Maintenant #11 – Ruxandra Novac
‘the silence of a drowned dog’
– an interview with Ruxandra Novac by SJ Fowler
Bucharest opens like a huge syphilitic flower
and I know that nothing, nothing can any longer prevent the disaster
from like a small fence, like metallic lace
One of the most refined voices rising from Romanian poetry since the millenium, Ruxandra Novac combines both the eclectic rhythm and eloquence that is the hallmark of the best free verse poetry with a taut, rigorous control lacked by many of her contemporaries. She is a poetess who ventures into vivid and ecstatic means of expression with a sure hand, and faithfully maintains a trace of the most potent Romanian poets of the twentieth century, with figures like George Bacovia and Mihai Eminescu not unreasonable bedfellows as she evolves past her status as an ineradicably assured poetess still only thirty. She has published three collections and featured prominently in translation as part of the No Longer Poetry anthology (2007) and will visit London in May 2010 to read along with Elena Vladareanu and Adrian Urmanov as part of the inaugural Maintenant reading series. For 3:AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: There appears to be a trend in contemporary Romanian poetry to write very immediately with a deliberate physically at times, about literal interaction, the atmosphere of sex, of relationships. Often the language of contemporary Romanian poetry seems infused with both a revelling in the slang and colloquialisms of sex, and a humorous, absurdist revulsion. Is this the case for your work?
Ruxandra Novac: Not exactly. One of the most recognisable elements in current Romanian poetry, maybe the easiest to perceive as compared with previous generations, is indeed this fever of speaking about the immediate, the concrete and the biographical, in a direct and ”non-poetic” language, often about (a tense) sexuality, but I don’t think this is exactly what I tried to do in my writing. If I might say so, what I’ve tried to find is exactly the opposite; a non-relational, autistic voice that is trapped in itself and reveals the violence before this enclosure, its anxiety towards outer (and even inner) reality, the tension between abrasive contacts with this reality and the impossible aim of non-contact. I’m speaking about a tension of the mind more than that of the body, sex or relational issues of any kind.
3:AM: There is a notable cadre of female poets emerging from Romania at the present time and with them there is a very female, repulsed maternity, not ‘feminine’, but indelibly female and antagonistic that is coming forth in their work. Do you perceive this to be a specific statement about gender emerging from poetic discourse and young female poets?
RN: Again, there is definitely a direction in contemporary Romanian poetry based on this, and sometimes with powerful poetic effects. It may come as a response to the climate you are talking about, which is real, it may come in other cases from a more or less assumed desire to be up to date with cultural issues of the West, or it can come from an authentic personal tension. But it’s not my case, I believe. The voice I was talking about earlier, the one I tried to create is an asexual one, in which tension comes not from gender troubles but, as I said, from a personal disruption. It is a voice that speaks after all these social and mental forms are abolished, and which speaks exactly about abolishing a personal and historical memory that cannot be trusted. The voice uses “signs” of memory, maybe even in a brutal way, only to reveal its refusal or acceptance, that is our coping or not coping. That is why it does not work with statements of any kind, but more with polarities and the tension between them.
3:AM: There seems to be a desire to almost inflict wit in your poetry, you allow humour to develop but always barbed and out of ennui, or darkness.
RN: Not humour, but sarcasm I suppose, which I believe comes from a quite different mental state: one that doesn’t seek complicity with the reader, that is more obtuse, absurd and maybe even cruel, following the glitches of a discourse or reality. I believe that humour in its everyday meaning implies a common ground that reunites both the emitting voice and the reader, at different levels and forms of complicity (`intelligent` humour, the warm, the nostalgic etc…) but what I’m looking for and try to reveal when I write is, on the contrary, a `foreign land`, a cold, unfamiliar mechanism that functions with a backlash, so just plain humour would not fit in. Actually, I don’t like humour very much. I love cruel irony, self-irony, sarcasm, arrogance, but not humour.
3:AM: The environment of the city, like many poets of your generation, seems to be a touching point in your work. Is the urban living environment of a mass populus the place of your poetry or is it rooted elsewhere?
RN: It is indeed a touching point and it couldn’t have been otherwise. I see it as a ‘place of the mind’ as well, with its tensions and melancholia, and from this point of view, my poems as they were could only be rooted in that.
3:AM: There seems to be an commitment to Bucharest in your poetry at times, almost both an apologetic fervour for the city next to a nausea, does your relationship with Bucharest emanate in your work?
RN: Yes, definitely. There is some sort of love-hate relationship with the city as I see it in what I write, but also for me as a person, and it has always been like this. Bucharest, in fact, is the perfect city to inspire this reaction. It’s a strident, hysterical place and at the same time, very drab, very inert in its hysteria. I tend to see it as a place in which power and control schemes are very tangible, both in a social sense and in a psychological one, and I believe this is essential for one’s (artistic) view. It can also be a key-place for someone with identity problems, feeding paranoia and reclusion, nervousness, exhaustion and all this kind of odd states of mind, but also a place of bovarian schemes, where everyone is trying desperately to be something he / she may not necessary be: socially, artistically etc… This might come from the very specific historical moment we are living now, the violent changing of one system into another. But I do think it is something in its nature too. It’s a very sad city, in fact, and this is something one could feel and speak about. I haven’t been living in Bucharest for a few years, so a strange nostalgia also occurs, which enhances this emotional mixture. I continue to see it like this, even more acutely: a place I wanted desperately to leave, but also a psychical place, an electric point in my mind, impossible to erase.
3:AM: This contradiction, this tension, of both affection and dislike seems to extend quite beyond the urban, in fact one could say that is the most material veneer of your whole poetic schema. Is division the deliberate genesis point of your poetry?
RN: That is exactly what I was trying to say before. It is a sort of passive-aggressive voice, based both on both reluctance and abandon, indelibly. I feel this way too, and not otherwise. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious or stupid to say so, it’s hard to precisely define these changes, I can only hope they are precise enough in my writing.
3:AM: This tension appears as a central theme in the work of many Romanian poets, writers and philosophers. Ionescu, Sorescu, Bacovia and Cioran come to mind. Without wishing to sound greatly deterministic and generalising too far, do you think there is something about being Romanian which produces such feelings of love and hate simultaneously?
RN: You mentioned one of my all time favorite poets, Bacovia. I don’t know if in his case it is exactly about love and hate, but it is definitely a dissonance between his austerity and autism and the widespread noise he could perceive around him, in reality and in discourse, which is indeed somewhat typical to this particular world. In his case there’s also a total lack of trust in reality, a non-adherence to it that I cannot but love and that I also see as a reaction to a non-settled, but none the less hysterical, prideful world. In the last part of his life, his poems seem to be dissolved in fragments of a formerly coherent discourse, picking up fragments of the impersonal discourse (noise) around him. These poems, that some have seen even as ”non-poems”, as pure expressions of an altered conscience, are in fact very powerful also by this fact of miming the common discourse by a traumatized voice which seems to submit to it, only to reveal its emptiness and its sick power. Once again, I see it as a reaction towards the out-of-control, sweeping everything in its net, self-affirmation of this particular world, which seems to be perceptible here more than somewhere else. Along with its sadness and neurosis.
3:AM: You were part of the Letters 2000 literary group, one of a few groups (with the Caragiale Workshop and Eurydice) which have almost come to define the poetry of your generation already. Can you offer me a brief history of this movement, of how it was constituted, and supported? Was Letters 2000 united or opposed stylistically and theoretically?
RN: I was a member of the Letters 2000 group, but this is almost funny to say because we were a heterogeneous group, a mix of very different individuals, in fact, a group of friends and even that came after some time – and left after some further time. We were a group of people who shared (in quite different ways) the same interest – writing, in a specific way about a specific new reality – and it began in circumstances that were more or less accidental. We acted and we were perceived as a group, but in fact our sensibilities, within this group and the others, were very different. To make it short, we were a group of students in their 20s or more, Marius Ianus was the oldest and he had a previous experience with an earlier literary circle, as a member of `Litere` guided by Mircea Cartarescu, one of the most well-known Romanian writers. He had this background and at the same time he was a very talented poet, with a very sharp vision and also with a good critical discourse and he managed for sometime to put the spotlight on perhaps the most talented emerging writers, at least in Bucharest. He created a magazine called Fractures, earlier, with another poet, Dumitru Crudu, published a Fracturist manifesto and despite some bullying methodology, it also had some key-points which were undoubtedly attractive: the aim to write vivid poetry, and a certain violent, disturbing sensibility – a dark, `grunge` vision of the world. These may be the points that created common background, and I think they are the best terms in which to define the emotional core that brought us together and which defines me even today. Otherwise, I don’t believe we cared much about the cohesion of a group. Marius was the one who was meant to coagulate this group and sustain it as much as he could, to help us publish our books and so on. I do not think anyone of us would have been able to do this, so it was important at the time. After that, everything came by itself: critics became interested in this so-called `new wave` that some of them have perceived as a block movement. Polirom, an important publishing house from Romania published some novels of the young writers, creating a sort of marketing strategy based on this exact age criteria, then a public emerged and so on. I think it was the normal shock-acceptance scheme, combined with the public’s cordiality at that specific moment, but it produced a few books which are really good and this is the most important thing. But that moment has passed.
3:AM: What is the landscape of contemporary poetry in Romania currently? Are you well supported? Well received?
RN: Unlike with prose, there is little interest in poetry on the public’s part, which is somehow natural, but somehow it is also the effect of a pretty obtuse attitude of the poets, who stay closed in their own circle and in some sort of apathy. I think what Romanian poets constantly miss is the opening to other experiences, to other arts, which is essential in my opinion. Not necessary in the sense of a `pop poetry` in which everyone feels the need to making video poems or anything else, but more in terms of a mental openness, an attitude. Towards music, visual arts, science etc…, anything that feeds and fits into your personal voice. I think the public (not in a `democratic` sense, but your public, the more or less restrained circle of people with whom your writing resonates) is often more open and curious than the writers themselves and this fact creates a gap between them. This causes a certain fossilization of the writing in some cases, which makes poetry unpopular in a bad way. As a Romanian critic once said, young poets continue to write, critics continue to write about them. Because they have to have an object and everything goes by out of indolence. So I would not say poets are not supported or not well received, there is not a total lack of interest like ten years ago for instance, there are publishing houses interested in publishing and promoting poetry, but what is missing is the connection that makes poetry contemporary. I don’t know if it is a crisis caused by this precise moment or attitude, or a crisis of poetry itself, the death of poetry, its vanishing into prose or into video art that many people suggest. It might be like that. But I would like to see it vivid and contemporary for a while, before its death.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 25th, 2010.