Barbara Burns interviews Alice Loda, whose book The Translingual Verse: Migration, Rhythm, and Resistance in Contemporary Italophone Poetry was published recently as volume 21 in Legenda's Transcript series.
BB. What brought you, a native Italian, to Sydney, and how did your interest in doing a PhD on migrant poetry begin?
AL. I moved to Australia for what I initially thought would be a very short experience, which would have allowed me, amongst other things, to improve my English. And yet, here I still am, more than ten years later. The idea of analysing migrant and translingual poetry in contemporary Italy sprouted organically from my life experiences, of which three stand out.
The first was a short, yet life-changing, teaching experience in an Italian school during which I participated in, and occasionally ran, an informal poetry workshop for children aged 11–14. In the classes, there were children who had recently migrated to Italy and who were still learning Italian, which was their second, third and, in some cases, fourth language. Some students were taking their first steps in what was, to them, a completely new language. During the workshops, I noticed that composing short poems, often after a walk in the school’s garden which was full of amazing trees and flowers, allowed the children to find a meaningful and empowering space for linguistic freedom. This was a space in which everyone, regardless of their level of Italian, felt free to play with the language, to enjoy the sound of words, and to manipulate it to create new words. I learned a lot here, and this experience reinforced my interest in migration, translingualism and poetry.
A few years later, Dr Maria Cristina Mauceri gave me the anthology Ai confini del verso, which was edited by the translingual poet and scholar Dr Mia Lecomte and was amongst the first books to collect the poetics of migrant authors in contemporary Italy. I fell in love with every single poem. I found that they spoke, and still speak, to the innermost part of myself, uncovering my relationship with my languages and the complexity of concepts like home and movement.
Finally, I must include my studies in modern philology at the University of Pavia, where I wrote two theses in the field of stylistics under the guidance of Professor Gianfranca Lavezzi. She taught me how to read poetry, how to recognise rhythm and the sound of lines and how to look across the language, and this has undoubtedly shaped the stylistics focus of my research. I am very grateful for all these encounters.
BB. Your book examines the poetry of three translingual migrant authors, Gëzim Hajdari (from Albania), Barbara Pumhösel (from Austria), and Hasan Atiya Al Nassar (from Iraq), all of whom learned Italian as adults. Do you interpret the linguistic distance at which they operate as a barrier to communication, or does it have a particular creative effect in terms of either form or content?
AL. One of the aspects that the book examines is how distance, which we experience when approaching creative writing in a language that we were not raised into, represents an extremely complex epistemological and ‘exploratory’ prism, not necessarily a limit, but rather a powerful tool. The pain of changing language after migration, especially within the experience of forced exile migration, is immense and indescribable, like the pain of regaining a voice, day after day, while navigating new spaces and communities. Yet many poets speak of the experience of writing in a language learned post-migration, as an adult, as something that allowed them to gain access to a new world or to complicate and add layers to their idea of the world. Hajdari famously wrote: ‘Ogni giorno creo una nuova patria / in cui muoio e rinasco’ [every day, I create a new homeland / in which I die and then I am born again], a portion of verse that beautifully embodies many of these generative processes and the radical nature of these experiences.
Some translingual poets describe writing in a language other than their first as a liberating experience, sometimes one that allows them to focus on the physical nature of words and lines and on their rhythms and sounds, an experience that favours a listening disposition. Pumhösel, whose poetry I reconnect with ecofeminist frameworks, writes: ‘pronuncio soltanto parole / aghiformi. Sanno resistere / meglio a questi / lunghi periodi di siccità’ [I only pronounce needle-like / words. They know how to better / resist these / long times of drought]. Here she illustrates the relationship between words, the environment and perception within a translingual horizon. Al Nassar’s poetry also contains a depiction of the act of languaging and the pain of reconstructing a language, often at the intersection with more-than-human encounters. One of his poems contains the lines: ‘e parlo con il mare, | parlo con la taverna che mi scaccia via, | con l’aria che dorme lontano dalle finestre del mio sonno’ [and I speak with the sea, | I speak with the tavern that drives me away, | with the air that sleeps far from the window of my dreams]. It is on the complexity of these aspects that I sought to focus in the book.
BB. In which ways do your three poets differ, and to what extent do you think it’s possible for their individual migratory stories to express a collective experience?
AL. I believe that every experience of migration and every relationship between a person and their languages is unique, and it is therefore difficult to think about collective trajectories. The three authors, however, arrived in Italy around the same time, and this has allowed me to situate my research within the linguistic landscape of contemporary Italy, and to connect this context with the country’s deeply multilingual history. I also analyse the stylistic, rhythmic, and linguistic aspects that characterise the verse of the three authors, although their paths are examined first and foremost in their radical distinctiveness. Each chapter is a sort of a little monograph dedicated to the poets, which I hope might be useful for further studies in the field.
BB. What were the most rewarding aspects of working on this material?
AL. This is research that I have felt extremely privileged to conduct. It has enabled me to engage with verses that address some of the most complex aspects of human experience: migration, exile and language. The poems have allowed me to learn more about myself, others and the places in which I have lived or have yet to visit: this is what poetry does, and this is why poetry changes the world. The most rewarding part of this experience has been the connections it has created, not only with the authors, two of whom I have had the honour of meeting in person, and with whom I have corresponded, but also, in some cases, with their friends, publishers, and communities. I feel enriched by this journey, and I see this research as a way to give back, at least in small part, for all the wonderful gifts I received along the way.
BB. How have your three poets been received in Italy? Is their work recognized and celebrated?
AL. Today, all three poets are nationally and internationally acclaimed. Gëzim Hajdari’s work, which began to be recognised with national prizes decades ago, has been translated into several languages, and there are many studies and interviews on his poetics. He himself directs a wonderful book series centred on literature and migration, ‘Erranze’, for the Italian publisher Ensemble. Similarly, Barbara Pumhösel is a multiple-award-winning author of children’s literature and poetry and a member of the ‘Compagnia delle poete’ collective of women poets, a project that is unique in the international literary landscape and that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention. Her work has also been translated into several languages. Likewise, Al Nassar’s works have been collected and featured in important publications and anthologies, and his complex verse is the subject of essays and interviews. It has been a privilege for me to be able to study their poetry and add my own analysis.
BB. You focus exclusively on poetry, a genre which many perceive as difficult, but surveys show that more people are reading poetry now than ever before. In what ways do you think poetry is changing as an art form, and what role do migrant poets play in the renaissance we are seeing?
AL. This is an important and very timely question. In the contemporary world, especially post-pandemic, we have experienced living in a time in which our standard language does not allow us fully to describe our condition, our relationship with the world or our innermost nature. It is here that poetry intervenes, through a language that is beyond language itself, contained in the rhythm that is also our heartbeat, our movement and our vibration into the landscape in which we are immersed. In that, I think that the function of poetry — the one of elevating us through the materiality of language and rhythm and beyond the tangible, if you like — has remained unchanged through the centuries. So, we do need good poetry that can speak about the human experience, and migrant poetics are, in this sense, at the centre of the scene because they present us with multiplicity, resistance and complexity.
BB. There’s a common assumption that monolingualism is the norm, and yet literary translingualism (i.e. authors writing in a language other than their mother tongue) has been around for a long time. Have you encountered any prejudice in people you speak to about your research, who assume that poetry written in a second language won’t be very good, and how do you counter that?
AL. I think I was lucky never to have received this kind of comment, which many authors probably will have encountered. I have seen more interest and curiosity overall about translingual verse, but the book itself can be considered a response to such prejudice, because translingualism is not only common in literary history, but also a productive, relational and inclusive lens through which to look at the literary past, present and future, and at our world.
BB. I was struck by the opening statement in your Acknowledgements section, where you recognize that your book was written on the unceded land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. How does your Australian context impact your approach to a study covering themes of migration, identity, resistance, displacement, transculturalism?
AL. Thank you for this question, as it allows me to talk about a theme that is very important to me. For more than ten years, I have been living on the land of the Gadigal people, a land which was never ceded. Acknowledging country is, for me, a daily practice, and I am committed to furthering this acknowledgement with each step that I take on this land, where I am aware that I am an uninvited guest. The knowledge embedded forever in this land and its waters, the care that First Nations people have dedicated to the country for thousands of years, is not only palpable, but also something I think we have a responsibility to recognise. Living here has impacted my research immensely, especially my perception of creativity, stories and languages. I wish to pay my respects to all the Aboriginal people and reiterate that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
BB. Finally, do you compose poetry of your own?
AL. I might have written a poem (or two) in the past, and it has been a great passion for my entire life. At the moment, I am more a reader than a writer, but I actually started writing some verse in English recently, so ‘never say never’.