THE CONSTANT DILEMMA OF WRITING POETRY 1
ADRIAN GRIMA: Immanuel, you have chosen to write your poetry and prose in Maltese. Is it really a choice or is it a necessity? Can you ever see yourself writing in English?
IMMANUEL MIFSUD: It is only natural for me to write in Maltese. For various reasons. I come from a working class family, hailing from the South of Malta. It may sound odd for non-natives that, given the size of the Island, one should make this type of delineation between North and South. However, for us natives, the social demarcation is very evident and very visible. Working class families, particularly those of the South, tend to speak Maltese and to disregard English. At home no one ever uttered one word in English, not to mention that my mother hardly knew a dozen English words. My father seemed to have tried to make up for this somehow by making it a point to buy me books in English every single week from the monti. But I was not into reading. So English for me was a foreign language despite living in a bilingual country (Maltese/English). I studied English at Advanced level at the high school, wrote my dissertations in English, but to this day I regard English as a second language which I use only when necessity dictates so. I don’t feel particularly comfortable using it, knowing that my English is not so good either. You cannot have a good painter who cannot mix colours well, or cannot handle the brushes correctly. Likewise you cannot have a good writer who cannot write the language well. Fair enough, there have been many writers who at some point in time decided to switch languages: Becket, Ionesco, Kundera to mention a few. But it is interesting to note that these writers I mentioned, once they decided to write in another language than their own, they opted for the language spoken in the country they were living in. As I live in Malta it does not make sense to switch to English, even if my English was perfect.
There is also a political reason for my writing in Maltese. While I don’t have any particular patriotic sentiments, I am and remain a Maltese, with all that that might entail. Maltese written literature is still a recent phenomenon when compared to other literatures, and I think it is only fair with the culture of my country and my people to write in the language of this country and this people. I must admit that I also feel somewhat responsible to do so. I do not even think that I will ever write in English. Maybe, marketwise it wouldn’t be a very bad idea at all, but there are other priorities to the market.
Having said this, I must express my frustration, each time I am abroad I meet people who are drawn to the things I write primarily due to their curiosity about the Maltese language. The literary dimension follows. I’d feel more at ease if it was the other way round.
AG: As one of Malta’s leading writers, do you feel the pressure of having to live up to your name? Do you somehow feel more “responsible” for what you write today than when you started out? Or has the respect you enjoy made you freer?
IM: Your statement at the beginning of this question makes me feel very uneasy. Sincerely I do not know what makes me one of Malta’s leading writers. I am not sure if I deserve to be considered thus. I keep asking myself: what makes people think so: the fact that I write good literature or the fact that there are so few active writers? Am I truly offering readers something worth it, or has the literary vacuum which followed the Modernist Movement of the sixties/seventies turned out to my advantage putting me at the right time in the right place? Would it have been the same were I living in another temporal and spatial context? So, I find the tag ‘leading writer’ as very dubious. But, to come to your question – and since the tag, albeit dubious, is being conferred onto me – it does create a certain level of unease, because yes, I am now feeling more responsible for what I write. I think I felt much freer earlier on, when I just wrote what I wanted and that was that. Now I approach writing with great fear and have become nauseatingly dubious of every word I scribble down. I must admit also, that there is pressure from the readers’ side too. My most successful book so far has been L-Istejjer Strambi ta’ Sara Sue Sammut, particularly the title story. I meet people who ask for more Sara Sues, and quite frankly I have none to give. I had thought that Sara Sue would strike a chord with people of my (and her) age, but now I am realising that it is not the case at all. A good friend of mine, the writer Clare Azzopardi, held a reading of parts of that story to a group of female teenagers she teaches and she told me how much they loved Sara Sue. I am not sure if my next book is going to offer readers the same amount of enjoyment. Something tells me it won’t, and that will be a huge disappointment for them.
AG: Has your collaboration with poet and translator Maria Grech Ganado influenced your writing? Are you conscious of the fact that you will be translated while you are writing?
IM: What I write is very different from what Maria does, and even though we are very close to each other both on an artistic and personal level, I don’t see we influence each other much. In my view there are no traces of my writing in Maria’s neither of Maria’s in mine. We are like two islands that share a common sea but never touch. Proof of this is the fact that when she translates something I write I hardly recognise what I read as my own. As the good translator that she is, when Maria translates anything I write she somehow manages to make it her own. As for the second question: when I write I just write. It is only after the work is ready that I start hoping it gets translated. I was blessed with having met Maria who is patient and loving enough to translate a lot of what I write.
AG: There seems to be some similarity between your poetry and that of Oliver Friggieri, another poet who loves Eastern Europe, both in the imagery of flowers and leaves and in the “obsessive” use of the beautiful hendecasyllable, the metrical line of eleven syllables that has remained a protagonist in Maltese literature despite the literary revolution of the 1980s and the changes brought about by the new wave of writers in the late 1990s. Are you aware of this similarity?
IM: Yes I am. But let me say something about the use of the hendecasyllable first. I started writing in hendecasyllables out of sheer snobbery. There was a time when, most probably due to the literary revolution you referred to, there was a kind of resentment for formal verse. And the vast majority of poets were writing in free verse. I wanted, though, to write differently. Also, I wanted a challenge, believing at that time, that poetry has to be a very difficult exercise to carry out. So I imposed upon myself a strict disciplinary measure of writing the thoughts crossing my mind in hendecasyllables. By time, the use of eleven syllables per line became so natural for me that nowadays I sometimes catch myself speaking in hendecasyllables. I don’t think this is any remarkable feat; it is discipline.
Now as to Oliver Friggieri’s influence, I am quite conscious of it, though I find it odd since he is not the poet I have read most and his poetry is not the type I like reading most. But the similarity is there for all to see. What I definitely share with Oliver Friggieri, besides this love of Eastern Europe and the hendecasyllables, is the melancholic mood which squeezes poetry out of the mind. I cannot but write melancholic poems; other emotions simply don’t make it to my poetry, they may in my prose.
AG: This volume announces the publication of other books of travel poems. Why does travel inspire you to write? Do you make it a point to read works of literature of the places you visit?
IM: Living on a very small island, which by time has become even smaller due to rampant ‘land development’, is very suffocating. Here we can hardly go anywhere without bumping into some acquaintance, and for persons who, like me, search for solitude, travel is imperative. I started travelling on my own since I was very young. It is a need, and an unfortunate one since I have a terrible fear of flying. By time I realised that certain places I go to inspire me to write. I am not sure what exactly urges me to, but definitely finding myself in an unfamiliar setting usually is a strong impetus. I usually make some research about the place I’m at: its history and its literature mainly. So yes, I usually make it a point to buy books written by locals. Oddly enough, although usually I never touch poetry books, it is for poetry that I am on the look out when exploring a new place. Something tells me that poetry is the best means to capture the spirit of a city, of a country.
AG: Immanuel, you have travelled to Eastern Europe on a number of occasions and you seem to be fascinated by its literature and its music. Why are you so attracted to these countries and cultures in particular? Is it the Communist past highlighted on the cover of Polska-Slovensko?
IM: The fascination with Eastern Europe goes back to my childhood years I think, years before I actually stepped on any Eastern European land. The fascination started with country names. I can still remember how the words “Czechoslovakia” and “Yugoslavia” sounded so beautiful to my ears. Most probably the first time I heard these words was during some world cup match or on the news. Ironically, the first Eastern European country names which might have paved the way to this love relationship of mine with this part of the world refer to two countries which no longer exist! Later on I discovered that these countries had something in common: a Communist regime which, as pictured by the West, was something to frown upon. I can still remember the news of Eastern European athletes escaping from their clan while at some Olympics, or writers called ‘dissidents’. So bit by bit I started to become very curious about this part of the world. There was the iron curtain back then, which made these countries seem so far away and yet they were so near. When I grew old enough to explore Eastern European art, and learned about the way artists had to struggle against a totalitarian regime (and not just artists but even the common people) this curiosity grew much much stronger. Reading the history of the Slavic people, the turbulent history of the Balkans, convinced me that there is ‘something’ about these people and their art. I still do not know what this ‘something’ is, but it is definitely related to their history. The first Eastern European country I travelled to was Hungary, shortly after the demise of the Communist regime. It was a huge emotional experience. Of course, these countries’ Communist past is a milestone in their history. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the peaceful co-habitation of Slavs and Moslems in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Stalinist ‘harassment’ of Poland, the atrocious dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania … all of this and more made me yearn to know more about this region. But even these countries’ part in the Second World War is very interesting. What fascinates me nowadays is how these countries freed themselves from a dictatorial machine which once seemed so powerful and efficient. The news clips reporting the Velvet Revolution, or the execution of the Ceausescus … not to mention the fall of the Berlin Wall … are scenes which create a certain commotion in me. I must add that these countries have also a large gypsy population and I have always been attracted to the Rom and their culture. The Romany culture is so infused in the Slav culture of these countries … and this fusion is simply beautiful. When I was in Slovenia last summer I attended a concert given by a gypsy band in the middle of huge meadow…it was a night to remember.
AG: The two poems in your latest volume inspired by the Polish city of Nowa Huta are particularly evocative. Is it because, to quote a beautiful website about the city, “Nowa Huta forms a kind of a magic gate to the era of socialist realism”?
IM: The website you are referring to is one example of the communist nostalgia which has swept through all ex-communist countries. I’ve heard that nowadays there are even guided tours to Nowa Huta. I did not know anything about the city before travelling to Krakow, where I read about it and decided to go there, discovering that my hotel was not so far away from this mythic city. Because yes, it has become a myth. So besides being a magic gate to the era of socialist realism, Nowa Huta has become also a magic gate to communist nostalgia.
In a paper written by Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde, it is statistically shown how this nostalgia for the communist past is on the rise, especially in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, two countries which not only joined the European Union, but are also NATO members. Of course, one has to delve deep into this psycho-social phenomenon to grasp its true meaning, because the term encapsulates different levels of this rekindled feeling for the communist past. For some it is a serious matter, others are shocked by it, while for others it is more of a cultural trend than a political credo. So, one can take these guided tours to Nowa Huta as such, adding to this the myriad communist museums, the communist theme parks and other such initiatives in former communist countries. Culturally speaking, this phenomenon is very active and trendy. In Slovenia I lodged in a hotel which was a former prison for political dissenters, and lately I was taken out for a drink in Bratislava’s very famous KGB restaurant. It may also be the case, though I cannot present a strong argument for this since I am neither a political scientist nor a sociologist, that cultural communist nostalgia is proving to be a good tourist attraction, particularly to Western travellers who are interested in the subject. When I visited Nowa Huta there were no guided tours to the city; it was still considered a Stalinist suburb to medieval Krakow, built right there to spite the bourgeois, elitist, Catholic culture. Of course, Stalin’s monument had by then vanished, and the roads were named after Solidarnosc or John Paul II, but still, it was very real, very present.
AG: In “Aleja Solidarnosci” you seem to debunk the “myth” that the much-lauded fall of communism has made any real difference to people’s everyday lives. “The hunger that has always been still craves its fill.” What kind of hunger do you mean?
IM: The optimism which, very naturally, won the people in ex-communist countries over right after the end of the eighties, was very quick to wilt. The paper by Ekman and Linde which I referred to above tackles this problem too, and ascribes the rise of political communist nostalgia precisely to this. My impression was that the large majority of the people were still struggling with their every day life. The general feeling was, in my view, still very grey, reflecting the grey walls of Nowa Huta. And this is not something related only to Nowa Huta or to Poland, but it is very typical of all former communist countries. In Slovenia, which is considered by many as the most dynamic country which joined the EU in May 2004, you can still find fresh graffiti scribbled over the walls in Ljubljana praising Tito and damning the new Europe. Of course there are the hard liners who have never accepted the demise of the great communist regime. But even Vaclav Havel, during one of his last speeches as president of the Czech Republic expressed concern over the steady resurrection of the communist party in his country. I met Poles who feel very disappointed that the politicians who once formed Jaruzelski’s government are still in control, years after Walesa’s rise to power. Recently Ivan Klima has been quoted as saying that people are not nostalgic for the Stalinist era, but rather for their youth, for the security which the Communist era presented. And in one of her essays collected in Café Europa, Slavenka Drakulic writes about a birthday service on Ceausescu’s grave and quotes Nicolae’s brother Flora saying that if the times in Romania were better no one would think of reviving the memory of the Romanian dictator. So people are hungry, both materially and metaphorically: hungry for a better life which was promised to them by the fall of communism.
AG: In “A Quiet Man by the Lake of Nowa Huta,” the residents point out that “you,” as the outsider poet “cannot know our history till you’ve lived it.” Is this the destiny of every poet, to tell stories that he or she has never lived?
IM: Maybe. And if it is so, I question the very role of the poet. I mean can people speak about things they have never experienced themselves? Is it right to write about impressions which can be so distant from truth? Is it ethical? But then again, which truth, whose truth is true? This is a constant dilemma I have to face and I am very far from resolving.
AG: Polska-Slovensko is an often melancholic register of names and grey faces. In “Triq Obchodná,” that appears in “A Handful of Leaves from Bratislava,” there is the deeply sad, almost haunting figure of “an old woman with a ravaged face” who “waits for the tram to take her / to the mortuary of her apartment.” How much of Immanuel Mifsud is there in these grey visions of Bratislava?
IM: This is exactly what I meant to say in my answer to your previous question. Seeing that woman in Obchodnà Street on my first morning ever in Bratislava stirred these feelings in me. I try to capture a snapshot, a photograph of what I see, but even a camera tends to give impressions, no? So, that poem, together with the rest in Polska-Slovensko, is only a recollection of the impressions of the things I saw. I cannot claim to have faithfully captured the image of that woman waiting in the street. Maybe in actual fact she was waiting for her daughter or her lover, looking forward for the best morning in the week. Or maybe I was right. So actually I did not write about Bratislava, but about my Bratislava, and these two Bratislavas are bound to be very distinct from each other, also because I do not live in Bratislava myself. However, I would like to point out that in other poems in the same cycle I did notice the colours. I was very fortunate to experience the first ever real autumn in my life since in Malta we have no autumn. The sight of those colours was simply an exhilarating experience. And maybe that was a truer snapshot than the grey ones. Who knows?
AG: These are also stories of disturbing fragility, like that of the man in “Do You Remember?” who laughs at the river, “at a skyful of gulls, at the streets full / of tourists coming and going,” and then ends up “crushed under a leaf / which fell before its time.” The haunting thing about this world is that it is full of leaves...
IM: Yes, and may I add that the leaves are fallen.
Adrian Grima, Babelmed
Copyright 2002-2020. Immanuel Mifsud. All rights reserved.