Q&A: Mihaela Moscaliuc on fertile soil for earthy poetry
by HAP MANSFIELD
Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us in his book, “Nature” that “poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history,” a line Emerson attributes to Plato.
If you go …
What: Poet Mihaela Moscaliuc reads from her works
When: 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7
Where: The Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library, seventh floor
One of the truths of this statement is that Emerson sort of made a pastiche of Aristotle and Plato’s words there. This can illustrate many things but the thought itself stands strong and true. It is our poets who tell us of human emotions, dilemmas, dramas, sufferings and joys. The history books give us names and dates. Think of history as the phone book and poetry as the conversation.
Mihaela Moscaliuc has furthered this conversation with her award winning book of poetry, “Father Dirt”. The book has gotten rave reviews, most notably from poets David Risgsbee, Kimiko Hahn, Andrei Codrescu and Maxine Kumin. Most of her poems spin surprising images of her observations of life in communist and post-communist Romania.
Born in Ceauescu’s Romania, she lived under the iron fist of the communist dictator who was subsequently overthrown and executed on television on Christmas Day of 1989. Moscaliuc was a social worker in Romania in the early 90s, working with street children through the Body Shop Foundation. Many of the kids were Roma (Gypsy) children, a segment of the population that has suffered severe persecution. Her poetic reflections on this are poignantly informative.
After coming to America, Moscaliuc received her doctorate at the University of Maryland and now teaches at Monmouth University. Along the way, she met and married poet Michael Waters. She has also published translations of Romanian poets Liliana Ursu and Carmelia Leonte.
We talked with Moscaliuc about her life in Romania, the fate of the Roma in Romania, her poems and the importance of poetry.
She will speak and read at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State on Feb. 7, at 3:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
San Marcos Mercury: You grew up in a Romania under the crushing censorship of the Ceausescu regime. How in the world did you decide to become a poet?
Moscaliuc: I never decided to become a poet, really. I would say I’m someone who writes poetry, someone who writes out of need, out of guilt, out of various fears. I didn’t write before coming to the States and I am pretty positive I would have never written poetry if I had stayed there. I had turned to social work after graduating from college. It would have felt so inappropriate, so decadent to spend time with constellations of words when there was so much to do on the streets, under the bridge constellated with homeless children.
In many ways, I started writing because of the English language. I wanted to belong to the English language in ways in which I did not belong here as an immigrant (or later as an alien resident). I labored so hard over those first poems, and they were so overwrought that after a while (i.e., 20-30 hours into the revision process), I had no idea what they were trying to do. I cradled each word on my tongue to tease out every possible sound and flavor, to test its malleability, bend it, make it my own. Writing in English was and remains an intimate experience–sensual, tantalizing, transformative. Often poet teachers ask their students, “but what’s at stake here?” When I was writing those first poems I didn’t know how to answer, but I know now: my life was at stake–my life in an adopted language, a language nobody in my family spoke but also a language that had been a lifeline of sorts under communism. It all began with a middle school English teacher who risked a great deal, under Ceausescu’s regime, by bringing contraband to class—Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, but also Fitzgerald, Salinger, Heller—instead of the usual dose of communist indoctrination. In the States, the first two people to made poetry indispensable to my life were poet Michael Waters –whom I later wedded– and poet Gerald Stern.
Mercury: When I was a kid I longed to be either a Romany (gypsy) or a pirate, possibly because both lifestyles seemed so musical, fierce and free. But this childhood fantasy is far from the truth. I don’t know how many Americans know about this. Could you talk a bit about the Romany/Gypsy fates in Ceausescu’s programs and how that had an impact on you?
Moscaliuc: Oh, you shouldn’t have gotten me started — restrain, restrain, Mihaela. Romania — and Eastern Europe in general — has a long history of prejudice against Roma, commonly known as Gypsies. By the time they were emancipated in 1863, after more than two centuries of slavery, Romanian Roma had already settled in the nation’s imagination as the quintessential outsiders, the in-assimilatables we feared and so loved to hate. What’s happening at the moment — the deportations from France and Italy, the ostracizing and scapegoating, the “whose responsibility?” line that has dominated negotiations between various states and organizations within the UN — is a result of a long, complicated history.
I was horrified to discover, in my mid- twenties, how deeply embedded in one’s consciousness prejudice could be, how I too, had been guilty.
After the fall of communism, in the 1990’s, I worked with children and teenagers who were Roma or of Roma descent, many of them living on the streets at this point, fighting for survival. There was no future for them, though they were some of the brightest kids I’d met, and I owe them some of the most important things I’ve learned in life. Under communism many of them had been labeled “mentally retarded” and placed in schools for children with severe intellectual and other kind of developmental challenges. Most had stopped going by third or fourth grade.
I read there’s a documentary that just opened on Roma children in the current school system in Romania — “Our School,” directed by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma; it sounds heartbreaking and discouraging.
Yes, the fiery dancers, musicians, fortunetellers. How easily we’ve appropriated them for our fantasies. I do believe the extremes and excesses through which we’ve constructed their identities over centuries bear upon reality and harm. I’m working on an essay called “Trafficking Gypsiness in the 21 century,” and the one before was called “Killing with Metaphor”— so that gives you an idea about where I stand on this.
By the way, you have here, at the University of Texas, in Austin, one of the foremost specialists in Romani Studies —Professor Ian Hancock, as well as one of the most, if not the most, extensive Romani Archives and Documentation Centers in the world. I envy you.
Mercury: The title of your book is “Father Dirt.” There are so many connotations — the opposite of mother earth; a bad father; a nurturing loamy one; the earth piled on a grave; the idea of a “father” as a filthy dictator or a priest. What were the things you were thinking of when you wrote the words “Father Dirt’?
Moscaliuc: It comes from one of the poems, “Everything Touched by Darkness Knows Itself.” In the second section, [there is] a poem about a Romanian homeless boy who believed in a filthy, stinky God whose purity and humility were manifest in his rawness, his oneness with the earth. Mitica’s god was a lot more believable to me than the Biblical one. I realized that if I were to believe in God, it had to be a God or Goddess who loved dirt, who loved to roll in the mud. In Sumerian epics, gods create life out of the dirt under the fingernails. As a human being, I find comfort in that image, a lot more comfort than in any notion of purity and cleanliness. Then there’s the other side, as you so perceptively note here — the filthy father, the abusive father whose dirtiness you cannot escape, who contaminates, who makes you believe you’re nothing but dirt — not earth — dirt. It’s a play on tyrant Ceausescu’s self-assignation as “the father of the nation” — and yes, it also means to nod at least to nurturing Mother Earth, to all the Father monks cropping up in my fantasies as a teen, and to graveyards, which I much prefer to malls.
Mercury: Your poems are poignant pastiches of memories, images and ideas. What are your feelings on the forms of poetry, rhyme and strict meter as opposed to unrhymed free verse etc.?
Moscaliuc: I have much admiration for form—that is, form that serves the content and challenges it too in the process, form that accommodates innovation, that finds a new diction & a new pathos, that dares us. You’re right, I do not write in forms—some of my loudest failures are the ones that insisted on becoming sonnets, pantoons, ghazals—but I do strive for formal gestures in my work, for internal rhyme and echoes of stricture, and I continue to learn a great deal from its practitioners. Maxine Kumin is one of the poets I greatly admire and return to. I love forms the way I love the rites of hospitality in the Odyssey.
Mercury: Your poetry has a political angle without being stringently ideological. Do you think poetry has a place in politics? What is that place?
Moscaliuc: I agree, absolutely. Politics was the measure of all things in communist Romania, or at least that’s how I experienced it. Your private life belonged, officially, to “the people,” and saying or thinking the “I” as an act of individuation was itself a transgressive, punishable gesture. I no longer read poetry for its subversive potential, for its interruptions, as I did in Romania, but still see poems as political, always, even if there’s no apparent ideology at work.
San Marcos Mercury: You’ve done some translating with Carmelia Leonte’s Death Searches for You a Second Time. What do you feel are the problems and/or joys of translation?
Moscaliuc: I do translate Romanian poetry, though not as much as I would like to. Translation feeds into my writing; the process has taught me a good deal about craft and revision. Translating is rewarding, even when you’re not completely satisfied with the compromises you make. Is loss inevitable? Often, yes, but there’re almost always ways to compensate for those losses. It’s a good feeling too, bringing poets you admire into the English language. It feels less lonely. It’s like sponsoring a relative or friend to come over. You give them a chance, and then they’re on your own.
Mercury: You write in English. Is that a little like writing a translation? What language do you think in or is that a mixed bag of languages?
Moscaliuc: When I started writing, about 7 years ago, I wrote directly in English. Filtering my Romanian life through the English language has added a layer of difficulty but also a sense of relief to the project. Life makes sense differently in English. I agree with Walcott that “to change your language, you must change your life.” In many ways, you do. And I’m still trying to understand my “other” life, and that’s where many poems originate, in the need to remember, but also to make sense of things I couldn’t or wasn’t ready to before.
I’ve been increasingly interested in forcing English to make room for my Romanian. Goodbye greenhorn intent on pleasing.
Mercury: Why does poetry matter?
Moscaliuc: I do believe that it saves lives—sometimes of those who write, sometimes the lives of others. And it’s one of the most beautiful shortcuts for learning or practicing empathy.