Can poetry in this brave new world we live in today, have a force, a revolutionary and transformative force for ‘good’?
INTRODUCTION – FOR A POETRY OF LIBERATION?
«But for me, poetry is too closely connected to life and what it stands for…» Abdellatif Laâbi (Global Rights)
“At first I thought that the opposite of life was death and that death represented fascism. But through my experience in prison I realized that death was only a part of life and my interests shifted to universal life or environmental problems in an ecological way. Political interests moving on to the issue of fighting against the destruction of life.” Kim Chi-ha
Can poetry in this brave new world we live in today, have a force, a revolutionary and transformative force for ‘good’, a stimulus to move beyond the present impasse we struggle with/in and towards a radical reworking of ‘democracy’, of what it means to be human and in this way help to provide us with a map / a direction towards a world that no longer is a world of violence, of exploitation, this world of consumers…and the consumed..?
“Only by imagining and desiring another world, other social systems and relationships, in fact, the change becomes concrete. Only by recovering forgotten and subtracted vocabularies, by rebuilding proper syntax and new grammars, subversion becomes viable.”
…Sergio Segio wrote in the July 2016 edition of Global Rights Magazine;
and despite all, and before his untimely death…
Paul Celan said:
“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all…” (From his «Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen», in his Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop).
Here on Global Rights – and through our intermittent work in exploring what ‘A Culture of Liberation’ might mean – we have hoped to articulate a viable and humanising “subversion” in order to help discover another world, other social systems and relationships…
Now we hope to continue with this work by exploring others’ work (usually those distanced from the mainstream), by publishing the thoughts and words of those writers, activists and poets, dissidents-from-the-commodity-consensus, who continue to give voice to the aspiration that it is indeed possible to have a different world, a better one and one where “other social systems and relationships”…may becomes possible.
“Though the body may burn / The voice lingers on…”
Pina, Tell us, how did you come to your work of writing poetry?
Personally I think it was a confluence of elements, a perfect storm, of having a troublesome relationship to language, my family’s and later my own migratory circumstances, the openings created by the historical times (the 1970’s in the San Francisco Bay Area) and perhaps, to a lesser degree, my temperament.
Because of my family ‘s experience with multiple migrations between Italy and the United States, between the mid 1950’s and the 1970’s and most recently my return to Italy in 2003 (my father was even born in Argentina from an earlier migration) and the various languages and dialects I was exposed to from an early age, I don’t think I ever acquired a “natural” feeling for any one language. There was always a slipping, an in-between state, code switching going on and that in a way puts you in touch with the “slipping” away from utilitarian language that is at the base of poetry. I always had an ‘accent’ anywhere I went but learned to live with it without being ashamed, also because when I went back to the US in a university environment an Italian accent was not necessarily considered a lower class marker (there were already quite a few “brain drain’ Italians around and ’Americans’ thought I belonged to that category rather being a ‘lowly’ immigrant.
I am the youngest in my family, and unlike my siblings who grew up in the same environment but had to “declare allegiance” to one specific language to be accepted and survive in the working world, I, being the youngest, had the luxury to stand on the side of language, meditate and write about it. Especially as my family moved from working class to a middle class position that afforded them the luxury of contemplating a child moving into a professional class.
What is your understanding and/or practice of «social struggle» or cultural activism?
This is a complex question and my understanding has changed over the years. If you had asked me this same question 30 years ago I would have given you a classical Marxist answer, albeit one influenced by the young Marx of the 1848 manuscripts, mediated by some of Gramsci’s concepts, which I acquired through an Anglo-American conceptual elaboration which is quite different from what happened to Gramsci in the Italian intellectual landscape.
But much water has passed under the bridge since then. The limitations of ideological thinking have borne their bitter fruits, new and ancient modes of knowing have gained traction, the need to develop ways of thinking that can encompass complexity has become ever more urgent.
Personally, I have gotten closer to concepts elaborated by the African diaspora, some forms of feminism like intersectionality, I have been exposed to indigenous people’s thinking and all of these have changed much of my perspective. Other areas that I think need to be explored are chaos and string theory, fractals, the multiverse, a re-imagining of what our past was and our future might be.
Politics has always been something I was interested in from an early age, because of its connection to power and the issue of justice. My family, even though not politically active, always had discussions about ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ and because of the experience of migration there was always at least one term of comparison. Later on those initial interests were mediated through the courses I took at the university and the opportunities I had in the San Francisco Bay Area which was a highly politicized environment at that time.
Not only as far as US politics goes, but studying in Berkeley were also foreign students who were representatives of the African liberation movements, for example ANC, ZANU, ZAPU, MPLA, EPLF and later ones from Central America. I was lucky and privileged to be an adolescent in the early to mid seventies so there was plenty of activism and positions to be taken. I did not have the limitations my sisters had, who still had to abide by a semi-feudal system my parents had brought with them from rural Southern Italy in relation to women, things like having a dowry, having to remain a virgin etc.
At the same time my family experience opened me to the idea of the complexity of historical processes. I could observe the changes my own parents underwent over a 20 year period. It was as though the times were telescoped from the century long traditions of rural society straight into the cybernetic age.
I was in Berkeley from 1975 on, and I was a member of a Maoist party from 1976 to 1980, years that were formative for me. Even though I left the party due to deep disagreements, it did not mean that I ceased being socially engaged. I continued both to go to demonstrations and be active in the cultural front by organizing events and writing, even though by my own choice refusing to be part of any one party or political organization.
Here in Italy it is more difficult because of the country’s legacy of the PCI, the largest ‘communist’ party in the west, which is not necessarily a liberating one, the engrained systems of clientelism and an understanding of ‘politics’ that is almost always tied to political institutions and delegating to a political party. Added to the difference in historical times, all of these make it harder to maintain an independence of thought.
In addition, we are obviously experiencing a situation in which there is dire need for a paradigm shift worldwide, just think of what is happening with climate change, but Italy may not be the place where one is best positioned to see the convergence of the different elements necessary to make it happen.
In fact the young people who are forced to leave Italy for lack of opportunities in work and study are probably better positioned to come in contact with these ideas and Italy may be a more interesting place over the next few decades when some of them come back and when some of the children of immigrants come into their own.
Do you see yourself as a poet-a-writer having a place in a process of social and historical transformation?
To continue some of what I was saying about the need for a paradigm shift, I think as artists we are part of knowledge production and that’s where our contributions can be the strongest.
Currently, having helped found the online literature and culture journals www.lamacchinasognante.com and www.thedreamingmachine.com I see myself as placing my international connections and friendships with writers all over the world to the service of opening a space where innovative practices of writing and thinking can be hosted and circulated, as long as the freedoms we still have in the online world continue to exist. We are trying to do it taking a transnational approach, which as you can imagine is not easy.
So you can tell us how all our work can reflect this?
It is a challenge because you have to move from a model of culture based on entertainment to one that lets emerge troubling contradictions, which are often painful to confront. But as Baldwin said “Artist are here to disturb the peace” and we should be ready to bear the consequences. I think in the meantime the model for artists (as for everything else) has shifted to one of success, of celebrities, money making and this makes it even harder to stay true to oneself and one’s principles. All the easy answers and formulas have shown their limitations. As Gramsci said, we are experiencing the morbid symptoms of the old dying and the new not being able to be born yet. I have tried to address some of these symptoms in my collection “I canti dell’interregno” which came out in January of this year and I am working on an English language collection which I hope to get published next year.
…And / or is poetry a more personal statement rather than a social form of expression…
The way that I see poetry it is both. I am not particularly fond of confessional poetry, but I think that the core of poetry that situates things in a social context must come from something that touches the poet deeply, otherwise it becomes an exercise in linguistic skill.
Do you think poetry has become irrelevant to most people’s lives today? Does it only live in the universities, among ‘educated’ people?
Other artistic forms are clearly more popular now, especially those relying on the sense of vision to be received (think of the popularity of film, television, video). Even in singing and music video has become an indispensable component. I laugh when I think that it is now necessary to put out a book trailer, I am out of luck because the book trailer for my poems would be like a horror movie…
I think that in a way song and music have taken the spot that once was reserved to poetry as they are more malleable and suitable for infinite reproduction. But I think there is still a place for an art form that delves more deeply into things.
One of our problems as poets, I think, is that we haven’t found yet a way to detach ourselves from the old models of what is poetry and link it to its oral component, but in a way that is more in keeping with the times, the kinds of knowledge that are necessary to break through in our specific dark times. We need a paradigm shift for poetry as well.
Abdellatif Laâbi said:
«Writing is still a risk in many countries. This was the case in Morocco when I was still living there–I was put in prison. In other countries, poets are assassinated. Of course, a Western poet is not exposed to the same dangers, to the same threats, but there are equally serious but different atrocities which occur in countries which we call democracies. There is the numbing of consciousness, an indifference which is gradually settling in-there are unacceptable things that happen every day, and pass as normal. How can I not be upset? I am implicated in this, because I am aware that the West is a part of me. It’s my humanity as well. To me there is a single human condition, within which there are different situations. And I don’t understand how one could think that the intellectual should be absent from all that– do your work and leave the world behind the door. If this satisfies certain intellectuals, that’s their prerogative. But for me, poetry is too closely connected to life and what it stands for. What is life if not dignity, liberty, the ability to express oneself freely?»
What do you think of Monsieur Laâbi’s analysis of the dangers we face in the so-called developed world? How do they meet these other dangers he mentions?
Unfortunately, I think that the problem of people becoming desensitized is not only prevalent in the West, I think that it has captured the East as well, due to being in the same global economy, partaking of the same technologies, having the ability of corrupting all strata of society to make a profit. Otherwise it would not be possible to have phenomena like human trafficking which posits people collaborating on both ends, the East and the West.
I know he is talking mostly about poets, but in reality I don’t think that poets or intellectuals are such different strata from the rest of society. Think of the situation of Asia, of hundreds of millions in China being forced to become migrant workers in other cities and abandoning their kids, sometimes to commit suicide. It has become a ‘normal’ thing there too.
Unfortunately I don’t think you can make such a strong case for a huge dichotomy between East and West, or even South and North of the world. Frankly, I don’t think anywhere in the world today you can name a country that could provide an alternative model. Certainly there are some differences, especially in quantitative terms as far as privileges go, but maybe here lies the strength of the possibility for change. I am thinking specifically about the fact that climate change is not sparing anyone, North, South, East, West and will be forcing us to look for new solutions if we want to survive.
Here is the old challenge from Theodor Adorno: «Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch» («It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz»).
[The original quote was in *Prisms*, 1955, MIT Press. Reprinted London, 1967.
« Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.»]
…Yes? No? Any thoughts to share?
Sorry to be kind of rude, but this quote has always struck me as Eurocentric bullshit.
How about not writing after the barbarism of more than a million hands being collected in baskets in the Congo under King Leopold one hundred years before the Holocaust or the Nakba? Adorno sure did not have any qualms about writing even after knowing about that.
I don’t think it is useful to try and determine what is the most barbaric act ever taken by mankind and then single it out as the threshold of the Age of Barbarism, which defines the utility or lack thereof writing.
Sergio Segio wrote (in ‘The forms and places of unsuspected subversion’ Global Rights, July 2016)
“But always from the word we must start, or restart.
And today, as always, the one that has
greater inherent strength is the poetic word.”
…Yes? No? Any thoughts to share?
Yes, obviously words are the building blocks of poetry, you can’t have other basic ingredients and continue calling it poetry. You could try dressing it up with visuals, music or other sensory effects and bling bling, however the task remains how to find those words, structures, sounds, metaphors, metonymies that are capable of making the breakthrough we need to convey the contradictions of the world and motivate people to change it (of course along with other thousands of stimuli in that direction, you can’t put that weight all on the slender shoulder of poetry;) ok.
Are there any particular ways poetry or art can shape or influence the social struggle in certain environments?
We are already seeing it happen under our very eyes.
I will speak more to what is happening in the US than in Italy, because, unfortunately, I don’t think the latter is in very good shape on the resistance front.
For example, alongside the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US there was the development of #blackpoetsspeakout which grew in different cities of the US, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, giving a space of poetry and action to very important poets like Mahoganny Browne and Danez Smith, who this year was a finalist to the National Book Award.
From what I could see in my limited stay in the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this year, poetry is resisting and playing its role touching certain chords of the human soul that journalists, sociologists, film makers cannot get to. And they touch them through the power of language, evocation, invocation, incantation.
Delivery is certainly part of it, but the main bulk is in the words themselves. It is a struggle to figure out where the art needs to go from here, but I think it is flourishing in the interstices, like weeds, grabbing on to whatever little soil it can, thirsting for those few drops of water that can reach it and breaking with its tender roots the concrete that surrounds it.
What might this (what we think of as a «Culture of Liberation» here on Global Rights) mean to you? Anything at all?
I think it’s very hard to envision what a culture of liberation would look like, because we are in the midst of a historical process whose contours we cannot clearly see.
Many of the utopian constructions predicated on 19 and 20th century ideals have fallen by the wayside and we have only sporadic, interstitial glimpses of what an alternative society might look like.
As in the nineteen seventies when we were in the midst of the foundational acts of neoliberalism, but many of us erroneously thought we were heading for the first steps of liberation, right now we are in the throes of the dying of that system, that stage of capitalism, established at that time.
Right now we might be on the verge of the demise of the nation state, as Rana Dasgupta suggests in his book by the same name, just as we witness the bloody enforcement of borders, something that gives rise to some of the most powerful poetry we have seen in the last decades.
We know we are heading towards destruction and we can see it in the extreme weather we are experiencing everywhere in the world, with effects that are particularly devastating in the poorer countries, and are affecting the poorer strata in the richest countries (lest we forget New Orleans).
Are we possibly heading towards the annihilation of human life on earth (I am fully confident that the earth will survive the Anthropocene) or just a ‘purging’ that will give rise to a new social organization, after untold number of vicissitudes? It is of this that we must sing, as we are engulfed in complexity and the old ideologies have irreparably collapsed on top of us.
Yet in the midst of this, the youth continue to speak and defend their right to have a life. Young poets do the same and employ their skills to do it, sometimes with excellent results (In terms of poets I have heard personally am thinking for example of Fatimah Asghar, Danez Smith, Isa Borgeson, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Tongo Eisen-Martin, among many others)…
I think what people of my generation can do is help provide them a space (such as we are able to with our meagre resources) and at the same time put our experience and verse at their disposal.
From the perspective of changing the world / social struggle: do you feel there is a contradiction between the artist/poet/etc as an individual and the larger society itself, for example, the class or political party or organisation, or other environment that the writer lives / acts within?
This topic deserves a book, unfortunately addressing it in a few lines will certainly lead to misunderstandings, so I shall refrain;-))
Mary Gauthier, the New Orleans singer and songwriter said recently that times are difficult for recording artists these days because “everyone has their own CD now”…with so many outlets for poetry dismantling the old 20th century apparatus that told us who were important poets and who were not: So what is your view of the new technology and poetry -is it rendering Poetry banal, subjective, or is it a revolutionising force and a challenge we should make use of?
I have no love for gatekeepers and in fact am able to write my own pieces and and publish two online journals thanks to the fact that gatekeepers have a harder time exercising their control over the internet. Of course the risk exists that only certain poets and journals will have a large following, but the same was true before as well, and actually people had no space at all unless it was granted by the gatekeepers..
Obviously I think there are poets who are more skilled at what they do and some who are less, but poetry being a function of language is something that everyone should at least attempt to exercise. My mother with a third grade education wrote poetry because she felt the need to have that form of expression as a channel, thus I welcome any kind of technology that can help spread it and refine it. Democratizing an art form does not mean that you have to sacrifice its intrinsic value.
I sure will not complain about technology if today I can have access to poetry written by a Bengalese woman poet who is also a nuclear physicist. Something I clearly could not do fifteen years ago and that may yield some insights that are needed for a cultural breakthrough..
Is poetry currently being updated/transformed by younger poets today – eg like RAP/HIP-HOP or Spoken Voice/Slams?
Yes, I think there is a revival of the importance of the oral aspect of poetry and that is a positive thing. Being part of this society, naturally it runs all the risks of commodification, of making the person who is better at delivering emerge over another who might have better content and structure but weaker delivery.
Like anything relating to ‘spectacle’ it runs the risk of becoming an entertainment, but that risk is also run by poets of the page who are good readers. (I am thinking of Billy Collins for example).
As a phenomenon in the Western world it is something that is also a response to a certain ‘ivory tower’ aspect that poetry was assuming in academia or in ‘cultural’ spaces. As such I think it can imbue some ‘energy’ that has been lost, especially in the poetry that has the canon as its model. I think it is a refreshing development and should be welcomed, of course maintaining a critical stance about quality and content.
Finally the Poet-Herself: do you think the poet («artist») is a special or a unique member of the society?
I think that people who have certain skills (which are the result of a whole ecosystem sustaining them) are not particularly special (I don’t really believe in a muse or some sort of ‘inspiration’ but rather I think it is a sort of predisposition to capture some signs and hear or see some things other people might be more oblivious to). Because this skill, seeing and hearing is the result of a whole ecosystem contributing to it they do have a responsibility to do their best to put it out there in the world and see if it can have some positive impact. No guarantees, unfortunately, and generally a lot of heartaches.
Can you tell us a little about writers (and non-writers even) who helped shape your vision…and who have you learnt most from?
For me it was a combination of canon and ‘dissident’ poets, both Italian, US and from other parts of the world. Among the canon poets Dante, Leopardi, Montale, William Carlos Williams, non canon Mayakovsky, Brecht, Adrienne Rich, Nazim Hikmet, Bulgakov, Mahmoud Darwish, Ben Okri, Mikhail Bakhtin, Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Shailja Patel, Audre Lorde and many others. As can be surmised by the list, most of them were poets and writers who had a vision of society that greatly differed from the one they were born in.
I think their poetry and writing spoke to my own need for a different world that is why I gravitated towards their work, which belongs to different styles and epochs.
…As a woman…do you see poetry as creating a special place or a place of equality and freedom for women and other oppressed/excluded beings?
As you can see from my list of poets who have inspired me, women and other people who fought against exclusion and for a different world have held a great appeal for me. I feel a kinship with their inner world and their struggle to express it, which often is on a collision course with the established orthodoxies. Their resilience inspired me, though I have struggled to develop a style that reflects my inner and outer world, as opposed to imitate theirs.
Many thanks, Pina!
Read Pina Piccolo’s poems in our Culture of Liberation section:
FOR A POETRY OF LIBERATION?
– 13 POEMS
The Wounded Angel
Hugo Simberg [Public domain or CC BY 4.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons