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Maintenant #95 – Ivan Hristov

An interview with Ivan Hristov by SJ Fowler.

An instrumental figure at the core of 21st century Bulgarian poetics, Ivan Hristov’s poetics are as variable and layered as the modern history of the country itself. As an educator and organiser, Hristov has been the driving force behind the Sofia poetics festival, bringing poets from around Europe to witness and interact with a surging new generation of poets emerging from the city, and as a poet himself, his connection and fusion with English language poetry has produced a unique style and cadence within his output which has gained plaudits from across the continent and America. Another figure in European poetry who conceives of organisation as a responsibility alongside his own practise, we are pleased to introduce Ivan Hristov as the 95th respondent of the Maintenant series.

Thanks go to Alexandra Buchler & Literature Across Frontiers for facilitating this interview.

3:AM: You are known as an innovator with Bulgarian poetics not only because of your open inclusion attitude toward other forms of work other than your own, but your constant use of music alongside your poetics. What is the place of music in relation to your practice as a poet?

Ivan Hristov: I began playing music quite early, while still in middle school, but I started writing even earlier. I have always been interested in the connection between poetry and music. Nowadays sung poetry is the only form of public poetry. I began using music as a way of popularising my poetry. You could say that I’ve learned a lot about poetry from folk songs. After all, in ancient times poetry and music were not separate. I like to imagine myself as a modern-day rhapsode. On the one hand, music helps broaden the effect of my poetry through various types of performances. On the other, it makes me more sensitive towards the sound of the poems. I take the sound of my poems very seriously. Sound is a basic building block within them. In the internet era, an environment akin to a secondary folklore is taking shape. Thanks to modern means for visualisation, the poet’s body and the oral performance of his poems is becoming more important.

3:AM: Collaboration seems to be something that is central to your work as a poet and musician too, is this correct?

IH: In my readings, I like to use the languages of the various arts – literature, music, theatre. My collaboration with various artists allows me to express myself in multiple aspects. The internet era offers many possibilities for communication. I think it would be good for us to take advantage of them. I have collaborated with various artists, as well as with various groups. My band Gologan does something like musical-literary theatre. We use both folk songs and old urban songs, as well as contemporary poetry. We read in other languages. I think that is the spirit of the modern global era. The contemporary artist lives in a diffuse environment, out of which he tries to build the world he wants to share with others as if putting together a puzzle.

3:AM: Could you discuss the origins and the purposes of the Sofia Poetics festival?

IH: Sofia Poetics arose out of the necessary to present contemporary urban culture in Bulgaria. The festival unites poetry, music and visual art. It reaches a very broad audience. It is the only international poetry festival in Bulgaria. I daresay that it has become international since I have begun helping the festival’s artistic director, Yassen Atanassov. Thanks to the British foundation Literature Across Frontiers, young interesting poets from different countries come to Sofia every year. Sofia Poetics has gradually become a benchmark for quality and contemporary vision.

3:AM: Could you discuss your research on Bulgarian modernism? Did this movement in Bulgaria make a lasting impact on the poetical culture of the country?

IH: My research into Bulgarian literary modernism began when I was accepted as a doctoral student at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. I wrote my dissertation about one of the most interesting and least-known modernist circles in Bulgaria – the Sagittarius Circle. They called for the Europeanisation of Bulgarian literature, but based on an authentic, native foundation. Modernism in Bulgaria as a movement is tied to the Europeanisation of Bulgarian culture. Some of the most significant works in Bulgarian literature are tied to this movement.

3:AM: Did modernism die out in the mainstream after WWII, as in other parts of Europe?

IH: Yes. Modernism in Bulgaria contradicted the totalitarian doctrine known as “socialist realism.” Even though some scholars claim that socialist realism began as an avant-garde offshoot of modernism, the two approaches conflict. This led to repression against many modernist writers by both extremely left-wing and extremely right-wing regimes. Modernism means “freedom” above all, followed by “individualism.” The first stage in Bulgarian modernism is called “individualism.” Freedom and individualism are the two things totalitarianism hates the most. Modernism was marginalised after the Second World War. During the 1960s, due to the partial liberalisation of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria, some modernist writers were rehabilitated and interest in their work was revived. But true interest in modernism began at the end of the totalitarian epoch, when new postmodern literature used the foundation of modernism as its stepping stone.

3:AM: What is the history of avant-garde poetry in Bulgaria?

IH: Bulgarian avant-gardism is not very well-developed. The major avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism and Imagism made only small inroads here. The novel as a genre is also very weakly represented in Bulgarian modernism. This is perhaps due to the primarily provincial character of Bulgarian culture and its backwardness. After World War I, expressionism was the most widespread movement in Bulgaria. This is due in part to the German influence on Bulgarian literature at that time. It is also due to Bulgaria’s losing the war and the ensuing crisis in the national consciousness. Expressionism turned out to be the most suitable movement with which to adequately express this crisis.

3:AM: How do you see the literary culture of Bulgaria as it relates to itself in the context of Europe, especially over the last decade?

IH: As I already mentioned above, after the strong Soviet influence on Bulgarian literature, it has once again turned to the west. This has led to the development of processes which are similar to those which occurred in Bulgaria in the early 20th century. The borders of the European Union opened and Bulgarian authors have begun travelling a lot, while many foreign authors have come to Bulgaria as well. This has led to shared trends and the Europeanisation of Bulgarian literature. Judging from the results of this type of movement in the early 20th century, we can expect new, significant works.

3:AM: Is there a sense there is a definitive new generation of poets in Bulgaria who want to define themselves apart from previous generations?

IH: Definitely. Bulgarian literature is undergoing a period of relative independence and that leads to pluralism and to many diverse trends that are interesting in and of themselves. If the task of the literary generation of the late 20th century was to deconstruct the false doctrine of socialist realism and to extract new meanings from that deconstruction, for the generation of the early 21st century, what is important is to construct something new. This new construction is called the Europeanization of Bulgarian literature. The youngest literary generation is searching for its European face.


SJ Fowler is the author of four poetry collections, including Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He has received commissions from the Tate, the Southbank centre, the London Sinfonietta and Mercy and he is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He edits the Maintenant series, which includes both interviews and events, and curates the Enemies project. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a PhD student at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 8th, 2013.