A generation-spanning literary collage | Patrick Sammut

With the second volume in the series out last month, Teodor Reljic catches up with Patrick Sammut, editor of Minn Fomm L-Kittieb (volumes 1 and 2) – a comprehensive compendium of interviews with local poets and writers 

Patrick Sammut
Patrick Sammut

What made you decide to compile and publish this series of interviews with local poets?

I have studied Maltese literature at post-secondary and university levels and have been active in the local literary sector since around 1997, when I became a member of the Maltese Poets Association and eventually a member of its committee. This gave me the opportunity to personally meet a good number of local writers and poets. More than 20 years ago I also compiled a set of literary appreciations about a number of local poets, which were regularly published in local newspapers. 

These writings were hugely appreciated by the writers/poets themselves; some of them rang me up at home, others eventually sent me copies of their literary works, and others even invited me home for a friendly chat. One of the earliest of these interviews goes back to 2001, with veteran prolific writer Ġużè Chetcuti. Over the years I became the editor of the literary page of a local weekly newspaper, and this allowed me the time and the opportunity to interview not only local writers and poets, but even Maltese poets and writers living abroad (particularly in Australia). Today I have my own publication, Il-Pont, an online literary quarterly magazine in which I am a regular host  to various poets and their works, with a good number of interviews thrown in for variety’s sake.

In 2012 I decided to put collate all these interviews in one publication. The information gathered is varied and colourful: the writers interviewed speak openly (and often nostalgically) of their childhood days, family background, relation with the media, emigration experience, recollections of the Second World War, experiences abroad, publications, literary evenings, pastimes and, of course, the good and the bad times. All in all this brings out a very interesting account of the Maltese literary scene from as far as the 1950s to the present day.

How did you compile the selection in question, and what kind of research did you do beforehand?

I interviewed some of the poets/writers personally, and made use of an old cassette or voice recorder. Other interviews were made through traditional correspondence. I used to write or type the questions and send them directly to the writers involved. Some of them forwarded hand-written answers – documents which I still highly cherish. A substantial amount of interviews were made via e-mails.

I personally knew beforehand many of the writers/poets, through the occasional meeting, including literary evenings organised by various local literary entities; so, it wasn’t that difficult for me to compile a number of salient questions. Others I got to know through their literary works, of which I have quite a good number at home. As stated above, I studied Maltese literature (as well as Italian literature and literary criticism) at post-secondary and tertiary levels; and this helped me immensely in the compilation of the questions put to the writers/authors, as well as in the choice of the writers/ authors themselves.

These writings were hugely appreciated by the writers/poets themselves
These writings were hugely appreciated by the writers/poets themselves

Are there any thematic threads in either of the books – whether they were decided by you ahead of time, or whether they occurred naturally during the interview process?

Some of the questions were naturally anticipated. In fact, some of them were posed on the same lines. Questions that have to do with childhood and family background, favourite reads and themes tackled, pastimes, memories, anecdotes, style of writing, and the like. I also wanted to discuss in detail certain close links between the literary works of local writers/poets and those of foreign writers. Other questions occurred naturally during the interview process. Sometimes I greatly enjoyed discussing with the writers/poets the recurrent word schemes and/or concepts in their works, particularly imagery, colours, sounds, and the odd peculiarity.

Are there any common concerns that the poets expressed – both about their own work and the Maltese literary scene? And what about generational differences between poets?

One of the main concerns is the fact that, locally, there are few spaces where one can publish his own works. In the past there used to be literary publications such as Il-Polz, Forum, Il-PronostikuMalti, as well as a number of accommodating literary pages in the local newspapers and literary radio programmes where one could publish/read his works. Today we still have prestigious publications like Il-Malti or Leħen il-Malti which serve as a most welcome platform for both established and new writers/poets and researchers. Still, these are not enough!

Another concern is the fact that, sadly, there exists a kind of divide between established poets/writers and other lesser-known ones, the former enjoying a good number of advantages when it comes to media exposure, opportunities to publish with established houses or to participate advantageously in foreign book fairs and conventions, to the latter’s chagrin!

The old-school poets, highly influenced by the Romantics, wrote according to pre-established metrical and prosodical rules, and dealt with themes such as family, faith and fate, nature, love, death, the good old days... Other poets who embarked on their literary careers in the mid-sixties, were influenced by the contemporary European and American literary scene, thus opting for current issues such as drugs, sex, the Vietnam war, identity issues, resorting to a new language, at times expressing despair and anger, and a new imagery. 

Another generation was born at the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies, whose literary works were eventually published in the nineties: happily, some of these are now established writers/poets whose works are generally reminiscent and have been influenced by Near East, South American and Eastern European literature in all its forms. 

The reflexive classic hendecasyllable is still in use, but these days many opt for free verse. Another generation of writers who were born in the mid-eighties or early-nineties are still busy, these days on their computers. Current favourite themes are immigration, famine, war, environmental issues, politics, inequality, injustice... An interesting factor today is the linguistic point of view: Maltese is a flexible language, it blends well with loads of foreign loan words, and an all-over assurance of poetical harmony is thus guaranteed!

Do you think there is an urgent need to collect the thoughts of Maltese poets together in such volumes? What would you say the direct benefit of a project like this could be?

Sadly, a number of poets/writers interviewed in these two volumes have passed away. Happily, their thoughts, memories and experiences, remain printed black on white. Together all the 104 writers-poets interviewed now form a sort of collective human and literary collage, a literary heritage, one almighty voice made up of different voices. In turn, writers and poets abroad are very much respected and are always given their due. These interviews certainly help to bring out the human aspect of the poet-writer as an essential being; they can be an invaluable resource not only for all those studying local literature, but also for all those who have Maltese literature at heart. This collection of interviews will surely be an immense help to researchers, allowing them to form a better picture of the local literary scene. Hopefully, these two volumes will help poets/writers to get to know each other better; their readers and all those otherwise interested in local literature to be more than ever aware of what Maltese literature is all about.  

Both volumes of Minn Fomm Il-Kittieb are published by Horizons