This work was originally published in Fulcrum 7 (2011). It responds to a work of mine collected in Recalculating, which is a transcription of an improvised poem I did for the Whitney. — Charles Bernstein
More than a year ago, Charles Bernstein sent me his piece called “Talk to Me,” which I understood as an invitation to talk back. I immediately started writing in English a kind of response, but instantly felt that what I have to say sounded so particular in comparison to his piece, which had a kind of universality as an effect of the relations of our speaking positions. He speaks out of one ‘big’ (imperial) culture (USA) and I speak from a small peripheral European culture (former East European, postsocialist, post-Yugoslavian culture – Serbia). I had a problem with it, and it took me more than a year to finish it.
My fragmented narration goes back to the moment when it was possible for me in 1987 to get information in one Belgrade literary magazine about Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Three in a short review written by then an important Belgrade prose writer, editor and translator David Albahari. A couple of months later I read a text by Lee Bartlett about language poetry in a magazine Critical Inquiry, given to me by a Belgrade friend. I immediately recognized the kind of work that I might be interested in, that existed in my home country Yugoslavia, but at that time experimental poetry was a model that had been almost totally abandoned. I managed to order Silliman’s anthology and during my first visit to USA in 1988 I found Douglas Messerli’s Language Poetries and Bernstein and Andrew’s The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. After my return to Belgrade, I started translating some of the poems and texts. In a way, from that time I identified myself as a poet with language poetry.
An important Belgade magazine Delo accepted to publish a special issue called “American Poetics.” Delo was edited by two important Bosnian Yugoslavian poets Slobodan Blagojevic and Hamdija Demirovic, who both translate many of American poets, and we together made an interesting issue which contains huge selection of poems and texts by language poets, as well as by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, etc. We sent the copies to some poets and some of them responded, and from that time my communication with language poets started. In 1991, the year when the was in former Yugoslavia was about to start, Charles Bernstein and James Sherry came to Belgrade and Novi Sad, which was important event for me.
Much later, when I saw in Hank Lazer’s book Opposing Poetries – Volume Two, the sentence about the relation of language poets to poets from different parts of the world mentioning China, Russia and the former Yugoslavia, I was pleased. Before I came into contact with language poets, two poets from former Yugoslavia were in contact with them, Tomaz Salamun and Nina Zivancevic. When I think how it was possible for me to establish this relation, I could think of the political context of the cold war and the position of former Yugoslavia between East and West, which was as such supported by U.S. politics, so that American poetry had an important impact on all Yugoslav poets. The other thing is that my frame of reference was the Belgrade experimental artistic scene, which permitted me to have an interest in experimental poetry at the time when experiment in former Yugoslavia, and after 1991 in Serbia, was a question of the past.
I am dealing with the question of how you could write experimental poetry in a so-called small culture, in a culture in which you usually don’t have options in different spheres of life (politics, culture, including poetry). I think that my first book of poetry, which appeared in 1989, titled Nature of the Moon, Nature of the Woman – Nine Meta-poems, was the last one written in an experimental vein. The late 1980s were marked by a pretty much open cultural space in Yugoslavia, and Serbia as part of Yugoslavia, and I already in 1984 had started translating American poetry; from 1988 my focus was on language poetry. I also was active as literary critic. After the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, I retreated to the newly established feminist cultural projects, because they were anti-war spaces. U.S. and European foundations gave money for different cultural projects, which were to be established within the frame of political opposition to Milosevic’s regime. All that time I made a huge number of translations and managed to publish them in a number of Serbian and Motenegrin magazines (at that time Serbia and Montenegro was one country). During 1990s, the space of Serbian poetry was not a space to which I felt I belonged. A kind of anti-modernist, archaic poetry was dominant, and urban poets almost disappeared. The resistance to this was made possible thanks to the projects such as ProFemina magazine, in which local urban poets was published.
Writing in a so-called small culture you could possibly resist the severe limits that a small culture imposes on you by translating poets from another ‘big’ ‘important’ (meaning politically, economically and culturally influential) cultures. In the context of Serbian poetry, in which most experimental poets disappeared or started writing more accepted, and more conservative kind of poetry, I made my own context by translating American poets. The range of approaches and the richness of the scale in American poetry was and still is a fascination for me.
The other thing I refer to was a caravan in which I participated in 2002. It was organized by a French organization and several feminist groups from the former Yugoslavia. We traveled through the former Yugoslavia, and visited different places, especially those heavenly devastated by war, and few divided cities, which was one of the most exiting experience in my life.
Then I came to the questions of identity, and of language, which have occupied me since 1991. The decomposition of one socialist multicultural country imposes the demand for redefining one’s identity. The identity matrix was changing in a brutal way, and you have to decide and choose between newly established matrices for identification. And language was one of the most important domains for working through new national identities. I’ve been thinking of various technologies of political and cultural power that were working on differentiating of what was before defined as one language (‘Serbo-Croatian’, or ‘Croatian or Serbian’) which was by some linguist defined as one polycentric language. And CBS languages developed (Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, to which is now possible to add Montenegrin). I’ve been thinking of a language as purely political and ideological tool, which could be projected as a space, i.e., practice of political connection or disconnection.
I’ve been thinking about ‘individualistic/Western’ cultures and ‘collective cultures’ (specially Slavic ones), and their relation to modern poetry …
The voices that speak about the language/s in my piece are different discursive positions in Serbian culture – battles about the power to define collective and individual identity have to do with defining the language, discourse on language (is there one, or more languages in former YU?, is English or German one or more languages?…)
I wonna talk to you…
in 1989 first translations of language poetry that appeared in belgarde magazine DELO …
identity à YUGOSLAVIA
*_ …. after the issue APPEARED, some poets replIED, +++++++++ excited,
among them Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer & Ron Silliman sent a packet of books (it was written in cyrilic letter KNIGI — i liked it so much, an American poet wrote in cyrilic letters
I read books in latinic letters and I read books in cyrilc letters and don’t see any difference… I am not aware of the letters & – I write in latinic letters only * / what is the political significance of this fact in that time
and on the envelop it was written KNIGI in cyrilic letters …
the dialogue started…
*in sveden this summer leevi lehto said that he is an american poet writing in finnish
+ i think of myself as american poet writing in WHICH language????
you write in serbocroatian
(but this laguage doesn’t exist anymore)
you write serbian language
do I? really? since when??
serbocroatian has been policentric language
fragments from a diary
Eli THE IDEA OF CARAVAN IS NOT THAT WE
WANT RECONCILIATION AS A
GOAL BECAUSE WE
KNOW THAT IT IS NOT POSSIBLE WITH ONE CARAVAN
WE WANT TO GO TO THOSE PALCES AND TO
BARrIERS AND TO CROSS OUR INNER BARRIERS
WE WILL GO TO SAFARI
WE AND THEY
THE TOWN REMAINED THE SAME —- DESTROIED
AT THE MOMENT IT HAS NOT BEEN REBUILD * MILIRATY CULTURES*
fragments from a diary
… in some other language WHICH LANGUAGE???
as a character in this poem, she feels good or, she feels uncomfortable
she, SSSSShhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee comes from the part of the world where people always have serious problems, their life is so tragic, so unbearable … it is former eastern europe, you know communism – opprrrrreeeeeesssssssiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnn you know, it is a trouble, man, you live all your life in oppression and if you are brave, you go west and talk publically of that serious oppression that is killing people’s lives, you become a professional dissident making a living out of this …. – and you know she comes from the part of the world that is organized as a collective, they don’t exist as individual human beings … and it is trouble, man …
very funny theatre piece
In that piece a writer from a new country of the former yugoslavia talks to another writer from another country of the former yugoslavia telling her that is it a geographical Injustice that the western literary world is interested in our writing not because of its quality – but because we come from a world
in deep crisis
A. Badoiu explains it all …
“Czeslaw Milosz told us that after Mallarmé we, and the West with us, were trapped in a hopeless hermeticism. That we had drained the source of the poem. That philosophy was like a glaciation of the territory of poetics. And that the East, armed with its great suffering, the guardian of its own living word, could lead us to the path of poetry sung by an entire people.” (Alain Badiou, Handbook of inaesthetics)
There is JUST one language, which is serbian … there is no bosnian, no croatian, or montenegrian, just one language…
There is JUST one language, english, and don’t you see there is no american, no australian, it is just one language ….
((you can speak thOSE other languages in your own culture,
but keep it quiet))
In what language do YOU speak?
An artist who cannot speak english is no artist, said croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović
And which language do i speak-write, english, american english, easteuropean english serbian english, serbo-croatian english
the language that is now spoken by the very few people whose identity is uncertain, that doesn’t exist any more officially
I am not yugonostalgic
you are not yugonostalgic
we are not yugonostalgic
Am I American poet writing in Serbian OR serbocoatian serbocroatian serbocroatian language/S –
SMALL CULTURE, SMALL LANGUAGES….
it is not the language that exists anymore, it is the political concept of the language that is imperial… or is it one and four languages at the same time, or YOU COULD CHOOSE TO SPEAK OTHER LANGUAGE IN YOUR OWN CULTURE…. SO, THE LANGUAGE IS NOT JUST THE LANGUAGE,
you DON’T KNOW THE LANGUAGE, YOU LIVE IT
YOU DON’T KNOW LANGUAGE, YOU LIVE IT…
identity politics, politics of theory, politics of language….
memories of the past of the present, of the zero point in my mind….
she comes from the middle of the nowhere
it is the end of the world – OR ONE OF ITS ENDS
this poinT doesn’t mean nothing to me
what do you think –
of the canon as a selection of tradition of langue and not languages
One of the most exciting developments of the past few years has been the internationalization of the experimental poetry community. Over the past ten years, exchanges between American Language poets and their counterparts have taken place in China, Russia and former Yugoslavia, New Zealand, England, Italy, Austria, and France. (Hank Lazer Opposing Poetries)
And we could think of experimental practices within a small cultures … It seems as if it is not possible to be experimental poet in a small culture, or we maY saY that the verY notion of the experiment is different in different contexts. so we could saY that what is experimental in an imperial cultures, is not the same in small culture. I will saY that in small culture the experimental is a kind of work that in imperial cultures could be defined as antimodernism … we live in multiculturalisms, so we will appreciate their essences, other othernesses. SPECIALLY IF THEY STAY OTHER IN RELATION TO US
Why China, Russia and former Yugoslavia???
A Lady told me a joke from socialist times, a Bosnian man is asked Are you Serbian, Croatian or Muslim? (pause) Yes.
But I am not what i am what i was and …
He will have the crises of identity…
THE CRISIS OF IDENTITY
He will write
all the night
and I will write all the night
IT IS SO bright
I don’t drink tea
I think he is sick
photo © Charles Bernstein. This work was originally published in Fulcrum. Bernstein’s “Talk to Me,” to which this responds, was published in Recalculating.