Michele Lesko: What prompted you to become a poet early on, and what compels you now that poetry has become your vocation?
Andrei Guruianu: I’m not sure I ever made the decision to become a poet at any specific moment. I can recall the first time I took a poetry class in college and wrote my first poems (if I could even call them that now), but I don’t think there is a definitive moment I can point to that solidified my decision to pursue poetry after that. It was always “something on the side” for me, something I did when I wasn’t working as a reporter or doing the many other jobs I held over the past decade and a half. And to some extent I think that’s what kept me liking poetry and writing it – it was never part of my vocation and I suppose it still isn’t. I do other things for a living and poetry has remained a space yet uncluttered by the trappings of “work.”
ML: I was told, “You're not a professional until you get paid for your writing.” Has publishing your books created a different approach to your writing life?
AG: You must be confusing publishing a poetry book with getting paid! My royalty checks so far might be sufficient for a decent night out, though I might be on my own for drinks afterwards (so if anyone’s offering, I prefer Jack and Coke).
ML: You were born in Bucharest, Romania but went through adolescence & grew to be an adult in the United States. Your family's immigrant experience is at your core, but how has living in such disparate cities as Brooklyn, Queens, & Binghamton influenced your work?
AG: I had a conversation that veered in this direction recently with a colleague, and she said “you’re always in between.” I suppose I’ve always known that, but it’s interesting to see how easily someone picks up on it just after knowing a bit about me and my work. I’m always in a state of flux is how I see it. For many it is a disorienting experience, and at first I thought so as well, but once you realize that the perpetual motion and in-betweenness are your constant, it becomes a way of life. And that realization has been freeing to some extent. As writers I think we are meant to live in-between. Never quite settled, never quite at ease – it’s in those moments that the good stuff happens, in those moments the making sense takes place and we translate that to the best of our abilities on the page. I’ve found a way to work in this state of being and someone thrive on it, but I’m not sure I’d wish it on anyone else.
ML: Let's talk about process. What do you need in the physical realm to write good poems? And, to follow through with process, what prompts your poems and how do you follow through when you're onto something you feel is moving you in the right direction?
AG: Images. I work best when visually stimulated, be it a photograph or seeing a new place. Some writers are inspired by bits of conversation or sound, but for me the visual element is always at the forefront of imagination – the rest comes in later to complete that picture. In terms of process, most would find it disappointing – I don’t have a ritual per se that I adhere to, I don’t wake up early to write for three hours straight, I don’t stay up late to do the same. I write when I’m inspired, and that sometimes means writing several poems a day for weeks on end (towards the end of 2013 I gave myself a challenge to write 100 poems in 3 months, which I did), or writing a poem a month (maybe), which is the state I’m in at the moment. Since the 2013 episode that resulted in a whole book, this is the only thing I’ve written:
And in this
my neck away
ML: I enjoy the plain spoken aspect of many of your poems. For instance, your poem, “The Longest Morning,” opens with a chatty, light feel, invoking the master of ordinary detail, Billy Collins, but, because it's your mind at work, the poem has its dark thread woven into the fabric of insomnia's demands in an ordinary household. It cycles from the referential set-up through the poet's detailed account of “warm milk” and “kitchen light,” to pull the reader into the depths, which, finally, speak to the core issue. Its center is revealed in the penultimate stanza. There is no escape.
Only the bird is quiet, still,
prolonged, dragged out
nothing unexpected about that,
This is the grace note, where longing is shown to exist inside an everyman, taken-for-granted norm of a successful life. With the slightest nod to Frost's diverging paths, the schism that exists between our sublime dreams and the path we daily take to insure lifelong stability, the seed from which the narrator's insomnia sprouts is quietly revealed and the escape plan is hatched in that other path. Can you recall for us the path this poem took from draft to publication?
AG: I wonder if this "dark thread" of my "mind at work" is a good thing or a bad thing. I think ultimately it just is. Honestly though, while Frost is turning in his now-thawing grave, the path for this poem is pretty banal, though the message is hardly that. I can’t sleep. Haven’t been able to for years, therefore the insomnia. Years ago I used to own a bird, and his cage was in the dining room on the way to the kitchen, where I would go for a drink in the middle of the night. Passing by his cage one night, seeing him there just trying to keep still and sleep through my disturbance, it dawned on me how much more peaceful and happy he must be in the night, when the reality that was now his life was not a conscious thing; how much he must have suffered through his waking hours, much as we all have in certain moments, when we pause to process the reality of our days.
ML: Even as you speak of distancing yourself from the poetry of diaspora, the ordinary, as in the “American” dream, revisits the deeper longing to return “home.” That home is the intangible that shines like a silver thread, working its way through your poetry. IthacaLit was founded on the premise that we're all seeking that intangible home through connection in life, art & literature. Does the empathy, the recognition of parallel longing, in your readers' connection with your work ever come to you as a moment of release?
AG: I appreciate the distinction between longing for a physical home as a member of a certain diaspora and a metaphorical home that is ultimately just a human trait. Looking for parallels, ways of connecting is also human, and it is inevitable that readers will look for that link, for that way to “get” the writers, for a way into the work itself. But I think for me it’s not really a moment of release. It might be closer to a moment of despair. By that I mean that if a reader enters my work expecting a connection two things will happen – they will find it or they will not. If they find it, of course I am happy, but even that has its pitfalls as that connection might be superficial, something entirely out of my control. If they don’t connect, then the work fails in that moment (not as a work in itself but as a tool for bridging two worlds). So I think I am reluctant here to accept the word “connect” as the think I want my readers to do when engaging with my work. It is precisely for this reason that I have been working away from a poetry of diaspora that allows too easily (and begs for it) for that moment of empathy.
ML: What detours really stand out as pivotal moments in your writing life?
AG: I think I’ve been lucky to find a way to write through most of what life has thrown at me. Each new direction has taken me to a place where my writing has had to adapt, adjust and grow, especially in terms of form and style. The only setback has been time. I devote myself entirely to work as a teacher, and that has at times left little room to write.
ML: As a professor, how do you balance your writing time, when or if teaching and reading student work takes up space in your head?
AG: See above!
ML: Can writing clarify our life experience or how we make meaning?
AG: Writing can only clarify your own experience or possibly complicate it. It should not aspire outwardly to do so for others. Outside of that you have no control over its effects. To expect that is to work towards an aesthetic driven not of instinct and inspiration but a kind of mechanics of meaning (i.e. I will tell you now what this means). In the end, the humility of not knowing is incredibly refreshing and freeing – for a writer to not know is both a curse and a blessing.
ML: What advice do you offer aspiring poets?
AG: Don’t aspire to it. Sit down and write.