GABRIELA POPA: Katerina, what does it mean for you to be a bilingual writer? In particular, how is the tone and content of your work (poetry or prose) informed by the fact that you are fluent in two cultures?
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: I’ve been writing poetry since I was eight years old. I wrote in Bulgarian until the age of 24, when I immigrated to the U.S. and then didn’t write for eleven years. I believe this writing pause, this drought that I experienced, was due to the loss of the language, as well as the loss of the culture, the lack of books in Bulgarian at the time. Quite unexpectedly, one day I started writing again, in English. Whenever I wanted to share my new poems with my Bulgarian friends, I had to translate them back into my native language. The thing that was very interesting, however, was the reaction from readers who knew my earlier work. They all said: “These new poems are very much yours.” So they were able to recognize the tone as identical, regardless of the language in which the poems originated.
I do believe that once you are a poet in one language, you will be a poet in any other language you adopt. I feel fortunate that I have two countries that I call my own, and I can draw from a union of experiences, words and languages.
GABRIELA POPA: Tell us about your poetry volumes, “The Air around the Butterfly” and The Most.”
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: “The Air around the Butterfly” is a bilingual volume of poetry, each poem appearing with side-by-side versions in English and Bulgarian. The book is comprised of three sections: My Mother Was Going to War, E.T. and I Phone Home, and The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone. The first part pertains to my life in Bulgaria before I came to the United States. The second describes my experiences as an immigrant, and the internal journey that one needs to undergo after he or she has made the physical journey to a new place. The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone is the last section in the book. It contains poems about personal growth, a lot of them short and abstract. I’m fortunate to say that this book has been well-received by readers in both Bulgaria and the USA, although the Bulgarian readers think that the book is sad, while the American readers believe it’s funny. The Air Around the Butterfly was published in Bulgaria by the Bulgarian publisher Fakel Express in 2009.
The Most was published in 2010 by an American publisher, Finishing Line Press. This chapbook contains 26 poems about hope, which I needed when I quit my engineering job to pursue writing full time. This collection strives to reach a deeper understanding of objects, actions and words, and the reader can find many examples of personification of objects, ranging from worry dolls to commodes.
GABRIELA POPA: Tell us about your journey as a writer.
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: I see two distinct parts of my journey as a writer. The first one took place when I was a poet writing in Bulgaria, in Bulgarian, and the second, when I became a poet living in the U.S.A, writing predominantly in English. These two segments bookend a career as a software engineer, which I enjoyed tremendously. I believe programming taught me a lot about expressing myself precisely, about clarity, and about creative discipline. I also have a business degree, which I currently find very helpful in marketing not only my own work, but also the books that are produced by my independent press, Accents Publishing. I want to underscore, though, that the cornerstones of the two parts of my journey as a writer are remarkably similar – generous mentors, committed writing groups, dedicated alone time for writing and reading.
GABRIELA POPA: Could you share with us a humorous story from your days as a MFA student at Spalding?
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: I can’t think of a humorous story, but an inspirational one. Program director Sena Jeter Naslund opens every residency with the words, “Look around you. This is not the competition. The competition is in the library.” The Spalding MFA brief residency program cultivated in all it students the thought of cooperation and support of each other’s work. This, I believe is a valuable skill for every writer to adopt.
GABRIELA POPA: You find time to organize workshops, host a radio show, manage Accents Publishing AND write poetry. How do you do it all?
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: Writing centers me and gives me the energy to do everything else. If I write poetry that I like, there is no happier and more productive person than I. Also, there is a synergy in all these activities, which helps to build momentum and keep things going. Once you couple momentum with consistency, a lot can be accomplished.
GABRIELA POPA: Which language, do you feel, allows you more freedom, Bulgarian or English? Is that different for poetry versus prose?
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: English has more words, so theoretically, English has more potential for nuance. The fact of the matter is, though, that my poems use simple words and expressions, so I haven’t been able to take full advantage of this quality. However, one feature that makes English a great language for writing poems is its composite idioms, which one can capitalize on in lineation to surprise the reader. While Bulgarian doesn’t offer this so readily, it does have other advantages. The words are longer and generally more musical. You can do exquisite things with sounds. Whenever I read in the USA, I try to read a little bit in Bulgarian, as well, so that the audience can experience the unique sound. Almost everyone closes his/her eyes to listen. A common comment that I hear is that the poems sound beautiful, and also last twice as long.
GABRIELA POPA: In “Author’s note” to “Image and other stories”, Bashevis Singer says: “A writer should never abandon his mother tongue and its treasure of idioms”. What is your take on that?
KATERINA STOYKOVA-KLEMER: I agree – the idioms are irreplaceable and add unique color to anyone’s work. However, they also mark the places where many translators have to use footnotes. The more culturally specific a poem is, the more difficult it is to translate well. I wrote a poem about this once, and I’d be happy to share it with your readers (see below).
GABRIELA POPA: Would you like to offer readers an excerpt of your writing?
Based on Bulgarian and American adages
Two sharp stones can’t
Two sharp bones can’t
make a joint.
Two stones can break
You can kill two birds
with one stone
or the same bird twice
GABRIELA POPA: Many thanks, Katerina, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Good luck in your many creative endeavors!