Katerina Stoykova-Klemer interviewed poet Ivan Hristov for The Season of Delicate Hunger: Anthology of Contemporary Bulgarian Poetry. Here is a translation of that conversation.
What would you like American readers to learn about Bulgarian poetry?
Way back in 1931, the American writer and journalist Reuben Markham wrote in his book, Meet Bulgaria: “Bulgarian poetry is restless, throbbing, moving. It contains but few psalms and rarely soothes or calms; it plunges one into the depths, bears him off on the wings of passion, sweeps him into grand crusades.” (Meet Bulgaria, published in Sofia in 1931 by the Stopansko Razvitie or “Economic Development” Publishing House). I would like to convince American readers that he was right. In fact, even though on the one hand Bulgarians and Americans are different, on the other hand we have much in common. Both of our nations are relatively young. Even though we Bulgarians like to believe that we have a glorious medieval past, in actuality the new Bulgarian state truly began functioning only in the late 19th century with the end of Ottoman rule. Both Bulgarians and Americans are hospitable to guests and tolerant of differences. Both Bulgarians and Americans love good food and good wine; we both love and hate passionately. Both nations are stepping ever more confidently and steadily on the international scene. Both nations are ever more clearly finding their missions and identities.
Americans have played an important role in Bulgarian history. After the most wide-scale Bulgarian uprising against the Ottoman empire was crushed in 1976, Januarius MacGahan visited the country as a correspondent for the Daily News to verify reports of atrocities committed by the Turkish armies against the rebels. His reports in the Daily News, which were reprinted in other newspapers as well, caused a groundswell of public outrage against Turkey (The Turkish Atrocities In Bulgaria, Letters of the Special Commissioner of the “Daily News,” J.A. MacGahan, Esq. 1876). As a result of his writings, the Great Powers took diplomatic action, organizing the so-called Constantinople Conference, which ended with a declaration according to which the Sultan was to give the Bulgarians autonomy within their ethnic territories. Bulgaria honors MacGahan’s memory due to his role in the struggle for Bulgarian independence. In 1978, Bulgaria donated a memorial bust of MacGahan created by the sculptor Todor Purvanov that was placed on the journalist’s grave in New Lexington. The bust has an inscription that reads: “MacGahan – the liberator of Bulgaria.”
Another American who is important to us Bulgarians is Reuben Henry Markham. Markham was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor and served as a missionary in Bulgaria for the
American Mission in Boston at the beginning of 1912. In this position, he taught at the American College in Samokov and founded and edited several journals. He became the Bulgarian correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in 1926. He spent a good deal of his life in southeastern Europe and was recognized as one of the best-informed and knowledgeable Americans in that part of the world.
His book Meet Bulgaria (1931) is an exceptionally rich testimonial to Bulgarian history as a whole, as well as to the spirit of the interwar period.
All of this took place
on the shores of a lake
when Larry let me stay
in his guesthouse.
A small house
with photos on the walls,
with a shower, kitchen and bathroom,
with a piano, a typewriter
and a living room.
Larry didn’t know then
that I had lived
with the Vasilevs,
who were very afraid
that I would become an alcoholic,
even though their son was
an alcoholic and one night
he stole my television.
Then I lived at Krum’s.
When I used his bathtub
the woman downstairs shrieked
that her hallway was flooded.
(I don’t think Krum had taken
a bath in ten years.)
Larry also didn’t know
that I had lived at Simon’s,
on Rakovski Street.
It was a nice room,
but didn’t have any windows.
I bought a little lamp
that I turned on at night
so that it wouldn’t be like
waking up in a coffin.
I even lived in a basement,
in the army,
with Gonzo—an orphan,
who every morning
opened his eyes
and lit up a cigarette.
Larry, my friend,
there’s so much you don’t know!
for letting me live
in your guesthouse.
God bless you,
as I write these lines
on your typewriter!
translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
In some sense, I love intersected biographies. In 2006, I married an American, Angela Rodel, who is an ethnomusicologist and translator. Together, the two of us crossed the length and breadth of America. I had the opportunity to visit New York and San Francisco, I lived for a short time in Los Angele, Minneapolis and the resort town of Land O’ Lakes in northern Wisconsin. While I was in Wisconsin, I read Raymond Carver’s poetry. He opened up my eyes to America’s natural splendor – the lakes, boats, fishermen, cabins, sunsets, herds of deer, eagles, loons. I shared these impressions in my new book of poetry American Poems (2013). The book is bilingual, in Bulgarian and English, translated by my wife. Seven of these poems were included in the anthology The Season of Delicate Hunger. I am the author of two other books of poetry, Farewell Nineteenth Century (2001) and Bdin (2004), as well as of the academic study The Sagittarius Circle and the Idea of the Native (2009). Today we live in Bulgaria since Angela has her own business here translating Bulgarian literature. So far, three novels she has translated have been published in America: Thrown into Nature by Milen Ruskov (Open Letter Books, 2011), 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev (Open Letter Books, 2013), and A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (Open Letter Books, USA, 2013). Angela has deservingly won the title “Guardian Angel of Bulgarian Literature.” I believe that one day, she, too, will join the illustrious list of American friends of Bulgaria.
Is there an American poet who has influenced you or has made a strong impression on you? How do you communicate with American poetry?
My main contact with American poetry has come through the available Bulgarian-language translations, especially Vladimir Levchev’s translations of T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. Both poets are quite popular in Bulgaria, but for me they are important due to their intersected biographies. Eliot left America in the early twentieth century. Despite that, he once said: “I’d say that my poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England…It wouldn’t be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn’t be so good; putting it as modestly as I can, it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America (T. S. Eliot, The Art of Poetry No. 1, The Paris Review No 21, 1959).
In the late 20th century, shortly before his death, Allen Ginsberg was supposed to visit Bulgaria. His last poem, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)”, written a few days before he died, begins with the line: “Never go to Bulgaria, had a booklet and invitation…”
What forms of cultural exchange between Bulgaria and the US do you see as interesting, possible and useful?
In 2012, I organized the so-called “American Edition” of Literary Newspaper. I invited prominent Bulgarian writers whom I knew had written about America to contribute. Every writer had to answer the following questions:
- When did you first realize that America existed?
- How did you imagine America as a child?
- What is America to you now that you are an adult?
- Have you ever been to America?
- Is there a difference between the real America and the one in our imagination?
It turns out that for most of us, America is tied to memories of a grandfather or grandmother who emigrated there during the 1920s. If our mothers and fathers are from the USSR, our grandmothers and grandfathers are from America. For most of us, when we were kids, America was Winnetou and the Indians we knew from Karl May’s books. From my observations, for many Americans, Bulgaria is the country of roses, the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices, and the World Soccer Championships from 1994. All forms of cultural exchange between Bulgaria and the US that would change these clichéd notions would be useful.
Just as we know about T.S. Eliot, I would like Americans to know about Aleko Konstantinov, the author of the travelogue To Chicago and Back. It was precisely in America that Aleko met for the first time the prototype for his most famous character, Bai Ganyo – an emblematic Balkan personage who later became the title character of his fantastic collection of short stories Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). Konstantinov was assassinated for political reasons in the Bulgarian village of Radilovo in 1897. In a questionnaire conducted by Professor Ivan Shishmanov with prominent public figures and artists from that period, to the question “What was the happiest moment of your life?” Aleko Konstantinov replied: “My trip to America and the moment when the idea for Bai Ganyo occurred to me.”
Just as we know Allen Ginsberg, I would like Americans to know the artist Christo Yavashev (Christo), the man who wrapped the Reichstag. He was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, and emigrated in 1956. He later carried out a series of large-scale works in France, the US, Japan, and Australia. Some of his most famous works include: “Running Fence” (Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-76), “The Umbrellas” (Japan-USA 1984-91), and “The Gates” (Central Park, New York City 1979-2005). I think that through his Gates, humanity entered into the 21st century. Christo now lives in America.
Any well wishes for the anthology and its readers?
I would like these tragic biographies of unrealized dreams and death to stop. I would like the Season of Delicate Hunger to end and the Season of Delicate Interrelations to begin.
Ivan Hristov was born on February 16th, 1978 in Borovo. He holds a degree in Bulgarian philology from St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia and a Ph.D. in Bulgarian Modernism from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where he currently works as a researcher in the Institute of Literature. His first book of poetry, Farewell to the 19th Century, won the 2002 Southern Spring Award for the best debut book, and his second collection, Bdin, received the 2006 Svetlostrui Prize for poetry from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Ivan lives and works in Sofia.