The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Interview: Marjan Strojan

Marjan Strojan (born 16 August 1949) is a Slovenian poet and has published a number of collections of his own poetry. He also translates English and American poets into Slovenian. Strojan was born in 1949. He studied Comparative literature and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and worked as a journalist at the Slovene section of the BBC World Service and now works at Radio Slovenija.

He has translated Chaucer's Canterbury, Beowulf, poems by Robert Frost, James Joyce and Milton's Paradise Lost into Slovene. He has received several awards for his translations. Since 2009 he has been president of the Slovenian section of PEN International and he is an honorary fellow of the University of Iowa and the Hong Kong Baptist University.

In 2000 he won the Veronika Award for his poetry collection Parniki v dežju (Steamers in the Rain).

(Photo courtesy of Tom Langdon, Iowa City, USA)

Interview by Jack Little (Published in Issue 14)



1.Why do you write poetry?


This is the question which most poets, I suspect, would find very hard to address … The fact is I was trying it on since I first learned how to read and write. Eventually it became a habit, a vestment of sorts, oversized, but one you grow into it. Before that I recited little variations of the poems I learned, like church hymns and nursery rhymes. I remember being punished for poking fun of one such concerning our blessed Virgin … I was five and I won’t repeat it here. And also, I never thought of it as poetry, I never put a name to it. Other people did, teachers and the like, and later most of my editors, critics, readers, translators etc. did so to, by referring to it in a certain manner or just by publishing and reading it as such, without ever asking what it is or why it was written in this way. So, I’m not sure why I write poetry and I’m not sure about not knowing it either. I think your question implies certain knowledge on my part of what it is that I do, and it maybe that I do know something about but I don’t want to dabble into the question what poetry is. I’m satisfied that after reading, writing and translating lots of it, I’m more or less confident what it isn’t. What I’m sure is that it does poet no good to capitalize on his knowledge of poetics, say, how I do this or that and, by implication, pronounce discriminating opinions on his own work. As I recall, Russian poet B.L. Pasternak said that one shouldn’t, and he’s had a Nobel Prize to show for it. For my part I’d even take it a step further and say that a poet, he or she, should never write it as poetry, not consciously, that is. If you write about a cat it should be about a cat, not about it being a piece of poetry or anything else. And you may but need not know why you did it.

2. What is your favourite poem? What sends a shiver up your spine?


 It’s a little poem by A. S. Pushkin beginning with a line sounding something like that: Ya vas lyubyl, lyubow esche byt mozhet… ‘I have loved you (with the) love which may be…’  You can google it up on your lap tops and see for yourselves. I carry it around in my valet for many years now, like a talisman of sorts… I believe it brings luck. Maybe you try it, too.

3. What is the state of poetry today? Is it flourishing or dying?


 It differs from country to country, I suppose. For my home country I can say that right now we have one of the best generations of young poets ever, women especially. I try to learn from them all the time. They write like hell, and sometimes better than that.

4. How do you feel about poetry on the web? What do you prefer, print or electronic?


No, it follows from there I don’t think poetry is dying at all, far from it! The theory of an art dying out like that hears back to Hegel, and even before and after him there were some other philosophers , like Plato or Žižek, who have always wanted to see it dead or blown away to Bermudas. Still others have claimed that the history was dead or dying out, or the entire civilization or the human kind, no less. As it is, it seems everything else is dying out but humans ... No poetry there. Still, it may all turn out to be true in good time. But don’t get upset, it’s all just philosophy, a conjecture of one kind or another – it produces notions not objects, while poetry is an objective art, i.e. if you are a poet, a cat is a cat when you’re finished with it. In art, philosophers only produce copycats.

5. What was the last poetry book that you bought? Can you tell us about it?


 I don’t buy as many poetry books as I used to. I get them from friends, or borrow them, or read them in a library or have them sent to me, with dedications. It’s one of the perks you get for being a poet. Still, lately, when I was in London and then in Prague I brought back many books of poetry as I always bring books from my travels. Mostly classics and such, but some moderns, too. Just now I’m reading Trilce by César Vallejo, something I wanted to do for a long time and never had a chance. I have a bilingual edition with the Spanish original and the translation side by side. I don’t speak Spanish at all, but can read some of it, not Trilce, of course. You may know the book and you surely must know the author, so you understand it was important for me to get a copy like that.

6. Where do you go for poetry on the web?


Yes. Internet is one of the reasons for my not believing in poetry as a dying art. The current access and reading tools may in time change or inform poetry to a certain degree, as the mobile phones already do. Look what the internet did for the Japanese, in forms like haiku and tanka, with forums of thousands, even millions trying their hands in one or the other worldwide. As for my preference in visiting the poetry places other than this one, I’m not hard to please. I read while I surf. Funny thing is, though, that time and again I find something there that takes me back to books.

7. Is poetry something private?


 For a poet, poetry is private most of the time. And for a reader it’s mostly private, too. Yet the two would have never met if it was all private all the time. Nevertheless, it is important that poetry keeps its privacy intact. Public poetry today does not have a function it used to have in other times – and they are not very distant times. Most of Neruda’s poetry or Mayakovsky’s poetry was public in a sense quite different from the one you get from Homer or Beowulf. Still, it was public to a certain extant, because one felt it was spoken out like that, as a sort of poetic performance, a certain tour de force on the side of the poet. Poetry has changed from oral to visual, I suppose. As far removed from Beowulf as it was, parts of modernist poetry were still oral and aural, and you can feel this in their rhetorical devices, in their diction and stress. Also its culture was very different from anything we have today. When taken out of context today’s poetry is all public and oral when it tries to publicize itself, narrowing down its public function to poetry marketing. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it can turn bad sometimes. Then you have poetry events which in themselves are public in a sense that they take care of a group of people for whom their attending to the author’s words is essentially an intimate, if not very private affair. These are all collective acts of intimate attention, like listening to music at concerts, or watching movies or drama in theatres. The two may look alike, but there’s a sea of difference between them. One is an act of publicizing; the other is an act of poetry which was always there: somebody telling his or her story to an audience. I like to think of poetry as a kiss in a café.  An exchange of intimacy in a public place, no worse.

8. Is translation a poem in itself?


 Not necessarily. Translators, like husbands and wives, are practical and necessary way of getting through, while good marriages are precious and not easy to find. And like marriages, translations differ in kind and in purpose. I mentioned one kind which certainly proved very purposeful. When translation is your only means of getting acquainted with an author then, of course, somebody else must get in to do the introductions. Sadly, very often this turns out to be more of an act of etiquette than an act of poetry. Robert Frost once said that it was a mark of good translation when we, reading it, feel a little sad for not being able to do it by way of its proper shape and form. Translations which purport to be someone’s poetry and then, besides flashing the authors name on the covers, do little justice to his or her work are harmful to author and reader alike. They rob them of a certain chance in life. Yet we all know that sometimes even bad introductions work better than no introductions at all.

9. You recently read at the Linares International Literary Festival in Nuevo Leon. What were your impressions of Mexico?


Oh, I fell in love with the place and the people there and then. A good fortnight, three weeks, was time enough for it. It’s sad, though, that there’s so much violence spreading out to all parts of the country. When I was there it already had a certain feel of Paradise Lost. Not Milton’s, yours. Perhaps someday I go and move down there for a while. But let me take the opportunity and thank Colin, Veronica and her parents, and Jerry and his family for extending their hospitality far beyond the festival in a true Mexican way. In fact, that goes for the town of Linares as a whole.

10. What one piece of advice would you give to a young poet?


 I can with confidence suggest very little apart from reading as many poets as one feels comfortable with. My advice is, never part with a good book. Friendships will form, an occasional love affair may light up and die, yet most of good poets are partners for life. Like them, take a fresh look at things with eyes wide open and ears pricked. If your senses are sharp your heart will follow without anyone ever knowing the difference. Good first look is all what things (and people) require; second looks make for guesswork. Have a sure hand, for in poetry your hand is your voice. How do you do that? First, try not to think of things you write about too hard… still better, concentrate, banish all thoughts without stopping your hand. If not satisfied, try again and only after you are finished start juggling with words. Words are secondary to writing, passages come first. And don’t throw your papers away. Don’t read them, just keep them, and you’d be surprised at the result. Write truthfully, but also lie if you must as far as it takes you; you ought to have it both ways, to have it all one way is false. Don’t ever be false. Be yourself; after all, you can’t be none other, can you. It’s an uphill struggle all the way, but once you have made it, try and write as little of your present self onto your page as you can; mixing subject with object is the first fallacy of all writing. The second fallacy is trying to say everything you know at once. It doesn’t look good on a page. Don’t show off, everyone is clever, but few have a talent for it. Read your pages carefully many times over before you commit them to print. It’s hard to know when your work is done, but once it is done you know it.