Q1: When did you start writing and whom influenced you the most?
Alina: I’ve written since I started reading. For me, writing enables response to a book, to the world a book sets before me, and that insatiable impetus becomes a habit – a dialogic relationship with ideas and language.
Q2: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Alina: All my middle school and high school notebooks were scribbled by someone who emphatically imagined herself as a writer – I identified with my writing self. Or, I felt most myself on the page, in writing. So the better question might be: why did you decide not to get an MFA and pursue a writing career for so many years before finally doing the thing you always imagined? And I don’t have an answer for that.
Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career?
Alina: The generosity of editors who believed my words have value, and who took a risk on someone without cultural capital or bylines . . . the realization that so much depends on luck rather than merit . . . the socializations I have unlearned.
Being raised by political refugees, the word meritocracy was a soporific, a promise and premise that made excellence and competitiveness critical to my parents’ view of the world. Because we did not “deserve” to be here, they raised us to believe that we needed to prove our worth and value. We needed to earn value by excelling. Alas, I was a terrible daughter who did everything backwards, and by doing things backwards, I killed my idols, which is to say, simply, that I do not believe meritocracy can be taken seriously under capitalism. I do not believe markets or honors can determine value in a way that is meaningful to me. The idea of merit presumes that some people deserve more than others – some deserve to win, others deserve to lose– and I can’t accept that sort of structural conditionality. There is nothing progressive about meritocracy, and there is no ability to create sustainable equity under late capitalist systems which valorize success, winning, dominating, standing over, or rising to the top. Even the history of meritocracy reveals it was intended to expand aristocracy rather than end it. When Peter the Great instituted his Table of Ranks, he provided a means for educated Russians to become part of a new nobility, one which awarded titles based on service to the state. Maybe the US military served as this sort of meritocracy-expanding institution in the US? Ultimately – despite the disfavor this discussion generates with friends and family, I think it’s difficult to ignore that meritocracy scorns equality. Every rank depends on setting oneself above others and being defined by that positionality. I am challenged by this daily, every time I hear the word ranking used to describe dogs or people.
My uber-convivial partner — who ranks dogs, believes in meritocracy, and loves chatting about news, weather, food, kids — calls me a snob because I’m terrible at chit-chat. He jokes about my inability to tolerate “situations of low intensity. There is truth to his criticism. Life is short. I don’t imagine a time five years from now when I will be able to do the things I put off in the present. So, I get restless with chit-chat, but I also get deeply invested in conversations with strangers or acquaintances, any human willing to meet me in the marrow of books, suffering, life, failure, terror, sex, chocolate. I crave intensity from conversation – it’s my adrenaline.
That said, despite over-valuing raw encounters, I also derive extraordinary pleasure from laughing at myself – from mocking this snobby, idealistic, chaotic, meritocracy-skeptic who free-bases adrenaline from conversations related to books and ideas.
Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work?
Alina: In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I grew up, football and church were the primary cultural and communal spaces. I kept my queer shoulder to the wheel and sought dirt roads.
Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you?
Alina: My most meaningful creative work isn’t a specific piece or genre so much as a modality which engages memory, rupture, and formal desecration.
“We live by little surprises that we thoughtfully contrive for ourselves,” Thomas Bernhard wrote in his incredible novel, The Gargoyles. Writers live between the thinking, the contriving, and the doing – this, alone, would be a surfeit of subjects – but the mind is also a landscape covered in land-mines, memories which return when a foot brushes against them, memories that explode and destroy the simple story one intended to tell.
Art happens at multiple points in time — in the mind, in the writing of it, in the publication when others make it visible, in the market which makes it available to the reader. And creative work remains meaningful as long as it resonates, which is to say, each time I pick up Susan Sontag notebooks and collaborate in their meaning by re-reading, and by engaging in a dialogue with my own marginalia. Meaningfulness, for me, comes from this dialogic, and often destructive, relationship with multiple pasts and perspectives.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Alina: Relaxing is not my forte. I’m not a relaxed person — even listening to music fluffs my brain a bit. I take notebooks everywhere. I’m either restlessly interested in what surrounds me or moving on to the next unrelaxed romp. I’ll try anything once. What I love most is traveling, particularly on trains.
Q7: What is a favorite line/ stanza/lyric from your writing?
Alina: The word lyric comes to us from the lyre, from this relationship between the poem, the accompanying instrument, and the song. Since music in my head changes at light-speed, the best way to answer this question might be honestly, which is to say: Today, I am interested in a statement from the poem, “At the Ghost Commune”:
I was eight when the
linden first entered the room,
all lewd ghouls in my blood,
the disco of verso.
If I love a line from my own writing, it tends to be a momentary fascination– a brisk interest which compels or provokes an additional statement and brings me to the page, or draws me to revisit it in a different shape or form.
Q8:What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration?
Alina: All of it. My appetite for music is shamelessly promiscuous.
In Dor, there are several fugues. These were inspired by Ioan Petru Culianu’s short stories and prose pieces, gathered in Arta fugii, which has a double significance in Romanian, where fugue indicates both a musical form that relies on repetitive counterpoint as well as the act of running, or fuga, motion undergirded by a wish to escape or flee. I wanted to play with that double-sense in the context of my parents’ defection and the musical form itself.
Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, etc that you would like to promote?
Alina: My most recent poetry collection, Dor (Wandering Aengus Press) just turned one year old – which feels momentous. In November, I’ll be doing a free virtual lunchtime zine workshop for Sarabande Books – and it would be a pleasure to see you in that space.
Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey?
Alina: After a poetry reading in Arkansas, I closed by asking audience members to come up and write a phrase on my arms with a black Sharpie. I wanted words from each of them – words they were carrying but couldn’t find use for. Then, on the road trip home, I made a poem out of those bones as my partner drove.
Writers thrive in relation to the imaginations of other writers, both living and dead. Pianist
Sviatoslav Richter spent many years in Odessa playing piano as an accompanist in bars and clubs. He later said this experience taught him more than his conservatory days about music— it opened musical form. One learns a lot about time, motion, and constraint when required to improvise, to hitch the discontinuous notes of a piano to the ceaseless stream of the vocal performers. One learns technique at the level of the seam. Adrenaline is a fabulous instructor. Reading, learning, studying, trying to accompany other artists – the community of poetry readings and workshops is humbling, thrilling, terrifying. Writing is my deliriant. I’m here for the beauty and monstrosity.
Bio: Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina’s poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com. Alin 2021).