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Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun (1941) has 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 Poemsof 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 Presented to the American Public by Chris Merrill:[fn]Merrill, Christopher. Introduction. The Four Questions of Melancholy. New and Selected Poemsby Tomaž Šalamun. New York, White Pine Press 1997, p. 15-19[/fn]

In 1997, Christopher Merrill wrote this in an Introduction to Šalamun collection The Four Questions of Melancholy. New and Selected Poems:

“If Slovenia has a national disease, it is melancholia—a legacy, perhaps, of more than a thousand years of subjugation to the whims of stronger powers. Franks, Bavarians, Hungarians, Teutons, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all ruled at one time or another over this tiny land wedged between the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea. “In the absence of a nation-state of their own,” Debeljak notes, “the only real home for Slovenians was carved out in their language and poetry.” Despite enormous pressure, political and cultural, to abandon their identity, the Slovenians created a rich and melancholic poetic tradition, which for much of their history united them as strongly as their Roman Catholic faith. Surely one sign of this people’s impending change of fortunes was the appearance, in 1964, of a poet determined to upend that tradition. Nothing would ever be quite the same after Tomaž Šalamun published these lines:

I grew tired of the image of my tribe
and moved out.
Out of long nails
I weld limbs for my new body.
Out of long rags, my entrails.
A coat of carrion
will be my coat of solitude.
I pluck my eye from the depth of the marsh.
Out of the devoured plates of disgust
I will build my hut.
My world will be a world of sharp edges.
Cruel and eternal.


The son of a pediatrician and an art historian, Tomaž Šalamun was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1941. An infamous year. The zeal with which Croatia’s pro-Nazi Ustaša regime, installed in April and bent on building an ethnically pure state, murdered Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and other Croats alarmed even the German and Italian authorities, to say nothing of the citizenry. When Šalamun’s father, a leftist sympathizer, learned from Jewish friends that his name was on the list of those to be liquidated, the family fled to Ljubljana, Slovenia, then under Italian control. The poet’s first memory, in fact, is of an Italian soldier jumping on a roadblock, celebrating Italy’s capitulation in 1943. The bombardments he experienced during the war, which he viewed as “a festival of light and particular energies,” would resurface in the dark and explosive imagery of his first poems.

His family moved to Koper, a small town just south of Trieste, and after the war, when Trieste and the Istrian peninsula were divided into two zones, A and B, Šalamun came of age in the border area between the Eastern Bloc and the West—in zone B, that is, which was run by the Yugoslav Army and which surrounded the Free Territory of Trieste, under American rule until 1954. Koper was Italian (Capodistria) before the partition, and even as a child the poet felt like an intruder in “this peaceful, Mediterranean, dreamy, old-time small town.” Travels during his high school years to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris enlarged his understanding of the differences between the East and West, while the brilliant light along the Adriatic coast, which colored his imagination, gave him a new aesthetic orientation. If Vienna is the traditional lodestar of Slovenian poetry (as well as of its politics and culture), Šalamun looked for inspiration to Venice—and points further west.

Nor was this an act of revolt. His “is a poetics not of rebellion but of quest,” Robert Hass explains, “Šalamun’s tradition has been the disruptive, visionary side of European experimental art, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, the German expressionists, the French surrealists, the Russian futurists, the tradition in which poetry is an instrument for glimpsing a supreme reality, and for which all art is, finally, the scattered bits and pieces of that larger vision.”

Šalamun in Iowa City

Šalamun visited Iowa City several times. He was a participant in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program in 1971. Here is what he remembered in 2007, during a later visit to Iowa City, about his first landing:

I must tell you that the poem 'History' [included below] 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[fn]Translated by Tomaž Šalamun and Bob Perleman; from Selected Poemsof Tomaž Šalamun, Ecco Press, 1988. Published also in The Four Questions of Melancholy,White Pine Press, 1997.[/fn]

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.

Šalamun Started in Slovenia and Became Famous in America


In the Introduction to the second edition of Poker(2008) Šalamun says: “I became a poet under these circumstances: as a child I was a prodigy on the piano – from age five to twelve. I was treated as a wunderkind in a very small provincial setting, but I never touched the piano again in my life after I was twelve. My father wouldn’t let me train for rowing twice a day, and I quit in protest. He was afraid for my health, and with reason. From twelve to twenty-two I was a lazy boy. When, as a student of art history, I heard Dane Zajc, the major poet, my first poems came to me as stones from the sky.”


It is difficult to exaggerate, and difficult for us in America to understand, just how powerful Šalamun’s debut in Slovenia was. He was jailed for publishing the following poem, which was his first publication (in 1964):

DUMA (Word)

Fucked by the Absolute

fed up with virgins and other dying sufferers

I love you o neighbors, meek fantasies of God the Father

I love you o integral characters of sweet gazing

in my mind grace yielded


o proud possessors of anxieties

o trained intellectuals with sweaty little hands

o logicians, vegetarians with the thickest glasses

o muzzled rectors

o ideologues with your whoring ideologies

o doctors munching on punctuation marks and Skofja Loka pastries

o mummified academicians patting passion and pain

Pascal who tried and Bach who pulled it off

o lusty inexpressible dried-up lyricist

o horticulture, the enlightened and the happy swallows

o socialism à la Louis XIV or how to shelter the poor little creatures

o one hundred thirty-five constitutional bodies or how to keep

a dead cat from stinking

o the revolutionary zeal of the masses or

            where is the sanatorium to cure our impotence


I walked our land and got an ulcer

land of Cimpermans and pimply groupies

land of serfs myths and pedagogy


o flinty Slovenians, object of history crippled by a cold


(translated by Tomaž Šalamun and Christopher Merrill)

A poetic experiment in Iowa City

“I’ve never written anything between 1 pm and 3 pm in my life. I’ve never written a poem if I was told to, either. I’ve never had to translate what I’ve done so quickly. I’ve never written anything sitting together with other poets. But Chris’s infectious joy, the honor to be invited into such a company, the idea that we would try to do what great masters did thirty years ago—this was too much to pass up. I was like being on a roller-coaster in a dark cave, experiencing an earthquake, hearing some strange laughter and shrieks from colleagues, exciting, enjoyable, but also really, really hard. After four days of doing this my bones ached, I limped (literally), my marrow was overused. It seems that those of us who had also to translate barely survived. But: we were happy, beaming.”[fn]Marvin Bell, István Lászlo Geher, Ksenia Golubovich; Simone Inguanez; Christopher Merrill, Tomaž Šalamun, Dean Young. 7 poets, 4 days, 1 book, San Antonio, Trinity University Press, 2009[/fn]


What kind of worm will now appear?

No idea. Will he understand the word

union? Will he lick it? Will he

explode it? I’d like you, animal, you’d

understand it. Because now my language

rips me like a cruel hooker. It leads

astray, thralls, fizzles and enslaves.

Worm! Be gentle! You can be

cheeky, saucy and il terribile, but

please, be also kind. We need you. We’re

celebrating, IWP was fucking great. It

gave a lot of light, huge joy to all of

us who rambled here around. Our

space which designates the word union.

OK, my little beast, will you cooperate?

Recognized around the world

Among the honors awarded Šalamun are the Prešeren Prize, the Jenko Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright fellowship to Columbia University, The Festival Prize in Romania, the Altamarea Prize in Italy, a fellowship to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and the European Prize from the town of Münster, Germany, and [a Macedonian prize in Struga: to be checked with the poet]. He has served as cultural attaché to the Slovenian Consulate in New York and as a visiting professor at several American universities. He is married to the artist Metka Krašovec and has a daughter and a son.

A collection of poems in English translation, Blue Tower, is due to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the Spring of 2011.


Text: Zlatko Anguelov