and preferably accorded with some of that Kunderian “(un)bearable lightness of being”, so that eventually poetry would be received with a sense of empathy and not just as a mere cerebral language game. Seriousness without humor is for other discourses, that of theology and perhaps politics, but not for artistic ones. For instance, take look at the greats – Picasso, Dalí, Joyce, as well as Muddy Waters – they all possessed great depth but also a nice sense of humor. Leonard Cohen once interestingly pointed out that his belated appreciation of Beatles’ music was due to his previous inability to comprehend “the seriousness of light hearted approach”!
In any case, in my experience poetry is not a mere play on words but a personal statement of the highest order. There might even be an element of exhibitionism somewhere in there, when things tend to lean towards more personal stuff, but that I’m afraid goes with the turf if you really want to “say something” rather than just amuse potential readers with “sonic properties” of language. I quite admire the songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (Martha’s and Rufus’ dad) who recently said that art actually means “lifting the rocks and opening up the raincoat – to show the shit!”
I also tend to believe with Freud that individuals in general, let alone poets, do have an instinctive propensity for freedom (of expression) while civilization commands conformity and instinctual repression. Personally, I feel that poetry stands for the affirmation of the individual voice in its attempt to escape the siren call of ideologies as well as to rise above the roar of Hardy’s “madding crowd”. This may sometimes lead down the path of rebellion and dissent, but that’s nothing new when it comes to literature. So if you want to be a “true poet” and really “stick it to the man”, as the beats would say, then you might as well do it with a bit of spirit and wit. After all, who wants to read “witless” verse?
3:AM: It seems to be a golden age of sorts for Croatian poetry, with so many excellent poets producing work and gaining recognition. Do you think there is a specific reason for this?
DS: I think that the “renaissance” in Croatian poetry, as well as in fiction, that we witnessed around 2000 and later has a lot to do with some “extra linguistic” factors, mainly with people’s final disillusionment with official, institutional truths. I mean, we had an ugly war whose ramifications can still be deeply felt in the society, we had a change of social system from socialism to market oriented capitalism (or “Cropitalism” as we call it back home) alongside with the creation of a national state in the late 20th century! So Croatian people and artists went through a lot and the psychological and creative reaction to this tremendous tectonic change began to show only half a decade after the fact (the Homeland War officially ended in 1995), which is normal, I guess, since you need some time to digest the impact of such a profound change or trauma, if you will. Art in times of such dramatic historical change can serve as some kind of remedy. In this context, as a creative person you can always carve out your own little niche from where you can project your little narratives hoping that they will find a place within the global market of narratives that largely replaced the big ideologies as we once knew them.
3:AM: There seems to be a real sense of community around poets of your generation, Tomica Bajsić, Dorta Jagić, Darija Žilić, Marko Pogačar, Miroslav Kirin, Maja Solar, Ervin Jahić, Ivan Herceg, is there something about poets coming to the fore over the last decade which has marked them out from those in the past?
DS: I think what makes these poets different from those of the previous generations is their undeniable interest in “reality”. Both the reality of language and the reality of self or existence if you will. It seems that poets have finally parachuted themselves out of the ivory tower only to land down among the common folk where they have to struggle and fight their way through difficulties like everyone else. Stylistically and morphologically they did, in the process, appropriate some of the techniques and themes of prose writers, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. This new kind of writing that we call stvarnosna poezija (“realist” or “urban realist” poetry) is usually garnished with a strong sense of empathy and that is essentially a new quality in Croatian verse. Recently, I have assembled this new “realist” writing (some thirty-odd poets) into an anthology entitled Drugom stranom (A Different Drum, 2010) causing a bit of a stir and arousing significant interest among the mainstream media, which is quite a precedent when it comes to the appreciation of poetry in our society. So these days the situation with poetry and poets in Croatia is arguably better than ever. Last year none other but Tomaž Šalamun told me that, in his opinion, Croatia has today one of the most interesting and potent poetic scenes worldwide and Tomaž is someone who indeed knows what he’s talking about when it comes to poetry.
But to go back to your question, I think that the tendency to inspect the outside world combined with a sense of emphatic urgency is what all of those above mentioned poets have in common, never mind the fact that you would not normally place them in the same poetic camp.
3:AM: Croatia has had an excellent modern poetic tradition, certainly post WWII. What do you think is the legacy of poets considered major in the 20th, for example the likes of Miroslav Krleža, Zvonimir Golob and Slavko Mihalić?
DS: The three poets you mentioned, however different one from another, did a tremendous job by helping build the modernist poetic edifice that contemporary poets are still leaning against. But there were many other important contributors in this regard, such as Ivan Slamnig, Danijel Dragojević, Antun Šoljan, Zvonimir Mrkonjić and – of course – last but not least the great Boris Maruna (1940-2007), an emigrant with an itinerant lifestyle, who lived both in South and North America and wrote in the somewhat confessional style in the manner of Charles Bukowski or the American beats, remaining perhaps the biggest influence on the Croatian poets of the last fin-de-siècle.
So today we can rightfully claim that we are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants. Also, one must not forget the contribution of the post avant-garde poets of the so called semantic concretism like Branko Maleš and Ivan Rogić Nehajev, who further transformed Croatian poetry by infusing it with postmodern sensibility. However, they tended to place emphasis on the materiality of language which made them very signifier-oriented authors and from this prospective probably somewhat too cerebral or artificial for the liking of contemporary generation.
So, yes, there has been a great variety in Croatian poetry over the last few decades which greatly contributed to the maturity and diversity of our literary scene as we know it today.
3:AM: Could you discuss your work with theatre, how does it interact with your writing poetry? Could you discuss the play Safe Area, which was received so well in the former Yugoslavia and in Europe as a wholewider?
DS: Well, writing for theatre is indeed much different from writing poetry, but there are still several common threads as well. Simultaneousness, density of expression and lack of description are to a good extent at play in both. For instance, on a more practical side, a poem, or a scene can be drafted or written in one sitting, whereas writing prose requires prolonged and repetitive sessions. Furthermore, there’s the meticulous care for language. If you, for example, read David Mamet’s notes on playwriting you will see how much emphasis he places on every word, down to the very last syllable. The refinement and congruity of details are also very important.
The moderate success and recognition I have enjoyed so far as a playwright were equally the result of, I would hope, solid writing and careful (in some people’s opinion “audacious”) selection of subject matter.
When I wrote Zaštićena zona [Safe Area] in 2000, a dark wartime comedy about an abandoned mental hospital deep in no man’s land, with patients stranded between the warring factions who subsequently try to force them to declare themselves with regard to nationality and religion, only to be violently disunited and eventually reintegrated with their respective ethnic camps, I did not have a clue that it would strike such a sensitive nerve and cause a bit of a commotion. Some praised its universal humanity drawing parallels with non other than Erasmo’s Praise of Folly, whereas the other more “patriotically” inclined critics labeled me as a “traitor who sold himself to the international scumbags!” Personally I took it as a good sign that I did succeed after all, since from the ancient Greek times onwards theatre has proven to be quite an efficient tool for addressing the most neuralgic issues in society.
My latest play Chiclit (2011) is a burlesque about the intrigues within a certain upper class literary saloon in Croatia’s capital, complete with corporate moguls, opinion makers, starlets, dealers, chiclit celebrities, drug fiends, sex gurus and a George Clooney “doppelgänger”. But essentially it’s a story about an impending war between the rich and the poor with an unpredictable outcome, which makes it quite contemporary, I guess.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (Anything Anymore Anywhere press 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM, and curates the Maintenant reading series alongside the interviews. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 31st, 2011.