I met Alexander Shurbanov in Sofia during the summer of 2016, on the occasion of a brief visit to the capital of Bulgaria connected with the publication of a collection of my poems by the Scalino publishers. If I insist on mentioning this detail, it is not in order to blow my horn but to stress that at that time Alexander Shurbanov, who had agreed to take part in the book launch, made himself available to an author previously unknown to him for no personal interest but simply for love of writing and popularizing literature.
Since then I have had the good fortune of deepening my acquaintance with Alexander Shurbanov and reading myself further into his poetry. And if the latter has impressed me so much it is not only due to its indubitable merits but also to the fact that these merits stem from the same harmony that had produced that indelible impression on me at first meeting its author, a person of immense culture and yet of boundless transparency, free from any presumption or arrogance, of an open and sincere smile, capable of expressing even complex concepts in an accessible and simple way far removed from banality. So when I was given the opportunity to have a conversation with him, I accepted it with great enthusiasm, imagining that I would once more experience the same attitude and would be able to ask him questions irrespective of whether they are addressed to the author or to the person, for never have the two coalesced with such natural ease as in this case.
First of all, I want to underline that for me it is an honour to have known you and to receive today the opportunity to dialogize with you on your poetry and on poetry more generally. Knowing your approachability and your patience, I am very curious to consider the answers you will provide, and I am sure they will open interesting perspectives to me as to all readers.
The first thing I would like to ask you is if you remember on what occasion you wrote your first poem (as a child, as a boy, or already an adult) and how then your relationship with poetic writing evolved to full awareness?
I do not keep record of my early attempts at writing poetry but my recollection is that they occurred almost as soon as I learned how to write the letters of the alphabet and put them into words. I was certainly rhyming unpretentious little verses about the seasons of the year, birds, trees and clouds when I was eight or nine. This was still a kind of childish game like all other games, only I gradually became conscious of the fact that most of the other children I was playing with did not feel, like me, the urge to suddenly withdraw in the middle of the game and look for a pencil and a piece of paper. This was a thing that made me different and strange in my own eyes, though I wasn’t sure whether it pleased or annoyed me. Most certainly, at the moment when a poem started coming into being, I felt I was part of a miracle that was hard to grasp. It was after I turned sixteen and saw the first publications of my poems in high-school literary magazines and papers that I began to think of myself as a budding poet. But even at that fairly early age I knew that being a poet was not a profession like that of the engineer or the architect, it was rather a kind of condition, which would probably be with me indefinitely, and this premonition turned out to be true. I have always looked with suspicion at people who readily present themselves as poets and think this word defines them unequivocally. To my mind, there are only a few poets in the whole history of humanity – such as Pushkin and Byron, and Botev in Bulgaria, while the rest could only say that they have tried to write poetry but are hardly in a position to pin the badge Poet on their lapel. And quite early on, I realized that if I were to enter into the true domain of poetry I ought to prepare myself for a long and not always happy journey.
From the answer to the first question I asked, two more questions arise.
The first: is one of the conditions for trying to write poetry loneliness? I mean not just being alone, but a sort of inner solitude that reveals itself in some way incurable.
The very nature of poets and writers, as well as the nature of their work, is such that they need seclusion, withdrawal from the madding crowd. An important contemporary Bulgarian poet, Ivan Radoev, remarks: “A talent must above all obtain solitude.” Virginia Woolf wrote her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” with similar ideas in mind. The very stance of poets, their way of communicating, is solitary, almost solipsistic. Osip Mandelstam said jokingly: “Normally, when a person has something to say, he goes to people, he seeks out audience. Yet, a poet does the opposite: he runs ‘to the shores of desert waves, to broad and resonant oaks’”, referring us to a famous poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. So we can say that poetry is a non-discourse, a kind of silent speaking to oneself. Sometimes we complain that our occupation is lonely and therefore our life is lonely. But aren’t we really trying, by speaking to ourselves to speak to the entire world? Isn’t the seemingly secluded poet hyper-sociable in fact? Isn’t the poet capable, unlike most people, to converse with all animate and inanimate things? Sometimes I feel that poets are often lonely because they are overambitious in their attempt to communicate with their entire environment, and such an attempt is bound to leave them unsatisfied and frustrated. I know this well enough from my own experience.
The second question (which might seem contradictory, given that we previously talked of loneliness, but, in my opinion, it is not) is inspired by people who present themselves as “poets”. Is one of the qualities necessary to write poetry humility, understood as the ability not to always focus on attention, but to know how to listen to others too?
I am not sure about that. Poets are more often than not self-centered, again because of the nature of what they are engaged in, but also because of personal predisposition. They look most of the time into themselves trying to draw the truth about the whole world from the inner recesses of their being. This ineradicable characteristic can make a poet appear conceited and therefore unlikable. But to be a poet, one also has to be intensely sensitive to everything in one’s environment, for sensitivity is another name of the imagination. A self-centeredness excluding sensitivity always ends up in vanity and cannot but produce hollowness.
You are a person of great experience and vast culture, in different areas (not only in the literary one). Thinking in particular of the ‘Foresun’ collection, I would like to ask you what role did the great classics of painting play for you? The first names that come to my mind are Bruegel and Vermeer: you seem to have somehow established a communication with them, contributing to a commonality between pictorial and poetic language?
I am particularly fond of artists who are both intensely sensuous and thoughtful at the same time. Brueghel and Vermeer – like most North-European painters – are of this category. Rembrandt – especially with his late self-portraits, and Cranach and Memling are of the same kin. Their pictures are attractive and give pleasure to my eyes but they also look back into me and disturb me, making me think. Of the southern masters I would without hesitation add Velasquez to this number. One day I stood in the Prado Museum in front of his great canvas “Las Meninas” and I thought I would never step away from this miracle which draws you almost physically into itself. Of the more recent painters I like a great Austrian, Egon Schiele and a contemporary Bulgarian, Stefan Markov. In the excited union of the senses and the mind lies, I believe, the secret of all true art, be it painting or music or poetry. For the thinking of an artist is not like that of the philosopher, separated from the senses; neither is it like that of the scientist, divorced from all emotions. It heals the fissures of consciousness and restores the wholeness of the mind. Art is always playful, but if it is a game it is a restorative one.
When you mention Egon Schiele, one immediately thinks of his sharp, angular bodies, which cannot contain their suffering. So I ask you if your poetry was born also from moments of suffering, and if somehow – as happens for some authors – it also had a therapeutic function: perhaps poetry itself is not a medicine and therefore does not heal, but it can help cope with pain.
My way of writing poetry is rarely confessional, though at times it obviously is. But by communicating intensely with the outside world I frequently project my own griefs and joys on what surrounds me. And, conversely, through the mechanism of empathy I experience the pains and exhilarations of all things as if these sensations were my own. This mutuality, I think, can be felt in quite a few of the poems gathered in my recent collections Foresun and Dendrarium, like the one about the destitute stranger rummaging in the garbage bin, or the woman confiding in the tree, or the trembling bough deserted by an unseen bird. Have things like these happened around me or within me? And is this a question that a poet can answer?
You also ask if poetry can be therapeutic? In a way all art is. The most formidable tragedy played in the theatre leaves you somehow enlightened. Aristotle, it appears, called this effect catharsis. Art is always cathartic both for its audience and for the artist too, because it endeavours to make pain meaningful. It is incapable of solving all problems that we are faced with, but it can formulate them and thus deprive them of their unarticulated horror.
One of the most evident characteristics of your poetry is that, although you are an intellectual, your writing always remains direct and intelligible. However, there is a huge difference between “simplicity” and “banality”: the second is the failure of poetry, while an essential and direct (but NOT trivial) form of communication seems to be the almost painful conquest of the obsessive work on one’s writing. Is this so?
In a note to my book Dendrarium, the English poet Peter Robinson generously complimented its poems by quoting Keats’s famous aphorism: “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” I don’t believe in the kind of poetry which is intentionally dark and impenetrable. These developments appeared first in the age of modernism and became particularly prominent towards the close of the twentieth century. Such “difficult” poetry did not appear in Chaucer’s time or in Spenser’s. Even the strongly intellectual Metaphysical poets or the skeptical ironists of Pope’s school did not strive
to cut themselves off from their readers. Petrarch’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets are transparent without being simplistic. Though even Shakespeare apparently felt the sting of scornful condescension levelled at unpretentious writings when he listed among the inequities of his time “simple truth miscalled simplicity”. I feel that simple truth is the cornerstone of all art and a dedicated artist should always build on it unabashed by accusations of “simplicity”.
As for concision, yes, I believe that poetry should not be wordy, because its true power resides not in the beauty of the words it employs but rather in the voltaic arc which miraculously sparkles between the rightly chosen words. At times I may err on the side of extreme laconism, but brevity to my mind is not just the soul of wit, as Polonius wisely declares, but the soul of poetry too.
Another fundamental aspect of your poetic writing is the sense of amazement. It may be said that poetry needs and is born only in the presence of amazement. Is this so? And, if we can try to define what it means to be a poet today, can we venture to say that the poet is a man or woman who practices amazement? A person who in some respects retains the gaze of a child but envelops it in the awareness of an adult?
A couple of decades ago I wrote this self-portrait, which, I think, still reflects my present cast of mind:
Perched on its stilts
the water bird
rummages in the shallow of the river.
who has waded through middle age,
continues to look at the world
with the eyes of a newcomer.
What can lurk
between those smooth pebbles
beneath the transparent flow –
or in them,
in the pebbles themselves?
What propels poetry into being is indeed, as you suggest, amazement at the continuous wonders of this world, at its complexities resolved in utter simplicity. Being compelled to deal with the problems of everyday life in the most effective practical way, we often forget to peer through this screen of ephemeral occurrences into the true dimensions of reality, thus squandering our brief sojourn in this treasure trove of wonders where we live without so much as noticing them. Poetry is here to keep turning our eyes in the right direction and make life worth living. It is so important to rediscover this perspective now, when the digital substitute of reality coupled with the fantasy fad in popular art alienate the new generations from their actual environment and can gradually open an unbridgeable chasm between us and our actual world.
I would like to continue following the direction of the previous question, and ask you something deeply personal, without however being intrusive. I imagine that, as it happens for everyone, your first collections had the enthusiasm and unreasonableness of the young man, while over time your poetry has become increasingly mature. So I ask you if there is something you think you have lost on the way and what you think you have gained.)
Yes, the romantic enthusiasm, the cheerful optimism, the playful euphony of rhymes, which characterized my youthful poetry are irretrievably lost and replaced by an often bitter, skeptical irony and the dissonances of a free verse drawing its diction and its rhythms from the living language of the city. I’d like to think that the earlier pure contemplation of the world is replaced by a deeper and more serious penetration into its complexities. And I can only hope that my mature work has not become drier and harsher in the process of this transformation. If you ask me what may have caused these changes, they would probably have happened anyway with the advancement of age, but the historical development of our time with its many drastic crises, switchbacks and disappointments, especially as far as Eastern Europe is concerned, will have taken their toll too. As an artist you can only hope that your inner world is in consonance with the outside world and therefore your work is an adequate reflection of your time, but you can never vouch for that. It is enough to know that your voice remains clear and unaffected. The rest is not for you to control or pass judgment on.
In many of your poems there is certainly a social or, if you prefer, a civil dimension. It seems, however, that you favor a “human” gaze towards people who have an unfortunate existence (I think of the gypsy in Foresun, or the man who looks for something in the garbage), while being careful to avoid the temptation of writing didactic poetry. Do you believe that poetry, and your poetry in particular, is also an instrument of compassion, I mean in the literal sense of the word, that is, of “suffering together” with those who have no one to rely on?
Poetry is not oratory. The difference between the two is in that poetry is not written for public delivery although it is eventually submitted to the public. Poetry is by definition intimate, a kind of discourse with one’s own self and not an act of persuasion. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, notably Mayakovsky, de Lisle, Schiller in his “Ode to Joy”, etc. But, by and large, although poets often touch on social and political issues, these themes are extensions, excrescences of their introspection, products of an empathetic relation with the world and the troubles and sufferings of other human beings, especially the underprivileged and the weak, of which we take little notice. My poetic concerns with civil problems are invariably of this kind. Poetry can rarely become a flag bearer but it can always be useful as an eye opener.
The natural world is very much present in your poetry: not only is man seen as part (one of many parts, not the most important one) of nature, but often nature itself seems to become almost an example to follow. I think of many of the Dendrarium trees, which take on almost human features, but at the same time remain part of the harmony of creation and do not want to become the absolute protagonists instead. I ask you if this is so, if in your opinion man should learn to take a step back.
O yes, very much so. Man has been much too arrogant for much too long, treating nature like mere raw material for his ever increasing needs and whims, forgetting that nature is what sustains his life and ensures his wellbeing. Man’s unreasonable greed has begun more and more seriously to threaten nature with extinction, thus cutting the branch on which we are all sitting. The clock is ticking. If we intend to continue living on this grossly harassed planet, we must come to our senses as soon as possible and re-learn the forgotten lessons of all pre-monotheistic, “primitive” religions, which taught people to worship animals and plants, rocks and rivers as gorgeous deities instead of treating them with scorn as expendable inferiors. This philosophy, I would like to think, is at the core of my poetry.
You make a precise reference to the historical changes of the last decades, especially in Eastern Europe. For me, and for many who, like me, lived that moment on the other side of the wall, it is difficult to fully understand what the hopes and disappointments of these historical passages consist of. It is therefore natural for me to ask you, who has also lived outside Bulgaria, and therefore probably has had the opportunity to observe recent history “on both sides of the wall”, to say more about this.
We, who have spent most of our lives behind the Iron Curtain, in so-called Eastern Europe, were taught from our earliest age that we were destined to live in a classless society blessed with absolute equality, brotherhood and justice for all, free from the inequity of predatory capitalism. It did not take us long to discover that this was at best wishful thinking and, at worst, a vicious lie used by a ruling caste to keep its populace in subjection. This was our first great disappointment. A series of subsequent reforms holding the promise of liberalization and eventually proving delusory punctuated the latter part of the socialist era. Then, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 we cheered up again, hoping that at long last freedom was dawning on us and we were going to spend the rest of our lives in normal conditions. But it soon transpired that our homeland had been implacably plundered by its former rulers and that, in a new guise, they were still in control of its fates. A second major disappointment! Further, having lived in a closed society, behind the Wall, we had imagined the democratic West to be a fairyland, something not unlike the communist utopia with which we had been raised. But now, when the doors were opened and we started becoming part of a globalizing world, we realized that what awaited us was far from being a new earthly paradise and was fraught with formidable problems. A third disappointment! It was high time for us, the denizens of the East, to grow up and become realists. A sensible, long overdue transformation indeed, but not a happy one.
Each writer has masters, not necessarily living, but rather the authors who inspired and showed them how deep it was possible to go with their research in writing. May I ask you who are yours?)
I have never consciously tried to learn from or imitate other poets. But, of course, I have admired and wished I could write like quite a few. My unplanned schooling in poetic composition started, naturally, with reading and effortlessly memorizing the work of quite a few Bulgarian poets from the late nineteenth century to the contemporary age. Very soon after that, I started immersing myself in the poetry of the great Russian tradition: Pushkin, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Brodsky, bravely and appreciatively reading them in the original and again memorizing quite a bit. To this day I can reproduce from memory extensive fragments of their poems. A little later other European masters joined the Slavs: Heinrich Heine, Goethe, Jacques Prevert, Rilke, all of these read mostly in translation, though frequently with a side glance at the original in an attempt to grasp the rhythmic organization of their verse. Finally, with the advance of my studies of English, especially during my university years, I grew more and more familiar, and fell in love, with the writings of Donne, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and the Americans Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams. I feel strong affinity for the work of the last- mentioned poet, particularly for his fascinating ekphrastic poems. It would give me pleasure to know that I have learned something from each of those I have mentioned and a host of others, like the Czech Miroslav Holub or the Poles Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, but I cannot be sure of that. It is perhaps enough that I have had the privilege of being in touch with their remarkable creations.
What was the best advice you received during your writing career, and what was the worst, the one you consciously decided not to follow (but I don’t ask who you received it from)?
When I was still at school, a respected Bulgarian novelist, who had read a poem or two of mine and had noticed their tendency to fly into the regions of vague romantic fantasizing, advised me to turn to things closer to home, stemming from my actual experience. “Write about a ride on the tram,” he said, “rather than travelling to desert islands which you have never seen.” And a little later a fine poet, ten years older than me, while showing me how to revise a poem of mine, said: “You can always expand what you are composing, but it is useful to remember that a dog feels well on four leg – the addition of a fifth is not an improvement.” These pieces of advice have somehow sunk in and I’d like to believe that they have become part of me as a writing person. Have I also been taught untoward lessons, which I wisely decided not to follow? I don’t remember. And why should I? There is always, as Frost knows, a “road not taken” and your decisions at every crossing are what makes your life and your work recognizable.
“Writing is a peaceful death:
the world that has become bright is expanding
and forever burns its corner”
(translation by Alexander Shurbanov, ndr)
These are verses, which I find wonderful, by the Italian poet Valerio Magrelli. Wonderful and terrible, I add, because in them there is also the idea that in the long run a poet ends his world, and therefore ends what he has to say. Is this a doubt that has ever touched you?
This is all but inevitable. The world is finite and so is the human mind. Someone had said that a poet writes the selfsame poem again and again from his earliest to his last days. In the beginning the poem is entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated. Later it starts being chiselled more and more carefully, losing some of the old spontaneity and, hopefully, acquiring greater sophistication. But it is still the same poem, the expression of something that is at the very core of the poet’s engagement with the world. Self-repetition is not a vice as long as it is not literal and tedious.
Sometimes we speak of “female poetry” and it is a definition that I find very risky and simplistic, like all the classifications based on categories. However, I wanted to ask you if, in your opinion, it makes sense to speak of a “female sensitivity”, that is, if women and men (avoiding generalizations) sometimes, or often, have a different way of experiencing reality and, then, of writing about it.
I suppose there is a certain specific quality in some women’s poetry, which strikes us as associated with their sex, or – is it? – their gender. (I shall never be quite clear about the difference between these two concepts.) It is perhaps a finer gentleness and sensitivity, a fuller appreciation of love, of the family, a more detailed concreteness and intensity of perception, a distrust of abstractions. But such distinctions have nothing to do with the relative values of “male” and “female” poetry. Sappho, Dickinson, Akhmatova, the Bulgarian Elisaveta Bagryana, are every bit as important as the greatest men for the history of world poetry. And then, artists in general are constitutionally androgynous, so in principle the divide we are speaking about is spurious.
You have done a lot of work as a translator. Translating is a gesture of altruism: it is a question of putting one’s sensitivity at the service of another author’s poetry, knowing that something will inevitably be lost but something else will also be gained. How difficult is it to find the limit between “keeping the original” and “putting something of yourself” in the translation?
This is a matter of equilibrium, a kind of juggling performance. At times it becomes truly exasperating. The work which has been translated into another language does not belong to its author anymore, and the author indeed cannot be held responsible for anything that appears in it. But neither does it fully belong to the translator, the way an original work would, for it is, after all, no more than a reproduction – good or bad, faithful or not – of something that has already existed. A translation is always a thing of dubious parentage, an illegitimate child, or a changeling.
Having said that, I believe that translators should do their work in the most responsible way, allowing the author’s voice to sound through the new medium with its characteristic tone and to express the things expressed in the original to the last detail. At the same time, the translator should always keep in mind that s/he is not an obedient drudge but an associate and collaborator of the author – more than that, in fact, the author’s closest confidant/e. Such a relationship gives the translator a lot of confidence, without which no translator would be able to function. In order to recreate an artistic work in its full glory, the translator must feel free. Free and responsible at the same time, inventive and unobtrusive, imaginative and correct – so complex and contradictory a task that it is almost impossible to live up to it. This unattainability of perfection makes of even the best translation a tentative approximation rather than a definitive achievement. Any individual translation is necessarily one of a series rather than a unique inimitable creation, the latter distinction being reserved exclusively for original works. Such a state of affairs can, of course, be frustrating, yet people born with the urge to bridge cultural gaps and heal ruptures can find the job worthwhile, even satisfactory.
Still on the subject of your important activity as a translator, I would like to ask you how it is reflected in your poetry: I am not referring only to the knowledge of the authors you have dealt with, but more precisely to the awareness of the use of words, forms, the language itself. Has your writing been affected?
I would be grateful if my continuous association with the greatest masters of the artistic word as their attentive reader, commentator and translator has taught me how to deal with language, a phenomenon for which I have the deepest respect, appreciation and admiration. But I have never tried deliberately to apply these lessons in my own writing. If some of that has rubbed off onto my work, I’ll be more than pleased. Let me admit that as a maker of poems I have stubbornly tried to develop a rhythm and a diction as different from those of my translations as possible. This has been an instinctive effort to preserve the autonomy of my own work.
Finally, two questions, which perhaps come together in one: is there something (a work, a collection, a theme) that you would have liked to accomplish in your poetic path and you have not succeeded in doing so? Or, better to say, “you have not yet succeeded”: would you speak to us about your future plans?
A modern Russian poet, Samuil Marshak, says in one of his poems: “Yet remember that our road is shorter than the roads our eyes outline.” There are many things that I have dreamed about but did not manage to do in this life. One can always have or make enough time for writing poetry as long as one has the inspiration: with me composition has never relied on previous planning, it is always a happenstance. But I would have gladly translated more of Shakespeare and of my favourite contemporary poets if I had been given another lease of life. And I would have loved to write a number of further studies devoted to English Renaissance dramatic and lyrical poetry. Over the years I have filled a big drawer with the outlines of several dozen research works, which will never be written. In order to complete these projects properly one needs continuous access to academic libraries with well-stocked English literature sections, which are unfortunately unavailable in my country. Well, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. I should not complain – I’ve been given enough time and fairly good working conditions to accomplish more than a few things having worked on all of them with love and a good deal of enjoyment. At my age, it would be ludicrous to make ambitious plans for the future. Right now, I am putting together another book of my latest poems and this engagement in itself should suffice. But, let me confess, I have not given up entirely translation and am still delving into Shakespeare’s dramas, trying to capture and render their authentic tone in my native tongue. It would be hard to think of a more exacting and more delightful occupation.
Thanks to Emilia Mirazchiyska