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The City and the Writer: In Ohrid with Nikola Madzirov

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Nikola Madzirov. Courtesy of the author.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Ohrid as you feel/see it?

The cities of our births do not remain the same regardless of the unchangeable data in our passports, regardless of our archetypal belief that only the cities of our loves and separations change. The intensity of expectations and fears in the cities of our births is greater with each new return to them, although we expect to meet the same stray dogs or the same cracks on the walls. I know that the administration will erase me from being a citizen of the city of my birth when I die, and not when I decide never to return to it. I was born in the city of Strumica, but Ohrid is a mirror of my silent maturing in the other cities and temporary homes. In the old part of this ancient city, along the uneven streets at night, cautious high heels can be heard; half known refrains brought by the wind; the clicking of keys and cigarette lighters; the clinking of glass bottles in the bins where night sleeps; the dim sound of cell phones, missed calls or loves. By day, people watch the jewelry that in the mornings returns to the shop windows like the personal belongings of a prisoner who finished his imprisonment. They are looking at the menus of restaurants but thinking of all the waiting in their lives.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In Ohrid, tourists leaving their tired voices on the surface of the lake and the monuments.

I wrote the poem “Separated,” that was later published in Remnants of Another Age (BOA Editions, 2011):

I separated myself from each truth about the beginnings
of rivers, trees, and cities.
I have a name that will be a street of good-byes
and a heart that appears on X-ray films.
I separated myself even from you, mother of all skies
and carefree houses.
Now my blood is a refugee that belongs
to several souls and open wounds.
My god lives in the phosphorous of a match,
in the ashes holding the shape of the firewood.
I don’t need a map of the world when I fall asleep.
Now the shadow of a stalk of wheat covers my hope,
and my word is as valuable
as an old family watch that doesn’t keep time.
I separated from myself, to arrive at your skin
smelling of honey and wind, at your name
signifying restlessness that calms me down,
opening the doors to the cities in which I sleep,
but don’t live.
I separated myself from the air, the water, the fire.
The earth I was made from
is built into my home.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The most unnoticeable part of the city is the sky. The mayor is not responsible for that segment of the city. He speaks of the skyscrapers only.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

In this city, 186 years ago, Grigor Prlicev was born. He was the author who succeeded in turning long oral literature tradition into a poetic masterpiece: “The Sirdar.” I often visit his empty museum house, which smells of freshly varnished walls more than of the antique pages of his books.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Home is not the place where we live, but the place where we return. I sometimes leave only for the sake of returning, I lose things just to be surprised by their rediscovery, like a wedding photograph forgotten in the pocket of a winter coat. The cyclic recurrence of the presence allows countless painless returns. I often go to the hill of Plaoshnik, where more than a thousand years ago the first books and the Bible were being translated into Old Slavonic, which was the main source of the language that today I use to write and to forget. Mandelstam says that excommunication from language is for us equivalent to excommunication from history. That is why I very often return to the open roof of my childhood—when I was not able to use my language—even if now I can express this silence of innocence through words.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In Ohrid, the literary places are hidden like mosaics covered by the sand in order to be protected from the humidity of the snow and the sharp glances of time. Such literary places do not exist in reality, nor do they exist in the historical archives, but only in the local stories that expand faster than a global plague. Thus, many of those places have themselves become part of literature. They turned into icons to kiss when no one is watching.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The womb of the city can be reached only through memories or through following the empty streets. Walter Benjamin says that in order to roam through a city, in the same manner as one roams through a wood, readiness and courage are needed, because the names of the streets are supposed to talk to the one roaming through them in the same way as the cracking of the broken boughs in a wood. Several times, when I went to Ohrid as a child, I lost myself in the city, in the darkness among the woods of lit windows, on the empty crossroads where only the yellow traffic light was functioning. Each unknown street has been for me a new city, even before I notice that the streets are often named after names of cities.

Where does passion live here?

Passion lives where inherited pain exists: in the abandoned houses where secret lovers make love in search of the deepest darkness; in the lake where several of my friends disappeared and now where children swim and float noisily as the water floats silently into their bodies; in the parks where elderly pensioners speak about women they never possessed and the times of communism, thinking that it was the geopolitical changes that brought their diagnoses, not their old age.

What is the title of one of your poems about Ohrid and what inspired it exactly?

“Towns that Don’t Belong to Us”

In strange towns
our thoughts wander calmly
like graves of forgotten circus artists,
dogs bark at dustbins and snowflakes
falling in them.

In strange towns we are unnoticed
like a crystal angel locked in an airless glass case,
like a second earthquake that merely
rearranges what is already ruined.

(From Remnants of Another Age, BOA Editions, 2011)

I write about the dynamics of the cities, about their relocations both in the atlases and the history books, since I have inherited from my war-refugees ancestors the dynamics of the homes. Cities change without even being rebuilt or destroyed, in the same way our faces change while we are dreaming intensely.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Ohrid does an outside exist?”

Inside these cities other cities exist, built on the foundation of someone else’s memories and bones. Where buildings are, there are also benches and graves. Where windows are, there are walls as well. Where there is outside, there is also someone faced toward the inside, toward the childhood that doesn’t belong to the photo albums and history books.


Nikola Madzirov is one of the most powerful voices of new European poetry. He was born to a family of Balkan War refugees in 1973 in Strumica, Macedonia. His award-winning poetry has been translated into forty languages and published in collections and anthologies in the US, Europe, and Asia. In 2011, BOA Editions published a selection of his poetry in the US entitled Remnants of Another Age. For his poetry collection Relocated Stone (2007), he received the Hubert Burda European Poetry Award for authors born in East Europe, and the prestigious Macedonian poetry prize Miladinov Brothers at Struga Poetry Evenings. For the book Locked in the City (1999) he was given the Studentski Zbor Award for best debut, while his collection Somewhere Nowhere (1999) was awarded the Aco Karamanov prize. Two short films based on his poetry were shot in Bulgaria and Croatia. The contemporary jazz composer and collaborator of Bjork and Lou Reed, Oliver Lake, has composed music based on Madzirov’s poems, which was performed at the Jazz-Poetry Concert in Pittsburgh in 2008. Madzirov has read at many international literary festivals and events in the US, Latin America, Asia, and Europe, and has received several international awards and fellowships such as International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa; DAAD in Berlin; and Marguerite Yourcenar and Récollets in France. He is one of the coordinators of the world poetry network Lyrikline.

Published Oct 3, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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