Somebody get out the red carpet!
Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, Ph.D. is the auuthor of several critically acclaimed and award-winning books, including THE NEW YORK TIME BOOK REVIEW’s “Best Book” and Kafka Award Winner “for the outstanding book of prose fiction by an American woman,” THE KOMMANDANT’S MISTRESS. Her true crime memoir, M IS FOR MUNCHERS: THE SERIAL KILLERS NEXT DOOR, about surviving a serial killer, heals and empowers abuse victims.
Other award-winning books include LOVE IN THE TIME OF DINOSAURS, WHERE LIGHTNING STRIKES, NAKED WITH GLASSES, MASTERING POINT OF VIEW, LOVE IS A MANY ZOMBIED THING, MASTERING FICTION & POINT OF VIEW, among others.
Hmmm….Let us begin shall we?
How did you come to love literature and writing?
I’ve always loved books, ever since I can remember. When I was 6, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I fell in love with T.S. Eliot’s poems, then with Chaucer’s work (when I was 8), and with Shakespeare’s plays (age 12). I just never thought of doing anything other than being a writer.
Wow, you had excellent taste at an early age!
What exactly is world literature?
When I was in college, most Literature majors studied only American and British literatures, unless they took advanced foreign language classes where they read the classics in their original tongue. When I was working on my PhD, it was in a department that called itself “English and Comparative Literatures.” We were encouraged to study the classics of the entire world, in addition to those in the American and British Lit canons. I really loved that approach, and when I taught University, I taught the World Literature class. I tried to include novels, stories, and poems from many different countries, by men and women, to make the students become more literate.
That approach is amazing. Sounds like it really broadens the literary mindset. Wish I had a course like that in college.
What did you like most about teaching?
My students. They kept me young. With all their popular culture references, slang, clothing, hairstyles, music, and jokes, they forced me to be “hip.”
Love it. The teachers who care about their students are the best.
In your years of teaching what are some common problems that plague writers?
The most common problem new creative writers have is a lack of Urgency: what keeps the readers turning pages. They learn it quickly, though, even if it’s only urgency in plot. After that, the biggest problem for writers is not reading enough literature that is classic, non contemporary, or outside their preferred genre. That lack of reading shows up in their writing as poor or unimaginative plotting, weak character development, and stilted dialogue.
Oh, I love this. Food for thought for us newbies.
How did you begin writing poetry?
I can’t even remember not writing poetry, though I’m sure my juvenile poetry was just atrocious. As I got older, I read more modern and contemporary poetry, like the work of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, etc. and my own work improved.
Wonderful, keep writing!
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” –Robert Frost
What is poetry to you?
Poetry is like a photograph of a moment in a character’s life.
The characters could be completely imaginary ones, like those who came from unsuccessful short story attempts: Eddie Madison in the poem “Eddie Madison and the Theory of Evolution” or Auggie Vernon in “Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse.” The characters could be mythological, like Ulysses’ wife Penelope who relates her feelings after her husband returns to her after 20 years of wandering; or the characters could be biblical, like Cain, who rages against God’s injustice.
The most frequent character in my non-Holocaust poetry is the woman-poet persona, who is either the second or third wife, with children from her husband’s previous marriages: she feels isolated, alone, and unloved, despite now being part of a large family.
No matter who the characters in my poems, the poem is like a photo of their lives, frozen for a moment, but telling a definite story about them.
My short stories are like little videos, so they have more plot than my poems. My novels are like feature films or mini-series, so they have more complex plot, usually multiple perspectives, and often multiple Points of View.
I love seeing the answer to this question. Poetry is particular to each individual.
If you had to write a poem to your younger self, what would you write?
I have to admit that I would never have thought of writing a poem to my younger self, even if that “younger self” was only a persona who appeared in my early poems. It took me over a year to write “While the Music Lasts”, if only because I hadn’t written anything in the Voice of the woman-poet persona in almost a decade.
I had a tremendously difficult time “hearing” that Voice again. After months of very bad drafts, I finally treated the poem and that Voice as I treat a novel which I’ve been away from for a while: I began re-reading Portrait of the Poet as a Woman, Part 2 of my book Love in the Time of
Dinosaurs, where that persona appears. I read that section over and over and over, trying to reach that Voice again. Eventually, that Voice came back, but then it took me another few months to get the poem itself right. The title was easy once I found the epigraph: it took me at least a month to find the epigraph (from a T.S. Eliot poem) that felt as if it fit the poem.
Here’s the poem to my younger self, “While the Music Lasts.”
While the Music Lasts
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment… or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
Four Quartets: Dry Salvages
to my younger self
Each night, standing in the hallway at the open
door of the bedroom, I see you lying in the
fading light, his arms around you, your head on his
chest, his lips against your hair, and I want to tell
you how he takes your words – wrapped in ribbons of poems –
and gives them away to others. I want to tell
you how his own words change depending on whether
his sons’ crying woke him in the night, on whether
his first wife called again to complain that you have
moved into her house, on the color of some strange
woman’s eyes in the village market when she looks
up at the sound of his deep, burring voice. Standing
there each night in the hallway, I want to tell you
that one day, when his children are grown, they will seek
you out because you gave them seeds to plant in their
own corner of the garden, because you chased them
through piles of brittle autumn leaves, because they told
you they hated you more than they hated the sound
of their mother’s weeping. And they will offer you
their own children. Because you helped them build a fort,
so very long ago, in the cold and bitter
snow. Standing there each night, watching you sleep, I want
to tell you that he will do worse than meeting your
best friend three afternoons a week at motels while
you make dinner for him and his sons. One day, he
will toss out your heart with the coffee grounds, wrapped in
yesterday’s newspaper. Standing there in the dark,
leaning over you in the deep dark night, I start
to tell you, to whisper you all these things, but the
chill of the night air, the chime of the clock in the
downstairs hall, the look on your face when you open
your eyes to gaze at him lying there beside you,
and once again my tongue stumbles and goes still. The
unbearable weight of your happiness steals all
my words and buries them deep underground in some
faraway place, some place not marked on any map
but the map of our own heart, some faraway place
where you will have to find these words and dig them up
yourself, one day, many years from now, on your own.
Alexandria Constantinova Szeman
© Copyright 2017
“Poetry is like a photograph of a moment in a character’s life.”–Alexandria Szeman
If your life were a metaphor, how would you describe it?
I survived the fire.
Love your spirit of survival here. Actually, you’ve done much more than that dear friend. I wrote a poem.
Life after the Flame
the fire consumed
but I survived its wake
for the ruin of flame
was powerless to take
my withering soul
Nor ashes to ashes
or dust to dust
could bury my will
to live I must
the embers of the flame
the fire consumed
yet could not earn
the precious ether of life
in turn but rather proved
that hope can never burn
You not only survived. You lived, and you exceeded.
If you had to give a quote to the world, what would you say?
If you can imagine it, it can happen.
I love this one! According to Einstein, imagination is the true intelligence.
If you had to give a quote to the next generation of young writers, what would you say?
Read everything you can, learn your craft well, and never, ever give up on yourself.
Amen to that! Love it.
What’s the best part of being creative?
As soon as most people hear that I’m a writer, they think I’m weird, and that keeps them guessing.
I got a kick out of this one 🙂
Blog & Website
The Alexandria Papers
Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on The Holocaust
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Thanks for ridin’ the train folks. Don’t be a stranger!
3 thoughts on “Exclusive Interview with Author Alexandria Szeman”
Oh, loved the poem to your younger self. Heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing both.
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