I'm honored to feature your work this month, Andrei. I've read it over again and again and it's hypnotic, filled with mystery and longing, the city and the country, three women and the soil, the soul and music. A deep rhythm resonates throughout the work. I had to add a few quotes here:
"On late afternoons it's not uncommon for me to sit out on the open porch and wish for the sky to blacken prematurely over the red tiled rooftops, wish for it to bring its heavy sigh under which all other sighs would be swept. One sound to swallow up all of the other sounds. But today the weather no longer seems to resemble itself."
"I look out over the land looking back over me from head to toe like some alien particle that doesn't quite fit its cosmology. And the dirt in my hair, and the dirt in my eyes, and the pump grease on my hands that the hard well water won't wash away so easily - all of that and still no more than a dirty, dusty heap of a man weighing on and willing for something, anything to keep me in its memory."
"The best way to learn how to lie is to listen to those who preach honesty. It takes longer than it should to realize this. No one who says "be honest" really wants to hear what honesty really sounds like. When someone asks me "How do you like it here?" I tell them what they want to hear. It's a kind of truth, even if it doesn't mean anything."
Tell me how this piece came to be. The sublime structure of its weaving motion and what your inspiration was?
The story of this story is rather long and convoluted, but I think it speaks to the development over the years of my own aesthetic sensibility as it currently stands and where it once originated. What reads now as an overarching narrative made up of smaller narratives woven together began several years ago with individual, self-contained short stories. I wrote them and they sat in the back of the digital closet on my hard drive and they rarely saw the light of day. I don't have much patience for editing. I also don't like revisiting work after I initially conceive of it. My poetry, the majority of it, is rarely edited. I knew that I wasn't extremely happy with these stories and that's why they languished untouched for years.
More recently, however, within the past year and a half or so, I have turned to prose poetry as my go-to genre, however loose its interpretation. It allows me to play with language and rhythm within the boundaries of prose and to hint at story and narration without the burden of plot. Maybe that's what it all comes down to. Plot. It's just not how my mind works. I cannot, and in all honesty do not wish to, conceive of the way something will play out too far ahead – I inhabit and dwell in moments. And so does my writing.
When I finally forced myself to take a look at those older pieces I noticed the reason I shelved them to begin with. The plot was forced. I made those characters do and say what they didn't want to say. They were not creatures of extensive contemplation, but creatures of the moment, and so they needed to dwell in those instances and no more. Luckily I revisited them at a time when my writing was already in the prose-poem vein, and that made it easier to decide what to keep and what to toss out. I went about the business of editing those stories without mercy for my own writing – I cut out useless baggage with impunity, something I could not have done to my work years before. I stripped the prose down to only what was necessary to me to convey an image, a sensation, a bundle of energy within a tightly bound frame. What was left was highly charged language (I hope) that spoke to me in a way that made sense. The rest was a matter of deciding the pace of the story, the places where I felt the separate narratives most interacted with one another – this again was done on the level of image and suggestiveness of a scene rather than plot – and so what you have is a narrative that is associative and cumulative in nature, one that requires the reader to put aside the "reasoning apparatus" and instead approach the piece on a more intuitive level.
I am reminded of Milan Kundera. I don't know if he's an influence or if you even like his work, but it came to mind when reading this. Who are the influences in your writing, if any?
Kundera? Really? I'll just say thank you and move on with that accolade under my belt!
How does place fit into your work? You were born in Romania. How long did you live there before you moved to the States?
I lived in Romania until the age of ten and in 1991 moved to the United States. I feel the place somewhere in my bones and sometimes it feels good and sometimes it aches – and that can also be good. In that sense Romania makes me feel young and old at the same time. I've often been told I write "older" than I am, which might have something to do with that duality.
When I first started writing I think I would have had a more pragmatic response to this question, and I would have said all kinds of lofty things about the "significance of place" and waxed romantic over its virtues. I'm a bit more jaded now and I tolerate a little less, especially from myself. Of course place is crucial to my writing and it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that it is the foundation for all of my writing to some extent. Everything I do is rooted in place, however small or large the scale of that "place" is – a room, a house, a city, an entire country. How could it not be? Hearing a writer try to explain how important "place" is for them today, and how it shapes and informs they work, is something like hearing someone say that breathing in and out is a key component to daily life. To a writer place is breath, it is the air you inhabit, it is how you live if you are to live at all. To speak of it in any other way is a bit self-indulgent, as if you have a choice.
You are writing this poetic beauty without any flourish. Your language is simple, visceral and yet moves like a symphony. Who are some of your favorite poets and why?
I shy away again from naming names because this usually leads to comparisons, to someone looking for the tell tale signs of influence. I will say that my writing is indebted to influences as wide-ranging as Bukowski and Simic, Hemingway and Bolano. I am drawn especially to Eastern European and South America writers – we share some of the same sensibilities. I am in a way indebted to their penchant for the surreal and the absurd, but also to their music.
How long have you been writing and what compelled you to start sending your work out for publication?
The first time I "wrote" with any purpose to create something new was as an undergraduate student. I think I was a sophomore at the time. It was a poor excuse for an imitation of Wordsworth.
How does teaching fit into your work? Some writers say it adds to their inspiration and others say it drains them, but we all need to make a living.
I am a perpetual student, however cliché that sounds. And so I learn as I teach. And I allow myself to work under that same degree of curiosity in both my role as instructor and as a writer.
What is it like living in Queens now? Compared to all the other locations you've haunted.
I like being closer to mountains and hills, the rivers. It reminds me more of childhood, it gives the eye a place to rest. There is no rest in the city. The eye and the mind move constantly, which is great in terms of inspiration and abundance of material, but the mind must also come to a place of contemplation, a place where it can breathe and a space where the whirlwind of images can begin to take form.
Poetry looks to be the genre you are most drawn to. What other genres have you delved into? I know we can include fiction here.
Again, a few years ago I would have considered myself a creative nonfiction writer. My memoir, Metal and Plum (Mayapple Press), came out of that inclination. But I think it was more of a necessity for me to make sense of some things rather than feeling the call of "inspiration". And there is a difference. It took me some time to realize that. The boundaries are fuzzy at times, and they can be misleading, but they are there nonetheless.
Is there a quote that you love that stays with you?
Yes, ever since I wrote it: "We are born into distance, we crawl our way back towards intimacy." That seems to just about cover it.
I love that quote. And am so happy it's a quote from you. Do you have family that is still in Romania? And if so, how often do you visit?
The number has gotten smaller over the years. My grandfather died two years ago. When he was gone I wasn't sure if I could go back or if I should go back and what I would be going back for. If I even had the right to do so. When I did return last year it was to go to his grave since I was unable to attend the funeral. We sat and we had a drink together. I go back for that.
Tell me something about yourself that I haven't asked. Something you would like to share.
It is hard for me to respect anyone who hates animals.
Now I adore you even more, if that's possible.
Thank you so much, Andrei, for sharing some of your pure brilliance with Connotation Press. I look forward to reading more of your work.