Former U-M professor Carmen Bugan's new poetry collection, "Lilies From America," relates nature and the human experience


Carmen Bugan and her book Lilies From America

Poet Carmen Bugan has gone through many transitions, from her tumultuous childhood in Romania to moving to the United States. Still, she writes, “The road to a better life has not yet been planned, / Everyone is waiting for an architect.” Both uncertainty and possibility hover in those lines, which appear in a recent poem called “New Life.” That poem is among a new selection in Lilies From America: New & Selected Poems 2004-2019.

Lilies From America starts with a poem of the same title and then covers Bugan’s three collections -- 2004’s Crossing the Carpathians, 2014’s The House of Straw, and 2016’s Releasing the Porcelain Birds -- plus new poems dating from 2016 to 2019. Calling these poems autobiographical would be an understatement; they comment on family, nature, time, love, and language (the last of which Bugan discusses in-depth on episode 18 of The RC Podcast, “Carmen Bugan ’96 and the Language of Freedom”). This new collection discloses a snapshot of the trajectory of Bugan’s life, going from early days to current sentiments, through the well-selected and illustrative poems.

Bugan’s poetry is inspired by her childhood containing the political imprisonment of her father and exile of her family, and then by her experiences in the U.S. Her writing musters perseverance and suggests ways to keep going despite change and parting and borders. Looking to nature as a parallel, the poems draw on the landscape and flora of the places significant to Bugan. In “Long Island Sound,” dated January 23, 2018, cycles of starting and ending relate to human experience, as the poet reflects:

To see again that which I knew and cherished:

The translucent lift of water and algae,

Clam shells and egg-like rosy stones,

Fluent ending in a new beginning.

Nature becomes a way of understanding what is happening to the people in the poems. The “Moon" is set on an autumn night in a room aglow with moonlight and offers this last stanza: “I felt not too far from being translated, / The same way sunlight was interpreted / By the moon face we could see.” These feelings of being seen and of also making one’s own observations permeate Bugan’s poetry, both explicitly in describing the political protests written on a typewriter in Romania by her parents, as well as in sharing transcriptions of her family’s surveillance tapes, and subtly through the surrounding environment.

Yet even as time gives way to transformations, moments emerge to hold dear, moments in which to linger. On a visit to aging parents, the poet expresses a wish to accurately capture the instant: “While the glasses empty slowly and we are grateful / That we still can have that one drink, together, / Standing in the sunshine, with the song of birds.” Identifying these memories as important, and observing them, stand alongside the history of political protest and anguish in these poems.

Bugan is based in Long Island, New York, and she was the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors at the University of Michigan and the 2018 Dow Visiting Scholar at Saginaw Valley State University.

Bugan reads with David Cope, who is Bugan’s former teacher from Grand Rapids Community College prior to her transfer to the University of Michigan, at Literati Bookstore on January 16, 7 pm. Ahead of her visit, I interviewed her for Pulp.

Q: You’ve written a memoir and autobiographical poetry collections. For readers unfamiliar with your story, tell us about yourself and how you came to be a poet.
A: I began writing poems as a child, when I would read them to my mother in the kitchen while she was cooking. I always wrote in the house with everyone talking around me and doing their work or play, and the whole experience felt very homey. From the very beginning, writing has been a part of domestic life, and life of the family has been part of the writing. When my father was taken to prison for his public protest against Ceausescu in 1983, I wrote poems to his pictures, which were framed along with ours around the house. He “came back” in my descriptions, and I articulated a sense of grief and loss for my mother and sister, too. This is how I knew that there was something special about the writing, though I couldn’t truly articulate the emotional and intellectual correlations between experience and literary language, or about freedom and creativity at that age -- I was an adolescent.

Q: After starting college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you came to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. What was that transition like? How did it influence your writing?
A: I arrived at Michigan on a full-ride scholarship from the Women Alumnae Association, with an acceptance to the much-coveted Residential College. Ann Arbor felt very European as a city compared to Grand Rapids, and I relished in meeting students from all over the world. The Ann Arbor years have opened the rest of the world to me: I was active and participated in the national poetry slam team, founded The Hermetics Poets’ Troupe in the RC, edited the college literary magazine with others, taught in the School of Education’s long-distance creative writing programs to children of military personnel posted overseas, and had my first stint teaching poetry at Community High School. I chaired the Guild House Writers’ Series and organized benefit events for Amnesty International. But the Hatcher Graduate Library is where I found, on microfilm, transcripts of broadcasts from Radio Free Europe on my father’s imprisonment in Romania, and in a sense, I felt that I was part of a community that cared for human rights in the way my family cared. I will never forget that sense of being part of something larger that included me, personally, and my family’s story. My writing blossomed as a result, and I won the Hopwood and the Cowden awards, and graduated summa cum laude in creative writing. This was a far cry from living under house arrest in Romania and being hunted on the streets just years before. I had a voice that was being heard.

Q: Your new book, Lilies From America, contains selections spanning from your 2004 collection to 2019. How do you see your poetry evolving over time?
A: The poetry is moving toward a more lucid and detached place; this has to do with an evolving feel for the English language and the sacrifices I have had to make when I decided to write in English -- sacrifices that led to lots of gains, interestingly helping me heal the rift I felt with my native Romanian. My poetry now is less direct, less of a cry out into the world but far more aware of the healing powers of lyric language. The direct expression of grief has turned into a meditation on language and freedom, on power and language.

Q: Given those changes, how did you go about selecting poems for Lilies From America?
A: Ha, ha: I went for the best poems I felt I ever wrote! And I wanted a sense of the narrative that circles back to the old pain -- of being a political prisoner’s daughter, of exile, of being an immigrant without language and money -- in different words, in a different light that reflects a deepened understanding of pain and what I call “language within language,” which is eminently translatable, and irrepressible.

My early poems speak directly from the heart of pain; my recent poems speak about that pain from a more reflective angle: the “so what does it all mean in terms of understanding historical events, of our lives in different countries” kind of lens.

Q: Nature also turns up in these poems, along with language. Lines from “The Names of Things” read, “Soil exhaling after rain through gaps between cherry leaves, / Then crying dirty tears from roots of a fallen birch: pamintul.” Where does your interest in the natural world originate? How does it fit into your poetry?
A: I grew up in the countryside and nature was an intrinsic part of my daily life, something to work with, to admire, to love, to fear, and to cherish. I always felt very close to the Romantic idea that our feelings can be expressed with images that show changes and processes in nature, that what happens in us has an answer in nature, that what happens in nature is reflected in us. Flowers and tenderness, stars and dreaming, aging and seasons, that sort of thing -- the almanac of our lives.

Q: The last stanza of the last poem in Lilies From America takes a political turn:

Plato told the parable of the boat steered

By its passengers: he said democracy doesn’t work.

We each take a turn at capsizing our ship

In the still benevolent sea. There will be rings

In the water, where we go down.

What inspired this ending?
A: The whole poem, “Rings,” is political; it offers a take on the word “democracy,” our historical understanding of it. The word releases these rings of understanding as we say it through the ages. But the poem is personal, as our experience of politics and language is deeply personal. The poem says that democracy is something we must protect; we must reflect on our choices of the captain who will navigate the boat. It says that the action of one generation is the foundation for the next generation.

Q: You were the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors at the University of Michigan. What did you teach? What did your students teach you?
A: It was such a privilege to be invited to hold this post at the University of Michigan, as Ann Arbor has remained very special for me. I taught a course on “Poetry and the Language of Oppression” from the point of view of a practicing poet who had experienced political oppression and has turned it into poetry. The critical -- close reading, evaluative -- aspect of reading poetry was used only when we talked about the poetry and poetics of others -- Czesław Miłosz, Seamus Heaney -- but the lectures were focused on the deep, natural relationship between personal biography and the literary language that it fosters. The poet-teacher can offer that view into literary language that shows the connection between the life of the mind and heart and the life of the poetic line. It makes poetry relevant and personal. I loved it. The students deepened the joy I feel when I teach; they reassured me that poetry can be received abundantly when it connects to shared human experience. They also reconfirmed to me both the fragility and the strength of language as we are all trying to cope with today’s realities and we are trying so hard to find the right words to explain how we feel. They need to be engaged as people capable to think through difficult issues, and they need to learn that whatever we are dealing with these days -- politically, socially -- will have to be solved by examining the past for lessons.

Q: We’re at the beginning of a new decade. What are you reading?
A: I have recently finished George Szirtes’ stunning memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen: it’s a book about a Jewish family who escaped to England during the Hungarian Revolution. His mother, who survived two labor camps, ended her own life at the age of 51. His book is another testimony of how political choices made by the powerful can destroy a family. I am now reading Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows, Carolyn Forche’s What You Have Heard is True, Ana Burns’ Milkman, Borges’ The Sonnets translated by Stephen Kessler and Susanne Jill Levine, and Svetlana Boym’s Another Freedom. Over holidays in Grand Rapids, I have been indulging with Le Petit Prince (French) and Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” -- pure bliss with mulled wine!

Q: And what’s next for you?
A: Life Without a Country is my follow-up memoir to Burying the Typewriter: I hope to place it with a publisher. I am revising FOG, a novel-in-verse about the Cold War and hope to place that. And I am preparing a book on Poetry and the Language of Oppression, based on the Michigan lectures for Oxford University Press, UK. I have talks, teaching, and readings planned all through November 2020, so it will be a busy, happy year. The past decade has been very good for me, with six books published to some notice, a long-form documentary, and being a stay-at-home mom. This year, I want to write on poetry, marriage, and motherhood, in order to reflect on the incredible gains my poetry has made as a result of being a mother and on the devastating career loss as a result of choosing to stay home with my children for the first years of their lives. There is a lot to talk about! As for the next decade? Well, I would like to participate more deeply in the larger conversation about literature and compassion, about the importance of measured, lucid language in our politics and media, the need to offer our children the joy they so fully deserve.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Carmen Bugan reads with David Cope at Literati Bookstore on January 16, 7 pm.