I haven’t read Charles Simic in four years. Even though he’s one of my all-time favorite poets: born in Belgrade, an immigrant to the US at sixteen, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former poetry editor for the Paris Review, the fifteenth US poet laureate. I miss him dearly. I miss his deceitfully simple verse. His clever, and sometimes absurdist sense of humor. His wit. Occasionally, a new poem of his will pop up in a literary magazine and, I admit, I’ll cheat a little. I’ll find myself unable to resist reading it, just as I might not be able to resist snooping around in an ex-girlfriend’s Facebook profile. But, as with that ex-girlfriend, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. We’re strangers now. All those years of separation between us. All the disappointment. The bitterness of the break-up. The grudge I still carry in my heart that, really, at this point, has more to do with me than with him. So why am I so angry with Charles Simic?
On 21 May 2019, PEN America will once again host their PEN America Literary Gala and Free Expression Awards. This year’s award winners will (uncontroversially) include three Saudi women’s rights activists—Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Eman Al-Nafjan—as well as American professor Anita Hill. I haven’t really thought much about the PEN awards over the past four years. With free speech under attack just about everywhere, and so much to be outraged about, including outrage itself, I’d been distracted.
But, in 2015, when I signed up for membership, it was a different story. PEN was a hero for its decision to honor the surviving editors of Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award, just four months after eleven of their colleagues (and one security guard) were gunned down in their Paris offices. It was a crime that struck at the core of everything I believed in: the free and open exchange of ideas without the threat of intimidation or violence; the freedom to criticize organized religion; a love for satire and the absurd. I was so affected by the crime, I drove all over Los Angeles when the next issue came out to buy copies—one of which still hangs in my office today, as a reminder to always stand up for free speech.
You’d think this would have been a default position within the writing community. You’d think the community would have rallied behind Charlie Hebdo and hailed this decision by PEN. But the opposite happened. Controversy erupted among some of its most well-known and powerful members. A letter of condemnation began to circulate, eventually signed by 242 writers, who wished to “disassociate” themselves from PEN America’s decision. The letter states that they do not believe in “censoring free speech” and condemns the intimidation of violence. It also describes Charlie Hebdo’s satire as “equal opportunity offense,” and the signatories claim to understand Charlie Hebdo’s disdain for organized religion, but they see a difference between “supporting” and “rewarding” the magazine. The signatories were all writers who, as far as I know, hadn’t just lost their colleagues nor almost lost their own lives in a heinous and organized act of violence. They were well-known writers too, who wielded a lot of power in the publishing industry, people with giant readerships, including Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Rick Moody, Junot Díaz, Francine Prose, Michael Cunningham, Stephen Dobyns—and Charles Simic.
“It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts,’” wrote Salman Rushdie in a letter of support.
Rushdie had ample reason to defend free speech. He’d gone into hiding for ten years, just for writing a novel. He knew all too well the way the writing community can simultaneously claim not to believe in “censoring free speech” and, at the same time, betray an artist by refusing to support him when the shit hits the fatwa. But where were the other writers? A question I am sure Rushdie had asked himself many times before.
There were some. Alain Mabanckou, who—unlike many of the writers who signed the letter of protest—actually spoke French, told the Guardian, “I’m a big reader of Charlie Hebdo, because I know that it’s not a racist magazine. I decided to do it in memory of all journalists and cartoonists who die because they have the courage to pursue their work.” Neil Gaiman tweeted out, “I’ll be hosting a table at the PEN event because it’s important,” after writers Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi all withdrew from their hosting duties.
How I loved Mabanckou and Rushdie and Gaiman for their courage and public defense of free speech. They inspired me. The trouble is, I’d yet to read Mabanckou, and I’d never really been taken by much of Rushdie’s or Gaiman’s work. (I did love Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, but I’d never been able to get into The Satanic Verses and I had tried three times to read Gaiman’s American Gods.) But Charles Simic—Charles Simic’s work, that is—I loved.
I was outraged. My relationship with Simic was over. How could he do this to me? How could he do this to us? To any artist, writer, journalist, cartoonist who took a chance by being provocative? How could he protest a courage award for people who were murdered for drawing a cartoon? We had to defend artists against violent intimidation, full stop. And yes, perhaps even reward them for their courage—because courage should be rewarded.
“If we only endorsed freedom of speech for people whose speech we liked that would be a very limited notion of freedom of speech. It’s a courage award, not a content award,” said Andrew Solomon, head of PEN America at the time.
In the end, the gala was a huge success. Impassioned speeches were made. The editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Gérard Biard, received a standing ovation. The letter was forgotten and all was forgiven. Except in the case of one writer and one reader.
That is, until now.
I am forgiving Charles Simic. Though I still think he is wrong. But I’m tired of outrage. I’m tired of cancel culture. I’m tired of erasure. I’m tired of this era of punishing people we don’t agree with. I’m tired of this trend of conflating the art with the artist. I have always been opposed to this in principle. I have spoken out against it when others do it. I have even written articles about it. And yet, somewhere along the way, I have been dishonest with myself. I have failed to see my own culpability in this issue. I have failed to practice what I preach. If I am to give up reading Charles Simic forever based on his signing of a petition, then, to be fair, I’d have to give up reading most of my favorite writers, seeing most of my favorite films, visiting most of my favorite museums, listening to much of my favorite music.
Charles Simic’s infraction is innocent compared to those of many. By signing that letter, he was also exercising his right to free speech and I can no longer punish him for it. He had his reasons and I’m sure he was well intended. If he and I, writer and reader, were to sit down and discuss it, we might even come to an understanding—or we might not. It no longer matters. How I feel about his opinions should play no role in how I feel about his poetry. Artists speak the clearest through their work anyway. So I am forgiving Charles Simic and hope he will forgive me for straying from my own principles.
And now I have some catching up to do. Simic’s last two collections, Scribbled in the Dark (2017) and The Lunatic (2016) have already been ordered. And a new collection is due in July. Its title seems most apropos: Come Closer and Listen. I’m willing to do that again, Mr. Simic. Because I believe listening is the best way of rewarding those who speak.