If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Oooh, I would host a garden party and invite my favorite authors from everywhere in the world: Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath, Charles Simic, Tomas Tranströmer, Andrei Codrescu, Sharon Mesmer, Mircea Cartarescu, Ioan Es. Pop, Cristian Popescu, Walt Whitman, James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Peter Balakian, Mircea Eliade, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Herta Muller. My husband would make pomegranate cocktails and beautiful steaks. We’d serve some delicious Romanian appetizers as well, icre, zacusca, salata de vinete, crumbly telemea with fresh bread and gorgeous ripe tomatoes. The red wine would flow, and we’d get drunk, that’s for sure.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
A lot of things scare me and get in the way: The lack of time to write or edit. The fear of commitment to produce longer pieces, or to write prose. How long it takes to publish a book and losing the initial enthusiasm for a project along the way. Impostor syndrome. I don’t have solutions for these fears. My answer is to progress slower, to let time resolve some of these problems. Sometimes just a slower pace helps, or just to take a break, do some gardening, watch the dahlias bloom.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author, or character?
Hmm, not a crush, but someone I admire greatly is Charles Simic. I read almost everything he wrote and didn’t find one book that didn’t speak to me. But my favorite of all time is The World Never Ends, the book that opened my eyes to prose poetry, to surrealism, weirdness, and dark humor, and how these devices can help to come to terms with history, oppression, and all the horrors invented by humans. We share the same Eastern European dark soul, that’s why.
What books are on your nightstand?
My favorite books this year: In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché; Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger; Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort; Rules for Rearrangement by Julie Babcock; Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa Di Giorgio, next to an old favorite, Sad Days of Light by Peter Balakian. Next to a few collections by Romanian poets I got in Bucharest this year: new books by Svetlana Carstean, Nora Iuga, and Mihail Vakulovski.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
It has to be the comma because it signifies the pause when you take a breath. Everyone should know when they can breathe, right? I read aloud my poems to find out where the line breaks and commas should be, a technique I learned from William Carlos Williams and my poetry workshop teacher, Jim Klein, who is a big fan and enforcer of commas. Sometimes I get a little crazy about commas, too, lol. Especially the serial comma. It’s a really important punctuation mark.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
I went to high school in Romania under the communist regime, and I read everything I could, required and not required. I exhausted my city’s central library and the very nice librarian who used to put books aside for me and allow me to check out unlimited stacks of books.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
I would like to thank the New Jersey Transit Bus 190 where I wrote most of my poems. I used to commute daily between Rutherford, New Jersey, and New York City, 1 hour each way. It was my only time to read and write poems, my writing routine for 18 years before the pandemic. I never thought I would say this, but I miss my commute. I miss that time dedicated to thinking, daydreaming, and writing without interruptions.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Don’t write for anyone else but for yourself. The crazier, the better.
Does writing energizes or exhausts you?
Writing is exhilarating—but editing is exhausting. I work in bursts, short periods of energy and inspiration, followed by long, procrastinating periods of revising. It’s cyclical, but I always crave to write more and care less about editing or style.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Too much learning about poetry and not enough honest writing. Chasing trends in topics, form, or techniques, instead of just letting go on the page. Trying too hard instead of using a light touch.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Being at home during the pandemic. Like I said, I used to write on my bus commute, and I was so productive and focused, churning out new work every week at a high pace for years. The pandemic changed that, and I’m still trying to get into a new writing routine, but it doesn’t work the same way. I haven’t been able to focus any longer from home.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
No. I always have exciting things to read. I have writer’s block many times, that’s another story.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Yes, there are clever ways to plan, structure, and develop your piece around a concept that can be very interesting, new, or exciting. If it’s done well, it’s possible.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I belong to the group The Red Wheelbarrow Poets, a terrific group of poets from Northern New Jersey who hold a poetry workshop every week. It’s very valuable to workshop a poem or piece to see what works and what doesn’t, and frankly just to keep writing something new every week.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I don’t want to bore my readers, so I always strive to make each book different, stronger, and better than the last one. I love surprises, so I hide some inside each book. There are, of course, common themes, like history, immigration, and family—but each book tells a different story. I don’t want to be one of those poets who write the same poem or book all their life.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
My first collection was the chapbook Eternity’s Orthography published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. It encouraged me tremendously. I had just started to write poems in English, and I was timid, with a minimalistic style that reflected my apprehension towards the language. When that tiny chapbook got published, it told me that I could do this. I felt that I conquered language, I conquered English, ladies and gentlemen! It was a great victory.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
On poetry books! I usually get poetry books for Christmas and for my birthday. I’m addicted to poetry books. There are so many great poets living and writing today, and it’s so exciting to discover them.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
James Joyce comes to mind. Emily Dickinson and her m-dashes that I found pretentious. Even William Carlos Williams—I didn’t get his poetry at first, but then I felt so lucky to have moved to his hometown in NJ and encountered this group of poets who carry on his legacy. It just happened by accident. How lucky to immigrate from Romania and stumble into so much great poetry in Rutherford, NJ, of all places.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I started to write poems in high school, and no one read them but my best friend, Ioana. In my first year of college, I read my poems for the first time to my roommates in the girls’ dorm. One of the girls, Florina, liked them so much that she wrote my poems by hand in black marker all over our cupboards, effectively defacing them with love poems. A few days later, the guy I liked visited me in that dorm room, read my poems on the cupboards, and fell in love with me. We are still together and married today. I tell this story in the title poem of Writing on the Walls at Night.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It’s one of my favorite movies, too.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I’d like to be a bird, maybe a mockingbird that has gray feathers but sings beautifully. I would also like to be a tree, not an animal, but I really connect to trees. My daughter once said if I were a tree, I’d be a yellow maple, glowing in the fall.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Nothing. The characters are figments of my imagination. In Writing on the Walls at Night, there are numerous characters I invented, and only a handful are based on real life people who have stories so absurd or unreal, they belong in my poems. I bet the reader couldn’t tell the real people from the fictional ones. I also write a lot about my father and my daughter in general, but I view them as versions of myself. So no, I don’t think I owe anyone anything.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Ah, that’s a good question. I have an almost-finished poetry manuscript I put together during the pandemic and which will probably become my next book; a half-finished collection of poems inspired by children’s games; an ongoing collaboration with my friend the artist Mike Markham, which will become a collection of poetry and photography inspired by New York City at some point; and a pandemic journal which could become a memoir or an autobiographical novel.
What does literary success look like to you?
It would be great to see my books in stores and know that people read them, which is really improbable since I write mostly poetry.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I love reading at poetry events. There is so much energy in a room full of people that can fuel me for days and make this entire writing process so exciting. I miss that connection with an audience and hope to get back to in-person events soon. I’m planning some in NYC in the spring.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Getting in their heads and making them funny and believable. It’s much easier to do that with female characters that become my alter egos.
What did you edit out of this book?
I had some prose poems written in the style of ads on Craig’s List. Funny and surreal, but they didn’t have that personal connection. I didn’t think they belonged in the book.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
In another life, I’d own a flower shop.
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