Tara Skurtu: „I always knew I would have a book called The Amoeba Game. For eight years I knew. For me it represents the function of poetry, how we move through life.”
It's an early morning for both of us. But the cozy Oriental room at Greentea and the smell of coffee turn out to be a good start. Tara is already here, with a big cup of cappuccino in front of her. I'm really excited she accepted to do this interview, as I've been mentally planning it ever since I saw her „The Language of Poetry" talk at Creative Mornings Bucharest.
Tara Skurtu is an amazing poet, who just launched the debut book The Amoeba Game with Eyewear Publishing, also freshly translated in Romanian at Editura Nemira as Jocul de-a amiba (tr. Radu Vancu and Tiberiu Neacșu) and I couldn't wait to talk about it, and creativity and poetry in general.
So prepare for a long read on life, poetry, adapting to Romanian culture, doing really cool creative workshops (I have been to one and it's something else, check out more here) and launching a new book, with honesty and humour, the Tara way:
Alice Teodorescu: I always like to start my interviews with this particular question, so here it goes - If your poetry was an object, an animal or a colour, what would it be?
Tara Skurtu: An object. I'm going to go with an onion. I had this conversation recently and I was told that my poetry was like an onion and I agree. Hopefully it's not making people cry, but it has all the layers.
Alice: Continuing the philosophical tone now - do you get to be a poet or do you become one?
Tara: I certainly never wanted to be a poet, that's for sure. I went through years of trying to do just about everything else. And it would creep up. Because I would find myself doing poetry even when I was trying to do the other things, like prepare for medical school—which is a lot smarter than focusing on poetry, from a practical perspective.
Actually, I can answer that with a conversation I had years ago. I was in the process of allowing myself to surrender to poetry. During the process of applying to med school, and after I hadn't gotten in—which was a big devastation to me at the time—my ex said: Everyone wants to be a writer. And I said: But I never wanted to be a writer! Then the response: Tara, writers never want to be writers. Everyone else wants that. And here I am, a writer, thinking Ha, it takes a non-writer to tell me that. Also, instead of writer you can insert artist, because writing is also an art. There's something innate, but it's not just the writing you're putting together on the page, because so much of the writing happens before the actual writing. It has to do with how you're observing, how you're processing the information you observe and the associations you make, combined with the need to find the right words, to express that on paper.
Alice: But where does this need come from?
Tara: Fear. Anxiety. Wonder. Beauty. Probably everything in the world sparks it.
Alice: And did you have this need since you were little? Do you remember?
Tara: I was always creating things when I was little. I used to create and direct plays at home, and I would have my parents and their friends watch. There were always parts of me that wanted to do some kind of performing, but not simply performing. Then I went through a period when I was trying to figure out how to write songs. This was back in the day of the tape, so I would record over tapes. The play-pause combo. I would do my own radio shows alone. I really wanted to play music, but there was something about learning to play guitar that frustrated me, because I couldn't get where I wanted to get. I always returned to writing. Maybe at the time it was a substitute—until I realized it wasn't a substitute and I didn't need the music.
In high school, I used to write phrases that came to me. On my arms. I still write on my hands. In movie theatres I would put a notebook on my lap. So yes, I was always creating.
Alice: I was thinking just now that the form of expression chooses you.
Tara: It sounds cheesy to say, but it's true. I remember when I was in my premedical studies, because that was when I really started working on poems and I had no idea what I was doing. I remember thinking about this idea that I'm not an official writer until I get published. I decided to send my work to magazines anyway, and, at some point, I had this realization: I'm going to treat myself as an official writer and I will treat these poems as if they're already published and they will get published eventually. I just told myself that. I had one poem, „Visiting Amber at Lowell Correctional”—it's the first poem I got to a „leave-alone-able” state and it's the first poem I submitted to a contest. And Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote the inaugural poem for Obama in 2009, chose it. And I kept writing poems.
I always wanted to write short stories or novels. I just developed a line break glitch.
Alice: I have to admit that I'm not much of a poetry reader, but I loved your „image-centered" poetry. And I think poetry should be free. Not of a certain form.
Tara: This brings me back to the first question you asked me. As soon as I heard the word object I knew that was the answer, because poetry is its own object and every object looks a certain way, functions a certain way, demands its own guidelines.
I'm incredibly visual. My parents got me this little kids' Kodak camera when I was 4 or 5, and it had real film. I still have the pictures (they're the most boring ones in the world, because I was just walking around the neighborhood taking snapshots, all excited). So, thinking about my poetic relationship with photographs, I, to this day, use photographs to tell poem-stories. Sometimes I take a photograph knowing that I will make that moment into a poem and I return to it to make sure the details are accurate.
Alice: I wanted to ask you that - if you use any photographs to document your poems.
Tara: I'm always writing about memories, so yes. In Night Communion I mention a photograph of a lover walking down a sidewalk, over an arrow pointing towards me. This person is not following the logical instructions of walking straight to me and is about to walk into a tree that is as wide as the sidewalk. Can there be anything more symbolic than this? I had to take a picture really quickly.
Alice: You were talking about memories. How did poetry help you? I do believe it did.
Tara: It always helps me. I've gotten through the most difficult times in my life with poetry. I always wrote, but I only started writing consistently during a period of serious illness. School and writing got me through that. Any kind of difficult moment that didn't make sense or felt like it shouldn't have happened would turn into a poem. Not that I was creating an alternative universe, but a new logic. Poems, to me, are all about logic.
The third section of „The Amoeba Game”, for instance, takes place in Romania. I was there on a fellowship and I fell in love. I got adopted by the literary community and ended up touring around. It was an incredible trip. Then I found myself back in the US, trying to process what had happened and feeling mutually linked with another person that couldn't do anything about it. And what do you do? You write poems.
Alice: Did you get your answers?
Tara: I wrote poem after poem, not knowing how many I would write. I noticed after a certain point that I was actually writing myself through and out of this experience. Not completely out, because we're never completely out. After about a year and a half, I realized I was in a different place. It would have taken a lot longer, probably, if I weren't writing poems.
I remember I had written the beginning of „Derivatives” (that's the only long poem I've ever written and it was the most difficult poem). I sat down with one of my thesis advisors. He asked me if what happened in the poem had happened a long time ago. I said it was happening now. He was quite shocked, as there is a big distance in the poem. I think through creating that meticulous lens of distance, I myself was able to arrive at a different form.
Alice: What you're saying makes me think of Zen poetry and the Japanese idea of detachment as an ideal.
Tara: I'm always trying to do that—create a sense of distance, a lens. In a way, it's like transforming time. Even though, on the surface, this lens seems to create an emotional distance, it does the opposite, I believe—it opens a space for more compassion, for understanding, for patience.
One thing I learned from Lloyd Schwartz is that „feeling" words in poems often don't do much. In my teaching I've developed some exercises where I ban feeling words. (You don’t think about how much you can express a feeling without saying it. Think about movies! We don’t need subtitles to know a character is sad.) We use these words in our writing without even noticing. So I try to be really aware of only including emotion words whenever necessary. I think I have the word „happier" once in „Derivatives” and I even thought about taking that out. But it was more of a comparison than simply stating an emotion. You can express emotion through an action, or a (micro)gesture, or an image.
Alice: So how long did „The Amoeba Game” actually take you?
Tara: 8 years.
Alice: And how long does it take you to write a poem?
Tara: Depends on the poem. It's a hard question to answer because there's a big gestation period where the poem is growing inside, and I'm waiting to see what it grows into.
I worked on a six-line poem for a year and a half („Șoricel”) and for most of that time I was changing line breaks. For „Derivatives” I worked 14 months straight to get a functioning form. I have a short little poem, „Feeding time”, about when I was 4 or 5 and my dad kept a small aquarium in the garage. We lived in Florida, we would collect frogs and lizards, and so on, and keep them for a short while, feed them cockroaches and crickets. I wrote a poem about this in one day—I got the form that day, only made a couple of tweaks. It seemed too easy, like a gift poem. Because it seemed too easy, I thought it could have a better form. So I brought it to a workshop. And it turns out that first version with the little tweaks was it.
I edited „Visiting Amber at Lowell Correctional” 5 years later, changing one word.
Poems, they're smarter than us. When they come together, everything just clicks.
Alice: How do you explain that in your creative writing workshops? When a piece is finished?
Tara: I never say finished. I think it's a dictatorial word about a form that resists being finished. I don't mean that you need to change a poem for years and years. But I've created this term - leave-alone-able—and I much prefer it. Oh, and you always have to read poems out loud to know.
Also, there's no one-sentence answer to this question—that's why these workshops exist. The way you find out if a poem is leave-alone-able, for instance, is, in my experience, a process of getting feedback, having a mentor or writing partner who doesn't change your voice, but helps you sharpen it, get it more precise.
When you're studying writing, you're studying how to guide yourself to write. You're developing a toolkit. Eventually, you become the mentor of your final draft. You learn to trust yourself more and more over time. But say you don't have a mentor. Then you read, and read, and read. Reading is one form of mentorship and it always has been.
Alice: Yes, and it helps you find your voice, eventually.
Tara: The first step is to realize you have a voice. I've seen, working with beginning writers, one of the biggest fears/worries is What if I don't have a unique voice? I reply: Do you worry about that when you're having any conversation throughout your day, thinking you sound like a blank void? (laughing)
Then, another thing happens. When people start putting their voice to the page, the sentences don't sound like themselves, because what they think should be good writing is all these flowery phrases. That's the second thing: simple is often best. Simple doesn't mean general. Simple and specific. This is the trickiest thing for most of the people I've worked with.
I was teaching a teen workshop a couple weeks ago, working on memories, and I said: Being bodies in the world, how do we experience things? Everyone just got quiet. So I said: Ok, tell me how I experience this door… and I walked right into the door. They got it. Senses. What is a particular sense, then? And what is a particular memory related to that particular sense? It seems pretty obvious, right? But being specific is actually quite difficult at first.
Simple and specific will immediately bring your writing to another level. That was one of the biggest light bulbs for me as well.
Alice: All these fears stem from regarding writing and poetry especially only through the lens of the old canon. The flowery bits, the rhymes. Simple and specific are sometimes forgotten.
Tara: This is what happens with poems. I've also seen it in Romania. What is taught in school is the old canon, and it often turns people off. They don't relate to it; they can't access the language. Also, poetry is often taught to be interpreted one way. I always imagine dead poets going „That's not what I meant!"
In this one poem, „Skurtu, Romania” (it's also a section of the book)—my grandparents both came from Romania, but we don't know anything about our history—I make a connection between Sibiu and invented words. The story goes like this: My dad's brother at one point thought that all Skurtus were from Sibiu. That got my imagination going. Well, my dad is a Skurtu and he is the most imaginative guy I've ever met—he taught a fake shape when I was a little girl. The slibeedoo, a complex structure which has all the shapes. I thought, if there's this town in Romania with only Skurtus, they have to be like my dad.
This also got me thinking about another moment, 2-3 years prior, when my dad got pulled over by a cop. We have a strange last name, and the cop mispronounced his name and my dad used that back at the cop, and luckily didn't get in trouble. I wanted to put this in a poem, but didn't know how until I heard the Sibiu story. There's also the slibeedoo word in the poem.
Returning to the interpretation of a poem, someone actually googled slibeedoo and tried to put all this meaning into it, and I had to tell him it’s just a nonsensical word my dad made up. It was one of the best feelings ever. It shows you that when something is in a poem, there's this seriousness to it; every single thing has to derive from something meaningful that can be searched on the internet. But sometimes they're just made up things.
Alice: That's why I said I believe that poetry should be free. Well, I think that once the author is done with it, it's out in the open for everyone to take their own meanings out of it.
Tara: Which goes back to specificity, because if you are as specific as possible, you have more authority over your logic and the meaning behind it. Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of interpretations—because you'll get them anyway.
Alice: So true, and I think that being specific implies also being more relatable.
Tara: It's hard, but specificity exists in all of our moments. People get worried when they have to write about people or specific moments in their own lives. It makes them vulnerable. Being vulnerable gets easier though—but the writing doesn't. Which is great.
The process of writing is not a formula. If you know a formula, you're not going to discover anything. And I do think writing—poetry, especially—is a lot like math. But more like discovering a proof that no one else has found, and you're doing it for every poem. Writing is the process of discovery.
Alice: Listening to you talk about discovery, I remembered reading in an interview that you said one should always write about what matters.
Tara: How do you not write about what matters? To me this is such a straightforward, obvious thing. If you don't write about what matters, there's nothing at stake. If there's nothing at stake, you don't care. So other people won't care. I guess it's safe, but I can't even conceive this. People I love, that's what matters to me. And some social justice.
Alice: How do you perceive your new identity, if I can put it like that, in Romania? What has shifted, what imprints are here, that can be found in your poetry as well, compared to your fellowship period? Also, considering that there's a whole part of The Amoeba Game „happening" in Romania…
Tara: Romania hijacked my book. Really. Because I fell in love at that time.
„The Amoeba Game” is synonymous to poetry, is synonymous to life, moving through life. I said earlier that I had this period of sickness in my early twenties. I remember looking young and having this really nice, fit body that wasn't working the right way. I kept watching people move about, laughing, doing all these little things, and I had this realization that I hadn’t smiled in months. And that had never happened to me before. I'd always been able to experience joy, even during rough periods. When I smiled again after all that time, it felt weird. My muscles weren't used to it anymore. So I thought about the amoeba game, this game I played in Girls Scouts probably once or twice. It really made an imprint. It was just moving your body in an uncontrolled way, totally unsexy, with closed eyes, attaching to people you bump into, literally becoming a structural community. All you're doing is moving and feeling in the moment.
Thinking about amoebas and my book, there's also movement. It starts in Florida, during my childhood, but it's not chronological. It moves back and forth through a long period of time and eventually arrives in Romania, where half of my ancestors came from.
„The Amoeba Game” was one of the earliest poems I ever wrote, actually. Jill McDonough either said or wrote, when I was workshopping with her, that it would make a great title for a collection. I made a mental note and from that time on, I always knew I would have a book called „The Amoeba Game”. For eight years I knew. For me it represents the function of poetry, how we move through life.
Coming back to my book and Romania, I can say that I have not written a single poem since around January of 2017, mainly because I had just moved to Bucharest and was beginning a big transition. This was the beginning of experiencing the process of permanently living elsewhere. Now I feel like I've arrived.
I have poems in my head, I'm sure, but they're not ready. I don't know how to answer this question, because I’ll discover it in the poems that I’ll write. I'm very patient with poems. They come when they come.
Photo credits: Cătălin Georgescu