“Unwritten poetry”: an interview with Vasile Baghiu

By TransCollaborate, June 2021

What is unique or characteristic about Romanian literature/poetry?

Vasile Baghiu

Well, it’s not easy to clarify the identity elements of any “national” literature. Obviously, the first characteristic of Romanian literature/poetry is the Romanian language. This is important, I think, because all languages are unique, and Romanian is no exception. Our poetry is infused with local themes, and it breathes a ”Romanian air”, but from time to time Romanian literature goes beyond the borders and attracts the world’s attention, as was with the case of avant-garde experiments, including Dadaism, or with the international validation of some writers (Cioran, Ionesco, Eliade) who emigrated to the West after the Second World War. More recently, during the last 20 years, some Romanian writers have been translated and have ended up achieving a certain level of validation through Europe.

The internet and all the new possibilities of communication support the visibility of Romanian literature/poetry as an important piece in the European puzzle. I think that, despite its local flavor, recent Romanian literature/poetry of today is more synchronized with what is written everywhere else, because many Romanian writers have travelled much more than they could in the communist era. They’ve made contact with other writers from all over the world, and they’ve also obtained access to international bibliographical resources. So, even though it illustrates the turmoils, frustrations and pains of a society borne out of a dictatorship, Romanian literature/poetry is somehow alive and authentic, and has that universal potential that’s already produced a deserving echo beyond Romanian readers.

The improved profile of Romanian literature and poetry throughout the world hasn’t just come from institutional/official initiatives; I think it’s also come through all the interpersonal connections that writers themselves can make with the literary milieus of other cultural spaces. In the excellent book Romanian Literature as World Literature (Bloomsbury 2018), it’s argued that “small” literatures are “parts and details of the general landscape”, and they deserve the same attention as “central” literatures. Each local literature is a “world literature”, and belongs to the world.

When did you first become interested in poetry?

The first attraction was during high school. I was rather a sad teenager, too serious and melancholy, with thousands of questions in my head. I studied at a nursing high-school, so I witnessed a great deal of suffering early in life by caring for ill people in the hospital practice. it was inevitable that I’d look for answers and meanings. We were also in the middle of a dictatorship that heavily censored the media, so the most accessible tools for finding answers were books.

That was the way I started to read poets in the public library – in excellent translations and in bilingual editions – belonging to other cultural spaces, all the amazing poets that I hadn’t heard of at school.

I felt that poetry displayed a diversity of forms and styles that brought to my eyes something fascinating and difficult to define, something that was very much related to the essence of life, that I had not seen in other fields of knowledge, or even in other arts. It fed the emotional parts of my life, which I was always looking for at that time.

That strange feeling that poetry contained subtle truths about life, which in most cases contradicted the official slogans, made me continue the feverish exploration, and even motivated me to write my first poems. I started to say in poetry what I felt I could not say by any other means. And of course my first lines were in accordance with my sad mood, sentiments like,

All the trees have blossomed at the dissection room’s window.

What attracts you to poetry today?

Today I am still attracted to poetry, both reading it and writing it, but I’m especially attracted to what I like to call poezie trăită (“lived” or “unwritten” poetry). That is, writing about current lived experiences. To give an example, I like to write poems from the perspective of a traveler, so I also like to travel properly and to live the traveling mood. I feel that any poetry can give life a special meaning, but “lived poetry” has such an intensity that it’s able to multiply the real experience of life. This is among the most precious gifts that life can offer to a human being. Therefore, what draws me to poetry today is mainly the chance to live poetically, which is actually the chance to live as a human.

In recent years, your poetry has been translated into English. How do you feel about this, and what do these translations add to or take away from the originals?

I am fortunate that my poetry has aroused the interest of an excellent translator like Cristina Savin in recent years (see links below), and her translations of my poetry have been published by English language journals, in Australia and elsewhere, including attention from TransCollaborate, which honors me.

It’s an opportunity that not many poets have – believe me, I know. During the past few years, in my attempts to go out into the world, I had to do self-translations. So I managed, on my own, the feat of publishing in some journals in the USA and in the UK, as well as getting some literary residencies in Europe, but now I think that these new translations, in contrast, look more professional, and they are very encouraging for me.

The translations make me think that the poetry I write is actually addressed to people from everywhere, not necessarily to Romanian readers only, and that is a great feeling. In addition, I could say that the translations have influenced my writing. They often change my perspective while writing, and the poems acquire new nuances that enrich them. The poetic substance is not “lost in translation”, as they say, and I find this illustrates the idea that poetry is not first a matter of language, but rather one of the capacity to see life.

Since 2019, some of your poems have been collaboratively translated into English, including several versions of your “pandemic” poem Ecuaţie Cu Multe Necunoscute (“Equation with many variables”) What do you see as the main value of collaborative translations? Do you feel they are “accurate” translations? Do you feel that they “serve” the original?

I would say that simple acts of socialization and communication over poetry are very important for the participants in collaborative translation. The communication I’ve witnessed is highly qualitative, because there are two types of experiences that are mixed: that of poetry being translated, and that of people – poets, translators, scholars, people from non-literary professions, people belonging to different cultural spaces – having the opportunity to learn about each other, to share ideas, variants, alternatives and to explore together a special universe, not to mention sharing humor, which sparkles all the time. And the result, the creation of new (sometimes multiple) versions of the poems/stories in another language, is quite a great accomplishment. It’s the result of serious play mixed with work. You suddenly realize that all the variants are suitable and that the translation can re-create the original poem in different ways, without deviating harmfully from the original.

Workshops of this kind, including that one in which I participated, were pleasant and useful for me, because I understood (yet one more time) the possibility of poetry to say the same things differently. I am grateful to TransCollaborate for the interest they’ve shown in deciphering my poem and in giving to it a new sound, (actually, five new sounds).

What do you see as the possibilities of collaborative translation for poetry?

I see an increase in the volume of the translations. I also see chances for good poets who write in languages that are not internationally familiar to become known more quickly to a wider audience.

Collaborative translation is actually a very efficient tool to allow people from different places in the world to get close to each other and to learn what poetry is really made of, what is behind the ability to combine some words on a paper-sheet. This is because the details that one can see in a text are put in the discussion all the time and the process of re-creating in another language a certain poetic substance that a poem contains becomes very efficient in a shorter time.

I think poetry needs to be used more in these kinds of collaborative activities (including in schools) because the collaborative process is a much more relaxing way in which – why not? – people can spend their time. In addition, the collaborative translation process makes the poetry itself more friendly and accessible to more people. So, I see also an increase in the number of those who decide to get close to poetry.

Vasile Baghiu is a Romanian poet, novelist and essayist of many volumes – among them: Taste of Alienation, Fever, Life Plans, Assisted Breathing. He coined the concept of poetic chimerism, a cross between bovarysme and literature, defined as a tendency to escape everyday realities and to create a parallel universe. Baghiu has been awarded writers-in-residence grants in Germany, Austria, Scotland and Switzerland. Several of his poems (self-translations) can be read in magazines and anthologies such as Magma Poetry, The Penmen Review, Poetic Diversity, The Blue House, Subtle Tea, The Orange Room Review, L.A. Melange, also in the poetry collection Transatlantic Crossings: The Constant Language of Poetry (USA, 2006). For the last years, many poems of him have been featured, in translations, in literary magazines and e-zine in Australia, such as The Cordite Poetry Review, The AALITRA Review, Bordertown (TransCollaborate), Poetry in Process, Parallel texts. Words reflected, Coolabah. Baghiu had in the past diverse work experiences: nursing, journalism, teaching , and he works now as a psychologist in the health promotion domain.

To learn more:

Cristina Savin. “Translating alienation – between escapism and adventure. Translating Vasile Baghiu” Coolabah, no 30 (2021): 73-102.

Afterlives #2: Poetry by and inspired by Vasile Baghiu” A TransCollaborate Zine

“Cristina Savin on Vasile Baghiu’s poetic chimerism” by Owen Bullock. Poetry in Process. 23 November 2019.

Metode simple de încetinire a timpului/ “Simple methods to slow down time.” Cristina Savin and Vasile Baghiu. Parallel Texts: Words Reflected. 11 August 2019.

“4 Translated Vasile Baghiu Poems” By Cristina Savin and Vasile Baghiu. Cordite Poetry Review. 1 August 2018

Vasile Baghiu – Blogpost (in Romanian)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s