Migrations, Refugees and Exile in contemporary American literature” is a project created by Fondacija Publika and Translab literary workshops in cooperation with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. The American authors selected for this collection have addressed some of the greatest challenges of modern civilization, such as migrations and identities. After ten workshops and countless hours of creative discussions, the team of both seasoned and less experienced translators worked side-by-side and have published their translations in the book entitled “All Birds Have Wings”-

Cecilia Woloch is one of these authors whose work has been sparking great discussions.

An excerpt from “Tsigan: the Gypsy poem” by Cecilia Woloch has been included in Publika’s 2022 collection of literary translations, “Sve ptice imaju krila” (All Birds Have Wings).

What if you lived in a box, in a tree, in a car by the side of

the road? What if your shoes were full of rain and mud

and you stank like the dog you loved? What if you slept

every night in a different ditch, were always cold? What if

you had no coat but the coat you’d stolen, rag and wind?

What if you kept moving to keep warm and kept warm by

burning what you had? What if you bathed in poisoned

rivers, drank from them, ate their fish? What if you

crossed at dusk into a country clamping down? What if

they called you Gypsy, nomad, meant: not wanted here?

What if they tried to wipe you like a dark stain from the

map? What if you lived in a tree, a box, a car? What if you


An excerpt from Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem by Cecilia Woloch

In an interview conducted via email, Ms. Woloch “spoke” to us candidly about Tsigan, her quest to find her roots, why it took twenty years to work on this poem and why it may never be finished. In between, we learned about the roles of honesty in poetry and restlessness in poets, and why she wanted to teach inmates at a prison and people in shelters. Our language conversations led us to question if there is such a thing as “appropriate terminology,” and what it means to her to be translated into another language – Bosnian.


How and when did you write Tsigan: The Gypsy poem? What was your inspiration?

I began to write the poem in 1997. I was already traveling a lot in Europe, and I had long been fascinated by Gypsies – wondering who they were, where they had come from, what being a “Gypsy” meant, if my grandmother was really a Gypsy – after all, no one seemed to know where she’d come from or where she’d gone, or no one in the family would say – if I was really a Gypsy and, if so, what that meant, etc …etc … As I traveled more into eastern Europe, behind what had once been the Iron Curtain, I saw Gypsies living in train stations, begging on street corners, defying the romantic image I’d had of Gypsies as an American child. At the time, there wasn’t much available, in terms of historical or archival material, but I stumbled across Isabel Fonseca’s book, Bury Me Standing, and I was really gripped by that text. A teacher of mine `– I was in grad school at the time – told me that since I was always walking around with that book clutched to my chest, and I seemed obsessed with Gypsies, I should try writing a long poem about the Gypsies, made up of short poems linked together. She gave me some models to study – the long poems of Adrienne Rich and other women poets who had explored hidden histories in this way – and she made it an assignment for me. So, the poem started as homework, actually. I didn’t really expect it to go beyond that. But once I’d gotten started on it, miracles ensued – someone led me to my grandmother’s village in the Carpathians; someone introduced me to my friend Dana in Berlin, who introduced me to Rajko Đurić (Serbian Romani writer and academic); people I didn’t know – friends of friends – came to me with books and articles about the Roma, photographs, historical information and family stories. As with travel, it was as if I’d started something that acquired a momentum all its own. And it was as if all of these other people had become invested in my work on the poem. I was asked to read in public from the work-in-progress; I was asked, “When will you finish it, when will it be published?” So, I had great encouragement, even urgent encouragement, and I also began to feel a bigger and bigger sense of responsibility. But I also wondered if I were the person to be writing this – was I qualified, after all, was I smart enough, did I know enough, was I an authentic “Gypsy” myself? Part of what kept me going was the realization that no one else was doing this, that if I didn’t write this poem, it wouldn’t get written. I was also deeply motivated by my desire to understand where my own history intersected with Roma history – both histories largely unwritten and, in places, purposefully erased – and to understand my own heritage, what I’d come from, who I was, what identity even meant to me, and what geography and history had to do with identity. I didn’t find many answers, but the questions got larger and larger..

This topic is very personal to you… How much did you know about your grandmother and family roots while growing up?

My paternal grandmother, who disappeared before I was born, has always been a mystery. The anecdote I heard growing up – and growing up, I knew not to ask too many questions about my grandmother, whose disappearance was clearly a source of fear and grief for everyone who had known her – was that she had been called “Tsiganka.” Also that she “read the cards” and “loved to wander.” When I tried to ask if she had really been a Gypsy, I was waved away, told not to ask. The fact that the subject was forbidden was the source of some of my fascination. And then, after the first edition of Tsigan was published, my oldest living relative at the time shrugged and said, “Of course there’s Gypsy blood.” And my mother, who loved the book, told me it also made her worried for me, traveling around Europe, now that I was what she called “a public Gypsy.”

The poem was long in the making and has had several iterations. Given the topic, do you think it will ever be finished?

I wrote the first edition over the course of four or five years. The research was helped along by friends who gave me books – especially a friend in London who gave me a copy of the PEN anthology, The Roads of the Roma. The timeline that runs through that collection of Roma poetry gave me a roadmap for my own research into Roma history, and also gave me the idea for interspersing brief statements from the historical record between the more lyrical, personal poems in Tsigan. You have to remember that the internet in the 90’s was not as we know it today, so I was working with a fairly limited set of resources – although I think they were just enough. I felt, even early on, that the poem could go on and on, especially as more and more information became available to me. But at one point, I had seemed to reach a kind of coda, a place where I could pause, and I was being encouraged to publish the poem. So, the first edition of the book came out from a very small press in Los Angeles. It garnered more interest than I could have ever predicted, and it opened many more doors to me into the international Roma community. I continued to meet people in that community, to gather more sources of information, and the world and history also stayed in motion – the level of tolerance seen at the end of the 1990’s started to reverse itself. By 2015, the book was long out of print, but its message – if I can say that it has a message – seemed more important than ever. When another small press offered to bring the book back into print, I decided to take the opportunity to update and expand the text. I honestly don’t know if that’s the end of it. I don’t think it will ever be “finished,” and I’m not ruling out further editions, because I’m still deeply engaged with the material and its themes, but I’m not sure how much more material can be accommodated in a single long poem. What I’d actually like to see next is how the text might be moved out into the world in different forms, maybe by way of performances, maybe even a film. That teacher of mine who first assigned me the task of writing the poem told me, after she’d read my first few drafts, that she thought it should be a film; that’s an old dream of mine for this work.

We loved Gustav Flaubert’s quote at the beginning of your book – how the gypsy way of life – the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher, the solitary, the poet – incites hatred (and a fear in that hatred) among the bourgeois or orderly people. Why do people react in such a way – what is it they find so threatening? Is that still the case, or has the time finally come when the Roma can be accepted for who they are?

I think that people always look for scapegoats when they feel threatened in some way, usually when they feel threatened economically, although lately that seems to go hand-in-hand with people feeling that their “identities” are somehow being threatened, too. It seems to me there’s a lot of anxiety about identity right now, on the right and on the left, and I’m puzzled as to what’s behind it. Certainly, there’s a lot of manipulation of peoples’ fears by politicians and by the media, but I don’t think that accounts for all the anxiety – even really progressive young people seem to feel they need to find some kind of label for themselves, some group with which to identify. What I’d like to see is some sincere and deep questioning of our ideas about group identities. I also think that people who have chosen a conventional path because it’s what they believe they’re “supposed” to do, whether it makes them happy or not, might feel threatened by people who are living less conventional lives and seem more fulfilled – like poets, for instance. I’ve read that one of the reasons officials in places like Poland tried to keep the Roma out had to do with their fear that serfs, seeing the freedom of movement the Roma enjoyed, might be inspired to revolt.


In one of your interviews, the words restless spirit were used. What does being restless mean for an artist? In fact, is it a necessary part of being an artist?

I don’t think restlessness is necessary for creativity. I’ve known a lot of other poets for whom being at home, being rooted in one place, is central to their ability to create. I think a certain restlessness has been part of my nature since I was a child. It may have been a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: I was told I was just like my paternal grandmother, and I was told she loved to wander, that she was called Tsiganka, and perhaps I tried, unconsciously, to mold myself in my image of her. Then I discovered that, once you start moving through the world in a certain way, it’s hard to stop. My personal sphere kept expanding, my circle of friends around the world, my attachments to a whole range of places from rural Kentucky to Istanbul, from Paris to the Carpathians. Well, I’ve just wanted to go everywhere, to be everywhere and, as I’ve already said, I think that following your passions – what Allen Ginsberg called “your inner moonlight” – is a necessary part of leading a creative life.

How did your research and travels influence how you see Europe today?

Doing the research I did, and seeing with my own eyes how Gypsies were treated all over Europe in those years, the mid-1990’s, that was eye-opening, heart-breaking, and I think it changed how I saw the whole world. Although the sense of “otherness” that had clung to me since I was a child, the racism I faced just because I looked and behaved “differently” from my classmates and had a strange name – that had always been with me. Also, Josef Attila’s words, “Europe is so many borders, and on every border, murderers,” resonated deeply with me – to the point that I came to question who and what purposes borders serve. The kind of nationalism we see these days in communities around the world is so frightening from this perspective. I’m still trying to understand what it is that makes people so protective of these group identities based on lines on a map that someone has drawn. It seems to me that these kinds of identities are based as much on exclusion as on inclusion – maybe more so – and that we shouldn’t even be surprised when this kind of sorting leads to dehumanization of others, and even to genocide.

Do you still travel a lot? What is next for you?  

The answer to the first question is: Yes. During Covid, for the first time in 25 years, I stayed in one place (Los Angeles) for a whole year. But almost as soon as I could, I started traveling again. I’ve spent the past year in southeastern Poland on a Fulbright fellowship, but during this time I’ve traveled to France, the U.K., the Czech Republic, all around Poland, and I’ve also made two trips back to the U.S. I’ll be back in Los Angeles in the new year, at least for a few months. But I’m already planning to return to Europe in the spring, and a friend and I are plotting a trip to Georgia, and maybe also Armenia. And you know, I’ve never been to Bosnia …


Your father called you Tsiganka when you were a little girl. That word may have two connotations in our language, like many others – Cigan, Ciganka, Ciganče can be a pejorative term and a term of endearment. What does the word Ciganka mean to you? Then there is the ‘politically correct’ term – Roma, which is considered less controversial. We seem encouraged to use the word Roma rather than the other words. You freely use the word Tsigan throughout your book. Are Gypsy or Tsigan really such bad words that they should vanish?

I’ve listened to different sides in this argument. I’ve been castigated for using the word “Tsigan” or “Gypsy,” and I’ve also been lauded for the choice. Yes, Tsiganka was a term of endearment, and a nickname that tied me to my grandmother, and so gave me a sense that I did have a people somewhere, that I was part of a story, too. Roma in Europe need to understand, I think, that people in the U.S are not familiar with the word Tsigan, either as a perjorative or a reference to identity, and the use of Roma is confusing, because English speakers, even today, think that refers to someone who lives either in Rome or in Romania. And the word Gypsy has exotic, even romantic connotations. When Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem was performed in Los Angeles, 500 people came; many might have been lured by the word Gypsy, expecting something glamorous, perhaps, only to find themselves confronted with a dark and difficult history, so in that way the word Gypsy was a way to get people to pay attention to something they otherwise might not have paid attention to.  From my research, the words Tsigan and Gypsy weren’t pejorative originally; they became pejorative because of the way they were used. Almost any word can become pejorative; I’ve heard Roma used pejoratively quite recently in Europe. So I think we should be careful about trying to police language, because that’s a slippery slope. Another Roma poet told me he was glad I used the word Tsigan. He said, “Roma is the invention of academics.” I’m happy to use the word Roma for people who prefer it, and who may feel insulted by Tsigan and Gypsy, but I would like to reserve the right to use those words for myself. Perhaps the negative connotations can be exorcised from those words along with the negative stereotypes about Roma people. That would be the ideal outcome of these discussions.

You have organized workshops for inmates at a prison for the criminally insane and people in shelters. What were those like as experiences? What did the exposure to creative writing mean to people who have lost their freedom, or the underprivileged? Was the change or impact palpable in any way?

Wow, this is a huge question! I have family members who have been incarcerated, and family members who have found themselves temporarily un-housed. So, for me, people in prisons or shelters are first and foremost simply people; they’ve never seemed like a “foreign” population to me. Their experience isn’t so different from my experience – or it is, and that’s what makes it valuable to me. It’s hugely important to me that people who have been muted or silenced have opportunities to speak and to be heard; and I think that poetry offers a way to speak truths that we may not even know are there inside of us to be discovered. Writing poetry is a way not only to share but to transform our experiences, to take even our worst experiences and transmute them into art, which is to give them meaning, which is to make them beautiful. The poet Jorie Graham wrote, “Try to make of the grief a beauty that might endure.” And yes, I think the impact on people who are incarcerated or homeless or feel otherwise unseen and unheard can be enormous – first, because perhaps that person will hear their own voice for the first time; secondly, because channeling that voice into a poem means that others will be able to hear it, too, and the hearing of it may also transform the listener. Honestly, I think fostering imagination could go a long way to healing a lot of the ills of society.

The Gypsy Poem has been adapted for multi-media presentations. In your experience, what is the best way for a poem to reach an audience?

In my experience, bringing poetry off of the page, bringing it to life in the liveliest possible ways, particularly ways that incorporate music and other elements – dance, projected images, multiple voices – allows audiences that may not consider themselves poetry aficionados, or even particularly literary, to let down their guard, to drop their resistance to capital P Poetry, to absorb the language of poetry in a visceral and emotional way. Music, especially, I think of as a kind of liquid in which poetry can be suspended, so that it passes like fluid into the bodies of listeners. I think this goes back to poetry’s roots in an oral tradition, and to the tradition of bards. At the same time, I don’t ascribe to the notion of poetry being turned into another form of entertainment. We have plenty of entertainment. We need poetry for the depth of its engagement with language, and because poetry can take us to places via language that we can’t reach any other way. What some serious poets don’t seem to realize is that the most difficult poetry can touch a wider audience if it’s offered in a spirit of faith and openness, and as part of a larger experience that includes elements – here again I’m thinking of music – that encourage in the listener physical and emotional and unconscious responses to the material.


Teaching – offering creative writing workshops – has been a big part of your work. You have taught various groups, young and old, educated and not very, native English speakers and immigrants, and you have seen many of your students become published poets. What does teaching mean to you? Is a poet (or a writer) born or does one become a poet?  

My mentor once said – and she may have been quoting someone else – “Talent is how deep the desire goes.” I firmly believe in that, and the belief guides me as a writer and as a teacher. If a student is sincere about their desire to write, if the passion goes deep enough to make them willing to learn the craft and discipline, and to do the deep exploring in language that poetry requires, that’s more than “talent” enough. I’ve worked with students who I thought showed great promise, but who didn’t ultimately have the deep desire to pursue that path; and I’ve worked with students I thought were less “gifted,” who had the desire, and who have gone on to produce amazing work. The lesson to me is that, as a teacher, I have no business judging anyone; my job is to nurture and encourage whatever might blossom, and to pass along what I’ve learned about the process and the craft; the actual blossoming is up to the individual. I would say that teaching keeps me honest as a poet; it’s also a source of energy for my writing.

You once said that you feel that “ethnicity, like nationality or race, is a fiction.” Can you please elaborate?

They’re fictions in the sense of constructs – made things, ideologies rather than biological facts. Every one of us is a hybrid; we’re all descended from various clans and tribes. The idea of national or ethnic or racial purity is a nefarious idea, I think. It’s Nazi ideology. There is no such thing as purity. Social scientists may create categories to enable them to study groups of people in tandem, governments may draw borders to define citizenship and exercise their powers, bigots may use the idea of race as a way to exclude certain people, assert their superiority over them and justify enslaving or exploiting them, but the fact is that the categories, the nomenclature, the borders are human-made. Travel around the world and try to separate people precisely according to exact skin shade or eye-color. It’s impossible. Culture is real, I’ll grant you that, and culture is something that people create together; but it is also something in constant flux, something that absorbs influences across borders and asserts influences across borders, geographical and cultural and “ethnic” borders – look at the synergy between Roma and Jewish music, for example. Culture, by definition, is something that grows and changes and evolves; while I sympathize with wanting to prevent distinct cultures from disappearing into one great blur, rather than evolving, we have to respect that culture is a living thing and identities are likewise fluid. And because Roma identity seems to me by nature pretty fluid – it doesn’t have clear boundaries in terms of genetic markers, geographical borders, physical appearance, religion, etc. … — and yet it’s an identity, certainly, well, I think the world could learn a lot from a discussion about how people who identify as Roma navigate identity.


Thus far, your poetry has been translated into various European languages, reaching, in many cases, audiences in countries that have had or still have an important Roma presence and heritage – what does it mean to you to have the Bosnian language added to the list?

I love languages. I love the way any given language works, its grammar and structure, and I also love the different kinds of music that different languages make. And musicality is very important to my poetry. So, I’m eager to hear how my poems will sound in the Bosnian language; it’s a thrilling prospect, and I’m grateful to you and your colleagues for bringing this miracle about. Really, translation, especially of poetry, seems miraculous to me. And to have my work translated into languages that make it accessible to wider and wider audiences, especially in this part of the world, is really a dream come true. I often remind myself that my grandmother on my father’s side was unable to read or write, that she signed her name with an X, and sometimes I can feel her sense of amazement and pride about the way I’ve moved her story and our stories out so far into the wider world..

What made you the poet you are today? What or who were your influences and inspirations?

I had some wonderful and inspiring teachers as a young person, and a lot of encouragement from those teachers, and from my family, so those are big influences. And because I come from a family of storytellers, I’ve been inspired and influenced by family stories, and inspired to tell those stories that are so often lost or buried in official histories, or erased. But I’d say the biggest driver of my desire to write always was and continues to be my love of reading, my love of language itself. My mother read to me a lot when I was a child, and she did so in a very lyrical, lively way. She also sang constantly – that’s a music that’s inside of me, too. When I started to read on my own – and I started very early – my mother took me and my siblings very regularly to the library. She was a reader herself, as was my father. My earliest literary loves were those works that combined the music of poetry and the magic of narrative – especially the kinds of narratives that addressed secret or hidden histories. By the time I first started to try to write seriously, I had read the English romantics and modernist poets, Greek comedies and tragedies, and contemporary poets of that time like Sylvia Plath and Lucille Clifton. So, it seemed to me anything was possible – any style or subject matter – and that everything was open to me. A little bit later, poets like H.D. and Anna Akhmatova became really important to me.

How do you choose what to write about? Or do the topics choose you?

I would say that the topics mostly choose me. I try to follow the adage to “write the best you can about the things that concern you most.” I don’t think any of us chooses, exactly, what we’re most concerned or passionate about. We only choose to follow, or not to follow, our passions. And, of course, we can nurture our passions, and we can make a conscious effort to widen and deepen our lens on the world, and to sharpen our perceptions – which is something I think writing helps us to do. But, for me, I seem only able to write well about things that resonate emotionally or spiritually for me, events in the outer world that intersect, in some way, with my inner life. So, it’s a kind of loop, it seems.

Would you say that, thanks to this poem, you have become a Roma poet?

Yes, absolutely. I would say that I set out to write the poem to try to discover who I was, among other things, and in writing the poem I became the person who was writing the poem – which is to say someone whose sense of herself has become deeply aligned with how people who identify as Roma, as Gypsies, move through the world. I hope that makes sense!

Interview by Minja Pješčić; reviewed by Lisa Stewart (on behalf of Publika)