Gene Tanta (Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA, UW-Milwaukee PhD) is a poet, teacher, and translator of contemporary Romanian poetry. Dr. Tanta reads and writes about twentieth-century American poetry, first-generation American poets, and the European Avant-garde. His first poetry book, Unusual Woods, pays homage to engaged and surrealist poetry. Pastoral Emergency, his second poetry book, folds identity politics into the abecedarian form. Journal publications include: Ploughshares, EPOCH, Indiana Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Circumference Magazine, The Laurel Review, and Drunken Boat. While living in Bucharest as Fulbright Scholar, he began a bilingual anthology titled Biography after Communism: Romanian Poetry After 1989.
This sense of plethora, this sense of literature as an unnecessary thing always excited me
inteview by Andra Rotaru
You emigrated to America in 1984. When did you first become interested in Romanian literature? Did your American experience enhance your interest in what you had left behind?
I was 10 when we left Romania. I remember spending summers in the Romanian countryside with my grandparents listening to my grandmother recite Ion Creanga’s shrewd tales of poetically bloody revenge. The underdog suffered beautifully. During these summers spent in the stark nowhere 30 minutes West of Drobeta TR. Severin I acquired a taste for the country life in the dirt-floor cottage where my father grew up. The room to run and lay among tall grasses; the wind through the ripening fruits and poplar leaves widened my city-boy horizons. As well, in the coldest, darkest room, among the buckets of chicken eggs, I found my father’s childhood books pressed one over another under the farmer’s almanacs and Jules Verne’s fantasies: the many age-roasted children’s books with their foxes and wolves and alphabet manuals with their youthful communist heroes and their youthful communist German Shepherds. I still recall the pleasure of finding these forgotten books, the sense of excess.
This sense of plethora, this sense of literature as an unnecessary thing always excited me—this is probably why the experimentalist traditions of the twentieth century interest me. I regret to this day not having spent more time in person with the DADA archives housed at The University of Iowa. Later, my doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin refocused my attention on the European Avant-garde, Urmuz, Mina Loy, and Tristan Tzara specifically… because, I would come to appreciate, their kind of cultural anarchy responds to their historical circumstances with the appropriate delicacy and ferociousness. They understood, to be blunt about it, how the arts patron and the war patron fruit a common fruit. Life is art.
I am certainly grateful for my experience with the American Dream. It has given me the opportunities to think, read, write and find colloquy with likeminded peers and mentors. While my American experience gave me time—time I doubt I would have had in Romania—to pursue my love of the liberal arts, it also made me angry. I was and still am angry about my fellow consumers’ lack of metaphysical and ethical inquisitiveness. Imaginative questions and rage fueled me to write and paint and draw—and they still do even if that time is now full of picking up and dropping off my kids, Tristan and Mira. One of the questions continuing to haunt me is to what extent has my Romanian socialist background and my current American post-capitalist experiences affected me as a culture producer?
Not everyone who leaves Romania can settle into a new culture, there can be a fluctuation between 2 countries, 2 identities, there is that in-between. Otherwise, are you interested in the literary generation you would have been part of, had you stayed in Romania?
Who wouldn’t feel apprehensive doing the linguistic splits for a lifetime? I feel in-between in many ways: not all of them good or culturally productive or pleasurable. To avoid a tiresome monologue about my traumas with xenophobic high school bullies, suffice it to say the American suburbs—to which we moved to escape the drug and gang culture of Westside Chicago where we first immigrated—radicalized me. However, I don’t want to make the claim outright that the immigrant’s hardships lead to innovative insight, since such a claim would be overly simplistic and essentialist and untrue for many. So I won’t. It has, however, framed and fired my scholarship and creativity.
Issues, such as embracing or resisting acculturation, linguistic limbo, a generation’s essence, come about more acutely for more people only as a result of globalization with its easy travel between different cultures and different men with guns. So, our Postmodern Age’s main inheritance from the Age of Enlightenment seems to have been the realization that our perception is not only relative, but that it is also plural and valuable. Or, as Walter Benjamin put it, multiple good translations are possible. Exciting times, as the old Chinese curse has it.
During the course of traveling as a Fulbright Scholar across Romania to various conferences from Brașov to Timișoara 2012-2013, I had the opportunity to present my project and represented what I was learning along the way. While doing this, I realized that I was, in fact, in search of the potential friends and peers I had lost because of my emigration to the United States. It was a very personal lesson—the way perception is a given (and a taken).
When did you become interested in ethics and literary aesthetics? Can they exist in one type of culture and do they become antagonistic in another?
Let’s just say my Communist background rendered me conditionally predisposed to wondering about the relationship between the didactic powers of art and its aesthetic properties. Ceaușescu helped me think about how the State and the individual get along and don’t get along. My love of play (or give) as a visual artist and poet has fed my fondness for paradox, which in turn, has made me a more jocular and tolerant person. Before 1984, as a serious and conscientious child of 8 or so, I remember a musician with a large and ragged moustache and a missing ring finger down to the last knuckle came to visit us at our apartment in Timișoara. I knew even then that my parents had invited him over to scare me straight away from my artistic tendencies; and it’s true, the electroshock and rubber hose beatings had done a number on this creative dissident. He twitched between sips of coffee. But his stories of fingernails and pliers only stirred my rebellious imagination more. Seeing this, and money being an object for my parents, they decided America would offer the intransigent sensitive daydreamer and his sister a better shot at an education and self-determination. So we were off to the rat races.
It’s hard to generalize about the ways in which substance relates to surface or the ways politics relates to beauty since a wide variety of culturally diverse audiences may receive it. I like what Chris Tănăsescu said over a glass of wine at “La Copac” so I’ll parrot him: “poetry that isn’t political is boring.”
Have you looked into the trends in Romanian literary criticism? Where is literary criticism heading towards in America, for example? Is literary criticism fully engaged with the changes in literature? What is lost?
I think the most powerful—and the most ethically suspect—function of literary criticism remains its ability to name a canon, a movement, or a generation of writers into historical being. And yet how does one do historically relevant cultural work without splitting good from bad. I think about the norm-creating power, and its concomitant responsibility, as an editor since I’ve begun work on the anthology (Biography after Communism: Romanian Poetry after 1989) while living in Bucharest. I don’t know but I join the long list of violent catalogers:
T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound did it for the Imagists; Charles Olson did it for Black Mountain Poets; Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the obscenity trials did it for the Beat Generation; Robert Bly did it for Deep Image poets; Cid Corman and Louis Zukofsky did it for the Objectivists; M. L. Rosenthal did it for Confessional Poetry;
Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman did it for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writers; Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed did it for the Black Arts Movement;
Donald Allen and John Ashbery did it for the New York School; Jerome Rothenberg did it for Ethnopoetics; Helen Vendler and Jorie Graham did it for contemporary Lyrical Poets; Stephen Burt tried to do it for Elliptical poetry; Paul Hoover tried to do it for Postmodern Poets; Amy King and Danielle Pafunda are doing it for Feminist poetry;
Reginald Shepherd tried to do if for Lyrical Postmodernisms;
Andrei Codrescu, Russell Edson, and Charles Simic are doing it for contemporary American Surrealism; Ana Castillo and Dana Gioia are doing it for Chicano writers; Forrest Gander and Cecilia Vicuña are doing it for Eco-poetics; Anne Winters and Joshua Clover are doing it for Marxist poetry; Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha did it for Immigrant poetics; John Yau and Timothy Yu are doing it for Asian American poetry; Kasey Mohammad is doing it for Flarf; Ariana Reines, Anne Boyer, and Johannes Göransson are doing it for Hipster poets; Kent Johnson is perhaps trying to do it for Post-avant poetry; Marjorie Perloff, Craig Dworkin, and Kenneth Goldsmith are doing it for the Conceptual Writers; Dale Smith is doing it for Slow Poetry.
The ubiquity of contemporary American poetry has metastasized into a sport: in the age of transnational interconnectedness, poetry is everywhere and valuable. I can almost hear Harold Bloom howling as he bemoans the intrusion of the political animal’s class, race, and gender concerns into poetry, that most sacrosanct of literary arts: “A poet, a poet, my kingdom for a poet.”
The Fulbright Commission has hosted a series of events on “Cultural Identity and Formal Innovation” where Romanian and American writers took part. What were the benefits of these interactions, in your opinion?
As it turned out (which was as I had hoped), the symposium offered the occasion for a cultural exchange very much in the Fulbright tradition of turning nations into people. For me, among the more valuable benefits of this cross-cultural event were simply the social and cultural interconnections between the various participants’ aesthetic and ethical dispositions. I hope these relationships develop into various projects of creative collaborations, translation projects, and friendships.
Since the master class, symposium, and public readings were all in English, the Americans were at a distinct advantage. However, their linguistic upper hand was delicately mitigated by the Americans’ cultural dislocation—to one degree or another—since they found themselves outside of their American bubble with their margins in some disarray.
I selected this particular set of participants partly by happenstance of having met them and because I knew their work and temperament and thought they would enjoy thinking together about the sometimes challenging and paradoxical relationship between biography and innovation: Ioana Ieronim, Toby Altman, Elena Vlădăreanu, Vanessa Place, Răzvan Ţupa, Johannes Göransson, Radu Vancu, Jennifer Karmin, Andra Rotaru, Chris Tănăsescu, Caius Dobrescu, Gene Tanta etc.
What have you discovered in your own writing after a longer interaction with Romanian writers and with the trends in contemporary literature?
I remain confused, as ever, about the historical trajectory distinguishing the political Left from the political Right in Romania, though perhaps my befuddlement has become a bit more nuanced as a result of having lived in Bucharest for a year. Meeting and discussing such things with Caius Dobrescu, Ioana Ieronim, Chris Tănăsescu, Dinu Adam, Elena Vlădăreanu, Rodica Mihailă, Radu Andriescu, Ion Bogdan Lefter, Claudiu Komartin, and Răzvan Ţupa has been magnificently instructive. In large part, though all misunderstandings are my own, it is due to their good company that I feel I have a sounder sense of the history and power of contemporary Romanian poetry.
These and other Romanian poets’ impressive abilities to articulate their own intellectual purview and imaginative inventory have given me a better feeling for my roots: I say a better feeling because one cannot really ever know one’s own roots, one can only intuit where they run and how they inform one’s growth and maybe whether they run through sand or clay or peat. Over the past year, I have continued to reconsider my thinking about how and why I write poems. The Romanian communities with which I have engaged have made me think about the perils and opportunities of writing as a project; about the on-the-ground differences between Marxist ideas and Marxism as a populist program; about the paradox that one has to lose a culture to gain perspective on it; about the insidiously effective nature of self-censorship; about the performative nature of genre; but there are so many lessons to enumerate the list could go on and on.
Talk about the anthology you’re planning with Romanian writers, “A biography after Communism: Romanian Poetry after 1989”, that is going to explore the connection between day to day experiences (personal, social, historical, political) of the writer and their influences on writing.
The anthology idea has developed out of my interest in the Romanian experimentalist traditions while a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin. At some level though, it is the same inward looking question of essence that obsesses many dislocated persons: how does whom I am relate to what I do? As I envision it, the anthology of 25 post-1989 Romanian poets will manifest as one of the tangible benefits of the generous support I have received from the Fulbright Program, the American Embassy in Bucharest, and the U.S.–Romanian Fulbright Commission.
I’d like to think that the question about how biography relates to innovation is less about seeking the teleological commodity of closure and more about seeking the dialogical flux of various culturally inflected processes. In other words, I hope the collection prompts both writers and readers to consider how making poems includes making selves. The bilingual anthology will be published in Romania and in the United States of America.