Battling the clichés | Glen Calleja

Poet Glen Calleja speaks to us about his newly released collection, ‘Kull flghaxija kif mal-ghabex tnin u tmut sahhet il-jum’, for which he interviewed a number of cancer sufferers to record and express their experience in a way that breaks through the sentimental clichés and medical jargon.

Glen Calleja
Glen Calleja

Cancer is a challenging topic for a poet (or any artist, for that matter) as it can easily fall prey to melodrama or sentimentality. How would you seek to avoid this in your own work?

You are right in saying that ‘cancer’ is laden with sentimentality but I don’t see a hierarchy of topics for poets to work with. To me, cancer is as good as any other subject as a source of images and narratives. In this book, it is merely there to give me a thematic framework to work within.

The practice of poetry is bigger than the ‘content’ it explores. This also applies to the most lyrical of poets. Writing and composing poetry is not about the words one uses but about how one composes them... so it is all about metre, rhythm, musicality, assonance, dissonance… along with a good deal of experimentation, risk, accident and magic. That is all I work on.

The media always feeds us cancer with an indigestible side plate of misery and all the stuff that haunts the public imagination. As a writer, this suits me fine. It gives me a continuous flow of narratives to work with and an abundance of clichés to poke, to toy with and to test how true they are. 

In the first few weeks of this project, I was extremely careful to keep away from sentimentality as much as possible for fear of falling into some cliché or of relaying what the general media is saying. But then I had a small realisation and I started to embrace sentimentality. The thing is, sentimentality as a generic phenomenon does not exist.

Wherever there is pain and misery it is always experienced by an individual, a person with a life and aspirations beyond his or her diagnosis. Similarly, the existential growth and realisations one makes when one faces a potentially terminal disease, are one’s own, totally individual and specific – never generic. So perhaps, sentimentality does not really exist except, perhaps, as a conceptual opposite to rationality in modernist dualistic thinking which would be a good hundred years old now.

The real danger behind this is the leveling of individual experiences to generic narratives, as though all cancer narratives were variations of a theme. In many ways they are. In many other ways they are obviously not... so I wanted to listen to and explore the individual stories.

You’ve said that we don’t really speak about cancer in Maltese, opting for a clinical use of English instead. What were the specific things – be they moods, emotions, tones, textures or actual intellectual observations – that you discovered as you set out to write about it in Maltese in particular?

I’m not sure whether this was something I discovered along the writing process or was a personal obsession which I brought to the project. As I struggled with the words of my first drafts I kept thinking of the vulnerability of patients, survivors and family members who do not have the linguistic tools to verbalise their experience with themselves and each other. 

This has seeped into the moods, tones and voices of the writing of course especially when it met all the imagery of ‘battle’, ‘bravery’ and ‘survivorship’ which are so prevalent in cancer literature.

A patient’s experience in Malta is dominated by medical jargon in English. This brings with it two aspects, both related to accessibility, exclusion and the politics that one has to navigate once one is diagnosed.  The use of technical jargon by the medical professionals often objectifies one’s condition and, consequently, the patient. 

On being diagnosed one is examined, cut, injected, amputated, stitched back together, and, often, patients feel that they have little say in what is being done to them, if at all. Cancer has turned them into subjects, mere cancer carriers, medical curiosities. This may be a very humiliating experience for some and the last thing they want to hear is to be spoken of in incomprehensible technical jargon. This kind of ‘medical pornography’ is very present in my book. 

This is not to say that the professionals are systematically trying to ‘use’ patients for their interests but public health institutions do tend to dehumanise individuals and turn them into numbers, unfortunately. On a more positive note, I have seen first hand how nursing staff and caring professionals in various institutions, including at Boffa Hospital, treat patients on a first name basis, as long time acquaintances if not friends. Needless to say, the language used in these circumstances is neither technical nor removed from the individual’s interests.
The other thing about language is that there is a lack of relevant literature in Maltese for whoever needs it.

So a person whose mother tongue is Maltese has very limited access to information other than that in a language that is removed from the language he or she uses to make sense of the world and life experiences. This is a very serious and subtle problem. 

Finally, if you translate the above aspects of language use into the post-colonial perspective and examine vulnerable citizens’ relation to power then one finds himself face to face with the terrible legacy of an Anglicisation process that being part of the British Empire brought with it.  This, to me, is painful, and not in any patriotic kind of way.

As we continue to opt for English as the linguistic currency for the cancer experience, we reduce to a great extent the potential of vulnerable individuals to fully comprehend and verbalise their experience in the language they really know with all its shades and nuances. In most cases cancer really brings one face to face with his mortality, and is therefore a defining and transformative moment in one's life and definition of self. So having the right tools to verbalise one’s trials and tribulations is essential to a dignified coping with the situation.

How did you go about adapting the people’s stories into poetry – what was the process like in general?

After meeting and contacting some 20 people who were comfortable speaking to me about their experiences I decided to record some of the interviews on audio so that I could work on them more closely. In the interviews I was looking mostly for images, references to aspirations beyond one’s diagnosis and new insights which came about in that period.

It was more of an ‘image-harvesting’ exercise than an adaptation of stories. Once I found images I could use I would decontextualise them, mix them up with dissonant associations, test them in other scenarios, change subject’s gender, introduce fictional dialogues and take it from there.

You also mentioned how some cancer survivors said that cancer was “one of the best things to ever happen to them”. Could you elaborate on this?

Some of them speak about it in those terms, yes. This was one of those things which seduced me to the subject. How can anyone say that about cancer?  

What I now think they mean when they say that is that the diagnosis of a terminal illness was a huge reality check.  

During treatment, as they come face to face with their mortality, which in all likelihood they never really believed (who can imagine one’s own death?), they reflect on their priorities and some find the courage to do things which they had always meant or wished to do... for some that could be leaving wife and kids and going on a solo world tour, for others it could simply be telling someone how deeply they are loved. For others still, it could be the experience of the divine and hope in faith.

The interesting subtext for me here is that cancer subverts quotidian norms and is indeed transformative in many ways.