What we do with language

Far from being a marginal art form, poetry could give way to a healthier discourse on the migration crisis. TEODOR RELJIC speaks to poet Adrian Grima about the essentially ‘political’ nature of poetry

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 September 2015, 7:51am
Adrian Grima: Inevitably, even a poem about… say, a mother talking to her child, is in a wide sense, a political statement.
Adrian Grima: Inevitably, even a poem about… say, a mother talking to her child, is in a wide sense, a political statement.
“Look… poetry is a public act. And in this sense, it is inevitably a political act. Political in the sense that it is saying something, in public, to people, and it’s stating things – or at least, suggesting them,” Adrian Grima tells me when I inevitably make reference to poetry’s ongoing cultural marginalization as an art form. 

“So inevitably, even a poem about… say, a mother talking to her child, is in a wide sense, a political statement.”

The lecturer and co-organiser of the annual Mediterranean Literature Festival – also one of the founders of local literary organisation Inizjamed – also urges me to remember that language is political in all its forms, since it gives way to communication. 

“Even the decision to not express an ideological standpoint is in itself ideological,” Grima insists. It’s a sober and worthwhile reminder, especially coming from someone equally interested in social justice and politics as he is in the formal make-up of poetry and literature. 

It’s also a philosophy he appears to sustain wholeheartedly in relation to his upcoming poetry collection, Klin u Kapricci Ohra (‘Rosemary and Other Indulgences’). Not all of the poems are explicitly political – some even appear to be an affront to that approach. 

Apart from the political angle, Grima also contests the idea that poetry should always be about “existential themes like death, love, joy, nature and so on.”

The clue is in the rosemary: the ‘klin’ of the title indicating Grima’s insistence to write about the simple pleasure of enjoying the food that you love. 

“I just wanted to write about the food that I love – like basal tal-pikles [pickled onions] and homemade free range jam… one of the ‘title’ poems is Roazemarynblêd – a Frisian word for rosemary – and it’s about the pleasure of eating patata l-forn [roast potatoes] which are given ‘added value’, as it were, with rosemary,” Grima says with a smile.

Still, he hastens to add that “not all the poems are about food” and that he’s not averse to delving into ‘existential’ themes either. Love is certainly not outside his remit, and in fact the collection’s curious title was originally meant to reflect this in a more direct way. But an intervention by celebrated British novelist Jim Crace – who offered workshop sessions to Maltese writers while he serves as Writer in Residence at the University in Malta last year – convinced him otherwise. 

“The original title was originally going to be L-Imhabba u Kapricci Ohra (‘Love and Other Indulgences’) but Jim Crace convinced me otherwise, saying that ‘Love’ is an absolute no-no for a title…”

Still, love remains central to the collection, though Grima is approaching the enduring subject from a somewhat unique angle.

“More than anything, I wanted to explore the idea of love as something which grows over time. We have this notion that love is meant to be something instant and that gives rise to strong emotions… the sort of ‘Notting Hill’ cliché we’re still stuck with in many ways, unfortunately. So this is a bit of an attempt to go against the dominant narrative on my part, and it comes out most strongly in the other ‘title poem’, L-Imhabba Kapricc.”

Neither is that other end of the existential spectrum – death – left unexplored. “But more than death, in the poem 70 Sena Tbengil (‘70 Years of Bruises’), I wanted the poem to be about pain.” 

“The poem is about my father,” Grima explains, “who died in 2010 after having lived through years of pain. I wanted to see how far the Maltese language can go to explore the complex set of experiences my father endured, like the humiliation… the involuntary nakedness that being in pain all the time and having to be taken care of by others exposes you to…”

Given that he doesn’t shy away from the sheer flexibility of the poetic idiom, I wonder how he views the current crop of up-and-coming Maltese-language poets. 

“I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening, both in poetry and prose, at the moment. When I look at the new generation of Maltese poets – basically, those who have started writing in the 90s – I don’t hear myself: I hear their voice. And that’s great.”

However, Grima still believes a lot more can be done to promote Maltese poetry among the general public… but that this is easier said than done. 

“We all need to learn how to interact with a wider audience. At the same time, however, we need to be careful how we go about doing this, since we can easily get it wrong…” 

Grima cites the example of Nicaragua – one of the many foreign countries in which he’d been invited to read his poetry – as the place which gave him a sense of hope for the future of poetry. Even though we appear to have internalised a defeatist attitude towards poetry’s place in the world – in which we sort-of accept that it’s a dying art form that will command a niche audience at best – this is not so in Latin America, for example. 

“In Nicaragua, public poetry readings literally attract people from all walks of life – you really get a sense that poetry is simply part of day-to-day existence. But it would be a mistake to simply try to transpose that approach to Malta… in fact, it would almost be patronising to expect people would respond to that here.”

However, Grima believes that writers need to keep searching for ways to connect with their audience – even thinking outside the box if necessary. 

“Because writing is not actually a solitary activity. It’s not something you do in a bubble. In fact, I believe that the development of writers is intimately tied to the development of their readers. And this isn’t some patronising thing about how writers should ‘teach’ their readers… it just means that writers really need to get out there: by reading in public, by engaging with their readers… by reading what their readers are reading!”

Which brings us back to the ‘political’ engagement of poetry, and crucially, of another regular activity Grima is directly involved in: the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which invites both local and international writers to read on stage, and which has always had a strong commitment to addressing topical issues occurring around the ever-contentious Mediterranean. 

As we all know, this year has been particularly harrowing in this regard. What kind of role can poetry play, in responding to the harrowing human tragedies we continue to hear about these days? 

Grima responds by saying that above of all, poetry can stand as a resistance against the “banalisation of discourse”. 

“I think that poetry – literature in general – and a festival like ours are a very serious antidote to this very real problem: an over-reliance on sound-bites, tweets, over-simplifications. The thing is that most people actually know these to be gross misrepresentations of reality… but we’re still drowning in them. And good literature can use language to say so much, and to say it beautifully. This is something we need to encourage. Because once you narrow your perception, once you over-simplify, it becomes so easy to condemn. It becomes so easy to just ‘strike off’ entire religions, communities, people…”

Klin u Kapricci Ohra will be launched at St James Cavalier on 30 September at 7:30pm

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...