Ahead of the publication of issue 43, International poetry editor, Clara Burghelea speaks to her featured poet, Cătălina Florina Florescu
Clara Burghelea: Tell me about your work background—how you got into drama writing, what sparked your interest for the human body in decline projects, for instance?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I grew up falling in love with characters in literature but, unlike those in novels, dramatic characters and the genre itself have the perfect dynamic I need to learn about life, love, loss, longing, and passion. I also like to observe a lot, and this is another reason why drama is an ideal medium because, unlike novels, in drama characters’ lines are reduced to their essence. There is no time to waste in drama. Everything needs to be used to its maximum capacity because drama is a lot like life, we move fast from morning to night, from spring to fall, from youth to ageing.
As for the last part of your question, after my mother died because of breast cancer in 1992, I have always looked at the body differently knowing that it can break while we sleep, but also knowing that we cannot be afraid of that. This is why, creating characters whose bodies and minds have been afflicted by an internal and/or external factor is definitely a characteristic of my dramatic writing. I do not create characters that are perfect or tend to perfection. Those are boring and fake for me. I create characters that are deeply flawed, hurt, and vulnerable – because those are characters that help me understand myself, and hopefully may help others to live life fearlessly.
Clara Burghelea: How does your immigrant background inform your work?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I am aware that I was not born in the U.S., I am grateful for my Balkan roots, but these are such random elements. Because I love to travel a lot, because literature, music, cinema, and the arts help me listen to and discover foreign experiences, I am attracted to these human expressions so much that they become the air that I breathe and, as one consequence, I am free from being an “immigrant.” I am human. I just happen to live in a certain location, which can be mapped via exact coordinates, but I do not belong to this place, or any other for that matter. I am free to exist in as many simultaneous, real and fictional, places and that erases all limiting descriptors – “immigrant” being just one of them. Do not get me wrong, I use it when I talk about myself and when I teach, but I use it as a point of departure, and not a point terminus.
Clara Burghelea: Where do you take inspiration while working across genres? Is there a method to the madness?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: Whose madness? The woman’s in me? The clown’s in me? The hurt one’s? The stubborn fighter’s? If you were taping this interview, you would have heard me laughing right now – which is my most recognizable feature. I laugh (even) while crying. I laugh while tending to a physical or an emotional wound. I am my father’s daughter who loved him so much that I have inherited his modus operandi, and that is, to be stoic when life throws stones at you and laugh because we live in a broken world in transitory, broken bodies, and there is a lot to learn if we laugh and decant our experiences. The Greeks knew that, too… Their festivals had comedies, even if the ratio was in favor for tragedies. The kings knew they needed jesters at their royal courts to take away the pressure. Great thinkers, who practice laughing daily, balance their own thinking and act accordingly. I distrust and also disassociate from all people who claim to take everything seriously.
We live in a pandemic year and I have never laughed so much and that was needed to balance the lockdown, the lack of touch, as well as the poor political decisions made here and elsewhere. Just to give you an example, I miss going to art galleries so much, Zoom Theatre is mediocre at best, teaching without being able to move my body is so damaging, not being able to use the public space in ways that I used to, all these are so frustrating that, for a few weeks, in the beginning of this quarantine, I noticed that my writing suffered immensely and what I was producing was too depressing and quite grotesque that I knew I had to step away from the news, social media, and all these alarmist outlets because I am a person who rarely follows trends.
Then, why should I let a pandemic reset my ways of being and interacting with the world, with what matters? My inspiration cannot be marred by this year’s otherwise traumatizing losses because I am a simple person from a small but beautiful town in Romania (Tulcea), because in my blood I carry my father who came from a poor family and my mother who was the one who taught me to dream and live in more generous realities, some which would be later invented by me. More, I am here to look at the world, breathe in, and move on. So, my inspiration comes from what I filter from outside sources and my love for all foreign experiences. I learn more from a transgender, from a Native American, from a blind – this is what I mean by “foreign” and the word is always invested with positive connotations.
Clara Burghelea: How does poetry fit this larger picture?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I am not a poet, let me start with that. I am also an accidental playwright, let me also add that. I do not force myself into people’s lives. I want to be savored when people have time for me, I want to exist in people’s lives in their “carpe diem” moment, but I also do not like to overstay my welcome. I am a traveler, literally and figuratively, and my writing speaks from this angle. Poetry comes out of me in such rare moments that I enjoy that experience greatly because it is by far the most intense. Poetry is precision. One word thrown carelessly and the poem collapses. One punctuation sign misplaced, and the poem laughs in the author’s face asking them to put their ego aside and write genuine poetry, or give up/take a break. This is why when I happen to be in this mode, I am at my best simply because writing in this genre implies being rigorous and lyrical, strong and vulnerable, wise and playful.
Clara Burghelea: You were the main editor of Transnational Narratives in Englishes of Exile. I relate to the idea of having your own English, being caught in between geographies, languages and living with the uncertainty that you might not be understood. How do our many Englishes/ languages/ stepping in and out of mother tongues shape ourselves and inform our writing?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: It pains me when people feel entitled to a piece of land and a set of morphemes, phonemes, and graphemes. Languages are like humans, they carry us inside of them and we should not ever assume one language, one execution of that language, should be imposed on us and/or criticized because of how we pronounce our acquired language. I also refuse to accept that a mother tongue is a person’s sole way of communication because languages evolved out of many travelling sounds. Something that I loved and will love until I die is the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. There, in that arbitrariness exists our escape from rules, from being divided into native speakers of one language, from anything that burdens communication and our sojourning through this life. I am of course ageing and I do not have time for people who believe in one God, one language, and one nation. I embrace only the fluidity of our imperfections because that gives me the reassurance that we are in constant becoming and this metamorphosis is never preset. I think my poem “Portrait in Syllables & Mixed Languages” serves as a good example.
Clara Burghelea: I read somewhere that you can’t analyze and create at the same time. There is a sequence of events: you first create, then, consider, analyze and even critique the thing later. What do you think?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: When I used to write analytically, I had a tower of books in front of me, kind of like a wall – scary, right? – I had an outline, selected quotes ready to enter into a dialogue with my critical writing. That writing made sense when I devoted my time to inform myself and others about all sorts of inequalities and problems. For example, in my first book, Transacting Sites of the Liminal Bodily Spaces, I talked about real and imaginary beings whose body had been assaulted by a terminal illness and whose healthcare system could not adequately respond to and respect their needs. Or, in an edited collection that I worked on a few years ago, Disjointed Perspectives on Motherhood, I had a dual role, i.e., of an editor and author, so my writing had to function accordingly. That was a collection where it was important for me as a mother and a scholar to talk about the many gender inequalities that afflict a woman’s body and mind, and how women should educate themselves first and foremost so they love themselves before they are loved by anyone else. Women do not love their bodies. Women do not know their bodies and potential. This is why for me, as a white cisgender woman, it is much more relevant to know my worth than to wait for others to notice it. I do not think there is anyone out there who should save us, but ourselves. This is why I write, now mostly creatively, to use what is inside and outside of me to tell stories. For analytical writing there is a different structure and some formulaic approaches to it. But when one writes creatively, at least from my experience, that type of writing comes out of me at moments that can’t be scheduled.
For example, when Laika says: “Space was beautiful. My death, painful. Senseless. You look at the stars while you can barely breathe. You are strapped and can’t move. Even if you could move, there is no way out. Even if there were a way out, you’d die. Death is all around you. I was wrapped in death, stars, and space. (Melancholic) Death and inﬁnity. (Blunt) I was like one of those gazelles hunted down by lions and torn apart. Back on Earth, people were clapping and talking about a historic moment for mankind. No one heard my last breath” (You can watch the online premiere of Suicidal Dog and Laika directed by Leo Bacica here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdTyTzipLRA)
Or when we hear in voice-over the mother of Alegrías from La Tiza, a play about D.A.C.A and immigration: “Back in my village, women were doing chores together, laughing and crying as one. When I came to America I could not sleep for months. It was so silent, it felt like a graveyard. Every night I put myself to sleep reminiscing all the women’s laughs I heard back home” (You can read the play in full here, Voices on the Move: Writing by and about Refugees, or come with me next year to Anchorage, Alaska for the play’s stage debut during the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference.)
Or when Gabby has her monologue: “One day… my sister was delirious because of her advanced cancer… metastatic. I had nothing to give her… they told us to take her home to die where she spent most of her life… they said, it was too late… nothing else could be done… her body was full with cancer… and … pain… I wanted to do something to take that pain away…I open the door… she was crucified in that bed… it was August… so hot… and yet she was shivering… I caressed her body… I wanted to sing her a lullaby or something we both liked… as I approached her body, she was saying something… at first, I thought she noticed me… I thought she wanted to tell me something… she had not spoken in days… I was so happy… but she did not recognized me… She was delirious because of pain… she was saying something about some wolves… that were chasing her…. I asked her, “Are you ok?” How in the world could she have been okay??? But we have no idea what to do, how to help sometimes… my sister was telling me about these hungry wolves that were running after her… I touched her. Her skin was so dry. She could not move. She was in agony… I went to the hospital and demanded to have a nurse sent home… they said they were understaffed… they gave me a vial of morphine… and instructed me how to administer it to my sister… I was not a nurse… I came back home, I sang to my sister our favorite song, and poured morphine into her vein… to quiet her pain… to stop those wolves from chasing… After she died, months after, I was watching a TV show on Discovery and it was about wolves. I started to cry… I finally saw the wolves that were running after my sister… Funny how our brain works, right? I had goose bumps all over my skin… my sister’s cancer was so advanced that those wolves were actually trying to eat what was left out of her… to make her pain go away… taking her body away, too…” (Snowdrops and Chlorine had its Zoom Theatre Premiere just recently and it was directed by Reg Flowers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vPh1zcGyW8)
I wake up with a strong line. I wash dishes and a scene between characters presents itself however rudimentary in “front” of me, or, as it is the case with Gabby’s partly reproduced monologue I wait 28 years to reveal something personal. Regardless of how I write creatively, I rely on my spontaneity (my forte). In order for me to do that, however, I need to be left alone for hours, if not days. I thrive when I am given generous space and ample solitude.
Clara Burghelea: How do you make sure that you keep true to your voice while working on different projects?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I write only if something is of genuine interest for me. I do not write to be recognized while shopping or going outside. I write so that others become like me, unapologetic and tough, and examine their falls microscopically and then stand up and continue to live and question how they live. I write so the readers feel that I pinch them. Does it hurt? Good, because it should. But I also keep it simple, so I do not confuse myself, or, worse, become unrecognizable to myself.
Clara Burghelea: Do you think and write in one language or the other? Does anything significant/creative occurs in limbo?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: At the moment, I write in my adoptive language and almost rarely in Romanian. I do translate what I write when I have the occasion and I love to return to old words from my childhood and adolescence, hyphens between pronouns and verbs, diacritics, to conjugate verbs, to decline nouns, and to make the feminine and/or masculine agreement, in singular or plural.
However, what’s much more pressing for me as a female author in diaspora is that, aside for a few, Romanians do not know my writing. That has nothing to do with my being far away. It has to do with a series of factors, one of them being the poor curriculum to which diaspora voices are rarely invited to take part. We live in a different country, so what?, the generous Internet can easily dissolve this here/there invisible border. If we want our Romanian literature and culture to thrive, shouldn’t diaspora authors be introduced to the public and/or in schools? It is really that difficult to have talk shows where we could speak about our writing and where we could engage with the Romanian public?! More, as an educator, is it really that difficult to teach Romanian literature, universal literature, and 20th and 21st c diaspora literature in high schools and/or at universities in Romania?! To avoid the costs associated with publishing, I can come up with an online textbook of Romanian writers from around the world. Would the Ministry of Education use it?
Living in a different country has opened my eyes to question what I was told in school. For example, unlike all the Romance languages, in Romanian there are many words from Romani, Slavic, Turkish, Macedonian, Greek, Hungarian, and German to attest for our geography, history, and migration. By working on this online diaspora textbook I can counterbalance the bad influence the Romanian Orthodox Church has on the population, the toxic language and reactions towards the LGBTQ community, and the many violent acts towards women and children. Would the Ministry of Education help me promote it? Would TV/radio shows invite me to talk about it?
Clara Burghelea: How do you make your own place as writer? Do you follow your obsessions or do you attune to the demands of the mainstream literary community?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I am not affiliated with any writers’ Union, I pay no fee to such memberships, so I exist only through what I have published and will publish for just a few more years. I do not have any intention to continue with this. I started to write academically to justify my earning a Ph.D. (I guess), now I am an accidental playwright, but this phase will end, too. There is no need to repeat myself. Now that I am very close to finishing my plays from Staging Breast Cancer (A Trilogy), even writing dramatically is getting to its last … act. I hope some will read my plays and then become so inspired/intrigued/frustrated that they get the desire to write their own plays, poems, and academic books.
Clara Burghelea:Can you tell me a little about your next project?
Cătălina Florina Florescu: I am currently working with a director on a project about female characters in Romanian literature and neither he nor I live in Romania anymore, but we want to work on this project because we think if we want others to know us we should at least make an effort to present our culture. I know it is going to be difficult because another barrier that I have encountered when trying to collaborate with Romanians has been hearing the cliché, “lack of funds,” although there exists enough to sponsor mediocre/lamentable festivals that offer the same “shows” over and over again, that keep audiences locked in a past. Aside from this project, I have a book under contract with Routledge, Female Playwrights and Intersectionality in Contemporary Romanian Theater. However, even more pressing for my well being,I need to return to my solitude because this year has been too much for introverts like myself.
Thank you for your time.
Feel free to engage with some of my writing either by visiting my site (http://www.catalinaflorescu.com/) or my plays (https://newplayexchange.org/users/30111/catalina-florina-florescu)
Cătălina Florina Florescu was born in Romania, graduated “Litere” from University of Bucharest. She earned her PhD in Medical Humanities from Purdue University. She teaches in New York, organizes a theater festival in Jersey City, and travels the world via her fiction, mostly in the dramatic genre. More here: http://www.catalinaflorescu.com/