Interview with Alina Stefanescu, Romanian-Alabamian poet

1) You have mentioned you are interested in Darwinian theory. What role does this interest play in your latest writing?

 

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My first chapbook— Objects In Vases— came together as a series of poems partly in response to what I sensed in the surrounding culture. Intelligent friends who swore Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I was amazed, incredulous, and disturbed by the extent to which self-help has a become a siphon for limited thinking and conformism.

Socialization, the process by which we learn and internalize cultural norms, fascinates me. Pop ev-psych has picked up where Freud left off. It explains our deepest sentiments through reference to animal instinct, a standardized emotional repertoire, boilerplate stuff. Ev psych does not help me understand anyone I have ever met. Instead, it sheds light on our culture as well as vulnerability to naturalistic fallacies.

Humans differ from other mammals in the extensive helplessness of infants and children. This period of socialization accounts for cultural similarities— our constructions of masculinities and femininities, our notions of success and failure, our early acquiescence to competitive status seeking— as well as differences among cultures.

2) Tell me about your recent poetic efforts. You attempt a comparison between those things we hold sacred (flags, ritual, taboo) as being like a vase we can’t touch. What inspired this metaphor?

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I was born in Romania. In 1980, my parents defected from Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. Raised in Alabama, I straddled two cultures– the rich, warm, effusive Romanian language of home and the pragmatic, success-driven, somewhat prudish (or reticent) environment of American southern life.

Growing up a hyphenated American alienated me from a slip-on identity— school peers were at pains to remind me that I was not born here, that I could never be like them, no matter what I did to prove the opposite. For example, a guy in my history class announced that Alina could never be president of the USA even though she was a naturalized citizen. This insignificant detail amounts to different levels of citizenship for Americans. I think even convicted felons can be elected president as long as they were “born here”. Being born somewhere else means you can play at democracy within certain limits— and as long as you know your place. A

But being a perpetual non-native liberated me as well. Freed me to see the parts of self worn as convention and culture. Freed me to observe the differences between what was good in Romania and what was good in Alabama. Freed me to acknowledge alternate versions of piety or wisdom. I became a collector of cliches and superstitions. I learned to admire the objects in vases, and to understand the object OF vases. What they preserve. Identity.

3) Have you thought about your obsession with the vase? What makes it central enough to you to use it as poetic device?

As a female, you get stuck with vases. I have a collection of anonymous vases in the kitchen, many of which came free with flower deliveries. One day it struck me that I didn’t use vases correctly— my vases were not burgeoning with tulips like Martha Stewart’s. Instead, my vases held colored pencils, paintbrushes, knickknacks, and the occasional drink. This simple image of an everyday container which bears our Sunday best— the way we want to be perceived by others— fascinated me. This relationship between the poems and what they “contained”— assumptions, implications, associations, and again, socializations— was intriguing.

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4) What cultural differences are there between Romania and the American South? Which do you prefer and why? Is there something you prefer about each region?

As a “Romanian-Alabamian”, I am guilty of loving both. Perhaps, to some extent, I am a traitor for refusing to choose between the two. To honor one land first. Better a happy, enchanted traitor than a human who silences half her heart.

Romanian and Southern culture share an affinity for hospitality, warmth, and ritual— a life driven by meals, extended family, and long porch conversations. On the other hand, Romanian culture, especially in Transylvania and Wallachia, has developed over thousands of years so it has many traditions, rituals, and legends that Alabama hasn’t had time to develop. Unless you count civil war reenactments. I leave the civil war reenactments to skilled writers like George Saunders, whose CivilWarLand In Bad Decline is a must-read for fiction writer considering the American South.

5) How does being both an immigrant and a stranger in America reflect in your poetry? 

Children learn who they are from their surrounding culture. A little girl learns fairly early that she needs breasts for boys. Most of media we see portrays breasts for the purpose of attracting males rather than nursing infants. In the same vein, boys are instructed in the fine art of catcalls and meat-market comparisons by billboards which show men watching women with beer in their hands. As if men lack human substance or creativity.

When my son was just learning to read, I had to answer lots of questions about our billboard landscape. On a drive, he saw billboard for breast implants— “Mom, why would women have their breasts cut open to stick stuff inside their skin?” He was horrified. I tried to give a neutral explanation about how females do it to feel “good” about themselves— like getting hair extensions or a perm— but he wasn’t having it.

“No woman cuts off her breasts for herself,” he insisted. His ongoing questions and horror forced me to see the world afresh— like an alien anthropologist from Mars, to paraphrase Walker Percy. My conclusions: “Whoa, this is one crazy culture in which part of the population is driven by self-loathing while the other part is driven by false notions of entitlement.”

The sacred things in Alabama— the things we I could not touch— did not include a human body or a individual life. Most were symbolic objects— images that don’t bleed, perhaps icons. For a few of the poems, including “Strong Female Voices”, I adopted a different voice— the voice of a woman standing near the table warning her kids not to touch the vase. Not to break it. To preserve the vase from damage or harm requires us to place the vase out of reach. To forestall any form of interaction with it. To render it holy and untouchable.

Playing with that voice (voices, really), the vase is a form of power. A way of being held captive. Among strangers, in a crowd, I am beheld as a homeschooling mother of three. They behold me as such. I am not free to act very far outside the limited scope of what is beholden to a homeschooling mom. Men in power don’t perceive the homeschooling mother of three as a threat. Like the girl in the Pixies song, she’s “tame”, harmless. In this sense, I am safer than a young black man when it comes to police but I am more “vulnerable “than a young black man by virtue of being female. Beheld as needing protection. Beheld as an object to violate.

Authority, like power, provides us with control but also the ability to injure. A form of responsibility in the gaze of the powerful— in how they see us. William Gass has a great insight in his essay on Robert Walser. He says: “The power that others possess is something that, like a great outcropping of rock, may fall upon you; but it also makes a shade under which you may find shelter.”

We find shelter in the vases. We hide behind the power projected by others. We offer a Nuremberg defense for the horrors done in our name. We put the popular vases on the table to conform, to be a part of things, to participate. We value them. And we tell ourselves it’s “natural” because it’s what everyone does.

Then we view the vase. Participate in the viewing. Tell the kids not to touch.

6) Did visiting Romania create a surge in poetic outpourings? Did you feel more at home there, more rooted in its culture?

1989 changed my life. I visited Romania for the first time since my parents defected in 1980. It was incredible— I met my extended family, and discovered the world was bigger than Tuscaloosa. Being “weird” was no longer a negative– I was happy to be the weird. The world was weird and fascinating and amazing.

7) What journals have you been published in? Do you see any points of similarity between the journals you have been accepted by?

Lacking an MFA, I know very little about the practices of writing as they play out in publishing. I make mistake upon mistake and learn a little more from each. I think the journals which have published my writing are fairly diverse, ranging from the Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (the eeel) to Cider Press Review, so I don’t see any points of similarity apart from the honor of their acceptance.

There’s a special place in my divided, disloyal heart for a few editors who really encouraged, engaged, and prodded me way beyond the realm of reasonable expectation. Among them: Christina Collins from Lockjaw (which is one of the greatest journals out there); Erin Dorney and Matthew Kabik of Third Point Press, who nominated one of my poems for a Best of the Net last year, Travis Sharp, Tracey Gregory, and the staff of Small Po[r]tions Journal who published some fairly challenging poems (I’ll be reading at their offsite come AWP); Roxanna Bennett from Matrix who was kind and generous following my mother’s sudden death last year; Luke Hankins of Orison Press who is a beautiful human being and diligent editor— and, of course, Amanda Mays of Anchor & Plume Press , whom I can never thank enough. I haven’t even touched upon the fiction editors and the fiction journals yet….

Honestly, I do not know how editors juggle the reading, writing, meetings, logistics, correspondence of editing with their daily lives, which often include jobs, families, friends, cats, and writing. Anytime an editor takes the time to talk to me is a gift— something for which I am grateful as opposed to something I expect. Have I mentioned how editors (and readers and assistant editors and layout designers) blow my mind?

8) What rewards do poets experience? What most validates your life as a poet?

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Sometimes the costs are easier to count than the rewards. Writing demands a lot from one’s family— a lot depends on my spouse, for example, who accepts my constant distraction, my absent presence at the table. If he expected me to cook dinner or read bedtime stories to the kids, there would be no writing. So I am grateful (and often mystified) by his sacrifice— his agreement to share a bed with a human who is infatuated by a story or a poem, a cloud of words in her head. Everyone is different, but writing does not validate me as a person. Writing is an obsession, an infatuation, a room without walls or limits. It’s a way of relating to one’s self and to the world that defies expectation. What reward do you get when you surrender to the voice calling from beneath the window? Maybe it’s a ride. An impossible terrifying marvelous ride. A tangle and an exquisite torment.

9) Do you have favorite poets? Are there any widely respected Romanian poets?

So many— so many poets who inspire and excite and infuriate and instruct me. Currently, I am devouring everything by Mark Yakich— he has such an incredible ear for language, such a mind for meaning and unmeaning, turns ploughshares into swords under the table. Also William H. Gass’ On Being Blue— not “poetry”, per se, but extremely poetic, paradigm-rattling prose. Gass inspires me to write like no one else. Mary Oliver for grief, Wendell Berry for reverence, Mary Ruefle for life, Adrienne Rich for resurrection. I’ve also enjoyed a recent collection by Alison Prine.

As for Romanian poets, it was Nichita Stanescu who first left my at the foot a line begging for more. Rilke, Rimbaud, and Stahescu got me through high school. Contemporary Romanian poets to watch include Mircea Cartarescu and Maria Calciu, whose words evoke objects and places as if lit from within— I keep looking for the plug or the cord or the trick. Also Stella Radulescu whose delicate, sparse poems render each word somehow holy— I love her dance with the ineffable. One of my dreams is to bring the work of Constantin Virgil Banescu to American audiences. He died much too young with that beautiful voice— he could write a poem on a cafe napkin which sounded thoroughly workshopped. He literally spoke poetry. I translated a couple of Banescu’s poems for jmww journal (http://jmwwjournal.com/Stefanescu1.html) and translation is a challenging journey— a dialogue between a language and a grave— much more difficult than writing one’s own poetry. How to honor his voice and erase my own?

10) Sometimes each country has a unique style of poetic expression, as if the national life creates a distinct temper to the poem. Do you feel your travels and return have effects on your writing? Did the American South teach you anything about humanity, the search for truth, or the nature of beauty? What makes Romanian poetry distinctly Romanian?

I read Romanian poetry the way a child reads the wallpaper from his crib. So much dolor, a persistence of longing that I bring to page but which also, I think, exists independently of my reading. American poetry is diverse, and I don’t want to go on record saying it isn’t about longing but certainly the themes of our poetics include novelty, change, and motion. For me, Romanian poetry conveys the past within the present— words are rich with connotation, very sensual and evocative.

One Romanian word haunts me (a word often referenced by the Romanian literary community in exile), a word for which there is no American translation. The word “dor”, a happy but thwarted longing, a rich canvas of soil, a backdrop for traditional folk music and culture. In Romania, children memorize poems as a general practice. When my parents defected, they had $200 in their pockets and a landscape of remembered poems in their heads. At Romanian get-togethers or extended-family dinners, there was always a person who got tipsy enough to start reciting a poem. I remember hiding in the doorframe watching my grandfather recite “Luceafarul” with his hands clasped behind his back. I remember others at the table crying. This was normal and not unusual.

There is a respect for poetry in Romania that lacks its counterpart here. Seriously, can you imagine what would happen to a southern male who stood up and recited a 100-line poem a frat party or a backyard BBQ? He would lose his hard-won “manliness”. There’s no similar taboo against poetry in Romania. Recently, I recorded my father reading a few Romanian poems I’d selected— his voice broke, the tears came, it was more beautiful and true than I can convey. My kids watched from the couch, eyes wide. I am so grateful for that moment in which they witnessed a reticent Professor of Metallurgical Engineering give himself to the words he was reading. Poetry is for any heart that can handle feeling it.

11) Please tell me about your collection Objects in Vases. What is the source of this metaphor? What are you striving to express? Do you feel the collection said what you wanted, the way you wanted? Were there road bumps in the process? How long did it take to complete the work?

It took about a year for the poems to come together. If I’m allowed to indulge a little abstraction, I might get closer to the concrete stoop of this thing. A poem is like a vase. The vase is there, an object, perceived by the poet. So the reader sees what the poet has constructed. What the poem permits. Some poets are more permissive than others.

To read poetry is to witness an act of perception. To see an act of seeing rather than the object itself. I think this is one reason for the evangelical Protestant’s disinterest in poetry. It is not literal enough for their taste. If you mention Rilke’s love poems to God, the remark is met with confusion— why would anyone write love poems to God? It sounds cheesy, right?

A love poem to God is a painting of God, one person’s enamored perception. Despite their Wednesday night choreographies of scriptural exegesis, despite their continuous focus on textual interpretation, Protestants prefer the object to the perception.

I kept running into a question which implied its own answer: What can I learn from a poem except how another person sees the world?

If what you want is “objective”, then Protestants and science fetishists line up together against the poetic.

What do I want? I want to live in a world of subjects.

12) Do you think love is a powerful inspiration for poetry? 

Love is both the pulse and slit wrist. I can’t imagine writing my way through through a world without the mysteries of love. I can’t imagine preferring the safe standing-ground of security to the self-reckoning enabled by fear. I have fallen so many times but not one of these falls (or the resulting scars) is regrettable. As a human, you learn from the sore places. As a writer, the scars are a seam through which poetry emerges. So love is paramount— love is the penultimate precipice.

13) What advice do you have for poets who wish to write their own collection? How do you think collecting your poems should be approached?

The only advice I have is to write. To write and write and write and when you can’t write another word then read and read and read. Let it happen.

Maybe an example would help. I’ll take a poem from Objects In Vases. “Oscar Dees, No Apologetics Please” was provoked by reading interviews given by a family of Atmore prison wardens. These interviews kept me up at night as I tried to understand Oscar Dees’ perspective. I could hear his voice. I could him justifying the invisible racisms and misogynies. So there’s a voice in my head. And it’s a scary voice. I take a few notes and read the interviews again. And again. Until I feel ready to hear Oscar Dees.

In my experience, both life and study, ignorance and error are the primary sources of so much evil. Ignorance and error are the panties of bad behavior.

Western civilization operates under the assumption that we are responsible for our behavior. This behavior arises from our beliefs and what we know of the world. It is no strain in logic to say we are responsible for the beliefs which underly (and propagate) our actions.

Belief comes from what we put in, what we consume— books, media, friendships, social groups, ideas, conventions, religion, politics, etc. A person who reads Ann Coulter cannot help becoming hateful. She does not choose the hateful thought which flows naturally from the steady diet of Coulter. But she chooses to consume that first word— to find herself attracted to the anger and hatred. To be excited and incited. We are not innocent of the trash we put in our minds if these minds control bodies which can own and use deadly weapons.

Write about what you read. Let the bad stuff drive you crazy. Read the other side of the story. And— if you can’t find the other side of the story— then it’s your job to write it.

14) Finally, does the electronic age seem like the death of manual, tangible art? Will ebooks replace the physical editions? Will bookstores lose their revenue and close? Is the book something of the past, or something fading away? Do you think books will regain their popularity? How can poets promote books effectively?

I don’t think ebooks will replace physical books but who knows? Shit happens. Maybe the world will be a better place as a result. The written word, whether digital or paper, satisfies a deep, visceral human need. As long as we remain homo sapiens sapiens, there will be stories. I look forward to changes in literary mediums. I look forward to archives everywhere. The saddest moment in my life came when I realized I had read every published book by Rainer Maria Rilke. There was no new Rilke for me— I’d devoured him too quickly. I’m willing to engage any medium that offers me unread Rilke. And that’s my hope— that there will be more words and extended access. A world of words everywhere.

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