Sunday, February 15, 2009

Interview With Kristin Dimitrova

Do you feel that the poets representing Bulgaria in New European Poetry (Edvin Sugarev, Lyubomir Nikolov, Boiko Lambovski, Mirela Ivanova, Georgi Gospodinov, and yourself) are an accurate representation of What’s Going On in Bulgarian Poetry Today?

Everyone included cuts a fairly distinctive figure here, one way or another. But of course, there are other names as well. Rumen Leonidov, Georgi Borisov, Ekaterina Yosifova, Ivan Metodiev… The poets in New European Poetry make a representative sample, but it is still a sample. Imagine the following question: “Now that I’ve seen Chicago, do you think I’ve got an accurate picture of what’s going on in America?” There is no easy answer to this.

If you were editing the Bulgarian section, which poets would you have selected?

I wasn’t in charge of the Bulgarian section, so I’d rather respect the choice of the editors. When one compiles an anthology, one usually keeps to a chosen angle, so the whole book would have a message of its own, like “the new European poetry is pessimistic, or political, or preoccupied with cultural diversity, of metaphysical, or you name it.” An anthology is as much representative of its editors’ tastes as it is of the poetic trends of the period. (By the way, I haven’t seen the book so far. I just didn’t receive it.)

Do you identify as a Bulgarian Poet (as opposed to a poet who happens to be Bulgarian)?

Maybe the second way of thinking feels closer to what I am. I happen to be a woman, I happen to be born in Bulgaria, I happen to have brown eyes, to go to bed late and to love cats. It’s an illusion to think that everything is a matter of choice. A lot of things just happen to us, but they define us nevertheless. I don’t feel like a spokesman for my country, if that’s what you mean. I feel like a person talking to other persons. As a child I decided to prepare a speech in case I get abducted by Martians. Soon I found out I could say very little on behalf of the Earth inhabitants in general. This seems like an early problem of representation.

Do you ever feel pressured to write more “globally?” What I mean is, do you ever feel pressured to make your work accessible to non-Bulgarians?

Living in Bulgaria and writing in Bulgarian, I’ve always seen Bulgarians as my immediate audience. However, the pressure you are asking about is already in the air and is becoming a very important factor in whatever is written and published at home. Perhaps this is only logical for a culture, shared by eight million people, a million of them abroad. This pressure comes both from the outside and from the inside:

• There are very few non-Bulgarian specialists, translating from Bulgarian, so whatever happens in Bulgaria tends to stay in Bulgaria (just what they say about Vegas). I imagine that these rare people are a target of all kinds of lobbying pressure coming from home, where it is very easy to cheerlead enthusiasm for a book nobody cares to read.

• There are some set expectations abroad concerning life on the Balkans, which are as enduring as the news of violence, mafia and corruption (not that we don’t have them) in the newspapers. I’ll try to give and example. The Vikings did a lot of trouble to Europe between 800-1100, but they are unflaggingly depicted as cool and romantic in books and movies. Even I am a victim of this ravishing image of huge swordsmen with blond plaits, you can’t help liking them. On the other hand khan Krum, who ruled between 802-814, stretched Bulgarian borders to the Frankish empire. In those days Bulgaria was a neighbor of what was to become later France and Germany. Attacked by the Byzantines, Krum summoned an army which included women as well, defeated the invaders and killed their emperor. Have you seen any Antonio Banderas films about this? No matter what happened in the past, we are forever held hostages by our recent histories. What is commonly expected from Bulgarian art nowadays – this, of course, is as inaccurate as all generalizations – is this sort of passionate, love-hate, song and tears, grotesque, absurd and exotic picture of a periphery, preferably trimmed with folk songs and national costumes. Nobody expects national costumes from the Italians.

• So far I’ve been arguing that there aren’t many differences between us and the rest of the world. Now I’ll say something in the opposite direction. There are social facts nobody cares to know about us, but still they are part of our lives. Like, for instance, doctors are generally poor and underpaid in Bulgaria; writers used to be very important people during socialism; getting rich overnight is usually connected to politics and not to business or industry; party affiliations play very important roles for all kinds of careers, etc. One usually finds all these peculiarities after deciding to translate a short story into another language. Consciously or not, this has resulted in a long list of novels and films depicting a foreigner, coming to Bulgaria, and what happens to him or her. The eyes of the foreigner are a sort of an excuse for the additional explanations a native reader might find boring; they are a kind of interpreting tool. Novels appear, which are written by Bulgarian authors, but are not about Bulgaria at all. It is like: “So if you want something recognizable, something you already know a lot about, there you are!” The intertext between Bulgarian sources is lost in translation and is practically useless abroad. Hidden quotations, stylistic clashes, historical references: they all go.

• Each language has its phraseological shortcuts. They are a great source of puns; they open the door to a kind of literary playfulness I enjoy so much. They are a big problem in translation, however. The title of my collection of short stories – Life and Death under the Crooked Pear Trees – proved to be such a problem. “Under the crooked pear tree” is a set phrase in Bulgarian, meaning “right in the middle of nowhere”, most often used to denote a lack of progress. Like for example: “How is your PhD going?” Answer: “Ah, it’s right under the crooked pear tree”. So this is all lost and the title of my book looks a bit crazy. Otherwise, the short story with this title is perfectly translatable. But the problem with rhymes in poetry is much, much, much more insurmountable. Let’s say challenging.

Strangely enough, I’ve never felt this kind of pressure when I write poetry. But I have already faced the problem in prose. It’s like you are under siege. You never know what will be interpreted in what way, extolled or ignored for the same reason. My antidote is to keep to what I know and say what I want to say. Then maybe somebody else, miles away, would recognize the experience. The closer I come to what I see as the truth, the better I feel. The rest is a side effect.

The Bulgarian poetry in New European Poetry seems very politically charged. Do you consider yourself a “political” poet? Do you feel a duty/desire to write political or historical-minded poetry?

No, I don’t think I do. Out of seven books published in Bulgaria, I think I have only one true-blue political poem. It is translated by British poets Andy Croft and Mark Robinson and very easy to quote in full:

Cold War Memoirs

We were told
there were two worlds at war
when there was really only one.

We were
the other.

Otherwise, like all devoted readers of newspapers, I am interested in politics too. Nobody wants to be lied to. But poetry for me is a room, reserved for my deepest, most important and sometimes most bizarre impressions of life, and politics very rarely finds its way to it.
Of course, if we are talking on this “personal is political” level, then we are all into politics.

Is poetry “popular” in Bulgaria? Does the general Bulgarian public read poetry?

Poetry is becoming less and less popular among the general readership in Bulgaria, but it has devoted fans among those who write or intend to start writing it. Other people have taken the lead. Television, not the book, is everyone’s media. Politicians get the best part of the public attention, because they are the ones who crack the important news. Then come talk-show hosts, singers, journalists, actors, sociologists, sport-stars, models and tycoons. I don’t really see the place of a poet here. Poetry used to mean a lot during socialism, when everybody’s ears were attuned to catch the faintest sound of criticism or unrest. Now it means a lot to readers only, and I think that’s fair enough.

Could you describe your poetry education? Did you study poetry in school?

I had classes in literature at school, mostly covering poetry from the first part of the XX c. Then came my university education in English and American studies, although poetry wasn’t exactly a priority. Then all the books I read. Then the poems we keep reading to each other at home with my husband, literary critic Vladimir Trendafilov. He translated selections of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and William Butler Yeats into Bulgarian, I translated John Donne. This is something we did as part of the “sharing” thing. There is no money in that. A lot of people are doing the same, from many languages. I think this last kind of school is my best one.

Are there any American/English poets you are fond of? Are there any American poets that are particularly popular among Bulgarian poets-in-general?

All the above mentioned and Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, Stevie Smith, e.e. cummings, R. S. Thomas, G. M. Hopkins. I am the editor of the two selections of Mark Strand’s poetry into Bulgarian, translated by Katia Mitova, and this says well enough how I feel about him. Wendy Barker, W. N. Herbert, Andy Croft, Linda France and Mark Robinson are all friends of mine and I admire them both as poets and people. Whatever I say, the list will be incomplete. E. A. Poe, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver. Very often the issue is who gets translated and is lucky enough to get a good translation.

Lastly, what projects are you currently working on?

I work, that’s for sure. But I’d rather not talk about the future.

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