The university events room in the Glickman library is often reserved for packed workshops and faculty meetings, but last Friday the room was relatively empty, except for a single ring of chairs filled by students, staff and community members and a nationally recognized, award-winning poet.
The USM English department named former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic the 2013 O’Brien Poet this year and he visited last week to speak and read his work to the public. The award is named after former Deering High School teacher Katherine E. O’Brien, who bequeathed money to the University of Maine System for the USM libraries to purchase a large collection of poetry and establish the annual O’Brien Poetry Lecture.
“This [the O’Brien Poetry events] is a rare opportunity for USM students to sit down and listen to a writer with an international reputation,” said Justin Tussing, associate professor of English and interim director of USM’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
Simic read a series of poems from his selected works and signed copies of New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012, but the highlight of the event took place before the reading during a question and answer session held for the audience to get to know Simic and his work.
It was suggested that he discuss what young writers should do to prepare themselves for potential careers and lives as writers and what he had learned about the craft during his lifetime. Among his many awards and recognitions, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship from 1984 to 1989, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 and received the Robert Frost Medal in 2011, so some in the audience seemed to think that Simic would be prepared to offer step-by-step directions on how to become a successful poet, but according to him, it isn’t so simple.
“I think most people who become poets have no idea how they become poets,” said Simic. “I mean, I always wanted to be a painter when I was younger, so you tell me how I got here.”
Simic was born in 1938, in Belgrade, Serbia, which was then part of Yugoslavia, where he lived throughout the entirety of World War II.
“It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized I grew up in a very dangerous place,” said Simic. “I just didn’t give it a thought. Then one day I realized a lot of people had been trying to kill me and my people. There were a lot of bullets, so inevitably, there were some poems.”
In 1954, Simic emigrated with his family to the United States and lived in Chicago for a time, before being drafted into the U.S. Army, earning his bachelor’s degree from New York University, then traveling, gaining recognition and publishing around the country.
When asked why he hasn’t written a lot of work that conveys a sense of nostalgia for his home country, Simic noted that he lived there during the war and most areas were in ruins. “How do you have nostalgia for ruins?” he said.
Simic spent a lot of time discussing influence and how he came to write poetry
“I remember looking at a poem one day and thinking ‘how could so few words and so few lines have such an effect?’” said Simic. “From there, I began to imitate poetry I liked. And I failed a lot, as writers always do, but it became an obsession.”
Tussing recalled being a student in a class on New England poets taught by Simic at the University of New Hampshire and experiencing a moment that he often comes back to while teaching now. It happened while students in the class were discussing the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens.
“The whole class was just chopping away and digging into this poem for like, 45 minutes, and you [Simic] kept telling us that we were missing something,” said Tussing, “and when we finally thought we had gotten to the heart of the poem, you stopped us and said quite simply, ‘It is beautiful.’”
Simic said that those who aspire to be poets have to work full-time if they really want to become one, constantly being creatively engaged in the world, but at the same time, they have to have a lot of fun with it.