Tomáš Míka: Comenius and Cucumbers from Znojmo

Tomáš Míka, photo: David Vaughan

How do you write poetry in the age of the tweet? Tomáš Míka has an answer. His latest collection is called Text Messages: it doesn’t go quite so far as to reduce everything to 140 characters, but the book does have its roots in the disembodied fragments of language that today form so much of our electronic communication. Tomáš talks to David Vaughan.

Tomáš Míka, photo: David Vaughan
Tomáš Míka is one of the Czech Republic’s most original poets, relishing the odd and unexpected turn of phrase, along with the quirky musicality of language. He also has a gift for exposing the hollowness of much of the language that surround us. But his aim in compiling the anthology Text Messages wasn’t just to be subversive, as Tomáš told me, when he came into Radio Prague.

“I’m writing these things while working or while walking, doing other things, and suddenly an idea comes. I want to record it. Some of them I just later want to neglect, but some of them I keep. In this particular book, Text Messages, I just wanted to preserve them in the embryonic state, not to develop them, because sometimes I know that what I do or what others do is that they have an idea and feel obliged to develop it into something – into a normal poem. I just wanted to scrap that, I wanted to stick to what was relevant at that time without the artificial effort to create something without the real urge to do it.”

And you end up with the strangest juxtapositions of fragments. What I also find fascinating in your poetry is that there is so much wordplay and punning. In English, this has a huge tradition, but it is often said that in Czech it doesn’t work so easily. You’re the proof that this is wrong. Your poetry is full of word games and puns. I love your poem A Basic Course in Japanese, a poem which just about makes sense…

“It makes very good sense actually. The sense is pretty clear, but ninety percent of the words are pronouns – and the word ‘eat’ in Czech.”

It just sounds wonderful. Let’s hear you read it…

Základní kurz japonštiny On jí ji
ona jeho jí
jí mu ho
on jí ji jí
ona jemu ho jí
on jí jí ji
jak ona jí
ho hojí
i on ji hojí
jak on ji jí

That, believe it or not, is Czech and it makes sense. Could you just translate a couple of lines for our listeners who don’t speak Czech?

“He eats her, she eats him, she eats it for him, he eats it for her…. I can’t translate it on the spot. It’s quite difficult to translate!”

But you have managed to translate some parts of this collection, together with the English writer, James Hopkin. We are going to hear part of one of these poems.

“This poem is called Be Well and it’s very long, unlike what we were talking about before. It somehow reflects my preoccupation with a strict diet I had to take two years ago, because of problems with my health. I studied all kinds of nutritional information and was actually practising lots of diets. And then, all of a sudden, the poem turned into a parody of all this, and I somehow based it on religious texts, something like the Book of Tao by Lao Tse or something like that, which gives instructions to people – what you should and shouldn’t do. And I introduced this character, which in English is called Our Lady, who is pleased by your following certain rules and doesn’t like you doing other things. So, it’s a text full of instructions and I would say false instructions. It’s a parody of those diets and religious texts, but at the base of it is a preoccupation with death, knowing that whatever you do, whatever diet you take – which is supposed to prolong your life – it’s basically all in vain.”

[…] Cry often
Over the funniness of rapidly decaying human beings
And lament the tragedy of their doggies
Cry over Finnegan the Impossible
His brother Ulysses the Incomprehensible
And, in the meantime, listen to Einstein on the Beach
Tears are healthy, see,
And what is healthy, eat!
It strengthens you
What strengthens you
Strengthens your parents and children
And your children's children and the entire human race Bees stung humankind's soles earlier than cattle
Honey probiotics will thus do you better than yoghurt How true is the saying:
"You're a wasp
You bring no honey
And in your abdomen
There's poison" Be fit and the green green grass of home – don't smoke that shit!
Where would Inter play with Juventus if such as you
smoked grass beneath their feet?
Scrapes sustained on cinders are often fatal!
But don't refuse seeds baked in wholewheat cakes sweetened by royal jelly
Miracles happen, you'll see
That rheumatism of yours, those varicose veins you suffer from,
those never-ending eczemas and athlete's foot, all that will disappear
As if licked off by the antibiotic tongue of some dog
As if exorcised by a single swipe of a stinging nettle
plucked in the first days of Spring
Remember to strengthen your memory by Ginkgo biloba!
So often people tend to forget to use it and oblivion then
spreads over your whole world
Over all your past you enjoy so much to rummage through
and to which you cling so hard
So do not ever forget to take Bilbo Giloga!

Photo: Novela Bohemica
The images in the poem make me think of someone who has been surfing the internet and then fallen asleep. This is what would come out in their dream – an extraordinary information overload, odd instructions taken out of context. Is that in a sense what is going on?

“Well, I had it in my head already. I didn’t have to Google while writing it. I had all the information from all kinds of sources in my head, mixed together in a very crazy way. So, all the summer of 2015 I was amusing myself by writing this thing. It took me two months to write it. I was just making fun of myself basically.”

After this huge excess of information, our ultimate mortality is almost reassuring, something to cling onto in this disturbingly post-modern world!

“Yes. That’s true.”

In the growing atmosphere of nationalism in today’s Europe, you have written a poem about your own nation, We Czechs, although I don’t think that most Czech nationalists would particularly welcome this poem…

“Yes. I think they wouldn’t, probably.”

And it is in a translation that is still work in progress. Who has translated it?

“Yes. This is the first draft of a translation by my friend Craig Cravens, who is a teacher of Czech in Indiana in the US.”

We Czechs Truth will prevail!
For we Czechs are ingenious
For we Czechs are poltroons
For we Czechs are heroes without fear or shame
For we Czechs are harried, harassed by fate
Surprised by nothing
We lop off our noses to spite our face
And laugh
We Czechs are afraid to resist all authority
We Czechs gave the world the robot and contact lenses,
Comenius and cucumbers from Znojmo
The Škoda and Kundera and dozens of other inventions without which the world would be flying unseen in invisible fighter jets blown up by our Semtex
We’re the nation of Masaryks
The nation of John Hus
We’re the nation whose refuge are beer cellars in Tabor and rosary-wrapped wrists.
We Czechs are not Gypsies, Poles or Jews
We Czechs are Czech speaking Austrians
On the streets of Prague abound Russian Matryoshkas
We have the most beauteous language in the world for no one but us can pronounce the infamous “ř”
We drink the most beer and with the help of our Allies — who betrayed us at Munich — banished the most Germans from the Sudetenland.
Many of whom we rightfully raped, gunned down or drowned in the river.
Deus Vult!
We’re a nation of Jan Palachs.
With the temperament of doves.
We’re proud of our burial mounds and the blood of the Celts that flows through our veins.

Your poetry is constantly undermining the cosiness of our clichés. Would you call yourself a political poet?

“With this poem probably a little bit, but it’s the only political one as far as I know.”

So, in your fifties, you’re turning into an angry young man…

“Well, who knows!?”

You’re also a performer and a musician. How important for you is the performance of your poetry?

“I like to read in public, I must say – things like Be Well, for example, or previously Journal of the Fast Man. I really enjoyed performing or reading it.”

Is it important for your work to be read out loud, or do you think you can get just as much from the poem by sitting, opening the book and reading it?

“Many people like me reading it more than reading it in the book, which I’m not happy about, because it somehow seems that the text itself isn’t enough without my voice and without the way I read it. But what can I do? If this is how people perceive it, I can’t do anything about it.”

The book Text Messages has just come out. What are you working on now?

“Originally, I wanted to put everything into this book, including short stories and such things, but my publisher discouraged me from doing that. So, I would now like to take all the prose that I wrote in the period of the last eight years and somehow make another book, which would be just short stories.”