CHANGING PARADIGMS: PINA PICCOLO IN LITERARY CONVERSATION ON POETRY, PART II: INTERVIEW IN “WRITERS SPEAK”, (by Sagar Kumar Sharma, Signorina Publications, 2021
SKS: Could you tell the readers about your poetic process. Also, would you like to share some stories behind the making of your favourite poems written by yourself?
PP: Poetic production also has gone through many changes, with an alternation of spurts of intense creativity, like in 1991 -1993, and then again 2010-2016, alternating with periods of sporadic poetry writing. The same can be said for style and length. There was a time from let’s say 2005 to 2016 when most of my poems had a narrative bent (to the point where I got alarmed and attended creative writing workshops to practice writing short stories instead.) During that time, I experimented with writing poems that followed very closely footage from the news, videos or documentaries, dealing for example with what is known as the “the Mediterranean migrant crisis’, land grabbing in Ethiopia, the so called War on Terror, the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath, recombining the sections and mixing them with my own reflections in the form of verse, prevailing mythologies, experiences and sometimes with texts from other poets or novelists. I often used sarcasm, the grotesque and irony and attempted to perform a critical function from within the poem itself. There was no attempt at enforcing meter or a rhyming scheme, I relied mostly on assonance, repetition, enjambement. There were times when poems gushed out from sorrow and indignation: that’s the case for a series of nine poems I wrote during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Desert Storm. I have tried to reconstruct how that series was born, it’s connection to the antiwar movement in the San Francisco Bay Area and internationally in a paper I have submitted to the Paideuma journal of the University of Maine and which is schedule to be published next year. Over the years, I have also switched between languages, with early poems in Italian, then from around 1978 to 2005 mostly in English and then from 2005 to now in both languages, depending of where I am at the time of the writing. However, poems written in Italian and in English, though similar in topics, are totally different in structure, pacing, lexical choices and registers, almost as though I were a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the last two years my poems are exclusively in English, as I have come to the conclusion that if a poem fails to reach audiences (as was happening for me in Italy) something has gone awry. There must be some sort of resonance with the reader, otherwise the poem better lie in your drawer or in your computer. What I learned over the years is that usually Italian readers have a hard time accepting that my poems don’t have a lyrical I, and are offended that I am actually happy with that and don’t miss it. What irks them the most is that I lack the reverence of being in a continuing conversation with poets who have preceded me whom I am to consider my ‘fathers’ or ‘mothers. As I believe that poetry is every man and woman’s prerogative, since it is, for the time being, a function of speech, I don’t really feel a need for poetic affiliation, though I am well acquainted with the works of many poets and I admire many, though I don’t necessarily incorporate their voice or styles into mine. The Italian poetic tradition started with Dante and Petrarch, the latter a lyrical poet and the former more in the epic tradition, yet today in Italy what is generally accepted as poetry with a capital P is only the lyrical, the rest are considered sub genres, civic -minded poetry, experimental poetry, etc. Which, of course, constitutes a problem for me, as I am no friend of confessional poetry (which seems de rigueur if you inhabit a female body), I would rather engage with the outer world rather than the inner one.
Anyway, returning to creative process, some poems have a long gestation and sedimentation, others seem to arrive fully formed, with the need for just few changes. For decades they were usually unleashed by sadness or indignation, spurred by a reaction to some injustice or observation of a paradox. Lately my poetry has turned from recording the state of society towards philosophical musing, the attempt to incorporate into verse science or new findings in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Poetry trying to come to terms with what is intelligence, who/what possess it in different forms, our interconnectedness with all the creatures of the Earth, and the universe. Should poetry try to get in touch with the crow or the whale beyond using them as a vehicle for parables? Is any of that possible and is it within the confines of poetry, with its penchant for mysterious territories and incantations? I think that maybe a ‘speculative’ sort of poetry can be equipped to grapple with the epistemological crisis we are facing, one that requires a paradigm shift probably of the same magnitude of the one that took the earth away from being the centre of the universe. When you step on this kind of terrain it’s difficult to find counsel from the poets of the past, though many of them recorded times of crises, suffices to think of Yeats and many, like Blake, were able to summon a kind of radical imagination direly needed today. And unfortunately, because of my own limitations, I am just thinking of poets within the Western tradition. The younger generations, with their more automatic ability to think in transnational ways and to master technologies that give access to different language materials are undoubtedly more apt to put together the tools needed. However, I see the transnational literary magazines as a step in that direction and I feel privileged to have met so many international poets through them, including you, Sagar Kumar Sharma, to whom I am greatly indebted for this interview and the thoughtful questions. I value immensely the contemporary poets from India that I was able to meet over the past 4 years, starting with a collaboration with Aritra Sanyal from Kolkata, and continuing with literary journal Duniyaadaari, I am discovering such a rich and varied poetic cosmos that I am committed to explore more at depth and help bring to audiences in Italy and to the English speaking readers through the 2 journals. Another big predicament of our times is that the grounds occupied by poetry are also rapidly shifting. I am thinking of the place music and songs have in our lives, resonating with our inner selves, in some cases throughout the day, in a way that maybe poetry resonated with large swaths of the literate population during the times of the Romantic poets in Europe and North America. I can think of how Patti Smith or The Clash impacted my inner world when I was a young woman. How their dissonance resonated with me and helped form my imagination. Or even think about psychoanalysis and other disciplines and practices maybe have taken over that space where lyric poetry reigns supreme (and am sure has influenced the way people write that genre of poetry). Often I muse if language itself is the culprit, with its inability to deeply grasp and convey the world and things. The non correspondence between word and thing, compounded by a tenuous relation to truth, that is the hallmark of our times. Sometimes I feel a yearning for a poetry that is borne from a sense that lies dormant, one that we don’t even know that we have, that was pre-existent and that goes beyond language. One of the curious and somewhat eerie experiences that I have been having since Covid, are dream poems, usually tied to anxiety about the state of the world. Once, at around 3 am, in my sleep- dream state I felt almost like a voice dictating a poem (it’s the poem that start “And we gathered darkness by the basketfuls”). I felt compelled to get up, find a notebook and write it down right then and there. Most of the times, though, the creative process is not so traumatic. I find that it is language stored in my unconscious that gets triggered by an event that has a mysterious or disturbing side, going back to the estrangement and the slip of language I mentioned in the beginning. There was a period that I call my “walking poems period” in which I was able to give form to the sedimentation while taking a walk. At any rate I have never been a very disciplined writer as far as times of day, setting aside time just for writing. If I do that, poetry seems to elude me altogether.
SKS: What according to you are the social responsibilities of writers? Do you think these are being fulfilled?
PP: That is a tough question because, on one hand, it is obvious that poetry cannot solve the ills of the world, so that burden should not be placed on the poet’s shoulders. On the other hand, poetry can nudge readers to see the world differently, to gain a change of perspective, so it would be desirable that the poet be able to sniff the winds of history and see themselves as part of a process of positive change. But, as you know poets are part of society and today’s society is based on competition, on the thirst for fame, recognition and money, from which we are certainly not exempted, so that doesn’t bide too well for assigning a ‘moralizing’ mission to poets.
I am a little wary of lining up with those poets who claim that just by engaging in poetry you are taking a revolutionary stance, since it is the least profitable of the arts, it goes against the grain of consumer society, helps exercise ethical muscles with the sensitivity it supposedly instills. In reality, I think that there can be no moral compass that guides poetry that is independent of the compass that guides the individual who writes poetry, i.e., I don’t think the genre in itself gives any guarantees. An ethical minded poetry will not flow out of obligation, it must flow from a genuine commitment, otherwise the art produced will be didactic, will result in manifestos that undercut the efficacy of the craft and contain a false core that is apparent to the audience. This is a great problem: how to produce art that speaks to the people and moves them because it is the product of a genuine process within the artist. There is nothing in the craft of writing the protects the writer against false consciousness and literary texts that have supported unpalatable agendas are a dime a dozen. There is nothing about being in conversation with the great minds of literature that guarantees ethical choices. Literature in itself does not have some kind of moral superiority. However, when that ethical core is genuine, it shines through the work, I am thinking of some of the poems of Nazim Hikmet, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, and they yield amazing results. So, in a way, the issue really is how do you foster an ethical world, within which people endowed with poetic skills will be able to influence others positively with the strength of their work, and will be willing to pay the price for it (which these days is not a small one, think of how many poets are in jail worldwide, how many have no recognition because their poems disturb the powers that be).
SKS: T S Eliot said, ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’What is your objective correlative? What is your story in verse?
PP: It’s funny that you should bring up T.S. Eliot; on my graduation from high school in 1974, the valedictorian, a pale 17 year old girl known for writing poetry began her speech with “We are the hollow men” and ended it, of course with “the world ending in a whimper”, which at the time elicited some sneering from the audience composed of enthusiastic, full of life teen-agers who couldn’t wait to get out into that
world. That image sticks to my mind as one of those epic fails where poet and audience are not at all on the same page. In terms of the ‘objective correlative’, I understand the power of the formulation and it is certainly a well-crafted warning against producing a poem that is flat rather than multi-layered, ‘tells’ the reader what to think rather than creating with verse an environment that elicits the feeling. In terms of how it impacts me, as I was saying before, the eliciting of emotion is not high on my agenda, and I am still working on figuring out my story, within this goal of taking it into a speculative direction. The book I published in Italian, I canti dell’Interregno, on the other hand, has a narrative arc related to the Gramscian notion of the Interregnum, i.e., the period of crisis when “[…]the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The poems, written in a 40-year span detail those morbid symptoms, the ‘monsters’ of the Interregnum that we witness every day, hopefully in a layered way.
SKS: ‘Poetry is the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance’, said Matthew Arnold. What is more important to you, content or style?
PP: Again I think what grabs me in a poem more than beauty and harmony, is the mystery it creates- it’s cognitive dissonance, the slippage, the estrangement. More than emotion, I am interested in it creating a curiosity, a beginning path of inquiry, I think this is particularly important as we are approaching a much needed paradigm shift, as millions of people worldwide are seeking new epistemologies to replace the old ones that have failed. Some are looking to the future and technology and I am thinking right now of the importance of AfroFuturism as a current and the artistic products it has yielded internationally in many fields. Others are even looking to ways of knowing that still exist among indigenous populations that carry the traces of more holistic world-views, suffice it to think of the whole school “Epistemologies of the Global South”, with Sousa Santos and its importance in South and Central America.
SKS: Who are the poets you consider as your poetic inspiration? Any particular poem you would like to talk about?
P P: There are so many poets who have inspired me throughout my life, some canonical others not, including Dante, Leopardi, Montale, Novalis, Rilke, Hikmet, Brecht, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Szymborska, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, June Jordan, Anita Barrows, Shailja Patel, Andrew Joron, Will Alexander. As you can see a pretty heterogeneous crowd. Andrew Joron and Will Alexander are both speculative poets that I admire greatly and whose work I have been trying to delve more deeply into. There is a 2001 essay by Andrew Joron titled “The Emergency of Poetry” that I hold particularly dear, which uses systems theory to describe the birth of water and then takes that metaphor to describe the emergence of poetry from language. I find myself reading it over and over and discovering new things each time. I feel that is the direction I should take in thinking of new ways to make poetry, as well as some paths suggested by Alice Fulton in her exploration of fractals and poetry.
SKS: How do you see creative arts as a medium of gender sensitisation?
PP: I think these past 20 years have been phenomenal for the emergence of women’s voices in poetry all over the world. Though up against a literary system that is seriously stacked against them and has kept them out of journals, anthologies, reading spaces, the power levers of the publishing world, poetry by women has made its irruption on the world stage in all its forms from the academic world and the page to performance poetry. La Macchina Sognante and The Dreaming Machine often share poetry from a project called Afrowomen Poetry directed by journalist Antonella Sinopoli of Global Voices that has stopped so far in four African countries Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Uganda to interview poets and create an archive with interviews and videos of their readings. The Indian and Bangladeshi poets I have met online who are living in the Kolkata and Delhi Area ( Sanghamitra Halder, Pushpanjana Karmakar, Shafinur Shafin, Paulami Sengupta, Anuradha Biswas, Swagata Dasgupta, Anindita Gupta Roy, Jhelum Tribedi, Raka Dasgupta), including prof. Nandini Sahu to whom I am much indebted for this interview, have been a great inspiration, with an amazing range of styles and topics, from reimagining mythology in a feminist mould, to musings about language, to poems explicitly addressing subordinate situations of women and their resistance, to creative revisitations of experiences and places. I hope that there will be more opportunities for international collaborations and expanding our networks of mutual support, as is already happening with the upcoming issue of Le Voci della Luna, presenting many Indian poets and photographer Sumana Mitra’s photos. The wisdom, creativity, knowledge and energy of women is direly needed, especially at this historical juncture.
SKS: Thank you, ma’am, for sharing with us your valuable ideas and experiences, and addressing the need to realise the shifting paradigms of poetry in such amazing words. It is an honour to have you in the book!
PP: Thank you so much for your very stimulating questions that have challenged me both to attempt a narrative of my experience in the writing field as well as to search for an articulation of aims and future paths to undertake. I look forward to learning about the paths undertaken by the other writers and what their future explorations will be. We really need these kinds of exchanges in this period and I thank you very much for providing the space for it.