An interview with Gjoko Zdraveski by Luke Arundel Crane and Scott Stewart
The Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe is one of the most linguistically exciting places in the whole of the Western hemisphere; all languages are all mixed together in this exciting and diverse region. The poetry scene is also healthy and vibrant with a number of new artists producing work that pushes beyond boarders both geographically and culturally. Gjoko Zdraveski, from Skopje, Republic of Macedonia, is one of those voices needing to be heard. Already the author of two books of poetry, Palindrome with double n and House for migratory birds, at the age of twenty eight, Gjoko is very much at the heart of this bustling new environment. Poetry International was delighted to discuss with Gjoko all things related to his work and Macedonian poetry.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing when I was 16. I was writing poems for a girl, but she never got to read what I had written for her. Those were desperate attempts to write something down, to release some kind of dungeoned energy. Those poems now rest in a black notebook that I keep hiding from the world up to these days.
How does your environment affect your writing and what are the major influences upon your work?
Almost five years ago my life changed completely. It was as though I opened some door and walked in some other home. That was the year when I discovered two things: I discovered the power of meditation and I discovered the poetry of Nikola Madzirov, a contemporary Macedonian poet whose poetry I perceive as though it were my own. Since then I have been seeking silence which will enable me to hear the Word. When I set my feet on that path, other truths also started exposing themselves to me, so today one can find traces from many philosophical schools in my writing. I learn from Orthodox monks, from dervishes, from Indian gurus, from tao sages. Today I seek what all of them have in common, and in most cases that’s my inspiration.
What is the history of poetry in Macedonia and how healthy is the scene today?
I will tell you my very own version of the history of Macedonian poetry restricting it to four poets. The first one is Konstantin Miladinov, who was a mid-19th century poet. His poem “Longing for the South” is the anthem of Struga Poetry Evenings, and the “Miladinov Brothers” award is the most prestigious poetry award for Macedonian authors. The second one is Kosta Solev Racin, whose writing dates back to the period between the two World Wars. Racin was my first love when I was a little boy, I used to learn his poems by heart. His social lyrics have been re-actualized these days due to the political situation in the state. The third one is Blaze Koneski. For me he is the Master. Many times, when I’m alone at home, I walk in my room and I read his poems out loud. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of his language, so it’s easier for me to read them aloud. The fourth one is Nikola Madzirov. He is the only one alive of the four, he belongs to the contemporary world. Even in ordinary conversations, his words are pure poetry. I perceive him as a monk who walks amongst the people. His book Relocated Stone exists amongst my lyrics.
Today there are many young people on the poetry scene of Macedonia with different poetics, different influences, different role models in world poetry. The seed is good, the tree has grown, the branches have leaves. Now we have to wait to see what kind of fruit it’s going to bring.
Your poems often reflect a tense and claustrophobia world, how do you navigate in this modern world?
No city, no matter how beautiful it is, can match what is hidden deep inside a mountain. I feel free when I stand on the edge of a mountain top with the wide emptiness opening before me. This is when I close my eyes, I spread my arms and I fly. In the city, especially in my home city, there is no emptiness no matter how wide the streets and the boulevards are. And when there is no emptiness, the wind has nowhere to circle.
What is your writing process? How long does each poem take and do you revise a lot? How much do you think about poetry?
I rarely write. Sometimes I keep the quiet for months, and I’m not afraid of being quiet because this is the path to the silence. I see myself as a medium, I let information flow through me, in this way I only write down what passes through me. I often write down my poems with my mind elsewhere. Sometimes the writing is just a moment in time but at other times it’s a state of trance. Once I write a poem down, I read it over and over again until I’m finally sure that what once was inside me is now on the paper. For me the text is sacred. As the body is the temple for the soul, the written is the temple for the thought, it is embodied in the writing. I care about the form because the form is what brings the meaning to life.
How do you see the role of the poet?
The poet is awake. His doors of perception are widely open. His mind is free, his heart is pure. His Ego is as tamed as a lamb. The poet has wings to fly but he walks firmly on the ground with his legs. He belongs to several realities at the same time.
You play with the size of the text and often use a short and restricted line in your book, is this purely for aesthetics or is there a deeper meaning behind this concept?
My last book is written using small letters only. I’ve been avoiding using capital letters when writing poetry for quite a while. I can’t explain why but, again, it has something to do with vanishing into the silence. All the letters in the book are small and in this way they gain greatness without any of them getting full of itself.
What fashions your line breaks and how do you structure a poem?
I read my poems aloud once I finish them. I take a deep breath and I make circles with my palm to feel the rhythm. The silence is as important as the word. The silence itself finds its own space between the words. I don’t keep my mind busy with what a poem should look like, the form comes from the depths. It is merely an image of the world which lives inside me.
What plans do you have for the future?
I will let the sea in me grow deeper and I will let the flow carry me.
Two Poems by Gjoko Zdraveski
STOP! My First Chance
We embrace in the grass, count the planes over our heads.
We are scared. We are only two months away until
the end of summer.
the bus smells of shoes
and morning yawns of
smokers shift in the cold
wait nervously for the number
for their baggage
those that are leaving
they accidently left something behind
the driver leans drowsy
on his palms
and waits for the sign
to cross the border
Translated by Luke Arundel Crane and Scott Stewart