Maintenant #81 – Valerio Magrelli
An interview with Valerio Magrelli by SJ Fowler.
For over thirty years Valerio Magrelli has represented Italian poetry to the world. Inarguably the most influential poet of his generation in Italy, the oeuvre he has thus far established has ensured his place as one of the few poets able to look eye to eye with his nation’s iconoclastic predecessors. And yet, this language of grandeur does not seem apropos in describing a work built on agility of thought, deftness of expression, a modest, good-natured gesturing to the immense power of poetry which, in and of itself, locates that very power. Valerio Magrelli is a poet whose work has the authority to wake his readers, to bring their focus back to the poem itself, as a thing, not as a product of a poet first and foremost. Consistently, it is this eloquent and energetic intellect which resonates through his work and reminds us of the heights that the Italian language and the Italian poetry tradition can reach. For the 81st edition of Maintenant, Valerio Magrelli. Thanks to Jan Wagner, Federico Italiano & Jamie McKendrick.
3:AM: It said your work has represented a generation in Italian poetry, and this is perhaps because you have strived to maintain an expansive exploration of what Italian as a poetic language, can achieve. Has this been a pre-occupation in your work?
Valerio Magrelli: I once answered the same question on a questionnaire claiming, “To discover why I write.” Someone else answered the same question by saying: “So as not to discover why I write.” Today, both hypotheses seem to miss the mark. In all honesty, I don’t know why I write; or better (and this is the only way for me to approximate an answer), “I think the reason becomes clear only while I’m actually writing”. It’s the same impression one has when gliding; it’s what intervenes between swimmer and wave, between an object and the force that moves it. Whoever writes is never alone. That is to say, I am convinced that writing “produces and reveals” a push that is not its own. Therefore we write to feel this force, to become conscious of this other, invisible energy, which permeates us, and which reveals itself solely in the performance that we are in the act of carrying out, quite alone, with pen in hand (at once the ham radio operators antenna and the diviner’s dowsing rod).
3:AM: You have expressed a passion for the concept of translation, of translation as a conception on the level of both thought to word, word to expression, language to language. Is this the case?
VM: I‘d like to answer quoting two different authors, a critic and a writer. The first one, I. A. Richards, affirmed that the translation “may very probably be the most complex type of event yet produced in the evolution of the cosmos”. The second one, Jorge Luis Borges, stated: “No problem is deeply linked to literature and its modest mystery as the problem that a translation raises”. My position lies between these two points of view.
3:AM: The images that are so striking in your work always seem to me to be tempered by a sort of deference, an advocating of the image that will not be given as an afterthought. There is a clarity which might come across as purity, but what I find to be a sort of humility, as though the poem was the key, not the poet.
VM: What’s happened is that we are seeing an ever increasing number of texts based on a more or less radical refusal of a referent. However I believe that when significance and signifier come unstuck, writers risk creating not so much a greater expressive freedom as a night of the sign, in which all verses turn out to be one flat gray. Facing this fact, facing up to the evident historic corrosion of the expressive weave (and keeping clearly in mind that I have no wish to propose an anachronistic salvage of past forms) the single, individual solution is all that’s left to us. In my own work I like to stretch the thread of meaning. I want to see how long it resists, when it twists, to reach its breaking point. But what really interests me is the before, during and while, not the after. This “afterwards” the rejection of meaning, doesn’t carry us far out. It’s low water, where you touch right off. This, I believe, is the best answer to the last question above. I’m referring to the adolescent version of Kantian aesthetics in which it’s assumed that writing will almost automatically transcend to meaning: here’s a banal, mawkish dove, the sort of poetry that takes wing by exploiting the physical laws of language, the attrition between sound and sense, between verse and world, word and experience, grammar and truth.
3:AM: Wit and humour seem to be quiet fundamentals in your work too? Do you think they are necessary presences?
VM: Wit and humour are antidotes to the double tragedy that composes our lives: man against man, and man against nature.
3:AM: The Italian 20th century tradition is overwhelming, enormous in its figures that stand above poetry and as well as within it. Or at least it seems this way. Have the massively varied spectres of D’Annunzio, Marinetti, Montale, Ungaretti, Pasolini, Quasimodo et al stood over the poets writing in the last three decades in a way that has been detrimental?
VM: Not at all. Poetry generates itself from poetry: you just have to choose which kind of poetry you prefer. I believe that the best definition of poetry (and of all artistic work in general) is that which Alfred Jarry attributed to Pataphysics: “The Science of the exceptions.” Speculation and revelation, light and horror, invective and elegy, thought and lallation: everything and anything can become a poetic word, because a poetic word is the mirror of the infinite variety of the real. Too often we tend to forget that “Poetry” is just an abstraction, made up of that sum total of textual concretions which are the single poems. For this reason – keeping just to the 20th century – we should remember that Palazzeschi exists along with Celan, Valery Larbaud can stand next to Michaux, and Sandro Penna exists side by side with Dylan Thomas.
3:AM: So many Italian poets seem historically to be more than just poets, they are thinkers, politicians – their poetry seems an activism. Is this true do you think and has it been maintained?
VM: If writing is the bond that links author and reader, if every society is based on a shared language, the function of poetry is to carry communication to its ultimate limit. As has been said, it places language in a state of alert. In sum, it coincides with maximum states of freedom and alarm, since its freedom rests precisely in a continuous word alarm. Joseph Brodsky put it very well: “Poetry isn’t a branch of art, but something much more. If that which distinguishes us from other species is the use of words language – then poetry, the supreme linguistic operation, constitutes our anthropological and, de facto, genetic goal. So anyone who thinks of poetry as a mere pastime, a common reading, commits an anthropological crime, which is, first of all, against himself”.
3:AM: Is there a sense that the poet should be a voice of criticism, of awareness and responsibility in Italy? Is this a tradition of sorts?
VM: I’m stimulated to write by the inherently paradoxical and inexhaustible nature of this work. Poetry demands of the reader an active, re-active approach. Writing poetry is the equivalent of salvaging verbal material from the daily merchandising. And it is just that which makes it so complex, involving, purifying and “ethic.” Which explains why, like the Phoenix, it rises from its own ashes, with fire its cradle. In other words, and turning to a less lofty image, the more language deteriorates, the greater the need for its maintenance and repair in poetry. And of such repairs we’ve got a pretty big need today.
3:AM: I’m interested in your thoughts on new generations of Italian poets emerging now, since the millennium. Is it a time for optimism or pessimism?
VM: In Italy we have a very rich panorama of poetry. Authors such as Giulio Marzaioli or Marco Giovenale, Sara Ventroni or Maria Grazia Calandrone, Carlo Carabba or Laura Pugno, give me a sense of great optimism for the future of our literature.
3:AM: And beyond the poets to the readership, do Italians still possess a desire for poetry?
VM: Unfortunately not. We sometime have great public readings, but poetry books are always “worst-sellers”. We need to create a need for poetry beginning at school. There is a huge job to be done in order to accustom the Italian reader to discover the art of verse.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 3rd, 2011.