Ming Di Interviews Croatian poet Damir Šodan

Damir Sodan
Ming Di: Yugoslavian movies about World War II were very popular in China in the 1970s and 80s. Then your country went through an internal war and broke into several countries. I’ve always wondered how the turmoil has affected the contemporary poets. Where were you and what were you doing during the War time?


Damir Šodan: In those days, during the Homeland War (1991-1995) as we call it in Croatia, I was teaching English in the secondary school in Čazma, near Bjelovar in Moslavina, northeastern Croatia. That was more like a work obligation for the state rather than a proper job as our salaries were so meager that they could barely cover the travel expenses from Zagreb, where I lived. Nevertheless, I considered myself lucky since at that time most of my friends were in trenches at various front lines, often sharing a single Kalashnikov among several of them, because the JNA (Yugoslav Federal Army) just before the war appropriated all the weapons for the Serbs and themselves, probably knowing that there would be a weapons embargo imposed on Croatia and Bosnia, which is exactly what happened.

Later on, when the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) moved into the war-torn region, I got a job with them first as a menial worker but gradually I managed to work my way up to an administrative assistant in the transport section and finally to the position of translator at the ICTY (United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in the Hague, the Netherlands, where I still work and live. In hindsight it seems that my love and knowledge of the English language did indeed significantly shape up my life and got me where I am today.


MD: Has your poetry writing changed since then? If so, in what way?


DŠ: Oh yes, my poetry has changed profoundly in the sense that it became increasingly less obscure and more transparent and reader-friendly. It’s strange how these things work, because my generation has seen and witnessed a lot, from the creation of a new nation state to the collapse of communism and introduction of a capitalist, or as we jokingly call it in Croatia: “cropitalist” system, so naturally due to this brutal intrusion of reality into our lives, our writing became less abstract and more referential, mimetic if you want.

As for myself, poetically speaking I tried to make that “quantum” leap from let’s say, Bei Dao to Billy Collins (laughter!).

During the 1980s, in urban areas of Yugoslavia poets and writers were very much influenced by deconstructionism, poststructuralism or postmodernism in general and their writing, predominantly metafictional, was essentially a very self-serving and self-indulgent enterprise. However, big changes came towards the end of 90s when we witnessed the surge of the so-called (urban) neorealism both in prose and poetry. Now, this new brand of realism is very interesting as it came after postmodernism, so it really possesses a new quality (one might refer to it as “postrealism” actually) since it incorporated some of the characteristics of the literary styles that preceded it. Consequently, literature became very mimetic and reader-oriented.

Also, on a more personal note, having translated so many American poets, from John Ashbery to Charles Simic, Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski, my own writing underwent significant changes, ultimately becoming more “entertaining” and accessible.


MD: What a mixed list. I’d like to talk about something else in that region if I may. I notice that poets from Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, etc. all understand each other. You seem to have the same language but different dialects (although there are smaller dialects within each dialect). Tomaž Šalamun was born in what is called Croatia and lives in what is called Slovenia. How would geographical locations make someone different? In what way?


DŠ: Well, this is a loaded question that would normally require a serious historical overview, but I will nevertheless try to answer it in simple terms.

Firstly, in the case of the former Yugoslav nations, it’s not the mere geographic locations that make up for differences, but rather historical circumstances. All the above mentioned nations, with their own languages and cultural identities, made up that wonderful multicultural fabric that Yugoslavia once was, but in hindsight Yugoslavia can also be perceived as a politically cumbersome and unfeasible project that somehow always veered towards some kind of totalitarian, dictatorial or absolutist mode of government. From the dictatorship of the Serbian king Alexander (1929-1941) to Tito’s dictatorship of proletariat (1945-1990) Yugoslav peoples never enjoyed actual freedom. The infamous Article 133 that banned the freedom of speech was an integral part of the Constitution of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and it remained there until the very bitter end. So one might say that Yugoslavia, in all its shapes and forms from 1918 till 1991, never knew proper democracy and it is no wonder that politicians to this day in the West Balkans easily slip into autocratic behavioral patterns, as they never had a chance to learn how to act within the discourse of a democratic society.

As for the languages of the former Yugoslavia, Serbian and Croatian are the closest to each other for historical reasons; mainly because many of the enlightened Serbian and Croatian intellectuals in the 19th century believed that all South Slavs, who at the time lived under the different imperial umbrellas (Slovenes, Croats and Vojvodina Serbs were part of Austro-Hungarian empire whereas Serbs in Serbia proper and Muslims in BH were part of the Ottoman empire), should be united into a single state, once the empires of their oppressors fall, which is exactly what happened after the World War I.

The so-called enlightened nationalist men of letters amongst the Croats (Ljudevit Gaj) and Serbs (Vuk Karadžić), who believed in the future unity of South Slavs (Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians even Bulgarians…), had to find a common ground as a basis of unification of those peoples and this turned out to be — language! Therefore Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1872) a politician, journalist and writer used the Croatian dialect of Western Herzegovina (a region in BH, where the famous Catholic sanctuary of Međugorje is located) as the standard basis for the unification of the Croatian language, which previously had been broken into at least three dialects. Alas, that newly-created Croatian standard language was virtually identical to the dialect spoken by the Serbs in Bosnia, and that is precisely where the “language confusion” started. To make a long story short, since that moment in 1848 — to paraphrase what the great English-Hungarian writer George Mikes (1912-1987) said of the British and Americans — Croats (Catholics) and Serbs (Orthodox) became two nations “divided by the same language”!

Finally, all these former Yugoslav nations have their own literary traditions that, regardless of language(s), are also significantly different from each other. For the sake of analogy, compare contemporaries such as W.H. Yeats and T.S. Eliot and you will realize that despite sharing the same language, they have totally different poetics, different “political” discourse and they belong to different aesthetic universes.

Tomaž Šalamun (1940), the great Slovenian poet and a friend of many Croatian poets was indeed born in Zagreb and was unquestionably a very big, if not essential influence on Croatian postmodernist poets from the 80s onwards, but just try to challenge his affiliation to Slovenian literature or the Slovenian nation and you will, I believe, find yourself in a very rough spot (laughter!).

I think the same goes for the somewhat younger Slovenian friend of ours, poet and cultural critic Aleš Debeljak (1961), whose work was also very much read by Croatian poets and whose wife Erica Johnson is an American writer from California. By the way, Aleš’s book Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of Lost Yugoslavia (White Pine Press, Fredonia and New York, 1994) is a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to know how the urban generation of the 80s that grew up on The Clash, Sex Pistols and British new wave felt about the disintegration of our former country.


MD: Imagine China breaks into six or more countries... Even as it is now, poets from different provinces tend to have distinctive styles, for instance the “soft tone” in central China and relatively harder tone in the North. Poets in China are more aware of their regional dialect and “local” features while visiting each other more often now for poetry gatherings. In Croatia, are poets more interested in interacting with other parts of the world or other parts of the formal Yugoslavia?


DŠ: That is an interesting question. I think that over the decades we have overdosed a little on that old socialist and federal concept of “brotherhood and unity” — which was essentially a Party-prescribed ideological concept whereby the nations in the former Yugoslavia were literally supposed “to love each other”! before anyone or anything else. So, it is no wonder that intellectuals nowadays probably prefer to connect more with the peoples and cultures outside the region.

Croatia has just joined the European Union (June 2013), so historically this represents a breaking of that last symbolic link with the former geopolitical framework and essentially represents a return to the pre-1918 times (when Yugoslavia was stitched up under the umbrella of the Versailles Treaty in the aftermath of the First World War) when Croatian artists and intellectuals used to flock to Paris and other European destinations other than Belgrade (laughter!) to discover new ideas and that is exactly how we got introduced to symbolism through Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914), or post-symbolism through Augustin “Tin” Ujević (1891-1955). Nonetheless, it is only natural that a Serbian or Bosnian writer will always feel closer to us simply because of the lack of a “proper” language barrier and because of all that common history and culture that we undeniably share.

But that does not mean that a poet from let’s say Guam (actually I met a very interesting one at the Poetry Parnassus Festival in June 2012 in London: Craig Santos Perez who teaches in Hawaii) cannot for poetical or whatever reasons feel even closer to us then someone from our own neighborhood.

For instance, regardless of poetical differences, I feel culturally very close to many of my international literary friends and acquaintances, poets such as Nathalie Handal (US-Palestinian), Yannis Livadas (Greek), Arjen Duinker (Dutch), Christodoulos Makris (Cypriot), Elisa Biagini (Italian), Patrick Cotter (Irish), Eugenijus Ališanka (Lithuanian), Sylva Fischerova (Czech), Ilyja Kaminsky (US-Ukrainian), S.J. Fowler and James Byrne (British)… the list is actually very long.


MD: I happen to know some of the poets you just mentioned— the world is getting bigger (smile!). Poezija (Poetry), where you are one of the editors, is well known in China, at least among some Chinese poets, after it published some Chinese poets and Ivan Herceg brought copies of the journal to Beijing in 2011. Tomica Bajsić was in China earlier that year too. I know it’s more widely known in European countries. It seems to be an ambitious poetry journal. I’m most impressed by the special issue of the contemporary Croatian poetry 1989-2009. Can you tell me why there was a need to promote Croatian poetry?


DŠ: I have lived abroad since 1996, but it was not until around 2008 that I began to feel the need to connect with other poets internationally. At the time I was translating The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (1934), the great Canadian songwriter and poet, and I somehow managed to get through to Leonard (my wife Majda is from his neighborhood in Montreal, so maybe that helped matters a bit!) who was very helpful with his instructions on how I should tackle the translation of some of his poems. Having found that experience very agreeable, I figured if I can get through to Leonard Cohen, I can probably get through to anyone (laughter!), so I proposed to our main editor Ervin Jahić that we try to bring Poezija magazine (a special edition in English) to the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, one of the biggest gathering of poets in Europe, and he agreed, so finally after brief but intense lobbying, we got the invitation. This proved to be an essential in terms of us later being invited around to many different places to promote Croatian poetry.

Coincidentally, shortly after that I was invited to the Tinos Poetry Festival in Greece by Dinos Siotis, our great Greek poet friend, and it was there that I met none other than Adam Zagajewski and even more importantly Tomaž Šalamun who in the course of our four hour conversation told me that the Croatian poetry scene is magnificent, one of the strongest — if these things can be measured — in the world. He also advised me that maybe I should take it upon myself to try to introduce it to the world, since I already live abroad. So that’s how I started connecting with poets around the world and that Odyssey took me to many amazing places where I met some extraordinary people. Also, it enabled me to learn a lot in the process. Our last year’s promotion of Poezija magazine at the Chapbook Poetry Festival at the CUNY in NYC was indeed for us very successful, amazing actually! We met so many interesting literary people such as David Henderson, once known as “the mayor of Harlem”, Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, Eliot Weinberger, the translator of Bei Dao and Octavio Paz, Ammiel Alcalay, the poet, translator and poetry curator as well as many others including our friend the Syrian poet Firas Sulaiman whom we published in Poezija and with whom we barbecued in his backyard in Queens. Last but not least, Nathalie Handal generously allowed me to participate in her poetry class at Columbia University, which in itself was a rewarding experience.


MD: The special issue started with a poet born in 1929 if I remember correctly, that’s almost like a salute to the ex-Yugoslavia which was founded in 1929. It tells me two things, one, the young poets respect the older ones in your country; two, there is no gap in between. If you open an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, it would start with Bei Dao’s generation or younger, most anthologies nowadays start with poets born in the 1960’s. The older poets who were active in the 1950s to 70s are not respected by the current generations of poets in China, although in an anthology of Modern Chinese poetry you will find poets who were active in 1920s to 1940s. In the “continued” tradition of Croatian poetry, have you noticed any major changes?


DŠ: The first poet in our English anthology is Vesna Parun (1922-2010) who was actually born a bit earlier than what you remembered. She was extremely important because with her passionate love of words and her Dionysian, almost eroticized attitude towards language, she helped our poetry break out of the severely constricting social-realist mould that was prevalent in the 1950s.

Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t think that our choice had anything to do with Yugoslavia that was actually created, as I already mention, under the Versailles Treaty in 1918, first as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (no mention of Muslims, Macedonians or Montenegrins – sic!) only to later become transformed into an absolutist monarchy by the Serbian king Alexander Karađorđević in 1929, when it was finally renamed into Yugoslavia.

The year of 1929 does not actually historically speaking evoke fond memories, as it was the year when the parliament in Belgrade, where all of the then Yugoslav nations sent their political deputies, was disbanded. As a result, Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) and his Communist party of Yugoslavia, which at the time was admittedly a very progressive force, went underground. Serbian King Alexander Karađorđević soon became the most hated figure in the whole region — except in Serbia, naturally — and was eventually assassinated in Marseilles in 1934. So, at the end of the day, the year of 1929 when Yugoslavia officially got its name, having at the same time lost its democratic outlook, can easily be viewed as the year when things politically started to go very wrong.

One must also not forget the bloody events that preceded it, such as the terrible crime that was committed in 1928 right there in the Yugoslav Parliament in Belgrade, when a Serbian royalist Puniša Račić shot several members of the then extremely popular Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), including their leader Stjepan Radić, who later died from the injuries. One may say that the seeds of bad blood between Serbs and Croats were sowed right there and then!

But to come back to poetry, yes there is a significant respect for tradition in Croatian poetry. The poets of today are very thankful to modernist poets for having built this incredible edifice of contemporary Croatian poetry. In that sense, today we are indeed “sitting on the shoulders of giants”, in a manner of speaking. However, we should not exaggerate with paying tributes to the previous generations because they had their moment and it would be silly to continue living under their shadow in our own time, because each new generation forms its own identity through some kind of confrontation with their forefathers. Uncritical adulation in this respect can be very dangerous. In a way, it’s almost a Freudian thing — one has to kill the Father! — in order to ascertain one’s own self, symbolically speaking of course.


MD: How is Croatian poetry different from that in the other parts (now countries) of the ex-Yugoslavia region? Or what are the common features?


DŠ: With all due respect to our neighbors, I would claim that Croatian poetry is much more diverse. It has a bent towards the intellectual and philosophical, sometimes unfortunately even beyond healthy measure. During socialist times it became a safe haven for free spirits and ideologically unrestrained thinking. Under the guise of poetry, you could easily flirt with different ideologies or philosophies during those times. On the other hand, it was always very open to outside influences, Italian, French, German and obviously Anglo-Saxon, especially from the 1960s onwards. As a result, today we have a very diversified and colorful scene. There are the new urban realists, the so-called semantic concretists (“language poets” in the American sense), spiritualists, neo-baroque mannerists (a certain number of people who still work within the constraints of rhyme and meter), post-avantgardists as well as many others.

I think there are similarities with the contemporary Serbian scene where a new urban realist movement also came to the fore at the turn of the Millennium. Radmila Lazić (1949) collected this new writing in an anthology of Serbian urban poetry in 2009 under the curious title Zvezde su lepe ali nemam kad da ih gledam /Stars Are Beautiful But I Have no Time to Watch Them/. I did something similar in 2010 by compiling a sizeable anthology of contemporary Croatian urban realist poetry Drugom stranom (Different Drum), so there are similarities definitely in the way our scenes have developed over the last decade or so.


MD: You have been working in the UN International Court in Netherlands (the Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to be exact) as a translator since 1996 (a fascinating job!), so basically you have lived outside of your native country since the war was over. (Are you a Dutch citizen by the way?) But you seem to be closely connected to the poetry and poets in your home country. Why is it necessary for you to stay connected with homeland? Do you define yourself as a Croatian poet or “international” poet?


DŠ: Yes, I was very lucky in that respect, to have ended up with a daily job like this one: being a translator for the United Nations. International law is a relatively new concept and many of us at the Yugoslav Tribunal believe that our legacy will in the future have a profound impact on the creation of truly independent international justice in the sense that one day no crime will go unpunished regardless of who committed it or where.

I have lived for so many years outside my country, but fortunately not outside my language, because the language I translate into on a daily basis is mostly Croatian. In a way it is a weird situation, having a job working with your own language in a foreign country. So far in the international arena it has been mostly the case of native speakers of English who managed to live off their language skills, generally working in Third World countries, whereas in my case the situation is somewhat reversed, because I work with a “Third World” language, so to speak, in a First World country. By the way, I still haven’t mastered the Dutch language, nor did I take up Dutch citizenship, primarily because I never wanted to settle here permanently. I came for work out of innate curiosity and frankly looking for an experience that would someday perhaps provide me with solid and intriguing material for writing. Also, one must be honest and not disregard the financial benefit of the whole enterprise as well.

As for language, I have always written in Croatian, because that is the language that inhabits my inner space and it would be very difficult for me to fully express myself in any other language. Furthermore, my publishers are in Zagreb and I am an active member of the Croatian Writers’ Society (HDP) and the Croatian PEN, so naturally I go to Croatia often because I love to hang out with my literary friends, not only in Croatia, but in other countries of the former Yugoslavia as well. Just several weeks ago I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to promote my book of selected poems in Slovenian at the festival there and to spend some quality time with my Slovenian friends, poets Jurij Hudolin, Primož Repar, Barbara Pogačnik….

I consider myself primarily a Croatian poet, but also an international one, simply because of my schizophrenic geographical placement and itinerant lifestyle that I have been cultivating for so long. I think that you are also pretty much in a similar situation shuttling between China and the US as well as many other places. Finally, so many classic writers that I love so much, such as Joyce, Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Miller, Vallejo, Gombrowicz, Nabokov, Hemingway, Benjamin, Sebald, Bolaño… were all expats. By the way, another expat, Gertrude Stein, once emphasized that a writer must have two countries — one to which he belongs and the other where he lives! Also, somebody rightly pointed out that writing in itself is a form of exile.


MD: You’ve been very actively involved in poetry, as a poet, translator, and editor. I know you are working on an anthology of contemporary Croatian poetry and will try to publish it in USA. What will the title be? Do you feel obligated to promote the poetry from your country? Why?


DŠ: Yes, I will try to put together an anthology of contemporary Croatian poetry together with a friend who is a very experienced and highly profiled American poet. The title will most probably be the same as the one I gave to my Croatian version — Different Drum — to mark all these different voices and to emphasize that Croatian poetry in the international context has really been stylistically “marching to a different drum”, which sets it apart from many other poetics around the world. I don’t really feel obligated to promote Croatian poetry, as nobody pressured me into doing it, but I love doing it as much as I can, because poetry and language are my passion, so it seems in a way like the most natural thing to do.


MD: Let’s come back to your own poetry. I met you in Stockholm in 2010 and translated a few poems of yours. “The Cane” left me a deep impression. It starts with your typical wry sense of humor but ends with an unexpected tender feeling. Do you like this poem yourself? Is there any element missing in the English translation? (The poem is provided below for reference.)


DŠ: By the way, thank you for having a good opinion of my poetry and for putting yourself through the inconvenience of translating them. I wrote the poem The Cane actually thinking of W.B. Yeats and his pronounced interest in the occult and metaphysical. I believe that in this age humanity is looking for some kind of a spiritual crutch, because one feels as if all of the big religions, as well as ideologies, have gradually failed us, so we are perhaps now even more alone in the Universe than ever before, and the atmosphere in Yeats’s well-known poem Second Coming nowadays reads almost like a metaphorical backdrop behind the evening news, because “the falcon cannot” really “hear the falconer!” Not to mention the powerful line — “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity!” — that Slavoj Žižek often quotes to illustrate the spirit of the times that we are living in.

So, yes I started the poem with Yeats in mind, but then — as it often happens with poetry — the poem veered off towards a more intimate space wherein one contemplates all kinds of things, such as the fear of aging, physical decay, death and most of all the frailty of human relations.

Regarding the English translation, I don’t think there’s anything in particular missing there. In principle I hate to overanalyze translations of my own poetry, because I’m often way too grateful and excited when they happen.


MD: You majored in English literature and have translated many Anglo-American poets into Croatian. But what are the problems you have encountered in translating Croatian poetry into English? What’s your primary objective in publishing an anthology in US?


DŠ: The potential problems one may encounter when translating Croatian poetry into English would have mostly to do with the tendency of Croatian poets to overemphasize the metaphoric potentials of language, sometimes at the expense of overall logic and clarity. Also, the elasticity of Slavic languages in terms of how easily they lend themselves to coining new words — and consequently meanings — is sometimes very hard to carry into English. On the other hand, translating American poets has taught me how to pay attention to the transparency of thought and expression.

The primary objective of trying to have an anthology of Croatian poetry in the US is to place Croatian poetry on the international literary map as a separate and visible entity. I have learned over the years while living in the West that small countries can actually brand themselves positively through their culture, no matter how catastrophic their economic situation might be. In that sense, speaking in purely capitalist terms (laughter!), I would like to believe that Croatian poetry is an exquisite, high quality product, far better actually than the famed Croatian wines from the Adriatic islands.


MD: How was your teaching in US this year? Were you considered as a European poet or a CROATIAN poet? What really defines a poet and what differentiates one from another?


DŠ: Teaching a poetry workshop at the Sierra Nevada College MFA program was an incredible experience. I was sharing classes with my friend, the Palestinian poet Nathalie Handal and it transpired that we can really work well as a team. I am very thankful to her and the excellent poet Brian Turner (a former US soldier who served in Iraq) for bringing me over there. Also, the students were great and they taught me a lot. I was very impressed by the American no-nonsense approach to the subject matter of poetry. They don’t mystify things and they are very down to earth. Furthermore, there’s no ageism on campus and nobody will be disqualified for having a late start in literature or anything like that. The age range of our students was from 23 to 63, which made the classes and discussions very fruitful and dynamic. It was a great opportunity for me as well to meet some amazing writers such as poets Matthey Sweeney and Mary Noonan from Ireland, the poet and prominent travel writer Suzanne Roberts, the great African-American poet Patricia Smith, and rising stars in American new fiction Téa Obreht and Alexi Zentner, as well as the whole bunch of other very interesting individuals.

I think I was perceived over there mostly as a European poet, since that was already exotic enough (laughter!) and then maybe as a Croatian one. I mean, look at the proportions — the whole of Croatia is population-wise like a lower Manhattan. Sometimes I wonder why don’t we just appoint a mayor instead of a president? It would be much easier to run things politically (laughter!).

Generally speaking, what defines a poet and sets him apart from his fellow creatures is the ability to speak in his own, unique voice, and that in itself is very hard to attain as you have artistically to live through — what Harold Bloom described as — the anxiety of influence. You have to learn from others and at the same time remain uncorrupted. Some people are almost born with an original voice, while others arrive at it at certain point, so there are no rules, but the quality of an individual voice is of utmost importance, because that’s what poetry essentially is — a one (wo)man’s voice crying for attention in the wilderness of indifference.



I wonder whether I’ll ever have a cane

that blind men old men gentlemen use

a cane I can test the ice with like Yeats

or tap on the sidewalk, scare bugs

and pigeons when the disquieted times

come, those gaunt old downhill years

I’ll need that cane

something of a cane of rosewood or

some other wood, a cane of pastimes

and even an exclamation cane

which is indeed a clothespin of a cane

joining the earth to a hand,

their interlocking pair of pliers

where you loved me once.

By Damir Šodan
Translated by Stephen M. Dickey


Damir Šodan (1964), Croatian poet and playwright, has published four volumes of poetry, two collections of plays, and an anthology of contemporary Croatian “neorealist” poetry. He was awarded the Držić prize for the burlesque Chick lit (2012) and the 1st prize at the playwriting competition for ex-Yugoslav writers in Vienna (2000) for the dark comedy Zaštićena zona (Safe Area). In 2012 he represented Croatia at the Poetry Parnassus, the “poetry Olympics” in London. He is an associate editor of Poezija and Quorum magazines in Zagreb and a member of the Croatian Writers’ Association (HDP) and the Croatian P.E.N. Centre. He works as a translator and divides his time between the Hague, the Netherlands and Split, Croatia.