Leila Samarrai, a Coffee Interview for the online magazine KULT (in Serbian)
In times like these, where we have in Serbia a whole line of parastatal humbugs where everyone aims to attain the role of the Father of the nation, outside of this politicization, the poetic world is thus divided on various sects who don’t recognize the quality and poetic approach of one another. Whenever I think of this I think of Nestor Kukolnik, a court author from the Pushkin era, who remained famous merely for being a blusterer who kept jamming sticks in the wheels of the aforementioned Alexander Sergeyevich, but who was far more reputable in his time; where the two of them stand now is not even worth talking about.
What can I say? These feral times are not all too friendly to poets. But neither are we to it hence I hope that, when it passes (and transience is ever present), there will be enough poetic testimonials about who we were and what times we lived in.
Leila Samarrai is a new author who, one could say, is only now gaining traction in the Serbian literary scene, even though she has already published both a poetry and a short story collection. How she finds her way into the aforementioned literary scene, how she stands out, whether the literary scene even exists or not, all of this and more will be what the budding author will talk about, so – get ready…
How do you see poetry?
LS: As a type of shamanistic chant capable of chasing away the darkness within us.
‘Poetry is meant to save the world, to reassemble all fragmented things.’ Do you agree with this claim by Hamvas and why?
LS: One can’t help but agree with Hamvas that the new history took many a sacred thing away from man or mankind, thus instead of kings and dignitaries and whathaveyou we have various surrogates in their place, ‘suspicious persons’… The poet remains, and under the shapes and forms of the suspicious persons, by himself, he lives his life under the mask of the (no longer court) jester… So if words are what separates animals from man, from this animalization of the barbaric modern age, who will bring words back into harmony and redeem man if not the poet? But the question is: are there among the poets people that are strong enough, whose magical voice is thunderous enough to resonate in the all-encompassing cacophony reigning over us?
How does poetry fit into the world (yours and everyone else’s)? Or how does, perhaps, world fit in (your) poetry?
LS: Man is in his own microcosm akin to a personal box, with poetry as its lid which it can defend itself from the world; which can be opened in desire to meet something wider than your own personal reach.
How do you deal with the decision of many publishers not to publish poetry collections?
LS: Realistically speaking, this is suicide.
What does poetry teach us?
LS: It teaches us how to think, how to express ourselves. Teaches us compassion. There is a quote there from Heine: ‘What does this solitary tear mean? It so blurs my gaze.’ Poetry gives deeper insight to that which we might have missed in the daily rush of things: I believe in man, which is why I say Maybe where there surely must be a Yes.
Can we live without poetry?
LS: If we can live without tears and laughter, day and night, zombified under neon lights, in front of our television set, or amid smoke and noise, we can live without poetry, learning and thinking, let someone else do the thinking for us.
What is poetry to you?
LS: An opportunity to be alone with my thoughts… An opportunity to create something that I could, once called out, show as my own contribution to the world.
How would you define poetry?
LS: As an old wise serpent which only occasionally comes out to catch the sun (and scare people).
How useful are literary festivals and workshops, can they survive today, in these times of utter poverty, and can you learn something from them?
LS: Learning is a matter of an individual, their desire actually…
What did the internet give the authors, and what did it take away from them?
LS: Most certainly a bigger audience, in wider circles…who can nonetheless distill the crux of it all. The Internet is a Babylon where any author can both add and take away a brick laid, depending on one’s affinities.
You’re aware that in your line of work (namely writing) there is little ‘coin’ to be had (or rather there is less and less of it), and yet you persist. Why?
LS: You need to be a ‘nerd’ to be a poet, that is without a doubt, and without regard for any monetary compensation; living off of poetry is not all that doable, and success is, evidently, a category always in flux. As far as I’m concerned, I find it natural to express myself in verse, and whether I am far from any kind of recognition, well yes, I am… On the other hand, being recognized in Serbia means picking up all of the provinciality around you and publishing it. Hence why I want to be recognized outside of my country’s borders, because that is indeed recognition – proper recognition.
According to you, what kind of generations of authors are coming?
LS: The world of prose and poetry is split into various sects which do not recognize the quality and poetic approach of their peers. What will come in the next hundred years from all of this, I shudder to think.
How does the contemporary literary scene look like to you?
LS: When you take one look at all of the things being published today, with zero criteria, then it’s clear that our literary scene exists merely due to money. We did not move one step out of communism. Where we were literarily is where we still are, except the market is far smaller, and poverty of intellectual and any other kind far greater. There isn’t even a Serbian literary scene, nor is it allowed to exist. Critics are at their positions, established authors at their own, primarily political, then literary, or artistic. In short, literature in Serbia only exists at the level of gossip
It is a complete systematic collapse here, and with zero respect for the author and copyright, nothing will get better and Serbia will remain a literary black hole, irrespective of the vast number of people willing and capable of writing something.
Nobody publishes poetry collections, because there is no profit there. It is well known: the author has to pay someone to publish their book, this is the alpha and omega of it all. The publisher does not care a bit beyond that. If by any chance the author ‘gains prominence’, then he will be endlessly reprinted, copyright will be broken and the publisher will claim to be doing a favor to the author by these reprints. Printing itself is cheap. For instance, someone’s book of aphorisms or short stories can be sold online, it is also in bookstores, and the author is not at all notified of this, nor has any insight into the matter.
And the publishing itself is reduced to moneymaking. You got the green, you publish the paper. If by chance you become a household name, you will be published, but the ‘sweet sweet cream’ will largely be theirs, the publishers’, and yet they will also tell you how fortunate you are to be published. So, the copyright of your works is completely vulnerable, or nonexistent. The publisher does not give a damn about quality, they don’t even read what you give them, or merely skim through it. Everything comes down to the money, cash that is, and sex. Which is, again, a good topic for a story or a novel, even journalism as a sociological phenomenon, at the end of the day. It is a mark of an era and a country.
Not to mention the misogyny, the treatment of a woman, a smart, beautiful, attractive woman who, by the way, is an excellent writer. In short, the treatment of meat in Serbian literature. Cheap trafficking and treating the female author as a piece of meat, a sex object with no right to think, but to bow her head. You can be as smart as you want, unless you do what the slime wants you to do, nothing gets published, no career, no living by doing what you love most and know best. Speaking of various chauvinisms, why keep quiet of this one. To me at least, these people are laden with complexes and cannot achieve sexual or amorous pleasure normally, or whatever else they need, and this is where the sickness begins, the blackmail. In everyday circumstances, they know that they cannot reach beautiful, smart and talented women, and they use their pseudo-power to prove themselves to their friends and their own selves. It is cheap trafficking, and I believe that women, in that sense, have it harder than men. Little is written of this, nobody speaks of this, and it is the cancer of life in this here country, in this here system-less system and criminalized society. I still believe that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so, but now I point to the literary world not being a bright-coloured gentle butterfly which contains all the beauty of this world. Talented people are leaving, we are losing the intellectuals, we are losing people who could raise this country out of the muck. And then we wonder how Mrkonjić and Ilić become ministers. It is clear: violence and sex, the basis of reality shows, completely transferred into the literary sphere, which should, at least, be a bastion against the flood of pap and primitivism.