Clara Burghelea talks with Viviana Fiorentino about in-between states within poetry and language, the translator’s role and her project, L’Ortique. Vivian’s poems have featured regularly on The Blue Nib; some of them can be read here
Viviana Fiorentino is Italian and lives in Belfast. She has appeared in international webzines, journals and in an anthology (Dedalus Press, 2019); she has published a poetry collection (Controluna Press) and a novel (Transeuropa Publishing House). She co-founded two activist poetry initiatives (‘Sky, you are too big’, ‘Letters with wings’) and Le Ortique (forgotten women artists blog).
Clara Burghelea: You are a bilingual writer. To what extent is your writing influenced by geography and cultural background?
Viviana Fiorentino: My writing is ‘inhabited’ by a sense of home where home is made of multiple geographical sites. Because of my life experience with travelling and moving to different countries, landscapes, and the various languages I am exposed to, I have always been in a situation of slipping and being in an ‘in-between’ state. This in-between state is at the base of poetry. By their nature, words can break barriers down or turn them into bridges, bringing cultures into play. With poetry, borders blur; and this is not only a new existential perspective, it is also an opportunity for formal, imaginary and linguistic innovations. Poetry becomes a place where domestic and natural landscapes enter into a dialogue with new spaces and with other cultures.
We are made of a multitude of experiences and voices. They layer within ourselves and they express themselves in different ways. And poetry has this transformative power of expressing all these multiple layers.
Being bilingual is like cultivating a garden, a space in front of your house that connect home with the outside. When I write, I am in this garden where different geographies and cultures, those from home and those from the streets outside, merge and flow.
I realized that to be ‘caught’ between two worlds or cultures can be a kind of tragic condition but also a sort of cliché. Writing has taught me how to move back and forth the (supposed) dividing line between cultures. It becomes something vital to, even productive for, my work and for myself. We can be a ‘both’ and this is enormously enriching, it’s not a neat ‘this or that’.
Clara Burghelea: You are involved in a variety of projects? What can you tell me about Letters with Wings?
Viviana Fiorentino: Letters with Wings is an initiative of NI-based poets: Nandi Jola, Maria McManus, Csilla Toldy and I. We co-founded it for Poetry Day Ireland. As we felt the pressure of being locked down due to the pandemic, we thought this was an opportunity to discover an emotional bond with those artists who are kept in prisons all over the world for speaking out and fighting for human rights. We felt that people would be more open and more sympathetic to those artists who are imprisoned because of their belief, their activism, for speaking out.
On the 30th of April (2020), Poetry Day Ireland, we asked the public on Twitter and Facebook to engage with the stories of artists listed on our page, and write and post a poetic letter of solidarity. The day was immensely successful. We had 8189 people visiting/interacting with the pages, letters from all over the world were written to 27 artists who are imprisoned in China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, Uganda. We collected a total of 727 letters to be printed and sent. We are still seeking donations to realize this dream; this is the link to the donation page:uk.gofundme.com/f/letters-with-wings
I think this huge involvement gave us a further sign of how collectively important is to defend our rights and freedom of speech. The visual artist Zehra Doğan, who was in prison in Turkey for painting the destruction of the Kurdish city of Nusaybin by Turkish government and who also supported our initiative, wrote to us in an interview that “art is the best fighting tool” and this is why governments fear artists and put them in prison. Art is also the best tool of resistance. It is joy as resistance.
Clara Burghelea: Do you believe in a poet’s need for the support and vibrancy of a literary community?
Viviana Fiorentino: Absolutely. When I arrived in Belfast this meant the opening of many new perspectives, as it always happens when you come to a new country or ground. I met fantastic poets and writers, as well as amazing communities of people who welcomed me and with whom I learnt we can be “the change you want to see”. Finding the support and vibrancy of a literary community means for me to open up the literature ‘canon’, giving voice to different views. If writers bring to the table mainly the narrative of the mainstream norm, and the community rejects those who write in English but are not native speakers, for example, or those who have no privilege, we are just creating a form of elitism in literature.
Clara Burghelea: Do you think of the poet as a human right defender? Is your work poetry of resistance, meant to raise hope in these unsettling times?
Viviana Fiorentino: I think any citizen is a human right defender. But I also think poetry witnesses a collective hope. Hope is like a delicate shoot raising from the ground, it needs love and determination to live. Poetry is made exactly of the same matter of hope: imagination, love, determination, sense of community, humanity. Many poets who had experienced prison expressed in their texts the realization that death is only a part of life, not the counterpart. This shift greatly our perspective to a universal one, the one that cares for a universal life or environmental problems, for example in an ecopoetic way.
I think also poetry gives us different perspectives on the use of words. It is a way of challenging those words that we hear hundreds and hundreds of times (from media, for example) and that desensitize us. Writing is then a form of awakening but also a way to turn violence, rage, despair into transformation. Into hope.
Clara Burghelea: Tell me a bit about your project, Le Ortique, described as “A group of women authors committed to discover forgotten women artists”.
Viviana Fiorentino: Many women artists have been squashed by history or by the random course of events but also by the affirmation of literature canons and the centralization of established powers. Le Ortique wants to rethink them and all those missed women artists who have failed to live and survive their time. This marginalization covers a broad spectrum of contempt, which includes poor critical reception of work by women artists, archival neglect, and a lack of academic research and presence of women in literature. Le Ortique wants to address this consistent neglect. We are aware that their visions, their imagery, their poetics still resonate with meaning and it would be unforgivable to forget them in the silence, leaving them once again without a voice.
Le Ortique is a group of poets, writers and contemporary scholars who gathers to study, research and create in voicing forgotten women artists. We have different backgrounds, we do not have labels, we do not belong, we do not have a school of reference; each of us comes from different places and experiences. We are united by the belief that there are many voices who deserve space and an opportunity for further studies. Too often, eminent and valuable voices have been suppressed, silenced, isolated, unforgivably delivered to oblivion. Our intent is to give again a voice and divulge and communicate without giving away the essentiality of the word.
Clara Burghelea: Your collection In Giardino was published in 2019. To what extent is this collection about the need to have a social and civil conscience?
Viviana Fiorentino: In Giardino has a section dedicated to Syria, but the whole collection is crossed by a sense of civil and social conscience. This collection also has an ecopoetic perspective in addressing migration. Politics (in its original meaning of ‘polis’), nature and poetry form a single voice. When migration becomes a political node, it highlights the most tragic aspects of displacements, expressed by bodies and stories. Poetry, then, is a space for investigation, creation and observation, capable of rethinking and transforming notions such as identity, home, nature, language, belonging.
The collection is divided into three sections, three different “intonations” of a voice that tells the pain – existential and social – and its relativization, the suffering that accompanies our life and the need for a civil and social conscience. Personal and civil experiences converge in that connection between places and memories, where poetry restores the same representations and foundations of our society: memory, sociability, enigma, sense of the sacred and of beauty.
Clara Burghelea: How does the translator’s role fit this?
Viviana Fiorentino: I think that what really remains of an author, of a book, or words, is the word given, not the word received. We pass on when we communicate. Translating is the effort to give words and pass them on. So, through writing and translating, the author explores a reality that maybe is not in the conscious awareness of the community. Translators and writers have the responsibility to pass this word and awareness to future generation.In the ‘lost’ of translation what remains is the ‘unlost’ of the language – something transferable, a sense of humanity and empathy. I think translation happens in that garden I mentioned before, between home and the streets outside!