Tara Skurtu’s The Amoeba Game is her first full-length collection of poems. (She is also the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania.) The book begins with “Șoricel,” and the soul as a white mouse “burrowed inside the mouth/ of a sleeping child until he yawns.” It’s a collection concerned with this hidden, temporary nature of the soul. In it, Skurtu seems to be asking, how do we become good again? What is it we need most deeply?
We see sheepheads “big enough to eat,” a sister who saved the Body of Christ to feed to ducks, an English-Romanian dictionary, a train at dusk, and a noseless man playing an accordion.
In January, Skurtu, a two-time Fulbright grantee and recipient of two Academy of American Poets prizes, and I spoke through email.
The Rumpus: How did The Amoeba Game come about?
Tara Skurtu: The Amoeba Game originally came to me as an idea for a short story—I always wanted to write fiction. In one scene, the main character, who’d just come home from the hospital where her lover was dying, realized she hadn’t eaten and decided to fry an egg. And she stared at this egg flapping in the pan until it became an amoeba.
Most of my childhood I was forced to be in girl scouts because my mom was an assistant leader. I was the kid who recorded radio shows alone in my room, strived to become the child version of R.L. Stine, mastered the art of reading while walking—scout socializing was not my thing. But then one evening we played this strange game that didn’t require talking. We each became an amoeba—what that was I didn’t know, but I loved that it was something too small to see, that it couldn’t talk, and that its only job was to move.
We closed our eyes and wiggled until we bumped into each other, then latched on and continued until we became a giggling aggregate of microscopic life. This game calmed me. A simple game I played in childhood became a poem, became a section of poems, and then a book.
Rumpus: Reading while walking seems strange but it’s something I used to do a lot. I love the simplicity of “Eclipse,” and of the first two lines in particular. “The bird moved when I moved/ It was like a klonopin, it slept.” How do you know what to cut out of a poem? What to keep?
Skurtu: I’m grateful that you recognize and love the simplicity of the language in this poem.
If I knew what to cut out of a poem from the beginning, this would solve all of my poetry problems. That said, revision is what I like best, and I revise obsessively until a poem is what I call “leave-alone-able” (to say a poem is finished feels like an impossible diagnosis to me). When I’m writing and revising, I’m thinking all about the essential logic of the poem—the ordered yet nonlinear relationship of seemingly unrelatable things. I try everything until I know everything but this one thing doesn’t work. A poem is not a perfect puzzle, yet it is precisely a perfect puzzle. The first poem of The Amoeba Game, “Șoricel” (the Romanian diminutive for mouse), has six lines. For the better part of a year I revised this poem—which is to say you don’t want to know how many different variations of the line breaks I tried. I showed each draft to Louise Glück, one of my thesis advisors, and none of them quite clicked. Eventually, after many months, she said something like, “I think I liked the first one best.” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t exhausted all the other possibilities.
Rumpus: Is there something that drives your revisions?
Skurtu: Revision is part instinctive and part learned, and I’m grateful to have had such wise and patient teachers along the way. Lloyd Schwartz taught me most of what I know about line-by-line editing and revising. The first time he returned a poem to me I could barely see it because there was so much writing all over the page. He was teaching me how not to be sentimental, how not to repeat without adding, how to use the most specific verb, how not to control the poem and its landing but to have authority over its narrative at the same time. And, going back to simplicity, Robert Pinsky taught me that sometimes the simple reordering of stanzas can get a nonfunctional poem functioning. Each poem drives its revision, and, as a result, the revision drives the poem. We poets never know exactly what we’re doing, but that, over time and with a lot of practice, we get better and better at producing this work that we have no idea how to write. I’m always learning how to revise.
Rumpus: Do you have a notebook you keep? What does it look like?
Skurtu: Yes, I hate to say it, but I’m like an advertisement for Moleskine’s unlined journals. I write by hand at first. When I teach workshops, I don’t allow computers. Writing makes you feel and shape each letter. The pen is connected to your hand is connected to your brain—you’re not just tapping a square box. Looking at what you wrote on paper is like looking at the contents of your brain. It’s messy and unordered, but everything you need is there. Every single poem from The Amoeba Game first came from notes, and then drafts, in my journals. Oh, and with brown ink. I’m a big-time fountain-pen nerd. I wear a magic pencil (that’s really what they’re called, believe it or not) around my neck. It’s supposedly over a hundred years old.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite poets at the moment?
Skurtu: Well, I’ll always be an Elizabeth Bishop girl. I admire far too many poets to name in a sentence, but here goes: Gail Mazur (especially her new book, Forbidden City), Lucille Clifton, Andrea Cohen (read “The Committee Weighs In” if you haven’t already—it’ll explode your brain), Frank Bidart, Jill McDonough, Derek JG Williams, Jericho Brown, David Ferry, Ani Gjika (and her beautiful translations from Albanian), Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück, Lloyd Schwartz.
Rumpus: You had two Fulbrights in Romania. What were those like?
Skurtu: My Fulbrights were fantastic—and unbelievable. As a first-generation college graduate, there was always a conscious part of my brain that thought a scholarship of this level was unattainable for someone like me, from my background. And here I was in the fall of 2015 on a plane to Sibiu to kick off my Fulbright with a reading at the annual Poets in Transylvania International Festival—with Lloyd Schwartz and a virtual Robert Pinsky. A week later I found myself with my first apartment in the charming, medieval city of Brasov in the heart of Transylvania (which, by the way, is also the birthplace of my great-grandfather, whom I know nothing about—how strange life is)! And the Commission even renewed my Fulbright the following year.
Rumpus: What did you do there?
Skurtu: I taught undergraduate creative writing workshops and American literature, and I helped my American Studies students launch the university’s very first English literary magazine. I gave public lectures for CreativeMornings and the Power of Storytelling about how poetry can be accessible, how everyone is a poetry person. I blogged about my teaching and the Romanian literary scene for Best American Poetry and translated the work of five contemporary Romanian poets for a feature in Plume (co-edited with MARGENTO, who also selected and translated the work of five poets). And the project I’m most excited about is the new and growing modern and contemporary American poetry collection I started at the Transilvania University of Brasov library. Over a hundred books have been donated so far.
The strangest twenty-four hours of my Fulbright was when I participated in a Literary Death Match in an improvised boxing ring at the Bucharest Peasant Museum. I ended my performance of “Morning Love Poem” (in which I walk into a lover’s shower fully clothed) by pouring a bottle of water over my head. Fast-forward to the next morning, and I’m performing interactive American folklore to children at an international storytelling conference.
Lastly, and with thanks to the tortoise-slow, old Romanian trains, I was finally able to get the order of the poems just right in The Amoeba Game. And then Eyewear Publishing accepted it!
During this time I’d received a publishing offer in Romania, and the press wanted to print The Amoeba Game in translation before the book was to appear in English—a strange and lucky dilemma. And so Eyewear Director Todd Swift published my first chapbook during this time, Skurtu, Romania, a selection of limits-of-love poems from the Romania section of the book. And this appeared in Romanian and was launched in Bucharest at the international book festival. The Amoeba Game, translated into Romanian by Radu Vancu, will appear this spring.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Skurtu: Project-wise, I’m not done yet. I’m still translating, I’m thinking of a way to get Mass Poetry’s Raining Poetry on the streets of Bucharest, and I’ve married wonderful Romanian poet and translator Tiberiu Neacșu—now we’re the American/Romanian poetry-portal super duo, and we aim to get more US poets known here and more Romanian poets known in the US and beyond.
Rumpus: How do you balance writing with the clutter of everyday life? Do you have certain rules for yourself?
Skurtu: I’m laughing right now because, since last year when I moved to Bucharest, everyday life has been taking over—living in a new country takes a lot of adaptation. I wrote only two poems last year, and one could fit in my palm. But I’ve never been one to write a poem a day (and I only ever wrote a poem a week when I was in an MFA program and had to). A high school English teacher once told me that a big part of the writing process happens in the experience before writing. I didn’t believe her at the time—although it did make me feel great about my daily procrastination ritual, which is a huge part of my writing process today—but now I know it’s true: we’re always writing when we’re not writing. We’re also writing when we’re adapting, and right now I’m in the process of adaptation. I’m like a child again—I’ve been teaching myself Romanian and only understand about eighty percent of what’s said any given day—I’m hearing, seeing, feeling a lot of things for the first time. I think this might be an ideal space for creation. And, as far as rules go, I’ve found that I’m slowly breaking all of the ones I’ve set. So, in the words of Robert Pinsky: “There are no rules.”
Author photograph © Cătălin Georgescu.