A Conversation with Robert G. Elekes
Interview by S. Whitney Holmes
S. Whitney Holmes: Can you talk about the title of your book? What does it mean, both literally and in the context of the poems?
Robert G. Elekes: The title of my book “aici îmi iau dinții-n spinare și adio” is based in Romanian on a wordplay. The idiom “Îmi iau picioarele în spinare” (literally meaning taking your legs onto your back) is used to express a very fast and sudden getaway and could be translated into English as “to make a break for it.” I substituted the legs in this idiom with another body part, the teeth (dinți). The choice of the teeth hints to the poetic space that dominates this book. The mouth is a central metaphor for me, a catalyst, a space of virtually infinite meaning. It is a space of encounter, of communication between self and world, food, air, water, words find their way in and out through it. It is also a space of sexuality, of shame, of death. Biologically and symbolically it is a true microcosmos, a world within a world and the way it can open up and deconstruct poetic discourse fascinates me. The title, as I mentioned before, also suggests running away. But it is not poetic, social or existential escapism that I hint at with this title. It is a running away that Deleuze and Guattari conceptualized in their book “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.” It is a running defined by intensity, not by efficiency or direction. It is running, vehemently, profoundly in the same place, an exhaustion of self, an escape from oneself rather than from some external threat. The social, ideological and existential monsters that we so often try to fight are so difficult to defeat because they built well-guarded outposts within ourselves.
WH: What are some of the other recurring images in the book?
RE: I think some other recurring ones are images expressing bodily and social frailty. I am very much interested in understanding and feeling the ones on the fringe of society and on the fringe of themselves. I like to play with images that mess with identity structures. I like to poetically kick concepts of masculinity in the butt, to recalibrate stereotypes of femininity and put them to a revelatory use. I like to screw with images and with syntax in such a way that it interlocks the personal with the social, the subjective with the objective. Whatever recurring images, metaphors or linguistic structures I use, I use them to destabilize some kind of personal or social certainty or truisms.
WH: So you’ve won a few awards for this book. Can you tell me about them?
RE: Yes, I won to my utter surprise four national awards for my book. I think the one that meant the most for me was the first one that I got, the Iustin Panța Debut prize for poetry. Firstly because I absolutely adore Iustin Panța, the Romanian poet that the award is named after, and secondly because I respect a lot of poets that were in the jury of that prize. The other three prizes I basically got from different institutional incarnations of the Romanian poetry establishment. It is an establishment that has made in the last years a lot of controversial and dubious decisions and that is very much contested by young and old authors at this point. Nevertheless, I accepted and I cherish in my own way these awards because I think Romanian literature right now needs communication and cooperation more that personal grudges and interests in order to further its potential both nationally and internationally.
WH: You speak a handful of languages, and I recall you saying even that you used to compose poems in German. What languages do you speak and what are the reasons you’ve chosen to write in Romanian?
RE: I speak four languages. Three of them are part of my family—Romanian, Hungarian and German—and the fourth, English, is an adopted language. I started writing in Hungarian; I failed. I continued writing in German; I did not have a German speaking public that somehow fulfilled my ambitions (the vast majority of German minority in Romania emigrated during communism and during the years after the fall of the regime). I chose Romanian because it was difficult for me to choose it and because I could reach out to a much wider readership. The first reason is personal, the second is pragmatic. The situation of ethnically diverse individuals here is not that different from that of Hispanics or Asians in America (and I am speaking here strictly for my generation that endured ridicule and aggression in their youth because of this. Today things are much more relaxed). There is an instability, a homelessness, a being-unhinged that characterizes our existence within these borders. I tried to embrace and at the same time to overcome these difficulties by writing in Romanian. I embraced them by injecting Romanian poetic discourse within language games played by the other languages that linger under my skin, and I tried to overcome them by writing in the language that was paradoxically (because I lived in this country since my birth, but I started having a good relationship with its language and culture only after I attended college) the most foreign to me.
WH: Was this your first serious try at translating your own work? What’s that like? Do you think there are any unique challenges or advantages to translating your own work rather than some else’s?
RE: For a multilingual individual, the concept of translation becomes very relative. A decent amount of my early work in German and Hungarian found its way into my poetry written in Romanian. Is that translation or just diversified reiteration? Within the language-spectrum that I know, translation is a very fluid, inherently personal process; it becomes in this sense a social and existential need. I think there are both upsides and downsides to translating your own work. The upside is that you maintain a sort of (probably illusory) poetic coherence, and the downside is that the chances to redefine and recontextualize your work in another language are inherently slim. It has to be noted that my translations were aided by you, Whitney, and another American poet currently living in Romania thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, Tara Skurtu. I did translate the bulk of it, but the subtle and so very important target-language decisions were made by you people. This proves that translation is in such a beautiful way, a collaborative endeavor.
WH: I can’t speak for Tara, but I think you give me too much credit.
Your line breaks are significantly different between the original and the translation. How do your poems feel different to you in different languages?
RE: Yes, in one of my poems, “Endodontia IV,” the line breaks are really different from the original poem. It is because in the moment of rewriting it I felt that the poem asked for different changes in this sense. The bulky form of the original poem could not be translated into English. Instead I chose to make some language games in English by breaking some sentences and hopefully highlighting the power that certain linguistic structures and images gain in English.
WH: What poets excite you right now? What are you reading?
RE: I am reading a lot of currently published Romanian poetry right now because I want that, but also because I feel the duty to do so. I think that reading each other’s work is a sign of basic respect in our little and weird and inherently egotistical poetic world. We poets are a people of self-involvement, and reading needs to be the hammer that breaks that wall down. There are so many notable and young and talented Romanian poets that this endeavor can become overwhelming. Livia Ștefan, Alex Văsieș, Radu Nițescu, Andrei Doșa, Octavian Perpelea, Radu Vancu, Claudiu Komartin and Teodor Dună are just some of the contemporary and currently published Romanian poets that I think could win international recognition through translation. Other than that, I recently read Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man” and I absolutely loved it. Thanks to one of my American poet friends, Jeremy Hawkins, I started reading Jorie Graham and she had quite an impact on what I am writing right now. I have also recently reread almost everything from the German poet Paul Celan. I do that recurrently to remind myself how poetry can reshape a whole linguistic and cultural landscape.
WH: What are you working on now?
RE: I am mainly working on myself. I am a big hot mess and I need to find some kind of rhythm that can somehow harmonize my creative, social and existential self. I think I should also give a less unnervingly honest and pompous answer to this question, so here you go: I am working on a new poetry book that somehow does not want to be written and that tries to subtly destroy me; I am organizing a poetry festival because what else should I do with my spare time and money; and I am translating the complete works of a German-language poet from Romania that deeply, and to this day in a very much unnoticed manner, influenced the national literary landscape. I am talking about the amazing Anemone Latzina.
WH: Is there anywhere else English speakers can find your work in translation?
RE: Well, not really. I have on my blog one new poem that I translated with the help of Tara Skurtu. I am translating my entire debut poetry book into English and German, but that will cost me quite some time and brain cells. Right now I am also intensely set on the idea that Romanian contemporary poetry needs to be read and heard throughout the world, and somehow especially in the U.S. I think it would resonate with the social and individual concerns that impact America right now. I think an English language anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry is long overdue and I am going to work toward transforming this project into reality.