A Conversation with Gregor Podlogar on Tomaž Šalamun by Ming Di

Photo by Tihomir Pinter.

Photo by Tihomir Pinter.

Gregor Podlogar, born in Ljubljana in 1974, graduated in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana. He has published his poems in various literary magazines in Slovenia and abroad. Aleph  Press  published  his  first  two  collections  of  poetry,  Naselitve (States,  1997)  and Vrtoglavica zanosa (Joy in Vertigo, 2002).

In co-authorship with the poet Primož Čučnik and Žiga Kariž, a painter, an experimental book on New York City entitled Oda na manhatenski aveniji (Ode on Manhattan Avenue, 2003) came out with Sherpa Press. It was followed by his collection Milijon sekund bliže (A Million Seconds Closer, 2006). His latest book, Vesela novaušesa (Happy New Ears, 2010) was also published by Sherpa Press. A selection of his work was published in Six Slovenian Poets (Arc Publication, 2006). He was the editor of Slovene side of poetry web-page lyrikline (www.lyrikline.org) and co-organizer of Ljubljana poetry festival Trnovski terceti. At the moment he is employed as a host of radio shows on culture at the national radio (Radio Slovenija), translates contemporary American poetry (C. Hawkey, L. Solomon, P. Killebrew, A. Berrigan among others), occasionally performs as a DJ and usually drinks green tea in Ljubljana.


Ming Di:  Like many other poets, I was corresponding with Tomaž Šalamun after meeting him a few years ago. He was extremely friendly and inspiring. I knew he had lung cancer, but I was still shocked when I received your email on Dec 27: “No good news to report. Tomaž Šalamun passed away today; there’s no word to describe such a loss … Glory unto him!” I couldn’t speak or move. I thought he would recover like he did from the back injury. How did you learn about the sad news? Tell me about the funeral or any poetry gatherings in Slovenia, as I can’t find any news in English. Poets don’t die. But I still like to know what Slovenian poets did for him.

Gregor Podlogar: Tomaž Šalamun died on Saturday morning, December 27, 2014. Just before his death the weather in Ljubljana was nice, sunny and warm. But the day Tomaž died, it started to snow. There was something in the air. I was sitting in the teahouse around 10 a.m. that day with my family when poet Primož Čučnik called me on my cell phone and told me this sad news. I remember that very moment. I remember how I looked out and saw snowflakes floating around the street. And just by the window there was a blackbird watching us. It didn’t move for a minute. Then suddenly a tiny sunray drifted to its head, shining, and it flew away. I also remember some people told me weird stories about birds that same day. It was like Tomaž was everywhere, watching us through the eyes of birds for the last time. People who knew Tomaž personally know what I’m talking about. So many moments and experiences connected with him were enigmatic, and so is his poetry—bright, playful, cosmic, but mysterious.

The funeral was in Ljubljana (not in Koper, the coastal town south of Trieste, where his family grave is) on Monday, January 5, 2015. There were around 300 people, at least 80 poets, from all generations, and some from abroad. It was a nice sunny day again. Poet Miklavž Komelj and translator Michael Biggins gave speeches; by the grave, poet and one of Tomaž’s best friends Aleš Debeljak read a poem. Yes, you’re right, poets never die; although Tomaž was buried that day, big fat old sun was saying his lines to me all the way back home. And, yes, totally true, as Tomaž said, death is just an error. The holes that Tomaž has dug out with his poems into the language will stay forever. Sun shines through them. And it shines. And it shines.

A few days after the funeral there was a huge all-night-long reading dedicated to him. There were 150 poets from all generations who read his poems. The reading was at Metelkova (remember the famous Ljubljana’s alternative place?), organized by the people who do Young Rhymes Reading Series and a poetry festival with the same name. I think Tomaž would appreciate that—he was always interested in what young poets do, write, read, listen etc. It was just amazing to hear his poems from five decades in different interpretations and with the different voices.

Somehow I just can’t get rid of his physical voice in my head. He was an excellent reader, one of the best I’ve ever heard in my entire life.

MD: That was beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing it with me and the readers of Tupelo Quarterly. “Is the little bird torn apart / by a paw? Lights switch on, at least / one juxtaposition between // tree /trunks” (from “We lived in a hug, shivering with cold”). I can hear his voice too. I remember Metelkova, an amazing place, Veronika Dintinjana and her friend Dejan Koban told me about the all-night-long reading events. I can imagine how this happened in Ljubljana, a city of poetry. I learned most of the biographical information about Tomaž from the introduction by Robert Hass on the Poetry International Web in Rotterdam. Can you tell me more about his literary legacy in your country and in Eastern/Central Europe?

GP: His literary legacy is huge, greater than some people in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe can imagine. Tomaž Šalamun was a universal poet. He still is. I’m not exaggerating, his poems are read all around the world. Literally. Even more, his work was and still is very influential, and not just in US, where in the last twenty years his work was accepted the most. A friend of mine, William Martin, who taught in Burma last year for two weeks, told me a story. He asked Burmese poets about Tomaž Šalamun. One of them just said: “Yes, of course we know Tomaž Šalamun!” And at the same time he pulled out of his bag Tomaž Šalamun’s poetry collection Four Questions Of Melancholy. So his legacy is global and he should not be considered only as a major Central European poet in the last three decades or so, he was and still is the voice of the World— sharp, cruel, big, beautiful, visible & invisible, black & white, it belongs to a living moment & it lasts because it catches fire.

For Slovene poetry tradition his first collection Poker (original 1966, American translation 2008, published by Ugly Duckling Presse) is crucial. It’s the book which liberated the Slovene language and opened the space inside the poetry. Such a powerful and miraculous phenomenon never happened before. After Poker, Tomaž wrote more than 45 poetry collections, one just came out. It’s interesting that from Poker on Šalamun wrote a book each year, with only one gap. Before Ambra (1995)—which is a kind of milestone where “late Šalamun” starts even more energetic, more experimental in the language—he had five years without a word. But that didn’t stop any young generation, who just started to write poetry in Slovenia, from establishing a relationship with his work. Šalamun was always there. His approach to the poetry in general was so different, so fresh, vivid and avant-garde you couldn’t avoid it.

MD: Tomaz Šalamun brings all generations together. I was in Ljubljana in 2013 on a program organized by Brane Mozetič. Oh thank you for showing me around too. Tomaž was in New York at that time. I met so many poets in such a small city. There was Dane Zajc before Tomaž Šalamun. Were there any other big names before them and after? How do the young poets regard the work of the generation of Šalamun? What are the major differences in the contemporary poetry now? What are the current trends?

GP: We are a small nation and our poetry tradition is not big. But it is old and it was always written in Slovene language. The first Slovene written text comes from the 9th Century; the first major poet was France Prešeren from 18th century. He invented poetry language and he is a national hero (with his statue in the center of the capital Ljubljana, his image on the coin of 2 euros, the lyrics of our national anthem taken from one of his poems etc.). A very important and still very interesting (and one of my favorite) Slovene poet is Srečko Kosovel (1904 – 1926), often called the Slovenia Rimbaud and the real avant-garde poet whose work was discovered after World War II and his major work Integrali was published in 1967. In recent years there have been some good English translations of his work, just to mention two: Look Back, Look Ahead (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) and The Golden Boat (Salt Publishing, 2008). Edvard Kocbek is also important because his poetry (he wrote also prose and diaries) verbalizes Slovene experience of the 20th century, especially the World War II. I like his book Nothing Is Lost: Selected Poems (Princeton University Press, 2004). In the sixties, modernists were very alive, divided into two sides—the bright side represented by Tomaž Šalamun, the dark side by Dane Zajc (his book in English was quite invisible – Barren Harvest: Selected Poems of Dane Zajc, White Pine Press, 2004). These two poets are major for the whole Slovene poetry tradition after WWII, and even more, if I generalize a little, most of these days our poetry is (more or less) attached to one of these poets. Of course there are a number of poets these days in Slovenia who are really good and who have very unique voices, just to mention a few, Tone Škrjanec, Miklavž Komelj, Primož Čučnik, Barbara Korun, Veronika Dintinjana etc.

About generations: I think every single generation has to find a space in literary world with something, such as magazines, festivals, books, etc. For my generation—I was born in the early 70s—we found it in the poetry festival “The Days of Poetry and Wine” in the late 90s, which was for us something like an open space, open opportunity to meet other poets from all around the world. Poet Aleš Šteger (‘cause you know him, you translated him) together with some locals from Brda (Slovene wine region by the Italian Border) established this crazy and outstanding poetry festival. And here I also come back to Tomaž Šalamun. In the beginning he was adviser to Šteger, giving suggestions as to who should be invited. In 2001, I was invited as a Slovenian domestic poet, but in that same year so many good international poets came to village Medan, but the most important for me were Matthew Zapruder, Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer—after all these years we are still friends, visiting each other, and they helped me a lot when I first came to the US in 2002 and wrote the book Ode on Manhattan Ave. together with Primož Čučnik. When I look at what young poets write in Slovenia these days, most of them gather around the magazine Idiot (that’s probably their generation’s project!). It seems to me that they are turning to themselves into their work; they write very openly about sex for example. So their poetry is very personal, very direct. I once said, that’s a so-called “new intimacy.” But they didn’t like the description.

MD: It was nice to hear some familiar names above. I first met you in Berlin as we both worked for Lyrikline as editors. I remember you liked Chinese tea and you had spent time in New York before. Do you ever read poetry from China? What do you read most? Among Western poets, who has influenced you as a poet? Who are your favorite American poets if any?

GP:  I worked as the editor of the Slovene part of this really special poetry website Lyrikline for more then 10 years. Just the idea that poets read their work in the original language (voice recordings) and you can follow them in different translations is amazing and it’s something that should be known and supported. At the moment there are 30 poets from Slovenia on the web, soon there will be more. The selection is a good overview of Slovene contemporary poetry. I stopped editing a few years ago and now my friend Andrej Hočevar does it. I have to say that I enjoyed the work a lot and it was also interesting to be in Berlin every single year for Lyrkline meetings and for the poetry festival at the same time, both organized by Literaturwerkstatt Berlin. Berlin became my city, I spent a lot of my spare time there. The only thing that I missed was tea. I’m a tea person. I don’t drink coffee at all. Everywhere I go I try to find a teahouse. In Ljubljana, the town I live, there are five teahouses, but I couldn’t find any proper one in Berlin. Besides poetry and music, tea is really my obsession. Chinese tea, not Japanese. My friends in Ljubljana prefer Japanese tea, but not me, I always prefer Chinese tea. We argue and make jokes about that. Yes, I also read Chinese poetry. Actually The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2007) was for years one of my favorite poetry books. Some poems from this anthology are just amazing, weird and beautiful at the same time. Thanks to Brane Mozetič, who has published two anthologies of Chinese poetry in Slovenia, I know also some new, contemporary poets from China. The Chinese poets most well known in Europe are not representing what’s going on in contemporary Chinese poetry, I guess. I do respect their work, don’t get me wrong, but fresh and new to me was the work of Mu Cao, born in the same year as I was, 1974. I remember reading his poetry was like someone hitting me in the face. Great stuff! Besides this I read all kinds of poetry, mostly from Europe and US, I have to confess. I can read in English, German, Serbo-Croatian. So my poetry world is limited. If I look back, the biggest influence was the whole avant-garde movements from the beginning to the mid 20th Century, and also the last avant-garde (which is also the title of famous David Lehman’s book on New York School of poets). So American poetry is important because it’s really, really big, it’s impossible to get just one impression about all. I like what Ugly Duckling Presse and Wave Books are doing. So if you want some names, here they are: Catharine Wagner, Laura Solomon, Anselm Berrigan, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Rohrer, Matthew Zapruder, Rebecca Wolff, Christian Hawkey, John Beer etc.

MD: Brane met with Mu Cao in person last year but couldn’t communicate with him. I always feel sad when good poets in China can’t talk with poets from other countries due to language barriers. Most European poets speak English which helps. You talked about the modernists in early 20th century and the “last avant garde”. What happened in China was that the early Chinese modernists were influenced by the Anglo-American poets who were influenced by Asian classical poetry. “New Poetry” started in 1916-1917. Up till 1949 there was much mutual translation. And there was also translation of poetry from India, France, etc. Then, from 1949 to 1976—well, we don’t talk about that period. Anyway we have had great poets from the WWI and WWII periods too. A new avant-garde emerged in 1976, which is still talked about as “Chinese case” in Western countries. But many contemporary Chinese poets like to trace back to the 1920ers to 1940ers as their poetic sources and the poetry from the Confucius time and Tang dynasty as tradition. Now coming back to your country—because of the translation by Charles Simic and the promotion by Tomaž Šalamun many Slovenian poets have been translated into English including very young poets. You yourself have been included in several books and anthologies (the Arc series is my favorite). Do you take part in the process of translation like Tomaž? Who decides who gets translated and included in those books? Publishers or translators or the Writers Association in your country?

GP: Yes, most of my English translations were done this way—first I make a draft version and then a poet would go through and turn it into a poem. I think this is the best way to get good translations. All Šalamun’s English books were done so and they all work well in English. It’s harder and harder to be published anywhere; there are so many poets and all want to publish their work. It’s a big competition going on everywhere. So if you want to be published all over the poetry world (in magazines, in books etc.) you have to work hard, you have to have time, will and energy to do that. I’m sometimes just too lazy to do that. I don’t want to be like a machine, a machine to distribute my poems all around. I like to write and read. Promotion is somehow a problem to me. But you know, in the end, 3, or maybe 4 poems will stay and the rest will be gone.



It’s Not February

by Gregor Podlogar
Already a week I’ve been carrying a collection
of poems by Tom Raworth, a letter from Paul Killebrew
and the light of autumn streets.
And summer’s melancholy has ended,
the truce has ended.

If I say
I think of friendship.
The plan accepted, the destinations conquered.
… so to fix
bitter melancholy
neon shine
shifty regards
and I am AGAIN asking,
if they know,
how cold and dirty it is.
And neither did we succeed
in escaping our own regard
of the seasons’ turn.

This relation to tea is insanely pleasant,
next to this sound another sound.

And it’s different
from the feeling,
when you walk around the city,
to watch
moving pictures,
carefully rummaging the interior,
and sometimes you’re only spinning faster the reel.


(Translated by Laura Solomon)