Tomaž is kind of a portmanteau, a suitcase split into two parts. It’s a series of interviews Joshua Beckman did with Tomaž Šalamun which were cut short by is Šalamun’s death on December 27, 2014. As Beckman continued interviewing Šalamun, which was intended to be a longer project, Šalamun got sick and couldn’t continue.
Beckman has constructed, from these interviews, an extended narrative poem of Tomaž Šalamun’s early life beginning in 1949 when he was a child in Slovenia and continuing until he came to Iowa in 1970. The book is in Šalamun’s first person voice, but center aligned and shaped into lines by Joshua Beckman. Beckman explains that these fragments broken into lines showed Šalamun’s “conversational speech as well as the strange drifting parade that is his storytelling style.”
The effect of this amalgam shows the poetry of Šalamun’s thinking and reinscribes his life in poetry. Tomaž is further evidence that more of Šalamun’s work should be translated into English. It shows a sensitive and accessible portrait of the early development of this important poet.
Šalamun (1941-2014) is one of Slovenia’s most important poets, and he was prolific. He wrote approximately 40 books, nine of which have been translated into English. His poetry has an edgy invective and sometimes self-deprecating tone; indebted to French Surrealism and the avant-garde, Šalamun’s poems do not completely throw off their Slavic roots, or their American optimism and vigor. They somehow shine clarity on savageness, but with a knowing or winking sophistication.
Tomaž describes how his interest in poetry first emerged under the strict political controls of his native country. His first encounter with poetry made him think they were “something / in between human and god,” and he says his “first poems / really dropped / like stones / from the sky.”
One of his teachers encouraged him, and he was first published in Perspektive, the main cultural journal of Slovenia. In a context totally alien to poets in the United States, he was paid for his first six poems more than his mother’s monthly salary, even though she was a “high up” librarian. He says:
I got thirty thousand dinars
and my mother’s salary was twenty-seven and my father
who was director of all the hospitals in the area
got seventy thousand
Šalamun took advantage of his originality and peripheral status to confound both social and political values. Many of his poems were seen as politically risky and transgressive. He says:
so it was maddening because it was pre-Beatles era pre-Bob Dylan communist time poetry has an incredible impact
especially poetry under political duress
The book also chronicles his sexual awakening and romantic relationships with both men and women. This aspect of his desire is reflected in the various juxtapositions and surprises that characterize his poems. His porousness to convey the immediacy of his experience, along with his nomadic spirit, puts the contradictions in his poems in high relief:
I was her hundred and thirty-seventh man she was probably mostly
it was as total sexual occasion my three months in Paris
I practically spent in bed
Šalamun’s forthright vulnerability and tenderness is constantly set against all kinds of political and domestic pressures; his ambition in poetry, too, was confounded by the fact that he wrote in Slovenian, a language almost no one reads:
I lived a really confused
a half-gay half-confused life
I barely escaped two different women
In 1970 Penguin published a few of his poems in an anthology, NewWritinginYugoslavia,and this helped him get into the International Writing Program at Iowa. There, he met Anselm Hollo (1934-2013), a Finnish poet influenced by the Beat Generation:
spending time with Anselm mostly writing like crazy mostly enjoying
Šalamun’s life in Ljubljana was stressful: his work was condemned by the president of the Academy of Arts and Sciences as “toilet poetry.” His name couldn’t be mentioned on the radio and he struggled “to decapitate my narcissism / with a poem / but I was unbearable.” His work was controversial because his poems offer curved mirrors which allow readers to see themselves in ways that make them uncomfortable.
His wife, Maruška Krese, left him, and his reputation made him unemployable. He went back to his father’s hometown, Koper, and went door to door selling encyclopedias. Drifting from one muse to another, he married an artist, Metka Krašovec, to whom he wrote the final poem in the book:
For weeks I was hauling her on buses and gave her to eat everything: sacred mushrooms
and Moon Pyramid. With me one sleeps on hard floors among
scorpions but also there where one plucks
fruit murmuring, you’re the color, you’re the color.
Although probably more interesting to completists than people unfamiliar with Šalamun’s poetry, this book offers insights into the circumstances under which he developed as a writer, his personal problems, his early travels, romantic relationships, and experiences in the United States for the first time.
Sean Singer was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, in 1974. He has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. Singer is the author of three books of poetry: Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and Today in the Taxi (Tupelo Press, 2022). In 2005 he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.