MISTAKE HOUSE: Although home, like our art forms, can be something we care for deeply and invest in, it can also be a location for pain and conflict, as you have witnessed and as you have examined in your poetry. In a 2010 interview with Czech Radio, you revealed you weren’t attempting to escape the questions, secrets, and problems that arise from living in past pains. How do past pains affect your writing, an incarnation of home? What are some of the questions or secrets you are currently writing about?
SYLVA FISCHEROVÁ: I am not that sure that writing can be designated as a true incarnation of home—but both of them, home as well as writing, are extremely strange institutions; and when I say “writing,” I mean not only the process of writing but all the stuff that belongs to it—like answering questions in an interview like this. “That strange institution that we call literature”—such was the title of an interview with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and it expresses something I share deeply. So many things are involved in it! But to answer your question in a more concrete way: Some friends of mine say that writing is for me a kind of art therapy. This statement sounds a little bit exaggerated, but I do confess that I was able to stand (and in a way understand) the fate of my sister, who suffered from some kind of mental disorder (there was no official diagnosis), as well as her death by writing a collection of poems entitled “Sister (of) Soul” (or just “Sister Soul”: there is a double sense in the Czech original). But when writing a book like this, when thinking all the time about the fragility of human soul and of its connection with body—and about what these strange terms mean at all, what your fate does mean – you find yourself steeped in general questions about life & death & destiny, a place where personal and impersonal meet in a surprising way.
MH: The Mistake House, our magazine’s namesake, is a petite building that architect Bernard Maybeck constructed in order to sample various architectural techniques and materials he would use in later constructions throughout the Principia campus. How have your views on the concept of ‘home’ shifted as you’ve witness major shifts in the Czech Republic, your home? How does your work incorporate the uncertainty of change into your work?
SF: Let me begin with an example: My father was born at the end of the 19th century in Prague, i.e. in the then Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. He then became a citizen of following states: first, Czechoslovakia (1918-1939); then the so-called “Second Republic,” which was a part of the German Reich; this period of WWII he spent in exile in the Netherlands, to where he left to save his life; then he became a citizen of Czechoslovakia again in the very short period between 1945 and 1948; the country was later named the “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic” a few years after the communist coup d’état in 1948. After 1968, the Republic was “federalized” and, after the Velvet Revolution in 1993, it split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. So, where is any certainty at all? History is always present: it’s here like the bread you eat or like the air you breathe.
MH: A classical scholar and professor of Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy, much of your study is rooted in the past. In your interview with Czech radio, you said that 20th century history influences your poetry because of Central Europe’s close connection to its past. You have also said that language is a “living entity” that has “some kind of transcendence.” How does your poetry synthesize and relate different time periods of your personal life and professional study?
SF: I would like to link it up to the preceding question: Last November I became the first City Poet of Prague—a great honor for me, especially due to the fact that even though I was born in Prague, I spent my childhood and youth in the small Moravian town Olomouc and only came to Prague to study the Charles University when I was 19. When considering this offer, I realized that I had written really a lot of poems about Prague—since that first year I came to this city. So, it was a two-month-long process, putting together a book of my Prague poems, whose title is Church for Smokers, and during this time I finally decided to accept the offer and do my best while being City Poet of Prague. To make my point: The book is divided into two parts, the first having been written for the most part during the communist régime, the second after the Velvet Revolution. And still it is “one” Prague—but as if there were two Pragues, each of them different. I must say that I was surprised by the shape of this book—I would not have expected such a “city dichotomy.”
Let me add a few words to the imagination of language as a “living entity”: I think that all of us are experiencing it all the time, either when hearing new words or when sometimes even creating new words—or when tasting old, almost forgotten words, etc. Language is in movement—and we are too. In my Prague poems book I even rewrote a couple of poems: my view on things has changed in the meantime.
MH: It was 1990 when you were interviewed by Jim Grove at Palacký University, during which you referenced the film Last Year at Marienbad, mentioning the profound impact it had on you, demonstrating the way in which we are all, in a sense, moving from nothing to nothing. Later, at the Prague Writer’s Festival in 2011, you voiced your dislike for the term “development,” because it “subsumes that which follows is better than that which went before.” So, if we’re in this constant state of moving from nothing to nothing, then what is the point of writing poetry? Is it simply to make our “nothing” more interesting or enjoyable? Do you see a path for transforming our “nothing” into something?
SF: You are right; I really dislike the term “development,” or more precisely, “progress” for the reasons quoted above. The notion is rooted in a specific tradition of thought; we can associate it with Giambattista Vico and later especially with G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx: it presupposes a previous condition of humble nature from which we (i.e. humankind) are moving—all the time—toward improvements of all kinds, or simply put: toward a better future. A utopian project is connected to this, but utopia is touching something rooted deeper in human destiny—in the conditio humana as such. In short, I prefer to use terms like “change” or “transformation” or even “metamorphosis” etc. which are devoid of the evaluative dimension present in “progress” & comp. However, now I would not insist on this very evocative atmosphere of Last Year at Marienbad; generally, I would say that we are moving from something to something (how obvious! – sorry!), each something being different—but “nothing” is still present, you can feel it, you can smell its presence. Without this presence, something would have become a real nothing: we are facing here the puzzle of pure ontology and of our lives anchored between nothing and nothing. Apologies for my obviousness.
MH: Much of your poetry is imbued with religious imagery, and you have called yourself a Christian, yet you have said that you do not consider yourself a religious poet. What aspects of your childhood or other life experiences have influenced the religious themes in your poetry?
SF: Speaking about Christian or religious poets is—in many aspects—a matter of cultural tradition. Consider T. S. Eliot: he is the author of Ash Wednesday or Four Quartets, but is he a Christian poet? Would anyone label him this way? I don’t think so. In the Czech Republic it is accustomed to speak about Czech catholic literature which is—at least in my eyes—a result of the process of fabricating a phenomenon like this (although there are, of course, many reasons for separating a body of literature like this). But is there any catholic literature in, for example, Ireland? And what does it mean to be a Christian or catholic author? I simply don’t like labels like these.
As for my personal experience, I grew up in a family of protestant background; however, my mother told me that she stopped going to church in 1942—this must have been after the assassination of Heydrich and all the massacres that ensued. So, my way to God was an individual one—with some eminent points and crossroads. It is deeply personal, which means I can write about it in poems but avoid talking about it publicly.
MH: In considering individuality and development of voice, one must first consider context and growing up, yet children are often simplified despite their receptivity and emotional complexity. However, messages about what it means to be human, to be an individual in society, and to have relationships with others, often appear in children’s literature. When you are writing your books for children, especially works of fairytale, how do you consider the lessons you are telling?
SF: So far I have written two books for children: the first one for my daughter, the second for my son. The latter was a book of fairytales, which were partially based on some more traditional stories and patterns, partially fabricated by me. Generally speaking, when writing for children, you need humor; second, you need fantasy. Third, it is important to avoid schematic “educativeness”—this is boring for everyone, for adults as well as for children. So, I think that a book for children must be humorous, witty and funny and contain lots of imagination and fantasy because children are creatures endowed with these qualities at the highest level. The message has to be contained in the story itself; otherwise it won’t work.
MH: At Mistake House, we are interested in inventive processes and active play. Jir̂i, the protagonist of your 2016 novel, Bizom, or Service and Mission, says we all play games, but some of us are unaware of it. Considering the experimental nature of the novel and its focus on the relationship between the individual and society, we imagine you are quite aware of this play. What games do you play? How do you intentionally incorporate experimental processes into your writing?
SF: Playing and plays represent an essential feature of human existence: Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens, wrote at great lengths about it—and quotes from his book are also part of my novel, as are Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts. Both authors were a big inspiration to me, but of course they are not responsible for any of the games my main character Jiří plays almost all the time, almost on every page of the book. When I was writing the book, I played the same games he did: the Service and Mission game (which is quite a complicated one) as well as a simple conversational game with an obvious “How are you?” question—which in the end is not as simple as one might suppose, etc. The point is that, naturally, there is no gap between “mere” play and/or games and “real” life.
MH: Briefly you discussed the importance of both the conscious and the unconscious in the writing of a poem as part of an interview with 3: AM Magazine, stating that you “sincerely dislike” poetry which “insists only on the conscious.” You’ve also made it evident that you prefer concrete images and ideas to what one might consider conventionally poetic imagery or ideas. Often our unconscious experiences or realizations are not very concrete at all. How do you consider the unconscious in your writing processes? Further, how do you convert unconscious ideas into concrete images?
SF: Honestly, if I knew, it wouldn’t be unconsious, right? But it is possible to say at least a few words, I guess. There is one general rule or general principle: A poem must be surprising; there must be something that really surprises the reader. That is the reason why conventionally poetic imagery is simply démodé: it’s boring stuff like all clichés and dead metaphors. Another danger is represented by poems written à la thèse (these being not surprising at all, and so you can almost foretell what the ending is going to be like). Concretely speaking, each poem is different: sometimes you need to convert into concrete images and concrete words some cloud of an image; sometimes there is at first a thought coming to you, or some special and unique atmosphere – it depends, and there is no general recipe for how to do it. But—what is really helpful and what you in the Mistake House Magazine will like hearing—are mistakes. The misreading of words or even of whole sentencies can bring something unexpected and new.
MH: Your most recent book published in English, and your only book published in the USA, is Stomach of the Soul (Calypso Editions 2014). Clearly, the title is in dialogue with Vladimir Nabokov’s statement that “Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain — the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed — then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.”
Will you talk about the ways in which your poetry operates in dialogue with other texts—and how Stomach of the Soul dialogues with the work of the Russian-American novelist? Does this intertextual dialogue occur within the subject matter of your poetry, your experience, or within your process for writing—or all three?
SF: Thank you for the question! Honestly, I wasn’t aware of this Nabokov’s quote, and even though I admire him as an author (and love his strategy of rewriting older pieces!), I disagree with the metaphor of “the brain as stomach of the soul.” My inspiration was different: it resulted from my misreading of St. Augustine. In his Confessions, there is an extremely interesting passage devoted to memory where we read that memory is not a kind of mental capacity but: “memoria quasi venter est animi”—which translates to “memory is something like the belly of the spirit.” But my own memory had played a trick on me, changing “belly of the spirit” to “stomach of the soul.” Only recently, when being in Milano, St. Augustine’s city, his Confessions with me, I realized that I had made a mistake—but the poem had already been written, even given the title to the whole book. Again, making mistakes shows itself to be a very prolific method of creative work!
MH: You translated Stomach of the Soul yourself, in collaboration with Stuart Friebert and A. J. Hauner. Will you talk about the poetics of collaboration and the poetics of translation—especially as these two acts came together in the process of producing Stomach of the Soul for English-speaking readers?
SF: Our first book of translation with Stuart Friebert was Swing in the Middle of Chaos, Stomach of the Soul being our second one. Stuart is a poet, the founder of the creative writing program at Oberlin College, Ohio, and a translator as well: he translates from German, so he knows what to do. Unfortunately, he doesn’t speak Czech, so I was really reluctant when he proposed the idea of co-translating my poetry into English. But he was right—it worked, and I learned a lot from him during the process of translation. First: giving a title to every poem. Second: being even more critical than before—I rewrote a couple of poems on the basis of Stuart’s criticism.
And—as a bonus—I managed to finish a poem—in English!—which previously lacked precisely a climax. Its title is “Death,” and it at first ended like this
Death – death! Stifle death, eat her like intestines, stomp on her, break her, burn her! And then let her be, stand her in the corner. What’s the grass torn out by the mad Hölderlin?
Which is not a good ending—something’s still missing here—and then the lines came, all of a sudden, while I was translating the poem into English:
What’s the thing that comes in through windows and doors and grows more and more?
As for Andrew J. Hauner, he is Czech-American, which means that his help has been invaluable especially in translating special idioms or metaphors. Without him, I wouldn’t dare translate some of the poems contained in the Stomach of the Soul collection.
MH: You described two “schools of thought about the character of our age and the ability of art to prosper or not.” One school claims that there are certain gifted individuals with inherent artistic abilities, and the other believes that one’s artistic success depends on the kinds of conditions provided by her/his society. Growing up in Czechoslovakia certainly provided you with some difficult obstacles to overcome in achieving artistic success. At Mistake House, we believe that it is hard work and the perseverance through the difficulties of that work which leads one to succeed in their creative work. We understand how difficult it is to persevere, and that most creatives abandon their work, eventually prioritizing societal and/or social obligations in front of their work, ultimately accepting that they are not one of the “gifted.” Can you recall a moment or an instance when you truly believed yourself to be a poet? What doubts, whether in the past or present, have you had in terms of your ability to write successful poetry? How did you overcome those doubts, and have you found that you have been able to use your doubts to your advantage? If so, then how?
SF: I have been writing poetry ever since my childhood, so there was no sudden moment that could be considered “the birth of a poet.” I simply write poetry all the time; but—naturally—
there were times when I didn’t write as much. I can recall the moment when—all of a sudden—I realized that I hadn’t written a poem for almost half a year; it happened after I returned to teaching at university after my second maternity leave (if we like to call it this way), and I was totally exhausted by all of my duties. I remember quite clearly saying to myself at that moment: Well, okay, if it doesn’t come to me again, it’s a sign that I’m supposed to do something else—there’s so much to do—perhaps the One Above has some other plans for me. That’s, I think, the principle: No violence, no forcing it—neither in writing nor in eroticis. It simply doesn’t work – it has to come. As the Czech philosopher and pedagogue Jan Amos Comenius put it: Omnia sponte fluant, absit violentia rebus.
As for the kinds of conditions provided by society, some time ago I read an article dealing with the Shakespearean age. The author insists that if society tries to endorse and subsidize the arts, great personae can easily develop their abilities—and voilà, we have an age of miraculous artists, philosophers, etc. When conditions like these do not exist, we are presented with only a handful of isolated individuals. Perhaps the author is right—it might be the case—but anyway, we are not in the position of such subsidizing patrons, which means “help yourself” is the best precept to follow.
MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
SF: Playing hooky is a good strategy for surviving official events of any kind! Unfortunately, I cannot play hooky in my role as a teacher…But doing things differently, disappearing, all of a sudden going to a spot other than expected, finding yourself in a place you’ve never been to before has the charm of adventure. So, good!