Delimir Rešicki talks to Davor Šalat about “the glorious atmosphere of artistic awakening” in his native town of Osijek in the early 1980s, the influences of rock and punk music, Jacques Derrida and the postmodernist literary journal, Quorum, along with “early modernist gurus” such as Georg Trakl and Paul Celan.
What was the social and artistic environment like in Croatia when you first started to emerge as a poet?
I began writing poetry towards the end of the 1970s, as a literature student at the Osijek Faculty of Arts, which is now the Faculty of Philosophy. The social environment was one of fast disintegrating ‘socialism with a human face’, yet, in our case, with rather menacing remnants of relentless totalitarian social practices. Let us just for a moment remember the infamous ‘White Book’ (1) and similar allegedly ‘advisory’ Party-launched initiatives. However, in those times, things were, relatively speaking, changing for the better in terms of overall social freedom, but of course, only for those who could afford it. In reality though, it was nothing spectacular. We were still miles away from what used to then pass – and still does – for an average western democracy.
I never considered myself as having prophetic abilities, however it seemed that at the time I felt, as did many others, that all those contradictions that were built into the very framework of the former state, all those controversies and oppositions, all those historic frustrations and phantasms repressed by the ‘velvet’ forces of totalitarianism, would lead to what happened at the beginning of the 1990s, etc. So, it was a swan song of the state doomed to end in ashes and blood, whose faint scent could already be felt in the air.
On the other hand, those were the golden days of my youth and I was solely interested in art and the street (literally), in that glorious atmosphere of artistic awakening enveloping Osijek in the early 80s. As for the artistic environment, back in those days I used to hang out much more with rockers from around Osijek and Baranja, and some fantastic ‘ordinary’ people, rather than with the literary crowd – apart from those who were from my generation, or fellow University students. However, with the emergence of the Quorum literary magazine in the mid 1980s, and the setting up of literary soirées in which I myself participated at the Osijek Student Center, my circle of literary friends expanded considerably.
As a writer, how much were you influenced by the fact that you were one of the ‘Quorum authors’, i.e. one of the contributing authors to the literary journal, Quorum, which, since the mid-1980s promoted postmodernist consciousness and literary practices?
It has been repeated a thousand times since the Quorum literary magazine was launched, which is nearly two decades ago, that the so-called ‘Quorum authors’ do not in any sense represent a literary generation manifesting ostensible common literary poetics. On the contrary, it was always stressed that the magazine was nothing more than a vehicle for the promotion of highly individualized literary poetics, which was in perfect concordance with the postulates of postmodernism, as it had been explained to the Croats. However, our very own simplistic Literary (Super) Mind, which is always on the lookout for the easiest solutions – regardless of whether it applies itself to literature, history or pretty much anything else for that matter – could not and would not care for any of these considerations and in that respect nothing has changed so far. In the absence of proper criteria, a savior has come up with ‘intermediality’ and ‘intertextuality’ as alleged common poetic denominators to justify the very notion of the so-called ‘Quorum authors’. Neither ‘intermediality’, nor ‘intertextuality’, in particular, is the offspring of the brilliant minds of the Quorum authors.
What matters here is simply the fact that both intermediality and intertextuality were explicitly and sensibly analyzed as an important, if not essential, component of writing. The romantic and modernist myth of a writer as unique and self-willed demiurge and genius was opposed by a much humbler notion of a writer as a personalized medium for free recycling and transformation of private artistic mythologies, following in the footsteps of Borges and Barthes who announced the ‘death of the author’ as an unchallengeable almighty wordsmith always creating the world anew, ab ovo, whether for the purpose of negating or reaffirming certain traditions, it is completely irrelevant. In my case, one should perhaps add the deconstruction of the logocentric fortress of words, as I was trailing in the wake of Jacques Derrida, often through difficult and ludicrous translations.
It is interesting to note with how much malevolence and prejudice the older generation of the 1970s and 1980s (with few notable exceptions gathered around journals such as Off and Pitanja) ‘welcomed’ the Quorum generation when it first arrived on the scene, or the even more dismissive attitude of our successors – those perfectly organized media-conscious literary fraternities with their festivals and remarkable self-aggrandizing skills.
Which artistic personalities most strongly appealed to you and which cultural phenomena were exceptionally inspiring to you?
In my adolescence, rock music was still very much alive as the driving force of mass culture, and its various counter-culture ‘sects’ were particularly active. We are talking about that very same mass-culture that has undergone this all-out euthanasia, emerging in the process as a mere pendant of the cheap consumerist spectacles designed as global entertainment. Towards the end of 1973, I started intensively listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors and the encounter with that music had a ‘Big Bang’ effect on me. Simultaneously, I began my studies in poetry with remarkable and stubborn dedication. I was able to memorize whole volumes. For example, I could recite the entire Preobraženja (Metamorphoses) by Antun Branko Šimić (2) just off the top of my head. With equal dedication I frequented bookstores and those three record stores in my native Osijek, where I met Darko Jerković who was, and still is, one of the best informed music enthusiasts ‘over here’, as the phrase goes.
When punk hit the scene, I was absolutely ready. Thanks to my gastarbeiter uncle, I managed to acquire the first Sex Pistols album only weeks after its release in the UK, and Darko Jerković introduced me to Joy Division just as they were gaining popularity in England. Ever since he released ‘Pin-Ups’, I have admired David Bowie’s artistic strategy: his ability to change radically by introducing different concepts with each new album, all the while remaining true to his artistic integrity and retaining recognizable individuality. So, as much as I was influenced by so-called ‘high art’ – i.e. painting and film, mostly of modernist provenance – I also fell under the spell of rock’n’roll as the global (sub)-cultural phenomenon.
How did the horrible experience of war against Croatia in the 1990s shape your personal and literary worldview?
That experience should not be, not even here in Croatia, taken at face value. The war was not equally horrible for everybody. Nowadays those who only saw it from afar, or did not see it at all, are readily giving advice to those who really fought it, which is absurd. The war only served to deepen my skepticism, both in the ‘physical’ and metaphysical sense. Understandably, I was struck the most by the suffering of my immediate family and relatives. I remember the camps for the displaced, the collection centers on the other bank of the Danube River, the loved ones who are lost and sadly forgotten.
Those memories have all too soon become ‘unfashionable’ – as my writer friend Julijana Matanović once remarked. As for my writing, I had already planned towards the end of the 1980s to abandon a certain model of writing which I felt had been exhausted, and whose tour de force was my collection of poetry, Die die my darling, printed during that ominous summer of 1991. In a way, the least poetic of all summers brought out that volume, although 1990 is officially listed as the year of publication.
When I started writing Knjiga o anđelima (The Book of Angels) in 1989, I wanted to dissociate myself from everything and everyone and return to my literary roots, my early modernist gurus such as Georg Trakl, Paul Celan, Henry Michaux, Nelly Sachs and the like. I never wanted to capitalize on the war as a theme. I wanted to run away from all that and hide in the citadel of art. But, alas, war-related associations and imagery continue to trickle out discretely from everything I wrote after the 1990s. Some day I might feel the urge to deal with that experience in a more direct manner.
Although you are best known as a poet, your stories, essays and literary reviews are also held in high regard. When were they written, those other texts, and wherein lies the difference when you are writing prose, as opposed to poetry?
I have always written bits of prose alongside poetry. More regularly, though, I wrote literary criticism. Having always preferred, both as a reader and author, the brevity of the fragment to the ostentatious wisdom of the epic, I have since day one regarded poetry as an uncompromising condensation of literary, as well as all other human experience. Personally, I simply do not believe in the God-given ability to effortlessly write true poetry. For each of my poetry collections I spent a considerable amount of time attempting to congest literary and life experiences, both my own and those of other people. The differences in themes between my poetry and prose are generally becoming more and more visible. On the other hand, I never wanted to live in only one literary dimension.
Having already earned cult status amongst the younger generation of poets in Croatia, you are now beginning to surface on the international literary scene as well. How much success have you had so far internationally, and how do you feel about emerging onto the international literary scene, coming from a small country and working in a small language?
Having had my texts translated into a dozen languages, I have received invitations to participate in some important European festivals, such as the one held last year in Warsaw, or this year’s festival in Leipzig where I gave a reading. Apart from that, I have also participated in some of the international literary festivities organized here in our country under the auspices of P.E.N. and the Croatian Writers’ Association in recent years. Other than that, I have had no success – as you said – internationally. The main prerequisite for potential international success for a writer is the availability of his books in translation, which unfortunately, or fortunately, has not been my case so far. When you have a cultural policy with no recognizable strategy of steady presentation of your literature abroad, and especially poetry, you can only rely on your own managerial skills, affiliate with particular literary lobbies and their power centers, or count on the potential agility of your own publisher.
Since I simply have no abilities of the kind I mentioned, I have always been reluctant to warm my bones by any institutional or collective campfire, whether it belongs to a party, or university. I have simply not been interested in power games, because once you start believing in your own importance, you have surely entered the premises of spiritual death.
If you are a writer who comes from a language only spoken by a few million people, the road to international success has to be paved steadily and painstakingly. Alternatively, you can try and procure a swiftly designed political aura tailored according to the current taste of the self-righteous, politically correct, global elite.
What are your plans for future? What are you working on now, what are you writing?
I have just published my sixth poetry collection, Aritimija (Arrhythmia). I am also working slowly but steadily on several other manuscripts: a book of short prose pieces Ubožnica za utvare (Poorhouse for the Ghosts), the novel Djeduška (Grandpa), as well as on a book of critical and political writing, Demoni u tranzicijskoj špilji (Demons in the Cave of Transition). I have also started writing a new book of poetry which will definitely be called O snijegu i tundri (On Snow and Tundra).
As for plans for the future? I have never worried myself too much with future. I would neither offer anything to it, nor would I take anything from it! – to paraphrase the once popular communist combat slogan (Laughs.)
Translated by Damir Šodan
First published in the literary magazine Most/The Bridge, 1 February 2005.
1. The ‘White Book’ (1984) was a document compiled by the Croatian Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party in an attempt to identify potential enemies of the state among the ranks of prominent intellectuals.
2. Antun Branko Šimić (1898-1925), Croatian poet, generally acknowledged as a champion of expressionism in Croatian poetry, and one of our first and finest modernist poets.