The rich tapestries of memory | John Aquilina

Poet John Aquilina speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his upcoming collection ‘Tluq’, which will be launched at The Mill in Birkirkara on September 21

John Aquilina
John Aquilina

When did you first realise you had an inclination towards poetry? And how did you act on this desire in those early days?

In Malta we have – or at least we had, back then – the strange situation that secondary school students are exposed to English Literature before they even get to hear about Maltese authors. My interest in Literature started at that time. However, it was thanks to the classes in Maltese Literature, some years later, that this morphed into, as you say, an “inclination”.

The syllabus was based on the well-known ‘Qawsalla’ textbook covering the literary output in our language over the years and many of the works struck a chord with me. For instance, I remember our teacher discussing one of Carmel Attard’s poems and remarking in passing that Attard was born into a world not made for him. That I remember this remark and not others is one answer to your question, because it automatically exposes a style and poetic attitude that I was responsive to.

In the early ‘90s, Oliver Friggieri had started a weekly radio show on Wednesdays, called ‘Imsiebaħ bil-lejl’ (‘Lanterns at Night’), during which he would talk about topics from philosophy and World Literature. Needless to say, the school material did not hint at any of this – especially because I was in the Sciences stream – so every Wednesday evening brought with it a humbling new list of authors and works and arguments I felt compelled to catch up on and learn about.

I feel I am still in catch-up mode today. Meanwhile, I also got a copy of Oliver’s book ‘Mal-fanal hemm ħarstek tixgħel’ which I internalised to the extent that at some point I knew the content by heart. I think it is mainly as a result of this that I mostly write in hendecasyllable. Immanuel Mifsud also had a weekly radio show about the Classical Music and the lives of the Composers. I found this fascinating and of course it spurred me to read Immanuel’s own literary work, which remains among my favourites.

My first attempts at writing were not exclusively poetry. For instance, I still have the manuscripts of some futile attempts at writing plays, prompted mostly by Francis Ebejer’s plays (his ‘Bwani’ disturbs me to this day). I also tried writing some short stories, one of which I rediscovered recently by coincidence and which will be published this year. In the end, what I have been consistent in is poetry.

The poetry I wrote early on served the purpose of honing technical skills and finding my own style, subject matter and choice of words. I am my own harshest critic when it comes to filtering out what is not good. My first book, ‘Leħnek il-Libsa Tiegħi’ (‘Your Voice My Only Clothing’), which came out in 2010 and covered 15 years’ worth of writing, had very little of my early stuff in it. The style and imagery have evolved over the years in line with the particular experiences life has thrown at me.

What have been some of the themes and subjects that you found yourself returning to, and how do they manifest themselves in ‘Tluq’, your latest collection?

This question segues nicely from what I said above. It is now nine years since my first book. I have kept on writing, and for some years have been more prolific than others, but this is not something I could or wanted to control. Whatever I wrote could only be valid if it was ‘discovered’ or ‘caught’, if it represented a rare moment when an emotion magically resonated with an image and created something that worked on a linguistic, metaphorical and musical level.

It was only in the past two years or so that I felt that I had a group of poems that was sizeable and consistent enough which could exist together in a new book. It was important to me that the poems: (a) represented a new phase in my work, and (b) had a reason to exist together. I was also very lucky to be able to work with Antoine Cassar and Marco Scerri who did an excellent job curating and designing the book.

As far as themes go, everything seems to stem from a loss that keeps on giving. ‘Tluq’ explores different kinds of relationships to what was in ‘Leħnek’. The new poems draw from many personal events in the past ten years that made me ponder deeply on the meaning of being a friend or sibling, a son or grandson, a parent or grandparent.

You will probably find that much of the imagery in the book is quite sorrowful. After I wrote the poem ‘Tluq’, however, I was surprised to find in it a redemption of sorts. I was on a road trip in Turkey, and on the surface the poem was just an abstraction of the day-to-day existence on that trip. Each day brought me to a ‘new’, different, town. Yet there was suddenly a sameness in transitioning from one unknown place to another. What looked like seeking an unknown purpose each day was in fact just a ‘rehearsal’ for the only – and final – departure that affords a true arrival or ending. Immediately, I knew that ‘Tluq’ completed the book and would give it its title. The final poem of the book is logically an acceptance of this sameness by way of ‘learning how to leave’.

A lot of the poems in ‘Tluq’ appear to be based on your memories and impressions of places that you’ve visited – what draws you back to them for poetic exploration?

You are right, for me the sense of place is key. In ‘Leħnek’ the place featured mostly as newly-visited towns or cities (as in ‘Bath’, for instance), or generically as in a sea-side setting and so on. In ‘Tluq’ it takes on a much more ominous role. There is a lot going on in hospitals and in kitchens, for example. These are places that serve a practical purpose, but as the setting for a particular event or dialogue or thought they become something of a ‘theatre stage’ in my case.

This emphasis on place could perhaps explain why certain dramatists – Ebejer, Pinter, Ionescu, and Miller – leave such an impression on me. In the same vein, Polanski’s first feature film ‘Knife in the Water’ – involving just three characters stuck on a claustrophobic sailboat in the Mazurian lakes during Communist times – is one of my favourite cinematic works. On a practical level, it happens that distractions and mundane concerns are least present when I am away somewhere, so it helps me to concentrate on writing. Memories created in this way seem to offer the richest tapestry of images for me.

Do you think that poets are born or made, or is it a mix of both? Why do you think poetry is no longer such a central part of our cultural experience?

We live in an age of distraction and it is hard for silence and introspection to win the competition for attention. In Malta specifically, there are of course many people and organisations that champion culture and literature. Unfortunately, this is not reflected at an institutional level, where all that matters is greed and speed.

For me, the most depressing manifestation of this is the daily gnawing away at what remains of our natural and historical environ-
ment.

I do not know whether poets are made or born. Would Nazim Hikmet have written differently, if at all, had he not spent most of his adult life in prison? I cannot read Sylvia Plath’s work and not think of how she ended up. A specific sensibility is needed first and foremost if poetry is to speak to you at all, and if you are to build the skill to make words work for you. Whether you create any poetry of your own is then a question of your circumstances, priorities and consistency.

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

Generally, I am happy that cultural activities are much more varied and that access to them is much easier than when I was in Malta. It is probably the only aspect I miss about living there. I would particularly like to mention all the work that Inizjamed has done over so many years to bring literature and Maltese into the mainstream without diluting it into simple entertainment. What undermines all this and needs to change is the quality of public debate and the values we are encouraged to live by. I am not holding my breath.

What’s next for you?

I am very much looking forward to the launch of ‘Tluq’ which will feature poetry readings, singing and music. The Gabriel Caruana Foundation has kindly accepted to host the event of ‘Tluq’ at their Mill in Birkirkara.

‘Tluq’ will be launched at The Mill, Birkirkara on September 21 at 7.30pm. For more information, log on to: https://gabrielcaruanafoundation.org/events/tluq/

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