Mathematics, Gallows Humor, and the Intensity of NaPoWriMo

Poetry Editor Malisa Garlieb interviews poet Romana Iorga. Read Iorga’s portfolio of poems here.

“Nothing is quite as rewarding and revelatory as the moment when a line alights on the page as if out of thin air.”

Romana Iorga

The poem “Liminality” has arresting, dream-like images, such as the occult bookshop with doors “shaped like a vulva” and “a womb, surrounded by oracles.” What was the inspiration for this piece?

The poem “The Best in the Midwest” started from a NaPoWriMo prompt that challenged participants to write about liminal spaces—such as neglected buildings, eerie movie theaters, abandoned resorts, and so on. I asked my husband, who’s an anthropologist, what he knew about liminal spaces. We were hiking at the time and he had quite a lot to say—among other things, that liminality is more of a state or a process than an actual physical place. When I insisted that I had to write about a liminal space that I could describe in detail, he laughed and said, “What, you think there’s a town in Indiana called Liminality, Indiana?” 

The whole town of Liminality sprouted from that one question—like Proust’s childhood from his madeleine. I veered toward the descriptive and the tongue-in-cheek namely because I had the freedom to make Liminality as spooky and otherworldly a place as I wanted. I owe the dream-like imagery to this playful exercise in imagination and my boundless devotion to hash browns. I lived in the Midwest many years ago but can’t remember ever going through Liminality, IN. Though I must have, for this poem to exist at all.

The mathematical, somewhat distant language in “After Talking to My Daughter About the Magic of Algebra” turns toward personal experiences halfway through. How did this poem emerge initially? Did the first draft look similar or dissimilar to the now published version?

This poem indeed began with a conversation I had with my daughter. She’s brilliant at math and I certainly wasn’t back in school. But when she talks passionately about algebra, it begins to make sense, the way it never did before. I suppose I turn toward personal experience half-way through the poem because my mathematical knowledge is so limited—but also because I started making connections between something foreign to me (numbers) and something I am definitely pulled towards (words). My daughter is a mathematician and a poet, so she has a more complete perception of the world than I do—and that’s exactly how it should be. Content-wise, the first draft of the poem is very similar to its last, which is unusual for me, but the lines were longer and the whole poem was shorter as a result. I played with line breaks for quite a while before sending the final draft out into the world.

I found the tone of “The Play” intriguing—surreal, psychological with gallows humor. The image of the gun at the end suits the trajectory of the piece—what, for you as the writer, does it symbolize or signify?

I would like to say that it symbolizes my life, à la Dickinson’s My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun. Alas, I wasn’t thinking of the meaning of life when the cardboard horse offered the speaker the gun. I just wanted the gift to be something outrageous. It could have been anything, really—a carrot, or a cuckoo clock, or an inflatable doll. But once the zombie horde burst through the doors, the gun became the best possible choice for the speaker. And therefore, the reader. Perhaps I should have made it a cardboard gun.

All three of your poems in Mud Season Review utilize a single stanza column of shorter lines. How do you see this form serving the poems’ content, flow and pacing?

The emotional landscape of each poem remains the same throughout—questioning, playful, eerie—so the current structure made the most sense to me. Even when I played with form later (different line and stanza breaks, new beginnings and endings, additional lines or deletions), I kept returning to the original drafts because they flowed more naturally. I didn’t want to lose momentum. The content dictated the form here, as is often the case when I write, though I tend to tweak both form and content for years afterwards until I’m (almost) happy with the poem.

From your website, I see that you participate in NaPoWriMo. What is your experience of writing every day and how does it carry over into your normal writing practice? Will you participate this coming April?  What is your current work in progress?

I’m currently working on a poetry manuscript about memory—quite a few poems in it were drafted during NaPoWriMo. I do plan to participate again next April. It’s such an immersive, fulfilling, equally exhausting and exhilarating experience. Writing every day is intense—it demands a constant presence on the page. Outside of NaPoWriMo, I can’t maintain this tough regimen throughout the year, though I sometimes embark on week-long writing marathons with friends. Other than that, I try to do something writing-related every day, like dig through old notebooks for nuggets of wisdom. I’ve picked those notebooks clean, yet I keep going back as one does toward a mythical fountain of youth. I know years from now I’ll scour my current notebook in search of wisdom and maybe find something that escapes me right now. The more we change, the more we stay the same. That being said, I read poetry every day. I walk my dog and observe the world every day. I jot things down on a daily basis and revise, reshape, re-envision—but finish a poem? That takes longer. Sometimes years. Granted, even the pieces written during NaPoWriMo go through considerable revision before leaving the nest. 

The wonderful thing about writing consistently for one whole month is that at the end of it, however depleted of any intelligent thought I may be, I have 30 fresh drafts to work with. And I love the process of revision much more than the merciless white page. Once I’m in revision mode, I forget about the fear of generating subpar material. I must say, though, nothing is quite as rewarding and revelatory as the moment when a line alights on the page as if out of thin air. I believe it’s all connected—the reading, the revision, and the mysterious lines falling on top of my head as I hike through the woods with my dog. The more I read, the more I think about words and colors and shapes and experience and pain and joy. And the miracle is, the more words find me as I go about my very ordinary days.

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