Claudia Serea Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
One thing I think is interesting about these poems of witness is that they reference incidents that have taken place over a wide expanse of history, going back to the 1st Century A.D. and addressing events that happened as recently as the late 20th Century, and yet they all read as if the pain is still present, as if time has collapsed these moments together, though details have been forgotten with passing generations and, sometimes, the way they’re understood has changed. To what extent do you think this kind of pain cannot be forgotten? To what extent does all pain, at least pain due to oppression, overlap and connect to all of human experience? Why do you choose to write in a way that emphasizes this continuity of pain?These poems are part of a new collection titled These Pearls of Pain. To better understand the context, here are some facts: in 1958, my grandmother’s family was the victim of a wave of violence against the peasants who resisted the forced nationalization of the land in Communist Romania. Hundreds of thousands were sent to prison, labor camps, deported, or killed. My grandfather was sentenced to 25 years of prison. Their three sons were sentenced to 2 years, 25 years, and my father to 8 years. They were expropriated and my grandma was evicted from her house. It’s estimated that, by 1989, the total number of victims of the Romanian Communist regime reached 2 million. My collection is inspired by these events, as well as other accounts of political oppression, and it revolves around the themes of memory and pain.
To answer your first question: the Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga said: “The one who forgets doesn’t deserve.” We can’t allow ourselves to forget this much pain. Although 20 years have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, little has been done to offer justice and moral reparation to the former political prisoners. There is less and less talk even about the victims of repression in general, as if Communism never happened. Remembering this pain is my way of offering that symbolic justice. I have strong reasons to write about these events, while memories are still fresh and survivors, like my father, are still able to tell their stories.
At a larger scale, human experience is riddled with pain. History is written with pain. It seems as if pain is embedded into our genetic code. Old or new, the pain resonates within us because of its universality. An example: around the world, there are still political prisoners in places like North Korea, Iran, China or Cuba. Some of these poems are dedicated to them as well, as is the case with the poem titled “The Slaves’ Hill.”
For me as an artist, it is important to write about the events of recent history, to draw the pain from them and convert it into poetic language. The pain of the Christian martyrs referenced in “For the 40 soldiers of The XII Legion Fulminata” is distilled over time into a religious and cooking ritual, which in turn is used by my grandmother as a coping mechanism when faced with the recent painful events. Thus, the circle of pain is complete. By perpetuating everyday rituals, we deal with the hardships and we honor the victims at the same time.
You choose several different approaches to these poems of witness, all of which make the pain of oppression seem present: a grandmother’s voice, a recipe, orders to children, and referencing specific incidents and elements of nature. What do various approaches offer? How do you come up with and decide on an approach for each poem? How do you understand these poems as working together as a unit, in addition to standing on their own?
There are many facets to violence and oppression. There are countless victims that need to have their stories told, and all of them speak with different voices. These variations in tone and depth and the different perspectives only emphasize the vastness of suffering. I see these poems more as a choir, a collective testimony. Individually, they might not always be in perfect harmony, but together they paint the picture of large-scale oppression. I often use the present tense to make the events seem current, “lending my voice” to one or another character. When I use the elements of nature, they usually emphasize time and memory loss, as a way to distance the events and “fade” them, make them more impersonal.
I find poems of witness particularly hard to write. What do you think it takes to write a successful one, or a successful series? Does it take any particular experience or understanding?
The writer needs to feel a strong empathy with the topic chosen and be fully immersed into the events, in order to build an intimate relationship with them. This way, the poem’s voice will become passionate and authentic. Research helps, as does personal experience. In my case, my grandma still guides me sometimes, in my dreams.
Go to your room
and play there.
Don't listen to the grownups' talk.
And, most importantly,
don't tell anyone
what you hear at home.
Don't tell even your best friend
who shared her orange with you
that your father was jailed
when he was eighteen
for conspiracy against the social order
because of a poem found by the secret police
when they searched the house
for proof against grandpa
who said they could take the land
over his dead body.
Don't tell anyone
your grandma whispered in your ear
how she lost everything she had,
but her hands
that weaved against her will
red carpets for the ones who took all,
how she lost her house,
how she lost the land she had as a dowry
and the proud horses that could jump
over the eight-foot gates
After my husband and sons were sentenced
to political prison: Grandma speaks
The house is an empty eggshell
from which someone has sucked
the amniotic white
and the yolk.
How will I breathe? I ask the wind,
and the wind tears the heart
out of my chest,
leaving a hole as big as Oltenia,
through which it whistles.
How will I sleep? I ask the night,
and the darkness opens
its toothless mouth
and shows me a place to curl
without being swallowed.
How will I carry on? I ask the snail,
and the snail shows me how
she packs the house on her back,
her sons' toys and books,
her husband's glasses,
and crawls on her belly
around the village's shards
for eight years, until,
one day, God finds her
a safe spot.
How will I live? I ask the spider,
and the spider shows me how
she knots the night with the day
with the night and weaves
the worry with hope
into a home again.
For the 40 soldiers of The XII Legion Fulminata
Sift the flour three times:
for fear, forgiveness, faith.
Make a nest in the middle
and pour milk.
Think of frozen Lake Sevasta
Let yeast foam
and bloom a warm flower.
Break the eggs.
Think of ankles and kneecaps
broken by hammers.
Add lemon zest,
glowing crowns of saints.
Think of ice melting on soldiers' skin.
Mix with oil and knead
until the dough speaks and breathes.
Pound and throw the dough 100 times.
Tell it to renounce God.
pinch of salt, of patience.
Leave it by the oven to rise, alive.
Make figure eights
shaped like humans,
with heads and bellies
of braided dough.
Brush with beaten egg.
Align the small army.
40 soldiers of the XII Legion Fulminata
go straight into fire.
Sink them in honey,
sprinkle with chopped walnuts.
Think of forgotten ones,
known or unknown.
Think of the unidentified,
Call out their unspoken names.
For them, break apart the macinici cake.
Take a bite of its soft body,
fragrant and sweet.
Ask forgiveness for the wandering,
ones that lived before us
and are gone.
The Slaves' Hill*
For the political prisoners of the world
the prisoners pushed and pulled
the wagons loaded with corpses.
The Slaves' Hill is pregnant with bones.
Plant a cross anywhere on this tomb.
Beneath our feet,
our fathers wait in the womb.
The moon plays the pipe over the hill
as the men climb in single file.
Who were they?
What did they fight for?
The kids grow without knowing.
Dressed as a guard,
the moon mows the forgotten names
and gathers them with the pitch fork
*Dealul Robilor, burial site of the former political prisoners from Aiud, Romania