Q&A: Charles Simic

Charles Simic, and below, the title poem of his latest book.

That Little Something

The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It's like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.

She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking not in a million years...

It's one of those summer afternoons
Where one needs a good excuse
To step out of the cool shade.
In the meantime, whatever became of her?

And why years laer do you still,
Off and on cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late?

U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic was Baruch College's 10th Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence this spring semester. A Belgrade native who arrived in America more than a half-century ago speaking little English, he has since garnered numerous honors that include the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection The World Never Ends, the 2007 Wallace Stevens Award for Poetry and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." He spoke recentlyl with CUNY Radio's Sudip Mukherjee.

Q: How do you perceive America's current interest in poetry?

Charles Simic: Tremendous. Much more so than when I started in the 1950s. There are a lot of poets, a lot of good poets. A lot of poetry is being written, a lot of literary magazines are being published. Web sites. Writing programs almost in every college and university. Creative writing classes even in some high schools. I don't think ever before has there been so much interest in poetry.

Q: When you moved to the United States you were 15 and a non-English speaker. When and in what language did you start writing poetry?

A: I started writing in English. I knew some English when I came, not much. It wasn't very good. I came in 1954; by spring of 1956, my last semester in high school in Oak Park, Illinois, I started writing poetry. I wrote in English because I wanted to show my poems to my friends and I couldn't write in my native language because they wouldn't know. I didn't know what I was doing; nobody does. You start kind of fumbling around. You write about this, that, the city, the life of the city, love poems, God knows what.

Q: Who were some of your early inspirations?

A: Well, when I started I didn't read as much poetry as I read fiction. But the first poets that I really liked are William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot —everybody loved T.S. Eliot.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your position as Baruch College's Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence.

A: It was a great honor to be invited. This is a very distinguished position at Baruch College and to be part of that was very, very attractive. The students are terrific. I've been teaching poetry workshops for 35, 36, maybe even more years. You see [students] in conferences, teach them how poems are made, how they're revised and all the aspects of poetry. [Baruch] students come from a great ethnic and racial mix; most of them are children of immigrants. So this is wonderful. I just really adore it. It reminds me of the days when I was a kid, what they used to say, off the boat. These kids are just off the boat. So I'm kind of reliving my youth.

Q: What contributes to the urban motif featured in most of your poetry?

A: Well I was born in the city, Belgrade. I lived afterwards in Paris. When I was back in the United States, I lived in New York, I lived in Chicago. I lived in New York for many, many years. I still spend a lot of time in New York City. So cities are really in the heart of my imagination. I constantly think about the city. Just as a poet, we have to choose where we feel more at home and I feel very much at home in the city of New York.

Q: You also write most of your poetry with plainspoken observation. Why is that?

A: I try to make my poems accessible, to make them almost disarming in their approach. They seem at first simple and then hopefully as readers read the poem, they'll begin to see that there's more to it. But a welcoming style that says come in, make yourself at home. But then strange things begin to happen.