Slovene Author in Focus 2023: Barbara Korun
Poet, writer, and essayist Barbara Korun was born on 23 May 1963 in Ljubljana. She graduated from the University of Ljubljana with a degree in Slovenian and Comparative Literature. For almost twenty years she worked as a teacher at Ljubljana high schools, then she worked in public relations at the Slovene national theatre Nova Gorica, for a few years she worked as a language editor and dramaturge at the Slovene national theatre Drama Ljubljana, and now she is self-employed in the realm of culture.
After the publication of her first book, for which she received the award for the best debut novel at the 15th Slovene Book Fair (together with Primož Čučnik), she began to perform as a poet and also as a moderator of literary readings and talks (together with Barbara Simoniti, she hosted the much-acclaimed series Besedovanja at the Cankar Centre in Ljubljana for several years). She became a member of the Slovene Writers’ Association in 2000 and of the Slovenian PEN Centre in 2001 (ten years later she resigned in protest because of the unfair treatment of women authors). She was active in the Writers’ Association (organising and moderating events) and worked for a few years as a secretary of the Slovenian PEN Centre. She was a member of the editorial board of the literary magazines Nova revija and Apokalipsa and co-organised the Women’s Stage at the City of Women festival several times. For the last ten years, she has been leading the Women poets for women poets project, a series of talks and genre-diverse writings on the poetry of women poets. In 2011, she co-founded the KONS International Literary Prize with poets Taja Kramberger and Tatjana Jamnik, which is awarded for writing socially transformative literature and advocating for social justice at the same time.
She has appeared at all major Slovenian literary festivals and many abroad, and her poems have appeared in more than sixty selections, collections, and anthologies in Slovenia and beyond, in twenty-four languages (most notably in the anthology New European Poetry, published by the American publisher Greywolf in 2008). She participated in the revision of Srečko Kosovel’s legacy for the book Ikar’s Dream (Ikarjev sen), directed a monodrama based on Cankar’s novella Mrs Judit (Gospa Judit) with Lenča Ferenčak in the title role (2003), and together with the percussionist Zlatko Kaučič recorded the CD Vibrato of Silence (Vibrato tišine, 2006) with poems by Srečko Kosovel. She has participated in several translation seminars (e.g. Zlati čoln, CSK Translation Workshop), and in recent years she has been working mainly as a proofreader, translator, editor and, above all, as a tutor of literary creative writing.
A book of selected poems translated by the poet Theo Dorgan, Songs of Earth and Light (2005), has received some highly praised reviews in America and Ireland, and a TV documentary in Irish was made about the author and the translation process (it premiered at the Cork Festival in February 2006). She has been invited twice as Slovenia’s poetry representative to the European Capital of Culture – to Cork (Ireland, 2005) and the Ruhr (Germany, 2010) – and has represented Slovenia in the five Central European capitals’ project Five Minutes for a Poem (2005) and the European cultural project Transpoesie in Brussels (2014), at the EUNIC festival in Rome (2019 and 2023), etc.
For the poems in her fourth book of poetry, I’ll Come Right Away (Pridem takoj, 2011), she received the Zlata ptica award for Literature and the Veronika Award, and was nominated for the Kritiško sito Award. Her sixth collection of poetry was nominated for the Veronika Award (2017) and her seventh for the Jenko Award (2021). In 2016 she received the biennial Regina Coppola International Literary Award for poetry and social engagement. In 2020, she received the Peace Prize, awarded by the Women’s Committee of the Slovenian PEN Centre, for her artistic work and for promoting the work of fellow poets. At the time, the jury stated: “For years, through her live performances and accompanying texts, she has been sensitising Slovenian readers to establish a gender-sensitive relationship to the present, while at the same time nurturing a rereading of the past and encouraging the construction of a genealogy of women’s poetry writing in Slovenia and around the world.”
She who sings sings as water springs from a rock – purely, clearly, forcefully
On the Poetry of Barbara Korun
Prepared by Vita Žerjal Pavlin, PhD
On entering the Slovene literary space on the threshold of the century, Barbara Korun’s début poetry collection The Edge of Grace (Ostrina miline, 1999) laid the foundations for the style, themes, and ideas of her poetics. The latter was fleshed out with the poetry books Notes from under the Table (Zapiski iz podmizja, 2003), Fissures (Razpoke, 2004), Back Soon (Pridem takoj, 2011), A Lass Besotted with Luv (Čečíca, motnjena od ljubezni, 2014), In Between (Vmes, 2016), and Idiorhythmia (Idioritmija, 2021). The Slovene Book Fair Award for Best Début immediately sparked a favourable interest in her poetry among readers, literary critics, and literary scholars both in Slovenia and abroad – an interest which deepened with each succeeding book. Thus Barbara Korun nowadays stands out as one of the most recognisable contemporary Slovene poets, as attested by important national and international prizes, by numerous translations of her work published in magazines and in book format, by her residences abroad, and by the inclusion of her poems in Slovene and international selections, as well as in the school curriculum.
The oxymoron ‘edge of grace’ in the title of the poet’s début poetry collection meaningfully highlights self-contradiction and – like the title of her third book, Fissures – dynamic tension as features of her poetics. This oxymoron defines in various ways all of her books and their web of existential, erotic, and poetological themes. It is through these themes that a discussion of contemporary society arises, at first at cultural and social levels, but ever since the Back Soon collection, more evidently on a broader critical scale.
In the untitled, well-nigh programmatic opening poem of Korun’s début collection, the title of the book assumes the dimension of a verbal action – to sharpen grace. In addition to conveying an existential message, this foreshadows the poet’s creative process as a ‘cogmotive’ action (to borrow the term employed in neuroscience to denote the interweaving of the sensual, emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual), as a feature of Barbara Korun’s poetics was defined by Alojzija Zupan Sosič. At all levels, from the composition of each book to the structure of individual poems in terms of motif, vocabulary, rhythm, and sound, her poetry is marked by an intellectually strong formative will and her reflection on the purpose and sense of the poetic act, while mirroring her uncommon sensitivity to sensual and emotional content, impulses, inner (even subconscious) and outer stimuli. On these she reflects in a poetic manner, or ‘documents’ or verbalises them when recording illogical dreams, a process manifested in fragments ever since her second book and in an integral section or cycle in her latest collection, Idiorhythmia. Thus she both sharpens and whets her utterance: otherwise the ‘grace’ might in fact turn into cosseting, which would drown the utterance and annihilate the tension between reader and poem, according to Samo Krušič. The tension thus achieved has enabled the poet ever since her first collection to keep expressing a strong sentiment (indeed, even to reintroduce such lexemes as ‘soul’ and ‘heart’ cleansed of their romantic and neoromantic ab-use) and pathos (with rhythmic parallelisms, gradations, exclamations) without yielding to mawkishness. The tension of ambivalence appears as a stylistic feature at the level of book structure as well. Exceptions are the more unified Edge of Grace and Fissures, which are largely written in a sombre modernist idiom and often bent on language reduction and fragmentation, on symbolic beautification and polysemy of short free verse lines, at times equipped with punctuation and capital initials and at times not. The rest of the collections, on the other hand, display in addition an avant-garde-based openness to various registers and the spoken language; experimentation with language and form; humour and irony; verse prosification; a documentary flair, narrativity, and inclusion of prose poems; dramatic monologues, and hybrid forms, which in their turn entail a variety of speakers.
Tension which stems from self-contradiction is an inherent feature in lyric poetry, not least because of its struggle to fix in time a tense emotional and sensual experience. This is highlighted by the opening two lines of the author’s début collection: ‘To bear longing – to capture it. / To halt passion in its utmost striving – shelve it.’ The direct address in the conclusion of the poem (‘to bewitch you, blind you, / to give you with my touch’) suggests two more characteristics of Barbara Korun’s poetry: sensuality often opens up themes of love and eroticism, which form part and parcel of the poet’s characteristic dialogical attitude to the world.
Indeed, it is precisely the dialogical quality arising from awareness of and consideration for the other, for something different, that is considered in the abovementioned study by Alojzija Zupan Sosič to be a crucial factor in her poetics. Manifesting itself in the poet’s sympathy with, and openness to, all creatures, it results in a particular sensitivity to nature. At first, this sensitivity is full of dramatic tension between night and day, silence and sounds, darkness and light: all of these remain the poet’s key existential symbols which mark the self-contradiction of life. Moods of elation, often motivated by love and eroticism, are accompanied by their opposites: pain, loneliness, homelessness, anxiety, uncertainty. The ambiguity of the first-person narrative, as in: ‘time and again am I – the light – / caught in translucent leaves / and stroke the seed / which bears within a sweet and heavy secret – / death’ (from the début collection poem beginning ‘how lovely to be born into a young spring day, right?’), draws man into the natural cycle of birth, life, and death. It is from her awareness of mortality that the speaker (in the same poem) forms her metaphysical notions: ‘and I ripen into a mellow nothing – / cradle of God.’ The motif of death recurs throughout Korun’s oeuvre. ‘I live with death,’ begins an untitled poem in Fissures. Her very first book perceives death as life’s mysterious starting-point, naming it ‘death my sister’ (in the poem ‘The Fifth’ – ‘Peta’) in the tradition of the Expressionist poet from the 1920s, Anton Vodnik. Above all, death appears in close connection with erotic desire or pain, often in a dramatic struggle between two opposites: the darkness of death and the light of life.
The phenomena of nature are a source of deep lyrical experiences (most notably in the collection A Lass Besotted with Luv or in the short ‘Foundlings’ – ‘Najdenke’ in Idiorhythmia), but they are also depicted as autonomous and mysterious: ‘a silent dense presence of something / that is not human’, according to an early poem in The Edge of Grace. This awareness, which acquires ethical dimensions as well, is underlined by the motto to the collection In Between, a quote from contemporary American poet Galway Kinnell: ‘The nonhuman is the “basic context” of human existence.’
In Barbara Korun’s poetry, an important part of her dialogical attitude to the world is love and eroticism. The reception of her first collection was particularly attentive to the poems in which the man in the erotic act symbolically transforms himself into animal images (the poems ‘Stag’ – ‘Jelen’ and ‘Wolf’ – ‘Volk’), unfolding the primevality which is restored to the human being in an erotic relationship as a primal unity (‘all is one: you, me, the sea. the sea’ in the poem ‘Mljet’). But this relationship may likewise be portrayed from the opposite perspective, as the subject’s feeling that her identity is multiplied, for example in the poem ‘Woman’ (‘Ženska’): ‘Now in this night / I am everything, everything – / all of this earth, all of her people, / day and night, / war and love / and what falls between, / children and women and the old, / artists and politicians, everything / I am everywhere I am / in each new leaf that grows, / in the newborn child and foetus, / infinite, unrepeatable, unique.’ A similar feeling is conveyed by the first erotic woman poet in Slovene, Lili Novy. Another link between the two poets is forged by their reflections on the erotic experience as self-contradictory: its temporal limitation exists side by side with a feeling of eternity, as expressed in Korun’s opposition between ‘in the everlasting instant / in the endurance of the moment’ in the poem ‘In the Heart of the Wildest Growth II’ (‘V srcu najbolj divje rasti II’, Fissures).
Subject to paradox is also the experience of the other in an erotic relationship: in addition to ‘softness’ or ‘gentleness’ it is marked by an ‘edge’, ‘brilliance’ (the untitled poem beginning ‘Do not damage me when you are entering me’, The Edge of Grace). And if the feeling of ‘woundedness’ is an essential sensual and emotional attribute of a close relationship (an erotic one in the poem mentioned above, but in Barbara Korun’s oeuvre it may also be any other ethic-based relationship), ‘damage’ is undesirable because it would mean the subject’s truncation, subjection, annihilation in the relationship. Endangered are both the woman and the man, for example in the poems ‘Woman’, ‘Dark and Shy’ (‘Temen in plašen’), ‘Mljet’, and therefore the relationship requires the particular ethical attention of both. Another essential factor in the poet’s oeuvre is a conscious ethical attitude: as the awareness of the necessary ethical responsibility of art increases, this attitude segues from the first collection with its assessment of erotic relationships to the subsequent books with their sharp perception and critique of the lack of ethics in contemporary societies.
In addition to the feminist emphasis on female erotic desire and initiative, as well as its difference from male desire, the first collection already displays a postfeminist perspective, that is, it introduces the theme of various sexual identities. This aim becomes even more obvious in the next book, Notes from under the Table. Heteroeroticism (including the motifs of a woman’s first sexual intercourse and voluntary prostitution), lesbian and transsexual motifs are expressed in the first person, but the speakers (of the prose texts) acquire the clear-cut traits of literary characters, who do not enter into dialogues with readers alone but also with other characters. Connected to eroticism, albeit uncommon at the time of the original publication, are the motifs of giving birth and of abortion. The subtle lyric treatment of the latter, conveyed in a woman’s solitary dialogue with the hospital ceiling, raises questions about this ‘technical’ intervention.
Eroticism, too, is closely bound up with the metaphysical: ‘In the delicate fire of touch, / light rippling / from spread wings of gold’ (from the poem ‘Kiss’ – ‘Poljub’ in an erotic section of Fissures with the characteristically self-contradictory title ‘Cold Fire’ – ‘Hladni ogenj’). The erotic act is marked by a human’s primary, anthropological nakedness ‘of the unnameable / physical / beyond birth’ (in the untitled poem beginning ‘there are two people undressing’ in the Back Soon collection). And finally, when eroticism is approached from an ironic perspective – another trait of Korun’s poetics – as in the poem containing a statement by Monica Lewinsky from the ‘Monologues’ section of Back Soon, it becomes an integral part of social criticism, which is often expressed by Barbara Korun satirically. Nevertheless, the poet can use irony as well to stab at one of her own existential messages.
Comprehensive is likewise her reflection on the poetic act, poem, and (poetic) language. The latter is often expressed through the metaphor of water (river) or even the ‘living water’ (‘To the Bard’ – ‘Pevcu’ in Fissures), for language keeps re-creating the world (‘Chippings IV’ – ‘Okruški IV’, Notes from under the Table). The experience of poetic language is a tactile one: ‘a big hand’ can penetrate ‘into the body of the soul’ (‘Language’, The Edge of Grace). The ‘body made up of words’ (‘The Fourth’ – ‘Četrta’, the same collection) is at the same time the poem itself; indeed, even its inception is not unrelated to the physical: ‘first you peel yourself / take up a paring knife / and scrape from yourself / all your skin’ (‘How to Write a Little Poem’ – ‘Kako napišeš pesmico’, Fissures). The physical experience leads to a mental and holistic experiential literary reading (‘I Do Not Read with My Thought’ – ‘Ne berem z mislijo’, Notes from under the Table).
At the same time, literary language is crucially marked by the author’s dialogical attitude to the world (‘all I feel for / the other is what you are / all the openness’) and by her feminist awareness of her cultural rootedness in the patriarchal symbolic order, which, however, she subverts: ‘[…] you grew in me / like son and lover / […] you scattered / into father and brother / […] in nonwords / you are changing for me / into a woman’ (‘Language’, Fissures). On the publication of her début work, The Edge of Grace, at the close of the century, when the presence of strong women’s voices in poetry was scarce in Slovenia, her feminist thought strongly resonated in public: ‘I still believe that / the space of poetry is / forbidden to women. / that I am wrongfully here. / there will be no punishment, but / the rule is broken.’ With her note in the section ‘Fathers’, dedicated to the Slovene poets by whom she was influenced (Dane Zajc, Tomaž Šalamun, Edvard Kocbek), she indirectly addresses the problem of poetic ‘mothers’, not accepted into the privileged cultural space and therefore unknown. It hardly comes as a surprise that Barbara Korun has devoted not only much of her creative energy but also of her social, public activity to improving the position of women poets. It has been twelve years since she started chairing monthly meetings ‘Women Poets about Women Poets’, at which women’s poetry is discussed. This is another of her ways of opposing the clan mentality and patronising attitude pervading literary circles, against which she took a stand as early as in the poem ‘Heartening’ (‘Osrčenje’, Fissures). Moreover, it helps her implement her thought: ‘writing is half, / half is action’ (from the untitled poem beginning ‘I’ve no more people left’ in Idiorhythmia). An in-depth link is forged between author and poem: ‘I even breathe / for you /poem’ (from the untitled poem beginning ‘I was confused’ in In Between).
The eponymous first text in Notes from under the Table formulates the author’s poetological starting-point: to stay ‘in the hidden, in the invisible, in the silent centre of all there is’. From there she could ‘discover and keep discovering the hidden bottom side of life’. It is already here that the poet dubs her cognitive and locutionary position as ‘in between’. Like the cognate lexeme ‘fissures’, this phrase will eventually head a poetry collection. By pinpointing the inception of the poems through marking the place and sometimes time, the collection In Between links the outer and inner poetic situation, as well as the poet’s reflection upon them, more closely to a geographical and social space (which is not just Slovene). Within this space, however, she continues to spell out (also in the name of the underprivileged and voiceless) its concealed, invisible, or suppressed truth about the individual’s social bringing-into-line, as she calls it in the untitled poem beginning ‘well might I be happy’ in the In Between collection. In fact, it is just the language of poetry that she perceives as a privileged opportunity to do so. This process was already established in the bilingual Slovene-Italian collection A Lass Besotted with Luv, the result of the poet’s experience of the (ethnic) margin in the Venetian Slovene village Topolovo in Italy. Eager to utter the personal and socially critical truth, which remains subjectively incomplete despite the equation of life with writing poetry (‘how to utter the truth / without veiling anything / or forgetting anyone // but if you live as you write / if you write as you live / is that enough?’ in the untitled poem beginning ‘holes which shall never’), she writes out this truth through a speaker who deliberately opts for the position said to be ‘as wrong, false, marginal as can be’ (in the untitled poem beginning ‘I am just listening, not having found my bearings (yet)’). Given the realisation that ‘some worlds remain apart’ (in a poetic monologue assigned to a local, Serafino Loszach, a guest worker and self-taught painter), it is the task of art, intended by the poet for all, to bring about a confrontation of diverse worlds to help them draw closer. And even though the next collection, In Between, expresses doubt that poetry might bear witness, it is again justified by the awareness of its ethical role: it ‘can make evil visible’, for it is only poetic truth that ‘gives form to things, / meaning to actions’ (‘Hannah Arendt Reports on the Eichmann Trial’ – ‘Hannah Arendt poroča o sojenju Eichmannu’). The poet’s latest work, Idiorhythmia, similarly concludes with the openness of her incompleted poetic task: ‘I vanish / into the potential of countless voices / and nonvoices / into a world / that is holy.’
Translated by Nada Grošelj
 From the poem ‘Chippings VIII’ (‘Okruški VIII’) in the collection Notes from under the Table.
 The author is presented in the latest and expanded 3rd edition of the high school reader Branja 4 (DZS, Ljubljana 2020), with didactic materials provided by Irena Novak Popov.
 Alojzija Zupan Sosič, ‘Spol in literarna interpretacija poezije žensk. Pesmi Barbare Korun in Kaje Teržan.’ Jezik in slovstvo. Ljubljana, 2021.
 In the afterword ‘Monologi Barbare Korun (lirika iz suspenza)’ to the collection Back Soon.
 Translated by Theo Dorgan with the assistance of Ana Jelnikar.
 In the sonnet diptych ‘Love’s Scent’ (‘Ljubezni vonj’) from the collection The Dark Gate (Temna vrata, 1941).
 Translated by Theo Dorgan with the assistance of Ana Jelnikar.