Maintenant #15: Adrian Urmanov
‘to look for a guilty one’ – an interview with Adrian Urmanov by SJ Fowler
Saturday May 29th 2010 will see the inaugural 3:AM Maintenant reading given by three Romanian poets. At the head of this event will be Adrian Urmanov, a lynchpin of the latest generation of Romanian poets, a forceful, unapologetic poetic stylist. Having studied at the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, the University of Warwick and currently the University of Durham, Urmanov has a wide cultural landscape from which to draw insight and does so, honestly and unswervingly, in his mongrel mode of free verse exclamation and in the Romanian tradition, a romantic refusal to focus on anything but questions of metaphysical import, being himself a monk. Author of five collections and co-editor of the No Longer Poetry anthology with David Morley (2007), Urmanov is a versatile translator as well as poet. To celebrate the venerable circumstance that brings Urmanov and his peers to London, he is the fifteenth subject of the Maintenant series. Never has one been so apt.
3:AM: Stylistically, your poetry contains elements of linguistic and structural experimentation, at times it seems absorbed in descriptive action, in immediacy, but it also appears colloquial and conversational. How do you view your style? Does it maintain a certain methodology?
Adrian Urmanov: I’ve always written poetry as if advertising a thought; like all advertisements, poetry has to be pret-a-porter and haute-couture at the same time. The colloquialism of a poem draws people in, while the deeper lines give them something to feed on, once they’re already there. I mean, they even use sex to sell postal services; I can do the same in poetry – the language I use during a day’s time is just as varied: I’m cracking a stupid joke, then I’m suddenly aware everyone around me will be empty bones in 30 or 40 years times; I love my mum, then I feel that any kind of love is idolatry towards matter and, ultimately, death – I live like this, I feel this and my poetry only reflects this reality. In the end, the only valid methodology that’s left for poetry is this mixture between shiny emptiness and we-don’t-want-to-talk-about intimacies, and how do you it? Take a look at how they sell cars and fridges, and keep in mind that all you do is sell; as a poet, I’m doing the same – I’m marketing ideas, you’re marketing feelings, marketing a vision.
3:AM: Do you wish to achieve something specific stylistically as it relates to your poetic content?
AU: In my mind, a poem has to be sharp and efficient; I try to get as dry as possible, while keeping bits of the most embarrassingly warm sides of humanity in it. By that I don’t necessarily mean sex – rather things we fear, things we are ashamed of, like a touch of racism or a lack of interest in environmental issues while, on the outside, we condemn racism and recycle. Efficiency of the verse, the degree to which it creates in the reader the reaction I want it to create – that’s what builds my poems, stylistically.
3:AM: Is it in someway a reaction to previously established poetic trends, for example are you reacting against the limitations of lyric poetry?
AU: I only have a clear reaction against inefficiency; I find inefficient poetry not just stylistically disastrous, but also a pest, a parasite for real poetry. What happens is that time from time, people get fixated about what poetry is and what it should look like in order to be called poetry. Then, even long after this poetry stops having any real effect on them, people expect you, the writer, to still offer them what they’ve labeled as poetry simply because they can recognize it as such. The terrible thing is not that they ask for it without actually using it, that but the fact that some poets find it much easier to simply copy old rhetoric and just give them what they ask for. And, in doing so, they create a dead organism that’s completely irrelevant to everyone, and they also compromise the very notion of poetry. Deep down, poetry is always concerned with life, with what’s happening here and now; and, just like life, it rarely is comfortable or even a pleasant experience. The point of a poem, just like the point of life, is to signal a different reality and to offer you a glimpse of it. In that respect, yes, you can see my poetry as a reaction towards this poetic laziness.
3:AM: Images seem to be central to your work, do you build from specific linguistic pictures?
AU: Images work better than abstract ideas, that’s well known. And, because I’m not interested in getting my reader to quote my lines by heart, and I’m exclusively focused on getting him to understand an idea, I’m working with images a lot. Once you understand that the real poetry consists in the effect the text has on the reader, and not in the word-by-word structure of the poem, you’re free from all limitations. I’m free from all worries about not being remembered, about being confused with some other poet, about being tagged as belonging to one school or another: if it works, I’ll use it – that is my only criterion. I understand why this can be confusing, especially for critics who consistently try to pin you down under some name or another, squeeze you in a little box and stick a name to you. But poetry is not for critics, poetry is for the real reader, the one who looks for an enlightenment in your work. Images are little, highly efficient engines made up of words – create a good engine, get it into your reader’s mind and it’ll do the work from then on. Again, it’s very much how they build advertisements, sometimes with no words, just images.
3:AM: Does the literal, typographical appearance of your poetry reflect something definite about its content?
AU: Just efficiency. I tend to align my lines on the right side of the paper, for instance, because it’s much easier to read, the lines naturally throw you into the next ones. When I read lines set on the left side, I find it tiring after a while, I feel like I’m the one constantly making the decision to jump to the new line. Because they all start from the same position, I take them all as independent, successive new sentences, and that’s getting boring in time. It is also true that most of my right-hand poems have a spiritual feeling about them, and I do make a reference to the Hebrew way of writing.
3:AM: How prominent are the major figures of modern Romanian poetry to you and other contemporary Romanian poets? I’m thinking of Mihai Eminescu and George Bacovia most specifically.
AU: Bacovia is definitely closer to our hearts. He’s the major modern influence on new poetry, although Eminescu is still seen as our national poet.
But mainly, there are some contemporary poets who’ve influenced us more than we actually knew in the beginning. As far as I’m concerned, Angela Marinescu, Daniel Banulescu and Cezar Ivanescu would be the main ones. They are terribly different, and I suppose they’d hate seeing themselves even sharing the same sentence, but I feed on their poetry, I constantly go back and read them.
3:AM: You studied in Romania, then Russia, then England. This inevitably presents you with an insight, have the differing experiences effected your own work in a profound way? Could you detail the contrasts as they have occurred to you personally, from a standpoint of your poetry?
AU: I can’t write in England, if that means anything. I can rewrite, I can work on structures or polish some images, but I can’t come up with new material. There’s something about England that sedates me, throws me in a lethargic state of being and thinking. When I’m in Russia, for instance, or even home, in Romania, my mind sparkles, I feel I can fight the world and then rebuild it; somehow, in England, that slowly fades away. There’s nothing threatening about England, except, perhaps, this safety itself. Coming from Eastern Europe, this lack of danger feels more dangerous, or more horrifying than Russia itself. But writing poetry here… The only way to be authentic here would be to write authentically about non-authenticity, and that’s terribly difficult. When I speak of danger, I don’t necessarily mean one has to live in dreadful conditions to write well. But poetry is about something else than this life; and when this life is so awfully comfortable, you naturally fail to feel that other reality. Poets are human; as humans, they adapt to their society. Poetry in England has adapted to lack of danger, and that implied the loss of a certain intuition about the big questions, the big fears. In whatever way you fall, England offers you cushions. In a way, it’s like asking a tiger that was born in the zoo to describe the wilderness. One of my best friends once told me ‘don’t worry, nothing can kill you in England’; I was petrified the moment I understood that. I need a tiger nearby, in order to remind me of my own humanity.
3:AM: Is there is a distinct difference in the poetry reading culture or atmosphere at literary events between Romania and England, in your experience? If so, why?
AU: Oh, definitely. I mean, In England, you don’t get other poets running after you to beat you up with their walking sticks, do you? And you don’t see three quarters of the Writers’ Union reading circle frightening to leave the room, and actually doing it, if some young poet reads something they find blasphemous or whatever… But these things are normal back home, and I honestly think that’s the way things should be. It just shows the real value poetry has for people, the extent to which it is, in fact, taken seriously. In England, people seem to expect poets to entertain them, one way or another. In Romania, people expect poetry to tell them something, tell them the truth; no-one quite knows what this truth is about, but that’s clearly the feeling. And I think it comes from our past, doesn’t it? Here, a poet was supposed to be smart and witty, in an ex-communist country like ours, the poet was one of the very few voices telling, or at least insinuating the truth. Decades go by, expectations remain the same…
3:AM: Though not the first time you are to conduct a poetry reading in the UK, what are your expectations of the audience, the reception and the constitution of the upcoming reading you will be doing in London for 3:AM?
AU: I hope people will listen. Really listen. I hope they don’t expect to come to an artistic or cultural event – I’d hate that, and they’d leave disappointed. I have something real to tell them, something that happens to look like poetry, so I’m selling it as poetry. But they are, in fact, real words, real experiences I need to share to others. I pray they have patience: if possible, I’d like them to imagine I am their best friend and I’m dying. And, as I’m dying, I try desperately to let them know something terribly important to me.
A reading can be professional and cold, but it can also be intimate, slow and emotional like love.
3:AM: You’ve made reference to a topical freedom available to poets in Romania that seems not to apply in the UK. Though of course poets from the UK are free to write what they wish about what what they wish, it is trye that ostensibly they have unseen limitations in their subject matter, whether it be for legitimation or satirising of things like racism, misogyny etc…You have suggested this is not the case in Romania. Could you eluciadate further and suggest why you think this difference exists?
AU: Well, somehow, poetry remains very stiff in England, very artsy, even when it tries to be real. The simple fact that writing poetry is by its nature an artistic process kills the reality of it. It has no heart, no guts, no life about it, most poets I’ve read or heard seem terrifyingly self-aware of their artistic persona. I suspect they think of themselves as artists, they see themselves as artists and this paralyses a poet, it cuts his contact with real life and, even when he writes about ‘real’ life and uses ‘real’ words, there’s hardly anything real about the final product. And that’s simply because he thinks of himself as an artist, doing an artist’s work.
The poets I love, they all hate poetry; I myself hate poetry if I think about it as arts. I love words, though, and words have changed my life many times, so I’m acutely conscious of their efficiency. I’m always alert when I ‘smell’ real poetry; I dread and adore it at the same time. Real poetry is the truth about life and, to answer your question, that truth has no space for politically correctness or taboos. Real poetry would have been poetry about turning Jews into soap, but written before this actual reality. Real poetry would have been poetry about Iraqis being tortured, raped and murdered by the liberating troops, before this actually happened. Poetry is by its nature prophetic, it tells the things that are already present but no-one wants to acknowledge. It hurts people, people can hate it, they can hate poets just like they’ve always hated prophets.
Romanian real poetry today could be about us burning gypsies in a lake of acid, or sterilising them all by force – these are suggestions I found on the internet. English real poetry today could be about creating a camp for immigrants and turning them into soap – again, you find these things out on the net. Because these are the horrid feelings behind the shiny surface of our all-embracing global society. The truth about human beings is never in our written principles, never in our policies – if you want the truth, look under the surface and you’ll find a morbid combination of hatred, fear and irritation.
And no-one wants to look under the surface because we actually can hardly wait for the terrors of the past to repeat and solve the situation we are in today. We secretly long for a new Hitler to solve this unpleasant business we allowed to happen; then we’ll get rid of him, blame him for everything and feel absolutely no guilt for what we’ve done.
In the long run, real poetry, real art, if allowed complete uncompromising freedom, can be tremendously useful for the world. Art can bring to light the horrors we hide deep down in ourselves, as a society, and it can prevent them from happening. Art can take the pressure away, it can show us the disaster before it actually happens and while we can still prevent it.
In Romania, because of our past, mostly, we understand this. And we have understood it for a long time. It’s not by chance that the Dada movement, the avangarde of poetry came from Romania. In a way, it’s again, the same understanding of the poet as the one telling it as it is. And if you want to hear it as it is, no rules whatsoever can apply.
3:AM: Does this somehow tie into different conceptions the two countries have of the role of the poet?
AU: Well, I think in England there’s greater pressure put on the poet in order to entertain his audience. It’s much less about having a revelation, imprinting a change in someone’s behaviour, and much more about simply liking the poem, about the poem making one laugh of cry. Poetry here seems to address the audience more on a psychological level, it’s a very English way of keeping one’s distance, respecting the reader’s space and not crossing his safety zone. Back home, poetry is supposed to change you, that’s the very definition of what poetry is: a means to change someone. And that can be done in a subtle, subversive manner, or forcefully. There’s no respect, no comfort, no safety when it comes to poetry and people expect that from us. Of course, they hate us at the same time, but society needs real poetry desperately. At times, I think poets are the last ones to tell the truth about us, about where we are and where we’re heading. Everyone else, one way or another is controlled by money and personal interests. As a poet, what money can you make? Let’s be serious, most well-off poets have betrayed real poetry a lot time ago.
3:AM: The unmissable element of your physical appearance is of course the vestments, the tailoring of your faith, as a monk. How does this bind with your poetry, for it seems you were prolific before your adopting that lifestyle? Could you offer a contained history of how you came to be in such an order?
AU: I don’t feel the need to discuss this. Shortly, I feel as if I’ve always been a monk, it just took me some time to ‘come out’. Do you think I could have been anything else with this vision of life and of my own purpose on Earth? A monk is the only real terrorist of this world. I’m a walking negation. I’m a living signpost saying ‘this is not the real thing, this is not the real thing’… I was born a monk, just as I was born a poet: I’ve always written like a monk, I’ve always prayed like a poet.
3:AM: I don’t want to be reductive, or play into a limited appropriation of Romanian culture, but from speaking with Romanians, as with many Latin or Slavic cultures, there is often ascribed a specific aptitude towards the poetic from a specific culture. This seems to be the case for Romania, do you think this is true?
AU: Why do you think you’d be reductive? It used to be like that. And it was a good thing, because poetry is supposed to express the essence of its time and space. Real poetry is never abstract, it always speaks the language of a time and place. Now, of course, the down-side of that is that it becomes difficult to understand by those who don’t speak the language of that time and place. Authenticity has this disadvantage. Slowly, though, Romania will disappear as an authentic entity; just like England, Romania will melt into the non-entity of an European structure built on the very idea that it has no authenticity. When one says that he’s open to be anything, it actually means that he is nothing, and this is the essence of the European Union: being nothing. So, getting back to poetry, I’m sad to say it, but I think I’m part of the generation making the switch from authenticity to nothingness. In a few decades, even sooner, perhaps, Romanian poetry will sound pretty much like English poetry, and neither will actually be genuine. But it will be European, that’s for sure.
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. In addition to interviewing leading European poets, he is curating the forthcoming Maintenant reading series. The inaugural reading (this Saturday) will feature the acclaimed contemporary Romanian poets Elena Vladareanu, Ruxandra Novac and the aforementioned Adrian Urmanov. To celebrate the reading, the Red Ceilings press has released a ebook sampler anthology featuring all three poets, which can be viewed here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 25th, 2010.