Travels in writing: an interview with alumna Aurelia Cojocaru

The cover of Aurelia's recently published book of poems
The cover of Aurelia’s recently published book of poems in Romanian

Subtly overwhelmed by the realization of my graduation, I, like my graduating class fellows, have embarked upon the journey of exploring the world of “what if.” Amidst the swirl of mixed emotions signalling the end of another fruitful academic year at Bard College Berlin, I found myself caught within an entanglement which marks a fixed and certain end, and at the same time announces an exciting, but yet unknown beginning. Potential anchors in this unrelenting “self-search” vary from one graduate to another, but beyond these differences, I harbor a wish to discover the promising land of “what if” by finding the trajectory of those who have already been in my situation, but have followed their own inspiring path. I found out about the “road taken” by an alumna of our university, Aurelia Cojocaru, currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, publishing under the pen name Aura Maru. The following interview is an interesting glimpse into the marked stations that Aurelia passed on her path.      

Veronica: For many of us, moving to “the heart of Europe” to study liberal arts has been a reformative and intellectually-enriching event, encouraging a geometrically progressive academic and personal growth that may be harder to come by in more traditional educational environments. What were some of the reasons behind your choice to study at Bard College Berlin, and how was life as a liberal arts student in Berlin different from or similar to other educational experiences you’ve had?

Aurelia: In 2010 I was in my first year of undergrad in Romania, studying Romanian and English. As a very young aspiring writer from Moldova (writing in Romanian), Bucharest was the place to be. But, from an academic perspective, my heart was still aching, in addition to literature, for more philosophy—which, for reasons that are hard to trace back right now, I didn’t end up studying—and art, which had always been one of my passions and which I’d been exploring and writing about as a teenager. Bard College Berlin (then European College of Liberal Arts) just appeared in my life in that moment of vivid academic wanderlust.

From the onset I realized that the College, not unlike other liberal arts colleges, was going to make me, as a student, bear most of the responsibility for how I shape my education—how I use its various resources. In a very small institution with no departments and clear disciplinary boundaries, each minute choice somehow acquires more meaning than in a big institution where your trajectory is standardized and strangely policed. Let me give you an example. 90% of the education at BCB happens in small seminars. The degree to which one engages with the material independently and, then, the degree of engagement in conversation, is a matter of choice. In a seminar of 4 or 7 or even 12 people, each of these choices matter a lot, because the conversation happens only once and that may be your impression of the book for years to come. Gradually, I started enjoying this business of making a conversation happen, and understanding how it happens. Ultimately, I think I’ve become not only a better reader of books but a better reader of people there.

In retrospect, what do you miss most about Berlin and your college experience at this moment?

The college experience: missing may not be the most exact word to describe my experience at the moment (it may be too early?). The college experience, or, rather, the experience of this college, was something so intense—socially, mentally, spatially—that certain things got solidified as hyperreal memories, stable circuits. They are not missing, they are still present. To name just a few, randomly: the photographic memory of the walk from P98 to the cafeteria, including the precise sequence of houses; working on an installation in the middle of the night (in the context of an Installation class); a very passionate Ovid class. So, if I really wanted, I could actualize the whole experience, using this awkward back-up memory.

Berlin: The city would deserve a whole separate interview! There are, of course, certain rituals I could not have anywhere else. Jogging either early in the morning or quite late in the evening on the cobblestones in Niederschönhausen. Certain trajectories through which I built my own geography of Berlin, partial and circumscribed and quite small, but for that reason intimate. Taking the M1 to Sankt Oberholz, inebriated by… coffee and people-watching, amid endless reading and note-taking. How I always quite amusingly failed to internalize the geography of Alexanderplatz, of all places. The supermarket in our neighborhood; especially buying coconut Ritter Sport chocolate and Spekulatius cookies with a dear friend. Poetry readings, the riches of Weinerei café, A-trane jazz, Neue Nationalgalerie, jovial expats.

Before you made your decision to embark upon graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, you had been facing a rather difficult task: offers from the intellectually-appealing universities, such as Columbia University, NYU, Princeton University, seemed to yield much promise as well. What was your main incentive to opt for UC Berkeley?

The weather! Just kidding. I think I knew from the start that I would go to Berkeley, but I held myself in a kind of skeptical tension until the very last minute. Berkeley had the professors with whom I could see myself working, the colleagues with whom I felt compatible during the visit, a lively literary scene (a place of its own on the map of contemporary poetry, so to speak). Although deciding against those other extraordinary places was indeed somewhat painful.

As you gradually began to immerse yourself into the life at UC Berkeley, what aspects of the university culture stood out and came to be of interest to you most?

I live a bit further from campus (Oakland), but I try to stay in touch with what’s happening on campus. What I like is this feeling of being a bit overwhelmed by the number of events one can attend and opportunities one can access every day—what I don’t like is that I can’t attend everything on the “interesting” list. I go to as many poetry readings as I can, symposia etc. I wish I could go to more “noon concerts” offered by the Music Department. And, of course, the coffee culture inseparable from the university culture; I am the client of many cafes around campus.

Have you taken any course or workshop so far that has engaged you markedly and inspired you in a certain direction for your research?

I have just recently taken a research seminar with Prof. Charles Altieri, entitled “Grammar of Poetry, Poetry of Grammar.” It was a provocative attempt to join poetics, grammar and philosophy. Let me just say I have never enjoyed in-class-close-readings of poetry so much. I wouldn’t say it redirected my research, but it certainly deepened some of my own previous ideas regarding the ways in which poetics can draw on the resources of philosophy.

Writing, and more specifically poetry, has been a defining occupation for you. In line with this, your BA project focuses on the intricate and often contentious relationship between poetry and philosophy. How and to what extent do these concerns transpire both in your current artistic and academic activities?

Well, it was one poet and one philosopher (Ron Silliman and Ludwig Wittgenstein). And, indeed, what my project helped me identify as contentious—appropriation of philosophy by poetry; the search for a methodology that would somehow take both philosophy and poetry seriously—seems even more contentious now. I have the same concerns, except now I am thinking of a larger project—historically to begin with (Russian and French poetry since the late 19th century in addition to American contemporary poetry). At the moment I am trying to understand whether I want to focus on poetries that specifically and purposefully engage with philosophy, or whether this has just been a way to express my desire for a very philosophically driven literary criticism.

Living in a country different from one’s own and being exposed to a distinct linguistic background may at times become one of those imperceptible events buried in the cyclical flow of daily activities. At other times, it may strangely put us at odds with former conceptions and ways of navigating the world. I can imagine that such an experience has left an imprint upon your writing as well. How would you describe this process as it may have affected your use of the most related medium to you, language?

Berlin was a strange linguistic experience. We were in an English-speaking enclave in the middle of a very Anglophone city in the middle of Germany. Of course, I too went through that panic moment when you realize your native language is changing, in very subtle, and thus all the more disconcerting, ways. Rhythms and syntax, sometimes automatic insertions or translations. I tried to keep those phenomena in check, while incorporating some of it in my poetry. Plus, that is one of the topics that I’ve been addressing, willy-nilly, in my poems: forms of detachment (from the experience sedimented in one’s native language), forms of reattachment. For me being in a different language, in this case English, and just relocating in itself, has really meant becoming a different personality, poetically and otherwise.

Have you thought of adding to the growing collection of poetry in Romanian a body of work written in English or another language sometime in the future? If so, what do you think would be the most palpable challenges and the most rewarding outcomes of such an undertaking?

What I’ve always strived for is to become a better thinker and observer, which one needs in order to become a better writer. So going to Berlin was part of that search (which continues). I had no idea this would, in the end, bend my trajectory more towards the US rather than Europe and that I’d arrive at a point where writing in English, rather than Romanian, would be a tempting, and in some ways necessary, move. But that’s the beauty of all this journeying, I guess.

After some time of only toying with this idea and back-and-forth translating between Romanian and English, I started liking the temporary illusion of lack of constraints that a non-native language gives one. Also, I realized I sound completely different in English, which I can’t dislike. In addition to that, there is just the plain fact that, linguistically speaking, I am not living a Romanian life (anymore or for the time being). So this is half an adaptation and half an enthusiastic resolution.

There is no guarantee that a non-native speaker can really become a good writer, since one lacks pretty much any umbilical connection to it, and brings in a completely foreign music into the language. Plus, some of the precedents are just paralyzing in terms of their greatness: from Beckett to Brodsky. On the other hand, recent American literature has been quite open to such undertakings. Right now I have no other option than to keep working and hoping. I am encouraged by the fact that I’ve just recently seen my first poem in English published in print. I’ve also just taken a wonderful poetry workshop with Prof. Cecil Giscombe.

Where do you see yourself, academically and artistically, in the next couple of years?

Academically speaking, I hope to continue reading as much philosophy, poetry, critical theory etc. as possible; think about genealogies of experimentalism in poetry; and later decide that all genealogies are provisional and that I just need to be a good critic of poetry. But that is probably a 20, rather than a 2-year plan :) Artistically, while still thinking of my Romanian work, I will be passionately invested in my projects in the English language, and hopefully think beyond my own work—translate, help organize events or publications.

Thank you, Aurelia, for this engaging guide into your own story of travel—both in writing and geographically, and for sharing with us your current academic and artistic activities and prospects. We wish you good luck in all your future endeavors!

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