by Pina Piccolo

The primary goal of the poet, the primary role of poetry,  is to humanize. […] The poets in this book confront head on, with their lyrical and philosophical depth and swagger, the violence that’s imposed upon them here on a daily basis.

They force their beauty onto the page (onto the world stage) rage made beautiful, even when they curse and sing, see and celebrate, moving people in ways that they have not been moved – be it through faces and ideas, or words (worlds) strung out of life’s mouth like popcorn or webs. They use their work as a force for change.  Because they believe, as the Nicaraguans, that we are all born poets: it is the society we live in that takes it away from us: and it is our job to take it back.  Tony Medina, May 15, 2001, Harlem, USA (1)

These words by poet and scholar Tony Medina, from his introduction to one of the first anthologies ever published of “spoken word” and performance poetry, offer in a nutshell the programmatic aspirations of a large number of committed performance poets, including Kenyan born poet Shailja Patel, with whom I have had the honor of collaborating for almost eight years.  Starting from experience gleaned in assisting her in various capacities during  3 Italian tours between 2006 and 2009, in which she performed pieces from her work Migritude Part 1: When sari’s speak – The Mother (2) , this paper aims  to make a  contribution to this “Un-worlding” conference by providing a preliminary  exploration of  the potential  for  anti-imperialist/feminist poetry as performed by artists from the global south to create a “rupture” in the consciousness of audiences from  the North of the world.

In a world where migration often stands at the intersection of various economic/political/ gender/ecological contradictions and signals their conflagration, I posit that the rupture described above is a required  step toward, as Medina says, “humanizing” or as other artists and activists in many parts of the world over the past 10 years have said, “staying human”.

In the years between 2006 and 2009  Shailja Patel was invited to perform in a variety of venues, mostly in northern and central Italy.  Her work Migritude was published in 2008 in a bilingual edition translated by Marta Matteini and myself and that publication spurred a number of performances tied to book presentations later that year. Performances in Italy over a 4 year period ranged from a small audiences of 30-40 people called together by the  progressive cultural club ARCI in a small town in the  Brianza area of Lombardy, in Berlusconi’s home turf, to a presentation in a progressive bookshop in Genoa, numbering in the 20s, to a  performance in front of an audience of about 40 community activists in the squatted cultural center Angelo Mai in Rome, to a performance in front of an audience of university students numbering in 100s at the university of Udine during the Azania Speaks! Conference. In 2007 Shailja Patel performed in the Italian – Indian festival “Un Po di Gange” in front of an audience of about 200 hundred immigrant workers of Indian, Bengali or Pakistani descent, and in the same year she performed in a small venue in  front of mostly US expatriates in Florence. By far the largest performance was at the Teatro Apollo in Ferrara, during the yearly festival of Italian progressive weekly Internazionale, where she appeared as a special guest in front of an audience of  close to 800 people.

Drawing from her life experience as a third generation Kenian of Indian descent, Migritude  delves into the idea and reality of borders and their historical significance in the life of individuals and nations. In her Italian tour many of Shailja Patel’s pieces seemed to puncture, both with the content and the style of performance, a unified false consciousness, a deep seated core of  identifying as a “first world” nation and expressing conventional racism as well as its “progressive” variant which in Italy has been dubbed razzismo democratico (democratic racism). The term refers both to a set of  insidious policies at the government level as well as  a set of widespread attitudes, racist behaviors and linguistic practices  deployed on a daily basis even by media and  people who would identify as progressive. Razzismo democratico has been the subject of some very interesting new,  sociological, anthropological and linguistic studies in Italy over the past few years (3). In his introduction  providing a picture of racial discrimination all over Europe, Salvatore Palidda writes:

“But it is Italy that is at a vanguard of the process. Undoubtedly the country that has advanced furthest in neoconservative development, Italy has been pursuing and reproducing, for twenty years now, the transformation of immigrants into clandestini, both as a formidable resource for the country’s economy, and as a politically profitable scapegoat for the racist nature of the right’s Crime Deal, with its corollary of mayor-sheriffs of the left and the right and homini novi of the so-called Second and Third Republics […]It is not by chance as shown by Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo (2009), that Italy has become the first European country at war against refugees and migrants.” (Palidda, pp.10-11 )

Of course such models  and their implementation encounter resistance on a daily basis, principally by the immigrants themselves but also by progressive Italians who stand in solidarity with them. In this context it may be easier to appreciate the importance of taking Shailja Patel’s poetry performances to Italy and gauging the potential of these types of performances  to act as an antidote against more subtle forms of racism.

It is interesting to note that immigration is a relatively new phenomenon  in a country like Italy  that has traditionally been and continues to be a land  of emigration and mass internal migration (4) . In his book L’Islam spiegato ai leghisti, sociologist Khaled Fouad Allam, traces the fears that over the years have been instilled and spread by the conservatives, and sometimes by allegedly progressive forces. This phenomenon occurs as the failure to establish satisfactory models of interaction between the native population and immigrants becomes ever more apparent. Italy’s model of interacting with migrants is neither the multicultural  “communities” model adopted in England nor the “universalism” model adopted in France. This vacuum has encouraged  the rise of an emergency mentality conveniently propagated by the government and the mainstream media in relation to migrants, especially those coming from Islamic majority countries (5). In this context, a prolific coinage of terms to describe the impacts of migration has flourished. Various administrations, whether right or center-left,  have contributed new terminology such as “pacchetto sicurezza” (emergency law packet),  “respingimenti” (push-back) the  neo classical sounding term referring to the at sea deportations, “emergenza migranti” (migrant emergency) and “sindaci-sceriffi  (the Wild –West evoking “sheriff-mayors” in charge of implementing the “pacchetto sicurezza”), a revisitation of the word “clandestine” which used to evoke late 19th century impoverished Italians stowed in the hold of ships directed to Argentina, but that now refers to “undocumented worker”. Loaded new words like “vù cumprà” (wanna buy?) and badante (looker-after) have entered the current vocabulary,  derogatory  terms that have been “naturalized”, to refer to immigrant street vendors and caretakers.

It is, then, refreshing to be confronted with a kind of counter-coining as the one performed by Shailja Patel with the title of her work ”Migritude” a  term that combines the concept of “migrants with attitude”, sporting a connotation of pride the term attitude has assumed in contemporary US while retaining a distant echo of  Leopold Senghor’s  Negritude (6), perhaps bringing it into the 21 century to  continue its trail of resistance. Thus, in the context of a lot of authoritarian and racist induced word coinage, Migritude constitutes a rupture at the linguistic level. And remembering that “words” create “worlds” as we reminded by a variety of sources ranging from the Bible to Lancan, uttering of the world migritude can open up a space.

Migritude in Italy: of ruptures and re-mapping the presence of the migrant

The first of an ambitious 4 parts project, Migritude Part 1 The Mother  is divided into 17 fragments represented, in its stage version, through 16 saris highlighting episode that illustrate the  tensions between traditional  parental expectations and the artistic ambitions of their  rebel  daughter. The girl’s voice is heard expounding an unabashedly feminist\‘migrantist’ point of view  “through a fusion of poetry, theatre and political reportage culminating with ‘a kind of ‘reconciliation’ piece in which the daughter summons the mother’s complicity” (7).

Now let’s consider what moves inside this space, in the case of performance poetry, a hybrid space between theater and poetry.  Consider for a moment Gayatri Spivak’s example of the lone British soldier walking across the countryside of India in the early Nineteen century, inscribing the colonial discourse upon the colonized “space”:

“He is actually engaged in consolidating the self of Europe by obliging the native to cathect the space of the Other on his home ground [that is, he is obliging the native to experience his home ground as imperial space]. He is worlding their own world, which is far from mere uninscribed earth… [he] is effectively and violently sliding one discourse under another  (8).

In a much welcomed converse move, in her tours of Italy, Shailja Patel inscribes the Italian space (a nuanced subset of European society, in which poetry is still predominantly a stilted activity) with the presence of the brown body of a third generation Kenyan woman of Indian descent passionately capturing the unique political and cultural space occupied by migrants who refuse to choose between identities of origin and identities of assimilation, who channel difference as a source of power rather than conceal or erase it”(Monegato, 237). Trained as a political economist, accountant, and yoga teacher, like most poets who engage in spoken word poetry, she carries knowledge from these parts of her life into her poetic work. She turns material that could potentially sound “confessional” into a passionate picture of the evolution of world and family events celebrating and revalorizing immigrant/diasporic culture, a process that finds great obstacles in Italy at this time, due to structural impediments described later on in the paper.  In fact, by her presence she acts as a converse mirror to Spivak’s words, forcing the European audiences to cathect their own space as that of the recipient of racism and Empire , forcing them into re-mapping a reality that many of the are comfortable accepting as is.

Moving now to the level of the visuals involved in her performance, the image of Shailja Patel on stage is an  extremely important element, especially in a country like Italy where aesthetic occupy such a central position. Whether climbing onto  a proper theater stage as in the cases of the Teatro Apollo in Ferrara and the Ducal Palace of Genoa during the International Poetry Festival, or  an improvised stage made of seminar tables as in the Udine University performance, or a miniscule Persian carpet used to mark the scenic space as in a migrant/native women space, or the narrow space of a bookshop  next to a window overlooking the port of Genoa with its container cranes, the first thing to strike the audience eye is Shailja’s erect/proud posture. In a stance that at times resembles that of a combatant, she unfolds pieces of Indian textiles in ways that challenge any potential “orientalist” expectation of seductive odalisque-like movements of the Other in favor of  a contained sense of rage mixed with grief, a wordsmith concealing the sharp knife of  the truth behind her matadora cape. In the performance, that cape turns out to be the “counter-invisibility cloack, the vermillion wool cape her sister gave her on her 21st birthday (Migritude, pp 64-8).

Not one to  ingratiate herself to audiences with a “soft” introduction to her world, Shailja’s opening piece uncovers the appropriation of cultural elements from the colonies by the colonizing country. It is titled “ How Ambi became Paisley”.  She starts with what could deceptively seem an elegiac account in a stereotypically feminine  mode about the birth of the shape of the Ambi from a tear from the goddess Astarte or a footprint of the goddess Parvati and suddenly takes it in another direction  puncturing the expected sweetness and harmony  “it danced through Celtic art, until the heavy feet of Roman legionaires tramped over the Alps. Then it fled the rage of Mars and Jupiter, dove underground as Empire rose(Migritude, 20).  Throughout her performance gestures punctuate the words underscoring the violence. She likens  the Ambi  to the form of a mango, ”fruit that ripens and rots in the dreams of all South to North immigrants. A shape like a peacock feather.” (again an element that could recall certain images of the Orient) and then immediately countered by an image of violence  “Half a heart slices on a smooth s-shaped curve. …. [Have you ever sliced a heart on a curve? Which piece would you keep? “(Migritude, 20).  She immediately draws in the audience putting them in front of the migrant conundrum of having to split their heart between countries. As the less than elegiac facts of economics keep entering  the scene, any expectations of light entertainment the audience might have harbored are immediately dispelled as she starts quoting figures, “In 1813 Dhaka mosuleen sold at 75% profit on the London market….. the British weighed it down with 80% duty (and immediately an image of violence)  … “They needed to force India to buy British cloth. So down the alleyways of Dhaka stamped the legionaries  British this time, not Roman. Hunted out the terrified weavers, chopped off their index fingers and thumbs” (Migritude, 22). Again the violence of Empire, in its continuity from Roman to British, a whole army rather than the lone British soldier of Spivak’s description has entered the stage.

Punching a hole in the sky of racism

Italian canonical literature is not exempt from conceptualizations of ruptures in consciousness and identity.  In the early years of the 20th century Pirandello began a thorough exploration of  these phenomena, especially in relation to identity, both in his plays and prose. In his 1904 novel Il fu Mattia Pascal, the episode  that is usually identified as “the hole in the paper sky” best exemplifies this. The wise and eccentric landlord of the boarding house where Mattia has been lodging with the assumed identity of Adriano Meis is fond of philosophical musings and having just read a flyer announcing the tragedy of Electra to be performed in a puppet theater, tells Mattia:

The tragedy of Orestes in a puppet theater! … Now listen to this crazy notion that just came to me! Let’s suppose that at the very climax, when the puppet who represents Orestes is about to take his revenge on Aegisthus and his mother for his father’s death, a great hole were suddenly torn in the paper sky of the theater, what would happen? … Orestes would still be bent on revenge, he would still be impatient to bring it about, but his eyes in that instant would be directed up there, to that ripped sky, where all kinds of evil influences would now filter down into the scene and he would feel his arms grow limp. Orestes, in other words, would become Hamlet. The whole difference, Signor Meis, between ancient and modern tragedy is just that,  believe me: a hole in the paper sky(9).

Even though the episode itself refers to an actor suffering displacement and identity crisis as a result of a rupture in the fabric of stage fiction,  we can use it metaphorically to make some observations about the audiences whose expectations of a performance by a migrant/Kenyan artist of Asian descent are most likely at variance with what they are witnessing. While cognizant of African American and post colonial writers who have challenged their a subordinate position in society achieving high results in their craft, many Italians, including progressive, are not accustomed to actual reciprocity in their day to day relation with migrants. They are not alert to complexity and nuances in the histories of the immigrants and continue to vacillate between outright condescendence or an attitude of superior  “benevolence” towards migrants, including those who are artists (10). This is exacerbated in the case of “migrant women” who are seen as additionally weak subjects, in need of protection. As an audience about to witness the work of a migrant or “Third World” female artist they expect a querulous litany of complaints,  description of bad conditions and denunciations of sexual inequality,  pleas of solidarity with their suffering. What they  do not expect is to have their own identity called into question. Examining the effect of gendered resistance to these attitudes on Shailja Patel’s part would require an additional paper, and I hope to be able to continue that research in the future.

Thus, to continue the analogy of the hole in the paper sky, from perceiving themselves as being like Orestes in the center of the Universe ready to receive those pleas, they find themselves displaced to a marginal position of uncertainty and vacillation (like Hamlet) vis-à-vis the militant migrantist who is “centered” in her refusal to slice her  heart, brings a complex, nuanced vision of world events, furthermore delivered in impeccable English, the language of several Empires (an additional consideration is that many Italians suffer a sort of inferiority complex about their proficiency in that language). This artist gives no quarter: the barrage continues. In pieces like Shilling Love, Migrant Song, The Making, Sound the Alarm, Masai Women Rioting, Dreaming in Gujurati, Born to a Law, the audience is exposed to the unfolding of a complex world that is at odds with the native/immigrant, developed/underdeveloped, first world/third world binary oppositions that have become the “sky” most Italians live under. This “sky” tends to remove the consciousness and history of, for example, Southern Italy as  an internal colony, the subsequent mass South to North migration, the identity of Italy as a country of emigration in the past and in the present, the history and deeds of Italy as a colonial power (Piccolo pp11-14).

When placed in this de-centered position, members of the audience are more amenable to a deconstruction of their own false consciousness, that of  belonging to a “deep, stable and unified” Italian community with a well defined identity that is unequivocally and solidly  planted in “the first world”.  Her stories  of diasporas, of fear, of not speaking up for fear of exposing one’s “inadequate” condition and being identified as prey (Migritude, 66), her tales of condescending attitudes even on the part of progressives,  resonate with them at the level of reciprocity as opposed to one of belonging to a society that has already overcome the problems faced by “developing” nations. Members of the audience themselves might have been the victim of discrimination, of regional profiling, and might even have been members of the intelligentsia  who were part of the “cervelli in fuga”, fleeing brains, a widespread phenomenon among young Italians who wish to  work in professional capacities but lack the right connections to succeed  in a country that is still characterized by an intersection of  familism, party-based clientelism, croneyism and a good dose of class distinctions (11).  If we turn that “paper sky” into a metaphorical “fabric of society” we might consider the warp of  that fabric to be a sort of Eurocentric benevolence towards the “least” (a common Catholic phrasing) and the woof  being the criminalization of migrants. In the case of many progressives who attended Shailja’s performances, the phrasing might be a more secular one modeled after a degenerative brand of Marxism fixated on “development” that dovetails nicely with neo-liberalist agendas (Palidda 236).

Of margins and thresholds

Asked recently by Greg Nicolson, of the Daily Maverick online journal, what she thought to be the responsibility of a poet, Shailja replied,

“First, by telling the truth. I think that’s the first job of a poet. To tell the truth and to tell it with as much beauty and as much clarity and power as possible so that it enters the listener through the heart and through the gut […]I think of my job as a poet as being to first wake myself up and take the responsibility to learn the truth, which means often doing hard work, looking beyond the headline stories, being willing to interrogate data and structure and systems, and then to create the conditions where other people can wake up to those truths [ ] It’s not necessarily going to feel good, but I’ve never considered my job as an artist to be to entertain or to make people feel good. I believe when we do open ourselves up to really feeling both joy and grief, rage and pain, as well as just wonder at the beauty and the exquisiteness of life, we emerge larger. We emerge more human. We emerge more porous and more aware of our connection to everything and that does make us braver and that does give us hope, no matter how dire things are.” (12)

In performing poetry about the truth of shifting boundaries, celebrating the beauty of the refusal to abide by them,  and seeking out ways of “emerging more porous and more aware of our connection with everything”,  Shailja Patel goes against the tide of dominant powers worldwide, busy erecting walls, developing radars to better police natural and man- made barriers. Drawing from the importance of storytelling in her own family,  the form of poetry she has chosen to express herself in tries to alleviate the boundary between the audience and the maker of poetry, while helping the audience transition to a place beyond that boundary to free itself from it.

The study of boundaries in performance is one of the main  the object of Performance studies,  a relatively new discipline. Shailja’s attempt to create a community with the audience, and with them break through to an opening in the existent is thus one of the concerns addressed by the discipline. Two distinct schools of performance studies explore both  her concerns with boundaries and poiesis, poetry as making. The anthropological concept of liminality as conceived by Victor Turner  was carried into performance theory by Richard Schechter (13) who collaborated directly with the anthropologist. The exploration of “how to do things with words” instead, originated in J.l. Austin speech-act theory  and continued in Judith Butler’s studies in performative speech. She has used that  tool,  for example, to analyze “how words do things” in  the mechanisms of hate  speech (14).

In the case of Shailja’s performances in Italy, after the initial displacement of audiences occurring with the “hole in the sky”, there  seemed to be a budding ”second movement” portending to the break-down of barriers between performer and audience, which could lead to the communitas evoked by Turner during liminal experiences. The language barrier, i.e., the fact that the performance took place in a language that was different from that of the audience, prevented, in my opinion, a complete breakdown of division (which occurred more thoroughly, say, when she performed in Florence in front of an audience made predominantly of U.S expatriates).

During the tours, the mechanisms used to convey the speech part of the performance in Italian differed based on context and size of audiences: in the larger events  the complete, translated text was  projected with an overhead projector on a screen above the performer, in smaller events an Italian actress gave a dramatic reading in Italian  after  Shailja’s performance and in other cases the presenter read a summary either before or after each piece. Interestingly, in some cases, the dramatic readings, which were overly emphatic compared to the original performance managed to convey a type of “condescension” that ran counter to the message Shailja was trying to deliver. In  an interview conducted  by her translator Marta Matteini, Shailja spoke of a performance in Rome at the end of which she asked the audience directly what they had perceived from her performance, marveling at the attention shown her, as in the US no audience would have resisted a performance in an unknown  language longer than five minutes.  Quite eloquently,  a  member of the audience replied, “In a painting by Picasso you can’t always recognize the faces, but you recognize life. In your poetry I recognize life.” (15).

This search for an opening, a kind of portal that can lead to t poet and audience sharing the truth  takes us to the production  of Italian poet Eugenio Montale, his search for a “varco” something like a breach in the order of things that allows people to transcend what is apparent. Montale used the image of a threshold in very explicit ways in his poetry, giving the title “In limine” to the opening piece of his 1925 collection “Ossi di seppia” (16) and creating many poems with images of enclosed gardens where some sort of a gap could lead to the discovery of  the transcendent.  Many literary critics, notably Rebecca West (17) have devoted a great deal of attention to  the mechanism of liminality and marginality using the concepts interchangeably  (taking Victor Turner’s work as a starting point) within the economy of Montale’s poetic texts. Others have differed with West’s analysis and explored the difference in the concept of marginality and liminality.  In her book La poetica dell’oggetto: The objects of Eugenio Montale’s Le occasioni Nicole Antoinette Lopez describes this difference:

The margin is the boundary, the fringe, of a delineated space: a determined space with defined limits. To be liminal is to on the threshold, to be at the place or point of beginning, a          point that must be exceeded. “Un rovello è di qua dall’erto muro” (the torment is on this side of the steep wall) because to be on this side of the wall is to know the center, to be suffocated by the known, to have thirst and no wind.   On the other hand, the final stanza seduces a fleeing (“fuggi!”, Va”) because all passion and vitality exist in the domain of the uncertain and of the decentered. […] The poem calls for a leaping beyond the confines: as the other poems on garden walls indicate, there is always an exit point possible precisely  within the barrier. The break in the wall, the opening in the net, the “anello che non tiene” are what afford an exit from the known.(18)

While Montale, with a contemplative attitude, awaits for the Occasion, a chance encounter with a place or a phenomenon that leads to transcend the boundaries of the contingent, Shailja, casting herself as a brown Diotima, does not hesitate to explicitly point to the primacy of the poet as Maker, as we shall be shown  in the last section of this paper. After claiming for herself  the Mangal Sutra -the intention, declaration and lifelong execution that by rights should have been performed by a future  husband- she declares to her mother (and by extension to the audience)  that “this”(the poetic work) is her Mangal Sutra to herself and the world. First she describes the beauty of it by creating the dynamic image of a vessel  of words she is shaping  to send the saris off into a journey “But, Mummy, look. I am forging a ship of glittering songs  to sail your jewels in./Staking a masthead of verbs to fly your saris from!/This work which filigrees and inlays all your legacies. This work which snakes across borders, dodges visa controls,/this/ is my intention, declaration, lifelong execution./[…] the deep, hard, complex beauty that unfurls when saris speak./ (Migritude, 96-7). In a sequence that is almost surreal, compared to the often stark realism  of most of  the others, she plays with the melding of boundaries between  terms relating to the structure of language and objects denoting the migrant experience, filigrees and inlays become verbs, the verbs become mastheads, the Work becomes objectified and “snakes” through  borders (something that is more difficult for people to do as evidenced in the fragment  Shilling love part II about her parents’ detention  and interrogation at a US airport (Migritude, 88-93) and finally “saris speak”  and move on the own unfurling their beauty thereby “moving” others.

After this, the pace of her thinking and delivery becomes more convulsive through a sort of  ontological “splicing”, a  process that godmother of spoken word Sonia Sanchez described at the level of sound  when referring to the jazzing up of the word that occurred with the early artists engaging in that art (Medina, xv) From a picture of beauty,  audiences are  asked to shift to an image of the belabored, the agony  a migrant must go through to claim a word (implicit in this, is that the  process is less laborious for “natives”, as evidenced also in her poem “Dreaming in Gujurati”, pp 80-87, but also less rich). This final section  starts off  again in a dialogic way, as Shailja addresses her mother (who now as in this last poem has ceased to be portrayed as formidable and  becomes “Mummy”, Shailja seems to be calling a truce with  the tyrannical force that has been trying to shape her and seeks an alliance – a breaking of divisions) “Because more than anyone, Mummy, you know/ that we were born to a law/ which states/ before you claim a word –like truth, like justice, like love – before you claim a word, you steep it/ in terror and shit/ in hope and joy and grief/ in labor endurance vision costed out/ in decades of your life/ you have to sweat and curse it/ pray and keen it/crawl and bleed it/ with the very marrow of your bones/ you have to earn/ its/meaning “(Migritude, 98-99).  While in the previous section boundaries began to blur between  objects related to the migrant experience and language, in this last section of the poem the word is entangled in the structure of the body , in its physical and psychological manifestations. A terrifying Law decrees the fluidity of   boundaries between the voicing of aspirations like justice, truth and love and the consequences at the level of the body and soul-sweat and curse- hope-joy and grief, praying and crawling and bleeding and shitting, and finally the very marrow of the bones. Poetry claims its pound of flesh, and for the migrant it is perhaps a pound and a half.

Of poiesis, transition phases and breath

This convulsive collapse that occurs at the end of Migritude calls to mind an interesting analysis of the nature of poetry expounded by poet and scholar Andrew Joron in his  essay “The emergency of poetry”. Written immediately after 9/11  and in  the wake of terror inflicted by the U S government, as a response,  he wondered about what is the use of poetry. The word “Emergency” becomes the skeleton of his essay,:it is a word rich in connotations,  as  it evokes a number of meanings, ranging from the alarming to the creative, and its ambiguity lends itself to philosophical musings. From the point of view of poetry, in this case emergency refers to the phenomenon of “emerging” coming to the fore, into creation.  Borrowing a concept from systems theory, he posits that poetry occurs when normal speech undergoes  a sort of an accumulation producing a “phase transition”, thus making a leap into another state, that of poetry. The transformation cannot be attributed to any one of the elements of speech, meaning in particular, nor can it be predicted by looking at the composition.

Indeed, scientists as well as poets now speculate that the origin of language itself was an “innovation” that “would have depended on the phenomenon of emergence, whereby a chance combination of preexisting elements results in something totally unexpected. The classic example of an emergent quality is water, most of whose remarkable characteristics are entirely unpredicted by those of its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen. Nonetheless, the combination of these ingredients gives rise to something entirely new, and expected only in hindsight.” Thus, “we have to conclude that the appearance of language was not driven by natural selection, (Scientific American, December )—instead, like water, language also is an emergent phenomenon, spontaneously springing forth as a pure enigma, an overflowing of reality, a surreality.” (19)


Beyond the theoretical merits of this theory, this particularly powerful image may also be suitable for the purposes of “unworlding” as it calls to the fore a number of subterranean and unpredictable factors capable of leading to the reconfiguration of  a seemingly stable order. In fact, in 2007, in a collection of essays that included the one above, the author predicted a leaderless movement that would rise up against the Empire- “Empire is opposed by Swarm”, in which he talks about the organization of resistance based on a node structure (20). That predictions seems to have borne fruit four years later. In addition, this concept may be significant in understanding some of the force of Shailja Patel’s writing and performance, particularly her ability to carry the poetic core of her work beyond national language barriers..


Many of the concepts Andrew Joron evokes seem to apply particularly to lyrical poetry and some of the processes in Shailja’s poetry may be working on an analogous level. Especially the more lyrical  segments that are not as heavily based on historical account or documentary exposures. In a recent  interview , Shailja Patel herself spoke of poetry in similar terms, “Poetry at its best is a distillation of language and perception to its purest, most intelligent and powerful essence” (Monegato, 236). I am thinking particularly of the segment entitles the “The making”, which in the US edition has been relieved of the prose based section  to become a litany of exhortation to “Make it” (the poem),  in a crescendo that focuses initially on hands as the part of the body most involved in making . It starts from her father’s hands (tough mechanics hands with ground finger nails)  and then offers a whole gallery of  “personal” hands involved both in the violence or healing of  daily existence, and then again back e to hands in a historical context- those hacked off the Arawaks by Columbus, and those chopped off in the Congo by King Leopold, the fingers cut off  from Indian weavers (Migritude, US edition, 122). It is as though the poem itself “migrates”, reproducing the very leaping movements between countries that have characterized Shailja Patel’s biography.  Then the concrete work of hands seems to slip towards a more abstract terrain – that of the maker of art-  and here it may be useful to return to Joron poetic explanation of phase transitions:


“Within the complex system of language, a word’s meaning is “edged”—and chaotically conditioned—by the meanings of all other words. Communication attempts to crystallize this chaos by establishing fixed relations between the meanings of particular words. But such language- crystals melt and reform constantly in response to their (subjectively mediated) surroundings. (Complex systems are typically open systems to which rigid concepts of “inside” and “outside” do not apply. Such openness allows them to be extremely sensitive to changes in the environment.) In this process, communication proves susceptible to structural failure. The abyssal turbulence of language as a whole, always brimming beneath the surface of stabilized meaning, can initiate a spontaneous phase transition that accelerates words far beyond equilibrium, toward the condition of poetry”. (Emergemcy,10 )


As the words pertaining to the work of hands in historical and personal contexts accumulate, shift, contradict themselves,  turn from concrete to abstract, from the  potential hubris of creator to an acknowledgement of limits, the exhortation “Make it” loses its stability. “Make it to surrender the delusion/that you are creator/that you do anything other /than get yourself out of the way/for this juggernaut of silk and woven power/this tapestry of blood and history/  Because you never know enough /but you can learn/you’ll never be ready but you can fake it/because the when and the where/are here and now the answers/to who and what are you and this the how/and why/will reveal themselves/ in the making.  Because ready/is never a question just a reminder/ to breathe and jump.”  (Migritude, US edition, 124 ). Towards the end there is a fade out of meaning , the line breaks signal that  there is  a semantic spillover as emphasis is placed  on the acting out of action, in this case“breathing”,  typical of performance.


The poem ends with a kind of optimistic leap (of faith) into the future.  This harkens back to the fact  that the action, the “making” is about a poem. Just to seal things, the essence of performance poetry is sound and action, for migrants specifically it is “movement” and as Shailja Patel, poet and yoga teacher knows, sound is breath and movement is jump (especially for people like migrants accustomed to moving fast).The essential languages of movement and sound can carry across languages, and this perhaps can explain why the Italian woman from the audience responded that as a non English speaker what she caught from the performance was life.  We might add, that what came through as well was Shailja’s urge and commitment to stay human (21).




  • Medina, Tony and Reyes Rivera, Louis editors, Bum rush the page: a def poetry jam, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001, p. XXI-XXII.
  • Patel, Shailja, Migritude: un viaggio epico in quattro movimenti/An Epic Journey in Four Movements, translated by Marta Matteini and Pina Piccolo, LietoColle,Como, 2008. Almost all page references in the body of the paper refer to this edition.
  • Palidda, Salvatore et al., Razzismo democratico,. La persecuzione degli stranieri in Europa, X Book, Milan 2009. The English language edition is titled Racial Criminalization of Migrants in 21st century, Palidda editor, Ashgate, Farnham, 2011. Rivera, Annamaria, Regole e roghi. Metamorfosi del razzismo, Edizioni Dedalo, Bari, 2009.

Faso, Giuseppe, Lessico del razzismo democratico. Le parole che escludono, Derivee Approdi, Rome, 2010.

  • Between 1861 and 1985 approximately 29 millions of Italians emigrated to other European destinations, the Americas, Australia, North Africa. Between 1876 and 1900 it was mostly people from Northern Italian regions who left, from the beginning of the 1900s the majority of emigrants left from Southern regions. As of the end of 2010 more than 4 million Italian are registered with Italian Consulate services abroad, almost the same number as immigrants who are residing in Italy. The latest figures put immigrants at 8% of the population, a little over five and a half million . The bulk of the South to North internal migration has occurred since the 1950s, reaching its highest point in the 60s and 70s. In the course of the yers the class structure of internal migration has also changed.
  • Allam, Khaled Fouad, L’Islam spiegato ai leghisti, PIEMME, Milan, 201,1pp 15-59.
  • Patel, Shailja, Migritude, Kaya Press, New York, 2010, p.iv.
  • Monegato, Emanuele,” On Migritude Part 1, When Saris Speak- The Mother”, p.235. Altre Modernità, Università degli Studi di Milano, Interviste, N 2-10/2009, pp.235-239.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorthy, “The Rani of Sirmur: Essays in Reading the Archives”, 253, History and Theory, Vol. 24, N.3 (Oct. 1985, pp 247-272).
  • Pirandello, Luigi, The Late Mattia Pascal, translation by William Weaver, New York Review Books, New York, 1964, p 223.
  • Piccolo, Pina, “2011: Il ritorno dell’Italia come farsa. Sul ‘nuovo italiano’ ed altre insidie”, Sagarana,n. 42, January 2011 In this 15 page essay, starting from the rhetoric deployed by the Italian state and parties about the 150 year anniversary of the unification of Italy, I analyze some of the issues related to racism, the autonomous migrant movements, their relation with progressive Italians, political parties, internal migration, Italian colonialism, etc.
  • Piattoni, Simona, Il clientelismo. L’Italia in prospettiva comparata, Carrocci, Rome, 2005.
  • Patel, Shailja, “Truth, Justice and Poetry”, interviewed by Greg Nicolson in Daily Maverick, All Africa. Com 17 October 2011.
  • Schechter, Richard, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance, Routledge, New York, 1993.
  • Parker, Andrew and Kosofsky Sedgwick Eve editors, Performativity and Performance, Routledge, New York, 1995.
  • Patel, Shailja, “Le parole degli invisibili che non sentivo”, interviewed by Marta Matteini, in Leggendaria, n. 70, 2008, p 54-55.
  • Montale, Eugenio, Ossi di seppia, first published in 1925, re-issued by Mondadori, Milano, 2003.
  • West, Rebecca, Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Harvard University, Press, 1981.
  • Lopez, Nicole Antoinette, La poetica dell’oggetto: The Objects of Eugenio Montale’s “Le Occasioni”, ProQuest LLC, 2008, p.42.
  • Joron, Andrew, The emergency of poetry, Velocities Chapbook Series, Berkeley, 2002, p. 9.
  • Joron, Andrew, The Cry at Zero, Counterpath Press, 2007.
  • Franti, Michael, “Stay Human”, Boo Boo Wax, 2001. This musical CD containing songs and spoken word is structured as a ” call-in radio program” opera centering on the death penalty in the US and issues of racism and homophobia. It launched the concept “Stay human”, which has been picked up many activists and adapted to many struggles. In Italy, it was  popularized as the signature of Vittorio Arrigoni, an activist in solidarity with the Palestinian people who was killed two years ago.




Allam, Khaled Fouad, L’Islam spiegato ai leghisti, PIEMME, Milan, 2011.

Faso, Giuseppe, Lessico del razzismo democratico. Le parole che escludono, Derivee Approdi, Rome, 2010.

Franti, Michael, “Stay Human”, musical CD, boo Boo Wax,  2001.

Joron, Andrew, The emergency of poetry, Velocities Chapbook Series, Berkeley, 2002.

Joron, Andrew, The Cry at Zero, Counterpath Press, 2007.

Lopez, Nicole Antoinette, La poetica dell’oggetto: The Objects of Eugenio Montale’s “Le Occasioni”, ProQuest LLC, 2008..

Medina, Tony and Reyes Rivera, Louis editors,  Bum rush the page: a def poetry jam, , Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001.

Monegato, Emanuele,” On Migritude Part 1, When Saris Speak- The Mother”, p.235.  Altre Modernità, Università degli Studi di Milano, Interviste, N 2-10/2009, pp.235-239.

Montale, Eugenio, Ossi di seppia, first published in  1925, re-issued by Mondadori, Milano, 2003.

Palidda, Salvatore et al, Razzismo democratico,. La persecuzione degli stranieri in Europa, X Book, Milan 2009.

Palidda, Salvatore et al., Racial Criminalization of Migrants in 21st century, , Ashgate, Farnham, 2011.

Parker, Andrew and Kosofsky Sedgwick Eve editors, Performativity and Performance, Routledge, New York, 1995.

Patel, Shailja, Migritude: un viaggio epico inq uattro movimenti/An Epic Journey in Four Movements, translated by Marta Matteini and Pina  Piccolo, LietoColle,Como, 2008.

Patel, Shailja, Migritude, Kaya Press, New York, 2010.

Patel, Shailja, “Truth, Justice and Poetry”, interviewed by Greg Nicolson in Daily Maverick, All Africa. Com 17 October 2011.

Patel, Shailja, “Le parole degli invisibili che non sentivo”, interviewed by Marta Matteini, in Leggendaria, n. 70, 2008, pp 54-55.

Piattoni, Simona, Il clientelismo. L’Italia in prospettiva comparata, Carrocci,  Rome, 2005.

Piccolo, Pina, “2011: Il ritorno dell’Italia come farsa. Sul “nuovo italiano ed altre insidie”, Sagarana,n. 42, January 2011

Pirandello, Luigi, The Late Mattia Pascal, translation by William Weaver, New York Review Books, New York, 1964.

Rivera, Annamaria, Regole e roghi. Metamorfosi del razzismo, Edizioni Dedalo, Bari, 2009.

Schechter, Richard, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance, Routledge, New York, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorthy, “The Rani of Sirmur: Essays in Reading the Archives”,  p.253, History and Theory, Vol. 24, N.3 (Oct. 1985, pp 247-272).

West, Rebecca, Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Harvard University, Press, 1981.