Interview with Ivana Milankov

Ivana Milankov

Biographical Note: Ivana Milankov was born in1952 in Belgrade, Serbia. She finished her studies of English language and literature at Belgrade University. Milankov is the author of eight books of poetry and one book of poetical prose—a dream diary. She is a translator of English and American poetry (Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg and others). Milankov took part in creative workshops at Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in Boulder, Colorado. In the mid-eighties Milankov was very active in alternative theatres and street performances.

On Reading Dinner with Fish & Mirrors

It is hard to place Milankov’s poetry within a tradition I am used to or to clearly say that her work is specifically reminiscent of a particular poet or poetic school. Of course, Milankov writes in Serbian, and, with any translation, one must be aware that a different language infuses the sensibility of what has been translated and that every language captures a different way of thinking. That said, and within the traditions with which I am familiar, I can draw some large, or general, comparisons. This is metaphysical poetry, and, so, in a way, Milankov’s verse reminds me of the poetry of John Donne, his fascination with the spheres and his recognition that everything is part of some great whole. However, the manner in which sentiments and stylistics shift so sharply within a poem without ruining the poem’s holistic integrity reminds me of the best of Emily Dickinson, especially the last lines of Dickinson’s poems where rhyme and rhythm often depart from the body of what has been said and expressed. Whereas abstract words govern both Donne’s and Dickinson’s verse, though, the way in which precise, concrete words and imagery break philosophical ruminating for a moment in most of Milankov’s poems reminds readers that they are in specific worlds. There is also something here of the confessional that reminds me of Sylvia Plath, though Milankov’s poetry is specifically characterized by reckonings with ancient history.

Dinner With Fish and Mirrors

Inevitably, it was the beautiful philosophic ruminations that made me fall in love with Milankov’s verse. I spent a wonderful afternoon in Montenegro reading her book, and it was after encountering the following lines in Dinner with Fish & Mirrors that I determined I must simply interview her. Thankfully, she agreed.

“Do not wander so much, it is supernatural. / Not even the Universe is so lonely”
(from “Dinner with Fish & Mirrors”)

“How do I go before Her / in drawing-room fur, / and my light slippers?”
(from “A Letter to the Provincial Governor”)

Hoarfrost descends
without noise or hope.
The world is made of cotton.
There is no going back.
(from “Noon in a Glass Bell”)

“God, wander around your last countenance. / Keep out of my mirrors / they are cunning.”
(from “Glass Property”)

Riverside, Belgrade


SM: I see that you had two translators for this collection: Zorica Petrović and James Sutherland-Smith. Can you talk a bit about the process of translation that was involved in this book? Did you work with the editors closely? Is it typical to have two translators? Why didn’t you translate your own poetry?

IM: It is not typical to have two translators, but it happened that way because James Sutherland-Smith is an English poet and translator. He lived in Belgrade for eight years working at the British Council. He attended the Belgrade International Meeting of Writers very often, and I translated his poems for that occasion. I was introduced to him only as a translator.

Once, on a business trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he saw an anthology of contemporary Yugoslav writers where he saw my poems. He was touched by that poetry of mine, and on his way back he called me and said: “You must have your book in England.” That’s how it got started. It was his decision to have two translators—Zorica Petrović, as an expert in the English language and as a Serbian native speaker, and himself as a poet who would give poetical dimension. I had the same experience in Germany working in the translators’ workshop in Edenkoben with German poets just to obtain that poetical dimension, though the first translation already existed and was done by Jan Krasni, a translator of the German language and a Serbian native speaker (Krasni translated a number of my poems into German—poems from various books for the anthology of Serbian poetry in German). I find this approach in the translating process very successful.

Belgrade Park.

I cannot translate my own poetry because my poetry does not have a rational way of coming from me. It is more like a dictation coming from somewhere outside, and my duty is only to collect these messages coming from various dimensions—a specific state of mind which I cannot repeat again in any language form. But I am satisfied with Petrović and Sutherland-Smith’s translation. Sutherland-Smith got an award—the Golden Key of Smederevo Prize—for the best translation of a poetry book into Serbian for translating Dinner with Fish and Mirrors.

SM: I see that the publication of the book/project was funded with support from the European Commission. What is funding like for Serbian poets? Is there a lot of support?

IM: Publishing a book is a very hard job to do here in Serbia. These days I belong to the generation which got used to publishing books with the traditionally elite and respected publishers, like Prosveta Publishing House and NOLIT. The editors in these publishing houses were our most respected poets, like Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalić and Miodrag Pavlović. It was a good system because it was the system of evaluation, which means that the poets they chose to publish were really very good and worthy of publishing. It does not exist today. So if you have money, you pay and have a book. Nobody stands behind that book saying something about the qualities of the book. People unable to pay for their books are not supported by anybody, and many good books do not go out of their authors’ rooms. There are not funds from abroad, either. It is just a lucky circumstance if someone recommends your book to someone abroad, like in my case. Our book market is overwhelmed with books, but very often you are not sure about their quality.


SM: In the introduction to this book, Sutherland-Smith notes that you were “active in performance art and street theatre” and that “this has given [your] poems an immediacy.” Other than the “immediacy” of which Sutherland-Smith speaks, how do you think this background has affected your poetry in other ways?

IM: In the eighties of the previous century I was a member of an artistic movement called Klokotrism, one multimedia movement which gathered poets, painters, architects, dancers and people of other professions devoted to play. We had many street performances which were different each time: sometimes we were a huge wave reciting poetry. Sometimes we just uttered sounds, and sometimes we were the exponents on “the ice exhibition”: all the things exhibited were frozen (for example, frozen books, pencils, fruit, water, leaves and flowers). I was Ophelia holding ice flowers in my hands. Of course, it affected my poetry because it affected my spiritual shape, which is my credo, like the painting of Giorgio de Chirico presenting a beautiful Italian town at noon. It looks like a real desert, but the only living soul is a girl playing with a wheel. Yes, that was the message: what never dies is a child and its play. The same thing occurred in those performances in Klokotrisma— spoken words of poetry combined with the sounds of the ocean. I was performing with poetess Ann Waldman by the oceanside in California, and the result of this is that I have a great number of poems inspired by the ocean. Play is demanding. It needs your devotion.

SM: This collection is dominated by a focus on the soul. The soul is mentioned in numerous poems, and the collection seems to be an examination of the soul and its condition. In “An Extra Dimension,” the narrator claims, “My soul yearns to lift the fog.” In “A Letter to the Provincial Governor,” the narrator asserts, “ . . . the soul is not a condition. / The soul is simply the soul.” In “Letters from Persia,” the soul is “ . . . the space where I wait for myself.” The narrator of “The Tenth, I Dare not Say Who That Might Be” claims “I am no longer even remembered / by my ultimate soul while it flutters / in the languorous universes.” “A soul with 700 fears” is the opening focus of “A Shadow Before My Body.” In “Noon in a Glass Bell,” “The soul is swinging in a glasshouse.” In “Masquerade,” the planets are even understood to have souls. I could provide many more quotes here, but, again, I’m wondering if you can say something about the pervasiveness of the soul in this book.

IM: The soul is that tiny, invisible thing hidden in a thousand places. It is in circulation rather than in location. So it is not easy to place it and define it. Without that little, tiny invisible thing, we are not completed. We are not beautiful. That’s why the soul in my poetry has numerous appearances. It is very quick, and you have to be very quick to touch it, to feel it, but you have to have time for your soul. You have to open senses for it as well. You can have all of these appearances of the soul but only in a free state of mind when you are not occupied with everyday preoccupations. You must be ready for your soul and wait for it to come. In one of my books I have a cycle of poems called “Ten Roman Images,” dedicated to Roman Emperor Hadrian who was headed to the end of his life. At that point, he realized that he had something tiny, precious and invisible inside and that he did not have time for this tiny thing in the period of expanding the Roman Empire. At the end of his life he realized what he had lost. He lost the beauty of the universe. My poems dedicated to Hadrian are sort of his conversation with his soul that he found at last and about which he wrote a beautiful little poem with the title “Animula, Vagula, Blandula.” The same happened to Tolstoy’s hero Ivan Ilych, a disciplined clerk whose life was under control all his life long. However, at the end of his living days, he heard the call of that little, invisible thing, and, for the first time, he noticed that his room was full of light and colours. And he liked those colours. Maybe those were the only colours he had seen in his grey, perfectly controlled life. The soul is a life-giving phenomenon, and that’s why it is scattered all over like life itself.

View of Belgrade

SM: This book seems to be governed, too, by a questioning of faith or by faith itself. But it is not clear what kind of faith. It seems, perhaps, to be a faith in metaphysics. Can you comment on this?

IM: Yes, a belief in metaphysics. That’s why I have that kind of spiritual curiosity, and I long to peep out into some other dimensions. I want to touch the worlds beyond, to see the unknown shapes, if there are any, to feel that energy beyond the existing things. Poetry is that field of otherness I am walking on, and it, like pictures and music, is transcendental by itself. I like William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which means the unity of innocence and experience. There is a belief in our personal depths, where the essence of our being is hidden, and that what is hidden is something of a divine essence. I believe in this and try to find it.

SM: At times, there seems to be an exhaustion in this collection with the physical body and a yearning for another world. For instance, the narrator in “An Extra Dimension” begins by questioning “How long will I travel through this body”? Would you say that this book is governed by some kind of disappointment with the temporal and a yearning for a world that is more ethereal or post-human?

IM: The body is given to us as joy and suffering. I like my body—my legs to walk with, my eyes to observe this wonderful creation, my ears to listen to marvelous melodies of nature and human music. I like the beauty of the body and its physical possibilities. But the body is limited, and even the mind is limited very often, eaten up by daily routine. Very often I try to imagine the existence out of body: I try to imagine that primal energy. You can feel that primal energy sometimes in your high spirits, and in the moments of epiphany that sensation is great; it shows that man can live that way as well. In epiphany everything is clear and easy, and you feel free.

SM: Is there an overall comment that you think this collection makes? Did you want the collection as a whole to produce a comment? Are these good questions?

IM: The questions are more than good. They are excellent. The comment is the book itself. Answering your questions I’ve already made comments, and it is a belief in metaphysics, a search for other dimensions, and a belief in poetry.

SM: Who would you say are your major poetic influences? Have your influences shifted over the years?

My major poetic influence, first of all, is William Shakespeare because of his multidimensional approach and his beautiful, beautiful language full of music. Then comes William Blake, with his heroic verse, then Emily Dickinson, with a bunch of worlds and dimensions in one little finger, then tragic and refined lyrical Sylvia Plath, and, of course, subtle John Donne. Together with English and American poets, my influences are also some of the Russians, like Marina Tsvetaeva, Ana Ahmatova, Josif Brodski, and Boris Pasternak. And there is a German one—Rainer Maria Rilke.

SM: After reading Dinner with Fish & Mirrors, I am very interested in reading your Dream Diary as the poetry I have encountered in your book seems to stem from both a very real world, often grounded in the earth and landscape, and, also, an awareness that the body is temporal and that the soul might actually be everlasting. In this sense, there seems to be a belief in what could be called a dream world or another reality that exists outside an empirical realm. However, I had difficulty finding out where I could buy this work. Could you provide more information on your dream diary?

IM: Dream Diary was published with a publisher who was well known in the eighties and nineties of the last century. He published books dealing with metaphysics and post-human issues. That publisher does not exist any more because, during the civil war here, he moved to his homeland—to Republika Srpska (former Bosnia and Herzegovina). There are some bookshops where the book could be found. People liked that book very much, especially in those years of war when they needed something better than the tragedy of war. People wanted that piece of Heaven called “ dream.”

SM: Would you consider yourself a feminist? Is your verse feminist in any way? Or are these questions insignificant in a discussion of your poetry?

IM: I like my female nature. My verse is female verse conducted by my female sensibility. I don’t feel myself to be a feminist in a sense of feminist ideology, but I feel myself to be a woman who understands other women. I always struggle for women’s rights if those women are deprived.

SM: I just want to thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. I love your poetry and hope to read more of it.

Ivana Milankov. Dinner with Fish and Mirrors [Večera sa ribom i ogledalima]. Trans. Zorica Petrović and James Sutherland-Smith. Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2013. 115 pgs ISBN 978–1904614-78-4