Anca Vlasopolos published the award-winning novel The New Bedford Samurai; the award-winning memoir No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement; two collections of poems, Walking Toward Solstice and Penguins in a Warming World, and a third forthcoming, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing); three poetry chapbooks, a detective novel, Missing Members, and over two hundred poems and short stories. She was nominated several times for the Pushcart Award in poetry and fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the main difference between a detective novel and a memoir?
Anca Vlasopolos: The first is pure fiction, and the criminal always gets discovered, whether punished or not. The other is based on one’s honest recollections of one’s life.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write novels as compared to short stories?
Anca Vlasopolos: I find it equally difficult or easy. When the impulse to write is upon a person, s/he writes.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve written over 200 poems. Do you have a personal favourite among all the poems you’ve written?
Anca Vlasopolos: One of the poems that will appear in my new collection, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), in October, is called “Empty Spoons.” It’s two pages long and packs about two years of research in it: it’s about the plight of the spoonbill sandpiper, a tiny, two-ounce bird, who summers in Chukotka, near the Arctic Circle, and winters in Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are now only about 300 of these birds left on earth. They’re facing rapid extinction primarily because their stop-over grounds, along the shores of the China Sea, have been developed with the hope of great commercial ports, which didn’t materialize, and their wintering grounds are in countries where the people are so famished that even a two-ounce bird looks good to them, so they catch them in nets set up on beaches. I think I manage to convey all that information in the poem and also elicit sympathy for both the bird and the people.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poetry collection, “Penguins in a Warming World”?
Anca Vlasopolos: Penguins are literally at risk from melting ice caps. They have to go farther to find food for their chicks, and by the time they return their young have died of cold and hunger. But I was also thinking of humans who, like the penguins, are in peril from all kinds of dangers that other humans have invented—persecution, ostracism, forced exile.
Geosi Gyasi: How different is your book “Walking Toward Solstice” from “Cartographies of Scale (and Wing)”?
Anca Vlasopolos: “Walking” is a more personal book; in it I have poems about love and death and my two daughters, about politics in general. “Cartographies” is constructed around the concept of map-making—the way “civilized” humans had to make order of the planet, and the maps made by migrations of animals every season, which we are not yet done learning about just as we make the migrating species extinct, as well as the routes taken by humans who travel without maps out of dire necessity.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a brief synopsis about your non-fictional novel, “The New Bedford Samurai”?
Anca Vlasopolos: The New Bedford Samurai is the story of a Japanese boy, who at 14 ran away from home, found work on a fishing boat with four other Japanese men from a neighboring village, and was cast up with them on an uninhabited island close to Yokohama. They were picked up by an American whaling ship. The captain informally adopted the boy, Manjiro, who then spent ten years in the U.S., mostly in Massachusetts where the Captain lived, but also on another whaling voyage and around San Francisco during the Gold Rush. He made enough money to repatriate himself and two of the men with whom he started the first fateful voyage. When he returned to Japan, he was mistrusted by the Shogunate, but eventually used to translate, behind the scenes, during Japan’s opening to the West. He became a low-level Samurai and traveled to the U.S. two more times in his lifetime. He was also responsible for teaching the Japanese American commercial whaling, in which Japan engages to this day, alas, and also directed a friend to the island where he was cast away, to start a feather trade with the feathers of the short-tailed albatross, who nested almost exclusively on that island. That led to the near-extinction of the birds.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in 1948 in Bucharest, Rumania. What took you to the United States of America?
Anca Vlasopolos: My mother was prescient, and she saw that under the Communist dictatorship as it was developing I would have no life. So she left a most satisfying career and all her relatives and friends to allow me to make a life elsewhere.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything about your husband, Anthony Ambrogio, who’s also a writer and editor?
Anca Vlasopolos: Anthony writes very well, and very differently from me. His interests are pop culture, film, and the horror genre. He’s got two novels in the horror genre and one in a pastiche of Hitchcock, none of which has been published because of the mainstream contempt in the U.S. for “genre” writing and the fear among publishers that humor cannot successfully mix with horror. He has published a good deal of film criticism and short stories.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?
Anca Vlasopolos: Lyrical.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that it is easy to write poems?
Anca Vlasopolos: No. Most people who say that write what I would not classify as poems, but my standards are high for that much-disregarded and abused genre.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Anca Vlasopolos: Of course. I grew up with two parents who wrote. I married a writer. My older daughter’s a scientist and a writer.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Anca Vlasopolos: Finding publishers willing to take a chance on work that’s not mainstream.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a poem?
Anca Vlasopolos: A kind of inner elation and then the hard work of matching words to the vision.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific place where you sit down to write?
Anca Vlasopolos: I start with lines in my head, wherever I am, and sometimes a few words on scraps of paper. Then I sit at the computer and work it out.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Anca Vlasopolos: Mostly the British romantic poets and lyrical novelists like Woolf and Proust.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as the best part of writing?
Anca Vlasopolos: As in other crafts and arts, feeling in your bones that you’ve nailed it.
Geosi Gyasi: What books are often found on your writing table?
Anca Vlasopolos: None. On my nightstand usually a novel. By my recliner, a book of poems, a magazine (Audubon immediately comes to mind).
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new project?
Anca Vlasopolos: I have another poetry collection, Fanged Light, circulating and I’m thinking of a novel about an unrecognized artist who dies in her forties.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your works?
Anca Vlasopolos: Oh, let me count the times… or, better, let me not.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you often do in your spare time when not writing?
Anca Vlasopolos: Reading, bird watching, gardening, walking on the beach. I’m very happy to have retired from teaching, which I loved while I was doing it but do not miss.