Why Poetry Matters: Connecting Serbian and American Lives Through Literature

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

As a Fulbright scholar in Serbia in the fall of 2009, I was afforded the opportunity to work simultaneously on the two topics closest to my heart: my family history in the ex-Yugoslavia, and the global significance of a poet from my very own New York.  As disparate as these pursuits may seem, these passions both led to life-changing, bridge-building adventures during my four months in this beautiful and complicated land.

Like many first generation Americans, I grew up with an appreciation for a country that I could see only through the eyes of my father:  a land of endless fields of sunflowers, sturdy whitewashed houses with stenciled designs and backyard grape arbors, small powerful horses and huge pigs.  My father’s unusual, Hungarian-flavored German dialect, the sarma and goulash and palacsinta that were staples of our diet, and my grandmother’s unusual up-do (which she proudly sported through the streets of Brooklyn) were among the only tangible proofs of nearly 200 years of Balkan ancestry.  Even the places my father described—his village of Sekitsch, the larger trading town of Werbass, the cultured city of Neusatz—could not be found on any map.  My curiosity was only piqued by my father’s mixed feelings of nostalgia and regret, and his unwillingness to revisit his “lost homeland.”

My own desk-top explorations eventually revealed what had kept my family from returning to the region now known as Vojvodina, Serbia: memories of death camps, work farms, inhuman living conditions and the unnecessary deaths of loved ones.  The ethnic German population there had maintained a pride in their heritage and traditions, which became a source of tension with their neighbors during World War II.  And since 1941, the German army had created high levels of resentment among the Serbo-Croatian population of the region.  The Nazis executed thousands of Yugoslavian hostages in retribution for the killing and wounding of German soldiers during the occupation.  Some of the ethnic Germans themselves joined the Nazi party and committed atrocities against the Serbs.  In 1944, Josip Broz Tito collectively and indiscriminately punished the German population in Yugoslavia for these violent acts: he issued decrees that stripped ethnic Germans of Yugoslavian citizenship, took away their voting rights, and distributed their properties to Serbs and migrants from Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro.  My father’s village of Sekitsch was renamed Lovcenac—the “highest mountain”—by the Montenegrans who now populated it, and my father and grandfather were placed in a detention camp in their former hometown.  They were eventually moved to work camps with high mortality rates in Gakowa and Krusevlje, and finally to a large death camp outside of Knicanin. My grandmother was one of tens of thousands of ethnic Germans separated from her children and sent to labor camps in Russia and the Ukraine, and my aunt was shuttled between various orphanages and foster homes.

‘Returning’ to Serbia as a Fulbrighter in 2009, I was the first member of my family to attempt to reconnect with our severed roots in Vojvodina.  My first plan of action was to locate and explore the areas of greatest personal significance, including the house where he was born and the beloved ‘salasi’ (farms) that I had explored in my imagination.  I also dug into old church and town records to locate birth certificates I had never seen. More formal research was conducted at the Archives of the Museum of Vojvodina, and through interviews with governmental officials and current activists in the war reparations issue in Serbia.  Discussing the saga of the ethnic Germans with current residents of Lovcenac (the post-WW II name for Sekitsch) and simply walking the streets of Vojvodina’s decaying villages of so-called ‘German houses’ was essential in my reconstruction of my family’s past, as was finding any living contacts who my father or grandmother had mentioned.

I had enough revelations and life-altering experiences in my pursuit of the past to fill a book—which I plan to do in the year ahead.  Key moments include an adventurous week with my cousins Lisa Karbiner and Michelle Karbiner Ball, who visited me in Serbia because they, too, wanted to ‘find their fathers.’  We wept over the birth records and marriage certificates that put together the shattered picture of family with which we had all grown up— and bonded our friendship forever.  The three of us also interviewed Professor Lijliana Pesikan-Ljustanovic of the University of Novi Sad, who had grown up in Lovcenac/Sekitsch as part of the first generation of Montenegrians that populated the village after 1945.  Hearing about her understanding of the plight of the ethnic Germans opened our eyes to perspectives we had never considered.  Weeks of research led me to the granddaughter of Radinka Pivnicki, a woman who had been generous and kind to my father at a time of desperate need.  It so turns out that Tatjana Pivnicki is a talented student of physics and a volunteer worker at the local children’s shelter—a generous-hearted and promising young woman who I am very proud to know.  Perhaps the most important and difficult experience of my Fulbright tenure, was entering my father’s birthplace for the first time and meeting with its present occupants.  Zorka Vucinic was a teenage bride when she moved into the house and watched as Tito’s troops evacuated its former residents (ie, my grandparents, father, and aunt).  Now in her 80s, Zorka welcomed me to lunch there twice, showing me the furnishings that had always been curious to her (such as the etched-glass windows reading “Eingang”, or entry).  After offering me the house for sale (at the exorbitant price of 200,000 euro), she presented me with a bottle of apricot brandy, made from the fruit of the trees that my grandfather planted long ago.  Such complicated emotional and intellectual exchanges remind us that there are no easy assessments, no set explanations in life.  I went to Serbia thinking that I would simply deepen my knowledge of a plot I already knew, and left with more questions than answers—plus, I hope, a new sensitivity for a subtle story line.

For the teaching component of my Fulbright, I taught a graduate seminar entitled “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective” at the University of Novi Sad. Though the University had not offered a graduate seminar in poetry—much less Walt Whitman— since anyone could remember, despite the generally felt “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexuality and skepticism regarding American propagandistic voices (like Walt’s), I was granted approval to offer a course focusing on the radical, revolutionary poetics of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.  After years of teaching these American poems to American students at New York University, Serbia was an exciting testing-ground for my personal theories regarding ‘the measure of his song.’ And my small but fierce band of Novi Sad Whitmaniacs did not disappoint me: they participated fully and wholeheartedly, reading avidly in the new “Whitman Collection” I donated to their library (with the help of many generous individuals and corporations, including Barnes & Noble, the Library of America, NYU, Recorded Books, and the University of Iowa Press), fearlessly discussing Whitman’s boundary-breaking poems and surprising themselves with how gracefully they too could break down long-standing walls. For their final project, I required them to select a “Calamus” poem for close study and translation into Serbian.  As an illustration of how they responded, consider that three of the six chose “Calamus 9”, a subtle and daring self-analysis by any country’s standards, and one of the poems not yet translated into Serbian.

To assist in our discussion of Whitmanic translations, I enlisted the aid of Dragan Purešić, the foremost translator of Whitman living in Serbia (Belgrade: Plato, 2008).  He generously agreed to read my students’ translation drafts, and then came to Novi Sad to host a class workshop.  Dragan began with a memorable lecture on the art of translation, describing some of the challenges he faced when interpreting Whitman’s words for the Serbian people.  ”The poem is an artistic entity,” he reminded us.  ”The translator is both an artist and an artisan.”  Quoting freely and fluidly from works as wide-ranging as Lessing’s “Laocoon” and “The Godfather Part III”, he charged us with the significance and the perils of our task at hand.  And he inspired us.  ”Blessed be the messengers,” he said.  Dragan then led a translation workshop (which was further enhanced by the contribution of Novi Sad faculty members Vladislava Gordic Petkovic, Ivana Djuric, and Aleksandra Izgarjan).  We pored over Whitman’s language: what’s the connotative difference between being “content” and “happy”, as we see these terms used in Calamus 9 and 11?  What is behind the unusual statement “I am to wait” at the end of Calamus 22, and how can one achieve that feeling in Serbian?  And when Whitman asks, “I wonder if other men ever have the like” (Calamus 9), does the use of  the idea of  ’mankind’ deny the poem’s true meaning or enhance its applicability?  Dragan offered suggestions and asked thoughtful questions of all of us; all of us responded and questioned our own understandings of Whitman’s words and intentions.

Most interesting for me, was realizing how much more suggestive and even provocative my students’ interpretations were than their guide’s.  Was this a generational issue?  Did it have something to do with the way I had presented the Calamus poems, or with our predominantly (and fiercely) female makeup?  My students were receptive to and interested in Dragan’s ideas, though several of them offered well-reasoned arguments for their more direct choices of pronouns and other gendered word choices.  Whitman, I thought proudly to myself, is in for an energetic reintroduction to his Serbian readers, thanks to these progressive and fearless interpreters.

My participation in the NEH-funded “Looking for Whitman” project enabled me to introduce my Serbian students to Whitman as a poet of global reputation and application, and also connected them to other students in Whitman seminars across the US.  Grant funds provided for the introduction of new technologies in our classroom, ensuring that each student would have access to a Flipcam as well as a specially trained assistant (our own beloved Dragan Babic, a senior at the University of Novi Sad).  As a way of encouraging their use of these resources as well as their creativity, I asked each student to design a “cinepoem” that would both verbally and visually represent the translation he or she had composed as part of their final project.  Though all of them worked through frequent internet outages, some were subject to the availability of public computers, and none of them had ever worked with a Flipcam before, they each mastered the technology and produced surprisingly professional—and moving—short films.  All of their efforts are viewable on our “Video Map” at http://unovisad.lookingforwhitman.org.

Another goal that I set forth for “Whitman: The Global Perspective” was that we as a class would contribute– not just read, write, and think about–  Whitman’s worldwide impact on culture, politics, and society.  They were therefore asked to submit their papers for consideration to the International Whitman Week Conference, held in a different world site each year.  This prestigious conference invites applications from graduate students around the world, twenty of whom are selected for participation (as well as free housing, excursions, and other perks).  The last two days of the conference are reserved for lectures from Whitman scholars.  I am so very pleased and immensely proud to share the news that two of my students were chosen to participate in this year’s conference in Macerata, Italy: Elma Porobic was one of the twenty in the Whitman ‘think tank’, and Bojana Acamovic presented her paper (i.e., her final translation project for our class) among top scholars in the final sessions!  This is the first time there were any representatives from the ex-Yugloslavia region at Whitman Week, and Elma and Bojana both contributed richly and benefit greatly from the discussions and camraderie of the conference.  As I was also a participant (and delivered two talks, one of which on the subject of teaching Whitman in Serbia on the Fulbright), we three enjoyed a very happy reunion in Italy this June.

Bojana (below screen) presenting her paper during the conference portion of International Whitman Week 2010

Bojana (below screen) presenting her paper during the conference portion of International Whitman Week 2010

Bojana presented her paper “Can ‘Calamus 9’ Matter?: Reading and Translating Whitman” on Saturday, June 18 on a panel with Ed Folsom (University of Iowa), Caterina Bernardini (University of Macerata), and Stephanie Blalock (University of Iowa).  In her professional and yet personable way, she analyzed the history of the poem’s inception, its critical reception and her own subtle interpretation of the lines.  Bojana’s presentation of the challenges faced by a Serbian translator of Whitman held this international audience in rapt attention.  Though I could go on with descriptions of Bojana’s poise and fluency in presenting Whitman’s work and the exciting discussion that followed, I believe it’s best if you hear about the experience from Bojana herself:

The moment I found out that my paper was accepted for the Whitman Symposium, I felt tremendous excitement at the prospect of participating in another international literature gathering. However, Whitman Week in Macerata (Italy) was a literature seminar of a very special kind, indeed. It gathered scholars of different ages from around the globe with one common interest – Walt Whitman. The focus of the symposium part, held on 18 and 19 June and named “In Paths Untrodden”: The 1860 Leaves of Grass, was the third edition of Whitman’s famous poetry collection. The 1860 edition was presented through a number of most informative papers, dealing with the poems from different perspectives. Mine was the perspective of a translator. As part of the Looking for Whitman project, the participating students of the University of Novi Sad (myself included) were asked to choose a poem that has a special appeal to them, to study it and translate into Serbian. The object of my research was “Calamus 9”, the process of translating it and the problems I met with, as well as the reception of Whitman in Serbia.

As an MA student and someone who plans to continue studying Whitman, I can say that the week in Macerata was a truly inspiring and encouraging experience. In a pleasant and friendly atmosphere, students and professors were sharing opinions and experiences. New possibilities for exploring the world of this amazing poet emerged in conversations with students from different countries and also with professors like Ed Folsom, Kenneth Price and Karen Karbiener, to whom we are all grateful for bringing Whitman to Novi Sad.

As a participant in the entirety of Whitman Week (14-19 June), Elma attended plenaries, participated in resource sessions, viewed and commented upon Whitman-inspired films and performances—and even toured the beautiful Macerata landscape with the symposium leaders and graduate participants. Brilliant, ebullient, a great favorite in the group, Elma offers a wrap-up of the year’s Whitmanic odyssey below:

International Whitman Week 2010!

International Whitman Week 2010!

The whole Whitmanic experience started in October 2009 with the Professor Karen Karbiener’s introductory lecture at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. It was one of the five subjects I chose for my MA studies in English literature. My decision to take the Whitman poetry was the direct consequence of my deepest admiration and appreciation of poetry in general and since it was the only one of all the offered subjects to deal with poetry, my decision came very naturally and spontaneously. Upon having taken this class, my only expectations were to explore more of the elusive and subtle world of poetry and to expose myself to its mysterious workings. At that very moment I absolutely had no idea that the whole Whitmanic experience would have greater impacts on my personal and professional development.

It seems important to mention here few crucial aspects of “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective” class, which was the part of a revolutionary pedagogical experiment, called “Looking for Whitman”. The first aspect would be the improvement of my computer literacy. Throughout the course in Novi Sad I was exposed to the latest technical innovations and had an excellent opportunity to learn how to use them all in an enhanced digital learning environment. Together with other great students in the class, Bojana, Indira, Josip, Neda and Sanja, I was asked to create my own blog where I was to publish all my comments, involvements and assignments on Whitman’s poetry. I cannot but mention my fellow student Dragan and his technical expertise which was of great assistance to all of us in our efforts.

The second aspect would be a translation challenge I encountered at the lectures. I translated one of the Whitman’s poems from the Calamus cluster, “Calamus 9”, which had not been translated into any of ex-Yugoslavia languages before. Some of the difficulties and perplexities that I came across while translating opened up some new perspectives to me as a translator. I came to understand even more deeply how intimately related a poem and a translator must be, and that translation is a never-ending process. Karen even had a Serbian contemporary translator, Dragan Puresic, come to one of our classes, and it was a tremendous experience enveloping mutual knowledge, skills and energy of all of us, bringing Whitman to life in Novi Sad through his poetry.

Furthermore, I was provided with guidance and support in the “professionalizing” of my academic career. As a result of Karen’s influence and things we did in the classes, I was admitted to Walt Whitman Seminar and Symposium, which was held in June at the university of Macerata in Italy. That was a remarkable opportunity in so many ways, and I am really honoured that my application was approved among many others. The Walt Whitman week represents a unique event which attracts many esteemed Whitman scholars and standout graduate students from around the world. The event itself, together with a remarkable organization of our Italian hosts, exceeded all my expectations and proved itself to be a lifetime experience.

It serves as a living proof that Whitman’s poetry has been breaking geographical, cultural, political, religious, and all other boundaries, and that art should be an indispensible part of our lives. Additionally, I have no words to express my thanks to Professor Marina Camboni, Renata Morresi and Caterina Bernardini, as well as to all other members of the organizing committee, for all their effort and touching hospitality. Che fortuna avervi conosciuto e grazie mille di cuore!

Finally, with the official part of “Looking for Whitman” project completed, I find myself sitting at my desk, reflecting on the last few months, and writing down some of the incredible aspects of the whole Whitmanic experience. Even though my feelings are still running very high, I can easily isolate my deepest and ever-lasting gratitude to Karen Karbiener for all her unselfish support and encouragement, the contentment for being a part of such a wonderful experience and all the benefits, professional and personal, I have been given through it – not only that my view of the classroom experience has been enriched, but I had opportunity to listen and to talk to some of the greatest experts in Whitman oeuvre, and learn a great deal from them. Discussions we led during the Whitman Week in Macerata and during the semester in Novi Sad have certainly left an indelible imprint on me and confirmed me in my belief that poetry does matter and that poetry really keeps us awake and ever burning. So, that is the final and the most invaluable aspect of the whole Whitman experience.

“Here my last words, and the most baffling,

Here the frailest leaves of me, and yet my strongest-lasting,

Here I shade down and hide my thoughts – I do not expose them,

And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.”

(from  “Calamus 44”, 1860)

Can poetry matter?  As part of their final assessments, I asked my students to respond to Dana Gioia’s controversial 1992 essay.  Each of the recent poetry converts gave a well-reasoned and enthusiastic affirmative response, and I found myself happily nodding along with them.  Poetry really does matter, as I witnessed firsthand bringing Walt Whitman to Serbia.  He sounds as true, beautiful, and useful in the Balkans as he does on my own Brooklyn Bridge.  Walt, wherever you are, it must do your heart good to know that we’re all still listening, still learning.

You, where you are!

You daughter or son of England!

You of the mighty Slavic tribes and empires! You Russ in Russia!…

All you continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent of place!

All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!

And you of centuries hence, when you listen to me!

And you, each and everywhere, whom I specify not, but include just the same!

Health to you!  Good will to you all—from me and America sent,

For we acknowledge you all and each.

(from “Salut Au Monde!”, 1860)

About The Author

Avatar of Karen Karbiener

Karen Karbiener

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Author his web sitehttp://lookingforwhitman.org/members/whitmaniakk/


09 2010

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. Ed Fuhrmann #


    Loved reading your posts about your journey to Sekitsch and the awareness of what really happened there. Your description of your father could be that of my own, who also grew up in Sekitch and endured WWII there as a young man. From him, my German still has the unique Donau “twang” and vocabulary that gets me the funny looks from native speakers who KNOW that that’s not school-taught Deutsch.

    The events in eastern Europe during the war seem to have fallen down the “memory hole”, at least as far as our public education system seems concerned. Your posts now add accessibility via the Internet to information which was previously only book-bound and in the memories of a displaced people gradually succumbing to old age.

    Great job using the arts to foster another bridge between cultures!


  2. Avatar of Karen Karbiener

    Dear Ed, Warmest thanks for these kind words! And please do stay in touch, Karen

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