Maja Lukic is a writer/attorney in New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, The Brooklyn Quarterly, and Small Print Magazine. When not writing, she is playing with a camera and developing recipes for her food and cocktail blog veggiesandgin.com.
In this interview with letters editor Dariel Suarez, Lukic talked about balancing professions, about drawing inspiration from the past, and about being persistent in order to succeed, among other things.
Dariel Suarez: You mention in your bio that you practice law in NYC. Could you tell us about your job, and how it might influence your writing? How do you balance your profession and your writing time?
Maja Lukic: I’m in litigation and 80% of what I do in the office involves either writing or reading. The legal work requires a different writing style--more direct, declarative, and highly structured. The assumption is that judges are busy and I have limited space/time to convey a convincing argument for my position. Legal writing has encouraged me to be concise, clear, and laconic, which are characteristics of strong writing in any context.
Finding enough time to write is a definite challenge. The legal profession demands long and often unpredictable hours. Also, stress is a massive detractor and I’m most creative when I feel calm. I write in the morning. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up at the insane hour of 4:45 or 5 a.m. I make coffee and write for as long as I can before work. Vacations are also a fantastic time to work on pieces. Writing in the morning and swimming at the beach in the afternoon is my idea of bliss.
DS: What first inspired you to write poetry? Which poets do you consider to be your main influences?
ML: I’ve always had a roving, passive interest in poetry. I took poetry classes in college and wrote pieces here and there, as most people do, I think. But I never considered poetry seriously until I discovered a well-known Charles Simic poem called “The White Room.” It was unlike any other poem I’d read before. I think I read it twenty times that first day. It struck me as dark and imagistic, strange and surreal, and yet there was something disarmingly familiar about the tone and the texture of the piece. It struck me as the sort of writing I thought I could do-or at least, the sort of writing I thought I could try to do. In that sense, I would say that Simic has been a massive influence––his work gave me permission to write and accept my own poetry, which is also surreal and atypical. And like me, he’s Serbian and perhaps I see something darkly humorous and Balkan in his work. Of course, to be clear, Simic is a master of his art and when I list him as an influence, I am in no way comparing my words to his. But I do admire his style.
Also, I will probably never stop loving Leonard Cohen, which all Canadians say, I’m sure. It’s the sadness and dark humor in Cohen’s work that intrigues me. I also appreciate and respect the works of Mark Strand (another Canadian), Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and Sergei Yesenin.
DS: Can you share with our readers what “Rail Station Bohemia” means for you? What led you to write this poem?
ML: “Rail Station Bohemia” is about leaving home and, more broadly, about releasing the past. I’m Serbian but I was born in Croatia and lived in both countries before my family moved to Canada in 1994. I was nine years old at the time. That’s part of it. The other part is that I’ve had a moderate obsession with trains and railways for as far back as I can remember. My grandfather worked at a rail station and I have distant memories of riding in trains with my parents as a little girl. I suspect there is something about that form of travel that inspires a certain romantic fascination for Europeans generally and Serbs in particular.
In any case, moving or leaving a country is a disorienting, displacing experience even under the best circumstances. In the end, you carry your own name, which has more significance once you leave your ethnic origins, as a connection to a place that is now lost to the past. Once you leave a place, it changes and ceases to be what it was thus, the image of the train tracks detaching. You can’t go back the exact way you came in, essentially. It’s an irrevocable alteration of you as a person but also the place you left behind. Which is normal but it’s sad, too.
The poem first came to me as a series of images: a train waiting at a station, a crowded platform. A lot of my writing starts out like this—as a series of images accompanied by a mood or a certain tone that I’d like to convey. I try not to question it. And going back to the earlier discussion on finding time to write, I actually wrote this poem in the office in between assignments.
DS: How would you say your background has impacted your writing? What aspects of your personal life find their way into your work?
ML: Because we moved around a lot when I was growing up and because I’m a reserved person by nature, I have a lifetime of observation from which to draw ideas. As a taciturn and shy person in unfamiliar surroundings, what you end up doing is either reading books or observing and listening (this was before smartphones, obviously). I’m a detail-oriented person, too, so I focus, almost obsessively, on unusual details, interesting objects, odd and inconsistent human behaviors—these form the beginning of every piece. From there, I try to intuit some larger meaning or narrative.
Anxiety is a theme. I tend to write characters that seem burdened by anxieties, people who feel isolated and detached from their environments, who struggle to communicate or gain control of their lives. Not that I would change any aspect of my life story–I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have discovered a number of fascinating places and to have met tremendous people along the way. But this peripatetic background has given me some insight into what it is to feel disconnected from one’s relationships and surroundings.
DS: You have a few publications under your belt. What advice would you give aspiring poets looking to submit their work?
MK: If there’s a brilliant secret to submitting pieces, I haven’t figured it out yet. Submission is rough—there is a lot of solitary work involved and the process requires an inordinate amount of persistence and patience. The best advice I can offer is this: refine and perfect the writing in the first instance–it’s the only thing you can control in the process (other than choice of journal). Allow yourself enough time between revisions. Editors reading a journal’s past issues to get a sense of the sort of work they publish. That’s fantastic advice, too. There is a lot of inspiring and interesting work out there and it’s important to have a sense of whether and how your work might fit a particular publication.
Be persistent and submit widely. Keep careful records of rejections, invitations to submit again, and any constructive criticism you receive. Always be courteous in your interactions with editors. Rejection is part of the process. It’s a numbers game, at the end of the day. Be confident in the quality of your own work and the knowledge that you will be published–it’s a question of when and where.
DS: What are you working on at the moment? Where else can readers find your work?
ML: I’m always working on a few short stories and poems at the same time. I’m hoping to start sending out one or two next month. There’s also a “novel-in-progress,” which is an absurdly generous term for what it actually is–70,000 words of incoherent imagery and character work that I am trying to subdue into a clear narrative. If it never sees publication, that is fine, but I’ve had it for two years and I have to finish it.
My story “Golden Rectangles” will be published in the fall issue of A Prick of the Spindle. I’m pretty excited about it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was inspired by Cohen’s song “Suzanne.” I had a poem on The Brooklyn Quarterly in September. Links to my other pieces on the web are available on my website: majalukic.com.