Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- LIVIU IOAN STOICIU
I felt revolt against God, who left Romania
Interview with LIVIU IOAN STOICIU (born 19 February 1950), Romanian poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: The Train Flag is a fundamental book for Desperado poetry. Compared to British poetry, this volume published in 1980 was very much in keeping with what was going on in Europe, although you can’t have read much contemporary foreign poetry at the time, for the simple reason that it was hard to come by. You discovered Desperado rules on your own, partly because they were floating in the air, I guess. You began writing an oral, highly narrative type of poetry, with very concentrated, elliptical images, generously open to ambiguity. Do you have the feeling that you are an innovator in poetry? That maybe you write fictional poetry – poetry and fiction at the same time?
LIVIU IOAN STOICIU: An innovator? Fictional poetry? It all came natural – my feelings started thinking and craved for genuineness. I just wanted to be natural and honest in what I wrote. My debut, which you mention, was not easy in point of publication. Six years before, in 1974, I started approaching state publishing houses (the debut contests had been devised) but I did not get noticed by juries until much later, when I was in my very late twenties – so I was merely published with sequences of poems in two debut booklets, edited by the same publishing house which was to publish The Train Flag (Albatros), in 1978 and 1979. In 1974, Stefan Augustin Doinas introduced me – I was twenty-four at the time – as someone who had amazed him. He said he had had no idea one could write like that, that I was creating a new kind of poetry of the ‘real’, and six years later this became the distinctive feature of the poets of the ‘80s here. I could be the forerunner of the generation of the ‘80s. Doinas wrote then: ‘I was amazed at the lack of caution in Stoiciu’s handling of the words, mixing everyday and conventional language...’
I have always liked to experiment, to look for new ways. It is amazing to myself, in a way, because since 1975 till 1990 I lived in Focsani, a small town far from literary societies and publishing houses, isolated from the literary life and its academic experiments, so I cannot even think of any kind of influence. I did not have access to any literary review, I knew no writer, I was incredibly shy, and literary societies did not appeal to me, I felt I was too ‘old’ for that. Even for contests I would send my manuscripts by mail. Besides, I have never read a line in English and translations of recent poetry came too late for me. As my kind of poetry was not published at the time, I wrote for the drawer.
Did I have the feeling I innovated poetry? I wrote as it came – intuitively, spontaneously, breaking all rules. I felt that even the great poets of the ‘70s were not ‘Romanian’ enough, not ‘human’ enough, not close enough. I reacted to Romanian poetic models. I read poetry voraciously, I am a reader of poetry more than a writer of it. What I read was not entirely satisfactory to my sensibility.
Fictional poetry? Why not? I must have had an intuition of Postmodernism (I have always hated literary movements, their ‘formula’). I stepped over the borders of literary genres and found the poetry of fiction. Or the fiction of poetry. I was not the first of course, if we think of Homer – we keep returning to origins and it makes us deeper and more genuine...
LV. The poems do not bear titles. they are episodes, pages from a diary. The words are overwhelmingly alive, as if we were coexisting with a poem that will soon be – though is not yet – written. I doubt anyone wrote just like you in the ‘80s. How did you reach the stream of consciousness and slippery words which inevitably became subversive? Censorship could not possibly hurt you because you were apparently harmless. Yet, besides the fight with the dragon of censorship, there is a deeper reason for your poetry, born more out of freedom than interdictions. You took an immense liberty with poetry, and you had no model for that. How was your poetic manner born?
LIS. You are a wonderful reader. I am indeed very free when I write. I never think of obstacles, censorship, or anything that surrounds me. I think of ‘human condition’. When I write I am first and foremost honest with myself, I will never lie to myself then. This is the most intense form of freedom. I have never been a party member. I have never written my graduation paper, which has forced me to do humiliating jobs. I have never aimed at positions; after the revolution I did not know when to say no and it was a terrible source of agony. I have always been unable to adapt and seemed incomprehensible to everyone. I have wanted to be a ‘common’ person (no car, no villa, no trips abroad, no worldly ambitions), to be myself, never to hate myself for a shameful compromise. It has not been easy to fight human frailty in this way. My life has been full of renunciations and deprivations. I have lived from day to day – I could hardly afford vacations at the seaside or in the mountains, so I wrote and wrote, musing that a line is more than a vacation one easily forgets. I am trying to say I am a simple man, who does not know how to enjoy life – my very name is proof of that (connected with the word ‘stoic’, as my father’s father came from the old Aromanian country of Macedonia, the country of ‘stoics’). I have always and only wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately since 1981 I was followed by the Securitate and my life was miserable. But I was still free when I wrote. Subconsciously, self-censorship perfected my language, but I never gave up poetry for the sake of being subversive. A year after my debut I entered with Heart of Rays (1982) an infernal, adult world, and had to leave the paradise of my childhood free from all political regimes, as it can be seen in The Train Flag.
My poetic manner? It was born while I wrote for the drawer. Before my debut volume – when I was thirty – I had written twelve volumes. I mean that. On the days I do not write one line for the drawer I feel I have wasted a day of my life – and lately this has happened more and more often, so I must be slowly dying. All I can do is read and write. It is a matter of calling. I bear my cross (reading and writing). So how could I fail to find out my calling? I do not have a pattern. Whenever I sit down in front of the sheet of paper (I still write in longhand, not using the computer), I am intensely anxious, I experience an existential alarm. Fortunately, though, I write freely, not caring about the masterpiece. I write ‘exercises’ which I later on revise if they look good.
LV. The second part of your volume is entitled Dead Line. The whole volume looks that way, like a goods train forgotten on an harmless track. It is actually full of aggressive texts and screams of revolt. How did they escape the long hand of censorship?
LIS. The Train Flag is my only volume (of those published before the revolution) which censorship did not touch in the least. Not even one comma was moved. My editors defended me and then they were in their turn protected by the prize of the Writers’ Union that the volume received. With my second volume it was an altogether different matter. I was under the surveillance of the Securitate, censorship was a rule, I was forced to give up ten poems. In 1981, Virgil Ierunca read one of my anti-dictatorial poems on Radio Free Europe. Beginning with Heart of Rays, the Securitate held me tight as the volume was dedicated to the Pharaoh...
LV. The first part of your debut volume was entitled Free!, which can mean the train is free to go – all these pomes are in the margin of a railway track at the end of the world – but also the dream of any writer under communism: Free! This exasperatingly hard poetry, crushed by colloquialisms, by willfully unliterary words, was hiding a core of tenderness, of dream, of infinite hope. The child in these poems and the poet determined to fool censorship play pranks together, but theirs are serious, sad, heavy pranks. Nothing is joyful in these poems which we read with the joy of sharing and also with the terror of dystopia. This small flag in front of a heavy train is a dystopia. Was it your intention to create a dystopia, like a sign to shake the innocents of the system awake?
LIS. I like your interpretation. I was finding the joy to write. I lived there, in a lineman’s cabin, I spent my childhood in it, two kilometres away from the nearest village, four kilometres from the nearest town. I wanted to make the reader feel my experience was his home, even if it was a dystopic place. To shake the innocents of the system awake? The system is, to me, destiny, the discovery of a world you never know if you were meant to visit or conquer or just leave behind. Free is dedicated to a sister I had, Sofia, who died at eighteen, smart and beautiful, an unfair death. I felt revolt against God, who left Romania as he did, and the system was his doing, unfortunately...
LV. Your ability to hide the subversive meaning has no limits. Here is the end of a poem, Drops of Blood Fall Butterflies:
I believed in nothing
(right?.. damn.. hooligans!.. my god, who
teaches them...), yes
I must admit that the hidden ‘lizards’ in this text fascinate me as much as their emotional intensity. Rhyme is unimportant. Classical canons of poetry are dismembered. Poetry is free language. The style is gasping, full of holes, drowning in understatement. You are first and foremost a poet of understatement. In your subsequent volumes, understatement is a technique. I think that in this first volume, though, understatement is even stronger because it is forbidden yet present for everyone to see. Interdiction, in all its hideousness, was a fertile obstacle for those who had substance and inventivity. Do you think that today, a decade after the fall of communism, poetic mechanisms have changed much? Is poetry better now?
LIS. Till 1989, my inner life and dream were a free country. In Heart of Rays (on whose cover there is a manuscript poem ending in, ‘here, in nothingness, we lie in our own excrements//sinners in utopia’, which pushed my editors into disgrace because censorship overlooked it) the pomes are full of subversive meanings, outspoken dissent... The next two volumes are the same. Their mere titles say it all: When Memory Returns (1985), A Parallel World (1989). After The Train Flag, indeed, understatement becomes my technique, which is only natural, as a refinement of reading (and let us not forget I am my first reader). Has poetry changed after the revolution? Not to me. Journalism has, but not poetry, not fiction. I write now as I did before ( I have been writing since the age of fifteen, so I wrote twenty-five years under communism). I write freely and spontaneously. The subconscious has not noticed the fall of censorship. I have published after the revolution volumes written before and they fit in perfectly, since human life is the same: fear of tomorrow, physical pain, love, enmity, lost illusions. I did not write before 1989 poems which died with the system, and I do not do it today either. I rely upon generally valid themes.
LV. I find the following lines in the poem One On Top:
but the next morning we woke up
crying and... in front of our parents, pencil
in hand, we would write
promises, for life, to amend: thus, as it were
I made my debut in poetry (finding in
Desperado poetry is an immense defiance, a mannerist coldness, a supreme carelessness. The poet hides behind the huge note, ‘So what?’. Whatever the surface will not allow is crammed backstage: emotion, tenderness, desire to be approved of. Boasting with lack of education is a way of saying, ‘I won’t be fooled...’ Vulgarity hides vulnerability. The essence lies deep down, unseen. Which is very poetic, after all. What would poetry be if it did not hide enough? What do you hide? What is the unseen face of your poems?
LIS. Very appealing questions. The unseen face of the poem? An incomprehensible mixture of daily subconscious frustrations. Would I be sane without poetry? If I had not written poetry, I would have committed suicide long ago. Being able to write is my insurance that I shall live tomorrow. The poem is my outlet for tensions, emotions, wit, language, techniques. What am I hiding? A huge existential ignorance (biographical, cultural, metaphysical). I hide a significant, cultured LIS vocabulary (in books and papers), which vanishes increasingly, because of my lack of time to enrich it, because creativity is dulled, because objects that exhaled poetry when I was young no longer do so, because I see the ill-omen of lucidity everywhere... I lose my patience at the writing table: if in half an hour I fail to finish a poem, I give it up. What more do I hide? I live from one LIS year to the next (this is my fifty-second LIS year), each beginning on 19 February, my birthday, when I plan to write ‘exercises’ once or twice a week...
LV. You have an obvious logic of verbal association. You start from one word and end miles away. You start snowfalls of meanings. Your second technique is the multiplication of the verse in geometrical progression with the number of words on a page. This is sometimes a very fresh, surprising effect; at other times it requires slow, painful rereading. You use the words just like Joyce, who strove for the preverbal image of emotion or thought. Your poetry is a preverbal poetry on the whole, if such a paradox exists. You catch the meaning by means of broken words, exclamations, dots. Do you feel you belong to the stream of consciousness technique? Who are your models in literature?
LIS. You know more about my poetry than I do. I do not like to think of its creation, to become aware of the mechanism. Lucidity might destroy the poem... If it comes, it comes. I write ‘exercises’. Do I see myself in the stream of consciousness? I sure do. But no models. I have always loved great poetry, Romanian or other. I do not worship any poet but feel grateful when I find a great line. When the famous generation of poets of the ‘80s here was in love with English or American poetry of the end of the 20th century, I focussed on Iannis Ristos... And Romanian avant-garde. I found myself in the fictional style of the West much later.
LV. For those who only know your poetry, who is Liviu Ioan Stoiciu the man? What is his biography, as much as it can be shared?
LIS. Who is LIS the man? Here is my autobiography... I was born in a lineman’s cabin, while my father worked on a railway. I was born on 19 February 1950. It was a Sunday, between the Water Bearer and Pisces, between four and six o’clock in the morning. It was a hard winter (snow rose above our windows) and my father’s mother was the midwife. My mother was a peasant’s daughter. Unfortunately, when I was less than two years old, she died in that cabin, struck by lightning. Her family were under a curse: my mother’s mother died in church (ill omen: the church was closed and purged), one of my mother’s brothers committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train, another of her brothers was run over by a train when he came for my baptism. Before me, my mother had a baby girl Livia (I get my name from her, although officially I am only Ioan) who only lived for a few months. A year after my mother’s death, my father (who constantly worked away from home and could not raise me by himself) remarried another peasant’s daughter, with whom he had four children, three girls and a boy. Till he remarried and even after, I was raised by a fileman’s daughter who was in love with my father, and I learned a lot from her, love of books included. My father comes from a Stoic Macedonian father (Aromanian) and a mother who was a refugee from Ardeal (with ‘mixed blood’ – some spoke Hungarian in her family). I was six when I started school and had to walk two kilometres across a field in winter, when the wolves scared me to death. In high school I edited literary reviews at home, all handwritten, containing poetry and fiction, diary, drama and journalism. I flunk Russian one year. I was expelled because I mistreated the communist propaganda boards in school. When seventeen, I left my hometown and took up philology. Destitute, I worked as a substitute teacher and then I asked to join the army before my time, which landed me on the Czechoslovakian front (Czechoslovakia had just been invaded). I paid for that dearly, I could not stand army life. Back from the army, I went to work in a copper mine and then became a book accountant there. I practised many professions and changed many places. I wound my way from local paper to local paper. Unafraid of communist authorities, I was soon in disgrace. In the autumn of 1971 I was sent to study journalism in Bucharest. I chose to study literature instead and lost one year. I tried to survive working as a clerk and with my hands. I did not graduate in Bucharest, got married and left for Cluj, where I meant to start studying again but could not find a job to support myself. On 25 July my son was born, after we had left Cluj for Focsani. I gave up drinking, smoking and tramping about. I did various unskilled jobs for a year (the brandy factory, cleaning cisterns, wine factory, bricklaying). Then I became a tutor. I lived with my wife’s parents in a three-room apartment, with her brother, who was mentally ill. I moved to Focsani, where I was a librarian. In 1981 the Securitate was after me. The Writers’ Union refused to include me, although my debut volume had received its prize). I only joined it after the revolution. On 3 October 1989 I signed the letter against Ceausescu’s reelection. On 24 November I sent an open letter asking for a union of the non-communist writers. I was tried and I refused to deny I had signed those two letters. The revolution made me a leader of sorts, the people forced me to. I left politics in March 1990 and became editor of the literary review Romanian Life in Bucharest. It is a long story...
LV. What is the direction of poetry today? Clarity or fall? None, maybe?
LIS. Poetry is read by specialists, out of curiosity or as a critic’s duty, for comparison or competition. It is also a cure for the reader who has had enough of medicines and is trying to avoid the thought of suicide. Reading means less today, when the media are everywhere. The reader of postmodern poetry is educated, conversant, overwhelmed by good poetry. Pupils and students also read poetry. It matters if a poet makes it in the schoolbooks and changes the young people’s taste in poetry. It rarely happens and it is a matter of luck. I thought it incredible that I did so myself.
LV. In The Warm Rain Rolls Its Wheels you wrote: ‘I am the man/ of disorder’. Disorder is your name in poetry. Apparent disorder, accompanied by fantastic powers of verbal order. What does the perfect poem look like? How much can a word do? Can the world still be ruled by a poetry line, now, after the fall of communism, when poetry is no longer a refuge as it used to be? Is your old sorrow healed? I wonder, would you be able to make poetry out of your Securitate file, if you could see it now?
LIS. Disorder implies order... I am a border person (born between two signs, two mothers, two poetic generations – the ‘70s and the ‘80s). I find myself in extreme positions and feel I belong to neither (see my family life, my education). I am a person of many changes (politics, homes and jobs) and of inconclusiveness. I may well die before my poetic work is whole, but never mind... I have the calling of insufficiency. I never end anything. I strive for a whole (a book, a love story, emotional ‘glory’) but I pull everything down at the last moment, just before perfection is reached. The perfect poem? I am so full of doubts, I cannot subscribe to the certainty of perfection in this life. I am resigned to ‘exercises’ and, if they stand the test of time, I publish them...
Has my debut sorrow healed? The more aware I have become of the power of the word, the more alien I feel to myself, to my own writing. I would not like to start all over again.
Writing poetry in the margin of my Securitate file! I could do that, no doubt... My Securitate file is so private, so alive, it would be an extraordinary thought.
November 2, 2002, Bucharest