March 14, 2013

Azem Shkreli

Azem Shkreli [Yugoslavia / Kosova]

Azem Khkreli was born on February 10, 1938, in the village of Shkreli in the Rugova highlands near Peja in western Kosova. He lost his mother when he was only two years old, and was brought up by his grandmother, who also died when he was still a young boy. Nevertheless, he had a secure and stable childhood. After his elementary education in the village of Nakëll, he attended secondary school in Prishtina, from which he graduated in 1961. He then went on to study at the university in Prishtina and graduated in 1965 with a diploma in Albanian language and literature.

     As a student, Shkreli had begun writing for the daily newspaper Rilindja and served as secretary for the Kosova Writers Union. From 1960 to 1975 he worked as director of the People’s Provincial Theatre (Teatri Popullor Krahinor) in Prishtina. For a time, he was also a member of the executive board of the Writers Union of Yugoslavia. In 1975 Shkreli became director of the Kosova Film Studios (Kosovafilm)—a post he held until he was expelled by the new Serb administration in 1991.

     The poet was intensely preoccupied with the well-being of Kosova. His primary desire was to devote himself to the cause of his people’s human rights and liberation. He spent some time in Germany in the 1990s, as his wife was ill and needed medical treatment there which she could not receive in Kosova. He chose, nonetheless, not to stay abroad with his family, but to return to Prishtina, where he lived alone. This was a difficult decision for him to make, but he knew that he had no other choice but to honor it. When invited for a three-month visit to Willa Waldberta in Bavaria in 1993, he grew restless and permitted himself to stay barely six weeks.

     Shkreli toiled tirelessly, and never lost sight of the goal of freedom and independence for his fellow Kosovar Albanians. Tragically, he did not live to see his dream come to fruition. On May 25, 1997, he passed away at Pristhtina airport just after setting foot on his homeland soil at the conclusion of a visit to Germany.

     Shkreli began publishing in the early 1960s. His first two volumes of verse, Bulzat (The Buds) of 1960 and Engjujt e rrugëve (The Street Angels) of 1963, deal in good part with memories of his youth, but do not go far beyond this as a source of inspiration. Shkreli personally regarded these books as somewhat pre-mature and simply exercises in writing.

      They were soon followed by the novel Karvani I bardhë (The White Caravan) published in 1961, which was published in Belgrade, in Serbian translation, two years later.

      The volume E di një fjalë prej guri (I Know a Word of Stone), published in 1969, was the first collection to convey the true poetic vocation which the poet was to assume. It was, however, in Nga bible e heshtjes (From the Bible of Silence) of 1997, which actually launched Shkreli as an important, perhaps the major contributor to contemporary Albanian poetry, in particular to modern verse from Kosova, and as onne of the most original voices. Subsequent volumes are simply a consolidation of the foundations he laid out in the 1969 publication.

     The poet also wrote other novels, short stories, drama, theatrical pieces, movie screenplays, essays, and collections of letters, in particular Zoti nuk është shqiptar (God Is Not Albanian) of 1996. He was the editor, text author, and co-author of the documents and missives contained in Knocking on Europe’s Conscience of 1992, a publication printed by the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms in Prishtina.

-Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck
Bulzat: Vjersha (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1960); Engjujt e rrugëve (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1963); E di një fjalë prej guri (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1969); Nga bible e hestjies (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1975); Vjersha (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1977); Pagëzimi I fjalës (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1981); Varrii qyqes (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1983); Poezi (Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1984); Kënga e hutinit (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1986); Nata e papagajve (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1990); Lirikë me shi (Prishtina: Lumi, 1994)

The Call of the Owl: Poems of Azem Shkreli, trans. by John Hodgson (Prishtina: Kosova Association of Literary Translators, 1989); Blood of the Quill: Selected Poetry from Kosova, trans. by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008)

For a larger selection of poems, click here:
Let my grass grow above my head
Above my head let my grass grow
My grass above my head let it grow

Let it grow
Let my grass grow above my head
—Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

The Words
I place you stone upon stone and build with you
The Great Wall of my faith in mankind,
In my shadow and in things which do no know me
I place you stone upon stone,
On the thoughts and silence I do not trust,
On the subdued new mother I place you
Stone upon stone,
On the pain of endurance, on
Unforgiven blood, on the traces
I did not leave where I took the wrong road, and on my
Guild and that of Christ whom I never saw,
For you I place your stone upon stone
On my shoulders, on bread which must not be trampled,
And on my father’s hunched years,
I place you
Stone upon stone
On everything I do not have and
On everything I cannot do,
I place you stone upon stone on my head and take an oath.
—Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

The Light of Separation
We waited as one awaits,
Rain, like blades of grass growing
We filled our corneas and cups
With the waiting,

We spoke no word,
We spilled no joy,

We simply lit a cold
Candle, and followed it,

Oh God
How the light of separation burned
—Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck
English language translation copyright ©2008 by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck. Reprinted from Azem Shkreli, Blood of the Quill: Selected Poetry from Kosova (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 20008).

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