Ed note: This week we'll be posting Lloyd Schwartz's reports from the Poets in Transylvania festival. Lloyd is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English and teaches in the MFA Program at UMass Boston. His most recent book of poems is Cairo Traffic (University of Chicago Press), and his poems have been selected for The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. His other publications include the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop, the centennial edition of Bishop’s Prose (FSG), and Music In—and On—the Air, a collection of his music reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air. He was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Thank you, Lloyd. sdh
1. The Festival Begins
Teachers are usually doing things for students, but the reverse can also be true. As is the case with my former student at UMass Boston, a wonderful young poet named Tara Skurtu. When she got her MFA at Boston University, she was awarded a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, and decided to use the grant to explore her Romanian roots. In Romania, she met poets, editors, and publishers, had her poems translated and published, gave readings, and was invited to participate in an international poetry festival in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. This year Tara was returning to Romania on a Fulbright teaching fellowship.
When the directors of the poetry festival, poet Radu Vancu and literary theorist Dragos Varga, asked her which American poets she thought they should invite to read this year, she suggested two of her teachers. And they agreed.
Unfortunately, a last-minute problem kept Robert Pinsky in Boston, so on Tuesday evening, September 22, Tara and I started our Romanian adventure together: Boston to Munich (eight hours in the air with a five-hour layover), then another hour and a half to Sibiu.
Actually, preparations began more than a month earlier, with an email from Radu requesting the participating readers to send copies of the poems they were going to read, since they were going to be translated into Romanian for an anthology published by one of the festival’s sponsors, the journal Zona noua—and in the order they were going to be read, since the poems were going to be projected in English during each reading. I thought I had plenty of time before I had to decide, but I quickly selected eight poems to send Radu, though a few days later I changed my mind about one of them that I was worried had too many “American” references.
One reason I was eager to go to Romania was that my father was born there, in the city of Iasi. But Iasi, on the Ukraine border, was a fourteen-hour train trip from Sibiu, and fourteen hours was a lot closer than I ever was to my father. So Iasi was out. My partner, David Stang, asked if I would be anywhere near Targu Jiu—the site of one of the great 20th-century monuments, the Endless Column, Constantin Brancusi’s 1938 memorial to the local heroes who had fallen in World War I. It seemed not so far away on the map, and when I asked Radu about the possibility of going there, he immediately replied: “You must see it! It’s only a day trip—I’ll take you.”
On Wednesday afternoon, September 23 (there’s a seven-hour time difference), Tara and I were picked up at the Sibiu airport by the young poet Vlad Pojoga, editor of Zona nuoa, and we crawled into Sibiu through rush-hour traffic, on a road as ugly as any commercial strip highway in America. But the city itself was a surprise. It was enchanting—picturesque and colorful as a fairy tale. Not remotely like the post-Communist urban dreariness I’d imagined. I was delivered to a grand hotel, Imparatul Romanilor (The Roman Emperor—the definite article in Romanian, I learned, is attached to the end of the noun), founded in the 16th-century according to the dates over the doorway, and rebuilt around the turn of the 20th-century. A row of flags were flying over the marquee (including an American and an Israeli flag).
I was sorry to learn that Tara, whom I was counting on to be not just my friend and traveling companion but also my translator (knowing no Romanian myself), would be staying at a more modern hotel about half-an-hour away.
The festival had actually already started two days earlier, with young poets reading all over the city, and with workshops in poetry and translation. “We intend to promote as professionally and extensively as possible poetry translation as a means of safeguarding national identities,” is one of the festival’s central themes. That evening everyone was invited to a screening of a prize-winning film by Dumitru Budrala, The Curse of the Hedgehog, a poignant look at gypsy life in rural Romania. Then off to dinner at Café Frieda nearby, where the participants would have all their lunches and dinners together.
Aside from us two American chickens, there were poets from across Europe, from Dublin to Istanbul, encompassing, besides Romania, poets from Belgium and Sweden, Poland, Macedonia, Moldova, and Hungary (two poets from Iran and Bulgaria had to cancel). And they were all (as far as I could tell from the English translations for the non-English writers)—from the youngest to the most established—writing poems on an impressively high level. And the Romanian translations of my own poems, by the young poet Catalina Stanislav, seemed both witty and accurate, literally and formally.
At the center of the festival were three readings, each starting at 6:00 PM, in three different venues: an auditorium at the county library, a 14th-century Evangelical Church, and the Habitus Bookstore, the beautifully refurbished brick and whitewashed crypt of the 18th-century Catholic Church in the town square. The reading I would be part of was called “Poetry in the Crypt”—a playful if slightly sinister name for a literary evening in Transylvania.
The Grand Opening began with a video message from Robert Pinsky, sending his regrets to the festival organizers and participants and in particular to Tara and me. Then he read that hand-grenade of a poem that would have opened the festival: “Samurai Song.” Since the Iranian and Bulgarian poets were also scheduled for this event, it was a relatively abbreviated evening.
But still impressive. The senior reader was the wiry, longhaired, 62-year-old poet from London, Stephen Watts, almost whispering such piercing and punning “fragments” as “Birds of London,” in which “birds and bombs” come down through a “king-fissure / blue” sky. That program was also my introduction to some terrific poets who were closer to home, including poet and publisher Claudiu Komartin, the dynamic Moldovan poet and columnist Moni Stanila, and the prize-winning Romanian poet and prose writer Dan Coman, who was introduced as “a million-dollar baby” and whose poem “The Rape” begins: “not for a moment did I stop talking to myself as if to a woman,” and ends:
nothing could stop me:
I raised myself in all my splendor above my body I pinned him between the pillows
and as if he were a woman a few strong and precise movements were enough
for his stifled screams to cover my screams.
I was delighted to discover Martin Sendecki, the Polish poet (and journalist, too, of course—many European poets are both), whose poems included references to two of my favorite writers, Frank O’Hara and Raymond Chandler. And there was the Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov, who writes in Cyrillic print but who is actually, among the Eastern European poets at the festival, the most accessible to English-speakers, since his book Remnants of Another Age is published in the US by BOA Editions (with an introduction by Carolyn Forché) and in the UK by Bloodaxe Books—expertly translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid and Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed. I liked his poems tremendously, like “Home” (which is included in his BOA book), which begins:
I lived on the edge of the town
like a streetlamp whose light bulb
no one ever replaces.
Many of these Eastern European poets share a sardonic, un-self-important view of themselves and their situation. Yet each image explodes like a little time bomb. It surprised me that most of these poets read aloud not like the extroverted Russians I’ve heard, but with an interiority that borders on shyness, with no introductions or personal comments or anecdotes between poems. And many of them were on a circuit of poetry events around the continent.
After the reading, the Romanian actor and musician Claudiu Falamas performed his Beat Bukowski at the Habitus Book Store. Tara had seen him do it last year, but jet lag had kicked in bigtime, and we were just too tired to stay.