Seven Contemporary Italian Poets (2/7)
Gherardo Bortolotti, translated by Linh Dinh:
working + bgmole (12 paragraphs for Vivalibri, 18/06/2007)
21. In the middle of a scene from which he could see the end, kinch went to work, collaborating with the construction of the present and of autumn mornings. In the glimpses of shop windows, of crosswalks, of apartment buildings, he lost track of small, lazy trains of thoughts, irrelevant analogies, superfluous opinions no one bothered to register. From balconies, certain details distracted him deeply, triggering incongruent feelings and phrases such as “lithium” and “human nature.”
22. We look on with sympathy our natural propensity to live.
152. Successive evenings in time during which, erratically, definite decisions were made, and always in regard to the same torment or point: go on a diet, quit smoking, read Balzac, warm up towards one’s intimates. The flow of our wasted days dragged along empty detergent boxes, phone calls in the office, insignificant particulars of evenings spent with friends.
153. Arriving at the question of truth, or of goodness, we preferred to change the subject or to turn to an expert. The afternoon silence had vast limits. It insisted on an indistinct roar, a memory of first love, a profoundly wrong notion of the world.
65. We did not recognize the signs of the time and, at diner, continued to watch television news, following the framing of corpses in Baghdad, Putin’s visits. During mid-week evenings, we approached the conditions of real people, of normal folks who unravel themselves by shopping, go out to diner, take brief trips to Florence.
66. Digressing from his lofty thoughts, bgmole was animated by the particulars of his rooms, moving along baseboards, edges of shelves, in search of certain phrases mumbled in a low voice, of certain comforting analogies between his conditions and, for example, the passing wind. He often pitched his tent near memories that a glimpse of the kitchen, like a dimensional trap, had retained.
100. In the half light of October mornings, eve began to doubt the existence of her similars. The traffic noises sounded more like nature, the roar or howl of a civilization in progress.
101. On the margins of the suburb, bgmole completed the cycles of seasonal progress, made up of acquisitions and plans for integrating small daily problems (migraines, a loan, withdrawal of surplus value). During certain weeks, especially in the morning, he would be run over by someone else’s clear will.
208. On the crest of progress, strengthened by our hot water, by antibiotics, by wideband internet, we drove in traffic towards the future and our transitory occupations. Impressions of errors made and of messy apartments. We left the next move to fate as the knots arrived at a comb in someone else’s hand.
209. From the heights of our experience as consumers, we listened to wireless music in supermarkets. During arguments, we referred to past events as if to our own lives and cited, with a certain precision, old television shows and second rate international pop authors.
4. Made to recall the evidences of a season from our past, of a mild youth, solitary and squalid, we came to a discovery and admitted to have failed in everything: musical tastes, love, readings. We remained on the verge of another sad conclusion, touching a postcard found in a drawer, a Morrisey T-shirt, and thought, involuntarily, of another.
5. Conditioned, from old marketing strategies, to prefer the easy version of things, we discovered with abstract astonishment deft consumptions, premature deaths. While billboard models introduced esoteric arguments into the down times of our urban rides, we turned to the future and waited for the dream to be interrupted.
113. Sitting among premises that deceived him, and among his own wrong ideas about the politics of the Middle East, bgmole asked himself to which future scenario should he entrust his resources of hope and imagination. The beginning of Spring bound him to what’s coming without bringing, from the media, from the blogosphere, signals that many had been waiting for.
114. Opinions also well articulated, of no influence on the state of things and without relevance to actual course of events. Watching television news, we nourished the conviction of knowing how things went down and, because of this, changed the channel in search of a certain resolute phrase.
86. Surrendering himself to a present of half-solutions, of generic phrases, of low keyed projects, kinch spent the hours after dinner watching television. From the images on the screen, in the dark, he could read the horoscope for his working weeks, for mornings spent on the beltway.
87. hapax preferred the warmth of sheets, bottoms of drawers, glimpses behind heaters. During voyages through the apartment, he would rest near the details of secondary furnishings, on a peaceful plain at the foot of the baseboard where a lozenge of light, from the road, composed itself on the dust.
1. From the outskirts of well-being, where we were quartered during the days of our youth, we directed our gaze beyond the holidays, Saturday acquisitions, Sunday afternoons, and saw nothing. The hollowness of things was so vast that it gathered, in time, barbs and cumulonimbi.
2. In spite of contradictions, we live somewhat comfortably on the margins of capitalistic modes of production, betting on their promotions and summer sales to stay in touch with fashionable merchandises, with our similars. Evenings became moments to take stocks of situations and things that were, in some ways, not quite in order. Thanks to a simple problem of illumination, perhaps, our rooms became sad, and strange, and we crossed them filled with suspicions.
37. While old acquaintances became lost in cycles of acquisitions, of musical fashions, we decided to spend our vacations in third-world countries free of labor unions. On the beltway, our prospects became cluttered with occasions for waste, virtual regrets, superficial thoughts on the state of things.
38. We resumed the discourse nearly each evening, after turning off the television.
42. In spite of the fact that much of politics was delegated to transnational organizations, not democratically elected, bgmole equipped himself with opinions on the war, on the debts of developing countries, on illegal immigration. He perceived, nevertheless, especially when he couldn’t comprehend the sequence of news on television, a contradiction located at a vague point in the spread of arguments, a compromised assumption, such as, whatever he knew of the world, to the smallest minutiae, of whatever validity, usefulness, truthfulness.
43. Remaining open many issues regarding our attachment to ideals of fame, wealth and a refusal to work we had intuited during the long afternoons of our youth. Later, in the evening, travelling to a shopping center, we considered with detachment our position, as we stayed there, trapped inside the symptom of something.
Through the email, I interviewed Gherardo Bortolotti. I asked the questions in English, he answered in Italian, which I then translated into English:
LD: Italy is country of vast regional differences, with many distintive urban centers. Is the poetry scene reflective of this fact? Are poets in Naples much different than the ones in Milan?
GB: I’d say it’s true what you pointed out about great regional differences (from town to town even) that mark Italian culture but I don’t believe there’s a correlation between this fact and the literature that’s coming out.
It’s true that the history of our culture, and in particular our literature, was marked by the issue of language, or rather the absence of a unified language, reflecting the absence of a national political or administrative center. This issue was much debated, from Dante until the last century. The question of language was tied to the political fragmentation of the Italian pennisula. This situation has produced two phenomena that are opposite yet complimentary, recurring over and over in the history of our literature.
On the one hand, there’s the drive to construct a language and an “ideal” literature, with roots in the mythical figures of Petrarch and Boccaccio and inspired by Dante and the Dolce Stil Novo. From the 16th century onward, it has cultivated a poetry and a prose written in the common Tuscan dialect—refined through its contact with Latin—as the national model (even, from a formal perspective, as an international model, but that’s another issue altogether).
On the other hand, there’s a continuation of writing in dialects, in the colloquial languages, corrupted, even invented, which has had less success than the Petrarchian tradition but, in spite of everything, is still a fundamental element of Italian literature (just think of Pasolini and his use of Romanesco and notice, further, that Pasolini also wrote in the Friulian dialect).
In the last fifty years, however, after a century and a half of unification, with the spreading tentacles of television and its homogenizing influence, not just on language but also on local cultures and characteristics, regional norms, traditions and matters related to language have been much weakened. Although dialects are still employed for everyday use, are still vibrant, the language issue is less felt nowadays (or rather: the issue is not the definition of a national language but the impoverishment of language caused by the mass media).
As for the regional or provincial aspect of our culture, what remains is an extreme fragmentation of the literary scene, especially with poetry, which is dispersed to the tiniest provincial towns. Even authors with a national reputation would ensconce themselves, above all, in their “territory.” But this diffused literary production is also a positive. For me, it’s a sign of vitality. Nevertherless, the problem is that the various centers have almost nothing to do with each other, but consider themselves self-sufficient.
Notice that this “self-sufficiency” is not limited to small localities but is found, on a different scale, even in more important cities such as Rome and Milan (between which, for example, there is not much exchange). Notice, above all, that this self-sufficiency implies, in general, an indifference to the international scene and results in a tendency to confront questions of theories, forms and poetics in strictly personal terms, of affiliation to this or that author or circle.
To sum up, I want to point out that the web, with the birth of the collective blogs (such as Nazione Indiana or Absolute Poetry), above all, seems to have created a sort of national arena for exchange and debate that will rapidly transform the situation, I believe.
LD: Of the two websites you mention, Absolute Poetry has an English name, while Nazione Indiana [Indian Nation] refers to America. GAMMM, the webzine you co-edit, also prints American poetry frequently, sometimes just in the English originals, without Italian translations. Marco Giovenale, one of GAMMM’s other editors, has a chapbook written in English called “Gunless Tea.” Another editor, Michele Zaffarano, has a poem with an English title, “Boys Keep Swinging.” How do American culture and the English language affect Italian poetry? I remember seeing many Charles Bukowski books in Italian bookstores, but which American poets are considered important over there? Which are important to those in your circle?
GB: As far as the influence of American culture on poetry or, rather, on Italian literature, I must say that, as you can imagine, the issue is truly very complex (also because it is taking place within the global context of Anglo-Saxon cultural assertion, with its victory in World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union, and globalism, etc.).
To answer briefly, however, you could say that there has been a very strong American influence on Italian culture, especially pop culture, but in the so-called “high” culture (including literature), there has been little influence and that only recently, with the youngest generation of writers.
To understand this somewhat schizophrenic situation you must keep a few points in mind. First of, you must consider that, for various segments of Italian society, and especially with immigration starting in the late 19th century, America was the land of wealth and a freedom from a real, extreme poverty. Further, you must remember that with the Allies’ presence on Italian soil at the end of World War II, Americans became the “liberators” and, in this way, laid the foundation for their cultural hegemony (as well as a political and military one that is still in effect today—just look at Berlusconi’s support for the war in Iraq), reinforced soon after by an endless stream of pop imageries that the United States, above all, but also Great Britain, have managed to export.
At the same time, however, you must always keep in mind the diffidence of a basically idealistic and conservative culture like Italy when confronted with American pragmatism, whether cultural or social. And then there’s the gap between Catholic and Protestant values. And, also, the ideological aversion from either the left or right, even if for different reasons and in different ways. Notice, for example, the Fascist ban on a famous anthology of American authors, edited by Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese (who chose Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc., as alternative models to the Italian literature at the time). Likewise, the very strong Italian Communist Party obviously mistrusted American culture, especially American pop culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and its blindness to questions of class (and yet, the most important translators of American literature were all associated with the Communists, such as the aforementioned Vittorini, for example).
All of this brings us to the present situation, which is really paradoxical: in Italian bookstores one can find a huge selection of mainstream American fiction (and even some underground fiction) but almost nothing of American poetry, especially from the last 50 years. One can find Bukowski, as you pointed out, and one can find a translation of the old New American Poetry anthology, edited by Allen, a few moderns (Pound, above all, some Stein but absolutely no Zukofsky), something by Ashbery but, in light of the frenetic volume of poetry generated by the United States, one could say that there’s almost nothing available in Italy. To cite one example, I can tell you that even a movement as important as Language Poetry is practically unknown in Italy, even among specialists. You’ll discover this if you try to search the catalogs of Italian libraries. American poetry is only beginning to be published in a systematic way with the appearance of two very recent anthologies, edited by Luigi Ballerini and Paul Vangelisti and published by Mondadori (one of the most important Italian publishers). Otherwise, the initiative is left to a few well-intentioned individuals (Damiano Abeni, above all). One reason why we launched GAMMM was to make available (in Italian) at least a fraction of the vast American literature we were discovering on the web.
As to your question about important American poets in Italy, one must start with Pound, Ashbery and, I’d say, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso or the Beats in general, although I must add that, for many young Italian writers, the songs of Jim Morrison or Lou Reed are more influential than the poems of Ginsberg. For us here at GAMMM, I’d say that it was shocking to discover K. Silem Mohammad and Rodrigo Toscano or, to go back a bit, Jeff Derksen, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, etc. In our case, perhaps more than being influenced one must talk about parralels, that is, these authors had an impact on us because they dealt with, on a formal level (poetic correspondences are always tricky to establish) problems we were already posing to ourselves.
As for your question about the use of English, as I’ve touched on above, the hegemonic weight of English and American pop culture has given to the English language and imagination a specific appeal, which before came from France, and even earlier, from Italy. Nazione Indiana, for example, is called that because it evokes in some way the myth of the native american, transmitted in turn through the myth of the western (which, as you know, in Italy was stolen from Hollywood and reinvented as the so-called spaghetti-western of Sergio Leone).
Regarding this issue, there is another factor which is derived from the contemporary situation, the globalized context in which we produce our texts. In such a context, English does not come across as a national language but as the language of a globalized space, the language for a kind of weltliteratur or a transnational literature. If Marco Giovenale publishes a chapbook in English, if GAMMM publishes some texts without translation, it’s because we take into account that national literatures are changing and, from a certain perspective, losing their momentum. More and more, a transnational platform is being developed where writers can measure themselves directly against each other, without the mediation of the cultural industry, of canons or translators.
Now, the language of this forum is, in effect, English and one has to deal with it somehow. But there are so many linguistic communities on the web, as you well know. Italian, for example, is one of the most-used on the blogosphere. But to communicate beyond one’s national space, English is what is used (but in ways that are much different than how it’s used in the USA or Great Britain—just try to read the high school blogs from Hong Kong or Kula Lumpur, for example!)
To go from the theoretical to the actual and personal, I should tell you that I’ve been keeping a blog in English for the last two years, in which I post very brief phrases and fragments, sometimes composed in Italian and then translated into English, even with the help of online translation services, sometimes written directly in English or collected with the help of a search engine (according to the technique of “provocation” of databases that K. Silem Mohammad has defined perfectly with his concept of “sought poems”). It should be noted that, when I started this project, I was aiming not for an American or English audience (to whom these expressions must come off as awkward yet still meaningful within their national contexts) but for transnationals: non-Anglophone Europeans, Indians, Brazilians, Chinese and whoever, a public that speaks and, above all, reads and writes English as a language that’s not native yet not entirely “other,” is somewhat familiar, connected in essential ways to the individual, to his particular experiences, sentiments, desires and perceptions (because connected, in the end, to specific aspects of life in a globalized world—above all to our relationship with merchandises.)
This situation is somewhat ironic because, from a certain perspective, Italian literature has already confronted this problem by choosing to adopt a disembodied and “literary” language [the Tuscan dialect]. As I indicated above, one may even say that this is a structural dimension of our literature.
LD: Your work addresses the personal isolation, the ennui and meaninglessness of contemporary life, conditions that I know only too well, living in the USA. It seems to me that Italy is still saner than most developed countries, however, because it retains habits that predate the television, the automobile and the computer. People gather in piazze just to loiter, enjoy each other's company; they walk around before dinner, the passeggiata, just to look at their neighbors, chat or enjoy an ice cream; they eat a three-course dinner, slowly. Of course there's the encroachment of McDonald's and American-style reality TV, etc. Please discuss the evolution of your work, how you arrived at your themes, and how they relate to your working and living situation in Brescia?
GB: It’s probably true that in Italy there’s more attention than elsewhere to what could be called the “primary sciences of living”: in food, clothing, personal care and social relationships. However, you must not believe that my country is a kind of oasis inside the Western world and that it’s exempt from the all-pervasive process of commodification typical of industrial countries, or that the diffussion and development of the media haven’t crearted the alienating effects common to every Western democracy. It’s enough for me to remind you of the political and, above all, social successes of Silvio Berlusconi, or take you to a shopping center any Saturday afternoon, to change your mind about this matter. Even though each country could only develop in its own ways, there are characteristics of capitalism and globalism that are found everywhere and, beyond the differences, there remains always that relationship with merchandises that unites everyone, "from sea to shining sea," if you’d allow me that phrase.
The fact that I was born in Brescia, a small city once heavily industrial but now geared towards finance and the service industry, in line with all-too-familiar social and economic patterns, is a determinant factor. The neighborhood where I grew up, for example, is a place one could really find anywhere, a type of collateral product of economic development and globalization or, to be more precise, a suburban neighborhood where relationships with others are always mediated through commerce and media, where there is no relationship with the “outside world” that is not mythical, romanticized or idealized according to fashion, television news or entertainment. In short, one of those places where one is framed and rooted within a globalized culture, within a new transnational dimension of experience.
In a place like that, one can have the perception of "what's going on here?"—obviously only after having removed oneself from its alienation, and it is from this type of sensations, associations and entanglements that I try to construct my texts. You must also take into account the fact that I work as a cataloger and information consultant, with a temporary contract that grants me neither vacations nor sick pay, with a rather low salary. I am, so to speak, in constant touch with the accelerated production of information as well as the liberalization of the labor market. You must understand, also, that the themes I touch upon (the market, work, the media and their rapport with our lives, perceptions and experience) are ordinary issues I live with daily.
I’ve noticed that in the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in what Georges Perec called the "infraordinary,” those dimensions of the quotidian which we are scarcely aware of yet constitute the real substance of our days. I mean the mass of micro sensations, tiniest arguments and sublimated emotions that we continue to produce and live through during our waking and sleeping hours, as well as the ideological schemes, cognitive grids and implicit narrations to which we entrust ourselves each moment, if nearly always unconsciously. This interest has a direct effect on the kind of texts I produce, texts that are always minimal, modular, proned to a kind of list making and accumulation and that, in fact, reflect characteristics of the other theme I see flowing into the infraordinary, that of merchandises, which is truly a kind of silent testimony to our lives.
In this journey, I have always referred back to the work of Italo Calvino, above all from the 70’s and 80’s and in particular Invisible Cities and Palomar. At the same time, I'm also strongly attracted to science fiction, above all the work of Dick, Gibson and Ballard, whom I’ve pilfered from, from more than one text, at times appropriating actual phrases or metaphors. I must acknowledge also my recent discovery of David Markson who is, unfortunately, completely unknown in Italy—and hasn’t much success in the US either, if I’m not mistaken—but, in his last non-novels, seems to offer a very interesting model for modular literature, discontinuous and non-narrative.
Gherardo Bortolotti was born in 1972 in Brescia, where he still lives. He is the author of the e-book Canopo (Cepollaro E-dizioni, 2005), the chapbook Soluzioni Binarie (La Camera Verde, 2007) and the “wee-chap” tracce per dusie, 103-197 (dusie.org). He is also the translator of Jon Leon’s Diphasic Rumors (La Camera Verde, 2008). His texts and translations have appeared online at Word For/ Word, Cepollaro, Nazione indiana, Lieto colle, La poesia e lo spirito, Compostxt and Absolute Poetry, and on paper in Qui. Appunti dal presente, Il segnale, Metromorfosi, Sud, Poesia, Bombay Gin and The Black Economy. With Michele Zaffarano, he edits Chapbooks, a series of experimental literature from France, Italy and USA, for which he translated K. Silem Mohammad, Rodrigo Toscano and Jeff Derksen. He is author of blogs in Italian (canopo.splinder.com, bgmole.blogsome.com, divisibili.blogsome.com) and in English (www.lowleveltechniques.blogspot.com, howtowrite.blogsome.com). He is among the founders and curators of GAMMM, a journal of translations and experimental literature.