Maintenant #2: Elena Vladareanu
waiting for the train to medgidia
right before you a fat gypsy woman
lifts her dress above her head
she takes a white fish out from inside her sex
gives it to the controller instead of a ticket
here, maica, you have something to pay your man with
and she throws the fish in your bra
she winks at you
– from fissures by Elena Vladareanu
A nation with a forceful and antagonistic poetic tradition, Romania has produced an admirable cohort of young poets to greet the first decade of the century. At their forefront stands Elena Vladareanu, heralded as one of the most gifted and iconoclastic poets of her generation. Personal, confrontational and fierce, Vladareanu’s verse is as bound to the experience of contemporary Romanian city life as it is to her status as a woman in an often fiercely misogynist society. Greeted with great respect by her peers and scorn by traditional voices in Romanian poetry, she has released four collections, the last of which (privat space – 2009) was launched at the Bucharest bookfair a few months ago. For 3:AM, she speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: The environment of the city 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?
Elena Vladareanu: I can’t imagine myself living, and writing, in a village, in a nice little house with a nice little garden and nice little flowers. Even though I used to say I hated my town, and even though it is true once dreamt of that little house with the little garden in the little village, I confess I am addicted to a dynamic life and to an urban landscape. Everything in the town inspires me. Perhaps for a short time I could live in the country with a very well developed project in my mind. I must say also that Bucharest is not the final destination in my life. I can honestly say I don’t know how my poetry could work in a small town, in Romania or abroad. But I do know, if anything, I would like to live in a bigger city with a bigger artistic community and with the paranoia, the fear, that can come from living in such a vast place.
3:AM: There seems to be a Baudelairian engagement with Bucharest in your poetry at times, almost both a intangible rooted passion for the city next to a revulsion, does your relationship with Bucharest emanate in your work?
EV: It can’t be any other way. Bucharest is everywhere in my work. I can’t write about anything else and I don’t want to turn away from the reality of Bucharest. I don’t believe in escapist literature. Perhaps It’s better to say I don’t believe in escapist poetry as I have a great affection for children’s literature. But visiting Prague for a literature festival, there was a Greek poet who started to read some poems about Greek myths, about Aphrodite and Hermes and for almost an hour I heard only about how brave and unique the Greek people are and so on. Definitively, this kind of poetry is not for me, the illusory is not for me.
3:AM: You seem to expose Bucharest as often grotesque, but revealing as such you are showing great affection. Men too, there appears both the feeling of revulsion and attraction, more than that, a binding to your subject. This contradiction, this tension, of both love and dislike seems to extend into many areas in your work, is it a deliberate genesis point of your poetry?
EV: In the beginning, it was something more instinctual than deliberated. Now, yes, the tension of love-hate feelings is very important for me as a part of my work. In the beginning, I only wanted to talk about me and my self. Nothing more, nothing else. Me and my boring and uninteresting life were the only subjects of my poetry.
3:AM: This is often the case.
EV: Yes, but without artifice, I was only interested in me. Things have changed. For my fourth collection, I tried to leave behind the myopia and to fashion an artificial ego, which is no longer centred on myself, which could be at the same time white and black, superficial and profound. I am not sure if I’ve succeeded.
3:AM: There seems to be a streak of this dissonance, this tension in the work of many Romanian poets, writer and philosophers. Bacovia and Cioran come to mind. Do you think there is something about the experience of being from Romania, or living in Romania which produces such feelings of simultaneous feelings of love and hate?
EV: This is a very difficult question, and I can’t write generalities about Romania and the Romanian people. I am not a philosopher and I can’t form arguments and theories about Romania. But I can try to answer from my point of view. There are moments in my life when I say I can’t live here anymore and I want to go far away from Romania, and from Bucharest. Life is not easy here, everything is very expensive, we work hard for almost nothing – because almost everything goes on rent, and the time for reading and writing is reduced to almost nothing. The town – Bucharest I mean – is not the most beautiful in the world and if you go into the small towns all over the country you won’t be able to escape a deep depress, a depression: everything is so grey, so sad. It is a landscape of general collapse. But, at the same time, I feel secure where I can speak my language and meet my friends and family, I can write my books, as I have done. So, my daily life, as a Romanian, is fundamentally made up of little pieces of despair, little pieces of tiredness and fatigue intermixed times of happiness, brief times of dreaming.
3:AM: You have been known as a part of a number of literary groups, there seems to be a culture of defined poetic movements in the last decade in Romania.
EV: The groups are not anymore. We all took our roads, we hardly meet one each other.
3:AM: I’ve seen mentioned the Caragiale Workshop, Eurydice and Letters 2000. Could you give me a history of these movements then, how they were constituted, supported and received? Were the groups united or opposed stylistically, theoretically or just from geographical proximity of their members?
EV: I don’t know all the groups. For instance, I never was in Caragiale literary group or in Letters literary group moderated by Mircea Cartarescu in the late ’90. But there are a lot of very good writers who started in Mircea Cartarescu’s group, continued with Marius Ianus’s group and maybe passed by Euridice’s group. In fact, the majority of the young poets’ generation passed through at least one literary group. In the beginning of 2000, there was a communal energy, a commune desire of changing things and structures. But this energy and this desire disappeared, the groups don’t exist anymore, Marin Mincu is dead and everything changed.
3:AM: How did you fall in with these movements?
EV: For me, everything was less complicated. I am from a little town next to the Black Sea, Medgidia, a Turkish town in Dobrodgea. There is not a single theatre, not a single movie theatre, not a single book store. I saw my first theatre show when I was 19 and came to study in Bucharest as a student of the Faculty of Letters (University of Bucharest) and I heard about a literary group, named “Cenaclul de la Litere” (“The Letters Literary Group”), moderated by a very good poet, Marius Ianus. I went to the group, read some stupid poems and they didn’t like them at all. I wasn’t even sad and I continued to write, without knowing what I was doing. I went in my own direction.
3:AM: You published your first collection young didn’t you?
EV: I published my first book, which was an unusual and bizarre book and there were some people who said “wow, this is courageous” and other people who said “oh, no, this in not literature, this is not poetry, this is pure pornography”. And that’s how I became a controversial and well known writer… I’m joking of course, but this bad reputation helped me a lot. I was invited to open the Euridice literary group because I played the pornography card. I read some aggressive and erotic texts written especially for this occasion, there were again people who advised me to give up writing. But Euridice’s moderator, Marin Mincu – who was a very important writer and a textuality theoretician – encouraged me to continue with poetry. He published my second book with his publishing house. I was more disobedient, I continued to be so.
3:AM: What is the landscape of contemporary poetry in Romania currently? Are you well supported financially? Are you critically well received?
EV: This is a joke, isn’t it? You know, at the beginning of the 2000s, it was easier to publish poetry then prose. At that time, there weren’t any publishing projects for the Romanian contemporary literature. You couldn’t get a good publishing house. There were only two, maybe three small publishing houses which used to publish new literature and even these publishing houses didn’t have good distribution. The books could be bought only in book fairs, so it was like they weren’t published. Even though, poetry books were published, a lot of young contemporary Romanian writers started then their career without any commercial pressure. Now, the small publishing houses ceased their activity and the poetry can be published only by one big publishing house. The small houses only publish if you pay.
The books must be the same, you must stay in their boundaries. All the covers have the same design, all the books have the same paper, for you as a poet and as an artist it’s almost forbidden to innovate, to come with new ideas and graphics shapes. You don’t get any money, any royalties, maybe 5% from selling, but at least you don’t have to pay to see your book published. A lot of young poets who were much appreciated after their first poetry book switched to prose, because prose offered you bigger visibility. If you’re lucky you get some money and a translation, and the right to read in one of the very few public readings in Romania. In conclusion, there is no support for the poetry.
Is the poetry well received? I can’t say. Even now, after almost 10 years, we are still the pornographic generation, our literature is still considered that un-profound and stupid literature. Or maybe this is only what I feel about the way my poetry has been received. There are only very few critics who used to write about poetry, but even fewer are aware of poetry culture, as it changes. The rest want only classic things, sometimes insist on rhymes & rhythms, they don’t care at all for innovative and linguistic texts.
3:AM: There is a very female, spurned maternity in your work, not ‘feminine’, but indelibly female and confrontational. Do you perceive this to be a specific statement about your gender? Is there a climate of misogyny in which you are responding to?
EV: Of course there is a climate of misogyny. I don’t want to say I was held back as a journalist or as a writer, I never think that way and I don’t want to think that way, but there is something you can’t avoid as a woman. You can’t avoid that pure aggression of being seen and observed and judged, you can’t avoid that obscene words addressed to you when you are in subway, in tram or in the street. Referring to my literature, indeed, it can be read as a statement. Anyway, here it is so degrading to write feminist literature, to be preoccupied about gender studies, to be preoccupied about yourself as a woman. Do you know there is a phrase Romanian’s use to describe a nervous woman – a man can be nervous, mad, whatever, he is just a man – or about a woman who writes about herself as a woman? She is definitively un-fucked.
3:AM: There seems to be a pure streak of humour in your poetry, in its tangents and the way it weaves its subject matter around a satirical narrative, do you seek to use humour within your language of poetic expression?
EV: For me, the humour and the use of humour are and were always the real trouble. When I write prose, I feel it’s easier to construct a comic situation because I can handle more elements than in poetry. More so, in poetry I’m not very comfortable with humour; if there is some humour, I enjoy it, but I don’t want to write comic poetry, I don’t expect poetry to be first of all comic and then… profound. So, for me the humour is not deliberate. But it is there.
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, February 7th, 2010.