Damir Šodan: In those days, during the Homeland War (1991-1995) as we call it in Croatia, I was teaching English in the secondary school in Čazma, near Bjelovar in Moslavina, northeastern Croatia. That was more like a work obligation for the state rather than a proper job as our salaries were so meager that they could barely cover the travel expenses from Zagreb, where I lived. Nevertheless, I considered myself lucky since at that time most of my friends were in trenches at various front lines, often sharing a single Kalashnikov among several of them, because the JNA (Yugoslav Federal Army) just before the war appropriated all the weapons for the Serbs and themselves, probably knowing that there would be a weapons embargo imposed on Croatia and Bosnia, which is exactly what happened.
Later on, when the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) moved into the war-torn region, I got a job with them first as a menial worker but gradually I managed to work my way up to an administrative assistant in the transport section and finally to the position of translator at the ICTY (United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in the Hague, the Netherlands, where I still work and live. In hindsight it seems that my love and knowledge of the English language did indeed significantly shape up my life and got me where I am today.
MD: Imagine China breaks into six or more countries… Even as it is now, poets from different provinces tend to have distinctive styles, for instance the “soft tone” in central China and relatively harder tone in the North. Poets in China are more aware of their regional dialect and “local” features while visiting each other more often now for poetry gatherings. In Croatia, are poets more interested in interacting with other parts of the world or other parts of the formal Yugoslavia?
DŠ: That is an interesting question. I think that over the decades we have overdosed a little on that old socialist and federal concept of “brotherhood and unity” — which was essentially a Party-prescribed ideological concept whereby the nations in the former Yugoslavia were literally supposed “to love each other”! before anyone or anything else. So, it is no wonder that intellectuals nowadays probably prefer to connect more with the peoples and cultures outside the region.
Croatia has just joined the European Union (June 2013), so historically this represents a breaking of that last symbolic link with the former geopolitical framework and essentially represents a return to the pre-1918 times (when Yugoslavia was stitched up under the umbrella of the Versailles Treaty in the aftermath of the First World War) when Croatian artists and intellectuals used to flock to Paris and other European destinations other than Belgrade (laughter!) to discover new ideas and that is exactly how we got introduced to symbolism through Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914), or post-symbolism through Augustin “Tin” Ujević (1891-1955). Nonetheless, it is only natural that a Serbian or Bosnian writer will always feel closer to us simply because of the lack of a “proper” language barrier and because of all that common history and culture that we undeniably share.
But that does not mean that a poet from let’s say Guam (actually I met a very interesting one at the Poetry Parnassus Festival in June 2012 in London: Craig Santos Perez who teaches in Hawaii) cannot for poetical or whatever reasons feel even closer to us then someone from our own neighborhood.
For instance, regardless of poetical differences, I feel culturally very close to many of my international literary friends and acquaintances, poets such as Nathalie Handal (US-Palestinian), Yannis Livadas (Greek), Arjen Duinker (Dutch), Christodoulos Makris (Cypriot), Elisa Biagini (Italian), Patrick Cotter (Irish), Eugenijus Ališanka (Lithuanian), Sylva Fischerova (Czech), Ilyja Kaminsky (US-Ukrainian), S.J. Fowler and James Byrne (British)… the list is actually very long.
Read the entire interview at Tupelo Quarterly: http://www.tupeloquarterly.com/ming-di-interviews-croatian-poet-damir-sodan/