Poet, philosopher and 'monster'

Tomas Salamun says his poetry is 'very diabolical'

Sunday, May 13, 2001

— "Tomaz Salamun is a monster."

So writes the Eastern European poet about himself.

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AP Photo

Republic of Slovenia Consul General Andrej Podvrsic, left, speaks with Tomaz Salamun, right, at a poetry reading by the Slovenian poet in March in New York city. Salamun pens his poems in Slovenian, the language of a tiny, newly independent country between Italy and Austria. But his work has reached the world in 33 books translated into dozens of languages.

Salamun writes his poems in Slovenian, the language of a tiny, newly independent country between Italy and Austria. But his work has reached the world in 33 books translated into dozens of languages.

The 59-year-old poet is "one of Europe's great philosophical wonders," says Pulitzer-prize winning American poet Jorie Graham.

And he's "a monster," Salamun insists in two of his poems, because he dares explore the most frightening landscapes of the human psyche.

"Poetry contains something very diabolical � that is, language that plunges into the unknown, the abyss," the poet says in an interview. "Poetry makes a human being more human, but it can also dehumanize, like a big passion, a horrible obsession driven by laws that are beyond the human."

Salamun's latest volume was translated into English and published recently in New York by Harcourt Inc. Titled "Feast," the 65 poems delve into themes ranging from the current Balkan wars � which touched Slovenia � to his most intimate personal experiences.

On a rainy spring evening, a Manhattan audience fills a used-book and coffee shop in Soho to hear him read.

"I am volcanic, lord of your bronze wings," he writes in one poem that continues, "Slyly I eat you, when you are cruelest, deep in the crime of forgetting me."

'Language spills out'

Salamun is a poetic bridge between old European roots and the American adventure.

He spent a year in New York in 1986 as a Fulbright fellow, returning in 1996 as cultural attache to the Consulate of Slovenia. This year, he is a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

This "major Central European poet," as The New Yorker has called him, has a strong following in the United States and is often invited to present his work around the country.

"I'm greatly influenced by American poets � Ashbury, Stevens," Salamun says. "I'm part of the American scene in poetry, even if I write in Slovenian."

During a visit here last year, he would go to a Starbucks in Greenwich Village at 6 a.m., settle in a corner and start scribbling.

"The language spills out, in unpredictable directions. I swim with this language, it's a kind of waterfall. I spray words. It's ecstatic!" he says. On some nights, fresh words awaken him in the middle of the night, forcing him to get up and write. Even in English translation, Salamun speaks with insistent rhythms, sounds and phrases.

He grew up a child prodigy pianist in the Slovenian port of Koper, the son of a pediatrician. He didn't want to be a poet until he went to study art history at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital.

But it was the rebellious 1960s, and suddenly one day, "it came to me, in the void of an existential crisis. I didn't know who I was. I wanted to be some kind of artist."

In 1964, he published "Duma" � translated in "Feast" � which begins with a variation on an obscenity and goes on to blast a society run by communist bureaucrats. His work brought a swift response: The communists detained him for five days, charging him with blasphemy.

A change in emotion

These days, a thrilling tenderness breathes from his poems, which are often a complex ode to love.

"Luckily, I am humanized by human beings I love," he says. "Without this I would probably go mad, or language would just crush me."

He is married to artist Metka Krasovec, one of whose paintings graces the cover of a previous volume of poetry in English, "The Four Questions of Melancholy."

Crisscrossing the world over the years, he has always returned to Slovenia, a country the size of New Jersey that has been conquered and reconquered over centuries by seemingly everyone, from the Romans to Austria's emperor to the Italians to the communists.

His work firmly anchored in the Slovenian language, Salamun has turned to several prominent American poets to mold his English translations � for his latest book, he turned to Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Simic, Phillis Levin and others.

In "The Penguin Book of the Sonnet," a soon-to-be-published anthology Levin edited, she writes that Slovenian is "the old language of a newly independent state that built its identity on the spirit of poetry � a nation that features a sonnet by (Slovenian) France Preseren (1800-1849) on the back of one of its banknotes, his face on the front."

Salamun mirrors this nation that has long looked to poetry.

"I still have moments when I'm completely smashed by the presence of God � blessed to be there where language is formed like a grace," he says.