Duska Vrhovac (Duška Vrhovac), poet, journalist and translator, was born in 1947 in Banja Luka, in the current Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She graduated comparative literature at Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, where she lives and works as a writer and freelance journalist. She has worked for many years at the Television Belgrade (Radio Television of Serbia) and she has worked with major newspapers.
With 20 published books of poetry, some of which have been translated, in part or in full, into 20 languages, she is among the most significant contemporary authors of Serbia and beyond. Present in newspapers, literary journals and anthologies of absolute value, she has participated in many meetings, festivals and literary events in Serbia and abroad.
Duska Vrhovac is a member, among others, of the Association of Writers of Serbia, Association of Literary Translators of Serbia, of the International Federation of Journalists and she is ambassador of the Movement Poets of the World in Serbia.
She has received important awards and recognition for poetry, including: Majska nagrada za poeziju -May prize for poetry- 1966, Yugoslavia; Pesničko uspenije -Ascension of Poetry- 2007, Serbia; Gensini Prize – Poetry Section 2011, Italy, and the golden badge assigned by the Institution for Culture and Education of the Republic of Serbia.
- If you had to define the word poetry what would you say?
This is one of the questions which will never have an all-around, complete and final answer although many great writers, poets in particular, wrote about poetry and poets and although many of my own verses are dedicated to poetry, to poets, to words: Poets, Hunger, To Find My Word, Memento Vivere, for instance.
Let us remind ourselves of a few amusing thoughts about poetry the authors of which are the greatest world poets who lived in various epochs and within various civilizations and cultures, wrote in various languages but the life of each of them was filled with poetry and (or) was completely dedicated to it. For Federico Garcia Lorca “La poesía es lo imposible, hecho posible”, for Jorge Luis Borges: “Convertir el ultraje de los años en una música, un rumor y un símbolo”… Giuseppe Ungaretti, however, affirms that “La poesia è poesia quando porta in sé un segreto”. I like the understanding of Rabindranath Tagore that the poetry is “cibo della mente”, and the instruction of Pier Paolo Pasolini: “non parlar la parola ma la cosa”. Great Johann Wolfgang Goethe spoke about poets with enthusiasm and respect whilst Charles Baudelaire glorifies a Poet:
„Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.”
A word in poetry is unpredictable and different and carries its own secret-meaning-sound. In a flash of a creative moment a poet with the help of a word creates pictures which are not of this world but they belong to it. That is why poetry is the highest artistic level of usage of a mother’s tongue, even of other languages in which an author writes, devoid of any ideological ties and darkness, a level on which a poet’s talent invokes words which have disappeared, creating new ones at the same time. Poets truly preserve the essence of a language and promote it to the utmost. This is why I disagree with those who claim that beauty is banished from the contemporary poetry. A poetical telling is always a quest for beauty.
Having in mind all that I have written so far I could say briefly that the closest to me is the thinking of Wislawa Szymborska: everything can be poetry, poetry is a way in which the world is considered but it is also the understanding of one’s own existence in that world and the place of all things in that world; nevertheless I still do not know in fact what does poetry mean. Poetry is certainly the way of my own thinking and existence and it is a part of my mission as well, if that mission exists at all, but any short and simple definition would be lacking and partial, the way all existing definitions of poetry are lacking and partial.
- Why do you write poetry?
Writing poetry is as indispensable to me as breathing. I do not think about it much because,in my case, the need for writing comes in the same way as thirst or hunger, or those periodical moods, ostensibly without real reason, when we are suddenly subject to an attack of joy or melancholy or elation, a desire to do something although no one asks it of us. Therefore the urge to write comes to me from within, comes as an “order from above”, as a pure inspiration, most frequently. I sit down to write verses intentionally, with a plan, only if something which I had already had in my head has not been written down on time, so I try to remember, to invoke the moment of “enlightenment”, the moment of inspiration which I failed to note down because the momentary circumstances (being busy with other things for instance) have prevented me from doing so. In that sense I can say that I do not run after, I do not chase words but rather they come and chase after me and they find me. Poetical images, oncoming words, the need of my poetical I to impose and stand before any other thing I am dealing with are very powerful and I gladly give in – I write poetry. Of course the purpose of my writing is the communication with others, the necessity to discover whether my feelings and experience of the world correspond with those of other people. The pleasure of being read, recognized and accepted is also important, but it is not primary. I would write poetry even if my verses were not liked by others or even if nobody would want to print them because, simply, I write as I breathe and I breathe as I write.
- Do you have rituals, or mediation practices that you take part in to help you become more focused before beginning a writing session? Or Do the words just come to you?
I do not have any mediation practices nor do I have any particular preparations for writing as far as the poetry is in question. I am truly a poet of inspiration as I have explained before, the words simply come to me, find me, catch up with me and “harness” me to write. However, this does not mean that there is no fight with words, the process of creation, the trouble with writing. I write a poem at one go very frequently, even if it is a long poem, but should it happen that I am not satisfied with what is written I work on the text and sometimes I even give it up.
- Talk about one of your poems which appears in your feature.
Although I could write a story about each of my poems, I do no speak about them gladly. As an author , to explain my poem seems to me the same as showing one how to make sweet water out of honey. In this case, a poem is honey and the explanation is sweet water.I prefer to have a dialogue with readers or critics. It is different with the poems of other authors when I am a reader and (or) a critic. Nevertheless, let me say something about the way in which my poem The Poets was created. Its first original title was in Spanish, Hermanos poetas (Brother Poets). In the year when the poem was written I was a guest at the XIV International Festival of Poetry in Rosario, birth place of Che Guevara in Argentina. When I arrived at Rosario, the moment I entered the hall of the hotel I met a group of poets – local ones and those from all over the world – and all of them spoke Spanish.They were in a very good mood, pleasant, smiling and they greeted me cordially, as if we were old acquaintances. I noticed that amongst themselves they addressed each other somewhat formally with “hermano poeta”, the expression which I heard for the first time and it sounded as if it were an official title which they pronounced with particular esteem. In those five days during the Festival I experienced a number of unusual things in connection with those present but also in connection with some poets who were not present and it was the first time I thought about poets as a “society”, a particular companionship. Immediately upon my return home I wrote, almost in one breath, the poem Hermanos poetas.There was almost no need to change a word in the first version and I published it straight away. It was quickly translated to other languages, it was published in quite a number of places and it is now a poem that readers frequently want to hear.
- What is your writing and editing process like? How long does it generally take you to finish a poem?
If I work on a newspaper article, a critical piece, some translation or any prose text, I can work on it whenever necessary.The process of writing and editing is similar in general: the preparation if necessary (collecting the information, reading about the topic, thinking about the concept), writing and eventually editing the text. When all of this is over – then comes a “breather” followed by my reading the text this time in the “role” of an objective reader.
As for poetry one could say that each poem is a case by itself. When a poem comes, when words want to get to paper (or on a screen of late), simply, as if by a higher dictation I write with ease. When that “first version” is finished, I feel a pleasant relief, a sort of joy. It may happen that I am immediately pleased and do not find anything in need of improving. Then I print out the poem and read it aloud. If the melody and the rhythm are really all right I put it in the file of finished pieces.
If I am not satisfied I put the poem into the file of work in progress and I come back to it after a certain period of time, I read it again and carry out some changes: I search for a better expression, I change word order, reject whatever I consider superfluous. Sometimes I add something but more frequently I shorten the text. A poem must not have anything superfluous. I bear in mind that poetry truly is the queen of art which means that a poem is good if a suspenseful harmony of words carries in itself a meaning as well as an image and music. My own high criteria acquired at the prestigious Faculty of Literature I apply most persistently as far as my own manuscripts are concerned. When we speak about the form, my poems form themselves in most cases, even graphically. The exception is when I wish to experiment with a classical form which has its own established rules,with sonnets, for instance.
Of course, it happens, although not frequently, that I am not satisfied even after editing the text. Then I usually give up, tear up or erase the page. I do not wish to exhaust myself on “thin” material.This means that I cannot determine a general time I need to finish a poem. Sometimes it is complete the moment I finish writing so the first version remains the final version, sometimes not.
I also have periods, luckily brief ones, when I have no need to write at all and sometimes I even have a feeling that should I sit at my writing desk for hours I could not write a single good verse. When such a period comes I carry on with other things.
- What other interests do you have that inspires your poetry?
My interests are all my life, whatever is happening to me personally, but also the entire world, the surroundings, what is close or far away, visible and invisible, all of ignite, activate my poetical “chip” that is to say inspire me to write poetry. It rarely happens that obvious concrete events are a so called direct inspiration. I would rather say that my total sublime experience is the jump start of my poetical self. I was a newspaper reporter for a long time for the daily papers and magazines as well as a television author and reporter, I have traveled a lot. Considering the fact that a man is all that he is in each and every moment and that he carries all those characteristics within himself, when I work as a newspaper reporter there is no doubt that a poet in me influences the reporter (in the choice of topic, in the way in which a matter should be approached for instance). Similarly the newspaper reporter influences the poet and I believe it is closest to the truth if I say that all my interests and actions probably affect my poetical inspiration, but most frequently I am not aware of it and I do not think about it. As I said before, I simply “write as I breathe”.
Not less important than what we live is what we “live through” when reading other authors, prose writers or poets, whichever. Because, sometimes, a good book can offer a deeper and more intense living through than the life itself, than real events. Consequently reading is an important part of my world in which a word is my means of expression, the way to voice what I experience, recognize and discover, and so “my word” in fact is a measure of my talent and its reach.
 Poetry is when the impossible is made possible.
 Converting the rage of years into music, voice, symbol.
 Poetry is poetry when it carries a secret in itself.
 the food of mind
 do not tell the word but the matter
 The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.
(The Albatros, tr. by William Aggeler)
I just go on
as if this were
the one way possible
a soul in blood and flesh
towards sorrow always
again and again
touching earth and grass
and being earth
in the ken of the kin
of windspeech and flowerspeech
in the poem I plant
whatever can’t be breathed.
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHY
You didn’t turn up.
This bread this soundlessness
this wine are witness
and this table where everything
shudders in confusion
before my closed door
while I burn art
instead of the candle.
WHEN A CHILD DIES
When a child dies
it’s wrong to weep
are far too loud
for the womb
it nestled in.
When a child dies
no star falls
but climbs higher
on its damned
Damned impossible night.
What are these ghost wakes that ooze from each pore
howling to crawl back under my skin?
If I could just spread my arms, open my eyes,
what damned impossible word would I utter,
a word that limped on
from dusk to dusk
entirely made of maimed movements.
I carry on, but still I glance back.
I dare not even grasp a knife
to this deep quiet, this calling,
I have been utterly emptied out
but still some kind of song limps on,
a rotten fruit sprouts in my breast
and, powerless, crows morning.
At the time I loved you
I walled an invisible house
over our heads, and under your skin
I laid a mass of fertilized cells,
in your gaze I bricked a hearth
and on its stone my breath fanned fire
until you grew, and yielded
like a surrendering virgin.
At the time I received you in
and so released you from yourself,
on a thread around our bed
I beaded ripe autumnal fruits,
and turned rain droplets into milk.
At the time I loved you
all that was yours found repose in me
and I believed we would save each other.
But now, here we are, separating
and neither of us knows how
we’ll forget each other, our selves.
Loneliness does not fade in the moonlight.
By that primal candle
fades only our unstable character
stooping over loneliness
wanting to portray it as a mystical moment
chosen and embraced voluntarily.
But the smell of iodine in the air warns.
The depth of breaths give us away
and we and this rich night in the distance
turn into cosmic pain
instead of the wax seal
which seals the important messages.
Pain thickens in the moonlight
Hands look for each other
as they are not twins
but strangers from another planet.
Not the smell of sea water
Nor the substantial iodine can help it there.
In the night of moonlight everything opens
and releases abstained traces
and easily broken dreams.
Not even the tide or ebb can do anything.
In the night of moonlight only love helps.
I was picking red peonies with you last night
by the muddy Bistrica river.
From the sky were falling white petals on us
from the hands of souls who haven’t found peace.
From grass could be heard whisperings of ancient lovers,
the sound of horsemen clatter was coming from the road,
as in the poems of Hikmet Nazim.
While drops of the mystic rain were colouring our faces
Your eyes were sparkling balsam for the soul
and with some damned synergy
your hot breath on my mature lips
was turning into scarlet dew drops.
Everything was unreal except the night,
except our tears and blessings of our Lord.
Now I know that you are and what is and what is not.
If you were a blue dawn of my gentle death
and painful twilight of their outgoing youth;
if you were stopped voice of the primordial scream,
the runaway dream of fullness of a sleeping angel
who got tired of the excessive desire
and wished to rest on my shoulder.
On a dark veil of my confused night
with your finger, like with a magic brush,
you are painting white, drowsy lilies.
Confused by your risen desire
they mindlessly grow and outgrow
the view of my shaded window.
I am watching you while in an ecstasy you ask the wind
Can this field bear so much beauty
which swells your chest to burst.
Wind is quiet, entirely got quiet, intoxicated,
Fears to not get blown away by the smell of coming poem
into the dreams of the innocent and still asleep ones.
And on my face, as on the waters of Jordan,
fly reflections of your original character
and the soul celebrates, not caring for eternity or volatility.
Poets are a gang,
of banalities and eternity.
They are useless seekers,
hunters of lost words,
the spies of roads and seas.
Poets are vain gardeners
of overgrown royal gardens,
vanguards of star derailments,
messengers of sunken ships,
desecrators of secret paths,
crafty repairers of the Ursa Major
and the Ursa Minor,
collectors оf astral dust.
Poets are thieves of illusions,
troubadours of rejected utopias,
seducers of any kind,
tasters of poisoned food,
prodigal sons and professional seducers,
heroes which spontaneously
put their heads at the guillotine
at which they are also executioners.
Poets are the crowned guardians
of language’s proper being,
lovers of unsolvable mysteries,
charlatans and pimps.
They are the favorites of gods,
tasters of magic drinks,
and crazy squanders
of their own lives.
Poets are the last offshoots
of the most delicate sort of cosmic beings,
cultivators of the soul’s white flowers,
unreliable creators of untenable worlds.
Poets are interpreters of lost signs,
carriers of important messages,
a warning that Life is endless
and Universe an unfinished project.
Poets are fireflies on the junkyard of the Cosmos,
conquerors of the colourful rainbow belt
and performers of the holy music
of the cosmic birth.
Poets are invisible companions
in the silence of sense and absurdity
of all the visible and the invisible.
Poets are my only, true brothers.
TO FIND MY OWN WORD
Countless poets have already told
how they see a whole world in a grain of sand,
infinity in the palm of a hand, all heaven in an eye,
and how a single day can be an eternity. . .
Many of them have glorified love,
cursed suffering, sorrow and pain,
described death, hell, paradise and a happy home,
earnest that everlasting shall be their work and name.
Everything has been said and seen,
forewarned, sung and written about,
and there is nothing that has never been.
So why then do here I stand
Like the first woman and the first man,
As if I were a God.
To say what was told?
To describe what is written?
To find my own word.
(Translated by Richard Burns, Vera Radojevic, Aleksandar Malešević)
She wanted to create
from flint, razzle-dazzle
she’d read in her student’s
poem, savored in her bones.
the scatter-shot of her thoughts
in Georgia eleven-point
a dash of pebbles, coffee grounds—
not pattern, a speckled random
assemblage. She types,
back-spaces. Types more.
it was a kind of splendid
suffering. The shapes
the future held out
a shiver, a punch,
a flight of birds arcing
South and gone.
Since you arrived,
dear niece, I imagine every knee-high girl
as you in a few years. Case in point—
at the steakhouse last night
mid-forkful of Caesar salad,
the man with the broad back had his back
facing me in the booth, but across from him
at my 9 o’clock, on a booster seat,
a girl of about four. In a hot pink parka,
she swung her feet above the floor,
brandishing her brick red crayon
across ashy coloring pages.
magnetic. Her yellow-brown curls twirled
as she push-
push-pushed her crayon tip through
outlines of a friendly fish, her tongue dipped
half-way in, halfway-out, halfway-in
in concentration. She never sees me.
Already, the years melt
down to when the pages were mine—
I’ve squiggled outside dark outlines
more than a few times in making this life mine.
Already the years unspool
in green, orange, purple scribbles. Someday
soon, we’ll kneel at a coffee table together,
an empty cardboard carton between us,
eager to fill in the world you’ll make
vibrant with choices.
Pick up a sledge hammer blade
mounted on a duct-taped handle.
Grip the stick like a ball bat
with fissures in the wood from work-wear
parting it. Drive this heft overhead
and down, overhead and
down from shaky shoulders
into something thick and stone,
entrenched lime boulders caught
in the way of clearing, an obstruction
from building something
more useful, more appealing.
Make splintering shards
from the gravid blade. Each stubborn fist of stone
shatter, wallop them down into tangled grass
so green all is lost in fecundity.
Drop to hands and knees,
the splash of sweat still reddening your face
in panic. Attempt to gather together
each distressed fragment,
to cultivate smooth ground for construction—
such task makes failure, less-than-pebble.
As nothing else, our hands
remind us we are mortal.
Sifting earth or flour, loading supper
dishes, tracing a love’s face, upholding children,
eggshells and safe combinations,
hefting books and baskets of laundry, unpressed,
the firm flesh loosens, unspools
into surface crenellations. Mottled
speckly fan whose hinges ache open, the body’s
shot through with twining cobalt
veins. This coat encumbered
with markings, newer and newer gnarls
arisen as yeasts. Roping
as an elm, cored, bares etched years’
labors’ lifelines. Eternal bringers
of ministrations and caress
whose ultimate grasp— clasped rest.
you know, the last time I worked like a working girl
Satan he comes to my house
I mean visits he’s one of those boys who
can’t come unless he kills someone
takes his clothing off
takes the uniform
the badge the boots the trooper uniform off
his little Hitler mustache is all he’s got on
and I say sipping scotch — oh my there look at your wee wee
Satan say honey don’t be talking baby talk
what you see here is my prick
and I say not so kindly I’m a little drunk I say:
I hate to inform you
hesitate to inform you
wouldn’t dare to inform on you
I’ve seen plenty of pricks
miles of cock
rollpoles of penises
what you got there
is a wee wee
a hot dog (not)
a mean love muscle (I don’t think so)
a throbbing cock?
not until you get me in your arms and pin me down
beat my face
slam the bottle up my cunt
fuck my ass until it bleeds
then yer a brick house
when you see blood yer pretty hot
and I say
call the police
but yer already there
since I’m going to die
come on baby
let’s have a date
we can talk some more
I know you love to talk and stalk
watch me through my window
I know you’re there
I see you
and I don’t care
you don’t exist
you’re just a wannabe in a uniform
I stand naked in the window
mocking you every night
you dream of dismembering me
you want to push my face
my laughing mocking face
so far down into the ground
you can’t see anything
no eyes no laughing mouth
just the back of my pretty head
like a pumpkin
ready to smash you want to
push me down into the ground make me eat gravel make me eat dirt make me eat my laughing mocking words
saying no no
but not you
you want to
shut my big laughing mouth
throw me to the ground dance on my back till it breaks till it bleeds
you want to wipe
the smile and the lipstick off my face
put blood where the red paint is
like it like that
my butt is yours just for just one night
as long as you’re holding that shiny knife
I call the police and there you are
cop cop copy cat
but you can’t dance and you can’t come and you can’t even move your gun
unless you see the fear and scum
do you kill young boys
cause you can’t get it up
do you kill young girls cause you can’t get enough
georgy porgy pudding and pie
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
kiss the girls
can’t come unless they run can’t come until they run can’t come until they run
until they twist and shout
how many will you have to kill to
shut my laughing mocking mouth
red with lipstick
other men’s come
how many will you have to kill
to make me want you
remember you’re alive?
how much attention do you want how much attention do you need you ain’t never gonna get my undying undying undying attention
that’s the way you like it
no longer even
only the twitching of my dying limbs only that warm soft blood like the animals you killed when you were small mama said they were going to God and you just helped and now you see the inside of me I’m losing blood I’m fast asleep so peaceful now you feel the love I feel for you we’re finally one I’m going soon and we are one how much how much how much love
and now finally I understand and darling
I’ll never laugh at you again mock you point to your tiny itsy bitsy penis
your tiny little boy penis and laugh saying
ain’t never gonna be no man
I’m your mama
and baby I know
watch me little boy I’ll undress for you pull you over
come to mama
be with mama
come watch mama
with the men
and I’ll laugh and my lovers and everyone else
will laugh at you
and how you will love me
till the day I day
especially on the day I die
come on push my face down into the ground you’ll be my dad
and this time
really know you’re there.