Getting to Know Dona lUONGO Stein and her nEW book Leaving Greece
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
My first encounters with poetry happened I'm told when I recited words to my mother who wrote them down and submitted the results to Wee Wisdom, a children's magazine. I'm told they were published. I was 4 or 5.
Inspiration at that age was probably hymns, song lyrics (my dad sang), fairy tales and nursery rhymes, work and play chants my mother read to me. Perhaps that's why I like rap, hip-hop, and slam and still like song lyrics, fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
Though I wrote and published poems in high school and college, I think when my husband challenged me to "find out what I was doing" when I persisted in writing and publishing poems in Ploughshares and other journals, and I signed up for Poetry workshops at Harvard. Peter Klappert and Kathleen Spivack encouraged me to continue and with that encouragement I took what I was doing seriously and haven't stopped since.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I wish I did. Perhaps early morning or late at night when the household is quiet and all the people and animals have been fed . . . I try to train myself to remember images, say of the bank of forsythia in bloom during a walk or the sound of the ocean waves during high tide as they rake a stony beach.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I think mostly from appeals to the senses. But then I have no idea where the poem will end up or even if it will be a poem. For example, I heard the phrase "angels can't swim" which intrigues me. Is it even true? How would we know? Except for Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life." Often a poem that comes from an idea does not work too well for me.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I'm interested in many writers' poetry and prose; when I was studying languages (Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) I'd try to read their poets but often now rely on translations though still like to try to read poems in their own languages.
What's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? Did you have a process and was it a project book?
The title is literal and ironic: "Leaving Greece" is ironic in that the title poem explains how Greece would not leave me. One overarching theme is how bad we are about learning from history. Another is how brief and unimportant one human life might be, though not to that life's loved ones.
[Assembling the book] . . . was messy. After spending time in Greece and writing there, when I returned to the States I just kept writing about Greece and I still am. I was writing poems about Greece and Greek myths when I was learning Greek, before I went to Greece.
In contrast, two manuscripts seem to be "project" books in that one is about eclipses and another is about the Romantics.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
this one hums, crawls from her cave
shakes out her hair
smooths her dress
hanging like a curtain of gold
la la la sings as she pushes her right foot
into its silver sandal
decides to go to Glyfada
for it's evening now cool
steps onto the No. 115 bus
moving her hips just enough
for those who stare wonders if
she tucked in her breasts
rubbed the fur down on her arms
reminds herself not to open her mouth
or they will follow her on
Metaxes Street turn to the harbor
it's getting so a girl
can't even have a quiet night in town
everyone wants a siren
wants to drown in someone else's song