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We recently had the pleasure of reading Rawley Grau’s translation of your essay, “On the Poetic Methods of Tomaž Šalamun’s Recent Poetry,” which appeared as the afterward to Šalamun’s Sinji stolp (The Blue Tower, 2007). Discussing his reception in Slovenia, you suggest:

If Šalamun’s earliest poems were felt immediately as a genuine earthquake in the history of Slovene poetry, this was in large measure due to a certain time lag in Slovene culture, which in its inertia had not yet come to terms with the modernist breakthrough in art. Poems that, structurally, were hardly radical in the overall European context of the time struck Slovene culture as nothing less than revolutionary—which was particularly curious given the fact that, while Šalamun’s work was seen as an assault on tradition, he was the one who brought into Slovene poetry elements of the global cultural tradition that had previously been impermissible.

You further assert that, “In today’s Slovene culture, however, Šalamun’s new poetic language, as it attempts to inhabit spaces that have always been silent, is received, or not received, as a kind of inertia. In Slovenia his books appear, one after the other, almost without notice.”

To what do you attribute this shift in how the Slovenian poetry-reading community has received Salalmun's work?

I’ve noticed a bizarre phenomenon in the reception of Šalamun’s poetry in Slovenia: it often happens that people who, in a certain period, had been so excited about Šalamun that they thought of him almost as a kind of poetic god later become, as it were, allergic to him and start publicly attacking him. I think that here we are seeing a lot of personal issues: some people madly suction on to Šalamun’s energy and project all sorts of their own expectations onto him—and then just as madly fall into the opposite extreme. And the poetry they once idolized becomes for them virtually an object of contempt.

Another thing is that today what is published in Slovenia under the label “poetry” is dominated by boring descriptions of everyday life in an everyday language. Šalamun’s nondescriptive use of language is alien to people who write in this way.

But my stance toward Šalamun’s recent poetry, in the essay you cite, is in no way simply apologetic; in fact, I constantly ask the question: how much do Šalamun’s current poetic methods really change the linguistic reality and how much are they merely an ecstatic, if not, indeed, hedonistic, surrender to its sensual splendor? The answer to this question, however, cannot lie in some predetermined position with regard to these methods; instead, one must analyze actual poems. In the essay, which is fairly critical, I tried to offer some basic ideas about how to do such analyses. Certainly, the duality between, on one side, the attempt to bring a language that, beyond the censorship of “sane reason,” is attentive to the unconscious flow of free associations into spaces that up to now have always been silent and, on the other, inertia—certainly, this duality is not only a matter of reception but also touches on a problem that some of the surrealists were aware of (among the Yugoslav surrealists, Djordje Kostić accentuated it very sharply when discussing his own poetic work): namely, the very greatest spontaneity, which tries to be as free as possible, can in fact appear to be inert, to be trapped in schemes and repetitions. And here, certainly, there is a trap. But what I like so much about Šalamun is precisely the fact that he is not afraid of anything that happens in his poetry. Even thirty years ago, for instance, when he was asked in an interview if he wasn’t afraid that he might end up going in circles, he calmly responded by saying, “What’s wrong with going in circles? The spoon that stirs in the sugar goes in circles in the cup, the sun goes in circles, etc.” Serge Daney once wrote about Fassbinder that he had earned the right to be uneven, the ability to miss the target in a given film without endangering his image. I’m not comparing Šalamun to Fassbinder, but I can say that I sincerely admire the way Šalamun has won himself the right to write a poem or a book that misses the mark without it in any way reducing his true significance. And I also think that this is exactly what those envious, small-hearted people in Slovenia find it hardest to accept about him.

I should confess that I usually read Šalamun’s books after a few years’ delay. Certain books of his, which meant nothing to me when they first came out, I only really discovered later. Generally, when I read poetry, I’m not concerned with trying to assess it one way or another; what seems far more important to me is how much the impulses in the poetry I’m reading connect with what I myself am trying to do in my own writing of poetry—and here I should say that the critical engagement I had with Šalamun’s recent poetry when I was writing the afterword to The Blue Tower was extremely important for me: I think that this engagement gave me several important impulses when I was writing the poems in my book The Blue Dress, which I consider to be the most important of all the books I have published to date. In general, I can say that in the history of my poetic efforts, Šalamun’s poetry has been of tremendous help to me at certain critical moments, especially in the nineties, so I think of Šalamun as one of the poets to whom I feel much gratitude.

There are several conditions I’ve experienced which, of all the poetry I know, I have found expressed in words only in Šalamun, and some were so fragile that, even after a second reading of the same poems, I never found them again in these poems.

Otherwise, as regards Šalamun’s influence on Slovenian poetry, I would like to mention the following: the true effect of Šalamun’s poetry is more important in places where we don’t see it immediately than where we can point our finger at it. If a Slovenian poet imitatively adopts a “Šalamunic” manner of writing, in most cases this can only mean his writing is hopelessly bad. But a true correspondence with Šalamun’s poetry has always happened entirely somewhere else—I have just been editing the literary remains of Jure Detela and there I discovered how important Šalamun’s poetry was in the formation of this poet, who in his poetic methods is completely different from Šalamun. Jure Detela was a poet of true genius, who is still to be discovered in America.

You note that “Šalamun’s poetry, which when read in the original Slovene seems to rely on wholly unpredictable linguistic means for its effect, has in fact achieved its greatest impact internationally, through translation.” To what do you attribute Šalamun's international success? As an accomplished translator yourself, do you see anything about Šalamun’s work that particularly lends itself to translation? What do you think of his practice of co-translating with many different contemporary poets?

You’ve asked me a difficult question. I have never done any research on the reasons behind Šalamun’s “international success”; and then there is the question of what can be called “success” with regard to poetry. I think that the very concept of “success” carries with it something alien to poetry; I have never thought about poetry in connection with the category “success.” I do think, however, that Šalamun’s poetry simply calls out for translations even in its conceptual world—this poetry continually happens in different cultures and on different continents simultaneously—and I am sure that many segments of this poetry are much easier to recognize and receive in a number of other cultural contexts than in the Slovenian one. This is true also in relation to tradition. To take an example selected entirely at random, I think that Šalamun’s poem for the mother of Gérard de Nerval (from the book Soy realidad) can be received by more readers in cultures other than the Slovenian, simply because there are extremely few people in Slovenia who have ever read anything written by Nerval. And I am not even talking about the fact that at least some of Šalamun’s books actually arose in a context that was at least as much American as Slovenian; the poetry Šalamun wrote in the early seventies arose as part of what was happening at the time on the most radical American scene. Bob Perelman, as far as I can tell, came into the consciousness of Slovenians as a poet only with the translation of Fredric Jameson’s book Postmodernism in 1992; before then, for Slovenians, he was primarily a figure from Šalamun’s poetry.

As for the practice of co-translating, I don’t have any basic opinion about it. I think everything depends on the actual people who are collaborating, on the kind of mutual understanding that the two people who co-translate a certain text are capable of establishing.

You have characterized Salamun’s poetic language as centering on an interplay between energy and flatness – between the spectacular and the opaque. We are thinking particularly of these two passages from your essay:

Šalamun’s inventiveness with language has, indeed, never been more dynamic than in his most recent books. But in this dynamism there is also a monotone quality, which the poet makes no attempt to hide. It is as if this ecstasy resulted from spinning endlessly in a circle, like the whirling dervishes—a religious order, incidentally, that was founded by the mystic Rumi, one of Šalamun’s favorite poets....It seems that the intensity of Šalamun’s language lies precisely in the endless insistence of its pulsation.
In Šalamun’s poetry, the following is always important: the suggestiveness of his language lures the reader into an intense identification with it, which can suck him in with an extraordinary force—Šalamun has said that language is the most dangerous drug. But almost always, there is a point at which identification becomes impossible, which keeps the reader at bay and compels him to reflection. What is more, something that is impossible to identify with may emerge out of the very intensity of the identification.

You find poetic richness in the moments when Šalamun loses the reader and when the energy of his inventiveness flattens into monotone – which tend to be the moments in Šalamun’s poems that can frustrate new readers. What position can those readers take to find the richness, the intensity you find in these more difficult aspects of Šalamun’s poems?

I have no particular advice to give to readers, but I do think that richness and intensity can exist simply in recognizing unreadability as an irreducible component of reading per se.

Miklavž Komelj’s responses were translated from the Slovenian by Rawley Grau.