Charles Simic was born Duan Simi in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938, and emigrated to the United States in 1954. “My travel agents were [Adolf] Hitler and [Joseph] Stalin,” he has said. When Simic was three years old, a house across the street from his family’s home was destroyed by a bomb. For young Simic and his friends, the war (so serious and terrible for adults) was often a source of fun. There were guns and air-raid sirens to imitate—and, toward the end, a thriving salvage business in gunpowder. The chaos and menace of that time survive in Simic’s poems, along with its variety, wonder, comedy, and sadness. For Simic, the city survives as well. “My mother is calling my name out of a tenement window,” he has said. “She keeps calling and calling. My entire psychic life is there.”
Simic settled in Chicago, where he attended Oak Park High School and the University of Chicago. After finishing a stint in the U.S. Army, he lived in New York, working at a variety of jobs (shirt salesman, house painter, payroll clerk) and attending New York University, where he earned his B.A. Another part of his education took place in the New York Library, where he read all the folklore and anthropology he could find, as a way of introducing mythic consciousness into his poetry. He ended up making his own myths of things common and close to home: brooms, ballroom dances, and the fingers of a hand. Simic published his first two books, What the Grass Says and Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes, with Kayak Press; Dismantling the Silence (containing some poems from the first two books, plus new ones) was issued by the publisher George Braziller in 1971.
To his surprise, Simic’s increasing reputation brought invitations to teach. He has taught at the California State University at Hayward. In 1973, he began his long tenure teaching English at the University of New Hampshire. He retired in 2006 but has continued to teach at the university. He served as guest editor of The Best American Poetry, 1992 and as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2002. In 2007, he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets and was named the fifteenth U.S. poet laureate, an appointment made by the Library of Congress.