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Maintenant #83 – Daniele Pantano

An interview with Daniele Pantano with SJ Fowler.

One of the leading poets of central Europe, a Swiss poet by all rights, is somehow is also one of its leading poets of exile. Daniele Pantano, vigorous, multifaceted, considered and cerebral in his poetry is one of the most active and highly regarded translators of modern Swiss poetry and prose, and has brought to light some of the finest authors of the 20th century in Walser, Dürrenmatt and Trakl. Moreover, he has a fine reputation as a critic, poet and teacher in both America and England. His is a story of living in more than one country, writing in more than one language, pursuing poetry in more than one facet, and anyone who has read his work will not be surprised by the breadth of his background and erudition of his account. Discussing the modern history of Swiss literature, his own journey from Switzerland to America to England and the work that is marking him out as one of the most remarkable talents of his generation, Maintenant presents its 83rd edition and it’s first Swiss poet, Daniele Pantano.

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3:AM: I’d like to begin speaking about your work as a translator and how it seems to intersect with some of the most important figures in 20th century Swiss literature. Your translations of Friedrich Dürrenmatt are exceptional, do you feel his reception in the English speaking world is growing, and is it still smaller than it should be?

Daniele Pantano: Dürrenmatt has always been a well-known figure not only in the English-speaking world but in world literature in general. His plays and novels, especially, have a massive world-wide readership––think of The Visit, The Physicists, The Judge and His Executioner, or The Pledge, for example, which was adapted for the screen by Sean Penn, who’s a big Dürrenmatt fan, and starring Jack Nicholson. Many non-German readers are not aware, however, that Dürrenmatt was also a master of the essay¬¬––Brian Evenson sees him as “one of the few real innovators of the essayistic form”––a wonderful painter, and, most important, a fascinating poet.

3:AM: Though he died only 20 years or so ago it is hard to look past him as one of the greatest Swiss writers of the last century…

DP: I agree. Dürrenmatt is certainly the most prominent author of Swiss literature following the Second World War. And he’s also one of the most important literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century, rivaled, perhaps, only by Beckett, Brecht, Camus, and Sartre. But we cannot forget Robert Walser, Max Frisch, Herman Hesse, or some of the more contemporary stars, such as Zoë Jenny, Urs Allemann (his book Babyfucker is an absolute masterpiece!), Raphael Urweider, Christian Uetz, Claire Genoux, and many others.

3:AM: Many have compared him, with his philosophical complexity and epic theatre forms (though without the same brand of political bombast) to Brecht, do you think there are similarities between the two as figures?

DP:Of course, but Dürrenmatt always rejected this comparison, so we shouldn’t spend too much time on this. Let’s see, Brecht was a Marxist, and Dürrenmatt was neither a nihilist nor an ironist. That should do.

3:AM: What do you think the importance is of Gruppe Olten?

DP: I’ve never been interested in literary groups or clubs or associations or schools. All I can say here is that I appreciate the GO’s original commitment to building a democratic-socialist society and the GO as an important “bridge” between the old Swiss Writers’ Club and the new Association of Swiss Authors, which offers a lot of support to Swiss writers, poets, playwrights, and literary translators.

3:AM: Max Frisch is another major Swiss figure who seemed to have a high repute in Britain during the 70s but is all but forgotten now…

DP: I do agree that Frisch needs a bit of a boost, though I know plenty of readers who still remember him!

3:AM: Robert Walser strikes many as one of the most important writers of modernism, how highly is he regarded in Switzerland and central Europe?

DP: Very highly, yes. Walser is now seen as one of the most influential authors of modern literature. As you may know, Walser was admired early on by Kafka, Benjamin, Hesse, Bernhard, and other modernists; we do need to remember, however, that Walser eventually died in almost complete obscurity in 1956. It took a couple of decades for his works to “reappear” on the bookshelves of German-speaking readers and scholars––and then on French, English, and other bookshelves around the world––but I doubt Walser will disappear again. Hesse once said that the world would be a better place if Walser had 100,000 readers. I agree.

3:AM: You left Switzerland for the US at a very young age, and this was because your ethnicity as half Sicilian half German prevented you from studying in Switzerland?

DP: It’s a long story. But, yes, it’s true that I wasn’t allowed to sit my Gymnasium entrance exams because I was considered a foreigner––even though I was born in Switzerland to parents who carried Swiss passports. I also applied for several apprenticeships, including one at a local bank, but again I was rejected on all fronts. I quickly realized that I had to fight hard to get a shot at higher education and create my own opportunities outside of Switzerland. I eventually got out by tricking a well-known tennis scout in Zurich into getting me a scholarship to attend one of the most prestigious tennis academies and preparatory schools in the US. I wasn’t talented enough to become a professional tennis player, though. Nevertheless, I did get my high school diploma, which allowed me to attend an American university, and, perhaps more important, offered me the opportunity to become a writer, a poet, someone who plays with language(s).

3:AM: And you began to write in America, you never wrote before living in an English language environment?

DP: Yes, I began writing––creatively––in the US (in German), mostly poems, stories, a couple of short plays, with a few embryonic experiments in English, French, and Italian thrown into the mix.

3:AM: When came the decision to write in English and not German? Or do you still maintain both?

DP: I no longer write in German, and according to my old notebooks, it was sometime in 1995 that I decided to write exclusively in English. What I remember vividly is the sheer excitement I felt of working with a new language, the elasticity of the English language and its linguistic opportunities. Reading other translingualists, too, gave me the confidence to turn my initial decision to write in English into a full-blown linguistic suicide or, at least, a complete translingual transformation: Conrad, Brodsky, Simic, Nabokov, and many others. At the same time, I was already aware of the fact that my decision to switch languages would result in an essential and inevitable change of who I was as a person and thinker, as well as the real possibility of being unable to create anything worth reading. George Santayana once said that “no poets can be great who do not use the language in which their mothers sang them lullabies.” On the other hand, I remember reading Arthur Koestler’s thoughts on switching languages: “Language serves not only to express thought, but to mold it; the adoption of a new language, particularly by a writer, means a gradual and unconscious transformation of his patterns of thinking, his style and his tastes, his attitudes and reactions. In short, he acquires not only a new medium of communication but a new cultural background.” Looking at the above list of writers and poets, Santayana was obviously wrong; Koestler, though, was absolutely right. I’ve become someone else. Furthermore, I’m now someone else stuck between languages, between cultures, someone “othered” and on the perpetual brink of linguistic and cultural nothingness. Gustavo Pérez Firmat says it best in the last few lines of his poem “Dedication”:

My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.

3:AM: The role of translator of Swiss works must have an intriguing sense of irony for you, that you were fundamentally rejected by the Swiss system but have now become one of the most prominent supporters of Swiss poetry in the world…

DP: Very much so. And it’s nice to know that I’m doing my bit to promote Swiss poetry in English translation.

3:AM: You must have visited Switzerland since your rise to prominence as an academic and poet? What is the feeling towards your work in that country now?

DP: I have given a few readings in Switzerland, my German translator Jürgen Brôcan has translated and published a number of my poems in German language magazines and journals, and there have also been several articles and reviews published about my work, and my journey as an “exiled” poet, in a couple of major Swiss newspapers. That’s really it. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung called me “one of the most interesting and versatile English-language poets of [my] generation,” but to be honest, I think I’m still fairly, if not completely, invisible in Switzerland.

3:AM: What reputation did you leave behind in America before taking your role at Edge Hill University in the UK?

DP: No idea. You would have to ask my friends, former students, and colleagues. If anything, I hope I have inspired some of my students to utilize the power of language to think critically about, and respond creatively to, the forces and authorities that shape their lives.

3:AM: The Oldest Hands in the World seems to call back upon the pre-occupations of poets who define the groundings of the modern tradition, that of exile, of a sort of battered romance, and yet I sense traces of anger, of a refusal to be too neat or lyrical. Do you think this is true?

DP: I think so, yes. It is, of course, very difficult, if not impossible, to read one’s own work and make sense of it, but the poems in The Oldest Hands in the World, at least on the surface, are attempts to decipher my American experience, my linguistic and cultural exile, understand my mother’s suicide, deal with the fact that my German grandfather was a Nazi, and, yes, romance, the experience of the other, etc. Some readers and critics see it as a collection of post-confessional and/or post-deep image poems, and I can certainly understand these readings of the book; however, to me the entire book is really a metaphor for my linguistic suicide, my life between languages/cultures. At the end of the day, anything I write represents a deeply rooted and insatiable desire to write my way back to a “home” that no longer exists; and you’re right, more often than not, this desire surfaces or manifests itself as a violent (natural) refusal to be too neat or lyrical. The American poet and translator James Reidel once said that “Pantano offers us a chance once again to see a poet live comparative literature the way Pound did–but without the frightening aspect of the extreme beard, the Roman broadcasts, or the open cage. His poetry and translations reveal that writing is different languages influencing each other at the most intimate and experienced level.” I’ll take it!

3:AM: How has your work evolved since the publication of The Oldest Hands in the World?

DP: I think I’ve returned to a more experimental mode of writing, back to the kind of writings and texts I produced during the early days of my American experience, back to my first chapbook, Panta Rhei, published by Alpha Beat Press in 2000, the same press that published works by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Berrigan, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Corso, and Burroughs, for example––a writing that is much closer (linguistically, if not ontologically, even epistemologically) to the notion of “living comparative literature,” to the notion that “writing is different languages influencing each other at the most intimate and experienced level.” I’ve already had a few readers tell me that this new work feels less “personal” compared to the poems in The Oldest Hands in the World, which is quite strange, because to me these new texts feel more personal than anything I’ve ever written.

3:AM: Mass Graves is a remarkable work you published in the UK with Knives Forks and Spoons Press. The sense of erasure of fragmentation seems to be both microcosmic to the poems and to the collection, to the grouping of poems as a body of work. What were the pre-occupations of this book?

DP: Thank you, Steven. Yes, Mass Graves XIX-XXII is an excerpt from a new manuscript I’m working on, Mass Graves: A Confession. I’ve already discussed some of the main preoccupations above; however, I can tell you that, at least superficially, the book is about the brutal murder of one of Egon Schiele’s girl models. More importantly, the book is an exercise in what I call “Überrogue,” a particularly dark, shocking, and at times perverse artistic response to voyeur culture and a society obsessed with violence and destruction. It’s about moral provocation, an attempt to elicit some sort of moral agency . . . before the reader is, as Naomi Greene would say, “inexorably drawn into a web of complicity.” That’s all I’m willing to say at this point, I’m afraid.

3:AM: What place do you conceive for poetry? Is it entirely personal, or do you think it is a fundamentally important pursuit?

DP: Poetry is a fundamentally important pursuit to me, yes. But you and I know that this is not, and cannot be, the case for everyone. In the best of all possible worlds, however, poetry would be seen as supremely important and utterly superfluous; poetry would change everything and nothing at all.

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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: Friday, December 23rd, 2011.