Remembering Tomaž Šalamun

This is Tomaž Šalamun, he went to the store
 / with his wife Marushka to buy some milk.
 // He will drink it and this is history.

Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, winner of the Jenko Prize, Slovenia’s Prešeren and Mladost Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize, whose poetry has been widely anthologized and translated into more than 20 languages, has died. 

Šalamun was one of Europe’s most prominent poets of his generation and was a leader of the Eastern European avant-garde. Early in his career he edited the literary magazine Perspektive and was briefly jailed on political charges. He studied art history at the University of Ljubljana, where he found poetry suddenly, as a revelation, as “stones from the sky.”

He published 38 volumes of poems in his native Slovenia and has been translated into nearly two dozen languages. The Turbines (Windhover Press, U of Iowa, 1973) and Snow (Toothpaste Press, West Branch, IA, 1974) were the poet's debut collection in English. His true national debut in the U.S. was Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun, edited and in large part translated by Charles Simic, brought out in 1988 as part of Ecco Press's prestigious Modern European Poetry series. It was followed by The Shepherd, The Hunter (Pedernal, 1992), The Four Questions of Melancholy (White Pine Press, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2007), Homage for Eliot, Uncle Guido and Hat (ARCpublications, 1998), Feast (Harcourt, 2000), Poker (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003, 2008), Blackboards (Saturnalia Books, 2004), Row (ARCpublications, 2006) The Book for My Brother (Harvest Books, 2006),Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, 2008), and There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair (Counterpath Press, 2009).

Šalamun was a member of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Art and lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, until his death.

Šalamun's influence was great in Iowa City as well. Because of his exciting presence at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, Šalamun became an honorary Iowa City citizen, visiting the town several times and contributing to the magical atmosphere with his unworldly work and wit. He was a participant in Intenational Writing Program in 1971 and returned to give readings, participate in classes and contribute to the book 'Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book'. During a later visit to Iowa City, he shared a story about his first landing:

I must tell you that the poem 'History' was written at Iowa, because Iowa in 1971 was an incredible place for me. ['History'] is a very young poem, and it’s full of total joy and craziness, and it happened here, because I felt like this here.

Maybe I should start with how Iowa is totally magical for me, and why. I was in Ljubljana. Primož Kožak, a playwright, was here, with the IWP, and then, he was also involved in helping to select the next Slovenian person to come. He very decently offered this position to his younger playwright peer, his competitor. He said “no.” Then to the best young fiction writer, and he said “no.” And when I was asked, I said “Yes, of course.” And it had to be done very quickly. Two days later, Michael Scammell —you might know his name — he was then a lecturer in Ljubljana, then he became responsible for writers in prison for the International PEN […] and he said: “If you go to America, you will for sure meet the Finnish poet Anselm Hollo and like his poetry. Anselm Hollo was in Finland—and Finland was too small for him; he went to Germany, married in Germany, then worked for his uncle who was friends of Jung’s, then came to England, then became an English poet, than BBC wanted to promote him to a much higher position, he didn’t like this … he escaped … and he must be somewhere in America.”

I flew to Iowa City (Cedar Rapids), we went to Mayflower, I signed the lease, I went downtown, I went to one bar—I don’t remember its name— and then I went to Donnelly’s, and in Donnelly’s there was an older person and some people around him, and they were laughing and they included me. I realized they were poets, and I said, “I’m a poet, and come from the IWP.” And then the older person said, “Let me drive you to Mayflower.” On the road he had a small accident, and, when he handed his driver’s license to the police officer, I realized that he was Anselm Hollo!

That is how Iowa started for me, and it didn’t stop. Every third year there is some strange connection!

Like, again, the magic of Iowa: Chris Merrill happened to live in Santa Fe, there also lived my ex-girlfriend who then married an American and translated my third American book. And she asked Chris, introduced him to a reading of my book. So Chris was interested and came to visit me in Ljubljana—we became friends, he became my translator.

 

History

Tomaž Šalamun is a monster.

Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air.
He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.

People and I, we both look at him amazed,
we wish him well, maybe he is a comet.

Maybe he is punishment from the gods,

the boundary stone of the world.

Maybe he is such a speck in the universe

that he will give energy to the planet

when oil, steel, and food run short.

He might only be a hump,
his head should be taken off like a spider's.

But something would then suck up

Tomaž Šalamun, possibly the head.

Possibly he should be pressed between

glass, his photo should be taken.

He should be put in formaldehyde, so children

would look at him as they do fetuses,

protei, and mermaids.

Next year, he'll probably be in Hawaii

or in Ljubljana. Doorkeepers will scalp

tickets. People walk barefoot

to the university there. The waves can be

a hundred feet high. The city is fantastic,

shot through with people on the make,

the wind is mild.

But in Ljubljana people say: look!

This is Tomaž Šalamun, he went to the store

with his wife Marushka to buy some milk.

He will drink it and this is history.

 

Listen 

 

Tomaž Šalamun reading, IWP 40th anniversary, The University of Iowa, October 12, 2007

Tomaž Šalamun Q&A, IWP 40th anniversary, The University of Iowa, October 12, 2007