Pleiades Interview Series: Mihaela Moscaliuc
Mihaela Moscaliuc lived in Romania long enough to see the toppling of the Ceausescu dictatorship. After moving to the states for graduate work, she began writing about her experiences under Communist oppression,as well as the culture that existed behind the wall of news stories and international image. Moscaliuc has authored the poetry collections Father Dirt (2010) and Immigrant Model (2015). She has translated Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper into English (2014) , and is the editor ofInsane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern, which is due out in June. Moscaliuc is the recipient of two Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Awards, as well as a New Jersey Arts Council fellowship. She currently teaches in the English department at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
In 2015, Moscaliuc taught courses on American literature and culture at Al. I. Cuza University in Iasi, Romania while on a Fulbright scholarship. Former student and current colleague Eric Farwell had the chance to chat with Moscaliuc about her Fulbright experience, education, and how her time back in Romania has influenced her poems as they undergo the drafting process.
Mihaela, your latest poetry collection, Immigrant Model, is deeply personal, but it also scales back in an attempt to capture the immigrant experience as a whole, using as it does the effects of Chernobyl as a way into discussing perception. After your Fulbright in Romania, do you see your work continuing in that direction?
I remember giving a reading from my first collection, Father Dirt, a few years ago. A student came up to me afterwards and asked me what I thought of being pigeonholed as an immigrant poet. Would I mind that label and the expectations that came with it? For a while, I really didn’t know what to make of it, you know? I was bothered, though I knew the student didn’t mean to offend me in any way. I started asking a lot of questions about why I wrote. I realized very quickly that I would have never started writing had I not been an immigrant. It was as simple as that, and I’m grateful for that important question. Maybe at some point that will change, but I am still very much writing out of that subject position, and I’m holding on to it tighter than ever. I’m not ready to become an amenable ethnic. There’s too much at stake. Friends from my homeland, Romania, ask me if this Trump stuff is for real or if it’s some inside joke that’s lost in translation. Cold War rhetoric must have messed up our sense of humor, they say, because it doesn’t seem funny. Is it supposed to be? they ask again. I have to stay immigrant, I tell myself.
A number of friends saw Father Dirt as a fairly impersonal work. One asked when I was going to allow the “me” of the poems a chance to really speak. I thought the poems were deeply personal. I was the product of my history, of multiple histories, a hodgepodge of experiences that needed to be sorted out. I was writing out of confusion and the need to both remember and figure out the first 24 years of my life. I was lucky to have a loving family and good mentors, but I also lived in a state of mendacity, corruption, chronic mistrust and fear, secrecy, and a prematurely acquired dual consciousness for what is, for now, more than half of my life. As I was writing Father Dirt, I kept asking myself the question Lucy, the eponymous protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, asks about Mariah: How does one get to be that way? I’m still asking myself that question, and I believe the poems of Immigrant Model, the new collection, attempt yet another answer. Take, for instance, the most ‘impersonal’ poems—the Radioactive Wolves sequence, inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. For me, those poems are very personal, and not necessarily because at the time of the explosion I lived in that sliver of world and later saw some of the effects, but because I couldn’t get the voices from Alexievich’s oral history out of my head. They were not going anywhere, I realized. They became intimate, insistent, as much a part of me as anything else.
Obviously you can’t speak to what your writing would be like if you were a poet from a different background, but do you think your work would have the same commitment to capturing the immigrant experience if you didn’t have your pulse rooted in Romania, or is there something specific to the country?
It would probably still have that commitment, but it’s impossible to tell. As I mentioned earlier, I often write as a way of grappling with issues of uprootedness, belonging, in-betweenness, so in that sense there is a certain immigrant “universality” to what I’m doing. On the other hand, I’m writing out of the fear of forgetting the particulars of my previous self, my culture, my life there, so in that sense I’m writing myself back into a very specific –and partially untranslatable—landscape.
You mentioned that you didn’t work on poems much during your time on the Fulbright, as you were primarily there to teach. Do you notice anything emerging in the work now though, any new discipline or underpinning quality that you can connect to your time working with the students?
The writing I’m doing is less related to my teaching than to my experience reconnecting with children I had worked with in the orphanage in my early 20s. The middle section of Father Dirt is about them, and so are some of the poems in Immigrant Model—see “Fig Wasp,” “Ghost Mothers,” “Doina Speaks,” “The Undertaker’s Report,” “Orphan Song.” They’re all 28-32 now, and they seem to be the ones whose lives have changed the least, in the sense that they’re still struggling to survive, they’re still victims of a corrupt social and economic system, trapped in absurd bureaucracies and ostracized, yet still able to crack jokes, take pleasure in simple things, exercise real camaraderie (even if they curse like sailors). Some of them live in projects, some are squatters, and some (those infected, as children, with HIV and Hepatitis) go back and forth between hospitals and state-sponsored dorms. They keep me honest and real. They made me ask myself a lot of questions, so I couldn’t write while I was there. Writing felt both like a ludicrous privilege and an act of absolute necessity, and the combination paralyzed me. I’m slowly crawling out of that state.
I’m curious to know how you view college instruction in general. Do you view working in academia either as fodder or a means to clear head space so that ideas can percolate, or is it more of a necessary evil?
I love teaching and the synergy between teaching and writing. However, being in Romania made me realize how radically different the education systems are. While it remains one of my great joys to work with students, I dislike administrative work that takes me away from things I care deeply about (reading, writing, sharing my insights and enthusiasm, listening to others’ stories). Teaching in Romania reminded me of how customer-based our capitalist education system is, how much we cuddle our students, how we prolong their state of immaturity. I think we might be damaging them more than helping them.
As a poet married to another poet (Michael Waters), how do you approach the creation of your work? Do you have separate rituals wherein you isolate or remove yourself to focus on the work, or is it more collaborative/shared as drafting progresses? Does a cultural experience like the Fulbright propagate a deeper understanding of each other’s work across invisible boundaries or exist as a sort of shared currency of influence?
My husband, poet Michael Waters, and I work well together. We’re in very different places in our writing careers and have different routines and habits, but our views on the importance of writing in our lives are similar, so we try to accommodate each other’s needs. Generally, we share work only after multiples drafts and only when we feel we’ve done everything we can on our own.
I like your idea of a “shared currency of influence.” I’m not quite sure what it means, but I like it. Michael wrote some incredible poems about Romania while in Romania. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Being there reminded me of so many things I had missed without realizing I was missing them. All of a sudden the vacuum and listlessness that had been untranslatable translated itself. Here I was, in Iasi, waiting for the same tram, on the same spot as 2O some years before, balancing on the soles of my boots on the same chipped curb, and the chill of winter numbed my toes completely. I hadn’t experienced that in about 22 years, and for a few seconds, while standing there, I was convinced I had never left. I read and write on immigrant nostalgia, but experiencing it that way was different—at once more complicated and simpler.
To go back to your question, I can’t speak for Michael, but I do know that having him there, uprooted from his “context” and emplaced, temporarily, into a version of mine, added new angles to my understanding of each of us separately and together.
With regard to Romania, I think the easy touchstone for most is the reign of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu. On the one hand, there’s an outsider cultural perspective that they still cast a long shadow 25 years later. Was that something you felt or recognized this year, or is it a projected view?
Yes, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu remain, I believe, the most referenced Romanians besides the mythic Dracula, and that’s a bit sad and a bit ironic and a bit comic, if you think of it—to be known primarily through histories of blood thirst and vampirism. I should wear my fangs more often.
I saw the ghosts of Ceausescu lingering in many corners in Romania. I could see them, their grins, but others couldn’t. I kept asking my friends. They shook their heads. Maybe they showed themselves to me because I had been gone for so long, or because I keep writing about them, afraid I might forget the terror. Each poetry collection returns to that firing squad on Christmas day 1989. See “Memoir” in Immigrant Model and “Minds Touched by Happiness Tend to Forget Their Bodies’ Sores” in Father Dirt.
Though I visit Romania almost every year, it’s only for a week or so, barely enough to say hello & good-bye, so my eyes are closer to an outsider’s. Those I left behind had to adjust their eyes so they could take in day-to-day changes, the endless transition, the heartbreak. I had missed all that.
If a young poet were exploring his/her Romanian heritage today, what differences would there be between your portrayal of the culture and theirs? In other words, do you feel that the last few decades have seen enough changes in Romania’s infrastructure as to give rise to new social realities?
I’m wary of making statements about what’s changed and what hasn’t. Once I start, it’s impossible not to essentialize. People are generally warm and social and generous. At the same time, corruption is rampant, poverty–especially among our elders–absolutely heartbreaking, economic disparities are glaring, and paradox reigns. Education is mostly free and access to culture is more than affordable, but nepotism and bribery seem to resist eradication, so many young people leave as soon as they can to work and live abroad. I don’t know how a young poet sees it, how she/he would make sense of it. It was shocking, though oh so real, to realize that my students at the university had never lived under the Ceausescus. I would say all these things connecting the present to what seemed to me not so distant a past, and they would have no idea what I was talking about.
You mentioned being afraid of forgetting what Romania was like, what constituted the version of it that gave rise to you as an individual. I was curious to know if being back for the Fulbright was reassuring in any way, or if it made that fear more complex? If it’s the latter, do you think writing poems and thinking it out that way would allow you to hold onto something, or is this one case where maybe writing isn’t enough?
It textured the fear for sure, but it also gave me a chance to stand on old ground and at least attempt to measure my own transformation. One of Hemon’s characters mentions (in The Lazarus Project) that “all fears are memories of other fears.” I think I’m starting to know what that means and hope that writing can bring some further illumination.