Not One to be Silent: A Normal Interview with Biljana D. Obradović by Chris Galvan
Not One to be Silent: A Normal Interview with Biljana D. Obradović
By Chris Galvan
Released at the end of 2016, Incognito is a poetry collection that chronicles the life and hardships of Dr. Biljana D. Obradović. Written in something of an autobiographic form as opposed to a traditional collection, the work details the ups and downs of what it means to be a true transnational citizen of the world.
In February, Fresno State MFA candidate Chris Galvan spoke with Obradović about Incognito, post-NATO action in Eastern Europe, the events of the post-9/11 America from an immigrant’s view, and what it means to survive the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Chris Galvan: While reading Incognito, it seemed to me that you favor longer lines and direct imagery over abstraction and metaphor. There are many complex themes and specific images that your work seeks to portray, from world shattering events of your homeland to reflective moments in your life. “Vandalism” perhaps captures this perfectly in hindsight for me as a reader of your work. How did you develop your specific style and tone to approach the serious subject matter presented in your work?
Biljana D. Obradović: I have been influenced by my many great teachers: Greg Donovan, Dave Smith, Margaret Gibson, Greg Kuzma, Marcia Southwick, Hilda Raz, and Ted Kooser, but also by poets and friends I like to read such as Bruce Weigl, Charles Simic, Carolyn Forché, Philip Dacey, Stanley Kunitz, and Philip Levine. Imagism (such as) Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot are also very important to me. William Carlos Williams’ “No Ideas But In Things” is also important—direct presentation and sensuality is what it’s all about.
I do not care for abstractions—that’s true, never have. It’s what put me off for years when I was reading Serbian poetry—as it was so abstract in many ways. I am a transnational poet, having lived in many countries and that has also influenced me; like Eliot and Pound, I speak several languages and continue to travel a great deal. I care about the process of writing and how an idea emerges, “triggers” in the words of Hugo, and then I am so excited to know what will come of it. I never know where it will go, and that’s what keeps me writing; that excitement to find out.
Endings are important, as well as making connections with many issues that happen all around us every day. Ideas emerge all the time from when I read. As for “Vandalism”—I can be critical to both the U.S. and Serbia; in this case Serbia.
CG: As someone who was born in the United States, I’m always curious to the picture those from other places, countries, and situations can give about living here. As such, I admit that “At the Supermarket” was one of my favorite works in your collection. When you started living in the United States, was cultural insensitivity a common occurrence for you to face?
BDO: I came here in 1988, before things got dicey back home, when no one was leaving the country. But things got bad very fast. My mother got breast cancer a year after I got here, and then the war started. So, I didn’t plan to stay here, but did. I thought that this was a free country, and that there was freedom of the press, but soon learned that that was not the case. You pay dearly for saying things people don’t like.
My father warned me to be careful when I went along with my fellow graduate students at VCU and read from Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses when the Ayatollah Khomeni had put a fatwa on him. I was on TV and excited about being on TV, not realizing as my dad did (a diplomat by profession) that my face on TV may be dangerous. So, I tried to be careful. But it wasn’t easy to be quiet during the war and have people saying all kinds of terrible things about Serbs, when in fact my family and I were against the Milošević regime. I did get death threats written in red ink (perhaps blood) in Lincoln and many scary phone calls.
My teacher and mentor, the poet Greg Donovan, who brought me to study in the U.S. initially, took me to an alley in Richmond when I first came there and warned me not to go to alleys at night. I had no idea that it could be so dangerous. This country is a violent place to live in. I still feel so much safer walking around the streets on Belgrade even in the middle of the night, let alone the daytime by comparison.
CG: In your poem “To All Those Who Want Happy Poems,” you mention that you are fearful of happy moments, as they have a cost. While it isn’t true that everyone writes happy poems per say, as some of the most haunting poems are ones that gain recognition, this does lead me to ask what would you say is the target goal of sharing your work with the world? What would you, ideally, enjoy for someone who reads your work or listens to a reading you perform walk away with?
BDO: Life is a struggle, and every day a new problem arises. Poets write about minutiae that make up life. I am giving them my vision of the world. We are all different, and that’s what makes us human and interesting. So, what I bring to the world is my perspective as a world citizen, having lived in Yugoslavia (both Macedonia and Serbia), Greece, India (I went to the same high school as Salman Rushdie and Amit Choudhury—who was my classmate at Cathedral and John Connon School), then the U.S., and I have spent the past twenty years or so also going to Italy where my husband John Gery teaches at (Ezra Pound’s daughter) Mary de Rachewiltz’s castle in northern Italy. He will do it this summer and needs more students. My brother also lives there with his family and has become an Italian citizen. There are other things that I am interested in, like poetic forms and art. So, it’s this perspective that I hope people find intriguing.
CG: I’ve been curious as to your choice to end Incognito with “Ramses Devotion,” a poem that feels very different from not only the other poems in your last section, but a little different than most of the other poems in your book stylistically with couplets. “Letter to My Landlord” gave us such a lovely intro into the wit that we could expect for the rest of your book at the beginning, so how did your final poem come to be selected as the final send off?
BDO: Well, it’s a weird kind of elegy, and it ends the section on the elegies for the departed family and friends. I think it’s very much about who I am. I have always been interested in weird stuff, and the death stuff was perhaps a little too much. I did not want to end the book on a sad note, so I wanted to end it with my unique sense of humor. “Fly the friendly skies” is what I always heard when entering a United Airlines plane going to back to Europe, so perhaps you can figure out the rest.
CG: Even the most casual reading of your work can see how it has been inspired, shaped, and colored from world events and disasters, from NATO actions in 1999, to the events of the post-9/11 world, to Hurricane Katrina. As a first-time reader of your work, I would be hard pressed to consider another word to describe you as than a survivor. Yet your work also reads to the joy of seeing art you’ve long been fascinated by, and you can give such lovely visages of more peaceful travels despite these challenges. For all of those that seek to create in a world filled with destruction, do you have any advice on how to keep moving forward?
BDO: Yes, I am a survivor. I have had to overcome a lot of challenges in the past twenty-five years especially. How to go on? I do a lot of yoga and meditation and that helps a lot. But, it’s also my family, my son and husband who are always by my side. But most of all, I cannot live without my friends; no matter where they are they have stood by my side and picked me up when I was down.
We are social creatures, and depend on human interaction and each other’s love and caring. Without it, life would be impossible. But then again, when I had no friends and was the new kid in town (and have been that all through my life), I wrote. That’s what keeps me alive.
Biljana D. Obradović is a transnational poet, translator, critic and Professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans, who has won the Norman C. Francis Research Award in Excellence in 2015 at Xavier where she teaches Poetry. She has published four collections of poems, most recently Incognito (WordTech Communications LLC). Biljana is originally from Serbia (ex-Yugoslavia), but has lived in Greece and India, as well as the U.S.
Chris Galvan is an MFA candidate in fiction at California State University, Fresno. He holds Master of Arts in English Literature from Bradley University, and he is a teaching associate in the Fresno State First-Year Writing Program.