Slovene Author in Focus 2019: Esad Babačić
Prepared by Kristina Sluga, the editor of Vilenica Almanac
Esad Babačić was born in 1965 in Ljubljana, where he grew up in a working-class migrant family in the apartment blocks of the Moste and Vodmat housing estates. He found employment as a manual laborer in the Žito bakery when he was still underage. At that time, he met some boys who had a band, but no singer. Esad stepped in front of the microphone and also became the main writer of the lyrics – so in 1983, Via Ofenziva, one of the most important punk new wave bands, came to life. The band soon gained not only the attraction of young music fans, but also of the regime. Because of the socially critical lyrics (for example, “The Prole,” a song with a cult status today), the boys were often interrogated by the police. Military service put an end to the youthful fooling around. Babačić served his military time in Titograd (Podgorica).
After returning to Ljubljana, Babačić started studying Slovene language and literature, as well as Southern Slavic languages at the Faculty of Arts. Besides poems, he also began writing literary criticism, translated from Serbian and Bosnian, published columns in several newspapers (Razgledi, Dnevnik), was a journalist for the Slovene national television, and for a while even worked as a writer for a marketing agency.
In his work, Babačić keeps traversing different areas of art. He has published twelve poetry collections so far, a bilingual children’s book Kiti plavajo počasi/Whales swim slowly (2014), the biography Tough Fighter (Trdobojec, 2010) about the boxer Dejan Zavec, as well as a literary non-fiction tale about Slovene hockey under the title Banda (2013). He has acted in several feature films, taking secondary roles in Outsider (1996) and Headnoise (Zvenenje v glavi, 2002), as well as in the lead role in the documentary Every Child Is Beautiful When Born (Vsak otrok je lep, ko se rodi: Esad Babačić – Car, 1983) by the director Slavko Hren. He also shot a short film Kozara – Lj. – Kozara(1998), the hockey film Jesenice: Detroit (2008) with co-scriptwriter and director Damjan Kozole, and the two documentaries Dragotin Gustinčič (2015) and For Happier Days: Kajuh (Za srečnejše dni: Kajuh, 2015) with co-scriptwriter and director Slobodan Maksimović.
Besides his work in art, Babačić is also the initiator of the project “Believe in Your Basket” that strives to renovate basketball courts, while in 2018 he took part in the project “We Include and Activate!” Aimed at the social activation of vulnerable groups, this project is being carried out by the Slovene Book Agency. He stepped into literature from the margin. He wrote about what he saw and lived; his “street” poetry never looked back towards literary history and it never cared much for the literary present either, which is also why it couldn’t be comfortably placed it into any of the literary movements of the time. His poetry is unique because it is uncompromising, it is full-blooded, it hits you directly in your mug – it is just like the seventeen-year-old was when he wrote it; as he roared against the social order of the time and resisted the “lethargy of unfreedom.” After his poetry was published in several magazines, he published his first poetry collection Kavala in 1986 and another one, under the title Freedom just walking (Svoboda pa kar hodi), in the same year. Other collections followed: To the Little Boxer (Malemu boksarju, 1988), The Angel with Shredded Wings (Angel s scufanimi krili, 1989), Black Jack (1994) and The Wind in Veins (Veter v žilah, 1994). After a short poetry silence, when he had to re-evaluate his attitude towards poetry, he published Whales Do Not Showboat (Kiti se ne napihujejo, 2000), The Divan (Divan, 2006), Biospektiva (2010; co-authored by Roman Uranjek), Every Child Is Beautiful When Born (Vsak otrok je lep, ko se rodi, selected poems, 2011), Elephants Have a Fair Cry (Sloni jočejo pošteno, 2011), Arrivals, Departures (Prihodi, odhodi, 2013), Kitula (2015), Fifty Selected Poems (Petdeset izbranih pesmi, 2015), and Cut Off the Sky (Odrezani od neba, 2018). Esad Babačić’s poetry has been translated into many languages and has received several awards. Among others, he received the Velenjica-čaša nesmrtnosti (Velenjica-Cup of Immortality) award for 10 years of outstanding poetic work in the 21st Century.
Babačić’s impulsiveness from his youth has sharpened with years, his poetry has turned to intimacy, his poetic language has become purer, but the poet’s sharp, unyielding critique of the post-transition everyday has stayed. Nevertheless, between a lyric flicker of thought and a long narrative poem, here and there, a perfect joke finds its place: “The Russians never / run away. / It is too far.”
Translated by Petra Meterc
The Best Score for All
Prepared by Igor Divjak PhD
The poetry of Esad Babačić (1965) has always been on the verge of social acceptability. Never a model student but criticized by his class mistress for his lack of participation and concentration, he was later invited to his former elementary school as a successful poet and journalist. However, when he introduced himself to the students and read some of his poems, a teacher remarked that she found them too negative. We might say that he had been found wanting once more as an unfocused student, one who had not mastered the visionary lesson taught by the greatest poets in Slovene literary history.
This may be because his poetry is rooted in the nonconformist experience of punk. During socialism and the dictatorship of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia, youngsters rebelled against the so-called “red bourgeoisie,” the ruling set which was formally on a par with the rest but in fact enjoyed all the privileges of the former bourgeois set. Plečnik Square in Ljubljana, named for the great Slovene architect Jože Plečnik, was dubbed by the dissatisfied kids “Johnny Rotten Square,” after the singer of the Sex Pistols punk rock band. In the graffiti “We are Tito’s!” someone crossed out the name of the Yugoslav president Tito and scrawled “Sid’s!”—an expression of loyalty to Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols bassist. The punk of former Yugoslavia actually began in Slovenia. In the early eighties, when the popular music scene was still dominated by dance music and by belated hippies who did not oppose the régime, punk formed a counterculture which voiced provocative standpoints and pushed the boundaries of official public morality. The legendary Slovene band Pankrti had audiences in the other Yugoslav republics as well, and there were a number of other important bands: Lublanski Psi, Kuzle, Otroci Socializma, and Via Ofenziva, with Esad Babačić as frontman.
Babačić’s poetry was born in the early eighties, when he worked nights at a bakery in intolerable heat. In the breaks he would lie down on a piece of cardboard and despairingly sing revolutionary songs of sorts. It was this period that produced “The Prole” (Proleter), the best-known song of Babačić’s punk rock band, with its stirring lines: “Where are you now, prole, where’s your gun now, where are your hands now, prole? We’re raising flags in honor of your struggle. Lead on now, prole.” But even then he was already writing poems which were not meant for the band’s performance, and there the punk aesthetics of screaming slogans merged with a lyric voice. One of such early poems, “Dates” from the collection To the Little Boxer (Malemu boksarju, 1988), runs: “And I know / you’re happy / about failing / to remember the date / you committed hara-kiri.” Babačić introduced the punk protest into the language of poetry, showing that even stirring slogans could have a poetic effect. Another poem, “The Wind” from the collection The Angel with Shredded Wings (Angel s scufanimi krili, 1989), employs an expressive image, disturbing but fresh: “The head always needs to be open on one side. / For birds to fly.”
The poems from Babačić’s early collections reveal his intractable nature and dissatisfaction with the existing state of society, calling in their nonconformist, expressive idiom for greater individual freedom. Traces of rock and roll aesthetics show even in his later poems, sometimes blending with memories of youthful rebelliousness. In the poem “JLA” (an acronym for Yugoslav People’s Army) from the book Cut Off the Sky (Odrezani od neba, 2018), he recalls his military service: with the ideology of defense against an external enemy of socialism already exhausted, all that gave meaning to the empty days was the music of the American rock icon Jim Morrison: “The Titograd heat, / the last three hundred / meters of peace, / and Morrison; / seven miles / ride the snake.”
A schoolteacher may find Babačić’s poems still more difficult to accept because of their simple, direct syntax rooted in colloquial language. Moreover, the undertone of his poetic idiom sometimes recalls his mother tongue and the culture of other Yugoslav republics. Babačić’s mother, a Herzegovinian Croat, and his father, a Bosniak who had come to work in Ljubljana, had moved to Slovenia from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a different language was spoken. The words employed by the poet are Slovene, but his attitude to the world is suffused with the irony and fatalism pervading the former Yugoslav South. Another important source of inspiration for Babačić was the New Wave music, not only from Slovenia but also from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. As the poet himself describes his poetic idiom in an interview for the Literatura magazine: “Today I could say that I write in the Ljubljana dialect, with a whiff of the south now and then… It’s fascinating how strongly some poems bring back the scent of the mother tongue. Reading them I feel like I’m hearing an inner voice, not Slovene, but definitely Slavic.”
Biased schoolteachers tend to overlook that each of Babačić’s poetic brushstrokes is carefully considered and that his theme is often the classic bipartite attitude—which, however, is approached with an ironic distance that refuses to kowtow to empty conventions. If a poem is to be alive and trenchant, it must be succinct. Babačić’s addressee may be a woman or a man; even his speaker is sometimes a woman addressing the author (the gender is conveyed in Slovene through morphology). “I’ll forget you tomorrow. / Not today.” —so runs a poem from the collection The Divan (Divan, 2006). Elsewhere the poet talks to his friend Ahmed Burić (1967), a poet from Bosnia, the country of his origins. When the war in former Yugoslavia was over (in Bosnia it lasted from the disintegration of the federal state in 1991 to 1995), people in Sarajevo resumed their everyday lives and tried not to think of the recent years when the city had been under fire from the surrounding hills: one of these hills, Điđikovac, lent its name to a poem in Whales Do Not Showboat (Kiti se ne napihujejo, 2000): “Refilling coffee cups is a prolongation of moments / that aren’t talked about. / The tapping of the filđan / remains the first and the final prayer / of the Sarajevo elevations / you’re no longer supposed to dream about.” The Bosnian word filđan, a set for drinking coffee, soothes the Slovene ear as well, for the daily drinking of strong Turkish coffee has survived as an essential ritual from the former federal state.
Over the years Babačić’s images have toned down, his expression has been distilled and almost reduced to a minimum. These poems often blend attributeless nominal phrases and objectless verbs with the second person, which does not dissolve into an archetypal otherness but retains a colloquial, recognizably individual tone. The words in this practically metaphorless poetry, surrounded by nothing but blanks, begin to assume a metaphoric potential themselves. When a more striking metaphor or symbol does appear after all, such as the mountain as a figure for the course of life in “Ararat,” it seems an entry into myth. “At about thirty, you still feel you’re climbing up, and then, / on suddenly reaching the peak, you look down, appalled, / wipe off your forehead and start descending. I’m descending.” Here and elsewhere in one of his best collections, Whales Do Not Showboat (2000), Babačić discovers the minimal poetic structure still capable of suggesting a story. This poetry, without trimmings, without makeup, blends the author’s concrete experience with archetypal themes recognizable to Everyman. The destiny of the rebel poet no longer stands in stark contrast to his father’s: even though his father never understood his love of poetry, the poem “Brdo” (named after one of Ljubljana’s districts) realizes that the poet rides along the same everyday—perhaps mythological—roads taken by his father before. “A Sunday afternoon. / A moron on a motorcycle / never fast enough for him / is racing toward the end / of the street / his father thoroughly / despises.”
The rebel has fused with the Sufi, his poetic slogans have come to resemble wisdom sayings. “I could die, / I could get up. / To know all this / and stay modest.” So says the poem “The Divan” from the eponymous collection published in 2006. Aphorism remains even at the core of Babačić’s occasional longer poems. The poem “B. B.” (Kitula, 2015), dedicated to Brane Bitenc, Babačić’s punk rock colleague and singer of the Otroci Socializma band, states: “Every revolution ends up in a museum, sooner or later. / And I like it, you know, that Coca-Cola is here too, / that it got locked up too, as an exhibit / of human folly and progress.” The bitter awareness that punk rebellion petered out long ago blends with the recognition that consumer culture, commercialization and increasing Americanization have brought no liberation and that the advent of capitalism has wrecked the compass of Slovene society.
In a world flooded with short e-messages, short epiphanies which evolved from former rousing slogans remain the trademark of Babačić’s poetry. While no longer directly rebellious, they remain critical of society, articulating what is displaced and suppressed in our age of marketing correctness. “The human, / your cruelty / is a bloody river / flowing to the sky,” warns the collection Cut Off the Sky. The earlier Divan collection already frames human vulnerability and mortality in the changes introduced into human relationships by the 21st century communication technology: “Who forgets / to recharge the battery / of their cellphone, / can die / instantly, / and rest in peace.” (“Peace”).
Although such words might be considered too hopeless, irony is a classic poetic procedure liberating humans from the usual experience of reality, enabling them to draw breath at last. Literary theory and criticism, which had been at a loss to identify Babačić’s creativity with any established school of poetry (although his later “urban poetry” is presaged even in his early collections), gradually came to recognize an artistic value in his poems. He has gained international recognition as well. At the Berlin festival Sommernacht der Lyrik in 1998, for example, he read alongside John Ashbery. His poem “The Danube” received the international Hörbiger prize in Vienna (2003), and the year 2010 saw the publication of his art book Biospektiva, produced in collaboration with the world-famous Slovene art group Neue Slowenische Kunst. His poetry has been translated into a number of European languages and published in prestigious literary magazines (Bateria, Edinburgh Review, Literaturundkritik). In addition to giving readings all over Europe and taking part in literary festivals, he has been hosted by eminent artists’ residencies.
The boundary between poetry, fiction and everyday anecdotes is sometimes blurred, which lends Babačić’s poems an extra charm. Beside the figures of irony, they display reduction, oxymoron and paradox, as well as surrealist elements. A case in point is his animal poems, which introduce into Slovene poetry a light-hearted bizarreness intertwined with psychological insights and flashes. Such is the one-liner “Whales do not showboat,” or its cognate, “Elephants have a fair cry,” from Elephants Have a Fair Cry (Sloni jočejo pošteno, 2011). Sometimes animals appear in gentle, lyrical images: “I’m pierced through. / With the last year’s swallows / still flying through me.” (Cut Off the Sky, 2018). Elsewhere they may indirectly hint at human foibles: “Your forest paws travel carefully. / Crossing the sky of the human, stopping / above the abyss of excessive caution.” (“The Wolf,” Kitula, 2015). Not limited to their surrealist function, the animal portraits in Babačić’s poems often caricature humans: they criticize the perverted human relationships of subjection and a society increasingly characterized by the “dog eat dog” principle.
Babačić has never renounced the punker’s ideal of a community which would extend freedom to each individual. This Utopia may have seemed possible with the fall of the socialist régime and the change of the system, but the population of independent democratic Slovenia soon began to stratify. Less than a year after Slovenia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, there followed the “erasure” of citizens of other former Yugoslav republics who had not applied for Slovene citizenship, and the market system began to deepen the rift between the haves and have-nots. This became most evident during the global economic crisis, when even the mass uprisings of 2012 and 2013 were powerless to stop the private debts of wealthy bankers being paid with public money. The austerity measures were a hard blow for many, and especially so for culture.
The spirit of the age—an age when a brief flicker of belief in rebel slogans and democratic protest was soon dampened by disillusionment—is captured in the self-published collection Arrivals, Departures (Prihodi, odhodi, 2013). It was nominated for the Jenko Award, which is awarded for the best poetry collection in Slovene published in the previous two years. Its voice belongs to someone who simply wants to survive, perhaps a guest worker from a former Yugoslav republic: “You build skyscrapers / you’ll never live in, / stadiums where / you won’t cheer for anybody, / hotels to be slept in by / those who snub you.”
Babačić’s poems from this period increasingly use dead metaphors, images unmasking the specious facets of reality and an empty ideality. These poems not only voice personal pain but also counterbalance a reality ever more glamorous and gentrified on the surface but false and hollow at the core. The collection Kitula (2015) pronounces that “the bad guys / had won” because you have been “properly naïve too / in feeding them with your / properness / because you didn’t know / properness / had always been / the greatest / asset held / by the most / improper / people.” Yet even here the classic bipartite structure does not fade out. For all his irony, the author still addresses an Other as if this communication were the only true possibility of Utopia: “As long as it’s like this, / I remain your slave, / a melancholic brother, / the prisoner of a golden boat / pushing its way into the muddy eternity.”
Another of Babačić’s distinctive features are his sports poems, which draw on immediate experience. A keen basketball player and promoter as well as a veteran sports journalist, Babačić has written a book on the Slovene boxing champion Dejan Zavec aka Jan Zaveck, who held the IBF welterweight title from 2009 to 2011. Another of his books surveys the achievements of Slovene ice hockey players: the Slovene club’s history up to its participation in the Winter Olympics at the 2014 Sochi Games, Russia. Moreover, Babačić has co-authored the documentary Jesenice–Detroit (2008), exploring the hockey mania rampant in both heavy industry towns. But even the experience of contemporary sports is increasingly tinged with disillusionment, for the superstars’ worldwide fame is yet another symptom of the divide between the haves and have-nots: “When Messi takes a shot, / you remember / the only thing left / for you to have is a burek, / and it’s best / to cheer for one club only, / even if from the second division” (Kitula, 2015). Through sports, the poet metaphorically alludes to the circumstances of those who barely eke out a living, those whose dreams of success have withered. Such is the poem “The Retreat” (Umik), an outstanding sample from his latest collection Cut Off the Sky (2018), which was shortlisted for two major poetry awards in Slovenia: the Veronika Award, bestowed for the best Slovene poetry collection of the year, and the Jenko Award. The poet’s voice gives a resigned description of an empty football pitch: “One of those days / with nobody taking defense / because nobody’s making an attack. / With the stadiums empty / and a draw, / the best score for all.” This apathy perceived by the poet, this acquiescence in a draw, carries the danger of defeat. And although less explicit than the punk songs of Babačić’s youth, the lines still exude a critique of the conformism and resignation which mask hopelessness.
Another poem that might not strike an elementary school teacher as poetic enough to carry a deeper message is “Where have all the happy people gone? / To buy happiness” (Kitula, 2015), even if he or she had queued in front of the very same cashier’s desk at the same supermarket as the poet. Rather than mirror their own selves, loaded with shopping baskets and cares, they might expect poetry to talk about a finer, better world, to enchant and perhaps even amuse them. They might have forgotten that we used to see the best score for all in socialism. And they might have overlooked the reason why the poet pits one empty ideality against another: because he does care about the score, because he knows that a system in which people stop thinking and fall into apathy acquiesces in defeat.
Even if socialism failed to bring freedom and market capitalism brought stratification and poverty to many people, this does not mean that Utopia should be renounced. Babačić’s poems do not struggle for likeability. What they want is to shake the reader awake, even through irony. Deep down they remain as nonconformist and Utopian as his early punk texts on “proles.” On the surface they may diverge from the official tradition of Slovenian literary history, partly because the author refuses to have this tradition marketed to him like cheap wares in ad jingles. In that case the tradition would mainly serve to line some persons’ pockets at the expense of others. And this has never been the true aim of poetry.
Translated by Nada Grošelj, PhD
 Behind the Iron Curtain, Babačić and his band Via Ofenziva were the first to venture a public performance of Lilli Marleen, which was strictly banned in the former Yugoslavia as a “Nazi” song.