In a dreary airport outside Prague, Tom O'Grady recalls, he watched with trepidation as the burly customs officer in khaki leafed through the photocopied pages in his briefcase.
If the questioning got tough, O'Grady, poet-in-residence at a small Virginia college, says he planned to plead ignorance. He would say he had no idea he couldn't take the writings of Czechoslovakia's Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert out of the country.
The customs officer turned out to be more interested in whether O'Grady had any crystal in his suitcase. So, within a few minutes, O'Grady says, he was on his way back to Hampden-Sydney College in southern Virginia on Monday, his smuggling mission complete, his luggage full of hundreds of pages of Seifert's work that have never been published in the United States.
It took many furtive calls from phone booths, a number of meetings in taxicabs and the help of the American and Swedish embassies, but O'Grady and a fellow professor beat the censorship of the Czechoslovak government, they say.
Their rewards were volumes of material that Czechoslovak poets told them the government would never have allowed out of the country and an emotional interview with the ailing 83-year-old poet.
"We're very excited," said Daniel Poteet, dean of faculty at the college located southwest of Richmond.
Seifert had inveighed openly against his government's persecution of writers in the late '60s and his work had been banned for 10 years in retribution -- though he did receive an official blessing two days after he won the 1984 Nobel Prize for literature.
O'Grady and Paul Jagasich, a linguist-translator and language professor at Hampden-Sydney, figured their best bet in getting Seifert's work out of the country was not to alert the government. With the financial backing of their college, the two posed as a winemaker and a tourist and flew to Prague with the names of two of Seifert's admirers to help them find the dissident poet and some of his work.
The pair had translated into English Seifert's Nobel-Prize winning volume of poetry, "The Casting of Bells," after it was smuggled out of the country in the mid-seventies and figured that whatever the risks of their trip, the new material would be worth it.
O'Grady and Jagasich recount their clandestine trip in this way: For the first two days, they made no progress whatever. They could reach neither of their contacts. Officials at the U.S. Embassy, who they thought had been alerted about their mission, knew nothing about them. The libraries turned them away when they asked for Seifert's books because they weren't Czechoslovak residents. The city's bookstores didn't have a single copy.
Then the Swedish embassy gave them Seifert's home address and telephone number. They reached him from a phone booth, and Seifert told them to come by at 5 o'clock. "We were so exultant, we jumped at each other's necks," says Jagasich.
O'Grady and Jagasich sat with the ailing poet and his family, drinking Czechoslovak wine and talking of poetry and the speech Seifert hopes his son-in-law will make for him in accepting his prize in Stockholm next month. They say Seifert gave them permission to translate and publish whatever of his material they could find.
They in turn invited Seifert's daughter to come to their college and accept an honorary degree on Seifert's behalf. Jagasich said the daughter said she would try, but then stopped him in the darkened doorway as they were leaving and whispered in French: "Nous sommes des serfs" -- we are slaves.
In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy came through with the names of about 10 other poets and admirers of Seifert's work. None of them would talk over the phone, according to O'Grady. "We'd start to explain, and they'd say, 'You want to meet, don't you? I'll be in a cab,'" and then name a street corner.
The contacts were eager to help, raiding their own private collections for volumes of Seifert's poetry and memoirs. "They love him and respect him," says Jagasich. "He is a Shakespeare of Czechoslovakian literature."
Some volumes were gifts, others had to be photocopied in a back room at the U.S. Embassy. "It was tense," says O'Grady. "We thought we'd be questioned at any time."
Toward the end of their stay, they had stopped jumping every time room service knocked on their door. O'Grady says they figured that by the time bureaucracy's red tape started rolling they'd be gone, celebrating what Seifert calls "the importance of the single voice."