Celebrating Mario Azzopardi at the Malta Book Festival 2017

Mario Azzopardi will be a special guest of the Malta Book Festival 2017, where he will be honoured with an event dedicated to him and his work as the winner of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award

Poet, essayist, playwright and educator Mario Azzopardi was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. This prestigious award is given to writers who in the course of their careers have made lasting contributions to the local literary scene. There can hardly be any doubt regarding Azzopardi’s contribution. As one of the most founders of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju and editor of the avante-garde literary journal Il-Polz, his name will be forever associated with the emergence of strong voices in local literature – an emergence he contributed to both as a writer and as a cultural journalist.

Azzopardi was born to working class parents in a run-down area in Ħamrun. He has remained loyal to his roots throughout his long career. Having pursued his studies at University after attending Il-Kulleġġ tal-Għalliema (Teachers’ College), he graduated with an M.Phil in Theatre Studies with a thesis on the concept of the communal theatre, a deeply socialist concept first formulated by the innovative Polish theatre director Jerzy Marian Grotowsky. It should not be surprising that a couple of years later he would be asked by the Prime Minister of the time, the late Dominic Mintoff, to set up Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Maltese.

It is notoriously difficult to assess the contribution of an educator in a tangible way. Following his university studies, and while working hard on setting up theatrical performances, Azzopardi was also working as a full-time art, drama and Maltese literature teacher where his trademark enthusiasm and charisma must have made a huge impact on his students. In the period from 1998 until his retirement in 2004, he was employed at the Policy Unit within the Ministry of Education. Following his retirement, he continued working as director of the Drama Centre.

Mario Azzopardi’s contribution to literature, literary criticism and the promotion of local literary culture is, on the other hand, much easier to assess. Arguably, there have been very few poets in the history of modern Maltese literature that have experimented as extensively with different forms of poetry as he has.  At some his experiments earned him the nickname of ‘il-poeta tat-tikek’ for his tendency to use dots to represent unfinished thoughts in poetry. The term was intended to be pejorative but the poet appropiated with pride, even referring to himself in some of his poetry as ‘the poet of dots’.

This characteristic lack of fear or timidness not only in exploring new genres in poetry and writing but also to present them to the public without fear of being ridiculed or not taken seriously is what made him the perfect figure to lead avante-garde movements in drama and literature. Il-Moviment Qawmien Letterarju was founded in 1967 with the explicit agenda of urging Maltese writers to break free of topical and parochial themes and start addressing pressing social issues, explore the gritty realities of human relationships. As the editor of both Il-Polz and Neo, a leftwing avante-garde literary journal, Azzopardi did his utmost to promote the works of Maltese authors who at the very least dared write about things that mattered to them.

Although as a poet, he will be mostly remembered as one of the major exponents (and outspoken representative) of the New Wave of Maltese literature that exploded on the local scene towards the end of the sixties, Azzopardi has never really stopped writing and a study of his more recent poetry reveals a tendency for re-assessment, a review of previous social and political stances that nonetheless are totally innocent of the kind of repentance that characterises the work of some of his peers. Azzopardi has managed to retain his anger, let it mature and change its tone without ever trading in the principles and ideals that have driven him throughout his career.  

Equally important in any evaluation of Azzopardi is his contribution to cultural journalism, which in his case would always be underpinned by sharp social and political critiques. Even in this Azzopardi has shown himself to be unique – he has written articles and columns in newspapers across the political spectrum, contributing to Il-Mument, It-Torċa, In-Nazzjon and L-Orrizont. There are very few journalists who can put claim to such an achievement. In the end, no matter what one thinks of his poetry, essays, work in the theatre, it is impossible not to admit that he has lived according to his principles as an artist determined to take art and social commentary to the demos, where they rightfully belong.

Mario Azzopardi will be a special guest of the Malta Book Festival 2017, where he will be honoured with an event dedicated to him and his work as the winner of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award. The event, which will take place at Sir Temi Zammit Hall, MCC, on Friday 10 November should attract quite a crowd of former students, former colleagues at the theatre, fellow teachers and members of the public who have followed his articles and writings during his illustrious and long career.

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