Getting to Know Tara Skurtu and her book The amoeba game
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
My dad would probably say I first encountered poetry at birth— “You were born at home during a hurricane. The midwife’s assistant fainted, so I helped deliver you. Then I buried the placenta by a coconut tree, and a couple days later the tree was dead.” And so began my poetic life. But, seriously, if I really had to guess, I would say I first encountered poetry with my dad. He would read from this old brown hardcover book of illustrated nursery rhymes, and he constantly made up stories and poems for my two siblings and me. One summer he even created the Summer Fun Reading Club for all the neighborhood kids, tricking us into spending the whole season reading as many books as we could.
I never wanted to write poems—I always wanted to write stories. When I was in my premedical program and taking an elective on short stories, my professor encouraged me to write a poem and submit it to UMass Boston’s Academy of American Poets prize contest, which Elizabeth Alexander was judging. I knew nothing about poetry or how to write a poem, but I decided to try. Mostly because I’d just visited my sister at a prison in Florida, and this visit had left me with a range of feelings I couldn’t express—and, wasn’t this what poems did: use words to express something that cannot be said in words? I had no idea what I was doing, but I wrote, rewrote, revised, edited, and submitted. To my surprise and bafflement, “Visiting Amber at Lowell Correctional” was the second poem chosen and received honorable mention! This is how I discovered I wanted to keep trying at poetry.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I’m not a morning person, but for some reason I only write poems in the late morning—and if I’m lucky, up until the early afternoon. My brain is calmer then, and there’s something about not having spoken much or at all, not having processed too much information, that creates an ideal space for narrating a logic of seemingly unrelated things—which I think poetry is all about. And I always write by hand at first—with a fountain pen, brown ink. Out of necessity, I’ve trained myself to be able to write just about anywhere (I don’t even have a desk—it’s in a friend’s basement in Cambridge, and I haven’t figured out a way to get it to Romania yet).
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Think like a video camera is probably my instinctive writing mantra. So far all of my poems have come from specific personal experiences—usually an action (often seemingly mundane) combined with a visual and some sort of conflicted feeling. And I realized recently while doing an interview in Bucharest that all of my poems include someone I love. My dad likes to say that eventually I’ll grow out of this autobiographical phase and write about historical things like Joan of Arc, but I’m not so sure about that.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Elizabeth Alexander, of course, because her feedback really encouraged me to keep writing. I’ve been lucky to have such amazing poetry teachers over the years. Like Lloyd Schwartz. He guided my writing away from sentimentality and taught me most of what I know about editing and revising. (Confession: When I finish a solid draft, this is me: What would Lloyd think?) He’s the only person I consistently give my poems to for feedback, and, surprisingly, things have come full circle in recent years and he now shares his poetry with me for feedback. I really can’t think of anything better than this. Robert Pinsky has taught me so much about the natural musicality and rhythm of language and just plain reading poetry in general. I’ve also learned a lot from Louise Glück and Frank Bidart—especially about visual representations and shapes of a poem. Jill McDonough and Judson Evans (I embarrassingly left Judson out of my acknowledgments for The Amoeba Game, and I feel horrible about that) have really taught me how to become a better creative writing teacher. (Plus it was Jill who wrote on a draft of “The Amoeba Game” years back that this poem’s title would make a great title for a collection.) Oh, and reading Elizabeth Bishop poems, of course—what immaculate patience and process she had.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
I laughed when I read “Was it a project book?” because I don’t think I’d be able to write one of those if I tried—it’s hard enough for me to write five, six “leave-alone-able” poems a year (I’ve written two this year, and that’s probably why it took me eight years to finish my debut collection The Amoeba Game).
The amoeba game is the best thing I got out of my years of having to be in girl scouts (my mom was an assistant leader). It was the first time I’d ever heard the word amoeba, and we had to become one by closing our eyes and roaming every which way, wiggling in a strange, silent dance (broken from time to time by giggles). The goal was to naturally make contact with another amoeba, and then to latch on, and so on until we became an aggregate of microscopic life. Thinking back, there’s something so calming about this game, attempting to swim through the complications of life and return to a state of possibility and trust, of simply existing and moving and feeling. I think poetry, like life, is also an amoeba game, or perhaps it plays this game throughout life—especially in times of loss or grief.
The book is a sort of journey that begins in South Florida and arrives in Romania. It has four sections: The Amoeba Game; Tourniquet; Skurtu, Romania; and “Postscript, Vermeer,” a poem which serves as a postscript to the entire collection. The Amoeba Game begins with a Romanian word and an eerie little poem, then moves into and out of childhood and through, to quote Gail Mazur, “a loving family’s disarray”— disillusionment with Catholicism; not being able to protect an incarcerated sibling; a wonderfully imaginative father; an illness and a healing. Tourniquet is a memory and dream sequence that binds the The Amoeba Game’s departure to the speaker’s arrival in Skurtu, Romania, which is the narrative of a mutual yet alienating love, or, as I like to call it, a limits-of-love (and language) story. And then there’s that postscript, inspired by Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and an hour spent in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom not writing a poem.
I worked on the order of these poems for about two years. I made many branched maps of titles in my notebooks, printed out every draft and read aloud. Whenever I’d hit a dead end—when one poem didn’t flow into the next—I’d go through every single poem to see what else could follow or precede that moment, or if the moment itself should change. I think the process of ordering a book isn’t a precise puzzle, yet it is exactly a precise puzzle. This process too is an amoeba game of sorts. And what’s funny is, in the title poem, watching a frying egg flapping in the pan brings back the memory of the amoeba game, and the moment that I realized this collection was in its final order I was having lunch alone in a restaurant in Transylvania, and the server had just brought me a traditional spinach dish with two fried quail eggs on top—the symbolic last piece of my precise poetry puzzle.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
Discovery: Negative Return
Seven tubes of blood in a neat line. A needle longer
than a finger slides into the muscle between ribs.
A spaghetti strand of organ suspended in clear solution.
Some days my doctor says you have to napalm
the napalm, but this morning he says undetectable,
and it’s Thursday the 29th of September, 1988 again—
on the news, Discovery is inching closer and closer
to the moment of truth. I’m outside with my class, squinting
at a trail of cloud as Discovery’s pinprick spark disappears.
For every disbelief, an equal and opposite belief. Outside
the blood draw clinic, I believe I see a passenger plane—
upside down, dragging backwards, it banks to a still speck.