Irony sips whiskey: savouring the poetry of Sylva Fischerová

It is not often that we are given a taste of contemporary Czech poetry in really good English translation. A remarkable exception is a new collection of poems by one of the best Czech poets to emerge in the last twenty-five years, Sylva Fischerová. She translated the poems herself, together with the American poet, academic and translator, Stuart Friebert, and the result, published under the title, “The Swing in the Middle of Chaos”, shows just how fruitful such collaborations can be. David Vaughan met Sylva Fischerová in her book-filled office at Prague’s Charles University, to talk about the collection.

Sylva Fischerová describes language as a living being, and there is no better proof of this than her own poetry. Her language is immensely rich, abounding in Biblical and classical allusion, then taking us by surprise by leaping unexpectedly into the everyday and conversational, its tone sometimes angry, always reflective and often funny. Sylva chose to begin our conversation by reading a poem that reflects her love for the playfulness of language.

Sister Irony

Sylva Fischerová, photo: authorSylva Fischerová, photo: author Sorrow is boring.
How you float through its timelessness –
The square of window is gray and boring.
The globe of sky is gray and boring.
People, two-legged creatures,
walk, back and forth,
injuring one another.
The others watch,
some write it down.
Who started it? Who’s guilty?
Sorrow drinks beer. Irony
sips whiskey. She’s my sister:
the same as me, but
where I cry she laughs.
She survives everything, immortal
like a protozoon
or grave digger,
flipper of pancakes and tears, a liar!
Being in love, but with whom?
Herself? A laugh?
One day I’ll get her drunk,
shake out the restraint
the space between.
Below, I’ll see a sea crop up.
A herring in the sea.
And above the herring
there’ll be crying
an orphan universe

“I’m Sylva Fischerová. My job is teaching Ancient Greek literature and philosophy at the Charles University in Prague. I’ve been writing poetry since my childhood and recently I’ve published a book of my poetry in English translation. Its title is ‘The Swing in the Middle of Chaos’”.

And you’ve just read us the poem, “Sister Irony”. Can you tell us something about that poem and why you chose it to start with?

“It’s one of my favourite ones. I even wanted to have this poem as the title poem of the book, but my co-translator, Stuart Friebert, was against this idea. His favourite was ‘The Swing in the Middle of Chaos’ and he won, because he always won all the struggles we had during the years when we translated my poems.”

When you read poetry in translation, you nearly always know that you are reading a translation. I did not have that feeling when reading this collection. I think the translations are exceptionally good…

“Thank you very much! The idea to translate my poems was Stuart’s idea. When he proposed it, my first reply was immediate. I wrote to him saying, ‘No, we can’t do that. With my horrible English it’s impossible to succeed.’ But, I think he has a truly American spirit, so he replied: ‘At least we can try.’ So we tried and we did it. The book is a child of email communication, because he lives in Ohio in the United States and I live in Prague. So it was hundreds of emails!”

Your poetry is not necessarily easy to read. It’s very suggestive, it’s very rich and many-faceted. An example is in the title of the collection, “The Swing in the Middle of Chaos”, which comes from a poem of the same name. Here are a few lines, which I think in some ways are very typical for the collection:

A child rocks in the swing
  in the middle of chaos.
Chaos is white, vermiliony gold,
blue like a room with a candle
  in the middle,
  room left by someone dead.
A child rocks in the swing and keeps
her eyes open. After a while, she’ll go up
to the kitchen
for a snack.

This is very evocative poetry, but also very concise. It sometimes almost has the quality of a haiku! Tell me a little about the way that you’re using language here.

“It’s difficult to say. You know, I think you can’t say so much about the way you are using the language. Otherwise you’re lost, because writing is not primarily a rational activity. I think it’s a psycho-physical activity. It includes also your body and your unconscious activities, so I cannot explain how I write. But what you said, that you like the shape of those many facets of the poetry, it’s exactly what I like when I read other people’s poetry. So it’s a great compliment for me.”

You have some wonderful images – and paradoxes. In one poem you have a statue of mustard, and you have the Holy Trinity turning into the hors d’oeuvre, the main course and the dessert. This is very typical for your poetry isn’t it?

“If something’s terribly serious, it’s boring and, you know, I like irony as a principle, because I think it’s a matter of general attitude towards the world. So the first thing is the principle of irony, and the second thing is perhaps a special kind of imagination. You know, when I was a very small child, I used to draw all the time and my parents thought that I would be a painter. But when I began to read, things went differently, something has changed and now I write.”

There is also a lot of religious imagery in your poetry. Most poems have either direct or indirect references to the Bible or to God. Would you see yourself as a religious poet?

“What does it mean, being a religious poet? I don’t like classifying poets or artists in such a way. You’re right, when saying that in many of my poems you can read about God and angels and providence and so on. I’m a Christian, which means that that’s my everyday occupation – with God, with death, with life, what am I to do, what am I not to do, what things mean, what they don’t mean… So what!”

And as a classical scholar you are constantly moving back in your work to the distant past, to ancient history and literature. This also plays a role in your poetry, doesn’t it? This movement from past to present…

“Past is always present in some way, I think, and it’s not my idea. It’s obvious. It’s one dimension of the thing. Another one is that not only ancient history, but also 20th century history comes into my poems, because, in Prague and in Central Europe, we live in our past and it hurts sometimes. It hurts quite often. So, the principle is the same. I’m trying not to escape these questions and secrets and problems that are present.”

And your poetry really does ask questions – and goes between the lines. There’s one poem where you talk about going “between moments”…

“Yes, because all the time I’m asking questions, and sometimes the idea completely changes during the process of writing. I begin somewhere, but in the end I find myself somewhere else.”

And do you find some kind of transcendence in language?

“Language is a living entity. So, when something is a living entity, it means it has some kind of transcendence. It’s miraculous. It’s funny and it’s surprising.”

Let’s end with you reading another of your poems in English. One of my favourites in the collection is the short poem called “Hell, The Soul, Banners”.

Hell, The Soul, Banners

So, today love’s just
  infidelity.
So, all of us who thought
  we can do what we want
  we needn’t we can’t just want
  we can want what we want

all of us will meet in Hell
under extremely gruesome punishments
  in the midst of alien children, and find
  your own
  in the midst of alien women, and find
  yourself
  in the midst of fathers and mothers
  and all of them yours
  amid gods and grain and sperm
  within the soul and free will
  where there’s nothing
  just winds fluttering
  like banners.

“The Swing in the Middle of Chaos: Selected Poems” was published in 2010 by Bloodaxe Books.