Q: Why did you decide to write a palindrome? Did you do so for a purpose?
A: I wrote the poem Palindrome Apocalypse in spring of 1981 for a special issue of the journal Osiječka Revija devoted to wordplay and verbal combinatorics. The editor invited several writers, including me, to write something for the issue. Each of us could do whatever we wanted. At that time I was working on the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov; I was writing about his Language of the Stars and translating his “supertale” Zangezi. Most of all I was fascinated by Khlebnikov’s poem Razin in the form of a palindrome. It was absolutely untranslatable. And the moment I received the invitation to collaborate with the journal on the topic of combinatorics, I immediately got the idea: if I can’t translate Khlebnikov’s palindromic poem, then I’m going to write a palindromic poem myself, and in Croatian.
Q: Have you read the English translation of American Scream and Palindrome Apocalypse? What did you think of them?
A: I’ve read both translations several times and sent comments to the translator, Sibelan Forrester. Sibelan translated American Scream on her own initiative, inspired by her wit and with lots of linguistic play. She managed to translate both the contents and the form so that the translation is quite fascinating. Everything was different with the translation of Palindrome Apocalypse. The palindrome form could not be translated, just as I was unable to translate Khlebnikov’s poem. Sibelan and I agreed that she would translate only the contents so the reader could see what the magical form of the palindrome was capable of expressing. The publisher did the best possible thing by publishing the poem in a bilingual edition. The linguistic pyrotechnics in the original may entertain connoisseurs of Slavic languages, while American readers may be surprised that a palindrome in a small Slavic language is capable of expressing the twentieth-century history of the West. Here too Sibelan proved to be a brilliant translator. Her translation of the palindrome verses is not only accurate but also sonorous and rhythmical. You can feel the chain reaction of the events described, from the October Revolution to the Second World War to Chernobyl and the war in the territories of former Yugoslavia.
Q: Why did you want to publish your work in the United States?
A: Because I believed that my book would find a lot of readers in the United States. Perhaps the book would become an object of culturological analysis, on the one hand as a curiosity, and on the other as an excellent translation.
Q: How do you think Americans will relate to your work?
A: I worried a bit whether Americans would take my poem the way I intended it. That’s why I provided a commentary to both poems—to offer readers a frame for understanding. Of course, the author can never foresee all the dimensions of her work, but I think that I can explain at least one dimension. My commentary on American Scream stresses that in my poem America was not a geographical concept, but rather a symbol of Western civilization. In my commentary on Palindrome Apocalypse, it was important for me to call the reader’s attention to the magical power of language. Our everyday language is conventional and arbitrary; there is no real connection between the word and the object. In poetic language, and especially in a mythological form such as the palindrome, the connection between word and object does exist, in some strange manner. Poetry means the creation and discovery of such connections. And that’s exactly what happened with my poem. Ten years before the wars broke out in former Yugoslavia, the poem’s language (i.e. its palindromic form) foresaw that the only palindromic year of the 20th century—1991—would see a bomb dropped on the city of Zagreb. This is the palindrome’s grand and horrifying power. Of course, both my poems could be read in other ways. American Scream” could be read in the context of American studies and phenomena such as intertextuality, globalization, anti-utopia, and so on, whilePalindrome Apocalypse could be read in the key of postmodernism, linguistic magic, the relations of sign and reality, ludic writing, etc.
Q: How long did you work on Palindrome Apocalypse?
A: I wrote the first version in three months in 1981. At that point I went around reading words and sentences from right to left and left to right, searching to find what might be expressed that way. I took only what expressed the fundamental idea, that is, twentieth-century historical events. I was fascinated at how the palindrome could express everything, and at how in fact I didn’t write the poem—the language itself wrote it. It was a divine game, and a satanic one too, as it turned out later. I finished the poem in 1991, when what the poem had foreseen in its first version, the bombing of Zagreb, was happening in actual history. I didn’t change much. I divided the old palindromes into five chapters and added descriptions of the main events in normal language, to make clear at once to the reader what was happening and what a magical form the palindrome is.
Q: What made you write a poem about America?
A: I wrote “American Scream” because I considered America the greatest symbol of Western civilization. I’ve had that impression since childhood, when I first encountered the myths of America in my little village in northern Croatia. Every week American movies came, even to a backwater village far from Western civilization. All of us children, including my future husband, would make a group pilgrimage every Saturday to the movie theater. We would write letters to the American actors, and their offices sent us cards and autographed photographs. America was such a great and shining word; it could contain everything that a little being on the threshold of life in late socialism might think and wish for. Afterwards, of course, that changed. America became a symbol that could call up absolutely everything: the very best and the very worst of Western history, the real and the ideal, the personal and the historical. So through the prism of that symbol, the book interweaves individual fate with life under socialism, American myths and cultural traditions, utopia and anti-utopia, everyday life and dreams, attachment to the local ground and global fears.