Building a better world while teaching in Romania

Petaluma’s Fulbright-winning poet shares the power of story in a millenniums-old city|

When award-winning Petaluma poet Ally Rigby first told people here at home that she’d been awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship – and would be using it to teach English literature in Romania – she was frequently asked two questions.

“Why Romania?“ and ”Isn’t that where Dracula came from?“

The first question, it turns out, was easy to answer.

“It’s very different from American culture,” Rigby said of Romania, communicating from the approximately 2622-year-old city of Constanta, a few miles from the Black Sea. Since September, she has been working at Ovidius University, teaching American short stories to second and third-year students. One of her very first extra projects was to establish a creative writing club for Romanian students.

The reason for the club is also easy to explain.

“We build a better world when we practice telling and listening to each other's stories,” she said.

Of living in Romania, she’s found that many people at home have little to no idea where she is, exactly, or what the culture is like.

“Most people don’t know much about this region,” she said, adding that with the war in Ukraine, more people in the U.S. have become aware of the Black Sea geographically, but that the region still remains widely overlooked.

As for Dracula, the fictional character inspired by the real-life Vlad the Impaler?

“When I say I’m in Romania, people do ask me about Dracula,” she said, “and Dracula is not even a Romanian story or cultural anchor.”

For the record, Vlad was Hungarian.

A graduate of Scripps College and San Francisco State – with her first full-length book of poetry (“Moonscape for a Child,” Bored Wolves Press) set to publish next fall – Rigby often thinks of Petaluma, specifically one of her favorite activities here: having brunch downtown. She loves wandering around all the unique neighborhoods and then settling in at Avid Coffee. After working for six years at the Walker Creek Ranch, she has connected with many Petaluma students through outdoor education and feels that Petaluma will always be her home.

As a writer, Rigby’s many honors include being nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her 2020 poem “Orange Peel” (Manzano Mt. Review), and numerous nominations to read her poetry at international literary events, including the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art and the WInter Warmer Poetry Festival in Cork, Ireland.

Receiving a Fulbright, of course, was an especially high achievement.

The State Department-funded student exchange program has, since 1946, aimed to foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and its 160 other member nations. The notoriously competitive program has had 61 Nobel prize winners, 75 MacArthur fellowships, 89 Pulitzer winners and 40 heads of state over the last 76 years.

Returning to the “Why Romania?” question, it is perhaps not surprising that the Petaluma-based writer and literature teacher would want to spend time there. From the days when Ovid was exiled to Romania through to the birth of Dadaism and the refinement of absurdist theater, Romanian writers have been changing the world for centuries. Romanian author Eli Weisel is even taught in American high schools.

In spite of Romania’s associations with vampires, Rigby has found that the country is a warm, complex place with centuries of history and literature.

Especially poetry. To paraphrase poet/writer Andrei Codrescu, “Romania has poetry in its soul.”

Rigby is currently studying how poetry functions during censorship. Sadly, Romania has a lot of experience with that. During communism, the state cracked down on all writing it saw as dangerous or decadent. The country’s Communist-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu took it further, and to prevent political satire, banned all metaphors or symbolism in published writing.

“Removing the metaphor guts the poetry,” Rigby explained. “Sure, you can still use meter and form, but without metaphor, poetry becomes very hard to write.” Though she’s received much recognition for her own writing, Rigby says she’d currently more interested in others' voices.

Which is why she started the student creative writing club. Though her fellow professors in the Ovidius University American Studies department now all support her student club, she says it was initially a difficult sell.

“Literature is an easy sell,” she said. “Literary analysis is a cross-cultural tool that will aid students in any career they choose.” But creative writing is another thing. It’s the enthusiasm of her students that has helped turn around those initial uncertainties. Rigby says she keeps expecting attendance at the club to dwindle, but has been pleasantly surprised that the students keep showing up eager to work.

One of the elements Rigby has been encouraging her students to recognize is the power of nuance. While American Studies is a popular field in Romania, and fluency in English – and a solid knowledge of American culture – looks good on resumes and is a sought-after skill, Rigby recognizes that there can be a fine line between teaching and proselytizing, especially regarding American culture. To give the students a more rounded picture of life in the United States, she is careful to assign authors such as Toni Morrison. In speaking about how to create true cross-cultural understanding, Rigby says, “Cross-cultural conversations are vital, but it has to be a ‘two-way’ street. If I'm not open to learning about what my Romanian students have to share, then why am I here?”

This community-building aspect of her work is something Rigby hopes to bring home to Petaluma when her year abroad is over. Mirroring what she’s experiencing in Romania, she would love to see more pedestrian-only streets with mini parklets for outdoor dining. One of the things Rigby says she’s discovered is that learning about each other is easier when a community can gather together and have two-way conversations.

So if you’re at Avid coffee one day and spy this distinguished poet and Fulbright fellow, go ahead and ask her for recommendations on Romanian literature.

Just don’t ask about vampires.

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