LONDON–Vesna Goldsworthy has always had poetry in her soul. Back in the days before Yugoslavia was confined to being just an entity on a historical map, Goldsworthy (née Bjelogrlic) was something of a celebrated young poet in her homeland. At the age of 23, the Belgrade native read out her poetry to an audience of 30,000 as part of a celebration of President Josip Tito’s birthday. Even after her move to the UK in the mid-1980s (she married an Englishman she met during a summer studying in Bulgaria) she continued writing poetry in her native Serbian. But jobs—first as a journalist for the BBC World Service and currently as a professor of English literature and creative writing at Kingston University—and life, including a bout with breast cancer that she wrote of in her widely acclaimed 2005 memoir “Chernobyl Strawberries,” got in the way.
It was during the book tour for “Chernobyl Strawberries that she started work on what would become her award-winning book of poetry, “The Angel of Salonika.” Earlier this year she was awarded the Crashaw Prize for poetry and part of the prize included publication. A recent review in The Times of London, which chose “The Angel of Salonkia” as one of their best poetry books for 2011, stated: “Her accomplished first collection explores the journeys of exile, geographical, spiritual and linguistic, as she travels from the Balkans to ‘The Heart of England, wherever that may be’, with an intense precision.” I recently sat down with Goldsworthy in the living room of her west London home, which is filled with books, art and a smattering of her pre-teen son’s knick-knacks, to talk about her poetry and why there are so many writers from the former Yugoslavia writing in English these days.
Why write a book of poetry now?
It happens a lot, people write poetry in their early 20s and then they stop. So gradually it kind of dried up and for a long period I was not writing poetry. But I think I naturally have a poetic turn. With “Chernobyl Strawberries,” I stopped counting after my 100th reading, though I probably had close to 300 around Europe. Imagine yourself, someone completely surrounded by noise all the time—my son, students in university, whatever. And then in a hotel I am told, “You have two hours before your reading.” So it is too short to go to a museum but too long to just sit there. The mind is restless and wants to be occupied. I call them “explosions of silence”—I was so unused to them. And it was sort of like a laboratory condition for poetry writing. Had I started some big story that was to be a novel, I would be frustrated by the interruption. So it is the explosion of silence that fate gave me. I am not sure what else I would have done. It’s either that or you can flick on the TV or flip through the phonebook to see if there are any of your distant relatives listed. [laughs]
Did you purposely set out to write in English?
I really did not think about that. It took 20 years for English as a language to seep right through me. You have this moment, which is probably after two decades, when the images that used to be for Serbian now come in English. On a given day, I could write in Serbian. It really depends where I am in my head. Sometimes my mind is like some archaeological dig or like a cake, whole layers exist in Serbian and whole layers exist in English. So my example is a car. The physical exterior exists in both Serbia and English but if I lift the hood, it is only in English because I only learned the names of the parts in London. No idea what they are called in Serbian. These poems started circling gradually around the idea of memory and the book begins and ends with the same summer in Macedonia in 1980. I kind of use Macedonia as a key for what is going on in the Balkans. The collection is very personal and political. Macedonia is that place that you hesitate to name because of what is going on [the debate with Greece over the country’s name] and then I used Salonika because it is a great symbol for Serbia in the World War I. So I played with that. Some poems are completely autobiographical and others are imaginary, completely fictional. So English was part of the joy of that word play.
There are several very successful authors—Aleksandar Hemon and Tea Albrecht spring to mind—who write in English versus their native language of Serbo-Croat. Why?
I am glad you asking that question, in part because I am very keen to highlight this point. When I was touring with my book in Poland, I was touring courtesy of British Council in a series called “New British Voices.” But here, I am always seen as the Serbian writer. So I am not really a new British voice but when the Serbian government represents new Serbian literature at Leipzig, I am not a part of that because I am writing in English. On one level it is empowering because it opens up new audiences but you do fall through the cracks slightly. There are a growing number of us and, in fact, when I want to be subtly provocative, I say some of the best former Yugoslavian literature is now being written in English.
Why do we write in English? There is no overwhelming reason, we are very different cases. I came here the early 1980s and in my situation I would find it now, in some ways, just as difficult to write in Serbian. I am here, this is my market, my agent is here. Things come to me in English. In other cases, with Sasha Hemon—and I hesitate to talk of someone else— but he has a lost homeland. I think in his case, him embracing English was kind of a way of remodeling himself as a central European author. I think his books belong to this very broad central European literature category. Which as a Bosnian writer, writing in Bosnian, he may not have done in the same way. Maybe for him, it might be healing a rift.
Will the book be translated into Serbian?
I have started and more or less finished, and it easier with some poems. Some poems are Serbian in an English disguise. That I was writing about particular things that are very Serbian and using English as a medium. But other poems, which are fantastically English, are hard to translate. I am having to reinvent them in some ways, the advantage in doing your own translation, however, is you do not have worry about what the writer was thinking.
I love the line –and I am paraphrasing here—but you write something like “Always read the Russians because they never let you down.” And I remembered that line from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake.”
I always think of her as a Russian writer in an Indian/English disguise. She has a kind of sensibility that to me is really Russian. And what I was going for—the poem it is about a couple having lunch in a restaurant in west London and the man is very English, someone who I would say is part of this London Intelligentsia, who talk of new exhibitions and wondering who will win the Booker prize and this and that. But they never get to some meaningful conversation, which is what this woman wants to have. And she says—this is a prelude to what happens later in the poem—“I promise myself to read only the Russians/ They never disappoint, they never fail you.” And I wrote that without remembering that it comes from “The Namesake.”
And then she says “Hasn’t someone already said this before?” It is a turning point in the poem and the woman is about to start talking about a bloody episode in the war. In the same time, she is tearing matchsticks, it is a sort of involuntary. It is about a certain kind of mismatch and coupledom and being in love but also the condition of coming from a very troubled part of the world. And having the burden of history and not knowing what to do with it. People ask you where you are from and half the time you do not want to go there because it kind of ruins people’s birthday parties. But half the time, what is being talked about is skirting the issue and slightly banal. It is a what to do when you come from a part of the world that is troubled. You do not want to throw that history at people all the time but you are carrying it as well.