Natasha Nuhanovic was born in Zagreb, Croatia. She has lived in Germany and Canada, completing an Honours B.A. in English and German literature at the Universtiy of Waterloo and an M.A. in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. Her poems have been published in literary journals in Germany, Bosnia and Canada, and in the chapbook Painted Photographs (2005). Her new, full-length first book is called Stray Dog Embassy.
Lori A. May interviewed Natasha in February, 2011.
In the poem “Stray Dog and Cactus,” your speaker begins by saying “Nothing remains of my past home.” You’ve mentioned in your acknowledgements how the former Yugoslavia “seems like a dream I never really recollected properly.” How important is a sense of place for you and your writing? How do you reconcile place with identity in your work?
Sometimes it seems to me that for a large part of my life (probably more subconsciously than consciously) I have tried to reconcile all these different locations that are present in my life as I seem to find it impossible to just let go of a life and “turn a new page,” so to speak. I do not mean this in the sense that I am “dragging” the past with me and find myself “stuck”, unable to open up to new experience or immerse myself in the moment or the new environment – quite the opposite. I feel I immerse myself in the moment and present circumstances (geographical and otherwise) so much that I create an “overload of lives,” since by changing locations I do not feel that the “other” life that I left physically has stopped living in me. So, I have the life that is my current everyday reality and the one that used to be and these transparent layers keep piling up on top of each other. Writing, in the context of your question, has, I think, served as a tuning fork between these different layers. Sometimes it seemed to me as though my awareness and consciousness was shifting between these lives too much with too little control over it from my side. I would like to believe that the process of writing gave me more insight about where my attentions or emotions or thoughts are and why they are there and not somewhere else. At times, though, I felt the process of writing to be quite maddening as I was shifting between all kinds of physical, emotional and chronological spaces. Sometimes it seemed as though the countries (predominantly former Yugoslavia and Canada) that made their way into my being were people I all love (in different ways), yet am unable to figure out their relation to me by positioning them in a clear way and then directing my attentions with a clear idea of where our relationship is going. My relationship to the different countries seemed like a relationship in which I knew I was likely to break every promise that I make. Somewhere along the way it almost started feeling as though my writing process (among many other things) was, indirectly, the process of finding who I am most attached to.
I love this line from “Strange Things Happen:” In my next life I will live inside a kaleidoscope. You’ve spent the majority of your life in Ontario, yet there is such a sense of displacement and imprisonment in some of the poems that it feels as though there is a lost connection to not just a former home, but to several homes and identities. How much and in what ways does your sense of identity as a poet relate to this collection’s title,Stray Dog Embassy?
I believe that we have the power to reinvent ourselves by more consciously choosing what and who we surround ourselves with. It is a little bit of an experimental process and sometimes we hit that “right” note, where we feel the most like “ourselves.” When that feeling comes around, we try to make this person (or people) or a particular place our anchoring points. Collectively, I spent about ten of my 26 years in Ontario and while I feel centered / settled in Ontario, I simultaneously feel like someone else picked out the anchoring points for me and, every once in a while, the question arises in me whether I am used to them by habit or whether I really feel a deep connection. Of course it can be, and almost always is, a mixture of both. However, those moments where everything fits even without any prior “getting used to” seem to shake me out of feeling anchored in Ontario. Social metaphor aside, on a personal note, the metaphor of the stray dog encompasses, for me, this feeling of “wandering” and “floating” around the globe, without a sense of belonging to any one particular place. And sometimes I wonder whether it is my inability to simplify and make a choice (because I realize partially impose this onto myself by choice) or whether choice is not necessary and there is room for all these multiplicities. The creation of the book would have never happened in the first place if a sadness and longing did not exist in me for an “abode” that would end these tensions and contradictions in me where on the one hand I want to simplify it down to one place and on the other, I am too curious to constrict myself, though I wonder if I simply keep creating a series of new beginnings that lead nowhere.
I’ve read that you stopped speaking for a year after your move from Croatia to Germany, in 1994, as you felt that you lost your language. Yet, you’ve really hung onto language — or perhaps the language has hung onto you — particularly with your work in translation. How has your knowledge and use of German and Serbo-Croatian influenced your own poems written in English? Do you aim to remain aware of how a line or poem may translate into another language? Does this play a role in your editing process?
It was not that I stopped speaking all together (and I definitely did not stop speaking my mother tongue), it is just that I did not say anything in German for about a year, even after I had already learned how to speak it quite well. I went through the whole school year being quiet and not talking to anyone at all except to one girl, who also spoke Serbo-Croatian (Bosnian). It was only in the last week of school that I spoke as they were going to make me repeat the year again if I didn’t. It took a few days of gathering myself together to do this and when I did finally speak German, it felt strange. I felt like I had changed planets and not countries. This was not the case with English. I now write either in English or Serbo-Croatian, but never directly in German. I still feel the most “myself” when I speak Serbo-Croatian. When I write a poem, I am in a mode where things like grammar, syntax, word-structure, etc. are so far removed from my consciousness that I am not at all aware of the influence at the actual time of writing. As Serbo-Croatian is quite deeply embedded in my being, I am sure that some of the properties of that language are mixed into the way I form sentences in English. I write the original poem from a place of intuitive communication and try to “feel” the moment in time I am immersing myself in. I do not think about how the line would look in another language until I proceed to translate it later on. During the editing process, this “flowing” of one language into the other becomes more obvious and then a decision needs to be made whether it works for or against the poem. More often than not, I decided to keep this blend of languages as it added to the rhythm and melody.
Speaking of editing, can you tell us about your experience in working with Stuart Ross? Since Stray Dog Embassy is your first full-length book, was it intimidating to work with a poet, instructor, editor, and general literary icon such as this for your first major publication? How did he help you mold the final manuscript?
Working with Stuart Ross was a pleasure for me, but I made it quite difficult for him as I took off to Europe amidst the process and we had to finish off the editing process long distance via Skype conversations. Some of his first comments were related to the question you asked above as Stuart immediately noticed (and predominantly liked) that the poems sometimes (even though grammatically everything is correct) reveal this melody that is not found in a native English speaker. We worked with it and I was glad he saw it as something positive. Although Serbo-Croatian tends to have pretty long, convoluted, multi-layered sentences that do not end, so sometimes I (unconsciously) transferred that into English. Mostly it worked, but sometimes it didn’t. Stuart made me aware of these places and then let me make the decision on whether to leave it or change it. Another major way in which Stuart helped open my imagination further is to point out that a lot of my poems seem to want to “tie up” something in the end and he asked the question whether it might not be better to allow a bit more space and air for breathing. What I like and appreciate about Stuart’s editing style is that he points out these various spots that made him stop and wonder (in a good or bad way), asks questions, and then leaves these to linger with me. I felt more honoured than intimidated to work with Stuart, because there was never a point, where I felt ‘dominated over’, ‘patronized’ or ‘suffocated’ – Stuart has a fantastic way of ‘sensing’ the atmosphere of the poem and the overall work and showing me where he sees noise and where he sees powerful parts, yet leaves the decision in my hands. I am glad to have worked with someone who has the intuition to improve and expand that which is already there rather than attempt to ‘rewrite’ me.
Where do you go from here? What are you working on now? What are you reading?
Right now I am still feeling a little dizzy, though it is calming down. After having spent a year in Europe (England and Croatia / Bosnia), it took some time to readjust to Ontario. I guess I am in a spot where I feel the need to remain and build more in one place, rather than live the life of a nomad. At times this proves to be difficult as it clashes with my longings for something (some I am aware of what it is and some I am not) that is not here. So sometimes I feel uncertain about whether I should go out and try to find it or remain inside because it is inside. It seems similar to my reading habits at the moment, where I start reading one book and leave it half way and start reading another and they all linger in me without an ending. At the moment, I am doing various translation work, including translating from English into Serbo-Croatian for a publishing house in Croatia, but that is more to simply get by and save up for my next adventure – the making of film. I am working on new poems, but I am also working on a novel, which has a sort of experimental nature in the sense that it is less about plot and more about specific moments that we try to capture, yet which — for the most part — always partially elude us, although there are those few that don’t and which change the course of our life completely.