Breaking the silence | Omar Seguna

As he gets ready to release his third poetry collection, Xehir Fis-Skiet, Omar Seguna speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his politically-charged work, which aims to highlight social injustices and give voice to the marginalised among us

Omar Seguna
Omar Seguna

Xehir Fis-Skiet is your third poetry collection. What can you tell us about your previous publications?

My first poetry collection was Mal-Ħoss Qawwi tar-Ragħad, which was published in 2001. It came with a critical introduction by Guze’ Chetcuti. Subsequently, I published 24, Triq Ħad-Dwieli in 2011, with an introduction by Mario Azzopardi. This book came with an interactive DVD, making it one of the first locally produced poetry collection to come with an Adobe Flash version. Some of my writings also appeared in several anthologies including ‘Arkadja’, ‘Il silenzio della montagna e le voci del mare’, ‘Premi Letterari Citta’ Di Pontinia XIII Edizione’, ‘Kritika Prattika’, ‘Minn Fomm il-Kittieb’, ‘Raddiena ta’ Lwien’ and in several newspapers.

  There is a very clear political thrust to the work in question: would you say that this is the primary reason why you write? Which are some of the most egregious social wrongs you hope to highlight with your work?

I believe that authors must be political, in the sense that they should seek to transform the world around them. My poetry is not that of protest, in the traditional sense of being strongly focused on campaigning for justice and human rights. Having said that, one can certainly find examples of anti-war poetry among my work, such as ‘Sirja 2013’, which conveys a message of peace through its haiku format.  In ‘Twiebet fuq il-baħar’ (Coffins in the sea) I challenged the present-day growth of anti-immigration sentiment. Silence and passivity scare me, as I express in ‘Is-Skiet’ (Silence).

So yes, I campaign for social change through my work, as in ‘Kuntrast’ (Contrast) where the greedy lives of the rich are juxtaposed against the more meaningful lives of the poor. Meanwhile, the poem ‘d e m m’ (blood) is a concrete poem, written in red and evoking blood splatters.

However, my poetry is also about invisible suffering, and the human tendency to be cruel to each other. I want to lend a voice to those who are suffering in silence, and I am merciless in the face of injustice. ‘Sena Maqful’ (Detained for a Year), for example, is inspired by a local case of a man who was  given a prison sentence despite being innocent.

Some poetry also reflects on those who are still captives and victims of their past; those who are still being labelled throughout the community. This suffering, reminiscent of the past years, is described in ‘Naħfer, imma’ which can be translated as ‘I forgive, but’ through metaphors such as wearing a humiliating sign on my back, dizziness as a result of intoxication, eating the leftovers from the table and so on. In some poems, like ‘Liberta’ (Freedom) the reader is made to “feel” emptiness as well as deprivation:

This is the guitar

that I could never play,

if only for a moment,

so I could hear the singing

snaking through the dejection

of yesterday.

(‘Liberta’ - translation)

This set of poems, found in the first section of the book, expose grim truths about abuse:

This is the fresh air

that I have never felt

inside the closed-in spaces

that I’ve lived in.

(‘Liberta’ – translation)

Other poems address marginalisation, like ‘Ħajt’ (Wall), ‘Hekk iridu’ (That’s what they want), ‘qaluli’ (They told me), ‘Kemm se ndum?’ (For how long?) and backstabbing at the workplace: harshly criticising brownnosers, rumour-mongers and finger pointers, as in ‘Dedika… b’sogħba’ (Dedication with distaste), ‘Fi spazju bla lqugħ’ (Unprotected space).  Others commend honesty in life, as in ‘Li kont’ (If I were).

So this leads to harsh criticism towards persons of trust who seem to be trapped in hubris. The ideal example of this is ‘Xbajt’ (I am tired of). Nepotism is, in my opinion, a toxic fact of life that snakes its way into each of its aspects, as I express in ‘Ċrieki taċ-ċrieki’, another concrete poem. The environment is also a great concern of mine. To mention just one example, I express my rage at the shooting of a flamingo in ‘Jittajjar ħieles’ (Flying freely), an incident that unfortunately did not turn out to be an isolated case.

There are, however, poems in the collection that may not be political in the traditional sense of the word, focusing as they do on personal relationships, and tackling themes such as lack of communication in love, as in ‘… eċċ… eċċ…’ (...etc...etc...)  characterised by a number of metaphors which misguidedly suggest that they are about a complaining wife,

...when you tell me

about my neighbour’s house,

the kids next door,

the street nearby,

...etc...etc...

(translation)

However the last stanza then turns into an anti-climax:

...I’ll tell you also

I don’t know if I’ve written

these lines for you

or for myself.

(translation)

Politics apart, in ‘Xehir fis-skiet’ one can find some very romantic poems too, like ‘Tini waqt wieħed biss (Just give me one moment).

What kind of role do you think poetry can play in the ongoing socio-political discourse, and how do you think this plays out in your work in particular?

I am not contentious, but neither am I passive or lackadaisical regarding social activity. I collaborated with social activists, for example Roberto Malini, a poet from Milan also screenplay writer and documentary maker, who is co-president of EveryOne Group, an international human rights organisation.   

In Ondata di bombe su Bagdad (wave of bombs on Baghdad) which placed first in the National Poetry Competition, 2007, Italian Poetry Section and also first place in the Citta’ di Pontinia, 2009, Poeti Stranierii, I criticised the war in Iraq. While it is not included in ‘Xehir fis-Skiet’, this poem was anthologised in a number of books.

I harshly criticise politicians who deceive the electorate by talking nonsense at them, as in ‘bla bla bla’ and ‘Kif nivvota’ (How I Vote), and when Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally slain, I contributed my thoughts on the matter on the Genova Poesia online portal (‘Malta, Daphne Caruana Galizia non c’è più’).

However, I think that Xehir fis-Skiet could have taken a harsher stance against corruption and the call for justice. This is a genuine self-criticism on my part). The reality is that at the time of writing, we had yet to learn about the incestuous relationship between politically exposed people and criminals, that was one of the fallouts of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

What do you make of the local literary scene? What would you change about it?

Unfortunately, the local community of authors is very small. This may lead to conforming to the same mindset and ideas. It’s fine that there is a strong liberal, progressive movement which is sometimes very active, especially in favour of the safeguarding of agricultural and ODZ land, and against land speculation. However I think that allowing space for differing, and even contrasting, opinions is also important, and even perhaps essential to the long-term health of the scene.

Another issue is that of associations. In Malta we are blessed to have different literary groups:  Inizjamed, Għaqda tal-Malti, Maltese Poets Association and so on and so forth. Each has its own charisma. That’s wonderful. However, being a small island may unfortunately lead to some tension between the various groups. The same thing may happen to individual authors. We have all heard stories of an author getting some great artistic opportunity even if they may be perceived as less competent than someone else, all because this one ‘knows somebody’. Lobbying happens in all countries, and we all have our own group of friends. But being a small island, this problem is amplified to the point where it can be perceived as nepotism.

What’s next for you?

I will certainly continue to write poetry but I’m also keen to experiment with other forms, such as poetry, short fiction and perhaps novels. Who knows what the future will bring?

Xehir Fis-Skiet is published by Horizons

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