Ognjenka Lakićević, poetess and frontwoman of the band Autopark, was interviewed by Milena Ilić Mladenović.
I’m sure everyone asks you whether you have a different writing style depending on whether you’re writing poetry for music or for a book. Still, in short, what differences are there? Are there any differences when it comes to the audience? Are people more receptive to poetry when it is accompanied by music or when it is presented in literary form?
There are some fundamental differences, primarily practical ones. Poems that I write for music are lyrics and it’s the music that’s the primary focus, so the lyrics have to be subordinate to it, both emotionally and metrically, but they must still live up to a certain standard so as to not take away from the experience. Such poems are functional, simplistic, though the question remains as to whether I can truly make anything simple. Most of the time, there are fewer explanations, I don’t have enough space for them, haha. In “regular” poetry (unaccompanied by music) I have no limitations i.e. there is no music that the poem must fit. Of course, rhythmic consistency is still important to me, but it’s much easier to compose since I have more freedom.
The audience overlaps to a degree. The people who like Autopark are usually people who care about the lyrics, there are fewer people who like our music and don’t care about the lyrics, but I don’t mind that. Autopark is music first and foremost, but it is music with an attitude, and good lyrics are just a plus, some additional food for thought – that’s how I think music should be. After all, music is what I care about the most.
Is there any important advice that you give to people who participate in your literary workshop?
I am an advice jukebox, both when it comes to general life advice and the literary workshop, but in the latter context, people are usually there looking for advice. Often, past participants quote me on something that I had told them, things that helped them with writing or just helped them in life, and I end up being unable to remember ever having said that, even when it sounds like something I’d say. And when I don’t have an answer, I tell them to give me time and that I’ll come back with an answer later, if I conclude that it exists. Something that I can guarantee, something that can rarely be guaranteed in this line of work, let alone in general, is that it’s impossible for there to be no progress if someone is investing time and effort into writing, going back to correcting a single poem over and over again, thinking, and carefully reading other people’s poetry. That is because a poem isn’t just there for one to pour their feelings into and abandon it, it’s not a dumpster for one’s frustrations, it’s not just a diary, but also a space for aesthetic and linguistic intervention. Also, reading is very important for a writer (I’d say it’s important for just about anyone, but the majority would disagree). At the workshop, I mostly insist on contemporary poetry because it’s important that people know what their contemporaries are doing, and that is precisely what the participants know the least about, it’s not something you learn in school. I send them lots of reading material. Those two things are what’s most important, but I have tons of advice, and most of it has to do with courage and the general outlook on life – no art reveals the personality of the author as much as poetry does. Everything you do in life is reflected in your poetry.
I noticed that the participants of your workshop win a lot of poetry awards (or end up being very close to winning). When we say that we’re “proud of someone”, it can sound egocentric since someone else’s success is not our own. Still, in this case, you’d have the right to say that you’re “proud of someone” who won an award since you took part in their thinking process, their work, and you influenced some decisions, right?
That’s what the workshop boils down to, me expressing my opinions, giving suggestions, pressuring people into working harder or encouraging someone who seems to lack confidence, but it’s up to the individual to see how much they will invest themselves into it, how much they will think about the feedback that they received, what they will apply, how hard they will work, how much time they’ll devote to it. It’s all up to them, I just try to do my best because that’s my work ethic but also my personality, so maybe they came to the right place – or maybe they didn’t, if they thought writing poetry was easy. If I’m not working hard on something, it feels as if I’m not even working on it. It’s very exciting.
If you were in charge of creating a high school curriculum, what would the literature classes look like?
First, I’d burn the existing curricula, which I directly blame for so many people disliking poetry and seeing it as some elitist thing too complicated for regular people, rather than as the most essential way that a person can express themselves. Contemporary poetry does not exist in the current curriculum, and I think that’s outrageous, it’s like someone wants to kill poetry. When you look at Serbian literature coursebooks, the last modern poets included are Vasko Popa and Branko Miljković. No big deal, there’s just half a century missing! I always wonder, like, maybe that last chapter of the book fell out, maybe it got torn by accident, because it would be impossible for so much stuff to be missing.
I feel like poetry has become more accessible, that more people read it (for example, I often read poetry online, more often than prose or other longer literary works). What do you think, did the Internet breathe new life into poetry? That is, did it help poetry cross to the other side and become livelier?
I think the Internet saved poetry, gave it a second wind. Of course, it has led to an overproduction of what can hardly be called relevant poetry, but that’s not important, every good thing is followed by some side effects, and the ones I see there don’t seem dangerous.
What does Autopark represent today in your eyes, and what did it represent 20 years ago?
When we formed Autopark almost 20 years ago, back in the year 2000, for me it was an attempt at doing something that would have a soothing effect on me but also something that would keep me alert, something that would allow me to pack my thoughts and emotions into the most beautiful art out there – music, something that I enjoy, writing songs that I would like to listen to. In the meantime, it became the biggest part of me, my DNA, my longest relationship, the sincerest part of me, my very being free of any defensive mechanisms, and a constant process of learning.
In your high school diary, you talked to Morrissey from The Smiths. Do you still keep a diary? And who do you talk to now i.e. who would you talk to if you still kept one?
Haha, I talked to Morrissey only on special occasions, usually the entries would start with “dear diary”. I don’t keep a diary anymore, I have Facebook, it’s a different form of diary. Every song or status that I share is a reminder of how I felt in that moment, I always know what I was going through at the time and what I felt when I posted it. For others, it’s just a song or a comment, but for me it is an entire story. If I were still keeping a diary, I’d always talk exclusively to myself. I talk to God but the sky is empty, as Sylvia Platt put it.
In a poem from the “Love Letters to Google” collection, you say: “In the end, we can only hope that our children won’t have to spend their lives recovering from their own childhoods.” You often write about your escape into music which helped you cope with external factors that you couldn’t do anything about (e.g. the war). What do you think, how much are we affected by that “recovery” period? Would you be the same person you are today if you had nothing to recover from?
I wouldn’t, and that’s why I appreciate every struggle. A person is not defined by their failures as much as they are by the way that they get up and fight on. Such struggles speak volumes about us.
That is why I’d like to clarify regarding the term “escape” – there’s no escapism involved since I never had the habit of running away from things. It was precisely confrontation that saved me in the end, it’s just that the recovery periods were more painful and took longer, if it’s even possible to fully recover, because I think that all we do is re-dress our wounds, for better or for worse. Music and literature helped me not to run away from emotions, they always presented inspiration and consolation, something that would remind me that I wasn’t a lost cause.
(…) we only spill love in places where it is not reciprocated/ that is the only way to be safe from mushy intimacy”, you said in the poem titled “Emotional Forensics”. I feel like the motif of “senselessly wasted love” is not uncommon in your poetry. The song “How Do You Know I Survived” quickly went viral. On a scale of 1 to 10, how boring is it to write/read about happy love stories (where blueberries aren’t senselessly wasted)?
Zero boredom, doing that is a challenge! It’s like asking me how boring it would be to experience full, reciprocated love. It’s probably boring sometimes, but it is a much greater challenge to be in an imperfect relationship because there exists the certainty of imperfection, the certainty that there can be no intimacy, which is the greatest challenge. In an imperfect relationship, there is the constant vicious circle of warmth and frigidity, the daily betrayal of oneself and of one’s partner that stems from the hope that a change would come about, and the change never comes about because no one is putting effort into the relationship and both people are focused on their own role. The ultimate price is the effect it has on personal development, which becomes weakened and slowed down. This is the real challenge, like, love, you chose it of your own free will, and you constantly have to work on it. It sounds like a chore, but just like monogamy is a big challenge, so is this. However, we write less when we’re happy. It’s just me who is never content, no matter how happy I may be, the world is a ticking bomb, a source of constant anxiety, so I don’t what it means when people tell me they have no inspiration, inspiration is a myth. That is why all the wrong people got volumes of songs written for them, because happy people will rarely sit down and write. But, isn’t there a certain lack of contentment in happiness, the notion that said happiness could come to an end?
But, writing a happy love poem did remain the most difficult task in my workshop. I noted that I don’t want anyone writing poems that deal with the very beginning of a relationship, most people are happy at that time, it’s like a fever dream, I don’t care about that.
In “Love Letters to Google” there is a very optimistic tone, which is less present in the new collection. Happiness in love is almost a heroic feat, if we’re talking about a vital relationship where both people are awake, they hadn’t given into the routine. Apart from such vital love, which is rare, another almost equally heroic feat is solitude – in a world that’s dying from loneliness while ignoring it. The entire world is designed to suit couples. There is something terribly disgusting about that.
You’re working on a new collection of poems. I noticed that in your Facebook posts. How would you describe that writing poetry is a serious job to someone who doesn’t write (and probably doesn’t read)? What do you think, why do people still think of writing solely as a hobby which requires just a bit of free time?
Oh, I’m not going to try and explain anything to anyone anymore, there’s no point. If people think that I sit down and write something about random emotions in 15 minutes when I’m “feeling inspired”, and then I go make lunch and watch TV, why would they need me to explain anything? At the very least, I could explain the situation as it is, if they asked. But if they have already made up their mind, there’s no negotiating with them. Moreover, in this line of work, which is not something that I live off of, time isn’t the sole influencing factor. You bleed into your writing, but people don’t see it as a job, they see it as some form of therapy, which isn’t exactly correct, good poetry transcends therapy and personal benefit. When I was preparing the collection, I had nightmares all the time because I experienced horrible scenarios over and over again through writing, trying to mold those ideas and images into understandable verse. There is no masochism involved, it’s an attempt to take every feeling, thought, and experience and turn it into characters on a page that have an aesthetic of their own, and then, finally, there’s sharing it with someone, and breathing true life into it.
The theme of this issue of Libartes is freedom. What does freedom mean to you? When do you feel free?
It is a very complex concept which would take an extra page for me to even begin making sense. If we’re talking about the happier part of the world which isn’t being ravaged by war but only by quiet fascism, post-capitalism, and ecological disaster, I see freedom in the act of taking responsibility for one’s own life, in breaking free of subconscious mechanisms that were planted in one’s mind during childhood and which brings the concept of free will into question. That is the key question of personal freedom, because if our subconscious has too much control over us, then we shall, as Jung said, call it destiny. In that case, there is not much freedom to speak of. I also see freedom as solitude, health, the ability to have not-so-good habits which you keep under control, I see it as doing things which you’re bad at but you love doing them and you allow yourself to be bad at them, that is very, very important. Freedom is being sincere with yourself and others, being open, and being vulnerable. In more banal terms, sometimes I see freedom as a day off work which I spend in a bar, drinking beer, not wearing socks, sitting alone and reading. Preferably in summer, outside, because freedom is the most beautiful evening in August.
Ognjenka Lakicević was born in Belgrade, where she currently resides. She graduated from the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade.
Her poetry collections include: Under the Stairs (2002, published by Mali Nemo), Indentations (published online), Three People (2016, published by Samizdat), Love Letters to Google (2017, published by the Rasic Literary Workshop). She is a member of the alternative rock band Autopark. Since 2014, she regularly organizes poetry workshops. Her latest collection of poems titled Vodič kroz požare (A guide to surviving fires) was published in October 2019.
Interviewed by Milena Ilić Mladenović, Born in 1986. Graduated from and completed her master’s studies at the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. Writes short stories and long poems, incompetent essays, and competent recipes. Records stories of her sons.
Translator Filip Čolović, born in Belgrade, he is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade (English Department). At the moment, he works as a content writer and translator. Appreciates the avant-garde and all forms of quality art and fiction.
Read the other texts published in the Interview section.
This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Filip Čolović.