Q. After emigrating from Belgrade in the 1950s, you lived in Oak Park and Chicago. What is your strongest memory from that time?
A. The great contrast between the lakefront-Michigan Avenue lined with beautiful hotels and stores-and, a few blocks away, Clark Street lined up with honky-tonks. On the one hand, [it was] like you’re in Rio or something. And then, my God, the rest of it. There was great poverty, immense poverty.
Q. When did you start thinking of poetry as your vocation?
A: Maybe I realized I was a poet when I was in my 30s. I’d written poetry since my last year in high school, but I was also going to be a painter; I wanted to be a journalist; I wanted to be a lot of things. Poetry was just something I did.
Q. Is it difficult to shift between the roles of poet and poet laureate?
A. The poet is a very private role. It’s the sort of thing I love to do when I’m feeling bad. But as poet laureate, I have to make public appearances, talk about poetry. Yes, there is a conflict. I don’t think I could live like this for very long. (Laughs) It will be over in a while.
Simic talks Apr 26 at noon. Free. Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S State. 312-787-7070.