The Place for Unhappiness: Interview with Bulgarian poet, Peycho Kanev
I play with the words
like a woman with her hair
red like a fire
I play with the words when
there is nothing better to do
and I look at my cat
and she looks at me-
we know the secret locked
within the time
she plays with her hair in front of
and I just stare
mute and aroused,
I just stare
without words in my mind
without pain in my life
she plays with her red hair
and sets the whole room on
and I just stare
and outside the night grins at me
with absolute delight.
~ Peycho Kanev
INTERVIEW WITH PEYCHO KANEV
Salvatore Ala: One of the remarkable qualities in your poetry is that events in time and place become part of the substance of the poem. The past is now and the now is now. The voice is living. It is at once manifold and manifest. How did you come to this kind of poetic voice?
Salvatore Ala: In most of your poems you are performing an activity of one kind or another and this draws us in, in a very familiar and human way. Can you talk a bit about this?
Peycho Kanev: Most of my poems are born in my head as I walk. That’s why you feel this rhythm inside them, that’s the walking part; you find your pace, you feel it, then your heartbeat, and then you see something, or feel something, or remember something. And all this happens while walking. That is why I love the cities. You can walk endlessly on the streets and you can see fresh sights everyday, something always happens. I can’t write poems when I walk through, let’s say, some mountain, or a corn field. It is always the city and always as I walk. Then you feel alive, more than alive, you feel that you are a part of something. That is why I do not like very much Henry David Thoreau and his living in the woods. In that sense I am more of a Whitman guy, the city boy.
Salvatore Ala: There’s also a unique existential perspective in your poetry, an edge, a sadness. I think it is what Czeslaw Milosz called, “being on the other side of the fire.” How much of this is you and how much of it is perhaps part of the European tradition? Or living in America?
let me tell you
I am educated by the dark
for the dark
maybe that’s why I don’t love
there’s no wonder why we all
love the night
I sit in the dark and listen to Sibelius-
violins from the grave
and my fingers will soon grip the lips
of the darkness
there will be no tomorrow
only one perfect moon
~ Peycho Kanev
We are full of rich history, but almost all of it is full of darkness, blood and suffering.
We were under Ottoman rule for 500 years. That is five centuries of pain, killings, and torture. Most of the Balkan nation-states emerged during the 19th and early 20th centuries as we gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. That is when we took our first breath of fresh air.
When you talk about European tradition, I feel and I know that I am not part of it. I am part of the Balkan tradition. All of these dark memories are part of me, they are inside my blood, inside my mind. They dwell inside me. And, of course, they become part of my poetry, too. For good, I hope.
Like the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “There is strong shadow where there is much light.” And we, the people from the Balkans, the Bulgarians especially, are full with the strongest shadows.
Salvatore Ala: Writing about the Bulgarian poet, Dimcho Debelaynov, Martin Seymour-Smith pointed out that there is a “peculiarly Bulgarian unhappiness.” Would you agree? And what is Bulgarian unhappiness to you?
blinded by the sun
so here we are again
going home after 12 hours of
we walk slowly toward the bus stop
and then in the old bus we are silent
as stray dogs
and all of us are dreaming about butcher
when we get home
we know that maybe we don’t have food
but in the fridge
there are always some bottles to keep us
warm and dreaming for better times
for better days
and when it’s 12 we fight with our women
but we do it quietly and soft
when the sun hit our faces in the morning
we go to work with smile
because we know that when we came back
there will be one bottle
to keep us sane for the next day
just for the
~ Peycho Kanev
Peycho Kanev: Yes, there is something like that. Debelyanov is one of the best Bulgarian poets, one of our strong voices, but sometimes he gets too lyrical for me, to sugary. But make no mistakes, he too, felt what suffering is. He died when he was only twenty-nine years old, killed by Irish troops during the First World War. But for me there is one Bulgarian poet that stood above all of the others. Believe me when I say that he is one of the best in the world in the last few centuries. His name is Nikola Vaptsarov.
Despite the fact that he ever published only one poetry book, he is considered one of the greatest Bulgarian poets. Vaptsarov was arrested in 1942 and subjected to inhuman torture and finally executed on 23rd July, 1942 by the fascists regime in Bulgaria. He continued to write until the very end, and indeed his last verse addressed to his wife is one of the most moving and inspiring. He wrote that two hours before he was shot.
The fight is hard and pitiless
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place –
Why single out a name?
After the firing squad – the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.
He was 32 years old and he is the best example of a true Bulgarian voice.
Salvatore Ala: In North America, unhappiness is treated with immediate medical attention. Don’t we need unhappiness? Isn’t unhappiness the only space left in which we can reflect on life honestly? If we can’t accept unhappiness, don’t we numb our ability to experience poetry?
Peycho Kanev: I still do not understand Americans. “Oh, I am so depressed!” Depressed about what? You have it easy. You have wonderful life! Trust me, I know what I am talking about. There is nothing to be depressed about. Go just for a week to some country from the Third world, some country in Africa, to see what depression is! Or, like you love to say, come to walk a mile in my shoes! And you even have shrinks for your cats and dogs! That is the real madness. I do not understand it and I do not want to. And I answer with “Yes” to last part of your question. I really believe that. But you don’t have to accept it. It is part of your life. Live with it.
I still remember the eagles
perched on the rocks
and, after that, leaping from the infinity
into the abyss to look for meat.
The smooth feathers and the shining talons,
pulsing against the Sun.
I still remember those eagles
from my dream.
Was I 5 or 8?
But I still haven’t forgotten those creatures.
They were perching on my hands
and pecking at the pieces of meat
and, after that, they flew towards the empyrean,
but their feathered souls
stayed with me,
One of them sits on my left shoulder,
like some obscure critic,
frowning at these lines
and pecking at
th w rds th t I m writ ng.
~ Peycho Kanev
Salvatore Ala: In another interview you make an amazing comment about poetic maturity. You say, “… as a rule quite soon, a man discovers that his pen accomplishes a lot more than his soul.” I was wondering if you could expand on this. What can the soul accomplish? How does the pen accomplish more?
Peycho Kanev: It is really simple. The way I see it, the work or the creation of some poet, painter, musician, sculptor, etc., is far more important than the creator. It will last longer, it’s more honest, truer. Take Homer, for example, Dante, Michelangelo. We still bow before their creations.
Salvatore Ala: I’ve also noticed that quite a few dogs appear in your poems, unusual since Baudelaire and so many others have made cats the queens of poetry. What do the dogs represent for you?
Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.
Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,
Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.
— Charles Baudelaire
Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.
When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,
In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Peycho Kanev: Not that dogs are bad creatures for me, but I like to imagine them like this. And as for the cats, well that is something else. Cats are mythical beings, astonishing, time lives in their paws, they are halfway here, and halfway somewhere else. The ancient Egyptians and Romans knew that, their big secret, but we are still trying to comprehend it.
Salvatore Ala: A final question a friend used to ask me: Are you a poet because you are you, or are you you because you are a poet?
Peycho Kanev: I am A Poet Because I Am!
Peycho Kanev is the author of 4 poetry collections and two chapbooks. His collection Bone Silence was released in 2010 by Desperanto, NY and Уиски в тенекиена кутия, Janet-45 Print and Publishing, 2013, Американски тетрадки, Ciela Soft and Publishing, 2010, Разходка през стените, Ciela Soft and Publishing, 2009 were published in Bulgaria.
Peycho Kanev has won several European awards for his poetry and he’s nominated for the Pushcart Award and Best of the Net. Translations of his books will be published soon in Italy, Poland and Russia.
His poems have appeared in more than 900 literary magazines, such as: Poetry Quarterly, Evergreen Review, Hawaii Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Sheepshead Review, Off the Coast, JMWW, The Coachella Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Mayo Review, Two Thirds North, Sierra Nevada Review, The Cleveland Review and many others.
You can connect with him on Facebook
And Twitter: @PeychoKanev
Salvatore Ala is a Canadian poet who has published three collections of poetry: Clay of the Maker (Mosaic Press), Straight Razor and Other Poems (Biblioasis), and Lost Luggage (Biblioasis). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies. He has also published six broadsides of his poetry.
Read an interview with Ala in the Combustus magazine piece, “In Pursuit of the Sublime.”
Recently, he reviewed for Combustus the work of artist Aron Wiesenfeld.
His first Combustus column, “A Poet Talks About Fatherhood,” can be read here.
Daniel Heikalo is an artist, musician, graphic designer and photographer living in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec.
To view more of his work, please visit his Flickr page.