Featured Writer Claudia Serea

So Sweet and So Cold:
Plums and Poems from Romania to New Jersey

I would say poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organized . . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has any worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is.
 William Carlos Williams, Paterson

When my husband and I bought a house and moved to Rutherford, NJ in 2002, I had no idea it was the hometown of the celebrated doctor poet, Williams Carlos Williams. In fact, I had no clue who Williams was and had never read any of his poems. At the time, I had stopped writing poetry for more than 10 years (while dealing with career changes, emigrating, going back to school in the U.S., and getting my first real job after that) and had never imagined writing in English, my second language.

My new home had two large, built-in bookcases I immediately wanted to fill with my favorite books. There was a Borders store on 33rd Street in New York City near my work, and I spent many lunch hours there looking for authors I had read in Romanian and couldn’t wait to read again in English. But Williams was not one of them. At about that time, I discovered Lolita and fell in love with Nabokov’s language, writing in the journal I kept that I would never be able to write in English, and that was ok because others have already written so well before me.

Soon after moving to Rutherford in 2002, I started writing poetry again in Romanian on my daily commute to New York City. Two years later, in 2004, I made the jump to English, unexpectedly, while I was on maternity leave. At first, I translated my old Romanian poems; later, I started to write directly in English out of the desire that my American-born daughter would be able to read them some day.

When my daughter was two-and-a-half years old and my father visited us in the summer of 2006, he saw a note in The South Bergenite and called my attention to it. He didn’t know English but recognized the words “poets” and “poetry” which are close to their Romanian counterparts. The note was announcing the launch of a local poetry reading at the Rutherford library—but, with a young child and my husband working late nights as a waiter in New York City, it was impossible for me to attend. It wasn’t until 2007, when my husband changed jobs, that I could check out the events at the Rutherford library. And that’s when I first went to my first poetry workshop, met The Red Wheelbarrow Poets, and heard of Williams for the first time.

For the first time, I met contemporary American poets, educated in American schools, living and writing in New Jersey, carrying on the legacy of William Carlos Williams in his hometown. Some lived in Rutherford, others drove from miles away to meet once a week in the glass room at the library. They were journalists, editors, IT professionals, social workers, lawyers, teachers, some retired, some still working full time jobs, led by a former professor at Farleigh Dickinson University, Jim Klein. Only Zorida Mohammed and I were foreign-born—and I was the only Romanian there. I can’t deny I had a culture-shock moment. My Romanian-ness and my accent stuck out too much. My taste in literature was different. There was so much about the American letters I didn’t know. I felt self-conscious and misunderstood, and I had a long way to go, learning about Williams and the American idiom.

I was so new to writing poetry and so afraid of writing in English. I had only started writing again recently, and, by 2007, I had a few poems published at the rate of 1 or 2 per year. My first published poem had won an Honorable Mention in a poetry contest held by Oberon in 2005. In 2006, another poem I wrote in English was awarded Special Merit Poem by The Comstock Review. My first chapbook, Eternity’s Orthography, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. Here’s the poem that won Oberon’s Honorable Mention in 2005:

paper cup city 

the dark coffee
        of mornings
in a paper cup
.          city

people stand in line;
their loneliness—
.          the loneliness
of plastic straws
        on a shelf

.          is a plastic
teaspoon in the sky,
.          over
paper plates
.          and brown napkins

everyday coffee
.          from paper cups
we forget

there is fine China
.          in China
and porcelain towns
with silver teaspoons
.         daybreaks

.     where

My first poems written in English were timid and minimalist, reflecting my attitude towards the language and a host of preconceptions built in by my Old-World education. The poem suffers from the “pathetic fallacy,” personifying the paper cups and plastic straws. So the first thing the workshop leader, Jim Klein, did was to assign me to read some “remedial Williams” as he put it. I bought the Selected Poems, edited by Charles Tomlinson, and took it with me on my daily bus commute to study it.

I can’t say that I loved Williams at first sight. His poems were too plain, too simple. Mine were simple, too, but I was used to poetry that was a dance of abstractions and metaphors, not a realist series of observations. Imagine my surprise when I came across one of Williams’ most famous poems, “This Is Just to Say,” which is nothing more than a fridge note:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

“This Is Just to Say,” written in 1934, is the embodiment of a fundamental Williams axiom, “No ideas but in things,” which is a line from his 1927 version of Paterson. This simple line is credited with changing poetry more than any single idea in the 20th century. It postulates that the poet’s role is not to gaze inward at the landscape of her thoughts, but outward at her immediate surroundings. The poem should capture the immediacy of the “things” in the simplest way possible, almost like a photograph, without worrying about the larger meaning, or even about metaphor. Most surprisingly, this immediate realism I had rejected at first, and this simple language, connect with the reader right away, unleashing emotion without making the reader aware of it in what Jim Klein called “the pickpocket test.” I paraphrase: “The pickpocket thieves train by placing a bell in the target pocket. The thief-in-training would try to pick the pocket without ringing the bell. Such is the way the poet should write, without calling too much attention to the poem, or himself.”

For months, I struggled with Williams’ “No ideas but in things,” mainly because I liked my abstract ideas, and I was conditioned by my Romanian education that the role of the poet is to bring something new to language, thinking, or form. But here, in Rutherford, abstract concepts or vague feelings had no value. The American poets encouraged me to write about what I knew, but in a different way than I knew, and use Williams’ language from “the mouths of Polish mothers,” another precept I didn’t get. My poems got shredded in the workshop every week. I had to let go of writing about images and ideas, about abstract concepts and feelings, and simply abandon my old aesthetic and build a new, Williams-centered one. In my quest to understand America and write in the American idiom, I had to be re-born into it, completely scrap everything I was doing up to that point, and start over. In the process, I felt guilty about abandoning my native language (and that led to my work as a translator, but that’s another story). Being re-born as a writer in English, my second language, took almost a year of Williams-immersion, rejection, and writing. It’s surprising how long and convoluted is the road to simplicity, to Williams’ “so sweet and so cold” plums.

Speaking of plums, it seems they show up in several poems Williams wrote over the years, even though he didn’t write much about food. Besides “This is just to say,” delicious in its “sorry/not sorry” coldness, there is another poem about a poor woman eating a plum. The abandon of the simple act and the repetition are key elements to watch for in this poem:

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

Notice how the repetition revs up emotion in the simplest, most effective way. The lack of punctuation adds speed and immediacy to the poem. And, by varying the line breaks within that stanza, a crescendo effect is achieved:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

I used this technique almost identically in my poem about immigration, to add movement and emotion. I often use repetition of one or multiple lines to create an echo effect. And, by adding a period only at the end, the speed increases, contrasting with the full stop:

When I grow up I will emigrate
when I finish school I will
emigrate when I finish college
I will emigrate when I look
for a job I will emigrate when
I marry I will emigrate when I
have a child I will emigrate
when I get a divorce I will
emigrate when I’m old
I will emigrate when I die.

Williams’ plums show up in other poems as well, which leads me to believe he enjoyed writing about the unassuming fruits. It’s possible he liked eating plums—but it’s also possible he used the plums as a symbol for language. Think about it: the plums are not too sweet, they are rather tart, with a hard flesh. They are simple, accessible, unpretentious, eaten by the poor and certainly by the Polish mothers. And most importantly, they are juicy. Juiciness is crucial: it conveys the liveliness of the simple language and the characters’ zest for life. The juiciness of the plums transcends the page, guards against sentimentality, and brings the poem and its protagonists to life.

So my lesson was to write about my parents’ orchard of apple and plum trees. I learned that including a personal detail brings out the poem’s “truth.” I noticed that writing about my immigration experience and my family brings out a stronger, deeper voice. Writing “what you know” doesn’t mean don’t experiment, but to find that vein of truth and connect with your poem at the deepest level.

Williams is also credited with saying “A poem is a machine made of words.” In his Introduction to The Wedge (1944), he wrote that “[a] poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”; he continues, “poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” The role of the poet is to fit the parts perfectly together, make each line, each word, and each syllable count, and cut any excess. Think about the carpenters and mechanics of the past: not a single extra nail or screw is included in the final piece, such is the perfection of their craft. I learned from Williams that all the parts of the poem (stanzas, line breaks, even spaces) need to move the poem further, propelling it with its own engine. This is especially true when working on a longer poem I assemble from fragments written on my bus commute. I often see my own work as that of a fine mechanic forever fitting small parts together. Writing in a second language comes with an awareness of every English word, and sometimes with a blindness to how it appears on paper—so I rely on the sounds and beats of the lines instead.

Williams was a master of the line and line breaks. In fact, he uses the line breaks to free the poem from its formal constraints and give it natural breath. One of the most important things a poet can do is to “write for the ear, not the eye,” as Jim Klein puts it. The way to do that is to read aloud your poem and break the line in the places you pause naturally for breathing. You will soon notice that certain words “want” to be more important than others, and, if you place them at the end of the line, they become more important. You’ll notice they often contain long vowel sounds like oh, ee, or ay, or strong consonants like t or k. These words stand out and demand to be at the end of the line.

The length of the line is important, too. Short lines speed up, while long lines are more meditative. In “This Is Just to Say,” Williams uses very short lines with no punctuation for maximum speed. He uses the line and stanza breaks instead of punctuation:

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This technique makes sense for a fridge note that might not use punctuation in real life, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense for your poem. In Paterson, Williams’ lines grow long and epic, with plentiful punctuation. Jim Klein is a fan of punctuation because it adds structure and organizes the thoughts on the page. You add punctuation for clarity, or subtract it, using spaces or line breaks and stanza breaks for a deconstructive feel—just remember to be consistent and use the pickpocket rule to not draw too much attention to your punctuation use, or lack of it.

Speaking of lines, you’ll notice that some lines are stronger than others. It’s a good thing to use the stronger lines at the beginning or ending of a stanza, or poem, forming what Klein calls a “firm top” or a “firm bottom.” Sometimes I use them by themselves for extra punch in the middle.

Think of the poem as a short movie: each time the camera focuses on a new thing, there is a stanza break. In “This Is Just to Say,” the poem is divided into perfect quatrains. Maybe Williams’ intention was to mimic the ice cubes with his stanzas, but you should do what feels natural and logical for your poem: break into stanzas for emphasis and point of view of the camera, not for the looks. Let the content dictate the form of the poem.

Many poets use the popular way to write in two-line couplets with same-length lines, which feel to me too controlled. Sometimes they force enjambments in unnatural places in order to fit the form. Try to avoid this way of writing—it’s a mannerism that draws too much attention to the poet, rather than to what is happening in the poem.  If you find that your poems start looking all the same, you are suffering from “stanza-itis,” as Klein puts it, a condition that compels the poet to signal to the reader, “This is a poem, watch out.” Remember Williams plums: letting the poem flow the way it wants retains its juiciness, as opposed to making it feel dry or chopped up in unnatural stanzas (unless you’re going for ice cubes). Try to retain the uneven lines, too: use longer, more dramatic lines and short and punchy ones. Think of the plums: small, but filling; crisp, with hard flesh; sweet, but also tart. Contrast is a good source of juice for the poem.

I made all of these mistakes in my poems, without even realizing what I was doing. The Red Wheelbarrow Poets helped me every week at the workshop, pointing out what was working and what wasn’t—and they still do. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to find your own tribe of poets, a group on which you can bounce off your poems and get precious feedback. A weekly workshop like ours in invaluable and very rare—so start your own workshop if you don’t find a group, and build your own community. All you need is a little space at your local library or a café that benefits from the added traffic. The Red Wheelbarrow workshop is the best thing that ever happened to my writing.

Slowly, with the help of other poets and Williams, I reached a level of immersion in language and of understanding of my own emotions and connection with it. There are writers who consider themselves “writers of the world” (and certainly the Romanian diaspora of writers is growing each year) who claim they can move with ease from Romanian to English and back. For me, it wasn’t easy. It was a long process that included understanding of my own need to write. For years, I struggled with the need to “belong” in one language and culture, aware of the fact that I was caught between Romanian and English, bound to write in that tight interstitial space, but also doomed to be an outsider of both. I wrestled with questions like: Who am I writing for? In Romanian or in English? Why would an American reader care about poems written in English about Romania or by a Romanian? And why write at all, anyway?

Williams resolves this tension with the simple statement, “The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.” At a certain point, it occurred to me that my writing about Bucharest is the same as someone else’s writing about Detroit. The impulse to write about the Romanian plains is the same as writing about fields in Indiana. And writing about the Danube is no different than writing about the Ohio River. That realization gave me a great freedom. At that point, I was ready to embrace my Romanian roots, use them creatively, and completely merge them with English, thus creating my own American idiom, and perhaps even contributing some unique emotions and imagery to English in the process. But the same is true if you write about anything else, or any other part of the world or America: writing about your own roots creates your own idiom, unique to you—so no need to worry about being unique or inventing new forms or images, because you already are.

The best craft advice I ever got is about the creative process. It didn’t come from Williams, but from The Red Wheelbarrow Poets workshop leader, Jim Klein—and I paraphrase again: “You set out to write a poem and skate on its surface for a while. You skate and skate on the surface of the poem, and suddenly you break through the ice into the subconscious—and that’s when the ‘live language’ appears.” I don’t know if Williams used this technique in his poems, but I know he was very much concerned with the “live language.” He invented the term, referring to language that is unique, strong, and original, meaning it originates in the subconscious. The trick is to throw away the part or parts of the poem that helped you get there, the part “above the ice,” the scaffolding. “After the breakthrough happens, and you are under the ice, don’t reach back up to rearrange the first stanza,” Klein says—and I’ve certainly done that.

It’s the part about skating on the surface that is most intriguing to me, similar to the Law of the Meander devised by the architect Le Corbusier. When he was flying to South America, he saw the river Plata from the plane and compared its twists and turns to the “meandering of the creative mind.” He noticed that the river starts straight, but that it becomes increasingly sinuous in its journey through the plain until, “at the most desperate moment, there comes a point where the curves meet—Miracle!—and the water breaks through, creating a straight line once more.” This meandering, or skating, is essential to the creative process and for achieving the breakthrough, the “straight line” to the subconscious. It mimics life—it certainly mimics mine—and makes me believe that we’re writing, meandering, and skating, to find ourselves, to meet ourselves in the subconscious, and that’s the moment of the breakthrough. That’s when the true voice comes out, when you’re under the ice, “struggling for your life,” as Klein puts it. In my case, because it was such a departure from my previous aesthetic, I know exactly which poem was my breakthrough moment when I felt I had found my identity as a Romanian-American writer in my second language. It’s an ambiguous poem about immigration I wrote in the spring of 2008 that moves in several directions and still holds true today when the Romanian diaspora is only surpassed in numbers by the Jewish one. Here it is:

The last one to leave Romania turn off the light


.                    When I grow up I will emigrate
                  when I finish school I will
.                    emigrate when I finish college
.                    I will emigrate when I look
.                    or a job I will emigrate when
                  I marry I will emigrate when I
.                    have a child I will emigrate
.                    when I get a divorce I will
.                    emigrate when I’m old
I will emigrate when I die.

The last one to leave Romania turn off the light.


.                    We are not migrant people.
.                    We don’t have a clock in our brain
to tell us when it’s time to leave the country.

.          How do we know it’s time?
                  The wild geese know when fall comes
.                    when the leaves emigrate from the trees.


.                    We are willing to work harder
.                    somewhere else,
.                    we are willing to not speak our language
.                    somewhere else,
.                    we are willing to not speak at all
.                    somewhere else,
.                    we are willing to live underground
.                    somewhere else,
.                    we are willing to live in shame
.                    somewhere else,
.                    we are willing to have our children
.                    somewhere else,
we are willing to leave our children behind
.          somewhere else.


Poor nations export fruits
or the hands to pick or deliver them,
the delivery man said,
bringing oranges into a restaurant in New York City.


Strawberries in Spain, instead of sand castles.
Hope is a woman with crooked hands,
who strikes a match somewhere in Madrid
and smokes by a window.
The flicker is seen across countries and seas
and signals an army to move.
It’s temporary, we say.
It’s just for a while. For two years.
It’s for work. It’s only to save some money.
It will go fast.


                  I say, it’s a disease.
It’s a collective brain tumor caused by poor nutrition.
.          No milk, no meat, no eggs, no cheese.
The lack of protein makes the people docile
.                    but causes an unexplainable long-term longing.
.                    For better health
.                    and easy control of the masses—no sugar
.                    and absolutely no butter.

.                    Take away the bread and we all want to emigrate,
even after five generations.
Possible side effects:
                  blue tile in the bathroom,
.                    a new Logan car,
.                    an upgraded kitchen in the grandparents’ apartment
.                    where motherless children grow up
.                    having plenty of Play Stations, Dells,
.                    Samsungs and Erikssons.
.                    Electronics: a measure for happiness.


Strawberries in Spain.
Oranges in Greece.
Olives in Italy.
The fruit grows ripe with content,
knowing it will be picked by Romanian hands.
Meanwhile, my mother-in-law’s vineyard
is picked by crows and blackbirds.
Rugs of apples rot under the trees
in my parents’ orchard.
They are too old for so much work
and there is no help for hire.
Every night, my father leaves a light on,
just in case I come home.


Back to Williams’ plums: there is a fragment of The Library (Book Four) in which the main character wakes up from sleeping on the beach and eats some plums. The simple gesture of eating once again brings the character to life, and the language is fresh and juicy.

… Climbing the
bank, after a few tries, he picked
some beach plums from a low bush and
sampled one of them, spitting the seed out,
then headed inland, followed by the dog.

Octavio Paz said about Williams, “The greatness of a poet is not to be measured by the scale but by the intensity and the perfection of his works. Also by vivacity. Williams is the author of the most vivid poems of modern American poetry.” Surely, some of that is because of his use of the plums.

If you write about concrete “things,” not ideas, use repetition to enhance emotion, bring in some personal detail (we’re all voyeurs, right, and we need the personal detail narrative to connect with the reader emotionally), make sure the parts of the poem work together, write for the ear and not the eye, read aloud the poem and break the lines where you pause for breathing, let the poem dictate the form, throw away the stanzas or lines in which you were skating on the surface, and find your poetry tribe—you’re bound to create poems as fresh and juicy as Williams’ plums. And, as is the case with everything, if you keep at it long enough, you’ll get pretty good at writing poems. So don’t quit; never quit writing. Keep meandering, keep living, and keep writing. Read some “remedial Williams” from time to time. Every once in a while, you’ll break through the ice, and your writing will get “so sweet and so cold.” And that’s all one could ask for.


Works cited:

Le Corbusier. Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Paris: Crès, 1930, p.142. Print.
Menin, Sarah, and Samuel, Flora. Nature and Space: Alto and le Corbusier. London; New York: Routledge, 2003, p.83. Print.
Serea, Claudia. To Part Is to Die a Little. W. Sommerville: Červená Barva Press, 2015. Print.
Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1967. Print.
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson (Revised Edition Prepared by Christopher McGowan). New York: New Directions, 1995. Print.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays by William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1954. Print.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems. Ed. Charles Tomlinson. New York: New Directions, 1985. Print.


About the writer:
Claudia Serea’s poems have appeared in Field, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She has published five poetry collections, most recently TwoXism, a collaboration with photographer Maria Haro (8th House Publishing, 2018). Serea co-hosts The Williams Readings in Rutherford, NJ, and she is a founding editor of National Translation Month.

Images: Images courtesy of Claudia Serea.