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Interview with Carmen Bugan

Photo of Carmen BuganKelvin Corcoran Carmen, for readers who might be unfamiliar with your work could you outline the context of The House of Straw and Burying the Typewriter? Though the first is poetry and the second a prose memoir they are about the same experiences and written simultaneously and the titles themselves tell part of the story?  
 
CB When I started writing Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police I wanted to write the memories of my Romanian childhood and did not plan to write a book of poems on the same subject. I had in mind a long poem about the life of my father—a sort of narrative account of his life in opposition to the authority of Ceausescu, a David and Goliath type of story.
     What happened during writing the memoir was a process that helped me understand how the subject looks for its own form, no matter how much you try to plan things ahead.  Some memories about my early life came as prose, and some as poetry. It’s a beautiful experience. It has a lot to do with emotional intensity that becomes concentrated in images and can be expressed in metaphors, and in the sound of words, something you can mould more and turn into an object of creation. Prose allowed me to be leisurely, to comment on experiences, to give some context, whereas with the poems it felt right to let the image do all of the work.
     Since the memories that formed the subject of first half of both books were the same ones, I first thought of putting the poems inside the memoir and having a book that would be formally more complex. But then material accumulated and the two books came up as quite different children of the same memory, if you will. The House of Straw, which is the underlying metaphor of the poetry book and became its title, is rooted in the idea that what you give to others in this life you will receive in the afterlife, a ritual that comes from an old, deeply Christian Orthodox ritual still practiced in villages around Romania. It means to say that we spend this life preparing for the life after death. I explained the actual ritual in the title poem and also in the title chapter in the memoir because it is part of both my personal identity and my identity as a writer. What I mean to say is that I have come to look at my life in exile from Romania as a sort of heavenly afterlife in which I have carried the abundance of memories from Romania and the love that I have given and received there in the early part of my life, when I grew up with my grandparents. This makes me the poet I am today.
     The poems in the first half of The House of Straw show what I have taken into exile: all of those countryside, common farming rituals, and the relationships with people. They are the domain of sacred in my life and it feels right that they should stay in those simple, clear-headed poems. But the similarity between the collection of poems and the memoir ends here. The poetry collection goes on into life in exile, love, family, feelings about language (i.e. ‘The names of things’). The memoir tells the story of communist repression and anti-communist resistance from the point of view of a little girl who grows up to understand the relationship between power and common people on her own, through experience. I wanted people to get the real side of sacrifice for freedom, with its costs for family, but also to show the rightness of my father’s choice. Most of the time we go through life not understanding the game of the powerful and often we even close our eyes to unjust causes, and this is a book about how it feels to be small in the face of tyranny and yet wanting to do something against it. I don’t think there are many accounts of the children’s experience of tyranny and I thought this would be something I could contribute, since it is my experience.
 
 
KC At the reading in Oxford recently I was very interested in what you said about your feelings now for the Romanian language and for English, which I think you called the language of your freedom? What is it like writing poetry in another language? I wonder even if the question is properly phrased. Has English become the language of your poetry, of your thinking, not just another language? You say in an article in Modern Poetry in Translation (Series 3 no. 2), that Romanian words no longer return to translate back.
 
CB English is the language that has become a strong part of my personal identity since we moved to the US carrying those badges of ‘refugees’ given to us in Rome, when I was aged 19. It was tremendously freeing to have this language in which I could express everything I couldn’t during the Romanian years when my father was imprisoned. Now I only write in English: it is also the main language in my own household where we speak four languages. Romanian remains the most interesting one though, because it is linked to a heavenly childhood and a hellish adolescence, but I have stopped reading and writing in it since 1989! 
    I have a different relationship with each language I speak: Italian is the language of marriage and children, though it is increasingly becoming a literary language for me as I am reading poetry in it and my own work is being translated into it; French is the language of the moment: we live in France, children go to French school, we function in it. It’s a beautiful language, very sensual, I love speaking it, though I do not have very strong knowledge of it. English on the other hand has that thrill of freedom in it and also carries in it all of the achievements and happiness in our family, as immigrants. I must say I was also very lucky to enjoy the company of fabulous and sensible, and sensitive, and caring American and English people, many of them literary. So the language has come to me with all the possible blessings. I found it very easy and a happy experience writing in it, partly because of a lack of responsibility towards the literary canon (I wasn’t born into it so there are not the same pressures to write into its tradition); and partly because my ear is totally deaf to the rhythm of the language, so what you might scan as iambic might sound quite different when I say it, especially because the rhythm of the Romanian language, which I still carry with me, is rather different. But I also realise that I am skimming English with my poetry: I am not deep into it, something which I am trying to work at. It takes a lot of reading and listening. But English essentially feels like home to me, it is safe, welcoming, it is here to stay, and I find this sense of language crucial for anyone to be able to create into it. I am very self-conscious though about my ability to say something ‘new’ or in a ‘new way’ in it but I think that the clash between the subject matter and the sound of words is enough to work with now, and I am not as worried about being ‘original’ as much as I am worried about lucidity and that ‘transaction of meaning’ (as Milosz said somewhere) between the poems and their readers.
 
 
KC How does this shape the concerns or style of your poetry? It seems to me both rich in its images but orderly, almost restrained but with a direct statement of passion and grief; there’s almost a formal courtesy about it which realises an endless concern for detail. I wonder to what extent this is a poetics of generosity in the face of threatening experiences? 
 
CB I like the sound of ‘poetics of generosity’ in the face of adversity very much! I am intimidated to write formally in English—it’s not just a question of mechanically learning the forms of the poems but mastering the form with a combination of consummate knowledge of its history (the poem predecessors, as it were) and also an ease with what and how you say it. The thing is this: I talk about a Romanian experience in the English language. Well, there is not a tradition of sonnets that deals with this subject. Even my love poems are not so universal—they are informed by loss or threat of loss which is directly linked to the Romanian years of my life. I try to find the images that most profoundly express what it is I want to say and then work with the words like a gardener with flowers, trying to put them in places and in an order that makes a harmonious sense and keep the garden flowering most of the warm months. I try to find my own form that is dictated by the words and images. It’s a bit of Coleridge in here, I admit: the growth rings in the tree, the form being an outward expression of the content, his ‘organic’ growth of one from the other.  
     I find it good to be direct, but also restrained. I was once reading a very angry poem I wrote to Allen Ginsberg who had come to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to see his friend David Cope who taught me at college there. I was then in my early 20s, just started to write in English, full of Beat soul and eager to show my anger, my punch. Allen was in my house, sitting in the armchair surrounded by young students and some faculty sitting on the floor and on the couch. ‘I didn’t fucking do THAT to you’, he yelled at me, ‘You should never blame your audience for what happened to you!’ As much as I ended up in tears leaving my own apartment, I understood a tremendous lesson of poetics: self-restraint. We all go through hell but the audience shouldn’t be made to suffer because of it and that is what I was trying to do. The poem was a direct response to perfectly decent Americans telling me I should love my country and should always think of myself as a Romanian. I was telling them ‘You haven’t seen the love for my country/Dying’. But then again I was telling a story of such profound terror because of love for country that it just couldn’t get through to the Americans who had never have seen what politics can do to ordinary people.  
     Later on I studied with James Simmons, the great Irish poet, at the Poets’ House in Ireland. He told me that the subject matter of my poems was very strong indeed but that I needed some real attention to the form. ‘You need to control your subject’, he said, and that was a second lesson of poetics. It’s the ‘meting grief and reason out’ as Heaney said in his poem ‘Audenesque’ for Brodsky, paying attention to Auden’s self-restraint, and to Frost as well. I think I have internalised these things: self-control and control of the subject. Then with time I have come to aim for that equanimity if you will, the calm, being able to tell a story without drama. And I am much more fascinated with how to make each word do the work with everything it has got. I now spend much more energy on figuring out how something can become poetry that faces the hard truths rather than dealing with past anger.
 
 
KC The title poem is perhaps an example of what I’m asking. We could make the afterlife meal from your description and perhaps build the house of straw. The whole poem is charged with feeling but only at the close do you explicitly record emotion, your grandfather’s crying. The poem states an abiding goodness, a mythology of the very specific life of then and there. How does this relate to the phrase you use in the MPT article about being on the side of forgetting? 
 
CB I actually have a poem called ‘On the side of forgetting’; in Crossing the Carpathians that deals specifically with this feeling of being outside the domain of Pain, though not outside History but with it, in a quiet way that says I have accepted.  And outside the native language as well, in a kind of beauty that is a bit stark and mysterious, and scary.  Sometimes I feel like a ghost, sometimes I feel like person who had the rare opportunity to be given two lives: one in Romanian, and one in English.  
    My grandfather cries because he doesn’t want to die and because performing the ritual preparation for afterlife makes him think of dying and leaving behind the things he loves—like his wine. I remember a lovely story from when I was about 9 years old and my grandmother was ill in bed for a period of time. My grandfather left a mug next to one of the barrels in the cellar and every time he went down for something he poured himself a little wine in the mug, and he would come into the house smelling like he drank. Grandma used to scold him that he would drink all the wine before the Holidays. Little pleasures like this that made the grief. The image of him crying means me and the rest of my family going into exile and leaving behind the little routines, people, and things we loved. It’s the lot of every loss, if you want to take this outside my own biography. But years and years later it all seems to be dealt with, the leaving and the being on the side of forgetting. I could not have achieved that piece without having had such a rich life in exile, away from Romania.  It’s all a great circle.
 
KC In many of the poems it’s as if the details of the scene or event you recall are already poetic, you seem to compose the poem by getting out of the way, by stepping aside despite the intensity of the experience? Am I on the right track here? Is this a deliberate technique on your part? I’m thinking of poems such as ‘Making The Hay Mattress’, ‘Our House’, ‘Last Day In Our House’. In these poems, and remarkably in ‘A Birthday Poem for My Father’, about your father’s suffering at the hands of the secret police, you give no space to resentment or accusation?  
 
 
CB That’s right, I step away to let the experience do its job. It’s the ‘I am so sad, or angry’ that ruins a poem like that.  I also don’t see the point of accusation or resentment. We tend to outlive some pretty awful stuff and the achievement of having outlived it would be all cancelled out by resenting or accusing, which are very exhausting emotions anyway. Also, speaking of the hay mattress, I find that if I could bring the reader into that moment, to dance with us children, he or she will experience the loss of it at the end of the poem, which is far more powerful than coming out to say ‘I am sad this moment has gone’.  
 
 
KC Is this approach, the process in the individual poems, reflected in the three part structure of THOS beginning with the childhood world of family in Romania, then the new places and the birth of your own son and concluding with an account of you ‘visiting’ Romania? And the last word in the final poem is ‘salvation.’
 
CB I haven’t thought of it like that. But I thought of the book as being an occasion to revisit particular places, people, rituals and then glimpse their richness in later life—the awareness that the Romanian past is everywhere with me. ‘Salvation’ as a Christian sentiment came to mind during my visit to Romania in 2010: disturbing yes, for I couldn’t wait to get out of the country. It is also the right hope in relation the house of straw. I am now writing two books about having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain and the word here is salvation, also, I think.  
 
 
KC What is it like writing in two different modes, poetry and prose, simultaneously on the same topics, as you did with The House of Straw and Burying the Typewriter? I’m aware that the incidents in the poems we have talked about are also narrated in the memoir. How do you switch from one to the other? Do you have to rethink, no this is better as prose or this comes as poetry and that’s it. Incidents and experiences are not exclusive between the two books are they? Does the tension or the dynamic between the two promote the next idea, the next clue to what you want to say? Is it an enterprise you would repeat? 
 
CB I am going through this strange experience again right now, and it is again another surprise! I set out to research some 4.500 pages of secret files that were kept on me and my family by the Romanian secret police from 1961 until 1989. While doing the research thinking I am now going to write a book that picks up on the train on the way out of Romania and take the view on our family through the secret police documents (indeed you can write Burying the Typewriter again just by assembling the records on the family and call the book ‘Burying the Typewriter in the words of the secret police’), I came across the complete inventory of what was in our house the day my father left to demonstrate against Ceausescu in Bucharest. I found in there that on the dresser mirror in our living room, just as you walk into the house through the veranda, there was a porcelain bird; my sister and I broke one of its wings and fixed it with my mother’s nail polish. That memory came to me as if it has just happened and the poetry book that I am writing now in conjunction with the memoir will be called ‘Releasing the porcelain birds’. The book of poems came to my mind the day I read the inventory. Ironically, these awful surveillance documents on us, aside from the damage they are doing now on reading them, have also preserved these memories of what we owned—they are a lifeline to the past that most people would love to have! It’s like that porcelain bird is being released by mistake while it was meant to remain forever caged.  But the book is also about release of personal pain, a way into peace, by using the poetry as a healing instrument, the poetry itself now being the artefact that frees the imagination. Again, in this book I am putting whatever is so strong it wouldn’t work as a narrative. Both books though will have a variety of voices, text from the secret police files, our own voices, and the narrator’s voice working together to portray different kinds of realities that will clash and compete with each other in an attempt to portray the complexity of living now with an ‘archival identity’.  
 
Photo of Carmen Bugan by Alessandro Triccoli.
See details here of a BBC television programme featuring Carmen Bugan's return to Romania.
15 March 2014