From suitcases tied with rope to a room packed with books
The poet Charles Simic has been as prolific as he has been lauded for his originality. His newest collection, “Come Closer and Listen: New Poems,” brings his total close to 40. Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia during World War II and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was teenager. He taught at the University of New Hampshire for more than 30 years and has won a Pulitzer Prize as well as a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
BOOKS: What are you reading?
SIMIC: At my age, 81, I mostly re-read, even going back to the poetry of the Greeks and Romans. My favorite poets in American literature are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman’s poems tend to be uneven so I read him less than Dickinson. I’m never exhausted by the riches of her poems. I read those two whenever I need to get my bearing as a poet. Poetry is as much inspired by poetry as it is by life and the world.
BOOKS: Have you always been a re-reader?
SIMIC: I’ve done that throughout my life. A poet’s reading is not systematic. I’ll look over and see Wallace Stevens and then turn the pages until I find something that inspires me.
BOOKS: Do you read contemporary poetry?
SIMIC: There are dozens of contemporary poets I admire. David Rivard and Deborah Landau, for example. The last few decades have been an astonishingly interesting period in American poetry. For example, my contemporary Charles Wright is about to bring out a book of his complete poems this fall, a volume of some 700 pages. I was astonished by how well they have stood the test of time.
BOOKS: Do you read novels?
SIMIC: Not as much as I used to because my eyes are bad, but I love novels.
BOOKS: What is the last novel you read?
SIMIC: I picked up Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” earlier this summer after almost 30 years and found it still full of laughs and brilliant stretches of writing, but was also struck by how contrived and implausible the plot was. Herzog’s misogyny also got tiresome to me. I’m afraid his novels are not aging well.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits?
SIMIC: It depends on what I'm reading. An absorbing book will keep me in bed all day.
BOOKS: What was the last book that kept you in bed all day?
SIMIC: The recently published notebooks of Victor Serge, a Russian writer who participated in the 1918 revolution and later in the Spanish Civil War, and then lived in France and Mexico during World War II. His notebooks tell about his encounters with countless revolutionaries from around the world, many of whom he got to know well, including Trotsky.
BOOKS: Did you grow up with a lot of books in your house?
SIMIC: My father and mother both loved to read so I grew up in a house full of books. Once I was a teenager I started peeking into what the grown-ups were reading. Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” and “Great Expectations” are the first grown-up books I read. Today my favorite of his books is the more realistic “Hard Times,” the bleak story of an English mill and the supposedly deeply religious owners whose cruelty reminds us of the same type of people we encounter today.
BOOKS: Did your family bring any books with them from Europe?
SIMIC: No. We were immigrants. All we had were three suitcases tied with rope.
BOOKS: Do you own any books with special significance?
SIMIC: Many of the books that I treasure in my library are by poet friends who have passed away. I turn their pages and relive our youth, books like Mark Strand’s “Sleeping with One Eye Open,” James Tate’s “The Lost Pilot,” Phil Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and Bill Knott’s “The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans.”
BOOKS: Do you know what you’ll read next?
SIMIC: It’s hard to say. In this room packed with my books I’ll grope around, find something and then get lost in it. I’m so happy with a book in my hand.