Wednesday, August 16, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Alina Stefanescu

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama with her partner and four small mammals. A Pushcart nominee, she is the author of Objects In Vases (Anchor & Plume, March 2016), Letters to Arthur (Beard of Bees, August 2016), and Ipokimen (Anchor and Plume, November 2016). Her first fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the 2016 Brighthorse Books Prize. She can't wait for you to read it. More online at

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In the interim between my first chapbook and the forthcoming poetry and fiction collections, I discovered four writers that rattled my time-space coordinates, and encouraged me to burn down the house. First, Kathy Acker crawled into my head and revived the teenager that wore all black and wanted nothing more than to to burn for words like Joan of Arc. Before I loved boys, I loved this insane French XX that died for an ideal-- a woman swallowed by flames for the words she refused to recant. Reading Kathy re-laid old kindling.

After coming across a short story of mine published in the exquisite Minola ReviewAmanda Mays (my editor at Anchor & Plume) mailed a copy of Elisa Albert's Afterbirth to me. A log to the fire. A self-reckoning with the myths of motherhood and the rituals in which we hope to lose ourselves. In Elisa, I read the woman I hid behind playdates, attachment parenting, and birthday parties.

How to describe the challenge of being forced to confront your own rebellion-- or what once-upon-a-dude called my "ongoing polymorphous perversity"? At the time, I had no idea what snappy. well-read dude meant. In the present, I have no space to greet this creature except on the page where she won't shut up.

As my son turned thirteen and I waded further into that teenage self, offering him an eye for an eye, a tooth for a truth,  I stumbled across Claire Dederer's Love and Trouble. One week later, I discovered Lidia Yuknavitch. The wham and the bam: deafening. Certain writers don't simply liberate you-- they make it impossible to creep back behind the veil. And there you are, naked, middle-aged, the same wild creature whose eyes devoured books over bodies, pages over flesh, the same restless flame-thrower, appended by children, partners, and suffocating material privilege. None of which we deserve or can properly earn. But air does crazy things to fire....

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In Alabama, poetry was a no-go. Poetry was useless, anti-Puritan, a waste of time and possible money.  I came to poetry in the same way I came to tree-hugging: on my knees, crawling, looking for a way out of boys, curling irons,  and "Saved By the Bell".

In my adolescent years, poetry required patience, an initiation, a relationship forged outside the usual social bonds. Poetry handed me a life outside consumer capitalism, a dark space in which to ask impossible cosmic questions.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Have you ever noticed how a shadow distorts the shape of the object it reflects? I think sometimes I want to write the shadow while, other times, the shadow is merely a seduction towards writing the object itself.

Writing is measure of how much one is willing to entertain-- the limits and boundaries we set on our thoughts and imagination when presented with a certain subject. Some stories plop onto the page ready to go; others grow from poems, conversations, insomnias, and untamed  ideas.

In cases where I have to overcome interior resistance and intellectual prudishness, the writing takes longer. L'esprit de l'escalier, the span of two extra beats in which resides mentally after a moment of suspense or drama has passed, fascinates me. In those dreaded breaths, I often discover what kept me from riding the escalator; or what keeps us all from getting to a point where we can look down on ourselves as tiny, ferocious ants, building and building, assembling monuments indecipherable by other species.

As for books, there is no set wing-span. Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus, a poetry hybrid collection, was mostly written over the course of two months in late 2016, whereas Every Mask I Tried On, a fiction collection, came together piece by piece, two years total.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Rarely do I work on a book from the very beginning-- apart from the novel in progress which was never shy about the length it needed.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are like crack cocaine-- intense, exhilarating, spliced by a taste of death in the margins.

I love doing readings.

I hate doing readings.

I hate myself when I read if I'm in any way conscious of this person named Alina.

I second guess her. For example, is she inflecting a less threatening word to keep from upsetting the audience? Is she doing justice to the piece? Is she being honest? The act of reading poetry and prose aloud forces me to reckon with the distance between myself as a person who writes  (and narrates or feels through various character) and myself as a writer, a human ultimately estranged from what felt so real and intense as it was being written.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am fascinated by socialization, behavioral economics, epistemology, neuroscience, cultural conventions, religious fundamentalism, and bounded rationality. I cannot muster a solid line between the intimate and the political.

In Osip Mandelstam's "Fourth Prose", published after his death in a Soviet camp, he wrote: "For literature always and everywhere carries out one assignment: it helps superiors keep their soldiers obedient and it helps judges execute reprisals against doomed men. A writer is a mixture of parrot and pope. He's a polly in the very loftiest meaning of that word." The question is who we serve-- and why.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
One of the first things I learned about writers as a child of Romanian defectors was that writers could be propagandists that ruined the world (like Ceausescu's court poets) or dissidents that gave up success in order to bear witness. I don't think a good writer is ever comfortable with the systems of injustice perpetuated by higher mammals. There is nothing more dangerous than safety. Laurels are meant to be burnt in a backyard tire fire.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
There is nothing I appreciate more than a nit-picky, detail-driven editor that tears the meat from the bone and forces me to reconsider it. The difficulty of working with an outside editor can't be an issue, given my craven need for their input and insight. The text is my primary loyalty; the ego is nothing in comparison. Editors who share this view are pure magic. I trust their instincts.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My son regularly tells me "chill out, Mom," and it drives me crazy. Because he's right. Apart from the page, I have a tendency towards purism that limits my perception. Obsession with moral purity takes many forms, including the self-righteousness of political resistance. We are not immune from the need to assert our cleanliness. Especially when writing against religious fundamentalism, I find myself competing for points of moral purity.

At the end of the day, no story can be carried by hypocrisy. I think my son reads that in me very well, and cautions against it. I will continue to resist the bigotry and social Darwinism of the Trump era while conceding that, perhaps, we are participant-observers in various rituals of indignation. When I write, I need to bring more to the page than wryly-disguised rage. Anger is mere prelude to blood. I have to push the piece through to the insoluble part.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving between genres has been as easy as birthing different children, none of which I could pre-determine or control. Usually the genre determination comes afterwards, more like a justification than an underlying truth. What emerges is uniquely mind-boggling. In a sense, genre is like gender to me in that I don't think about it until someone demands I choose a box and leave a check-mark.

Journals classify submissions on the basis of genre. Is it flash or prose poetry? I don't know. That's generally not how I think about humans or things I've written. I leave that to the editors and professionals.

Given my genre-insecurity, I find myself questioning the social demands of genre as well as its evolving contrivance. For critics, genre is key. For me, in my writing, genre often feels like a means of appeasing the social at the cost of the actual.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
As a woman coming into middle age, you lose your independence while gaining a previously uninhabitable appetite for life. In my case, this comes out as a fear of commitment-- I am committed to a partner, children, a house, a community, an endless series of human needs-- which then leads to a fear of routine or allegiance to form and method.

I don't have a writing routine or method-- only a series of notebooks (some of which get lost) and a promiscuous restlessness that emerges sometimes as a story, or a poem, or a flash, a memoir, a hybrid, and entity.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Romanian superstitions, legends, and folk music, especially the haunting "doinas" of Maria Tanase. My mother. Other women. Female bodies. Blues. Puritanism as it plays out in the present. Ideologies. Angry white men. Oh angry white men, you are my muses. And no list of inspirations would be complete without the man in my bed. When all else fails, the man in my bed, the urgency desire, love, and futility bring to daily life.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Boiled cabbage, a staple of Romanian meals. And Magie Noire, the aroma that enveloped me in my mother's arms.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Hannah Arendt as a thinker and political philosopher. Monks and mystics-- writing that approaches the world with a sense of reverence. Romanian poets. Romanian recipes. My mother's journals, which I am just beginning to touch.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the Appalachian Trail. Take my partner backpacking through Europe. Spend a season in Romania conducting research for a family memoir that brings together the Gancevici and Stefanescu tribes. Record a conceptual music-text variant on the traditional folk form of the Romanian doina. Sail around the world. Hitch-hike across the US. Write a musical. Ultimately, above all, immediately, as soon as money and time permit, spend a year in Romania and Europe with my closest mammals.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I hadn't been a writer, I'd be a different person. Blank white paper has been my nun's habit, a space of resilience, since age 7. I can't remember a time before diaries, notebooks, journals.

But let's assume there is a character named Alina who isn't a writer. Maybe Alina would become a political philosopher or intellectual historian. If she didn't have this insatiable desire to write entire worlds. If she could channel her cerebral components into the requisite academic role.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The inability to resist writing. The inexhaustible appetite to read the unwritten. And reaching a certain point in my life where I found no distractions or alternate satisfactions. In other words, nothing else was enough.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Oh, I can't even begin here. I can't pick favorites. That polymorphous perversity rears her tangled head and vows one single answer can't be in earnest.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm knee-deep into my first novel, and it's the strangest water I've ever tried to tread. I need to find an agent but nothing is more terrifying than setting aside all the manuscripts and carving out a large chunk of time for agent research and queries. I can't imagine where to start. So I procrastinate and write and dawdle.

When I'm not working on the novel or a fiction collection manuscript titled Let's Frack Later, I'm planning readings and travels for Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus (and you can pre-order a copy from Finishing Line Press at If you'd like to review it or have me come read in your town or on your front porch, find me on Twitter at @aliner. Because I'd love to share this book with others. And I will never be able to express enough gratitude, wonder, and disbelief to those readers, editors, assistant editors, publishers, human beings, and fellow yearning mammals that make this writing thing possible. I am working on the world's most massive thank you.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: