The Colorado Poet, #18, Spring 2012

An Interview with Dona Stein

Dona Luongo Stein’s Alice in Deutschland appeared from Jacaranda Press, 2011.

Bob King: I assume you visited Germany, the setting for this book?

Dona Stein: I got to Germany because the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I'd had a residency sent out a notice that they were looking for applicant to the Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany for an International Artists Exchange residency.  I applied and was accepted.

BK: This is a narrative kind of book in that it deals with an extended experience, “each poem a step in a journey,” as you said at your recent reading in Ft. Collins. Can you give us a summary?

DS: An American female of about late twenties early thirties goes to   Europe, flies into Amsterdam then ends up in Bavaria in Southeast Germany.  The poems focus on her time there with brief stays in Munich, Prague, and Berlin
and her gradual understanding of her
own losses as a child among the losses of the German people, victims and survivors.

BK: I don’t imagine you said before leaving the U. S. “Oh, I’m going to create a character that’s going on this trip and then I’ll put a book together.” How did the idea of the book come to you?

DS: You’re right, I had no idea when I accepted the International Artists| Exchange Fellowship what I would do, how I would create anything based on my time in Germany. Once there, I accumulated notes, half poems, responses to the landscape and people with a couple of complete poems.  Yet I couldn’t find my way in to what emerged as the kernel of the book.  I was aware of preconceptions I had and family experiences (my third grandmother was an early twentieth century immigrant from Germany; my husband’s family fled their country in the 1930’s) as well as my German language and literature studies at the university level.  But I didn’t and couldn’t write a rant. Approaching the narrative through a fictional character seemed to take away some of the rant impulse.  Alice probably came to me when I focused on the spine of Lewis Carroll’s book on my book-
shelf.  I’ve always loved his work, but still couldn’t quite figure out how an Alice would unify the collection.

A few years later I attended a lecture by Paul Michael Murphy on Alice in Wonderland as a coming of age story.
That helped bring my Alice into focus.  So I revised my manuscript once again.

BK: And how did the idea of a creative character like Alice come to you? I imagine some of those experiences happened to the real Dona Stein, but how did you find or construct the character of Alice in response to these experiences?

DS: Two accomplished, widely published poet friends in California questioned my use of Alice and basically asked why they should care about her.  That was such an important question.  I thought it was obvious.  I re-read the mss. asking myself this question for every poem and realized they were
correct in that I hadn’t provided that information for the reader. That process took about a year.  I’d read the work of Alice Miller, a psychologist focusing on how parents and cultures treat children and childhood, as well as widely in the literature of survivors of other genocides (African American, Native American, Armenian).  I also recalled horrific accidents that happened to children in the small farming community I’d grown up in—out hunting, a younger brother accidentally shooting an older brother, for one example.  I knew that Alice was a damaged person and I knew that she would survive. So I worked with these gradual certainties through more revisions.

BK:  Of course there’s an older history of Bavaria and German focused around the events of World War II, whether it’s remembered or forgotten or denied. How did that affect your, or Alice’s  experience?

DS: The events of WWII totally affected my experience there in one way that it is reflected in Alice’s experience and that is the contrast between a terrible past and the lack of observable evidence of it in the present.  As readers who take up the collection will notice, there’s a gradual revelation of that contrast. Alice’s ambivalence about responding to Stefan’s urging that she go to a death camp reflects the rather gruesome idea of being a “tourist” at these sites.

BK: Most of the poems have a special formal consistency and syntax. You don’t use punctuation but provide open spaces that are sometimes like notes of the experience as in this stanza from “Alice Can’t”:

“likes the new cars    clean streets
low crime rate   can walk late
good food”

At other times it’s as if the speaker doesn’t want to continue the thought or the object is omitted as in an earlier part of the poem:
“columns of naked     freezing she wants to forget history”
Can you comment on that form or style?

At one point in my writing of earlier pieces, I became obsessed with annotation for a verbal text.

DS:      At one point in my writing of earlier pieces, I became obsessed with annotation for a verbal text.  I studied copies of medieval chant notation, of choreography.  I did write a libretto for an opera based on the Gawain and Green Knight legend and was frustrated that I couldn’t use a notation system similar to
notes and symbols and directions a composer used.  I had studied musical theory and composition in the past and took violin  lessons for years.  But all that didn’t seem to help with Alice. 

I knew I wanted to convey the immediacy of Alice’s reactions to her surroundings—she is a visual artist.  I imagined she would respond to light, sound, texture, motion, and silence
and would be especially sensitive to emotional currents of fellow humans, perhaps more so in an unfamiliar environment. As a child, she felt acute blame of her family through silences and neglect. Alice in this part you quote doesn’t want to think about such history either so the form seeks to address that she too doesn’t want the emotional weight, guilt or shame, of history.

BK: I want to quote one poem in its entirety. The title keys us to a deeper problem that the poem either lyrically answers or doesn’t.

Trying to Understand

every train car    Alice
suspects    this train car’s windows
open    this train car’s WC works

this uniformed woman born
after 1961 asks   only for her ticket
woods south of Schwandorf

every tree’s arms spread
only with light    every field’s
smooth width of hay    hides

only insects    moles   mice
every river’s mouth opens
pouring only water    shadow    light.

For me, the poem begins with a stuttering incompleteness about the past. Alice “suspects” every train car and I assume the suspicion is whether one transported the Jews but these windows open, which the death-trains’ windows didn’t, nor did the WC work. But it then moves into a lyric innocence, it seems to me. How important is this poem for you?

DS: It’s interesting that you commented on this poem; its place fairly early in the book hints at Alice’s tension with guilt from her past.  She has to survive, become an adult and  in the process accept what was/is her responsibility.  “Lyric innocence” won’t work.  Reality of the past and in the present has to be faced.  It will always push itself into our

BK: Lastly, how long did it take you to finish this extended project? Where there ups and downs? Breakthroughs? Challenges? What was your experience writing a book this focused on one subject?

DS: Gosh, this wasn’t meant to be an extended project; an earlier publisher let the contract lapse and counting the revisions and rethinking of exactly what I was trying to do took about ten or eleven years of  this collection.  Pudding House Press printed poems called Entering the Labyrinth based on a stay in Greece. The foundation in Schwandorf printed "Poems from a  Sequence" which I shared with a poet from Great Britain. And life happened: my dear mother-in-law passed away, so did my step father-in-law, a beloved brother, my husband, and recently, my mother.  Also, I felt I had to return to Germany because I hadn't gotten to Berlin during my residency in Schwandorf, so I made a trip to Berlin.

Being focused on one subject was odd, like an obsession one’s glad to be rid on, but also when it’s finished, like missing an immersion in that focus.  Was that somewhat your experience with Rodin & Co.?

BK: Yes, there was a fulfillment and a sadness that came with ‘I don’t have to write about that any more.’