Alexandru Potcoavă

 

 

(Romania)

 

 

The key or the embryo of a future character

 

 

Rodica Draghincescu talks with writer Alexandru Potcoavă

 

Alexandru Potcoavă (born in 1980) is a young Romanian poet and prose writer, a fresh, sparkling, lively, intelligent author who has emerged from the literary movements of the Romanian Banat, but above all from his own « becoming. » Free to say and write whatever he cares about, whatever disturbs or charms him, without wanting to impress his critics and readers at all costs, Alexandru is a lucky writer, armed with a « double-edged » style, with a sacred literary program, whose books show a strong authenticity. Writing that is uncluttered with epithets and metaphors, lucid, supple and agile, which is not only an art of rethinking life, but also an autobiographical act in search of collective memory. For Levure littéraire No. 14, we are proposing for you this European author who, it seems to us, very much deserves to be known internationally.

 

 

 

 

RD: – Dear Alexandru, we rarely ask a runner why he runs, a musician why he plays. However, we systematically ask writers why they write. Could you tell me why that is?

 

AP: – Dear Rodica, I have no idea. Actually, I don’t even think that’s accurate. Because the runner could very well give an answer like this: I run to come in first place in this competition or to beat my own record and, eventually, live from it. And the musician could say: I play to perfect my technique and to display my talents in more and more crowded halls. I also play to live. Just as you could ask a plumber why he connects pipes and unplugs drains. He would answer: because that’s what I have learned to do and because that’s the way I make myself useful. In addition, I live from it and it’s even quite a good living. On the other hand, it is true that it is writers who are most often asked that question. As if for them the answer was not just as obvious as it is for other professions.

 

RD: – What prompted you to become a writer? What gave you a desire to write (perhaps a triggering event, a specific context)? Could you tell us how you began to write? What is the place of writing in your life and how long has this been the case?

 

AP: – My first desire to write came to me at the age of nine. It was during the revolution of December 1989. Echoes of the terrible events outside were coming to me, in the foyer of our apartment. I had been forbidden from going near the windows, because a lot of curious people had been shot that way, through their windows, by the military who saw terrorists everywhere. My parents, who still had to go out for food or for work, would come back home with all kinds of stories of what they’d experienced or heard. Among these, the one that impressed me the most was the story of young people shot down on the steps of the Saint Joseph Cathedral. They had tried to get away from the army tanks by taking refuge in the cathedral, but the doors had been locked, they weren’t been able to hide inside, and they were machine-gunned by the army. So my first poetry was about those martyrs and my mother wanted to get it published in the first free newspaper of the city of Timisoara. If she had succeeded I could have hired her as my literary agent – my first and only one to this day. But my father, out of a reflex of fear that I had trouble understanding at the time, stopped her.

Then the Revolution was over, followed by the Transition, and I completely forgot those first poetic strokes of the pen. Freedom was much more enthralling, the new world of advertising, publicity and all kinds of distractions was more than enough for an adolescent like me. Until I fell in love. That led me to once again write poems and I finally published my first volume, which was the beginning of my literary career. Then I lost someone who was very dear to me and that led me to write a novel. Since then there is no more separation between my life and my writing, I have lived only through writing, just as an athlete is not an athlete only in a stadium – he trains constantly, follows a certain way of life, etc.

 

 

       Kikinda Short – The prose festival of Kikinda, Serbia

 

 

RD: – So, these days, you can live from it?

 

AP: Rather I live with it. A Romanian author cannot pay his bills with what he earns from his books. It is absolutely necessary to have a down-to-earth profession, whatever that is – prof, journalist, musician or plumber (it seems that runners write less, but you can’t say that the writers run less). In short, writing is not so much seen as a profession in itself, no matter how professional the author. A certain romantic vision of the writer still persists, at least among the public. It is his business how he lives, and the time for tributes will come after his death.

 

RD: – Do you have a writing ritual (habits, a special place, an atmosphere)?

 

AP: For a long time I loved to write in bars and cafés. The activity all around and the conversations of my neighbours kept me awake, alert and, when I looked up from my papers (I was still writing by hand at the time), I could also come across a face, a gesture, a snippet of conversation that could generate a character. Then smoking was banned in public spaces and I can’t write without smoking (and vice versa). So all I could do was work at home, where the hardest thing was getting used to the silence.

 

RD: – How does your inspiration come to you? Where do you find the subjects of your books? What are the sources of your writing?

 

AP: – Inspiration is a matter of the moment, when something pops into your head, or you make a connection, and then you quickly find the solution for it. Something clicks, which can come after hours at the writing desk or during a conversation on a completely different subject. I’m quite fond of chatting, listening and observing, and my texts all contain a core drawn from reality. My imagination is only an intermediary between my ears, eyes and hand. One that, of course, cancels out a small percentage, because it has to live too.

 

 

copyright: Wilhelm Gombos

 

 
RD: – Alexandru, which authors were your mentors and models? Who do you like to read?

 

AP: – My reading has been very varied, with each book being a different experience. The experience of the author and the experience of the one reading it, the reader. Just as I wanted to discuss with an astronaut who told me about the Earth seen from above, or with a war veteran, a taxi driver or garbage man, in this way, I chose my readings from a wide range of things. I won’t make a complete list of my favourites, but I can say with certainty that I’ve enjoyed Chekhov’s books and that I’ve learned a lot from Flaubert, Kafka, Hemingway and Hrabal.

 

RD: – Writing can be defined by its desires, its goals, its expectations. It can be divided into three forms: fiction, documentary or informational, and finally emotional. Your writing lies at the very junction of those three, whether in poetry or in prose. Could you talk to us about your desires, goals and expectations as a writer?

 

AP: – If we agree that writing means producing text, a word that originally meant weaving, you can understand that any artistic process, whether in literature, music or the visual arts, presupposes these three elements: narration, information and emotion. They all start from a common point like a three-axis system. However abstract or clear a message is, it can be conceived in three dimensions, but just as well in two dimensions or simply one.

 

RD: – And that depends on?

 

AP: – The receiver above all. All I want to do is send out my message so it reaches the receiver. But meanwhile, the message has to go through the filter of the publisher, then the filter of the translator, a problem not faced by a musician or a visual artist who is creating directly in a universally understood language.

 

RD: – More explicitly…

 

AP: – To be more explicit, I would say, for example, that the first two throw the bottle with a message into the sea, and I, the writer, throw it behind the dam in a river.

 

RD: – When you were young, did you ever keep a diary or notebooks where you wrote down quotations, thoughts, secrets, etc.? Did you write things that you didn’t show anyone?

 

AP: – I don’t keep a diary, but I always have a notebook with me in which I write down on the spot observations, bits of dialogue and situations, a kind of sketchbook containing the key or the embryo of a future character. Sometimes I’ve constructed a character based on the gesture of a person encountered in the street, a bar or the subway.

 

RD: – Do you have someone who reads what you write? What were the opinions you received? Were you encouraged/discouraged?

 

AP: – I’m in the habit of having my texts read before publication. It’s a kind of limited audition or preview. And, of course, I take into account the opinions of those individuals since I have chosen them myself among the most attentive and most rigorous readers. I don’t need anyone to tell me « Bravo! » but rather to show me the weaknesses in the text, down to the last comma if possible. Criticisms of this kind are the only things that really encourage me, because deep down inside I know very well that there has to be something I’ve missed.

 

RD:- Whether in your poetry books or in your prose, your writings have a dimension and a narrative temporality, a splendid, heart-pounding narration, as with Mauro Fabi, Carlo Bondini, Andrea di Consoli, which produces beautiful stories, a variety of pieces that are poetic, cynical and melancholy at the same time, always going against the grain. Your readers never get bored with you. As in American poetry, the characters in your books all have something dreamlike and unconscious about them. Is it a practised act or quite simply a need for love from your childhood and from your past with others?

 

AP: – However realistic and cynical they are, in the end people cannot control themselves completely. Hence the contrast between what an individual wants and believes and what he or she experiences at certain moments when, cornered, he or she starts to dream or drift into playful, infantile states. In dreams, people construct themselves differently, and, when they emerge from their reveries they still dwell on them for a few little instants, complete themselves in that little crack, not yet knowing whether they should step forward or backward. After that, they drink their morning coffee and head off to work. They proceed the same way when they play. One might be tempted to believe that then, caught up in nostalgia, they play during and because of their recollections of their childhoods. But no, at that moment they’re really children. They’re only overcome with nostalgia when they stop their games. And when they stop writing, at the end of their texts.

 

RD: – Your poetry has a narrative diffraction and your prose has a fragmented narrative. Your writing represents a share of truth that corresponds to an entire life or a precise moment in your life, like a photo taken at instant X. You evoke an inner world, in which you revive faint voices, and another, an outer world, alive and noisy, with a concrete reference to reality. Like a fighter on the front of memory. Not even afraid of fields mined with forgetting. Your pen is in the service of temporal demining. On whose behalf?

 

AP: – First of all, in the service of my own name, because it’s my duty and my right, if not to say my freedom, to choose from the surrounding world what interests me at the moment. I can look at and describe a photograph taken in 1900 and hear at the same time the sounds of cars passing at that moment in my street. Everything becomes overlaying and years later I’ll remember that I observed that old photo while looking for the story hidden in the eyes of some forebear, while outside I heard the noise of nervous horns bickering. I will never again be able to separate those two actions even though both were imagined, because now I am no longer looking at the photo, don’t hear any horns, but I answer quite simply in this interview.

 

RD: – I see… In the poem « marinescu » in your more recent book, « One day we won’t recognize ourselves anymore, » you write:

since I was very small I wore jeans I listened to the

latest records smuggled beneath  the iron curtain

I spent my childhood above a cellar

crammed with dusty bottles full of wine that has

turned to vinegar petrol for lamps poison for rats

all that mixed in a jumble I obtained what

I  wrote on the label – Dacian acid

I fled the house about the age of fifteen

In each of your poems, there is at least one character you sketch a portrait of. These are spiraling portraits that disturb any good reader of poetry. Moreover, your books are populated with strange characters, in the style of Bukovski, in a way, and thus fabulous. Those actors never leave us indifferent. And that goes back to your talent as a lyrical mesmerizer or a « memory sculptor. » You yourself, you became your own character, an Alex who is looking everywhere for the p(ros)oetry of death and of life. That Alex is seen from a distance, like one of theirs. Am I wrong?

 

AP: – All those characters really existed – and they still exist – in flesh and blood. Individuals who have IDs, families, professions, etc., who I listened to telling their stories. Every person hides deep inside a story, a possible character, and these days anyone can write a blog or have an account (to « socialize » as they say) on the Internet. The only problem that appears here – similar moreover to the one posed by the diary we were talking about before –  is that both the possessor of a social media account and the possessor of a diary are to some extent hypocrites. They think about what people will say and as a result censor themselves to please others. While a writer has the advantage of being (more or less) sincere behind certain masks, that is, his characters.

 

RD: – Alexander, what is a good book for you? A good novel? A good book of poetry? Which famous book would you have loved to have written and why?

 

AP: – A good book is the book that I’m dying to read. I’ve never been able to read serenely to the end of one of my own books because I immediately have an irresistible urge to rewrite it. I wouldn’t like to subject to this regime any famous book, any more than any of my own books since I’ve left them alone. They represent me very well, basically, for one period of my life, and bringing them back now would mean butchering them or not writing them at all. They’re lucky to have already been published, they have nothing more to do with me.

 

RD: – You lived in Paris for two years and in your book « Ce a văzut Parisul » / « What Paris has seen » you direct your footsteps through the mysteries of the City of Light. Did you want to follow in the footsteps of great authors who, like Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Celan, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran, lived in the French capital and wrote about Paris? Or was it only your way of living life and giving new life to Paris through your pen?

 

AP: – You could say that Paris is like the Rorschach test, you see in it what you see in yourself. I ended up there because my wife wanted to do a Master’s degree there on publishing policies. While she was doing her studies and internships with the publishers Seuil, Plon and Gallimard, I was looking for little jobs here and there. In spite of the fact that I speak French, I didn’t find anything, not even anything as small as what Orwell had. One of my only successes was being allowed a public reading at the Shakespeare & Co bookstore, a place that influenced the evolution of all kinds of pre-war writers, such as Joyce, who otherwise would never have been able to publish his Ulysses. Aside from that all I had to do was wander around because the bars where Hemingway could drink without bankrupting himself had become tourist traps, with their prices set accordingly. So I preferred to just buy myself a Bordeaux in a supermarket and sip it in the Père Lachaise cemetery, strolling by Proust, Apollinaire and Morrison before sitting down a little distance away.

 

 

       Public reading – Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

 

 

RD: – And Montparnasse?

 

AP: – I also went to Montparnasse to visit the graves of Ionesco, Cioran and Brancusi, but I preferred Père Lachaise. It was there, in a crypt, that once slept a recent immigrant from the USSR, the writer Andreï Makine, now a member of the Académie française.

 

RD: – What new contribution does this book bring to the general public?! And in particular why that title? Usually, we say « What hasn’t Paris seen?! »

 

AP: – I chose that title precisely because Paris could have or could see what I recounted in those narratives. While the city is clearly demarcated by the Seine into Rive Gauche/Rive Droite, the left and the right are no longer as distinct when it comes to people, their opinions or options. Inspired by actual events, possible or likely, these texts have characters who have settled into daily routines. Then a situation occurs that breaks that rhythm, and the confrontation with the unusual and otherness leads to unpredictable reactions that shine another light on the personal background or bring out unexpected potential. The dénouement resolves the action or amplifies the dilemmas and remains, in most cases, open to the interpretation or completion that readers will make for themselves.

 

 

 

 

RD: – So what do your Parisian texts probe?

 

AP: – Taking as a backdrop or framework the mixed, multicultural metropolis, politically correct at first glance like a travel brochure, my texts probe many social, ethnic and historical taboos, opposing interpretations and positions, without claiming to exhaust the subject.

 

RD: – You write on the book flaps of the collection « One day we will no longer recognize each other, » this, like an Ars poetica:

poetic arts rents manifestos

obituaries and others of the like

I believe in my friends and they

believe in what they want

anyway

in the rear-view mirror

life and death look at me

bewildered

like drunkards

arm-in-arm in the middle of the road

while I drive away

at high speed

and I don’t care about the one

who in front of me is drawing

to infinity

the continuous line

 

 

 

 

AP: – That’s right. I think that each of us has a story to tell and that for each story there is at least one reader who can continue it, carry it forward. The important thing is to say it and set it in motion.

 

RD: – How does the poetry of the world touch you? And vice-versa.

 

AP: – To put it very simply, I am seeking to understand myself and to understand what the world expects of me. We try to mutually adapt and adopt.

 

RD: – A French novelist, Serge Joncour, once declared in an interview for Le Figaro, that « the life of a writer no longer makes us dream as it did in the past! » I have the impression that in Romania, things happen differently. You should know more about that.

 

AP: – I concur with that statement. Of course for a certain readership and for that kind of author that self-publishes and who likes, on FB, to attach to their name the word « poet » a certain romantic vision of the writer still exists. But I’ve never met a real author who presents themselves as: I am X, writer. And I wouldn’t introduce myself that way either. I prefer to say that I work for myself and that I live from that.

 

RD: – What extraordinary, interesting and beautiful things are happening in your life as a young author, living in the western capital of Romania, in Timisoara?

 

AP: – As I said, I work as a bookseller. I recognize myself in books, I mean the books that I wouldn’t rewrite, at the most rereading some of them. And that profession permits me to do that and above all to put into the hands of undecided individuals the book that fits them, in my opinion, like a glove. I begin by asking questions, by identifying their areas of interest, until I find the title that suits them the best. And when I see that the person in question trusts me and leaves the bookstore all happy with the book under their arm, I have a sense of accomplishment. Then I feel above the author, the publisher and the reader.

 

RD: – All that sounds wonderful. Before I let you go, please ask a question, a question that you have probably been expecting for a long time, and which journalists have never asked you. And then answer it.

The « Journalist »: – Since a runner, a musician or a plumber recognizes immediately who he is, why do you avoid saying that you are a writer?

 

AP: – Because that could degenerate into an interview. And while in the area of poetry and prose I still manage to get by – since it is indeed me who writes those texts for which the poor reader has to then strain their brains to understand – on the other hand, when I am asked for reasons and explanations I very naturally feel like just shrugging my shoulders.

 

 

       FILTM – The Timisoara International Literature Festival, Romania

 

 

RD: – Thank you, Alexandru.

 

AP: – I thank you, Rodica.

 

 

Translation: Howard Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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