A Conversation with Charles Simic

Reese Mankenberg '08

I walked into Sexton Commons earlier today to grab a quick lunch in between classes, and as I stepped into the burger line, I was pushed aside by an older gentleman who must have also been in a hurry.  He wore a black overcoat and stood slightly hunched over, with an expression of distaste on his face that he held about an inch from the food as he perused the selection.  I had never seen him before, nor had I ever been more fascinated by a stranger.  The man seemed to be living in his own world, oblivious to the other faces around him, and quite honestly, I was a little offended. 

Later, after classes had ended, it was time for our Pseudonym club to meet Charles Simic, a Pulitzer prize-winning poet who was visiting our campus to read his poetry and visit classrooms.  I walked into the classroom excited not only to meet a famous poet, but to also find some sort of direction for my own writing.  So there I was, sitting at a desk and surrounded by a few other members of the group, when in walked the man whom I had seen in the lunch line, Charles Simic.  From what I had seen before, I couldn't believe that he was a recognized poet.  But, I introduced myself, shook his hand, and soon realized that my initial perception of Simic was about to change.  

Simic sat down at a desk across from our group and began our session with one of his earlier poems, "Butchershop."  He recited it as if he had been reading it for the first time and it was obvious that he was sharing in our experience.  Afterward, someone asked the question, "What is it like to read over your old poems?"  To which, Simic replied with a laugh, "It is very interesting.  There are times that I look back at a poem and think to myself, 'wow, this is really great.'  Then, there are other times that I look back at a poem and think, 'wow, this is really terrible.'"  I laughed along with him, but then what he said actually registered.  Had a nationally renowned poet just admitted a fault with his writing? 

Next, I asked him a question of my own.  "How often do you write?  I find it difficult to write everyday, and I feel like I'm not becoming a real writer," I explained.  "Is that unusual?"  He laughed a little at my question.  "No, that's not unusual," he said. "Sometimes I go through a period when I'll write everyday, and sometimes I don't write for at least a month or two."  I was floored by his answer.  Until that point, I had assumed that all established writers spent hours writing everyday. 

From there, Simic began to explain his own writing methods, such as keeping a notebook with him at all times to jot down different ideas.  "I like to keep a writing journal," he said.  "That way, whenever I'm walking along and a word or interesting thought pops into my head, I can write it down.  I don't necessarily write poems in it, just little things that could help me out when I'm writing later."  He also gave ideas on how to get out of a writing slump.  "I find it useful to write in other poets' forms to break monotony.  Then again, it's also difficult to resist a strong poetic personality, and sometimes I am unable to pull myself out of it," he laughed.  As the conversation went on, Simic sat with his legs crossed, reclined in his chair and answered difficult questions with ease, regularly using personal stories or his knowledge of poetic history, such as the life of Sappho or Beckett's poetry, to get his points across.  When it was time to leave, he finished our discussion with another poem, said goodbye, and walked out the door. 

After he had gone on his way, a few of us lingered behind to discuss the conversation, which we agreed was strange since Simic did not gloat about his successes in order to tempt our desires to write.  But it wasn't until I began walking back to my apartment that I realized a conflicting notion.  After the conversation, I actually believed that I could become a writer.  I had learned that there is no correct way to write and that my way isn't wrong at all; in fact, it closely resembles Simic's.  The brilliance of Charles Simic was obvious throughout our discussion, not because he put on an air of poetic royalty, but in the way he read his poetry, answered our questions, and presented himself with modesty, which, in the end, proved to be the most inspirational.