A Dreaming Machine for Marginalized Voices in the World

by Pina Piccolo

This article was first published in The Dreaming Machine n.5, December 2019.


Situated here in Lisbon in the present, July 25t  2019, at the furthest south-western border of Fortress Europe[1], in the unusual position of remembering the future voices that are marginalized today, this paper seeks to provide both a survey of the practices of La Macchina Sognante  throughout its 5 years of existence, as well as a glimpse into some of the issues of poetics and  radical imagination implied in the writings selected for publication.

After a first section delineating the development of the journal and the various contemporary issues addressed by the editors in this transnational literature and culture journal, in the second part I have chosen to focus on texts related to migration, narrowing it further down to the Mediterranean sea and to the so called ‘European migrant crisis”, exploring its poetics of the margins through the poems of deceased Eritrean  asylum and poet Tesfalidet Tesfom and the poems of Syrian  refugee poet Ghayath Almadhoun. The third section will instead explore the dynamics between poetics and praxis specifically on the issue of racism, agency, representation and the evolution of antiracist discourses through literary medium in Italy.

The paper will highlight the journal’s contribution in providing a space for debates by voices that have been dismissed, silenced and unacknowledged, especially among immigrants of color and their descendant. Consistently with the transnational approach of the journal, I’ll also briefly analyse specific poems  and other texts by African American  and of color  female poets to help further a more radical approach and imagination, especially in light of the Italian general resistance to  decolonizing thought and practices, the denial of its colonial past and present,  including the unacknowledged, international  role played by Italian 19th  and 20th century intellectuals in formulating scientific racism even prior to fascism, through figures like Lombroso and Niceforo as well as the elaboration of fascist political thought with theorists such as Evola, whose thought today informs some parts of contemporary extreme right movements worldwide.


Part I:   La Macchina Sognante: the margins of the world talk back! And they speak the language of disruptiveness, emergence and maladaptation


Launched in the fall of 2015, La Macchina Sognante. Contenitore di scritture dal mondo (LMS) is, a project consisting of an Italian language, free, quarterly online journal with assorted related activities and events, both online and in the actual world. Most of the founding editors had been contributors or friends of Julio Monteiro Martins and his Italian language online journal Sagarana[2].

LMS’s challenges with definitions, hence some kind of border, margin or line of demarcation, began with its very baptism: bureaucratic requirements dictate that journals, both print and online, under Italian law, be registered in the name of a member of the national board of journalists, who is to vouch for the enterprise. Lacking such a figure and unwilling to put a figurehead as editor-in-chief to get around this technicality, we couldn’t call it a journal, so like so many other Italian internet literary outlets we had to resort to an imaginative rebranding:  “La Macchina Sognante – contenitore di scritture dal mondo”, i.e., The Dreaming Machine – a container of writings from the world. But as is well known ‘nomen atque omen’ and our trouble with sorting out what is prose, what is poetry, what is essay, what is novel, what is anthropology, what is a short story, what is literature, what is sociology and place it appropriately in the ‘container’, i.e., a  vessel for fluidity, i.e., had just began. But we were in good company in this kind of quandary, suffice it to think of Zadie Smith’s article about how writing an essay is an act of the imagination[3], in which she then proceeded to show the contemporary penchant worldwide for writing novels that borrow the structure and devices of essays and vice versa, or Eduardo Galeano’s books including The Book of Embraces or his Memories of Fire[4] trilogy where it is difficult to draw a precise line between the historical, the anthropological, the sociological and the literary.

The founding group of La Macchina Sognante was a volunteer, informal collective consisting of 14 writers and cultural activists, ranging in age from 27 to 72, including anthropologists, poets, theatre practitioners, psychotherapists, professors, people involved in the publishing world, financial analysts and students, most of whom had lived long periods outside of Italy or were born elsewhere, all writing in Italian as well as other languages. Besides sharing a transnational character in their lived experience, the editors and a number of regular contributors held variegated anti-system approaches and desire to provide a more transnational, intersectional, interdisciplinary space within the Italian cultural landscape which generally has a more canonical approach and can be resistant to complexity-based points of view.

In fact, if there is a single mission that La Macchina Sognante has set for itself, through the twist and turns from its inception, that would be to adhere to James Baldwin’s motto “Artists are here to disturb the peace”[5] and be in as many ways divergent from many of the other online literature and culture platforms already in existence in Italy, a country that sits on the southernmost border of that Fortress Europe yet is in denial, including most of the progressive intelligentsia, about some of the less savoury aspects of belonging to the European history and experience. For at least 10 years now, Italy has been at a crossroads about the direction it will take, both in the political and cultural realms, including its public intellectuals, cultural operators and artists.

Keeping all that in mind, the journal was and is still divided into 7 sections: Poetry, Non-fiction, Fiction, Theatre, Reviews and Interviews, Reflections and Sconfinanti (which could be loosely translated as “Out of bounders”), a section hosting writings about migration, preferably by people who have direct experience of it. Each article of the average 45 that make up every issue, is accompanied by an image, either a photograph, a painting or drawing, in harmony or dissonance with the text, mimicking our experience with the distortion occurring in dream states. Each issue has its unique photo gallery. Special inserts have been added whenever the editorial staff has felt the need to offer readers a range of visions around the burning issues of the day[6].

Since 2017, after its initial three-year stint, the editorial staff is down to 7 members, Bartolomeo Bellanova, Reginaldo Cerolini, Lucia Cupertino, Sana Darghmouni, Maria Rossi, Walter Valeri, under the coordination of Pina Piccolo and with Micaela Contoli as webmaster. In the 16 issues published thus far, each editor has contributed texts of their own as well as selected pieces by writers from all over the world which they deem appropriate to the project.

Over its four years of existence, the journal has featured the work of hundreds of contributors worldwide who have continued to offer a virtual journey between artistic and cultural imaginaries through literary productions, essays focusing on discourses and practices originating in the most diverse geographic and cultural settings (Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia).

Given that the collective has not issued a manifesto or spelled out explicit guidelines for submissions, it would be interesting to examine the rule of thumb some of the editors have adopted for selecting or soliciting materials. In a forthcoming essay focusing on the utopian and dystopian  writings the journal fosters, editor Lucia Cupertino aptly summarises the three features driving the selection process, at least for some of the editors, as disruptiveness, emergence and maladaptation[7], all features abundantly found in artistic creation that takes place in the margins, in the periphery, in the cracks and crevices of society and literature.

The first feature, disruptiveness is meant to be an antidote to the “danger of the single story”[8] therefore conceiving writing as a powerful tool for diversifying perspectives and thus oppose the official narrations, mainstream versions of reality, or visions of the world that are still enclosed in the canon and inside processes of filiation and hierarchisation.

As Lucia Cupertino emphasizes in the introduction of the forthcoming anthology chapter (Cupertino, Cerolini, Piccolo 2019)  the journal’s idea of emergence is inspired  by the insights provided in Andrew Joron’s essay “The emergency of poetry”[9], which, drawing on systems theory posits that like in the material world where the combination of pre-existing elements can give rise to something completely different and unexpected (such as water from its constituent elements), something similar happens in the process of poetic creation and can also be a source of hope for the role of artists in the predicaments we are facing at a worldwide level. In respect to the criterion of emergence often La Macchina Sognante focuses on literary writings capable of representing the motion of social movements rather than merely their facts, leveraging urgency rather than contingency, as it does not linger on the surface of events that are considered “current” (as in fact occurs in most mass media). After scratching the surface patina, it makes its way into the deep folds of issues, trying to probe the structure, dynamics and tendencies using both analytical tools as well as the sensory based ones, such as intuition and memory.

This process is captured explicitly in two poems by the current U.S. national Poet Laureate,  Native American Joy Harjo. Published in 2019, in LMS 15 “When the World as We Knew It Ended”,  and  “Emergence” are the latest we proposed to our readers,  while the poem “A Map for the Next World” we published earlier, together with poems by indigenous poet Lance Henson, in issue n. 5 in 2016,  in the wake of the resistance at Standing Rock. All three poems from her 2001 collection How We Became Human: Poems 1975-2001 set the inspiring concept of emergence in an alternation between dread and sorrow caused by disintegration and destruction of the world, as well as the awe and longing generated by the emergence of the new:



It’s midsummer night. The light is skinny;
a thin skirt of desire skims the earth.
Dogs bark at the musk of other dogs
and the urge to go wild.
I am lingering at the edge
of a broken heart, striking relentlessly
against the flint of hard will.
It’s coming apart.
And everyone knows it.
So do squash erupting in flowers
the color of the sun.
So does the momentum of grace
gathering allies
in the partying mob.
The heart knows everything.
I remember when there was no urge
to cut the land or each other into pieces,
when we knew how to think
in beautiful.[10]


The observation post of the poet herself is at the margin (lingering at the edge of a broken heart), her vision involves both her personal dimension and the community at large all aware that the world is coming apart (and everybody knows it). The community is an expanded one which includes the plants (the squash erupting with flowers) and even the more abstract momentum of grace gathering allies in the partying mob. From an external space the poet moves back to an inner dimension (the heart knows everything) trying to reclaim a state of grace and beauty that is natural to it.



There is no world like the one surfacing.
I can smell it as I pace in my square room,
the neighbor’s television
entering my house by waves of sound
makes me think about buying
a new car, another kind of cigarette
when I don’t need another car
and I don’t smoke cigarettes.
A human mind is small when thinking
of small things.
It is large when embracing the maker
of walking, thinking and flying.
If I can locate the sense beyond desire,
I will not eat or drink
until I stagger into the earth
with grief.
I will locate the point of dawning
and awaken
with the longest day in the world.

The second half of the poem investigates the vectors of the destruction and degradation (the TV instilling its false needs) and then shifts again, like in the first part to considerations about vision and thought, entrusting to pain the function of a dowser rod capable of locating the point of dawning of the new. In spite of survival being located in community it is still the individual that must seek the point of salvation.

This point of emergence is also featured in her other poems, in  “A map to the next world” it’s a hole in the sky from which humanity can escape its present circumstances, there too it involves a rediscovery of a knowledge that was held in the community and among ancestors, “ And lights the map printed with the blood of history/ a map you / will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns. /.      /.  When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they / entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us. […] “
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
tribal grounds.

We were never perfect.

Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

We might make them again, she said.

Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.

You must make your own map.

And here again there is an alternation between the ‘we’ and ‘I’, we as a species might make the same mistakes again, but the issue of individual responsibility in the emergence is clearly demarcated, as return to a state of knowledge of which the whole of creation partakes, “even the earth which was once a star” and made mistakes, it too presumably falling from a state of grace. The ending lines present a paradox, there is no beginning or end, which suggests a unity of all things and creatures, yet we are not exonerated from the individual responsibility of making our own map and taking the journey.


Part II. Don’t panic, my brother – The south of the world calls Europe, Paul Celan emerges from the River Seine and joins Syrian refugees walking North

The issue of migration to Europe from the global south, by crossing the Mediterranean Sea especially for people escaping war, dictatorships and poverty from African and Asian countries is certainly not a new one, as the flow, in different proportions over time, started in the late 90’s of the previous century and early 2000s.  These flows which are negligible in terms of numbers when compared to travel and migration to Europe by plane or other means[11], represent desperate voyages on rickety old boats or large dinghies transporting hundreds of people, in the direst of conditions, forced to undertake the crossing (typically after long journeys through the desert and the Libya) in such dangerous conditions  because of the huge disparities in visa and passports policies making almost impossible for people of the global south, with the exception of elites, to obtain the necessary documents to make the journey to Europe legally. An added difficulty concerns asylum seeking venues, both in the countries of departure and in those of arrival.

Despite its limited proportions compared to the  great migrations and displacements taking place within Africa, Asia, and between the Middle Eastern states, after the uprisings of 2011in Northern Africa and the Middle East, a phenomenon that goes by the name of “the European or Mediterranean migration crisis” came to the attention of the international community and in the past few years has  turned into a major propaganda tool for the extreme right, with its accompanying set of negative narratives which have gradually gained large consensus with the populations of many European countries.

Over the last ten years, a number of editors of LMS have written their own poetry inspired by that crisis and have helped put together three poetry anthologies on the subject of migrations: the first focusing on the Mediterranean, the last one concerning migration worldwide. (Sotto il cielo di Lampedusa I and II, 2014 and 2015)[12];  Muovimenti: Segnali da un mondo viandante, 2017[13]).  In additions to the mobilization of many volunteers to help the migrants as well as state agencies and contractors providing what often goes by the name of ‘services’, in Europe many artists, writers, scholars and critics have especially in the past 3 years become engaged on the subject of these emigrations, resulting in a fair amount of literary production and  criticism, which La Macchina Sognante has hosted in its issues since its inception. As a matter of fact, the second most read article since issue n. 1 of the journal have been two chapters from the M. A. thesis of young scholar Samuele Rizzoli “Lettura delle migrazioni attraverso i testi poetici” (Reading migrations through poetical texts). Along the same lines, our Sconfinanti (Out of Bounders) section continues to receive many submissions and is one of the most popular among readers.

The issue of who writes the poems about the migration experience – the migrants themselves or sympathetic onlookers- has spurred quite a few debates and reflections, including the essay “No poetry After Lampedusa? Compassion, Hostility, Testimony and the European ‘Migration Crisis” (La Macchina Sognante n. 15, July 2019) by post-colonial and world literature scholar Filippo Menozzi. In the condensed essay, originally published in an expanded form in a collection of essays,[14] he analyses three poems by Benedetta Davalli, Reginaldo Cerolini and Barbara Pumhoesel contained in the 2015 anthology Sotto il cielo di Lampedusa- Nessun uomo è un’isola. Starting off  from the observation that since only a few letters and messages from those arriving in Lampedusa are reproduced in that anthology, he acknowledges that   “the collection captures the ethical dilemma analysed by Giorgio Agamben in his important book on witnessing, where the Italian philosopher interrogates that “tie between a possibility and an impossibility of speaking” constituting the core aspect of the testimony” (Menozzi 2019).

An additional quandary Filippo Menozzi observes  is that:

“on the one hand, any expression of unconditional support for migrants and refugees risks becoming what anthropologist Didier Fassin though-provokingly calls “compassionate repression” a structure of feeling involving a denial of agency; it leads to turning human subjects into bare life and passive victim, and the responding (European) subject into enlightened white saviour. This attitude can also lead to ignoring the situation of privilege that white Europeans enjoy when confronted with migrants from the South. On the other hand, any critique of compassion risks reproducing the cynical reason of hegemonic discourse, opposing citizens to migrants, identity to otherness, victims to enemies and, in the end, dangerously dis-identifying from those in pain” (Menozzi, 2019).


All of these elements did play out in the latest episode of the Sea Watch search and rescue boat versus Salvini and some of the writers who contribute regularly to LMS like MeticciaMente (a young Italian blogger of Ivory Coast origin, who lives between the two countries)  has pointed  out the danger of setting up white saviors and  negating agency[15]. This mispositioning of issues was also pointed out by frequent LMS contributor, Cameroonian writer Gaius Tsaamo, a medical student in Italy who writes in Italian and is active in the debate, in his essay “Accogliere o non accogliere: questo non è il dilemma” (To welcome or not to welcome – this is not the dilemma, LMS n.7, July 2017 ). There he points out that the framing of “welcoming or not welcoming” the migrants ends up obscuring the questions of why people are forced to migrate in the first place, what in Europe ‘s continued colonial relation to African countries is creating the disequilibrium, the issue of client states, and African elites  and the like[16].

Having introduced this section exploring some of the tricky issues around who can and does write poetry on the Mediterranean crossing, I would like to introduce poems written by two poets who fall under the heading of asylum seekers (Tesfalidet Tesfom[17], from Eritrea) and refugee (Ghayath Almadhoun of Syria) , hence people directly involved in the ordeal, who simultaneously stand at the center and the margin while offering their highly disruptive counternarratives.

Here I single out two poems by Tesfalidet Tesfom, a.k.a Segen or camel neck, which stand out from the point of view of how artists, critics and scholars will be interrogated in the future concerning the voices that are marginalized today. Tesfalidet Tesfom was an Eritrean asylum seeker who died on March 13, 2018, one day after being rescued at sea, killed by malnutrition, tuberculosis and the tortures inflicted on him in Lybia, en route to Europe. With his two handwritten poems in Tigrigna, one of the languages spoken in his native Eritrea, found among his meagre belongings after his death, he certainly embodies literary agency by migrants in the face of the direst of circumstances. In July 2018, La Macchina Sognante first published excerpts from the Italian translation of his two poems as part of a set of seven poem series by 5 Italian poets who wrote about the Aquarius ordeal[18], the first search and rescue boat to have been denied access to Italian harbours by the Salvini-Di Maio government.

In the October 2018 issue of the journal both poems were published in their entirety together with an analysis by Giulio Gasperini, a young Italian poet, immigrant rights activist and scholar who emphasized both their Biblical tone and heroic references which showed commonalities with Italian melodrama[19]. Gasperini starts off pointing out the anaphoric reminder addressed to a ‘you’ that is a presumed “European brother” who has forsaken him, forging an alternative narrative bent on overturning the predominant position which sees the migrant in an inferior position, begging for help of a merciful savior. Indeed, the poem starts with the migrant offering his psychological help by assuring a missing and panicking European ‘brother’ that he has nothing to fear:


Don’t panic my brother
Don’t panic my brother
tell me, am I not your brother?
why don’t you ask about me?
Is it truly so nice to live alone

if you forget your brother in the moment of need?

Of course, this harkens back to the Bible and God’s query of Cain about his brother Abel, with Cain’s reply that he is not his brother’s keeper (which indirectly is what Europe keeps replying to the asylum seekers and migrants). After the initial assurance, the migrant I which provides the voice of the poem issues a series of reproaches directly to the missing interlocutor  (why don’t you – the missing European brother- ask news about me, why do you ignore my calls from the dinghy, always reminding the European that he is indeed his brother (Nobody helps me, /and nor do they console me /one can receive hard blows from life / but to forget one’s own brother is not honourable /   […] I do not hate you / but it is always better to have a brother […] Would you have been so cruel /if we had been children of the same blood”. After remarking I now have nothing / because in this life I have found nothing,  Gasperini notes that Tesfom is fully cognizant of his ferocious, heartrending condition- that state of being that strikes fear in the soul of the “You”  who is not a migrant because it opens old wounds that have never healed. That “not having found anything in life” (Agamben’s bare life) is a terrain the two could possibly share, in spite of their vastly different material circumstances. Tesfom, however, feels no rancor, no resentment and declares proudly in the most stripped down and light manner possible “I do not hate you”. Hatred does not strike his soul, he does not feed a violent reaction but rather leads the interlocutor’s gaze towards a peaceful horizon, beyond that indifference that bites and tears apart: “You and I brother will come out of this victoriously”.  The migrant then, having produced a frame that re-establishes his own human standing as a peer, reaches out to the forsaken brother as afflicted by indifference, extends further his commonality in the face of Othering,  and ends the poem  with the lines you and I my brother will become winners / trusting in the Lord. 

This notion of being a winner, i.e., turning upside down the idea of the migrant as loser, which in this first poem is rooted in religious faith, recurs in the second poem devoted to a more abstract and universal theme of Time. There too things takes a turn towards the heroic, while remaining rooted in faith, as pointed out by Gasperini, and as announced in the title of his essay “L’alba vindice appar” (The avenging dawn appears”)  from  Puccini’s “Tosca”, Act 2, scene 5, the aria sung by Cavaradossi, the painter and Republican patriot who has been subjected to the torture by Scarpia paradoxically upon learning of Napoleon’s victory  at Marengo after what initially appeared to be an defeat, in spite of his pain erupts into songVictory! Victory! / The avenging dawn now rises /To make the wicked tremble! /And liberty returns, /The scourge of tyrants! /

            One of the many virtues of time, according to Tesfom is “You strengthen me without getting worn out / you teach me courage / how many ups and downs we have together faced / you have conquered victory / and turned it into a masterpiece. / In Gasperini’s analysis both Cavaradossi and Tesfom’s cry “Victory” in what appear to be the direst of circumstances  “become a warning, an earthshaking prophecy, with his closing line Bye, Bye, Victory to the oppressed.”, the destitute, literally starved poet, who actually succumbed to hardships, did manage to leave the margin and become a central hero, a brethren soul to Cavaradossi, vindicated by Time, within a religious frame. Ironically, had Tesfom survived and obtained asylum in Italy, he would have most likely been addressed as “uno degli ultimi”, “one of the least among us” as is unabashedly common in Italy.


Many refugee poets from the Middle East, who belong to the wave of asylum seekers who have made their way into Europe since the early 2000’s, have graciously contributed to LMS over the years, ranging from Iraqi writer and film director Hassan Blasim, currently a refugee in Finland,  to Wafai Laila, Syrian and currently a refugee in Sweden,  Fatena al Ghorra, Palestinian refugee living Belgium, Tareq Al Jabr, Syrian poet a refugee in Italy, Ahmed Masoud, a Palestinian refugee in the UK[20] as well as  many others, and they have all produced beautiful and much needed poetry that turns the tables on prevailing narratives about refugees in Europe, nail that continent and its inhabitants to their responsibilities while producing interesting and quite distinctive poetic styles and approaches. As a group and individually they deserve extensive analysis, translation and promotion.

For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to focus on the work of Syrian Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun, especially in counterpoint to the poetics of Tesfom, in order to highlight similarities and differences in their challenge to marginality. While sharing with the Eritrean a desire to be at the center stage in the narration of their story, escape marginalization and a position of inferiority, Almadhoun’s frame is not faith based and universalistic, but rather one that is steeped in history and literature, cognizant that his poetry is a product of his lived experience.

Currently a refugee in Sweden, Ghayath Almadhoun was already a young accomplished poet when he left Syria in 2008. Over the years LMS has published 3 of his poems: “The Details”, issue n.1 (January 2016), “The Capital”, issue n. 5 (January 2017); “Black Milk”, issue n. 7 (July 2017), and some of the editors of LMS have translated other poems of his and contributed them to other Italian literature and culture journals like carmilla online. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the last one, “Black Milk”[21] which takes its title from Paul Celan’s refrain in Death Fugue.

I would like to start with a paradoxical observation about borders and language. It is interesting to note the challenges and potentials implied in my own personal experience, as a bilingual Italian-English speaker living now in Italy, working with a poet who writes in Arabic but lives in Sweden; I who know no Arabic  have translated his Arabic text into Italian using Catherine Cobham’s excellent English translation and with the assistance of Sana Darghmouni, our Moroccan editor from LMS who writes in Italian and English we have checked for fidelity to the original Arabic text.  Ghayath Almadhoun (was born and grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, born of  a Palestinian father and Syrian mother and currently lives in Sweden), wrote the poem “Black Milk” inspired by the refrain of a powerful piece of poetry written 70 years ago by Paul Celan, a poet who grew up in what was at that time Rumania (now the Ukraine), was raised in a household where Hebrew and German were spoken, he himself wrote in German but lived most of his adult life in France. There are obviously multiple challenges but, judging from the literary results, crossing borders can yield powerful works of art.

From my point of view, Ghayath’s Almadhoun’s greatest contribution to the poetics of the Mediterranean migrant crisis is his keen awareness of European duplicity and colonial legacies vis-a-vis his persona as a Syrian-Palestinian refugee and the ensuing development of an original poetic voice that is situated in that milieu but at the same time transcends it from a transnational/transtemporal point of view.  From his specifically situated position, he forges a poetic voice enabling both participation and observation.  His poetic imagination ferries both metaphor and metonymy to high and nuanced layers and levels, which are not averse to paradox and humor. (It is probably his inclination to viewing and using language as a totality that makes him a kindred spirit to Paul Celan and may have determined his choice of model.

This high level of poetic and linguistic skill enables him to create poignant tableaux in which his lyrical I experiences simultaneously, in the body that voice inhabits, the vicissitudes of history taking place in the past and in the present, in multiple locations (Europe, the Middle East, the Americas). That very body is always present whether in an erotic capacity or as an observer.

The poem starts in a somewhat theatrical manner and with a prose flavour that encompasses a word dear to La Macchina Sognante: “emergence”, a term and concept that appears at the end of the poem as well, with a surprisingly poetic type of emergence. The situation between himself “emerging from a nightmare” and his interlocutor who is emerging from behind the scenes (we’ll soon discover that she is his rescuer, the one who grants him asylum for sentimental reasons), from the start alerts the reader to a possible world of make believe, that actually concerns both of them, as the I of the poem is himself smiling as if untouched by the tragedies of those close to him. Thus, he is himself involved in the denial of painful facts, perhaps not too differently from those European friends he keeps reproaching for their lack of sympathy for the Syrian predicament.


You emerge from behind the scenes, I emerge from behind the nightmares, smiling as if the war hasn’t eaten my brother, and in those days, when my Syrian friends were dying under torture, my European friends were gently withdrawing from my wound which scratched their white lives and didn’t conform in any way to accepted Western criteria of what constitutes pain.


This first stanza encompasses most of the words and concepts developed throughout the entire poem and sets the tone and the time. A time that is only deceivingly vague and distanced ”in those days” as one can surmise the months and the year by inference from the description of events (barrel bombs, friends suicided in Damascus, the international community forsaking the anti Assad uprising). The expression “in those days” is a leit motif recurring nine times, while it has a distinctly mythological ring to it, it signals the variation in the poetic I relation to engagement with world events, so within that time frame sometimes he remembers the black milk, sometimes he doesn’t. Thus, the expression “in those days” is also only seemingly vague in contrast with Paul Celan obsessive recounting of specific times of day in which the black milk is drunk”  at dawn, at evening, noon, daybreak and night, again again through the 36 lines of his poem like a refrain.


I look in the mirror and see your face
The poem slips out of my hand
I hear the scent of a woman eating my fingers
The Mediterranean Sea drowns in the immigration department
The water grows thirsty
I remove your features from my face in order to recognise myself
And my notebook loses its memory
The official in the immigration department asks:
Where are you from?
I answer:
I don’t know for I’m not yet married
And he refuses my asylum application
And the United Nations refuses the colour of my skin
And the international community refuses to look directly at my wound
At that moment when time becomes dark as Rembrandt’s paintings
And feeling becomes cold as the corpses of my friends
You emerge from behind the scenes
Just like that
Without introductions
Or explanations
Or a logical interpretation
And grant me asylum for sentimental reasons


Talking about transgressing borders in beauty, Almadhoun’s poetics are marked by his agility with register shifts, his seamless transition from poetic prose to verse and the ability to interweave contemporary poetics of denunciation and resistance with those of past and present ills from different locations in the world. It differs in some respects from a poetry of ‘witness’ or memory as posited by Carolyn’s Forché, or the more traditional poetics of exile, as we may think of it issuing from poets of the Middle East. Like Paul Celan, Almadhoun’s stands in very close proximity to directly experiencing torture and death, as he was one of those who narrowly escaped the dire fates of his cohorts (those who have met him personally have probably heard him say repeatedly that he has lost over 200 friends in the Syrian revolution). Having narrowly escaped their fate, he is not resigned to letting either the regime, the European states, or his progressive European friends off the hook. He is not averse to reproaching himself, when he is absorbed in a state of denial or seeking normalcy (the times when he doesn’t remember the black milk).  Unlike Tesfom who professes no resentment, in Almadhoun there is an underlying desire to make Europeans and the West at large come to terms with their responsibilities, acknowledge the deleterious effects of their “whiteness” and white supremacy of the West. Engaging them as interlocutors belies Almadhoun’s desire for them to change their course, rooted in a dialogue about their real standing.

In fact, unlike the Biblical brother Cain that features so prominently in Tesfom’s imagination, Ghayath Almadhoun evokes in his poetry the dismissal and distancing exercised by his historically situated, progressive European friends vis-a vis his being a Syrian escaped from Assad’s regime, or a refugee from a Muslim country after the Twin Towers. In other words, he places it in a precise historical context, there is no universal brotherhood, but the world of women and men shaped by nation, history and relations of power.


In those days when I loved you gently, terrorism struck violently, and my heart that could look at a fresh wound directly without flinching became smooth as a snake and the Twin Towers collapsed time after time after time in my European friends’ fantasies, and the French Revolution was only a victory in history books and a defeat in geography books, and I remember the black milk.



Like a musical fugue (word that echoes the Latin “fuga” escape, and does reverberates in the consciousness of a poet who is escaping) each motif is repeated several times, with slightly different intonations and word placement in a slightly changed position so they are illuminated differently. The repeated images are the wound, the snake, remember, the great migrations, memory, black milk.

            This piece of poetic prose is followed by more traditional verse structure that concludes the poem with a stirring image of an emergence, which closes the circle with the beginning of the poem.

In those days
When I loved you gently
The great migrations crossed Europe violently
And Paul Celan emerged from the River Seine
And with his wet hand tapped me on the shoulder
And in a trembling voice whispered in my ear
Don’t drink the black milk
Don’t drink … the black… milk
Don’t drink
And disappeared among the groups of Syrians marching northwards.


In those days I was still trying not to remember Paul Celan and the Dead Sea was alive and live broadcasts were dead.


Ghayath Almadhoun is particularly adept at  recreating the feeling of dread that is felt in Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” with its repetition of ominous figures, the different times of day in which the black milk is drunk, at dawn at evening, noon, daybreak and night, and shoveling “a grave in the skies”, the snake, Margarethe golden hair and Shulamith’s ashen hair. The image of the two women and their different fates, in Almadhoun is replaced by a single female figure who is also the lover and has granted him political asylum for sentimental reasons. She is a figure of salvation rather than victim. The mixing and layering of the erotic, the historical and the political is a hallmark of Ghayath’s Almadhoun poetics which at times seems to baffle critics who are accustomed to neat divisions into poetry that is either lyrical, epic, political, or of witness.

In this respect, it is interesting to read the poets reaction to this in an interview he gave last year to Asymptote[22], in which he defends his right to use his lived experience as a basis for his poetry regardless of how it is viewed by others who are not in his situation. One of the refrains throughout the poem, is the I voice of the poem saying “and I remembered the black milk”. So the message of pain is consigned to memory as his present circumstances remind him of the Nazi past.  But unlike Death Fugue in which there was an ominous matter of factness about drinking the black milk and the denunciation was implicit rather than proclaimed, in Ghayath Almadhoun’s reprisal of the poem, the exhortation “Do not drink the black milk” is issued as a direct, if whispered, warning by Paul Celan himself. The dead poet has emerged from the River Seine, from the watery grave of his suicide, and in a gesture of solidarity joins the Syrians marching to Northern Europe. Note that the word ‘emerge’ appeared in the first line of the poem as an emerging from the behind the scenes and an emerging from nightmares, whereas towards the end there is a joyful emergence from the water and death. Could Ghayath Almadhoun be suggesting that poetry, the memory it retains can be an antidote to the distancing of those who hold privileges vis a vis groups that are currently experiencing repression? After all, throughout the poem his European friends are drawing away, but the poem closing image is that of a powerful voice of poetry from the past willing to come alive again and walk with the Syrians, towards an unknown destiny, in community. As though to temper the optimism and perhaps heroism of the image of the emergent and disappearing Paul Celan, the very last lines  return the reader to an apparently vague time “In those days”, which unfortunately might be historical times devoid of miracles and for the poet himself a time in which he was trying to withdraw from the memory of the poem and facing the pain that it would entail in his life (In those days I was still trying not to remember Paul Celan). The last lines take the reader back from a fantasy world (a fugue in the sense of an escape) to one steeped in Ghayath’s iconic black comedy reflecting the actual world we live in, the one where he draws meaning and poetry, a place where paradoxically the Dead Sea is alive  and live broadcasts are dead (again a note on language and its intricacies and ironies). And maybe it’s from there that we can expect the miracle of his poetry.


PART III – Of the many roots of the tree of anger, agency, brokeness, Othering, Empire, and the young voices of color from poetry in the margins, Italy 2019


Linking the splitting that occurs in Ghayath’s Almadhoun’s poetry, the ability of his poetic I to be simultaneously in different location  and draw knowledge, in some cases a foreknowledge and in some an after-the-fact type of knowledge, deriving in large part from his lived experience, I would like to shift my attention now to the situation in Italy as concerns the possibilities (potential and in progress)  of creating poetry by people who are directly affected by issues of racism and colonialism.  Like both Tesfom and Almadhoun, poets of color in Italy are confronted with the issue of denial (inTesfom’s case it was Europe’s ignoring of the pleas for help made by the global South vis-à-vis Europe, and in Almadhoun’s case the ignoring of the pleas for solidarity with the Syrians resisting and revolting Assad).  In Italy’s case, in relation to immigrants (particularly those of color) and their offspring, it is a specific type of denial that removes the memory of Italian colonialism and today pretends to not see race, it  at least in the “enlightened, benign version of the progressive and activist population (among the extreme right instead race figures prominently and with an overtly white supremacist  approach). What consequences does this have on the poetry produced by Italian poets of color? What impact does not having a lexicon for addressing issues of identity and agency have on artistic representation and production?  In an attempt to approach these awkward, inconvenient and uncomfortable issues, this last section of the paper tries to gather its strength from the criterion of  “maladaptation”, ‘which, as suggested by poet and critic Carla Mussi[23], is not to be interpreted in the negative sense but rather as the will to resist adapting to trendy forms of thought, to always maintain a position that keeps its distance from clichés, fads, conventions and formulas. In a way, it is an invitation to go against the tide and be able to propose inconvenient subjects and approaches in the face of unpopular consequences it may entail.

Though there is a range of views on these issues among the editors of La Macchina Sognante, the journal has been very adept in the terrain of controversy by publishing two essays that caused quite a stir, the first one titled “Antirazzismo senza razza” by Camilla Hawthorne and myself (issue n.4, October 2016, a condensed, English language version was published shortly thereafter in https://africasacountry.com/2016/09/anti-racism-without-race-in-italy, and the full version in The Dreaming Machine, n.3  a few years later in May 2018, as “Antiracism without race, an ongoing, pernicious problem in the Italian antiracism movement” ). The second article, “Meticciato o della problematicità di una parola” written by Camilla Hawthorne and myself (La Macchina Sognante, issue n. 5, January 2017, the English version, “Meticciato, on the problematic nature of a word, in The Dreaming Machine n. 2, May 2018.)

With the reluctance to even utter the word race in polite circles just as black people are incessantly the target of micro and not so micro aggressions by the not so polite crowds, much needed debates and experimentation with lexicon, poetics and representation is marginalized and relegated either to academia or to the social media. In some academic circles, one of the tendencies is to emphasize hybridity, with its particular variant ‘meticciato’[24], in some cases this approach insists on collective writing mixing white Italians and people of color in an attempt to escape what area seen as deleterious results in other countries where identity is the driving element.

To someone coming from the US, like many of you in this symposium, it may appear paradoxical that white people purporting to be  progressive today in Italy wear black face to show solidarity against racist attacks on blacks (as happened a few months ago with famed restauranteur and Neapolitan celebrity Gino Sorbillo[25]) and  insist on doing so even after leading figures in the Black community such as novelist and journalist Igiaba Scego point out that, for all its good intentions, it is  a racist gesture.

At an institutional level, what occurred this past April with the cover photo of the Style supplement of Il Corriere della Sera of Milan[26], the second largest national newspaper of Italy, may struck a reader immediately as grotesque. The Style supplement of  which sported Democratic party Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala in a photo sitting down in a stately pose with a blondish boy standing behind him and a black girl crouching at his feet, clutching his ankles. All of this with a headline proclaiming Milan to be an “Open City” tolerant yet mindful of rules, [a city] that has become a model to be imitated. A few days later, a group of nine Black Italian women (including activists, writers, scholars, bloggers, translators, entrepreneurs, some living in Italy some abroad) issued an Open letter[27] with an explanation of how that image was offensive both for its colonial spirit and its degrading portrayal of the black girl.  The letter circulated widely in social media but the Mayor never responded. The editor in chief of the supplement had a meeting with two representatives of the group in which he reiterated that the image was not at all offensive and that racism was gratuitously being read into it by the writers of the open letter. Needless to say, both La Macchina Sognante[28] and  The Dreaming Machine published the letter, and the episode served as a reminder about how important it is that the journal help foster debate and take a position on these vital issues, at a time when there isn’t much participation in this kind of discourse on the part of other cultural print or online platforms.

Because of its transnational approach and the backgrounds of most of the editors, over the years La Macchina Sognante has published writings by women of color writing in the US, Afro Brazilian and Afro-Colombian writers, most of whom are not well known in Italy yet. Among them Fatimah Asghar, Carolina De Jesus, June Jordan, Shailja Patel, Conceição Evaristo de Brito, Danielle Legros George.  We have also published poets from a previous generation who are gaining fame in Italy now, like Audre Lorde[29], including a review and poems from a collection published in Italy last year through the efforts of a collective of translators called WiT – Women in translation.

Among the poems by Audre Lorde proposed by La Macchina Sognante, “Who Said It Was Simple” is the one that seems to have fostered more reflection and discussion about its pertinence to the Italian situation:


Who Said It Was Simple

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

This poem emanates a multilayered poignancy that seems at odds with the directness of the language and the mundane nature of the situation. It is introduced with a powerful metaphor from the world of nature and closes with a discourse rooted in paradox. The lyrical I in fact feels besieged by liberations, which instead of being benign and salvation-inducing appear to be menacing (wondering which me will survive). The poet laments the impossibility to be whole, and often a feeling of fragmentation, of having to choose allegiances is what many young people from the second generations, especially of color complain about in Italy. In the poem, the odd reaction of “fearing which liberation will survive” is triggered by the difference the writer perceives in her own self-awareness and self-identification vis-à-vis the other women who have come to the demonstration. Her estrangement consists of the fact that the I who writes is “bound by my mirror  /as well as my bed / sees causes in colour / as well as sex”.

The simplicity of the language and the choice of mundane settings (the demonstration, the café, the evocation of the women’s petty bourgeois homes with the ‘problematic’  domestic help, consisting most likely of young women of color brings to mind another source of difference yet, the one based on class (the reason why the almost white barman may serve the ladies first instead of the brother). In the brief space of 18 lines,  Audre Lorde managed to recreate a world laden with hierarchies and  communicate the feeling of dread of those who are aware of them, surrounded by a world who is oblivious to them.

In terms of the fragmentation of the self, (in today’s parlance, ‘brokeness’)  which unlike Almadhoun dos not result in enhanced vision but in paralysis, I would like to turn to Federica De Matthias poem “Destruction”[30] (translation mine, forthcoming in The Dreaming Machine n. 5, December 2019).  Federica de Matthias is a young sociologist and blogger, founder of the blog afrodixit, who was born in Burkina Faso and adopted very early on by an Italian, white family.  With other adoptees she is currently trying to work on the issue of international adoptions, which are frequent in Italy, especially interracial ones.


My gaze lost

My hands trembling

Drops of sweat slowly rolling down my cheeks

And finally settling down, harshly on my lips

Lips that are hard and dry

Tightly drawn together, on the ready for any potential attack

Of the tongue

The tongue moves

Spasmodically in my mouth, seeking instinctively a way out

My heart is pounding

Jolting all internal organs

My legs are buckling

With fatigue

As they try to keep me straight

Me and my destruction

The self-awareness is pronounced, she is witnessing her self-destruction from an outside space, from a margin (the concluding line is like a title of a painting- me and my destruction) and the body is observed in all its components as a body that cannot act and self-destroys. It would be interesting to tie these observations, offered with an almost clinical detachment, to the difficulty of agency, a stuttering of action, an aphasia. What is especially striking is the description of the tongue and its relation to the lips, held tight in a sort of containment that does not allow words to be uttered, even though the tongue may be ready to strike at any moment. In this precise detailing of bodily action/inaction what may be implied is the demand for a kind of wholeness that could foster activity as opposed to destruction. In a way that is not resolutory but oscillates with ambiguities, the poet seems to recover some elements of her longed for wholeness when she fishes among the memories of her infancy in Burkina Faso, in a poem called “Memories”

Sun, always at the center of my childhood / the red soil of my mother land, fine dust that penetrates my being / after a sensorial description of the memories based on smells and sounds she recalls (the smells of the city, the smog , the smell of animals being butchered, the open sewers, the fragrance of flowers),  she then seems to contrast the inability to express herself with a depiction of a flurry of idle communication (people screaming, debating useless things, gossiping), with then the more positive images tied to women and life (the smiles of meeting again, the cries of hungry children, the singing and dancing to feel alive/ babies at the breast and carried on the back, the colorful clothes). Then again, a flurry of activity (people at the market, the chaos, bargaining, the winking) but even here, the poet in her memory is located at the margin, as a child would when observing the adults.

Trying to explain to the native, who are presumably not split in their self-perception, the immigrant’s relation to one’s childhood is highlighted in Fatimah Asghar’s poem Super orphan. Asghar described “brokenness” as an opportunity — a chance to use language in new ways and to address stories at the margins, including her own. In a way, in a country where there has been more of a chance to develop a nuanced discourse around issues of migration and race, and her. In her case, her identity is strongly tied to the trauma of losing at the young age of 5  her Kashmiri and Pakistani parents who were part of the diaspora “Being a part of any kind of diaspora is such a beautifully haunting and strange experience, to kind of constantly be working back toward a place where your family has left, or were exiled from, or can’t go back to…[…]That’s a kind of orphaning in its own self.”[31] In issue n. 5, January 1, 2017  of La Macchina Sognante we published my Italian translation of a series of  Fatimah Asghar’s poems including Super Orphan:[32]



Super Orphan

Today, I donned my cape like a birth
certificate & jumped, arms wide into the sky.

I know—once there was a man.
Or maybe a woman.

Let’s try again: once, there was a family.
What came first?

What to do then, when the only history
you have is collage?

Woke up, parents still
dead. Outside, the leaves yawn,

re-christen themselves as spring.

Though ironically couched in the language of cartoons and superheroes, the heroism evoked here is far from that of Tesfom’s two poems, or Giulio Gasperini remarks about victory and wanting to share it with the missing brother. What is emphasized here is the difficulty of communicating to someone who has not shared that experience, but unlike Tesfom, Fatimah is not bent on establishing complicity or asserting a potential kinship with the non-refugee:

Let’s try again: once, there was a family.
What came first?

            The halting rhythm and frequent rephrasing of the explanation denotes the difficulty and frustration of sharing the experience with those who have not lived it, so irony and sarcasm become the favorite tone, creating exaggerated scenarios worthy of a Marvel movie (Lets try again. Once there was a village /on a pale day, unaware of the greatness / at its gate)

After reprising scenes from Gotham, the Joker and other favorite tropes from US culture, she adds fuel to the fire engaging her imagination and verse in  paradoxical efforts to explain her family circumstances to complete strangers, setting and displacing at the same time  the actual hardships suffered by her family through the device of the dream (The same dream again: / police running after my faceless / family with guns / my uncle leaps into a tulip /filled field, arms turning to wings /as bullets greet him.)

The closing lines of the poem leave the issue of heroism open in a way that could possibly cast doubts on the heroic or villainous status of the refugee, yet calls reader’s attention to the unfairness  of constantly placing on the refugee or immigrant the burden of explaining their circumstances, their very existence, a constant demand about their status  that is not made on people who are perceived as native, as belonging.

Are all refugees superheroes?

Do all survivors carry villain inside them?

Today, I donned my cape like a birth
certificate & jumped, arms wide into the sky.

How else to say I am here?

Interestingly, Igiaba Scego, Italy’s best known Black Italian writer and journalist, together with the UN High Commission on Refugees in November 2018 published a collection of short stories by the title “Anche Superman era un rifugiato”[33] (Superman too was a refugee) consisting of 12 short stories 6 of which told the stories of famous refugees like Hannah Arendt or Rudolph Nureyev and 6 were stories of people who are not well known.

Fatimah’s open question at the end of her poem begs the question of the problem of Othering, a word that again has not entered Italian public discourse; actually with the word the Other generally eliciting  a bonus for compassion and altruism, whether it comes from the Catholic tradition (together with “the least one among you- gli ultimi), or from more sophisticated trends in French  philosopher starting from Levinas.

In her collection, The Dear Remoteness of you[34],  Danielle Legros Georges, an African American poet of Haitian origin, brilliantly reached the core of the problem in a poem titled “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts”. The poem was published along with six others in issue n.2  of La Macchina Sognante, in April 2016.  The poem begins in an objective, newspaper reporter tone with the African-American boxer Jack Johnson “glistening like a fish”, being asked by a white journalist in the 1950’s why white women are drawn to men like him. His masterful come back to the question was “we eat cold eels and think distant thoughts”. At this point the objective narration of facts is halted and Danielle Legros Georges own poetic voice muses

What is it like to be

A black man who thinks to say we eat cold eels and think

Distant thoughts to a white reporter, in early-1900s America,

Who wishes to reduce him to meat, to red, to sexual.

The poems ends with the image of an eel in a tank:

Below its head, no body but a tail of fluid form, one great muscle
Behind ears that were not ears, but also holes. Its whole body

Beating a slow chilled rhythm that kept it afloat.

And a cool terror shot through me, as it watched me watch it,
As it followed me through the liquid wall that split our worlds,
And separated our species.
The body evoking difference, of an uncanny sort, is reprised in Djarah Kan’s poem “Soumayila Sacko, storia di una vita da pacchia (Soumayila Sacko, the story of a freeloader’s life)[35], published in LMS on July 1, 2018 in issue n. 11, which in its title mocks Matteo Salvini’s propaganda against immigrants, all of whom are depicted as freeloaders. Djarah Kan, the young Neapolitan singer and writer, of Congolese origins  dedicated this piece to a Senegalese agricultural worker and trade unionist by the name of Soumaila Sacko who was shot by a white  Calabrian farmer in a racially motivated attack, not too far from the notorious town of Rosarno, in Calabria, which has become a symbol for the exploitation of immigrant workers as well as for their resistance.

Writing in the voice of the dying immigrant, first she addresses the contrasting and shifting  perceptions of him, the black migrant body  in the nation she says “Now that I am dying , my face becomes everyone’s face.

Now that I am dying, first I become a thief, then a victim of hatred, then a thief again, a luckless negro , nigger with no recourse.

Much of her poem is dedicated then addressing those who would stand in solidarity with him, pretending there are no differences, the colorblind attitude we discussed earlier in the paper. Lending her voice to the dead man, the reader learns he is disgruntled by the choice of photos of him circulating in Italy, which depict a haggard man, one who is starving and hasn’t slept in days. Instead he claims a self -image as a vital young man, proudly raising his fist as he leads other agricultural workers on strike. The image that is circulating, however, is one that suit those who would like to elicit compassion for him and are clearly adopting a containment stance, vis-à-vis his ability to act.  Fortunately, though his dead status is preventing him from speaking for himself, there are those like Djarah Kan who create art that is meant to do that, starting from the shared experience of being black in Italy in 2018.
You cannot , white man, stand there and be on my side. Because you are alive, and I am still dead.

Because we are walking and you hope that maybe one day we could resemble each other and be equal, but History made us and then divided us.

Because the skin I leave on this earth , will one day deflate as the flesh rots, sooner or later.  Time will do it, death has already done it. And people shall forget what it is like to mourn a migrant, one who by definition is rooted nowhere, but his existence is told as a dark weightless cloud, ethereal and with no specific weight, devoid of importance.

Like a cloud the migrant lets himself be pushed by the wind blowing from far away and gets beached, and lands, without ever putting roots. 

The movement of immigrants, their depiction and the attendant issues of racism, white privilege, empire have been foremost on Shailja Patel’s work for over 20 years. Steeped in the experience of migration herself, from Africa, to Europe, to the US then back to Africa, she coined the term “migritude” –  migrant with attitude –  in the early 2000 and I have been very close to her work, translating and  promoting it. Over the years, both La Macchina Sognante and The Dreaming Machine (and before them, Sagarana) have been lucky to carry her contributions, both in the form of poems and interviews[36].This past November 2018,  she was in Venice to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the release of the bilingual edition of her book Migritude, translated into Italian in 2008 by Marta Matteini and myself.  I want to conclude this presentation with just the beginning of  video poem she made in Venice for the Smithsonian, for the series “Queer check in” https://vimeo.com/341047090 addressing exactly some of the issues  of eurocentrism, color blindness, entitlement, homophobia, Othering and Empire that we have discussed so far and that are beginning to be addressed by Italian writers from the first and second generation of immigrants.  For me it is an in-progress project as I am translating the poem contained in the video for the next issue of La Macchina Sognante.

Aptly set in the Venice of working people before the tourists arise to start their day of sight-seeing,  she begins with the query “What do we mean when we talk about movement?”  progressing then to an examination of a question that was posed to her the night before by the progressive host of her presentation, who magnanimously asked “How do you see us? (i.e., how do you, the migrant (guess what color) see us (the native, guess the color). Little did he know, that he could not have found a better person to whom to pose that question. Shailja Patel’s rich and textured responses to his query contained in the poem are going to be the object of a forthcoming essay linking her work to current efforts by Italian young writers of color to forge their distinctive voice and poetics.


Pina Piccolo, Lisbon July 25th, 2019.


My utmost gratitude to Carla Billitteri for her gentle prodding to attend the Symposium and encouragement to write this paper.


*La Macchina Sognante is not to be confused with the English language journal The Dreaming Machine, launched in 2017 which shares a few translated articles from the Italian journal but has its own contributors, editor and transnational, anglophone audience.


[1]                A draft of this paper was presented on July 2019, at the Modern Language Association Symposium held in Lisbon, in the panel “Re-membering the Future: On the Poetics and Praxis of Articulating Marginalized Voices” organized by Prof. Carla Billitteri, who was also a presenter, along with Prof. Laura Hinton. I am grateful to both for the encouragement and intellectual stimulation.

[2]                Julio Monteiro Martins (1955-2014) was an established Brazilian writer, publisher, social and cultural activist who spent the last twenty years of his life in Italy where he published short stories, novels, poems and literary criticism in Italian. He founded and directed the online literary journal Sagarana (2000-2014), one of the first and longest lived online literary journals in Italy. Most of the editors of La Macchina Sognante had collaborated with him in various capacities and contributed to his journal over the years. Some of them are also currently endeavouring to have his work published and popularized in the English-speaking world. Poet and translators Helen Wickes and Don Stang, frequent contributors now to The Dreaming Machine (the English language online journal founded in 2017 initially as a spin-off project of LMS) have translated into English  his Italian poems, which can now be found both in print and online journals in Catamaran, Ghost TownThe Opiate MagazineApple Valley ReviewThe Dreaming MachineTwo Cities and others.

[3] Smith, Zadie “An essay is an act of imagination. It still takes quite as much art as fiction” in The Guardian, 21 November 2009.

[4] Galeano, Eduardo, Memoria del Fuego (1982-1986) trilogy, released in English translations as Volume I Genesis;  Volume II: Faces and Masks;  Volume III: Century of the Wind. Open Road Media 2014. The Book of Embraces, 1989.

[5] Standley, Fred. R: “An interview with James Baldwin”. In Standley Fred R., Pratt Louis H. (eds.): Conversations with James Baldwin. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, 1989.

[6] The first special insert, in issue n. 0 of October 2015, was a homage to writer Julio Monteiro Martins whose work was a deep inspiration for La Macchina Sognante.  It was literary in nature and hosted samples from the works of Julio Monteiro Martins as well as contributions from writers paying homage to his influence both as a critic and writer. The second insert, published a month and a half later than issue n. 9, concentrated on racism and focused on events that transpired in Macerata in February 2018 after the killing of Pamela Mastrangelo, the random shooting by a neofascist of  6 black asylum seekers and the vicissitudes surrounding the national demonstration organized by progressives in  that city.  The third insert, published shortly after issue n 12 of October 2018, was devoted to migration related questions raised by the arrest of Riace Mayor Mimmo Lucano and the persecution of the Riace Model, especially the intensification of attacks by the right-wing Italian government against the solidarity movement with migrants and asylum seekers.

[7]           Cupertino, Lucia; Cerolini, Reginaldo, Piccolo, Pina: Resetting the Compass from North to the Souths: Utopian and Dystopian Terrains Surveyed by La Macchina Sognante, forthcoming in Utopia in Everyday life- Cultural Politics and Change, Vol. II, edited by Claudia Gualtieri, Peter Lang 2019.

[8]                Cfr. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi: The danger of the single story TED talk, TED Global 2009 conference, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

[9]                Joron, Andrew: “The Emergency of Poetry.” In Terminal Velocities (ed); Pantograph Press: Berkeley 1993. Translated into Italian by Pina Piccolo In La Macchina Sognante n.10 (2018), retrieved 27.2.2019, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/lemergenza-della-poesia-di-andrew-joron-trad-di-pina-piccolo/

[10] Harjo, Joy, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001.  W. W. Norton & Company; Revised edition (January 17, 2004)

[11] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/pdfscache/1275.pdf

[12] VV.AA, Sotto il cielo di Lampedusa: Annegati da respingimento, edited by 100Thousand Poets for Change-Bologna, Rayuela 2014; Sotto il cielo di Lampedusa: Nessun uomo è un’isola, Rayuela, 2015

[13] VV.AA, Muovimenti: Segnali da un mondo viandante, edited by Bartolomeo Bellanova, Lucia Cupertino, Gassid Mohammed and Piccolo, Pina, Terre d’Ulivi, 2017.

[14] Menozzi Filippo, Ethics at the Border: Transmitting Migrant Experiences”, in Borderlands and Liminal Subjects: Transgressing the Limits in Philosophy, editors Winchock D, Decker J., in Literature Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

[15] Meticciamente, “Migranti, la dignità è un’altra cosa” from Meticcia Mente- pensieri in libertà di un’italiana contemporanea, post of June 20, 2019.

[16] Tsaamo, Gaius “Accogliere o non accogliere? Questo non è il dilemma” La Macchina Sognante n. 7, July 2017.

[17] http://www.vitainternational.media/en/story/2018/09/14/the-libyan-inferno-in-segens-poems/11/

[18] “L’Era dell’Aquarius- Poesie”, poems by Paolo Gera, Tesfom Tesfalidet, Pina Piccolo, Paolo Polvani, Toni Piccini, Bartolomeo Bellanova, La Macchina Sognante n.11, July 2018.

[19] Gasperini Giulio, “L’alba vindice appar- analisi di due poesie di Tesfalidet Tesfom, detto Segen”, La Macchina Sognante n. 12, October 2018. The English translation of  analysis from Gasperini’s article is mine, the English translation of Tesfalidet Tesfom poems is from the Vita International article cited above.

[20] Blasim, Hassan, “Un rifugiato in quel paradiso che è l’Europa” (A Refugee in That Paradise That Is Europe, LMS n. 9, Jan. 2018); Laila, Wafai Poesia di Wafai Laila ( Poems by Wafai Laila, LMS  n. 1, January 2016); al Ghorra, Fatena “Così che torni solo il suono del vento- due poesie di Fatena al Ghorra (So That Only the Sound of the Wind May Return-Two Poems by Fatena Al Ghorra, LMS n. 14, April 2019); AlJabr, Tareq, “Di questo mondo” poesie di Tareq AlJabr in edizione trilingue (L Of  This World, poems by Tarq Al Jabr in trilingual edition, ebeg, PoeThree 2018, LMS n. 13, January 2019); Ahmed Masoud “La sua risata” (Her Laughter, LMS n.9, Jan. 2018).

[21] Ghayath Almadhoun’s English translation by Catherine Cobham first appeared in the site interimpoetics. His first English language collection Adrenalin, translated by Catherine Cobham, was published by Action Books in November 2017.

[22] Almadhoun, Ghayath and Basak, Sohini, “In conversation with Ghayath Almadhoun”, Asymptote, March 19, 2018.

[23]              Mussi, Carla: “Dove va la poesia”. In: Ferrari Mauro (ed): Dove va la poesia. Riflessioni sul presente. Puntoacapo editrice: Pasturana 2018. Excerpts published in La macchina sognante n.13 (2018), retrieved 27.2.2019, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/intervento-di-carla-mussi-tratto-da-dove-va-la-poesia-riflessioni-sul-presente-a-cura-di-mauro-ferrari/

[24] The term ‘meticciato’ became popular in progressive circles and among white Italians participating in the antiracism movement in the early 2010’s, particularly in the years when the center-left parties were in power in the Italian government, and continues to hold sway particularly in the Bologna area.

[25] https://www.ilpost.it/2018/12/28/blackface-razzista/

[26] https://style.corriere.it/top-class/stylemilan-citys-mayor-beppe-sala-interviewed-actor-stefano-accorsi/

[27] http://www.razzismobruttastoria.net/2019/05/02/lettera-aperta-un-gruppo-donne-nere-italiane/

[28]  http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/lettera-aperta-di-un-gruppo-di-donne-nere-italiane-al-sindaco-giuseppe-sala-e-al-team-editoriale-per-la-rivista-corriere-della-sera-style/ ; http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/open-letter-by-a-group-of-black-italian-women/

[29] Lorde, Audre, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/5-poesie-da-damore-e-di-lotta-poesie-scelte-di-audre-lorde-le-lettere-2018-con-saggio-di-daniela-maurizi/


[30] De Matthias, Federica, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/dolore-resistenza-desiderio-versi-di-nilza-costa-e-federica-de-matthias-due-poete-afro-italiane/


[31] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/poetry/fatimah-asghar-orphan

[32] Asghar, Fatimah, http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/la-mattina-mi-sbuccio-la-tristezza-la-stendo-ad-asciugare-5-poesie-di-fatimah-ashgar-trad-a-cura-di-pina-piccolo/


[33]  https://www.unhcr.it/news/anche-superman-un-rifugiato-storie-vere-coraggio-un-mondo-migliore.html

[34] Legros Georges, Danielle, The Dear Remoteness of You”, Barrow Street Press 2016.


[35]  Kan, Djarah, https://kasavacall.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/soumaila-sacko-storia-di-una-vita-di-pacchia/

[36] Patel, Shailja: in La Macchina Sognante, issue n. 0 http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/come-lambi-si-trasformo-in-paisley/,  issue. N. 0 http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/emmanuel-iduma-interviews-shailja-patel/, issue n. 12 http://www.lamacchinasognante.com/dieci-anni-dalla-pubblicazione-bilingue-italiana-di-migritude-di-shailja-patel-lietocolle-2008-introduzione-di-pina-piccolo/; in The Dreaming Machine, issue n. 1 http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/syllabus-note-shailja-patel/, issue n. 1 http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/shailja-patel-on-how-the-empire-travels-back-bani-amor-interviews-shailja-patel/, issue n. 3 http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/shailja-patels-migritude-2018-celebrating-the-tenth-anniversary-of-the-english-italian-edition/


Cover image: Artwork by Irene De Matteis.