Feb 11, 2016

Crowdsourcing a Poet--MARGENTO on Musina

(Initially published on Asymptote's blog here)

"...I asked a number of significant writers for an input on the place of this writer in our literature..."
Have you ever thought of starting a poetry crowdsourcing? While contemplating writing on Alexandru Muşina’s magnetic personality (as a tie in to Ruxandra Cesereanu’s article in our July issue), the idea presented itself to me as the best way of introducing him to Asymptote’s readers; definitely an exciting opportunity to bring people together around the work of this amazing poet. Why? For at least two reasons. First, Muşina is one of the most important poets of Generation 80 (the poets that changed the face of Romanian poetry starting back in the 1980s), and arguably its most influential theorist, teacher, and public figure. Therefore, given the writer’s impressive public profile, crowdsourcing arises as a truly viable option in trying to unveil the many facets of his personality as mirrored by poets, critics, and theorists from various schools and walks of life. Second, taking the pulse of the current literary scene by asking some of its most outstanding representatives for input on the matter would obviously provide remarkably candid insights into the writer’s legacy, but it may also add up to a quick x-ray of Romanian letters, a sort of present-day portrayal of a young literature as revisiting an established man…; this latter aspect may prove of interest particularly since Cesereanu’s article focuses mainly on the place of Muşina’s poetry (and specifically his poem “Budila Express”) in the historical context of the communist regime and Ceausescu’s dictatorship (when the poem was first published).
It is, of course, always relevant to follow the posthumous destiny of a major writer, but in this particular case, there was more to it than just that. Since Cesereanu’s article draws a parallel between Muşina’s “Budila Express” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” I thought to myself why not put together here a small-scale replica of Jason Shinder’s The Poem that Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years After (showcasing brilliant and sometimes intriguing contributions from people like Marjorie Perloff and Robert Pinsky) and come up with a sort of short-version “Budila Express” 33 Years Aftermyself… or, as another tentative title came to mind, Muşina 2 Years After His Untimely Passing
Muşina, an outstanding representative of “Generation 80” (the generation of the 1980s) was just 59 when he passed away. In a sophisticated eulogy, his friend and writer colleague Caius Dobrescu—foremost member along with Simona PopescuAndrei BodiuMarius Oprea, and others of the Braşov Circle that initially gravitated around Muşina’s theoretical ideas—spoke of the poet’s “4-dimensional” personality in which the theorist/visionary, the teacher/leader, and the public figure played roles as essential as that of the poet. I realized that people often think of Muşina’s great impact on contemporary poetry as stemming not so much or not only from his poetry, but his community and impressive following. 
Therefore I asked a number of significant writers for an input on the place of this writer in our literature, basically moving gradually from established to young and then younger poets, writers, critics, and editors. Felix Nicolaufor instance believes Alexandru Muşina’s theoretical influence remains powerful in the titles he chose to publish as editor-in-chief of Aula Press, and in his generous support offered to young poets. Nicolau assesses—he was indeed one of the most spectacular postmodern poets in his youth, but became a captivating ironist in fiction towards the end of his life.  AndAntonio Patraş joins Nicolau in rereading the poet’s work somewhat against the grain, though he disagrees with those who consider Muşina a forerunner of the biographical poetry of poets emerging in the first decade of this century (the “2000s generation”), but rather sees him as a brilliantly ironic, debunking, and anti-lyric craftsman who could masterfully mime ingenuity, and an even better theorist who largely influenced other essayists, and political scientists nevertheless. Doris Mironescu contributes something quite along the same lines, although again the nuances are sensibly different—although a writer of “true poetry” whose verse (along with that of other significant generation 80s poets) switched the course of our poetry towards denotation, self-reflexiveness, and social commentary, it is actually his work as an editor, professor, and essayist that really changed the face of what we currently define as contemporary poetry.
Dan Gulea further refines the picture by x-raying the poet’s following and legacy. After describing Muşina’s poetry as a unique blend of humor and objectivity, and portraying the teacher/opinion leader as a “temperate rebel” that consistently discovered new talents and trained them, infected them actually with his ideas, Gulea offers an infallible clue for identifying the master’s emulators: whenever one sees a true iconoclast at work in our contemporary letters, they should know Muşina has directly or indirectly left an imprint on that writer. 
If Gulea sees the famous writer as a “temperate rebel,” O. Nimigean prefers to use the more drastic Deleuzian term “machine de guerre” in describing Muşina’s intolerance to clichés, stupidity, and even the 80’s generation’s postmodern bovarism. Nimigean typically reads Muşina’s oeuvre and personality in a holistic manner, finding the same lines of force and the same “trouble fête” effect in both his poetry and his other work, and summarizes the latter’s lesson (which he insists the younger generations in particular have really absorbed) by an eye-catching formulation: “poetry is to be reconquered by means of ‘disenchantment’.”
Carmen Mușat has a similar opinion, only she is closer to Gulea in saying that Muşina’s poetry is a form of protest “mitigated by irony,” and a revolt against trite literature and romanticizing clichés (an idea shared also by some of the younger and most radically innovative poets, as we’ll see a bit later). Nicolae Coande, then, tracks down the tempestuousness and nonconformity Nimigean identifies in Muşina’s ethos in a more palpable way while noting how the maelstrom effect of “Budila Express’s” opening lines pairs up with the long-lasting pertinence of the theoretical thought, both these aspects being bridged by the more contemplative lyricism of a poet “painting his own portrait as he watches the world pass by.” For Mihail Vakulovski, who wrote a PhD thesis on Generation 80, Muşina can only be understood by comparison with the other great magnetic pole of this poetry school, Mircea Cărtărescu. The former has described the postmodernism of his generation and postmodernism in general (in the footsteps of internationally known Romanian theorist Matei Călinescu) as a sequel to and even a phase of the earlier modernism, where as the latter contends (on the heels of G. Vattimo and Ihab Hassan) that there is a categorical distinction between the two. Still, wrote Vakulosvski in an academic article, Muşina is not only a significant poet and a major theorist, he is also an epitome of his generation through his biographical and cultural destiny.
But if most established writers highlight the complexity of Muşina’s personality and the part it played in its public involvement with his poetry, how about the poets that acknowledge a direct influence on their own poetry or the one of their peers? Ciprian Măceșaru underlines the strong impact of Muşina and the 80’s generation on the poets of the 90’s and those of the first decade of the 2000’s, but then qualifies this by adding that nowadays their influence has faded away, as they have now turned into “classic literary landmarks.” As for Muşina in particular, although the latter’s “greatest hit” is indeed “Budila Express,” Măceșaru acknowledges that his own latest and already very well received collection Numele meu este Bryan Ruiz (My Name Is Bryan Ruiz) is actually closely related to another perhaps less quoted Muşina collection, Album duminical (Sunday All Stars), a “little book of shattering simplicity and sincerity, and a great example of how poetry can be desecrated.”
I got a somewhat similar feedback from Violeta Savu, who admits a surprising and rather overlooked posthumous collection of poems in prose,dactăr nicu & his skyzoid band left an imprint on her own current poetic interests with its inspirational chunks of tackiness and the everyday. Savu then has a quite surprising view of Muşina’s poetry herself, assessing it as „algorithmic” and capable of a variety that places it in the close vicinity of Pessoa’s heteronyms. Relevantly enough, Savu also confesses going back to the writer’s theoretical writings whenever she needs help reconnecting with the art of poetry.
This latter note actually relates Violeta Savu to Andrei Doboș, who just like her thinks of Muşina as a writer ahead of his time, sure to loom larger and larger in the future. Doboș also goes once in a while back to Muşina’s poetics, but for quite different reasons then those of Savu, while still significantly relevant to the Muşina – Ginsberg parallel in Cesereanu’sarticle: in his early years’ desperate attempts to break free from Ginsberg’s hypnotic spell, Doboș also turned away from the initially worshiped poem “Budila Express,” but only to discover yet another Muşina, namely the one doing a great job as a diarist, theorist, poetry commentator, and polemist. As a “mythical poetry school founder,” Doboș continues, Muşina was definitely a crucial inspiration to the “2000’s Mexican-guerrilla-like poetry offensive.” 
Andrei Dósa counts himself among those who “went through their formative years under Muşina’s direct guidance,” but is oblique at the 2000’s writers who see in the great poet hardly anything else than just the author of the celebrated poem “Budila Express.” To him and the other disciples there was so much more to it, since they were all—even if unwillingly—infected with the master’s “concern for craftsmanship, both straightforward and ironic tone, as well as a certain kind of objectification.”
But if such is the case with the poets who acknowledge being intimately influenced by Mușina, how about those who work on the fringes of the market and try to make it on their own? It is more than interesting to note in that train of thought how certain rising star poets—particularly the experimental ones—currently reassess Muşina as quite germane to their own poetics and practices, thus unveiling a side of his ethos that has little if ever been perceived before. In an intro to a Muşina feature in Poesis International written in his capacity as editor-in-chief, Claudiu Komartin, while shrewdly underscoring the polyvalent personality and articulately illustrating the ongoing legacy of the poet, hardly recorded such potential ramifications. 
New poets emphasize Muşina’s cross-register and existential versatility, his juggler/experimenter/trickster-like side, as well as his genuineness, seeing in him a role model whose lesson most of his (established) followers failed to learn. Iulia Militaru, for instance, speaks of a paradigm shift in Muşina’s poetry who managed—by means of a consistent “lucid denial” that fuses and thus gets beyond the cerebral and the emphatic—to escape the praise of trauma and the lonely-poet-damné Romantic clichés still at work in our contemporary poetry in spite of the example he set. For Teodora Comanthen, Muşina was a myriad-eyed Argus absorbing anything and everything and a genuine opinion leader across several generations, who transgressed all borders between life and literature, between genres, between the formal and the informal, experimenting courageously, “intensely but not stridently,” and continuously remaking himself throughout his lifetime. 
Not all experimental poets share such admiring views though. Peter Sragherfor instance admits he has not followed much of Muşina’s poetry after the latter’s spectacular debut from 33 years ago, in the famous anthology Cinci(“Five,” that featured him along with four other stars, Romulus Bucur,Bogdan GhiuIon Bogdan Lefter, and Mariana Marin). 
In my own turn as both “page poet” and performer—once complimented by Muşina himself for being a “Jimi-Hendrix-kind-of performance poet”—who has always been impressed by the famous writer’s strong voice, ample aesthetic program, and wide impact, I have now and then found his formal experimentation far from fully substantiated, and some of his Anglo-American-poetry-and-poetics-related references in need of updating.
But I found it relevant to ask a couple of younger poets the same questions, and the outcome has actually proved quite symptomatic of a world in which transnational globalism, the world wide web, virtual communities, and serendipitous interconnections and encounters are now and then of greater impact than direct literary filiations. Marius Surleac admits to not having been significantly influenced by Muşina, while his favorite generation 80’s poets are the established mavericks Nichita Danilov and Ion Monoran, the former for his blatant mysticism and grotesque imagery, and the latter for his grief and activism (neither of which are salient features of Surleac’s own poetry)—a conviction he developed after accidentally coming across an old ragged Danilov collection in a used book store.  
Another remarkable younger poet, Dan Ciupureanu, confesses that when he started writing in 2013 he had hardly read any poetry, and the little one he had been exposed to came in the form of Facebook postings, mostly “poorly written stuff.” But it was also from such a posting that he found out about Muşina and he was thus introduced to the poetry by the latter’s friends quoting poems on their own Facebook walls. “I suddenly realized that was a totally different thing,” he wrote me, adding he was “to a certain extent” impressed and influenced by that experience which prompted him to look for and read more and more good poetry ever since.
So far, my crowdsourcing had mainly focused on the local literary market, soliciting input from Romanian writers and critics on the poet’s place in our culture and the current impact of his legacy on our literature. The next step to for me to take here was to look into Muşina’s international reception and, therefore, firstly what is the perception translators have of him. For legendary translator Adam Sorkin, it turns out that the poet was not simply important in himself, but just as we have seen think most of the above quoted Romanian writers, for his correlate work as well, particularly as an anthologist: “I am very grateful for his work as an anthologist who sorted out and collected the poetry and criticism of ‘the 80s generation,’ among whom he was a significant voice in his use of everyday language and real-life, as opposed to ‘poetic,’ material.” 
Martin Woodside is more interested in the new poetry—while having also translated contemporary classics like Gellu Naum and Leonid Dimovamong others—and therefore, before or part of asking the general question about Muşina’s legacy he suggests also exploring his relevance to the host of contemporary Romanian writers whose work has moved from international exchanges to transnational exchanges. Muşina, not only in his work as a writer, argues Woodside, but as a kind of literary curator, has done much to inform a dynamic brand of global poetics that continues to push boundaries and defy easy labels—challenging us to come to terms with what poetry is and what it should be.
This crowdsourcing campaign, trying to collect as many responses as possible from established and emerging writers and translators, proved relevant in at least a couple respects. On the one hand, it provided a comparative fresco of Romanian literature as continuously (re)defining and reshaping itself (also) by revisiting and renegotiating its relationship with a major figure in the culture of the past few decades. As discovered in the process, the bigger mosaic of the culture’s state of affairs also came with a surprising, intricate, and telling network of relations between the various respondents and their own ideologies and allegiances. On the other hand, such profuse and diverse feedback bore testimony to the ways in which the image and place of a writer with a public profile as prominent as that of Alexandru Mușina permanently undergoes reassessment across generations and schools of poets and writers on a literary scene in continuous and more often than not spectacular evolution.
And… the crowdsourcing continues, for, while pursuing at this stage the same international direction, I am currently waiting to hear on the matter from Romanian-American poet Andrei Codrescu. And I am certain my inquiry will continue just as will those of many other critics, translators, and writers perpetually attracted to the work of this formidable poet, since—the contributions above and Cesereanu’s article stand witness—with Alexandru Muşina, the show WILL—always…—go on…
MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu) is Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova. He is a poet, academic, translator, and poetry performer whose pen-name is also the name of his poetry/action-painting/jazz-rock band, the winner of a number of significant national and international awards. See his work in Asymptote here and here.
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