Decades of heartbreak in verse | Gorg Mallia

Academic and cartoonist Gorg Mallia speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about My Love Had Eyes of Blue and Dreams, a confessional collection of self-published poetry dealing with love and loss and spanning from the late ‘70s to the present day, precipitated by the collapse of the author’s second marriage

Gorg Mallia
Gorg Mallia

The spontaneous (self-) publication of a themed poetry collection literally spanning decades of work seems like an intense creative and career decision to take... what was it that led to the publication of My Love Had Eyes of Blue and Dreams, and why did you think that the timing for it was now?

It was an intense happening that triggered the decision, in actual fact. The breakdown of my second marriage and long-term relationship, which literally undermined my world. My verse is lyrical. It has been written only in moments of massive love, or, otherwise, in moments of deep pain. But almost all of the verse I have written in my life has had as its subject a lover. Plunged into the depths of love or swimming in the abyss of a love gone sour. The verse belonged to those lovers... not legally, but morally, and that is why I never published it. But when this last, incredibly cherished relationship ended very very suddenly, I was shocked into thinking that there was no one left for these to belong to, so they should belong to the reading public. Hence the sudden decision.

I do not write a lot of verse. There might be 10 years in between one work and another, or there could be a cluster over a very short period of time. What has been published in the book is almost comprehensive, though, of course, some selection has been made. I self-published for a number of reasons. The first is that getting a publisher for a book of poetry is always a tricky business, because poetry really does not sell in Malta, and secondly because I wanted total control over the book. I wanted it to look and feel the way it eventually turned out. The publication is limited to a few hundred copies, so I know that only people who will cherish my words will own one. This is extremely personal verse... very intimate, though there is no doubt that it is also accessible, with the sentiments expressed writ large, so to speak, so in that sense it will also trigger emotions in those who read it.

Mallia has taken to social media to disseminate his political cartoons in recent years
Mallia has taken to social media to disseminate his political cartoons in recent years

Most writers cringe at even the thought of looking at some of their earlier work, let alone deciding to publish it for the first time. What is your relationship with some of the earlier poems in this collection?

The very first work is from 1979, making the duration of the writing 40 years exactly. I had just finished my first degree (in English literature) at the time so I suppose there was a bit of pretentious self-consciousness about my writing. But over time, the verse became more fluent... more a direct pronouncement of what I was feeling at the moment. I never belaboured the verse... it always sort of flowed out the moment I got inspired to write it and sat down to do so. I’d tweak things a bit afterwards, but never much. So what you have in the book are pretty much slightly modified “first drafts”. I think I wrote some interesting, heartfelt bits back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. And of course, I wrote all my Maltese verse then, too. I only wrote in English in the noughties and ‘tens, except for the last poem in the book... the epilogue, which was written just before the book went to print. It was an attempt to inject some hope into the bleakness of my life at that point... and also a need to reclaim my language after having abandoned it for two decades as far as verse was concerned.

I got better with time, I think. The imagery flowed much more naturally later, as can be seen in the last section of the book. There’s more of a tightly controlled rhythm. I found I could make language dance to the tune of my feelings and it worked nicely in the verse. As I said, I have not written a lot of verse, and I think it was about time I put it out there.

Apart from the personal cathartic effect of writing and publishing these poems, what do you hope your readers will get out of them?

Well, the book has had an amazing reception so far by those who have read it. It seems my words do reach out and touch people. Obviously, the verse was written at a time when I was going through intense emotion, and, yes, the externalising of that emotion through writing does help organise thoughts and feelings and at the same time create an aesthetic construct that preserves the instigating emotions.

Logically, readers will only find an affinity with the verse if it touches in them strong emotions they themselves will have experienced. I think that is the onus of all lyrical verse, not least the ones published in My Love Had Eyes of Blue and Dreams. Some told me they wept through association as they read them. Others said they could feel me in the poetry. Most said the words washed over them and touched them. I don’t really hope for more than that.

Apart from being an academic and writer, you are also a cartoonist. How has the recent political crisis galvanised that part of your creative process, and what kind of role (and even perhaps obligation) do you believe satire has within that context?

Oh, there can be no doubt that satire, particularly in times of social and political upheaval, has an extremely important role to play. And I would hazard to say that satirical cartoons’ role is journalistic, in the sense that it manifests the opinion of a part of society, while instigating resentment in that part that disowns the sentiments being communicated. I have not drawn for newspapers for a while and in the last years I have used social media as my method of diffusion. I have been “firing with both barrels” at what is undoubtedly an unprecedented (and unacceptable) situation brought about by corruption, cronyism and abuse of power at the highest political level in our country.

My cartoons are often shared widely and invoke the expected reactions... that is, consolidation of opinion on the one side and brutal attack on the other. Trolls latch onto them with venom in the same way they would spit on a flag borne by the enemy... and the one thing that definitely stands out with regard to reaction is, again, how polarised we are... and how well manipulated by the political classes are those who (how do I put it nicely?) have little respect for self-thought and much respect for rancour, hatred and the ‘us-and-them’ mentality that is such an intrinsic part of our very small nation.

What do you make of the Maltese publishing scene? What would you change about it?

I think it’s quite healthy, actually, given the minuteness of the market. It is not as diversified as I would like it to be. Yes, there are publishers who stick their neck out and publish books that they know will not sell very well (or at all), because they feel obliged to enrich local publishing... but they do not operate a charity, so one understands why certain areas are so sparse. But, all told... I think that there is a relative quantity, enough quality and, barring certain areas, quite a diverse output.

What’s next for you?

Well, my latest ‘poems’ are visual ones. Though the healing process has started, I’m still quite overcome by the grief at the sudden, inexplicable loss of what I cherished most in my life. I know that loss is permanent, so one way for me to “cope” with it is by manifesting it aesthetically. Since early November I have been painting those intense emotions digitally... a sort of cross between abstraction and the classical, since they involve both abstract backgrounds that create a sort of visual representation of particular feelings, and figures done in pen and ink, often involving a lot of cross-hatching, through the contortions of which those feelings can also be manifested.

I have been asked by a gallery owner to hold an exhibition of limited edition prints of these digital paintings, which is tentatively scheduled for late February. But nothing is certain yet. If the exhibition happens, a book containing all of the paintings in this series (called ‘Rhapsody-in-Pain’... there are twenty five of them at the time of writing this) will also be published in limited edition.