Maintenant #88 – Sylva Fischerová
An interview with Sylva Fischerová by SJ Fowler.
As the monumental literary figures of the velvet revolution have passed their profundity and vibrancy onto a new generation of poets and writers, the Czech Republic has faced a shift in its poetic register, as the country has in its fundamental politik. So a return to the author has taken place, and straddling the two great contrasting generations and experiences of the Czech Republic as perhaps few others could, Sylva Fischerová, poet, author, teacher, has become the representative of the very best of her times – a poet whose wit, whose wisdom, whose incisiveness has brought her devotees across the world and across languages. In the 88th edition of Maintenant we welcome the lauded Sylva Fischerová.
3:AM: Often your work is marked by the presence of a third person voice, which endows your poems with observational, ironical and philosophical impart, which often drives the images of your work. Is this a method you deliberated upon or found to be natural?
Sylva Fischerova: I would not say that the third person voice is that characteristic of my poems – quite an important number of them is written in an I-form (and is often ironic as well), which means that, in the end, both focuses are complementary. If you were to ask me how, or why I decide to write a poem either this or that way, I would have to reply with: “I don’t know.” My sister Viola, who was also a poet (precisely, we were step sisters having a common father, the Czech structuralist philosopher and Roman Jakobson’s colleague and friend), used to say that you have to feel it in the belly – which she always commented with a saying that some African tribes believe that man’s soul is situated in the belly and that is the reason why it works this way. By coincidence, her poetry appeared quite recently in English translation in the United Kingdom, by Arc Publishers, in a volume including five other Czech poets. I would add, at least for my part, that writing a poem is always a kind of cooperation between the head and the belly, the conscious and the unconscious; but insisting only on the conscious and having poems or even stories à la thèse, I sincerely dislike both as an author and as a reader as well.
3:AM: Whether it is nostalgia or a wide reception for poetry, it seems many poetry traditions, be they of method or of nations, seem to be looking back to previous generations, those that came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s often, as the apotheosis of their modern incarnations. In the Czech Republic, it seems, from the outside, the presence of Miroslav Holub, Jaroslav Seifert and Vladimir Holan seem to loom large. Do you think this is true, and if so, what influence do these figures exert on you and the poets who have followed them?
SF: Yes, I think that many, if not all poetic traditions incessantly look back to previous generations – often in very specific ways and to specific periods. However, the names you quoted represent, in my opinion, really a view from the outside. Viewed from inside, the situation looks different: first, when speaking about a so-called general reader, who loves poets that are not well known abroad (like Hrabě or Skácel), and second, when speaking about poets, who have their own beloved masters. But even among them, Holub’s poetics, which is so enthusiastically received abroad, is not very popular nowadays; as for Seifert and Holan, they are of course read by Czech poets, but I would say that the most influential poets from the past are now Reynek – Blatný – Wernisch (who is still alive), and some figures from the surrealist movement, too. However, it sometimes happens that this kind of influence produces near epigones.
3:AM: ‘The Swing in the Middle of Chaos’, your selected poems in English, was published in 2010, to an extremely positive reception. Was your feeling that this volume was a kind of watershed for your work outside of the Czech republic, a culmination of many years of work and achievement?
SF: In fact, the book we published was a culmination of many years of work and achievement – Stuart Friebert’s and mine. So, I was very happy with the good reception not just for myself, but especially for him. As for the watershed – well, I would not dare state anything that decisive, because you never can tell – it is extremely difficult to see the cuts – the junctures or watersheds of your life already when it is going on and you find yourself inside it. I would use a different metaphor: when the book appeared, I got an almost physical feeling that I could breathe in better – that I could draw a deeper breath (and wider as well). A feeling that there is more space to move in and across.
3:AM: You have been engaged in prose writing for over a decade. How does your work as a prose writer, and also a writer of stories for children, interlace with your longstanding practise as a poet? Are your concerns when writing prose similar to those when writing poetry?
SF: This is an almost obligatory question, but at the same time it is obligatorily difficult to answer. In a way, my prose works really interlace with my poetry; in another way, they interlace with my specialization and my job as a classicist. I would even say that my poetry skill helps me be a slightly better stylist than some of my colleagues – but of course it is not enough. In short, you need to have a strong calling to express yourself in a different genre – and you need to have a story. As Kundera puts it: a novel gives us something which cannot be expressed otherwise. The same applies, at least in my eyes, to the prose genre as such. But I must confess that something very surprising happened to me after my journey to the USA where Stuart Friebert arranged a kind of reading tour for me. I didn’t plan to write anything before, but shortly after my return I began writing about the journey – not a report but a fiction, of course. The form appeared by itself: it is a real prosimetrum, mostly prose but also alternating with verses, and what’s more: it is macaronics, Czech and English mixed together! I must say that I was really surprised when I saw the end product. To make it short: the prose genre is, naturally, much more rational, you need to have a plan – a plot – but the ties between prose and poetry can sometimes be very interwoven and subtle.
3:AM: You have gained a fine following in the UK and the English speaking world thanks to your volumes with Bloodaxe press, which have established you as one of the premiere Czech poets of your generation outside the borders of the Czech republic. Is it important to you for your work to reach out beyond your own language and your own country?
SF: I think for poetry, and for literature generally, it is extremely important to do this. Crossing boundaries and breaking limits, this is the very essence of poetry, or of creative genius, if I may use these a-bit-oldfashioned words. What would American poetry look like without Apollinaire’s Zone? What would European prose look like without E. A. Poe? The Czechs, as a small nation, have always had excellent translators: being seated in the centre of Europe among many other states and within their spheres of influence, it is not possible without being in contact with them. But for every artist and for art as such, at least in my eyes, an influence of other cultures is not only important, but literally crucial – as well as formulating your own roots and anchoring. Both are indispensable and complementary: two sides of the same thing.
So, it is only natural to reach out to any beyond – either from the reader’s standpoint, or from the standpoint of the author. I am glad that I can speak to more readers in more countries.
3:AM: You have played a hand in co-translating your own work into English with unusually successful results. This is a rare thing for a poet to do, how did that process evolve and did you enjoy working through your own poetry into another language?
SF: This is a theme for an essay – or for a story. The idea of translating my poems into English is not mine, it belongs to Stuart Friebert, an American poet and translator, whom I was introduced to by Miroslav Holub in the beginning of the nineties. So Miroslav is, in a way, the godfather of our translating activities. When Stuart wrote me via email for the first time at the beginning of this millenium: What about translating together your poems into English?, I replied immediately: Impossible with my hobble English (Stuart translates from German and does not speak Czech at all.) But he replied, in the truly American spirit: At least, we can try. I replied in a similar way: Yes, we can, but at the same time I was almost sure that it would not work. And now – we have a book and are working on a second one… The truth is that we do not proceed in a way perhaps which is common. Stuart is very critical, so he quite often forces me to rewrite some of my poems – we almost had fist fights when I was not convinced he was right; and I also try to not literally translate passages which seem to be untranslatable, but instead try – with his help – writing them down once more in English… So really, it is a very special process of how these translations are born. David Vaughan from the Prague Radio was maybe right when he said to me: “The fact of the matter is that these poems don’t sound like translations.” It was the highest compliment for both Stuart and me. And, as a bonus, I was even able to finish – after many years – a poem which still, in Czech, had in my eyes a kind of loose end: I wrote the last missing lines in English, they just came to me – and now I am not able to translate them back into Czech… To finish up this translation story: For doing things like this you must have, as Richard Wilbur puts it, some kind of romance with the language you are translating from, or into. I agree and confess: Yes, I am in love with English.
3:AM: You teach philosophy and ancient Greek literature in Prague. How does your profession as a teacher and your proximity to these works, and the demand to pass them on to students, affect your poetry and it’s writing, if it does at all?
SF: Well, everything affects everything – and, as Scorsese’s taxi driver says, YOU ARE YOUR JOB. I am no exception; I am even able to trace back, why this or that line was written in the way it stands now, what has influenced it: either this sentence from St. Augustin, or an example from a textbook, or an idiom heard on the bus. As for my pedagogical experience, it is better expressed by my stories which were translated into Polish and Dutch, and not into English until now. But still, I think that all the time I am doing the same: when either writing about Hippocrates, Homer, or Plato, or writing poems or stories, I am still attaching myself to the same thing or things, only in different ways; and the multiplicity of ways and approaches is something which I really like. At the same time I feel that antiquity is not a dead affair – just a corpse of the European entity and identity – but that it is something still vivid and potential, active – with all those tricky and twisted meanders of tradition that make history so fascinating. Yes, it is really something to have reading Plato’s Symposion or Homer’s Odysseia or rethinking the beginnings of Western science as a job. But – there is always some BUT – it is very copious and laborious; and even more so: the world of humanities and of science is facing many up-to-date temptations – simulacres and false aims as well as new questions which the scientific community was not confronted with before.
3:AM: Do you feel contemporary Czech poetry is in a healthy state? Is poetry being read widely in the Czech republic?
SF: First, what does it mean for poetry, to be in a healthy state? According to Heine, poetry can be compared to a pearl which is in fact only an excrement of a disease a poor oyster suffers from – so what health? Second, is there any place in the world where poetry nowadays is widely read? – I doubt so. Things have changed, and for the last few decades poetry is not read that much in the Czech republic, too. Writing down the causes of this state of affairs would become a theme not for an essay, but for a monograph. However, many books of poetry do still appear in the Czech republic, and they still have their readers, although their number has diminished during the last decades. But the number of readers is only one side of the question: even though the number of poetry books published every year is quite high, I, as a reader, am not satisfied with them. After the death of some major figures of Czech poetry during the last ten or fifteeen years, I feel that something is missing here. What precisely it is, is hard to express: perhaps the lack, or no need of courage to go to the edge – to the bottom – whichever it would be and whatever it would mean and cost. Because poetry is not just a wordplay, fun or a joke, as well as it is not just a moderate, cultivated description of anything – nor a complaint of a poor unhealthy world – it is something for someone, nothing for everyone, as the Czech poet Holan wrote. It is always a mystery – you go after it – you love it and fear it – but still, you go, and this going is your life… Perhaps this mystery is trailing off.
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 (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. 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, March 19th, 2012.