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August 16, 2016

Tara Skurtu on feeling poetry and letting one’s writing go free

Not getting admitted to medical school made Tara Skurtu follow her passion for poetry. She is now a poetess, a translator and a creative writing teacher in Transylvania, the homeland of her great-grandparents.

Growing up in Boston, Florida, Tara got an early sense of the imagination and language of poetry and her Romanian roots. Her great-grandparents on her father’s side had come to the Transylvania region in the early 1900s, getting an unusual last name and a feel for strange food spanning over the last three generations. She remembers being a kid and watching her father cooking cabbage and making ‘these thin pancakes filled with little pieces of fruit and sometimes rolled up and folded’.

Tara learned and loved language starting with her father’s stories. He would always tell her great stories about his grandparents, and read and write poems for Tara and her siblings. He created neologisms that made them understand how language functioned beyond what they found in books.

With a strong attraction to sciences, in 2005 Tara started her preparation for the exam to medical school. Later on, she began writing poems, taking poetry workshops (‘I combined my love of art and medicine by writing about illness, healing, death, and loss.’) and submitting some of her work to journals and prizes. When she finally got her first poem published (in Hiram Poetry Review), she realized that she measured her professional success by her writing rather than learning for med school.

Tara interviewed for her top choice school, but, after six years of preparation, during which she double majored in English and Spanish and got a Creative Writing certificate, she did not get admitted to medical school. Though devastated, she realized that medicine was not for her when someone very important to her asked, “If you had to spend the rest of your life doing only one thing, what would it be?” and the answer was simple: poetry.

She got an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University and she soon fell in love with teaching; in 2013 she became a lecturer in Creative Writing at the same university and later a teacher for incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program. The same year she received a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, which meant she could choose one country in the world that would inspire her to write. She picked Romania, following her dad’s old roots back to Transylvania and getting to know the literary scene, the history, the language and the people. It made her want to come back, so this year she’s teaching English at Transilvania University of Brașov, giving poetry and translation workshops to young Romanian writers and translating the work of contemporary Romanian poets. She has recently completed her first collection of poems, The Amoeba Game.

Her poems are based on everything she lives and observes. She’s a fierce advocate of feeling poetry and letting one’s writing go free rather than thinking of poetry as an archaic and rigid form of expression.

Here is some of Tara’s advice on writing and learning (or unlearning) poetry:

•My journey into poetry was a long, meandering one, and when I finally arrived, I was more than ready. And I’ve learned that poetry can be just as healing an art as medicine.

•I think everyone likes poetry, poetry is just a form of storytelling. In a way poetry is kind of a bastard form of language, because we don’t really know exactly where it comes from and how it’s made. It’s not quite meant to be understood. (…) And talking about the language of poetry is even trickier because poetry uses language to describe something that can’t possibly be said in words.

•When I was ill, writing became my coping mechanism. I found that I was able to create a world which simultaneously expressed and contained my fears. I started out writing stories, but their narratives began shaping themselves into the forms of poems. After a while, everything I wrote turned into a poem.

Teaching creative writing is like this impossible thing to do. Mostly you’re unteaching. You’re unteaching the way people have learned to feel about poetry, the way they have been taught that it’s this rigid archaic thing that has to be understood one way or like something that’s in a glass box in a museum where you have to look at the little card that tells you one interpretation of it.

I watch a lot of interviews and read a lot of interviews with writers mostly because of one thing: I’m really interested in process. And I like to find out when people lie. People always ask ‘How do you write a poem, how do you write a story?’ And the honest writers, do you know what they say? They say ‘I don’t know’.

We never know what we’re doing and we shouldn’t. Because if we knew exactly what we were doing when we start any kind of creative process, we are going to make boring work that no one wants to read, we are not going to challenge ourselves and we are not going to challenge the reader or the viewer of this.

 Register here for the 6th edition of The Power of Storytelling to find out more about Tara.