Fish out of water | Immanuel Mifsud

National Book Prize winner Immanuel Mifsud speaks to us about his latest poetry collection, Huta – the title of which bears poignant resonance for the author’s philosophy of life

Immanuel Mifsud: “Nearing fifty, I feel more at a loss than I felt in my teens and twenties”
Immanuel Mifsud: “Nearing fifty, I feel more at a loss than I felt in my teens and twenties”

Chasing the fish

 “It occurred to me, especially after reading the collection as a whole for the first time, how many similarities there are between the way I see my life evolving to that of fish in an aquarium. I sometimes believe I’m living in a bubble, unable or unmotivated to fathom what’s happening around me. I had believed that once I ‘matured’ I’d settle, have clear ideas about the world, I’d have identified my opinion about almost everything; but it so happened that now, nearing fifty, I feel more at a loss than I felt in my teens and twenties. Consequently, most of the times I feel like a fish out of the water… so there you have it again, the fish. Reading the collection as a whole I noticed these concepts which led me to decide on Huta as a title.”

 Sea change

 “There is another reason [for choosing Huta as the book’s title]. The collection starts with two poems about asylum seekers who died or were lost at sea. I have these harrowing images of bodies lying at the bottom of the sea, being eaten by fish. I know this is all very repulsive, and although none of these distressing images have made it to the poems themselves, they made me think of fish again. One of these two poems, ‘Birzebbuga 2014’ refers to Daniel Massa’s ‘Delimara’, undeniably the best poem ever written in Maltese, in which Massa transforms himself into a fish. Massa’s metamorphosis is a happy one because he still writes of the sea as a wonderful, even alluring place. Unfortunately some forty years after ‘Delimara’ the sea has changed, so has the fish.”

 Family matters

“I have had very particular family experiences; not necessarily unhappy or bitter – not at all – but still quite singular, often characterised by paradoxes which, inevitably, left enduring effects. Growing up I had to face a constant clash between a sorry incapability of bonding and an almost stupid proneness to connect. And there again comes the image of the fish. You see people uploading pictures of their dog or their cat, and when their cat dies they go in mourning. But fish, they are hardly considered as pets, and I’ve never seen anyone posting an obit for a goldfish or a guppy no matter how sweet they are. Fish are unable to bond or to encourage bonding, precisely because they live in a world of their own, unlike cats and dogs which share so much of their owners’ world. Huta, then, becomes an extended metaphor covering also these aspects of relationships and family.”

The lives of others

“In this collection I’ve written about different types of relationships: a different slant to the son-mother relationship, or the lovers that never were, or the possible myriad chance encounters we might have, or the one night stand or better still the one day stand. I am so obsessed with contingency, especially when it comes to human encounters. I’m also very interested in those relationships, different types of relationships, which once were dear and then were lost. For example I still feel sorry that there are university mates I’ve never seen since graduating twenty five years ago, and yet, when I think about it I realise I might not have spoken to them for more than five minutes in five years of meeting them practically every day.

“I would like to know what’s become of these people, same as I would like to know what has become of those little girls with colourful bow ties in their braids who were in primary school with me or the boys who kept pestering them and urging me to do the same. Of course, I have written more about the lives of others. Other people are very interesting, more interesting than myself.”

Yearning for change

“Reading the book for the last time before submitting it to the publishers I decided there needs to be some change in the way I write poetry. I still don’t know what this change will be like, but I’m always very worried about taking things for granted and creating comfort zones. Thing is, you never take things for granted consciously, so you have to really be careful. I’m definitely not the best judge of my poetry so I cannot really see the identity of this book, in relation to the previous collections, is. I’d like to think it’s different but it’s not different enough, hence the need for some kind of change. I need to pause and think of different things.”

 Taking to the streets

“There is loneliness in writing poetry. I’m not talking about the romantic idea of the solitary poet who drifts into aloneness to write, but on the complete absence of critical engagement with our poetry. Because of this, I feel the need to meet my readers as long as they exist. I was very sceptical about these readings when I started. For the very first reading which I gave in a magnificent place in Gozo three years ago, there were eight people in the audience. Then the audiences grew and – this is important – changed. There are people who keep coming to the readings, but there is always someone new turning up. And many of these not only come and enjoy but they also buy the poetry books, meaning they will carry the experience with them.

“I’ve also learnt that reading a poem aloud and to someone changes the whole dynamic of the lines. Sometimes I revise the poems after public readings. Would I recommend  poetry readings? Definitely. There are other poets who are giving readings nowadays, and some of these readings are even spectacular. I’m thinking of Adrian Grima’s reading in collaboration with Plato’s Dream Machine last year for example. That was a really good reading. I do wish readings like that become more of a frequent and regular event. They are beautiful because the poetry is beautiful. And people do enjoy the live experience of reading sessions.”

Huta is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin