A Normal Interview with Andrea Jurjević

 

A Normal Interview with Andrea Jurjević

By Tricia Savelli

Andrea Jurjević’s debut collection of poetry, Small Crimes, won the 2015 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and it was released by Anhinga Press this past January. The collection begins in the author’s native Croatia in the 1990s, in the midst of the Croatian War of Independence. The poems paint unflinching portraits of the war, as Jurjević crafts a poignant, moving, and compelling collection. The manuscript then shifts to the United States, a contrast to Croatia, but equally fraught, dark, and beautiful. Small Crimes is a compelling testimony of immigration, the human cost of war, and love.

In late January, Fresno State MFA candidate Tricia Savelli spoke with Jurjević about Small Crimes, the creative process, and where poetry fits in the current climate in the United States today.

 

Tricia Savelli: I read that Small Crimes was a part of the writing you did for your MFA from Georgia State University. Did you write your way into the manuscript, or did you have an idea of what you would write before you started?

 

Andrea Jurjević: No, I think that the manuscript sort of presented itself to me. I knew I was writing poems, of course. I was aware of that. But I wasn’t really writing toward a book or some kind of concrete collection. I think it was when I started writing the war poems that I felt that I was sort of biting into something more concrete than the stuff that I was writing before that.

 

TS: I read in your interview with Sequestrum that one of the hardest things you had to do when writing for that publication was taking out the opening line of your poem “Nocturne.”

 

AJ: Yes! [Laughs]

 

TS: I wonder if you had similar moments when writing Small Crimes? Did you have to take poems out that were painful to exclude?

 

AJ: Yes, but also I guess my memory is not that great. [Laughs] I end up forgetting about them after a while. There were a lot of changes, there definitely were. But also — do you ever feel like you’re cleaning up your stuff, in the drawers and in the closets, and you kind of get in that spirit of “I’m just going to clean everything up and only keep the good stuff.” You can also cut too much doing that, and I started feeling like I was at that point when I had submitted the manuscript.

 

TS: You wondered, “Did I trim it too much?”

 

AJ: Yes, there was a point where I was feeling like I was getting a little bit carried away with it. [Laughs] “I’m gonna cut my hair short! Oh, maybe a little shorter!”

 

TS: I feel the same way! It feels good, but after a while you wonder, “Did I cut too much of the meat out?”

 

AJ: What do you do, then, to strike that balance?

 

TS: I don’t know! It’s hard to strike that balance. It’s like trimming a rose bush. If you cut them back too far they won’t grow back.

 

AJ: Yes, but then I start reading people who do a great job writing longer pieces, and I start envying their ability to go overboard and create these long, beautiful poems, and that starts a different kind of desire.

 

TS: I read in another interview where you said, “Art makes us better people.” It made me wonder how you feel about art and poetry in America as it is now, as “resistance,” in “Trump’s America,” or even a “post-truth” America. How does poetry and art fit into all that?

 

AJ: Well, I guess we will see with time how it fits. It’s an interesting question, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m not exactly sure how to answer other than the fact that the reality in which we live in now has just strengthened my commitment to writing and deepened my love for the writers in my life, honestly, and the writers I have read. I cannot imagine my life without them or their work. Sharing seems so elemental and crucial to life that I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that any of that is dispensable.

 

TS: Yes, community is so important. Another thing I find important to support writing is a creative process or rituals. Do you have any creative processes that help you write?

 

AJ: I seem to play a lot of music, and if I find an album that I like a lot, I’ll keep it on repeat obsessively. And black coffee — not much else going on but that, nothing very elaborate. But music is a constant, definitely.

 

TS: What are you listening to right now?

 

AJ: Right now it’s Brian Eno, probably just from being overwhelmed with the news and everything that’s been going on. A lot of Wovenhand as well.

 

TS: When did you start writing? Have you been a writer all your life?

 

AJ: No, I’ve been a reader all my life, but I really didn’t think of writing for a long time. When I came to the States in my 20s, I really put that idea aside because my English wasn’t good enough at the time. I took journalism courses and I worked in art, and as life went on I kind of got haunted by this need to start writing. I started writing around 10 years ago, in 2008. I think that’s when I wrote my first poem in English. And when I first started writing, I kind of wrote these little Morrissey-type lyrics, if you could even call them poems. [Laughs]

 

TS: I think we all start doing something like that!

 

AJ: Yes! All the glorious beginnings.

 

TS: Are you working on anything new?

 

AJ: Yes, I keep writing. I’m not sure where this new stuff is going to take me, but yes, I have been writing and translating.

 

Jurjević read Feb. 3 at Fresno State for her book launch. See the reading on the Philip Levine Prize Facebook page.

 


 

Andrea Jurjevi,a native of Croatia, is the author of Small Crimes, winner of the 2015 Philip Levine Prize (Anhinga Press, 2017). Her poems appear in journals such as Epoch, TriQuarterly, Raleigh Review, The Missouri Review, and her translations of contemporary Croatian poetry in Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, and Drunken Boat. She is the recipient of the 2013 Robinson Jeffers Tor Prize, the 2015 RHINO Translation Prize, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She teaches English at Georgia State University where she graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Tricia Savelli is a writer and MFA candidate in creative nonfiction in Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. In 2014, she graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with a BA in English. She teaches creative writing and works as a graduate writing consultant at Fresno State. She previously served as senior editorial assistant for the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest and as a graduate assistant for The Normal School magazine. She has an essay forthcoming in under the gum tree.