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Interview with Andrei Guruianu
by Gloria Mindock

Andrei Guruianu

Andrei Guruianu was born on November 19, 1979 in Bucharest, Romania. He immigrated to the United States in 1991 and settled in Queens, NY, after which he studied at Binghamton University, Iona College, and Elmira College, eventually earning a doctorate in English and creative writing from Binghamton University.

Before entering academia, for many years Guruianu worked as a newspaper reporter and columnist for the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, NY, as a cook and an electrician's apprentice, and had a few stints in retail. Guruianu also worked as a literary magazine and small press editor and publisher, and from 2009 to 2011 served as Broome County, NY's first poet laureate. He has received grants from the Broome County Arts Council and the Chenango County Council on the Arts, and collaborated over the years on numerous arts projects with members of the community and fellow writers and artists.

Guruianu's work has been published in numerous literary journals and magazines around the world, both in print and online. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and his poetry has been featured by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in his column American Life in Poetry, He currently lives in New York City where he teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.

The Museum of Brief Sentiments, Vo. 1 & 2 (Kattywompus Press, 2013) are so beautifully designed and written. Please discuss this double volume collection.

The Museum of Brief Sentiments, Vo. 1 & 2

Somewhere in my library I have a book of poems by Pablo Neruda and on the cover is Neruda holding what looks like a parcel wrapped in newspaper and twine. I love his poetry and I love that cover, especially for that package that feels so nostalgic to me. If I were holding it I am sure I would love the feel of it, the weight of the contents pulling at the string holding it together. And I would want to know what's inside, to undo the knot and peel away the newspaper.

That image was what drove me to want to recreate that feeling of holding such a package and opening it. And I wanted to do that with books, with my own work. We all love receiving packages in the mail and have a sense of excitement and giddiness while opening them, anxious to see exactly what's inside.

More than a year ago now I was lucky to connect with Sammy Greenspan, editor at Kattywompus Press, who's been incredibly supportive of my crazy ideas. Together we worked on putting out a new limited edition collection titled The Museum of Brief Sentiments. It is a double volume chapbook consisting of one book of lyrical poems as Volume 1 and one book-length poem as Volume 2. I knew I wanted to do something special with these books and Sammy gave me the support I needed to make it happen.

Along with the books, we also included numbered and signed prints by the photographer Teknari ( I feel that the images speak beautifully to the content of the poems and their inclusion adds both to the overarching narrative and contribute to the special feeling of the set. In addition, each of the sets is hand numbered and signed (1-100). The best part: each set comes wrapped by me in brown paper and tied with twine. It is my hope that when someone receives this package in the mail they might experience something a little different, something a bit special. That those few seconds it takes to hold it in hand and then unwrap the shell will create a relationship with the books and a sense of curiosity about its contents. At least that is the hope.

The short story collection Body of Work was also recently released by Fomite Press. Give us a peek inside this book and discuss some of the stories.

Body of Work

Body of Work is my first all fiction publication consisting of 13 short stories that have been in the works for the past six years. I suppose it's taken me longer than most other collections to finish because initially I did not consider myself a prose writer. My first foray into creative writing was poetry and I only came to prose second, almost as an experiment. That said, there is a good chance that I am headed more in that direction as a writer now, hoping to work on a novel in the near future.

I think the back cover description of Body of Work serves nicely as an introduction to the book: Throughout thirteen stories, Body of Work chronicles the physical and emotional toll of characters consumed by the all-too-human need for a connection. Their world is achingly common - beauty and regret, obsession and self-doubt, the seductive charm of loneliness. Often fragmented, whimsical, always on the verge of melancholy, the collection is a sepia-toned portrait of nostalgia - each story like an artifact of our impermanence, an embrace of all that we have lost, of all that we might lose and love again someday.

The characters in this collection are as different as they come - a washed up painter, a migrant worker, a child in foster care, an OCD insomniac. However, if there is one thing that links the characters in these stories it's the fact that they came close, they almost made it, whatever it might have been that they were after individually. I am fascinated by the lengths people go to in order to achieve something, to say that they've reached a kind of personal success. As a society we're fascinated by success stories, achievements, that final product that points to our sense of worth. And yet much of those efforts eventually leave us empty and unfulfilled. How much happier the man or woman who finds solace and freedom in pursuit of the ordinary, the common - what we might ultimately call our shared humanity.

Other books include "Postmodern Dogma," "and nothing was sacred anymore," "Front Porch World View," "Days when I Saw the Horizon Bleed," "Metal & Plum: A Memoir," "Anamnesis," "Exile," "It was Like that Once," and "How We are Now." Your list of books published is impressive. Please discuss a few of these.

I started my writing career as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York. But in retrospect it was always a back-up plan. After giving up on a pre-med program, I graduated Binghamton University with an undergraduate degree in English, which really did not leave me with many options. So I started doing what I happened to be good at - putting words down on paper. The newspaper paid me for it so it felt like a good fit at the time. But it didn't last and I moved back slowly towards academia. During that time working as a newspaper reporting and planning a career teaching what I love I also started writing poetry on the side. And once I started the floodgates opened as they say. The poems came easily at first, much informed by my experience as an immigrant to America, and those poems indeed make up the bulk of my first two collections (and nothing was scared anymore and Days When I Saw the Horizon Bleed).

The memoir, Metal and Plum (Mayapple Press), happened to be my doctoral dissertation at Binghamton University, yet again a tribute to my background as a Romanian immigrant trying to come to terms with his life in Romania during the 1980s and then as a teenager growing up in Queens, NY.

How We Are Now (Split Oak Press) is a short yet fun collection I worked on together with artist John Brunelli. It consists of a series of photographs taken by John around the Binghamton, NY area and poems that I wrote reflecting on those images. It was our goal to create a photo-poetic record of Binghamton in 2009, a kind of statement saying, "this is what it was like" for future generations. I especially enjoy working on projects such as these with other artists because both parties end up feeding off the creative energy and the result is often unexpected and more spontaneous, something I tend to value in the arts.

You immigrated from Bucharest, Romania to the USA in 1991. When did you begin writing?

I did not begin writing "seriously" until about 2004-2005, so relatively recently. As a young student in America I was expected to study math and the sciences in the hopes that I might become a doctor - the clichéd American dream of many immigrants. While I had success in the subjects throughout high school, my heart was not into it. In college I gravitated towards the liberal arts, studying poetry, literature, and philosophy. It was both an end and a beginning.

From 2009-2011, you served as Broome County-NY's first poet laureate. What was this experience like?

Being Broome County Poet Laureate was not only a great honor but easily one of the most important experiences for me as a writer. In my role as the county's poet laureate I was expected to help promote the literary arts, which I did through free writing workshops and readings that were open to members of the community. I noticed that there was a need for it in the community and the response was very positive. I was able to run a yearly literary festival, publish a collection of works by members that attended the workshops, and also get a small literary journal off the ground.

It also helped to keep me grounded in a sense, to remember that poetry and good writing has humble beginnings. To be among a group of people who are there with you in the same room just writing for the sake of writing without pretense or the dream of future publication is a good thing for all writers to experience every now and then. We all started that way - with a love for words, for stories, for sharing what we've experienced. Yet sometimes we lose perspective of these things as careers get in the way, as awards entice us with their glory, as the prospect of a book dwarfs the excitement of a single word that gets it just right. The years when I was poet laureate I got to experience all of those things and share them with others that had been there for me throughout the whole process, my growth as a writer if you will. For what they gave to me in terms of support I am extremely grateful. And if I was able to give something small back to them by what I did then it was all worth it.

You currently teach Expository Writing at New York University. Talk about what you try to teach your students about writing.

I can say without a doubt that my experience at NYU over the past two years has been one of the most important in my teaching career. If there is one thing that I hope my students take away from our time together (and this can apply to anyone else as well, I believe) is that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. And you must read widely and with an open mind, allowing for those moments of uncertainty, of not knowing. Without reading and without the ability to make sense of moments that trouble our understanding of the world around us we remain stuck in a world of inherited beliefs, a world that necessarily limits one's ability to express complex (and possibly conflicting) ideas in writing.

Discuss leaving Romania after the fall of Ceausescu. Was it a difficult transition moving to the United States?

For a 10-year-old immigration is scary, confusing, filled with uncertainty. We left all relatives behind in Romania as well as all of my friends. I did not speak a drop of English. I always joke that I learned English by watching American cartoons, but it's pretty close to the truth. Since we arrived in the spring I was not able to start school until the following school year, so I had more than six months on my hands with nothing to do. Without friends, without knowing my way around, and without the ability to communicate, all that I had left was the house we lived in and the television. By the time I entered sixth grade in America I could already communicate easily and by the end of the year I was fluent in the language, even earning me the title of salutatorian of my class. So I guess you could say I was lucky to be a quick learner, which made my transition to the U.S. a bit easier.

When you started writing, did your early life under Ceausescu's rule ever come into your poems and stories?

I think it was inevitable that it would creep into my writing. Language, and therefore writing, is what we have to make sense of the world around us. Being thrown into a chaotic new life I had to navigate between worlds and languages and try to understand what was happening. It was also not easy knowing that the rest of our family remained behind, that we might never return, that the future was precarious at best. What I began writing all of those emotions and thoughts rose to the surface and, as I mentioned, the first two books I wrote dealt very much with my early childhood experiences almost as a way to make sense of what I had been through. They are, therefore, my two most autobiographical poetry collections (aside from the memoir). As I started to exhaust those years, as time necessarily put distance between then and now and me and my early childhood, my own work started changing, grappling with new subject matter.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a two-part (roughly 150 pages) prose poetry collection. Its aim is to address through historical and contemporary references such topics as the limitations of memory, the transience of human life, and the futility of history; above all, the difficulties of making art and meaning in a spiritually and culturally bankrupt civilization.

The collection is divided into two parts titled At the Feet of Statues (implying that part of history that is already written) and Unwritten Stone (that sliver of hope we retain for the future). Collectively, the poems form meditations on the beauty of the banal, the endurance of the ephemeral, and the dangerous seductions of history and myth, ultimately laying bare the human condition, past and present, but also where we might be headed.

Describe your favorite place to write.

Haha. Wherever I can. I would say wherever there is peace and quiet but that is not always the case. I find myself working quite well in coffee shops as a matter of fact. Something about the buzz and hum of the activity around me - it eventually turns into something like white noise, which is very conducive to writing. And when you need a bit of inspiration all you need to do is tune in to the conversation around you, some snippets of overheard talk or an interesting outfit, and that is almost always enough to help you press on.

Before moving to NYC, you lived in Naperville, IL. Why the move? I guess flat land wasn't for you? Ha-Ha! What was your experience in the Midwest like for you?

I think I'm harder on the Midwest that I need to be. I know it's a beautiful place and for some it is their own emotional center. For me it just didn't fit. I am very much connected to the land and to place, and that informs who I am as a person and therefore as an artist. For some reason in the Midwest I could not connect to "place" - it did not feel like I could be one with the land, if I am allowed that cliché. I really do feel an emotional connection to a place, as I think many people do, and it was lacking there. Therefore making the decision to move back to the northeast is less a commentary on the Midwest itself but my own need to be in a place where I felt connected.

Does anywhere in the USA remind you of Romania?

I suppose it would have to be the northeast, specifically upstate New York, the hills and the farms, a more rural kind of life. It forms a kind of center for me, even though I know there are many things that could be improved in those areas. But I suppose that's what makes it feel more like "home", or like the home I left behind in Romania. It's a bit rough around the edges, much can be done to make it better, but in the end it is one of the most beautiful places on earth for me. Just one look at the hills alive with autumn's colors is enough to make you into a believer.

Talk about your book forthcoming by Cervena Barva Press.

Interrogating Aesthetics consists of prose-poem vignettes that are purposefully untitled and "out of context." By this I mean that they often avoid overt determining references that could place them in a specific time and place. When they do use such markers, they are spare and subtle. By placing the language and sentiments of the poems outside a definitive context but within a discerning reader's own larger cultural framework, the book offers a tool for contemplation, for discourse, for thinking through what matters. The short vignettes approach the philosophical, historical, and aesthetic, and many verge on the aphoristic and epigrammatical.

What I was hoping to achieve is the point where as writers and readers we might engage on the level of the universal symbol, something that travels across specific time and culture. It is my belief that to achieve this, at least in my interpretation of the aesthetic act as it manifests itself in this collection, I had to focus on sentiment only. Sure, specifics might change over time and place, but universal sentiments (love, anger, hatred, etc.) remain the same. The objects, characters, and places in a poem then became mere tools for locating and fixing a certain sentiment that presented itself in that moment of conception.

For example, though I might mention "tea glass" or "coffee mug", I make a deliberate choice to leave other referents out of the picture. I might mention words such as "Bosphorus" or "middle class America" or "country twang" but will purposefully allow that single call to specificity to stand on its own, relying instead on the reader to bring the personal and the culturally specific outside of their imposed limits and into an arena of the imagination that any reader could enter and explore on their own terms. While in these poems I certainly move across different time periods and places, calling upon the specific for some flavor of place, what does not change is the overarching human sentiment, which in the end is the lifeblood of the poem.

Ultimately I believe that we are obedient and indebted to our surroundings, which in turn define and label us as specific cultural animals. But whether on this continent or any other, sentiments such as love, longing, despair and doubt (among others) give us common ground. It is my hope that these "out of context" prose-pieces could be uprooted from a specific time and place and yet still work together in a larger context to carry sentiments that are both recognizable and engaging - and most of all universally human.

A note about the structure of Interrogating Aesthetics:

About two years ago I reached a point where I began to feel constricted writing free verse poetry. Something about the process had become mechanical for me; but more than that it had become insufficient to express a new moment in my ongoing development as a writer - one that moved away from me and my own experience as the "I" of the poem and one where that "I" could be inhabited more easily by the reader.

In many ways this collected began accidentally as I stumbled across the prose poem form. Sensing the impulse to write yet not wanting to write free verse, I realized I was writing in a form I had not yet explored, the prose poem, and it simply felt right in that moment. Instead of thinking about line breaks or stanzas or length, I simply wrote. It was an extremely freeing experience and for the better part of the past two years I have been writing what one could loosely term prose poems (though they might just as easily be called vignettes, aphorisms, or simply prose pieces). Two short examples:

         In the atelier of dolls the plastic arts ventriloquist is busy at work
         sewing buttons, putting on eyes and hair and the permanent mouth
         that cannot speak on its own. One for each of the many moods
         we're in, held up by time, as if at gunpoint-our short nights
         worried away in a consternation of gestures, porcelain hands
         arranged on shelves next to the many empty picture frames-props
         in a spectacle of imitation culture, pulled out every now and then
         and asked to clap away the dust.


         At wicker tables for two we lean back seduced by the half-bottle
         and flame, toe-tapping to the accordion king, thinking of how best
         to consummate our grief. Likewise at the cafes and the concert
         halls, the tin roof monasteries that were built facing towards what
         is good, old-fashioned gaslights pointing out the way. But it was
         always a false choice-no candle has ever done a good deed on its
         own. Instead the metaphor lodges itself in the dead air of a
         windless afternoon-shivering in sunlight-and from there with
         eyes pinned to its sockets forced to watch the brief hour of mercy
         passing all too soon-our own chosen sky sown with heartbeat and
         prayer for what still lies safe and hidden in the night-all that
         hasn't fallen yet from the uneven shelves of memory.

I even played around with punctuation and wrote several pieces avoiding punctuation marks, trying to create readable lines through the conspicuous choice of words that signaled on their own how they should be read. The creative impulse remains pure when we forget convention, forget about rules and inhibitions and simply attend to the language as it calls itself into being on the page. This is a give and take relationship with that impulse (resisting it at first, giving in as the poem develops):

         I went around last night got caught inside a dream rain. There was
         no cover only stumps of tenements the pipe and wire blossoms
         staggered on the wind. In the rain were men who couldn't read but
         talked of politics and changes in the weather in the night-time
         rituals traditions and their half-smoked cigarettes the ashes
         streaming fireworks into the sky the arc triumphant flick flick
         higher each time everyone stopped just for a moment just to watch
         the light twist through the grass until it disappeared.

Though an enjoyable experiment once in a while, I hesitated writing an entire book this way, sensing that the form was forced, deliberately calling attention to the artifice, while my goal ultimately was to eliminate prescriptive moves.

Ultimately this collection an attempt to break out from what I see as a barrier to my own creative process - the worry about form and structure and a certain rigidity that comes even with free verse. The process also led me to realize how difficult it is to "make new", as the saying goes. Yes, as artists we make new through the simple act of creating anything that has not existed prior, but what happens when one is not satisfied with that? Is there still room to "invent" instead? Certainly it's been said that it is nearly impossible to do so at the level of content, which leaves us with form (and even then one might say, "it's been done before"). What we must content ourselves with then is the hope that through finding a "new way to say it" and a "new way to present it" we might stumble across something that might be called innovative. Or at least tempting enough when experienced to give a reader brief pause and a moment of consideration.


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