Guest blog

‘You cannot heal society without complexity’: an interview with Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun - Photo: Retha Ferguson

Dancing in Other Words, 10-11 May 2013, Spier, Stellenbosch.

Tomaž Šalamun speaks of the modern “ethical collapse”, and the ways in which poetry responds to this, to “fight the selfish powers”. His way of speaking can be magnificently evocative, with its slow spiritualist inflection, the enjambment of his foreign tongue. “Poetry,” says the Slovenian poet, “is such an old institution. It is 5000 years; a sacred pillar of healing powers, of balancing good and evil.” This might strike the more critical reader as precisely the kind of poetic idealism which evades any real inquiry into the ontology of poetry and its material contingency, except through a succession of coruscating phrases, each beautifully occlusive. Šalamun does not simply write poetry: he “speaks” poetry; it is the language of his communication. The danger is an interview which sprawls into an aesthetics of the sublime and transcendent, while becoming immediately available to the charge of having no real analytic value. It is there, for example, when, speaking of the Dancing in Other Words festival and its various performances, he tells me that: “Each poet was the world in itself.” Of the South Korean poet Ko Un, he says: “His word and his body are one.” Within minutes he is telling me that: “Writing poetry can be dangerous. The words are like a drug. It is such a strong drug that it can damage your intellectual habits. It can rewind your brains.”

This is the danger – the bristling and dreaded potential – of poetry (I mean “poetry” in the vastest, most inclusive textual sense): its luminous phrases gush through each channel of sense and intellect. It enjoins its participants into a superb cathexis, a bodily and emotional entering-into the world. You can get lost in that labyrinth of the imagination, at the expense of registering material domains. These kinds of phenomena become very apparent when asking poets precisely how their poetry engages the world. Šalamun tells me that he “really believes in poetry as a healing power, as a transformative power. I don’t necessarily believe in shouting political slogans […] Poetry has a strong social role.” When I ask him how he personally envisions this social role, he says: “There’s a big discussion going on [regarding whether] poetry is transformative enough to really help society,” and the related questions of “what should we write?” and “how should we act?” He continues, saying: “Some young people think that poetry as poetry is just too bland and does not have enough social consequences. It should be stricter and more direct.” Šalamun both agrees and disagrees with this, marking 1971 as a time in which he witnessed young poets give themselves over strongly to the sociopolitical imperative: “They stopped, because they were not poets. These were just political slogans. Poetry is much richer; real poetry brings in very complex worlds. You cannot heal society without complexity. Political engagement simply leads to new political parties and new political parties… Power speaks to power.”

It might be imperious for me to insert my own commentary into an interview with Šalamun, but his remarks don’t quite seem to catch what’s at stake here: namely, that if poetry is “transformative”, it is not only that, and its transformative potential might be limited to certain social sectors, and limited in its abilities to properly transform. That politics without poetry invokes a frigid and bleak world – a reductio ad absurdum of political parties thrashing over scraps of power – is fine and correct, but the suppressed conversation is one regarding the alienating bourgeois precedents of poetry and poetry festivals like this one, a task of critique I take up in my report of “The World as Decayed Metaphor”.

Elsewhere, Šalamun and I discuss the issue of translation and he references some of his own conflicts with the practice, and the adaptations and creative engagements required to bring out the fullest complement of meaning in the migratory lurch from one language to another. “I do believe in translation,” he tells me. He speaks of the “kernel” of a poem and its location in the anatomy of that language, explaining how the kernel remains in the translation, but its locus is shifted elsewhere in the flesh of its lines. “Everything is a dance, and we hope we can transfer this dance. The title of this festival is so precise, and I love the ritualistic part of this event: it’s so connected with our ancestors, with our tribe, with the land.” Šalamun has much to say about his biographic coming to poetry – his brief jailing, his prepubescent rebellion against the piano – and the influence of the small and “incestuous” place of Slovenia on his writing, and his attitudes to poetry and politics. He says that he maintains a “suspicion” and a “distance from” politics, but his commitments to a socially conscious poetry – whatever this might finally mean – are available in all his words.

This entry was posted in Blogs, Guest blog