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In Conversation with Ivana Milankov

Posted by Arc, 25th June 2015

An English Excursion

"It was England of its masters of literature whose vibration is easy to feel alive.
That was England of October 2014."

Ivana Milankov is one of Serbia's best-known poets. She belongs to the first generation of writers from central and eastern Europe who were influenced by anti-establishment poetries - particularly from the USA - such as the Beats and the New York poets.

In autumn 2014, Milankov took part in the Arc Adventures tour. Reading from her book Dinner with Fish & Mirrors, Ivana performed at a number of exciting events, from Hebden Bridge to Norwich, North Wales Poetry Festival, Hull, Middlesborough and Durham.

Q: Did the Arc Tour and your visit to the UK open a window to a new literary community for you?

A: The Arc Tour was a great experience, one which helped me to communicate my work to others. Whenever I'm writing a poem I ask myself: "Well, what's it for?" I want to see my poem living out in the world among people. That's why I need a literary community as my own mirror. I need otherness. When I write I feel a certain sense of responsibility, to open all my abysses and the clear the starry sky.

Q: Did you make any personal connections with your audience or fellow writers which were particularly liberating for you?

A: Yes, on the tour I had the pleasure of experiencing many connections. It was great to finally feel a sense of wholeness and it was something which I had always longed for. I felt as if in harvest season people could taste my creations. The comments I received were charming. "Sweet, bitter, cold, warm, red and green..." It was lovely listening to them, just to see the impressions I gave and how people received my work. The audience members became a perfect mirror to reflect myself from each corner. All these people were the mirrors brought from unimaginable spaces. I learnt a lot from these people and from their questions. I learnt a lot about myself and my creation.

Q: Was it a revealing experience to share your work here? To have people asking questions?

A: My personal relation with the audience is always, "persona to persona" which means, while I am writing I already have that feeling of that other "persona". When I read I feel a connection with the audience and I am liberated because we are all in relation, like children, playing in the sand, on the beach united between themselves together. The sun, the sea and the sea shells scattered all around.

England offered a cosmic vibration, one which I have always longed to be infused with. I always listen to the audience, to their voices which could have the form of gesture, the tone of their breathing, their smiles, or any other form of expression.

Yes, there were many questions. People were curious abut many things. One young man from the audience told me that some of my poems reminded him of Greek poet Kavafi which is not far from the truth because I was brought up on classical literature. The spirit of Ancient Greece is deep down inside me and that' s the reason why I am so close to Kavafi and all his spiritual surroundings. I was so pleased that this young man had discovered this about me and that he could feel it.

Q: Thinking back to Serbia, you started your own creative writing group. How did this come about? Was there strong interest at the beginning?

On my way back from England I started my own creative writing workshop. There were several reasons for this. While I was a participant in Middlesborough poetry festival I was also a participant of poetry workshops. I guided the writing of the participants and I must admit that I was besotted by the powerful energy of creative waves. All of us were one while creating. We were free to reveal our hidden selves and confident enough with each other to expose these hidden worlds in the group. We could ask questions and give suggestions. We were free but highly responsible to the form we created.

There was one specific thing about this festival, which deals with the participants of the workshops and that was that all these people could equally read their work, on the same stage and mix with some renowned poets. We could read and hear some very authentic voices and enjoy listening to them. That's something we don't have in Serbia. Poetry festivals are only for the important people in literature, because of that participants of my creative writing workshop have open public readings because all we need is circulation, we need rivers instead of stolen waters and habitual approaches. We really need new voices just to feel that life is going on. As far as my poetry workshop is concerned there was great interest at the beginning and even now at the end of the semester. The number of the participants in my class has expanded and I always work with five participants or more. And I must admit that my creative writing workshop is a very popular place in town.

Q: Before teaching creative writing, what other jobs have you had? Has it been a long term desire to get where you are now?

A: I was teaching English language for thirty-seven years in Belgrade grammar schools. Apart from English grammar my students always had conversation practice with me. I made up conversation topics and together we tried to think in a creative way. They were free to to ask questions, create their own forms to express themselves in a foreign language. That's why they are on friendly terms with this language.

My idea is that every thing must be alive, to take shape and to have its life in reality and that's why I made a theatre play in School for Textile Design where I was working for three years, and that play was a combination of extracts from Shakespeare plays and the Renaissance dresses which students created and designed for the play.

Yes, my poetry creative writing workshop was a long term desire and as you can see everything was leading to it.

Q: Did a sense of loneliness or artistic isolation arise on your return to Serbia?

A: As I said, when I finish a poem I ask myself: "Who does it ring for?" That is because I never had the feeling of self sufficiency and I was always surrounded with that cosmic unity which means giving and taking, running and moving. I felt this vibrating surrounding in England a great deal and it strengthened me spiritually. On my Arc tour and at Middlesbrough Festival, I met people of the same energy and the same desire, the people who want to share their experiences within community. Serbia is now in a period of transition and everything's changing.

I mean among people of literature who have commercial orientation and that's the reason I am artistically isolated. In England I felt myself real with freedom to be exactly that which I am - cosmic in the community with people.

On my way back to Serbia I was determined to do something similar as I felt in England just to belong somewhere spiritually. And I think I did it with the activities in the creative writing workshop. Apart from writing poetry I am a translator as well and it helps me specifically when I translate poetry to have a sense of deep communication with that other person, who speaks another language and is from another culture.

Q: Can you tell us a little about some of the memorable experiences from this UK tour?
The Arc 2014 October Tour was one memorable experience because I saw a great deal of England. When I was young, I came to visit London (seven times) and it included standard excursions to Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge which was lovely because while travelling I could see the lovely English countryside.

I visited Hebden Bridge, Norwich, Hull, Bangor Durham and Middlesbrough. Each of these towns were unique worlds in themselves. Driving from town to town, the car passed through the forests, it was exactly how I imagined Macbeth riding on his horse, or fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream - it felt as if I was reaching out and touching Shakespeare.

I had the same sensation on visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The countryside was just marvellous, open to the sky and to the sea and it was easy to feel the thrill which affected English literature and art. Then people, of course, so open and friendly - specially the people in the literary community, always ready to cooperate. All these people including poets, translators, publishers and organizers of the poetry festival were absolutely devoted to their work. That devotion is something I'll always remember, because only devotion can bring such joy of creation and joy of mutual engagement.

As a poet I had two extraordinary poetic experiences - the first happened in the town of Bangor where I took part in a poetry reading at the University. After we had a dinner in a restaurant by the sea and I saw the title of my book having its own life because the title of my book is "Dinner With Fish and Mirrors" and there was fish for dinner, the wall behind me was plastered with mirrors and in front of me, was a huge window looking at the sea, so I was trapped in my own poetry. The other poetic experience I had was on my way back to Serbia. I was caught by cyclone "Gonzalo" coming from the Bahamas. It was so exciting, that encounter with power of natural element. This wind made me stronger and enriched my poetic nature.

Q: Has this tour been a life-changing experience? Has it affected your day to day life in Serbia? Is it something you wish to repeat?

Yes, it has, certainly. One of the consequences is this poetry creative writing workshop. My poet friends are gathering there, talking to students and all of us are on artistic terms, far away from any commercial or any other business thing. Even people from theatre are coming and we are thinking about putting poetry on stage. I am happy that the English impulse came to be real here, in Serbia, though this country is passing through a very hard period of transition. Of course, I'd like to repeat a tour in England and to touch the things I did not have a chance to last time. Maybe bring something of mine into this country of literature masters.

Q: What were your memories of England as a young girl? Do you feel that the country has changed in the years between then and now?

The first time I came to London I was twenty-three and I was here to take part in a language course. London was a town of some of my first fascinations. Of course, this was a time for fascinations because they often take place when you're very young.

I came from former Yugoslavia which was a socialistic country. It was quite normal to be fascinated by Oxford street with its Harrods, and Miss Selfridge's, it's Indian shops and Indian dresses and scented candlesticks. Everything was glittering and advertising. I was told "Try me, buy me."

Then the fascinating Dillons book store. I was hypnotized by people and they remain my eternal fascination. Today when my country is no longer Yugoslavia and a country with a political system which is no longer socialist. A country with a lack of diversity. England is still my fascination as I said because of the people living there. The people who will be my everlasting fascination. These first loves came to my heart when I was very young and they are my first and everlasting Shakespeare, my first and everlasting William Blake, my first and everlasting W.B.Yeats, my first and everlasting Virginia Woolf.

The dresses of youth are torn out but my first and eternal loves are with me for ever. Certainly, a lot of things have changed in England since I was twenty-three and I, as the observer, have changed too. The changes are in the eye of beholder and all that I could name, as changes,
are my own reflections.

My own changes have created new angles of vision, fascinations for the day of youth no longer exist. A few things are constant in England, and they are: red double decker buses, red phone boxes and the masters of literature. I am happy those things have not changed.