Born in Pleven, Bulgaria, in 1943, Gueorgui Konstantinov graduated from the University of Sofia majoring in Bulgarian Philology in 1967. Since then, he has been employed as an Editor in the Literary Department of Bulgarian TV from 1967-71; as Chief Editor of Rodna Rech Literary Magazine in 1973; as Chief Editor of Plamak Literary Magazine in 1983, and as Director of the Publishing House Plamak in 1992. He has served as a Member of Parliament in the Fourth Great National Assembly in 1992; as Deputy Minister of Culture in 1995; and as President of the Bulgarian Center of P.E.N. International in 2001. He is the author of thirty-five Business Relationships of poetry. His poems are included in anthologies of various languages including: English, French, Russian, Japanese, German, Turkish, Greek, Arabian, Romanian, Hindi, Flemish, and Persian. He has received many awards and has participated in poetry festivals in Stockholm, Maastricht, Thessaloniki, Mexico City, Istanbul, Nicosia, Belgrade, Brussels, Bucharest, Riga, Tel Aviv, Delhi, Tehran, and Craiova. Currently, he lives in Sofia.
Bill Wolak and Gueorgui Konstantinov met at the Mihai Eminescu World Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania, in June of 2019. The following interview was started during that encounter and was completed during the subsequent months.
Bill Wolak: How long ago did you first begin writing poetry?
Gueorgui Konstantinov: I wrote my first poems in my native town Pleven when I was 16. They were published in the central literary magazine for school children named Native Speech. Naturally, one of the poems was about love, but before it, the poem “Edelweiss” was published: “It grew there on the barren rock / without a watering pot. / The storm sowed it, the rain watered it / in the grassy sod.” I deliberately mention this poem because at that time I had never seen any real mountain. As far as love is concerned, I knew nothing about it then. I vaguely remember that I sneaked my first kiss at that time. However, my poems made such a good impression that I won the first prize in a competition. I must mention something else, too. Shortly afterwards, apart from rhymed couplets, I also sent out poems in free verse. For example, I’ll quote some lines: “Brisk gray little fishes in the shadow of the willow tree… / The sun looked at you–and you turned gold. / Brisk gray little fishes–you are already golden! / Proudly pass by the silver fish hooks!” Unfortunately, it took ten years for this poem to be published.
BW: What was it that first attracted you to writing poetry? Was it the poetry that you were taught in school? Or did you have a particular teacher who encouraged you?
GK: I’d like to say first that I did not choose poetry as a direction in my life, but actually it chose me. My father, Konstantin Georgiev, was a headmaster of all musical events in the town, and he also wrote poetry. There were lots of books at home, and poetry was frequently discussed. In the first classes of high school, we, the schoolboys who loved poetry, published a kind of newspaper. It might appear strange now, but I was in charge of the satirical page and wrote short paradoxical couplets and a longer satirical fable. Gradually, I became fascinated by lyrical poetry because it made me happier. Since I was sixteen or seventeen, I felt that I was destined to be a poet.
BW: Who were the first Bulgarian poets that influenced your poetry?
GK: I enjoyed reading our eminent lyrical poets: Dimcho Debelyanov, Peyo Yavorov, and Vesselin Hanchev. Furthermore, the poems of our great poets who glorified the struggle for national freedom and justice Christo Botev, Ivan Vazov, and Nikola Vaptsarov also deeply impressed me. Some of the national prizes for poetry, which I have received subsequently, are named after these favorite poets of mine.
BW: What other languages have you studied?
GK: I studied Russian and French in the high school in Pleven and later in the Faculty for Slavic Languages in Sofia University. As you know, in friendly conversations I speak English, too. Naturally, I understand Serbian and Macedonian because they are also Balkan languages. Quite often I feel sorry that I do not possess the capabilities of a polyglot. I even make fun of myself when I say: “I speak five languages freely and imperfectly.”
BW: Later, who were the poets from other countries that you enjoyed reading?
GK: It was not later. Alongside Debelyanov and Yavorov, I was also reading the translated poems of the “damned poets” Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Paul Verlaine. Also, François Villon’s lyrical-satirical poetry appealed to me. Later on, I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and it was a revelation for me. The Russian poets who fascinated me were Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Pushkin, and Fyodor Tyutchev, who were followed by Sergei Yesenin, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak. I was also impressed by the depth of wisdom in the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s poetry, as well as Russia’s Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the Swedish Nobel prize-winner TomasTranströmer.
BW: You have worked as an editor on at least two literary magazines. Did your experiences as an editor on these literary magazines help or hinder you own writing?
GK: I’ll explain a little about the magazines. In both of them mainly young authors were
presented. I have already mentioned the literary magazine Native Speech in which my first poems were published in 1959. In 1972, I was already its editor-in-chief. Therefore, my early creative years were spent among talented teenagers who often wrote both poetry and fiction. I worked there for about ten years. A great number of these beginners are distinguished writers nowadays. In addition, the monthly circulation of that magazine increased from 30,000 to 100,000 while I was editor. I have also worked for many decades in the literary magazine Flame, which also features young writers. In almost every issue, the works of young people alternate with the names of distinguished writers. Naturally, I have had difficult periods in my career as an editor-in-chief. However, I firmly believe that my close communication with creative young people was highly beneficial to my own poetic work at that time.
BW: Can you tell me a little about how you came to be a member of the Bulgarian Parliament?
GK: After the social changes in Bulgaria in 1989, I was elected deputy to the Great National Assembly. Its major task was to replace the old totalitarian constitution with a new democratic one. There were only five or six writers in that assembly. Perhaps the reason for my election was the publication of some satirical poems of mine before these great changes, i.e. during Todor Zhivkov’s regime. In one of the poems, there were such lines as: “You want to be the frame of your portrait / And your thought never ceases to fly with the speed of darkness.” In my satirical poem “District Meeting” there were some sarcastic words too. However, despite my definite social views, I was expelled from the left-wing party in 1988–only a year before the radical reforms. I have not changed my social views, but afterwards I have never been a member of any party. Nevertheless, in those stormy years of changes, I was viewed as one of the left-wing reformers. That’s why I was elected.
BW: What would you say was your greatest achievement during the time you spent as a member of Parliament?
GK: Undoubtedly the greatest achievement was that we wrote and signed the new democratic constitution which is still legally binding today. It eliminated the one-party system, established freedom of speech, and safeguarded human rights. Guided by it, we took the extremely steep road to democracy. Nowadays, our lives are not easy, we are confronted by a number of problems, but it is not the constitution which leads to such difficulties, rather, the fact that we do not adhere to it. Quite significantly, it is called democratic. I feel secretly proud that among the numerous signatures mine is there too.
BW: You have also served as Deputy Minister of Culture. Can you describe a little bit what that position entailed?
GK: I held the post for about two years. That was the period of accelerated, even irrepressible privatization, even in the cultural sphere. There were people who insisted on the privatization even of library clubs and community centers–a special kind of popular center in every town (at that time their number was above 6,000). Undoubtedly this unscrupulous privatization could have turned these beautiful buildings into discotheques or restaurants. I drafted a study that proposed a law for the protection of Bulgarian community centers, libraries, reading rooms, and cultural clubs. Later on, this law was put forward and adopted in the parliament. I delivered a speech there in support of the project. That is how after the social changes in 1989 the first law in the sphere of culture was passed. These are the issues which I associate with my “ministerial” period. However, I must admit that even then I continued to write poems, mostly at night. It was then that I wrote such poems as “A Tree and a Bird,” “How a Dragon Was Born,” and “May Be.” Unfortunately, there are deputy ministers but no deputy poets.
BW: Tell me a little about your writing process. Do you keep a journal or notebooks in which you write out your poems? Or do your type your poetry directly onto the computer?
GK: At first, some poetical lines quite spontaneously came to my mind, and it was not necessary to put them down. Later on I had a special small notebook in which I wrote these airy notions. Finally, I simply got a sheet of paper and followed the first lines. Now my life is quite demanding; I attend lyrical performances, travel quite often, and publish a magazine. Nevertheless, almost every morning I sit at the computer desk and hurriedly put down something from my memory which has either moved me or made me think about it. What usually happens is that these first opening lines gradually turn into a whole poem. Quite often these lines come to me late in the evening or even at night.
BW: Your poetry is wide-ranging in both its style and its themes. Nevertheless, one of your recurrent themes concerns the difficulties and delights of relationships. What have you learned about love from all of your experiences?
GK: One of my books of poetry which appeared when I was in my thirties was entitled An Illiterate Heart. In fact, human knowledge constantly develops, but the heart remains somewhere around school age. We are eager to learn more about the essence of love so that we can identify it among its numerous incarnations. However, love has no verifiable scientific aspect, and it simply inexplicably pounces on us uninvited and then equally inexplicably abandons us. In addition, it raises a number of questions and gives no definite answers. I have often wondered about the true nature of love–whether it brings about freedom or slavery. Or perhaps it is a kind of sweet slavery. However, I definitely think that it makes the poet more spiritual.
BW: Your latest book entitled How a Dragon Is Born is lavishly illustrated by the artist Ivan Gazdov. Can you describe how the two of you collaborated on that book?
GK: The idea for this book quite spontaneously emerged during my visit of an exhibition of our eminent graphic artist Ivan Gazdov. In the preface to the book I said: “I’m grateful for the lucky chance which enabled me to perceive my own poems next to Ivan Gazdov’s dazzling graphic vision. His Graphicatures are like some black-and-white rain in our desolate spiritual landscape.” And Ivan Gazdov said: “It is wonderful when one feels inspired by Gueorgui Konstantinov’s poetic impulse, by his world of invigorating thoughts and striking paradoxes, a world spontaneously emerging from everyday life.” As you see, the mutual admiration for our respective works brought about the idea of illustrating my poems with his graphicatures. In fact, two muses–the one of poetry, and the other of art–were united and finally the book How a Dragon is Born emerged. I must immediately point out that the graphicatures were not specially created for my poems. I selected a number of the artist’s previous works, namely those which, as I felt, responded to the general atmosphere in my book of poetry. Later on, I arranged them in a way which, in my opinion, was suitable for the spirit of each respective poem. Afterwards, the artist admitted that he himself meant to arrange the illustrations in the same way. As for the general artistic design of the book, it was entirely his own work. How A Dragon Is Born received very good reports in the poetic world. For instance, the world-famous poet Ana Blandiana wrote me: “I received your wonderful book….I read your poems with real admiration and let me congratulate you from my heart. It is beautiful, filled with deep poetry, and it is a beautiful object of art.”
BW: What advice would you give young poets who are just beginning to write and publish poetry?
GK: My particular advice is that they should never stick to another person’s advice. Poets can exist and develop only if they adhere to their own creative nature, artistic spirit, and life experiences.
Five Poems by Gueorgui Konstantinov
A TREE AND A BIRD
A pair of fluttering wings
On the thin top of the tree.
The bird seems to be flying,
While in fact
A place, insecure for rest,
An undulating pier,
But the bird finds support
In the chance dance.
It feels with its claws
And the stem,
The incessant sap of the earth,
The deep pulse of the world…
A magic instant,
The bird has roots,
And the tree
Translated from Bulgarian by Valentin Krustev
the easiest thing–
we turned our faces away
from each other
and walked our separate ways…
Only the sun
tries to rescue our love:
We keep walking, each in different directions,
only our shadows
keep holding each other…
Translated from Bulgarian by Anton Chikakchiev
HOW A DRAGON IS BORN
The beginning is a fight
Between the falling cross
Of a bird
And a serpent,
Bent like a bow…
An age-long dispute
Between the strong wings
And the wingless perfidy
Of the earth.
Two of God’s creatures
They fight vehemently,
Exchanging blows and wounds
But don’t kill…
they embrace each other.
And they become one.
They fly away together
Up in the blue sky…
A snake with wings.
And a bird with
That is how a dragon is born.
Translated from Bulgarian by Valentin Krustev
Freedom flies away
On autumn wings–
Beyond the horizon,
Far away to the south…
The mountain range
Keeps weighing heavily
On my eyes.
The snowy cloud
Like a smoke screen…
I do not fear
The cold loneliness.
I do not envy the infinity
Of the bird’s flight.
Even the bird
Is not free–
Is its bondage.
Translated from Bulgarian by Lujdmila Kolechkova
A spontaneous feeling
brings me back to my town of birth,
silent is the hill of my childhood.
I keep my eyes closed
pressing my face
against the bark of a dark
With a jingling voice,
I count to ten…
Then I start searching
for my old friends here,
But alas, my dear friends
under the ground.
Translated from Bulgarian by Anton Chikakchiev
Also by Gueorgui Konstantinov
A Smile Is My Capital (1967)
Personal Time (1974)
An Illiterate Heart (1978)
A Sociable Lonely Man (1982)
I Love You Up to Here (1992)
A Tree and A Bird (1999)
A Love Schedule (2005)
The Man Is a Question (2005)
Evening Rainbow (2006)
A Crow in the Snow (2011)
Emotion in Konstantinopol (2013)
Always Early (2016)
How a Dragon Is Born (2018)
About Bill Wolak
Bill Wolak has just published his fifteenth book of poetry entitled The Nakedness Defense with Ekstasis Editions. His collages have appeared recently in The 2019 Seattle Erotic Art Festival, Poetic Illusion, The Riverside Gallery, Hackensack, NJ, the 2019 Dirty Show in Detroit, Naked in New Hope 2018, 2018 The Rochester Erotic Arts Festival, and The 2018 Montreal Erotic Art Festival.
About Gueorgui Konstantinov
Award-winning Bulgarian poet Gueorgui Konstantinov graduated from the University of Sofia in 1967 and has been employed as an editor for Bulgarian television and Rodna Rech Literary Magazine, and as director of the publishing house Plamak. Formerly the President of the Bulgarian Center of P.E.N. International, he has also served Bulgaria as a Member of Parliament in the Fourth Great National Assembly, and as Deputy Minister of Culture. The author of thirty-five books of poetry, his poems have been widely anthologized and translated into a dozen languages. He has participated in many literary festivals worldwide, and currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. His website (in English) is slovo.bg/old/f/en/gk/.