Each year, the Writing University conducts interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program's fall residency. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. Today we are talking with Tzveta Sofronieva, a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist from Germany and Bulgaria.
Tzveta SOFRONIEVA Цвета Софрониева (poet, fiction writer, playwright, essayist; Germany/Bulgaria), a physicist and historian of science by training, is the author of over 20 books, including Multiverse (2020), a collection of new and selected poems written originally in German, Bulgarian and English and A Hand Full of Water (2012), translated from the German, the recipient of a 2009 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant and the 2012 Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. Her poetry has been translated into 19 languages; her theater work has been supported by Bulgaria’s National Cultural Fund. She participates courtesy of the Max Kade Foundation.
Hello Tzveta Sofronieva!
1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?
Yes and no. I brought projects to work on using the residency generosity for writing time: a novel in German, a play in Bulgarian (The Value of a Human, which will be performed this December in Sofia) and editorial work on poetry books by Yoko Tawada and Georgi Tenev. I had ideas about new projects—translations of Native American poetry—but was open to what will connect with me when I come. Here I wrote poems in English inspired by conversations with my colleagues, by images at the Stanley Museum, by reflections on current world politics seen from new perspectives, and by missing my beloved. And I work now on a collection of short stories for a US press—adding new stories to already existing translations.
2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?
In Iowa, each morning at 5:30 am a bunch of trucks beep and roar under my window at IHH. My room faces the river just above the delivery entrance for the Iowa Memorial Building. Any attempt to fight the noise with pillows on the window frame and earplugs fails—the directing sounds of the parking trucks always win the battle—and so I open my laptop diving in the voices of the engines below. The sunrises in Iowa City bring a specific light which opens a surrealistic space, especially when sun and clouds caress each other. I usually work at these early hours, then go out in a search of a double espresso shot or a black tea pot, depending on mood and weather, and go for a walk. Later, I look for an aesthetic environment to continue working: the Stanley Museum, benches on the riverside…I like to breathe the city, sense the difference between humid air and crisp air which can be felt within hours here. I smell the winds—the temperature reveals if they come from the North or from the South.
In the afternoon usually there are events I attend. Narratives, images and emotions mingle into vibrations and flows which sometimes bring me to states of mind that are rarely so intensive. My IWP fellow writers come from all possible parts of the world and each sentence in the news has a face. Discrimination is not abstract. Languages are not abstract. Colonial narratives are not abstract. Poverty is not abstract. Illness is not abstract. Climate is not abstract. Freedom is not abstract. War is not abstract.
Late in the night I am with my reading. When my eyes start rejecting the light of the book I read, I remember that they are tired from the non-sufficient sleep of the previous nights and must still face the trucks. So, I give up, but the readings right before falling asleep work inside me with the power which only books have.
3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?
I do not distinguish between research and pleasure in reading, I read what really interests me and this always brings me joy. Texts, as other things in life, do not need to satisfy 100% to be enjoyed. As soon as they bring new dimensions into my life, they bring pleasure. I do not give my time to texts which do not have an honest approach to representation, and which do not open new realms. This week my reading is: Shaking the Pumpkin, Ed. by J. Rothenberg – an older book with native American poetry; Brain Energy by C. M. Palmer, non-fiction about metabolism and mental processes; Returning home, poetry by Tao Yuan-ming; Under the Capsized Boat We Fly, poetry by Gail Wronsky; 8 Tips for Surviving on Mars, ironic checklist by Andy Weir; Fatigue of Materials, physics non-fiction by S. Suresh; The Escape, love novel by Mary Balogh; Cellular Materials in Nature and Medicine by L.J. Gibson, M. F. Ashby and B. A. Harley.
4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and/or your work?
I am unemployed workaholic based in Europe. I started traveling this world as soon as I could walk and wrote poetry and stories before I knew the alphabet. Since my childhood I am strongly allergic to word abuse. Firmly convinced that the words are not to blame for the existence of humans, I studied physics and did a doctoral thesis on the cultural influences on the transfer of knowledge. From the very beginning of my literary work, I have been bringing worlds together. Already my first poetry collection, Chicago Blues (1992) is in Bulgarian and English, not classically in left–right page bilingual frame but in a stream of an exile voyage in North America; next to my poems there are several art collages of mine, music accords, concepts from the natural sciences, my translations of poems by other poets. The opportunity to expand the language fascinates me. Forgotten words, abandoned words, local words, foreign words, new words—if their sounds and meanings echo inside me, it means that I encounter, that there is less emptiness in my world. When I am on the shore of the Baltic Sea, I drink the light of the pastel-colored landscapes; on the Mediterranean I embrace the clear lines and the intensity of the bright colors. And here, in Iowa, light comes again anew. My eyes do not forget the light of each of these places no matter where I am. Invention needs a departure from the known, but the supposed lost is always present.
My recent new and selected poetry collection Multiverse stands at the core of my poetic work. In my view multiverse is a powerful concept in literature for it expresses the complexity and multiplicity of the aesthetics of our time. There are plenty of languages we do not understand. Not only national languages. Each day we stand in front of new world circumstances we need to translate to ourselves and to choose paths based on this translation. I am interested in the chasms we face when we meet the unknown. In multiverse, one can sense the urgent need of contact points between the adjacent and the divergent worlds. We are offered various ways to inquire and perceive again and again differently woven and intertwined in ever new self-organization processes. It is far more than a direct (polylingual) or latent (monolingual) national–languages–mix in literary texts. It is a decision to think in new structures and not about new structures. One could also fly over to escape a chasm. Poetry that embodies views, images, and linguistic structures new to a reader can open a window or even a door to a new possible universe, and the readers are at least able to realize that we live in a multiverse. They can recognize their own possibilities and fears, they feel the need to take decisions and to order priorities and to identify borders and to deal with them, to attempt acceptable futures. Multilingual poetry helps not to despair and dive in desolation, but rather to keep on dreaming and going, gestaltend, and not feeling alone in space and time.
5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
In my native country Bulgaria I have traveled almost everywhere. I love the Black Sea coast with the ancient city of Nessebar, I love the Rila mountain which is the highest on the Balkans, the Orpheus’ Rhodopes, and I love my city of birth Sofia which center is framed by Thracian baths, an Eastern Orthodox and a Rome Catholic cathedral, a Mouche and a Synagogue. I am privileged to be born in a country where languages and script are of the absolute highest value over centuries. The Cyrillic alphabet was created in the 9th s. to spread Christianity from Constantinople to Bulgaria and on to the Slavs. One of the arguments of its creators in front of the Pope was: Are all people not equal in front of God and under the rain? Why should they not have a script and connection to God in their own tongue? The script and literature were existential for persisting during five centuries under the Ottoman empire. The biggest holiday for all Bulgarians is the National Day of the Alphabet and Culture in May. Nowadays, within the E.U.—after hard times of Soviet domination and post-communist troubles with corruption—the country is becoming more and more democratic, with a very lively cultural scene.
My home country is Germany, and most precisely the city of Berlin. I have deliberately adopted it in the age of 28 after coming there for a post doc year in the field of the history of science. In the 1990s I could not imagine living in another place on Earth but Berlin. The energy that this city emanated at that time was amazing, I was fascinated by the crushing embrace of the Eastern and Western political systems, which resembled my experiences in Bulgaria and in the U.S. and Canada where I was in exile for a year before the Berlin Wall fell. My chosen home offers me miracles every day. The Alps are stunning, the Baltic coast enchanting, the Nord See fascinating (I must perhaps add that I like sailing!), the Black Forrest and the Rhein valley are extremely romantic. The riches of the museums and the quality of research are enormous. But if I value something most in Germany it is that its culture has gone through hard times and has learned to be questionable. Especially about what does it mean to be human, why do humans kill other humans, why do they kill nature, what makes us who we are and what means a free will. I value the ability of the German culture to be both very vertical, up to the sky like in a Beethoven music and, in the same time, it is a very horizontal one, as a federation of diverse states taking good care of their citizens in a pretty egalitarian way. The balance between differences is still to be found there. And I love the literary life—the German market offers an amazing amount of translated literature, almost the half of the book publications are from foreign languages from all over the world.
Thank you so much for your answers, Tzveta Sofronieva!