Blesok no. 80-81, September-December, 2011
“Scorpius balcanicus” , Or: how to read Macedonian poetry
(Preface to "Six Macedonian Poets", ARC PUBLICATIONS, UK, 2011)
Seven years ago, during a research stay at Oxford University’s summer hospitality scheme, I first became acquainted with my appointed mentor over lunch at his college. At first, I felt slightly uncomfortable having a meal at high table alongside other professors, while the students sat at tables positioned a few steps lower. During the first course, I became even more uneasy when the renowned literature professor started bombarding me with questions. Having my background on his mind, he began with a political analysis of Tito and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Soon, he switched to poetry, obviously his favourite topic. Being a poet himself, he was interested in Macedonian poetry. That raised two questions in my mind: what to tell someone who is, more or less, uninformed of a far-away country and its literature in order to present the specific notion of Macedonian poetry throughout the ages and make him intrigued by it; and on the other hand, how to explain it when there are hardly any translations available.
I’ve had nearly the same dilemma writing this introduction, and, therefore, I’m about to present to you nearly all I told my Oxford professor. Hopefully it may well provide some understanding of Macedonian poetry in all its complex forms regardless of the reader’s prior knowledge of the socio-political and cultural context in which it is generated. However, simply having this worthy book, which contains a few of the finest examples of Macedonian contemporary poetry, is an advantage I didn’t have back then. For that, we must congratulate Arc Publications. Offering the British and international public a bilingual edition that presents poetry from a small Balkan country such as Macedonia as a part of the New Voices from Europe might be considered a bold and daring step, and thus witnesses the publishers’ broad-mindedness and openness towards the diversity, distinctiveness and multiculturalism. For us, it proves the inevitable fact that there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less powerful than the others, and that every unique culture (including poetry) should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation. Next, our gratitude goes to the amazing advocate of Macedonian literature, Igor Isakovski, a spiritus movens of the cultural institution “Blesok” and the online literary magazine of the same name, who made the selection of presented poets. We also extend our gratitude to the remarkable translations made by a range of respectable translators.
We appreciate the value of the translation, in this particular case and in general, as one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and intercultural communication, bringing the world closer together, both in time and space. And although translation is a crucial part of presenting one’s culture, in order to help readers to relate to this book better, we feel that putting forth a brief overview of Macedonian poetry in general is in order. To begin with, it is useful to be aware of the country’s history—its struggle for national awakening and independence, as well as the current socio-political circumstances of this small South European country facing numerous challenges, both internal and in the process of mapping itself internationally—to be able to understand its culture, and especially its poetry.
Free of national pathos and needless details on the numerous military conflicts, the political, cultural, religious and assimilative pressures of many nations in the socio-historical growth of Macedonia, we just want to indicate the degree to which historical circumstances influenced the dynamic of art and culture in Macedonia. Namely, one of the leading debates regarding Macedonian literature is the one about its (dis)continuity due to periods of the possible pauses, intrusions and interruptions. In spite of everything, whether it was written in the official Macedonian language, in a dialect or in some other language; whether it is published in the frames of the Macedonian or some other state; we insist on talking about the continuity of Macedonian literature even if we describe it as specific, dramatic and atypical one. Many academics have agreed that this continuity needs to take into account medieval Macedonian production (both original and translated); the written funds of the Macedonian oral literature; literature of the nineteenth century; contemporary literature, created after World War II—that is, after the Macedonian independence; and the recognition of the Macedonian language.
As expected, the indisputable growth in Macedonian literature comes in its contemporary phase, when it needed to expedite its progress in order to draw up alongside other European literatures. Naturally, it had its rich folklore as compensation in the creative arena; hence, based on this oral tradition, and on its models, genres and originality, contemporary Macedonian literature was born. In this context, oral literature, which continued to exist during periods of literacy as well, was not only the first phase of the Macedonian literature but also a model and inspiration, and a base for contemporary literature in its initial phase. Later on, poets detached from oral literature as a leading paradigm, but even today, there are still many instances of the implementation of this oral tradition in new ways, as an inter-text in contemporary literary works. Thus, the language and all the spiritual potential of authentic Macedonian oral literature was modified in an artistic literature that produced its own literary system, with genres, stylistic formations, and a variety of different poetics, etc. Needless to say, this progression goes from realism (including soc-realism in the years after World War II) through modernism (in the ’60s), anti-modernism (’70s and ’80s) to inter-textuality and postmodernism (in the last few decades). In the Macedonian case, this growth was not always chronological and strictly distinct, but rather opposing styles shifted, one after another, at times coexisting and on other occasions even combined inside one author’s work. This is only to illustrate that no direct analogy to western European literature should be drawn.
For a long time in Macedonia, it was believed that poetry was the best of Macedonian literature, sometimes even best of Macedonian culture as a whole. This statement refers mostly to oral poetry, but it still applies to the contemporary work. The nation is full of pride for its collective spirit in regards to oral poetry, which represents cultural diversity, and the social, religious and ethnical mixture of all the influences in this territory, starting with its Slavic background and Byzantium medieval tradition, up through the continuous interaction with neighbouring civilisations and Balkan cultures, to the huge impact of the five-century-long Ottoman rule. This collective heritage was later adopted by the Miladinovci brothers, Grigor Prličev and other nineteenth century poets, who used the synthesis of tradition and innovation to make up for the past and, at the same time, to be in step with current achievements on the greater literary map. They were followed by one of the first great figures in Macedonian poetry Kočo Racin, and then by Blaže Koneski, Aco Šopov, Slavko Janevski, Gane Todorovski, Ante Popovski and many more. The list goes on and on, which makes it very challenging to summarise it in just a few lines, but it is vital to know that the Macedonian poetry provides instances of intimate, symbolist, modernist, futurist, neosymbolist and other poetry processes. It encloses plenty of different poet sensibilities, aesthetic movements, personal impulses and uniqueness. A testament to Macedonians’ high regard for poetry is its well-known manifestation in the “Struga Poetry Evenings,” an international poetry festival held annually in the city of Struga. During the several decades of its existence, the festival has awarded its most prestigious award, “The Golden Wreath,” to some of the most notable international poets, including Mahmoud Darwish, Joseph Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ted Hughes, Miroslav Krleža, Yehuda Amichai and others.
But, as the first creed of “Blesok” says on the issue of presenting Macedonia to the world: “Let’s not retell stories of the past and of history; it makes the past appear more glorious day by day, while the present seems more and more tragic in comparison. Hence, ‘Blesok’ aims for the future, for the unexamined spaces of being. One of them is the new way of communication.” Having all these in mind, we ought to give more attention to the contemporary poetry presented in this anthology by raising the question of whether this selection is making the contemporary situation of Macedonian poetry visible to the potential readers. In order to prove our belief that these six authors are adequate to present the pulse of the Macedonian literary milieu, we will examine whether they are the most representative poets and as well as the specifics of each author.
As Six Macedonian Poets features the work of three men and three women who have helped to shape the face of contemporary Macedonian poetry over the past five decades, we applaud the obviously intentional tendency for gender balance. For long time, it was believed that the canon of the Macedonian poetry was predominantly male. Surely, it had its female voices, once again starting from the oral transmitters of poetry to the female poets included in this volume. Indeed, folkloristic science remembers the name of many talented singers with repertoires of hundreds of memorised folk songs, which proves Macedonian women were the keepers of centuries old culture. This anthology, therefore, is unlike most of previous anthologies, where women were often outnumbered or misrepresented. As a result, this anthology has a desirable quality to its credit.
Still, having in mind the poetry itself, we will not introduce the poets to you in regard to their gender, even though, obviously, they all create in the context of their own gender. Rather, we will take into account the sensibilities of their poetics. Two of the poets, Bogomil Gjuzel (b. 1939) and Katica Kjulavkova (b. 1951), stand out not only for belonging to a generational group that is different than the rest—but also for the fact they have already been confirmed and recognized by the public for their significance among the living bards of Macedonian poetry with dozens of published works. Their poetic path has not always been an easy one, since they’ve been presenting a new, contemporary Macedonian poetic voice. This especially comes into play for Bogomil Gjuzel, who was part of a duo (with Radovan Pavlovski) which stated its own manifesto in 1961, called “Epic on vote,” which insisted on psychological traditions paralleling the historical ones; the life of the past in the present; and the understanding of the song as a space for dramatic, epic conflict. In that vein, his epic is delivered with a lyrical voice, and his narrative poetry is usually being acknowledged by the critics as “poetics of criticism, revolt and bitterness.” One of its leading features is its use of the Macedonian mythological base as well as inter-textuality, which is a continuum of the previously-mentioned collective heritage, including the Balkan past, real or imaginary; ancient mythology; Christian symbolic and apocalyptical visions… It is rather dark and disturbing but deeply thoughtful, taking into consideration the meaning of life and death, peace and war, and men and women, on issues such as presence, existence, sacrifice, and the present, as well as the problems of everyday life. In his poems, you will find himself and others, you will learn about Macedonia and the distant countries he feels close to, you will sense the reality and imagine the dreams and so much more.
Some of the same concepts and poetic notions can also be detected in Kjulafkova’s writing. As a distinguished university professor and member of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, her writings are full of inter-textuality and evocations of the Christian and Muslim holy books, traces of her previous readings from Aristophanes through Thomas S. Eliot and Umberto Eco to Meša Selimović, numerous mythical images and divine forces, lots of old and some new fairytales, allusions of Babylon and most of all, signs of Macedonia. The motherland is the predestined focus in her hermetic poetry, although represented poems in this volume come from different periods and phases of her work. It contains phonological figures and speech games, where sounds create meaning, or the meaning is created through the sounds. Moreover, through her infatuation with language, we can feel her love for her country and its nature, for the sun and the moon, for rituals and energies, bodies and the essence, and, above all, we can sense her female voice, the voice of Eros, the themes of fullness, yearning, desire and passion. Or as she puts it: “And you stop wondering why reality is not enough for dreaming and what is it which is not wakefulness but exists!”
The following two poets can easily be brought in relation with one another, not only because they are part of the bohemian Skopje nightlife, where we’ve been privileged to hear them reading their poetry (again in the good Macedonian manner of oral transmission), but also living and reliving their poetry all over again, as their writing is so true, so realistic and genuine. Jovica Ivanovski (b.1961) is a poet who constantly tries to discover and explain his own world, his poetry and his life, which creates a personal, almost confidential, feeling for the reader. From the very beginning, the reader can identify with the trivial things that make life what it is, but his unpretentious words that present images of a totally urban everyday life—like vanilla ice-cream or phone books—are just the first impression. Other than those rather conventional thoughts, you will witness the deeper meaning behind those memories, behind the city and the people, as you sense contrasting emotions as a result of those connections, love making, marriage, adultery or divorce, life and its leading to death. And all this originates from a distinctive and an extremely male position.
With a similar perception of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, as an ultimate urban toponym for a generation which is too young to become totally resigned by the transition of the society and the non-existent value system, but at the same time old enough to be sarcastic and irritated by it, we locate in the poems of Igor Isakovski (b.1970). His world is full of ex-girlfriends, bars and alcohol, poetry and prose, Blues and Tom Waits… In this fog of memories and touches, in this fusion of images that provoke the senses to engage in the reading process, we perceive his love of life and his attempt to live it to the fullest. But at the same time, this life has another side: the side behind the facade, the profound emotions like loneliness that are hidden in a shell. Isakovski also contemplates how to write a poem, how to find one’s own truth so someone can identify with it as his/her own. This seems to be one of the most common themes of the poetry written by all six poets included in this anthology: its self-awareness, its quest for the definition of their own ars poetica, its search for the creational raison d’être.
Is poetry just an opposite of routine? Is it demagogy? Is it an illusion or the meaning of the existence? These are the questions Elizabeta Bakovska (b.1969) is trying to answer in her exceptional poems. Her writing reflects her intimate world as she knows it. It is full of love, passion, silence, loneliness, relationships, expectations, younger and older lovers, tears and yearning for youth, but on the other hand, she raises her voice against mediocrity, ideologies, the vulnerability of a person against the general public, and the reasonable compromises one has to make in life in order to survive. Bakovska’s words are so effortless, but yet so touching and at the same time very personal and, in spite of that, a meeting point for the larger collective. Her case proves the fact that also holds true for the other poets represented here: that their creative individual world is firmly tied to the country’s socio-political establishment and to the cultural intimacy of national and collective identity.
The last, but certainly not the least, poet we refer to is Lidija Dimkovska (b. 1971). Her education and life outside Macedonia has deeply influenced her writing, both prose and poetry. Here, we can also perceive her life in migration, her nostalgia and memories of former times and former ties, ironically connected with her ongoing ripeness formed somewhere else, where she is experiencing melancholic search for the truth, for her gender identity, for her lost sensations, for her religious beliefs, for a self that is frightening to her. Between weddings and funerals, among Brodsky, Walt Disney and Mary Magdalene, she fears war in Macedonia, she worries that “Between birth and death life has no guarantee, the only service station being that still within ourselves.” Such big thoughts can come from “small” nations, both she and all other poets agree. And their poems provide strong evidence to support this claim. But in such production, not only it was probably an extremely difficult task for the selector Isakovski to make his choices, but it also demands we come to some general conclusion about all this poetry. Although they meet in several points such as Macedonia (or six different Macedonias: the mythical, the urban, the past, the present, the bitter and the sweet), their self perception and the attempt to understand their own urges for writing, in addition to the universal and eternal topics of Eros and Tanathos, still their poetry is so multicoloured, so polyphonic, so diverse in form of metonymical discursive practice, so rich in quoted codes of the multi-perspective space of culture…
At the end, I want to make clear the analogy with the dinning tables from the beginning of this foreword. Namely, unlike the common professors’ policy of giving lectures from their position which is one step higher then the rest, I tried to step out of academia as much as I could and present Macedonian poets from the readers’ point of view or, as cultural studies would put it, from below. That is why I did not insist on any theoretical approaches, but instead I encourage the readers to track down their own values and meanings. Furthermore, that is also why I did not insist on locating the one specific voice for all of the six Macedonian poets from this volume, but I invite the readers to find the diverse and multiple voices of each and every individual poet themselves. Finally, that is why, without too many flattering remarks, there is only one thing I want to recommend to the readers: enjoy this definitively good poetry!