Vera Falenko, Contributing Editor

Interview: Featured Writer Claudia Serea

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.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? How and when did you arrive in the US?

CS: I grew up in Târgoviste, a historic town two hours north of Bucharest, the former capital of the southern province of Romania. I came of age in the communist “golden era,” Ceausescu’s dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s. My father was a chemical engineer and my mother taught middle school Romanian and French.

Things got progressively worse in the ’80s when the food and basic supplies penury reached its heights. Everything was rationed: bread, sugar, cooking oil, gas. The stores were empty and there were huge lines for everything useful, not only food. We had hot water only on weekends for a couple of hours, and only two hours of state-controlled TV each day. These things show up sometimes in my poems because they were part of daily life.

But I had a normal childhood, pretty uneventful. I played the violin. My parents did a good job sheltering me and my brother from everything. And you get used to not having certain things, like bananas, chocolate, or cartoons. It’s surprising how well humans adapt. In high school, I started to listen to Radio Free Europe, mostly because of their rock music hour. It was of course illegal, but everyone was doing it.

There wasn’t much TV to watch, so I turned to books instead. I was always bookish and shy, so I read a lot. In the ’80s, there weren’t many new translations being made because of censorship, but the classics were available. So I spent a lot of time reading.

Then, in 1989, the revolution happened, and the whole communist structure went bust. For the first time, there was freedom, freedom to travel, to do anything. We didn’t really know what to do with that much freedom, except to emigrate. In fact, emigrating is the thing to do, even now, 30 years later. I recently read that Romanians are now the people with the largest diaspora on the planet, after Jewish people. That gives you an idea about how hopeless life in Romania still is, especially for the young generations.

At the insistence of a close friend, I applied to the visa lottery. It’s a program of the State Department called “Diversity Visa,” through which a certain number of green cards are awarded to a quota of immigrants from different countries. The computer drew my application number. Ironically, my good friend who suggested to emigrate together didn’t get the visa.

I flew directly to New York in June 1995, by myself, because I knew English and I could potentially get a job. I was 26, and terrified. First time on my own, and in NY, no less (my husband, who didn’t know a word of English, followed shortly, in July.) Getting used to the new life at the New York pace was one of the hardest things I did. I had no friends, no family, no clue. I knew English, but everyone talked so fast! I couldn’t keep up translating in my head. But I was lucky enough to land a hostess job in a restaurant, two weeks after my arrival. I seated tons of people and smiled a lot. The rest, as they say, it’s history.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What is your background and education? Did you study creative writing or poetry?

CS: Believe it or not, I have a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest. I never studied language, writing, or poetry formally. My father wanted me to become a doctor, but I was afraid I’d flunk the brutal entrance exam to the medical school, so we settled for chemical engineering with the plan to finish my studies and come back to Târgoviste to work in the same factory as he did.

Then, the revolution happened, and the entire job system disappeared overnight. There were no more engineering jobs for young graduates, so I had to improvise. I was lucky I could afford to go to school and study fashion illustration for 2 years in the early nineties. My first job was a fashion designer in a small studio. Then I emigrated in 1995. In the United States, I went back to school again, to study graphic design and advertising. I worked as an art director for 18 years and just recently switched to copywriting. So it’s been a long and convoluted way and a lot of improvising, and I never got around to study writing. But I always wrote.

Falenko for O:JA&L: When did you start writing poetry?

CS: I started by writing prose first, not poetry. I think I was in 6th or 7th grade. Ioana, my best friend from Romania and I wrote sci-fi novels. I wrote a trilogy about kids my age who had adventures in space. I’m still thinking I should go back to it and translate it someday.

Poetry came later, in high school. I participated in local poetry contests, won some awards, but nothing major. Then I went to Bucharest and poked around the workshops and journals, but nothing really stuck. I went to a more famous workshop at the University of Bucharest and got butchered. I wrote through my first 3 years of college but published very little. But I impressed my boyfriend! And we ended up getting married, so there’s that.

After the regime change in 1989, I went on a long hiatus. Life got in the way. I kept a journal, but everything was changing very fast, and continued to change when I emigrated and started over. It wasn’t until 2002 that I started writing poetry again in Romanian, on and off. I switched to English in 2004. I published one or two poems per year for a few years, and never thought serious poetry was possible until 2007 when I joined The Red Wheelbarrow Poets group in Rutherford, NJ. For the first time since I moved to the United States, I met real, contemporary American poets, and it was a revelation. It’s because of the group and our weekly workshops I can say I’m writing today. Specifically, I credit the group leader, Jim Klein, with completely changing my style, my esthetic, and forcing me to face my Old-World poetry prejudices and reinvent myself as a Romanian-American poet. So that was huge.

Falenko for O:JA&L: You’ve published five books of poetry and four chapbooks, the most recent published in 2018; you co-edited and co-translated The Vanishing Point That Whistles, an anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry published in 2011; you translated Adina Dabija’s poetry book, published in 2012; you co-founded National Translation Month in 2013; you are an organizer of events in New Jersey and New York City. Did I leave anything out? Did you win awards, too? What other achievements can you tell me about?

CS: I didn’t win any of the major awards, but poetry has been very good to me. I’ve been fortunate. My poem sequence, My Father’s Quiets Friends in Prison, 1958-1962 received the New Letters Readers Award in 2013. I won the Levure Littéraire 2014 Award for Poetry Performance, the 2011 Franklin-Christoph Merit Award, a translation grant from the Romanian Cultural Institute in 2011, and several honorable mentions and short lists for my poems and chapbooks. I was short-listed for the 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical poem, The Dictionary, and nominated 9 times for the Pushcart Prize and 5 times for the Best of the Net. I stopped submitting to contests a while ago when I realized that fees are adding up quickly and many contests are just a way of raising money.

I am the happiest with my collaborations with others artists. For example, in 2018, my poem In Those Years, No One Slept was set to music for choir by composer Richard Campbell and the piece won the top prize at The Uncommon Music Festival Competition in Sitka, AK. Since then, the piece was performed by choirs in several states, most notably at an event at the Pullo Center in York, PA, commemorating 100 years since the end of WWI.

In 2015, I was featured in the documentary Poetry of Witness alongside Carolyn Forché, Bruce Weigl, Duncan Wu, and others. That was a great honor, as it’s really important to me to share my family’s story of oppression in communist Romania. I am the daughter and granddaughter of former political prisoners. In 1958, a huge wave of violence swept the country in the push of the regime to complete the nationalization of the land. Every peasant who didn’t want to give away their little parcel of land, horse, or tractor to the collective was accused of “conspiracy against social order,” sent to a masquerade trial, then off to prison or forced labor camps. Among the hundreds of thousands arrested and purged, were my grandfather and his two sons, my father and my uncle. My grandfather was sentenced to 25 years of hard prison. My father was 18 at the time of his arrest. He was sentenced to 8 years for a poem the Securitate found in his notebook when they ransacked the house. My uncle was arrested earlier in connection with the Hungary uprising and sentenced to 10 years. So it’s really important to me to write about these experiences poems of direct and indirect witness. I feel it’s my responsibility to write about history, share their stories, and give them a voice.

Falenko for O:JA&L: That’s a good segway into my next question: What personal and non-personal events have shaped your writing?

CS: All the events are personal when I write about them. I write about history and its pain because I grew up in a communist dictatorship and my immediate family was oppressed by the regime, as were millions of others. I grew up waiting in lines for bread and for toilet paper in the 80s under Ceausescu’s rule. I was a student when the Romanian Revolution happened in 1989, and I went to Bucharest to guard my university against “terrorists.” That was foolish, of course, but it felt right at the time. I immigrated to the United States, and I write about that experience, about coming to New York City by myself and the loneliness of living between two worlds. I write a lot about New York City, the city itself is a character. I write about my father a lot—he is my connection with history and with Romania more than anyone else in my family. I write about the duality of my life, my two lives going on at the same time, a Romanian life and an American one. I write about dreams and nightmares. I write about my daughter sometimes, and about love, but in general, I prefer darker topics, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Who are some of your favorite writers and why? Which writers are so inspirational to you that you read them over and over?

CS: Oh, I have many favorites, but I’ll name just a few. They are writers who just speak to me, there’s no other way to describe it. Writers from which I learn and who make me want to write better. From the Romanian poets, certainly Mircea Cartarescu, Ioan Es. Pop, Cristian Popescu, among many other crazy good young poets that I admire. On the American side, my biggest discovery was William Carlos Williams. I moved to Rutherford, NJ, in 2002, and I had never heard of him. I ended up studying him, trying to understand the American idiom. Later, I discovered Charles Simic. I just love him, he speaks to my sensibility—and there is nothing better than The World Never Ends. Also, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Peter Balakian. I always go back to them; I have a stack on my nightstand.

And I can’t forget some international names: Anna Akhmatova, and also Tomas Tranströmer, Federico Garcia Lorca (“Poet In New York” was a revelation), Rilke, Neruda (especially “The Book of Questions” and “22 Love Songs.”) I must add some novelists as well: Mircea Eliade, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Herta Muller. I could go on and on, really, but I’ll stop here.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Where is your favorite place to write?

CS: I don’t have a favorite place to write. I don’t sit in a favorite chair, or gaze out the window, etc. Ok, some gazing is involved, because I write on the bus on my daily commute between New Jersey and New York. I commute about an hour each way, and I use that time to read and write. I always carry a notebook and jot down fragments of thoughts or poems, sometimes long, sometimes very short. Every few days, I can string a poem from these fragments, usually on the bus or on Sunday afternoons. I think about poems while I’m doing housework or gardening, and revise in my head. I type a draft on Sundays that I revise on Monday night for the workshop on Tuesday night every week. I go to The Red Wheelbarrow Poets workshop almost every week, where we share and critique our poems. It forces me to come up with a new poem each week, good or bad; in time, I gather enough work for a collection.

After the workshop on Tuesdays, I don’t like to revise a lot—I like to be “done.” So on Wednesdays, I make the revisions suggested and I am either done and submit the poem right away to be published, or, if I’m not happy with it, I let it sit a while. I always submit for publication everything I write, and publish about 80% of my writing. I don’t let my poems sit in a drawer, and I don’t revise a lot after the workshop. My notebooks are a huge mess, but I tend to take to the workshop a later draft, a cleaner copy.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What inspires you? How do you get ideas for poems?

CS: I never run out of ideas, lol. I’m inspired by many things: things I read or hear, memories, dreams, snippets of conversations. I am a visual person, so sometimes I string along images like strange photographs. New York City is a great source of inspiration, with its absurdity, almost as absurd as history. I make literal translations of Romanian proverbs or jokes, these are great, and they sound so unusual in English. I use stories I know from my father or grandmother, or my own childhood memories. There’s always something to write about.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Do you use special techniques you can share? Is it something that’s unique to your style or that you find you do often?

CS: Some say I’m a surrealist, but it’s only because I write about history in Eastern Europe that is so surreal, I don’t have to invent that much. I use free association and dreams to create an eerie atmosphere. I use nature images to convey emotion and pain. Usually, my opinion is, the crazier the better, so I don’t shy away from weirdness or darkness, on the contrary. Sometimes, I like to start in one place and end up somewhere completely different, or I start with the general and close with the personal. I use refrains and repetition to rev up emotion, a technique I learned from Dr. Williams. Then, I vary it just a little to surprise the reader. I like surprises.

Longer poems come up from shorter fragments I string loosely together. I like it when the poem has a life of its own and moves in different directions, or if each section sets in motion the next one. I usually take a long time to write a longer piece, to make sure all the parts fit together like a machine. Williams said, “The poem is a machine made of words,” and I wrote a poem titled “Sometimes I feel like a mechanic.”

Falenko for O:JA&L: Tell me more about the common themes and forms of your poetry. Do you group the poems by themes and form in your books?

CS: Actually, I think I write several books at the same time, not in a linear fashion, but very scattered. I jump from free verse narrative, to free verse surreal, to prose poetry surreal, and sometimes I mix and match. I draw from history, family, immigration, Romania, America, dreams, nightmares, New York City, love, death. Sometimes, the poems combine several themes that intertwine. I write mostly free verse, and on occasion, prose poems. My prose poems are the strangest ones, with a more surprising, absurd bent. They are so much fun to write, a little magic and mischievous.

I write without thinking of grouping anything, just whatever strikes me. After a few years, I have enough poems to start grouping them by themes and think about the collection as a whole. I organize sections and see if I need more of a certain theme to flesh out a section. It can take me 2-3 years or more to shape a book, about 1 year to submit it, and another year usually until it’s published. So books that published in 2012 and 2013 collect poems form 2008-2009. It’s a long process, but poets live in light years, not regular years, lol.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Who is the ideal reader of your works? For what audience do you write?

CS: I don’t write with a particular audience in mind. I write for myself, what I like. Sometimes I like to think I write for my daughter, so she knows her family history and how her parents immigrated, how we grew up in Romania, etc. So I think my poems are a way to memorialize our experience.

I think a younger audience would like my prose poems because they are a newer trend. Also the poems inspired by New York City and my father, maybe the love poems, too. An older audience who remembers the Cold War would be more attracted to the poems inspired by history and by Romania. But I can’t be sure that’s how it goes.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Tell me a few words about your books. What is your most recent one?

CS: My most recent book is different from all the other ones I wrote before. Twoxism is a poetry-photography collaboration project with my good friend, Maria Haro. It was published in December 2018 by 8th House Publishing in Montreal, Canada. It’s a collection of love poems because Twoxism is an invented word for all things two—among them, love, friendship, and relationships. Twoxism actually started as a blog for which Maria took the photos and I wrote the poems they inspired. In April 2017, 33 selections from the blog became an art exhibition that opened in New York City. We had a great response to the blog, and we are continuing the project today, posting new poems and photos on Instagram—it’s great fun.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What is your book that received most critical acclaim? Or that you think represents your writing best?

CS: That would be Nothing Important Happened Today, published in 2016 by Broadstone Books. The ironic title of the book comes from a presumed diary entry for July 4th, 1776, made by King George III on the day the United States declared independence from the British Empire—but that’s a myth that’s been debunked. It’s a collection of poems about my journey between my two worlds, from the Bucharest of my youth and the bloody revolution in December 1989 to immigrating to New York City, and the back and forth pendulum-like movement of my life between Romania and my present home in New Jersey. It’s a book very dear to me.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Tell me about your other books. Which one was the first one? What are they about?

The first book I wrote was To Part Is the Die a Little (Červená Barva Press, 2015), another book about immigration, about my decision to leave Romania and my first impressions from New York City where I worked in a restaurant; poems about memories, old and new friends, about carving a new life and meeting people from all over the world. There are poems of longing for home before I knew my home was here. But, in a surprising twist of events, this book published 3rd in 2015.

The first book I published was Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, Canada, 2012), a collection of short surreal prose poems inspired by my daughter’s nightmares, dreams, old folk tales and Romanian myths, pieces of news, and fragments of the “only in New York” kind.

My next book was A Dirt Road Hangs From the Sky(8th House Publishing, Montreal, Canada, 2013), about the repression suffered by my family in Romania in the late 50s to early 60s. It occurred to me that when all these events happened, my grandmother was in her 40s. In one year, 1958, she lost everything: her husband and her two sons were sent to prisons, and she didn’t know if she’d see them alive again; she was evicted from her house and all her possessions were confiscated. This book is about her and about the countless other victims. It’s a book about memory, pain, and ultimately about surviving.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What are your most well-known poems, and how do they differ from your newest ones? What are your personal favorites?

CS: My most well-known poems are the ones from the sequence My Father’s Quiets Friends in Prison, 1958-1962 that received the New Letters Readers Award in 2013 and were turned into video poems featured at several international festivals. Also, witness poems from A Dirt Road Hangs From the Sky: The Dictionary on The Coil; For the forty soldiers of the XII Legion Fulminata; The first 80,000 are hard; the next 2 million are easy. And the newer poem In Those Years, No One Slept set to music for choir by composer Richard Campbell, and which is currently being performed by choirs across the country.

My personal favorites are from Nothing Important Happened Today: My father, the great stone statue, about my father, and The greatest city on earth about New York City. I always like to read them.

My newest projects are mixed, as usual. I have a new collection of surreal prose poems that will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. They are a little stranger than the ones in Angels & Beasts, and a little longer. And I am writing more narrative poems, more poems about my father who has some health problems, so the poems are about his troubles, and poems about history and immigration.

Falenko for O:JA&L: In your view, what is the role of the artist in the contemporary cultural life?

CS: Coming from Romania, I feel fortunate to be in the United States and share my poems in English with the writers here. Who knew something like this could happen? I never thought I would get here in the first place. We get to write and express ourselves, and that is thrilling to me. I am very grateful for that. In turn, we must fight to open doors for others, and not create in a vacuum. There are countless artists and poets who live under oppressive regimes and don’t get this chance. We need to raise our voices and help them in any way we can. It’s an uphill battle, but I have faith we can change history with our writing, with our poems. There is no way an oppressive regime will be able to stifle expression forever. Sooner or later, they will all fall. I have hope we can contribute to that.


About the Interviewer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). She is a senior teacher of foreign languages at Alibra School, a private institution in Moscow. Falenko provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.

Images: All images courtesy of Claudia Serea.