Nathalie Handal talks to the Italian poet about her sometimes disturbing imagery and how her work helps us decipher the world.
Image from Flickr via Valentina_A
Elisa Biagini is one of the most interesting voices of contemporary Italian poetry. Her first substantial bilingual volume of poetry published in the U.S., The Guest in the Wood: A Selection of Poems 2004-2007, luminously rendered into English by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, was just released by Chelsea Editions.
She has published six collections of poetry, including The Guest (Einaudi, 2004) Into the Wood (Einaudi, 2007), and the forthcoming Da Una Crepa or From a Crack (Einaudi, 2014). She has been translated into over seven languages. Her early influences were Euginio Montale, Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath. When she came to the United Stated she discovered the voices of Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, and Lucille Clifton. The latter had a particularly great impact, and Biagini later translated the works of many of these authors into Italian.
Elisa Biagini invites readers to enter the world as guests. Her poetry explores the disquiet of the quotidien, from the confinements of a house, a room, a corner, to our private rituals, obsessions, and the objects we exist with—all of which create our everyday life. She asks readers to think about the relationships and conversations we have with the constricted spaces and small objects in our lives, to listen to the resonating sounds of her images, and through her poems to rethink reality and the self, find the world again, and maybe reinvent it with her.
She is interested in what frightens her. As we read her work, we come to realize that in the narrowness of our worlds, life is distorted and condensed to the fragments of the body. In her poems, the body is at the core of everything, and what exists under the flesh is an allegory of existence.
Her poems are attempts at living. The sparse and energetic verses in The Guest in the Wood are testaments to her belief that a force lives in the suspension of language. That our writing should not reveal everything. That the empty spaces, the white of the pages, the pauses, the silences are as important as the words.
I spoke to Biagini about her poems, their sometimes disturbing imagery, and the struggle to make sense of our world.
—Nathalie Handal for Guernica
Guernica: The body seems to be the pulse of everything in your work, and what’s underneath it a symbol for existence. Is that true and, if so, can you elaborate?
Elisa Biagini: I believe that, in order to be honest writers, we should write about what we know. Our body accompanies us through so many experiences. It’s the filter between us and the outside world.
Guernica: Bones, in your poems, are the spine of the body, of life, of breath. What is the “the intersection of bones?”
Elisa Biagini: It’s where body parts touch and create a sign in the woods. And it’s where communication begins.
Way too many people in today’s Italy are sincerely convinced that fashion and food are in the twenty-first century what painting and sculpture were at the time of the Medici.
Guernica: Food is a transmitter transmission of emotions. It is also a cruel element in many poems, yet you write: “speak to me again in recipes.” The image of hunger and recipes is disturbing, can you expand on that choice?
Elisa Biagini: In every culture, food is more than just nutrition but in Italy it has become sort of a national obsession: on one side it is something that continues to “enslave” generations of women (it’s not acceptable for an Italian woman to not be interested in cooking and such), and on the other side, it is more and more used as a device to distract people from the real economical and social problems of our country. Way too many people in today’s Italy are sincerely convinced that fashion and food are in the twenty-first century what painting and sculpture were at the time of the Medici.
Guernica: In your poems, it seems like the I and the You merge? What unites and separates the two? At the center of many of the poems is a hesitant relationship between the two and a strong sense of love and abhorrence.
Elisa Biagini: Like it or not we are all connected, and in particular this I and this You, being part of the same family. The I slowly realizes, in the progression of the book, how much of her comes from that You, and she slowly accepts it. All important relationships are of love and hate, especially when you are forced to be together in a family. I can’t completely hate here because I am her also.
You have to pass through woods that are disturbing at times in order to find yourself. There will be some bruising involved, signs that will stay, reminding you of the process.
Guernica: Your work is at times harsh, at time disconcerting, at times merciless, at times dry yet intimate. It’s also elliptical. That’s a difficult task that you’ve managed to accomplish. What has been your force—is it love or lesion?
Elisa Biagini: You have to pass through woods that are disturbing at times in order to find yourself. There will be some bruising involved, signs that will stay, reminding you of the process.
Guernica: You write at one point that death “comes in layers.” The same could be said about your poems. Your fragments seem to say, “there’s no plot,” that we live in “parentheses.” Is that how you see life…see poetry?
Elisa Biagini: In this dramatic historical moment we often feel at loss but as intellectuals we have to keep fighting for some sense.
Guernica: Among your early influences were Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and you have translated numerous American poets, namely Alicia Ostriker, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, and Lucille Clifton. Can you speak about how you came to American poetry, in particular women’s poetry, and its influence on your work.
Elisa Biagini: When I moved to the US to get my Ph.D., I was lucky enough to meet Alicia Ostriker. She introduced me to a lot of American women poets and taught me how to teach a creative writing workshop. She told me to write about the things I feared, to break taboos, something quite unacceptable in poetic tradition of my country. Reading Olds’ poetry, a voice very distant from mine, was nevertheless eye-opening because of the way she talks about her family or the body. It was very liberating indeed.
I strongly believe that a poet should go out and help us decipher the world.
Guernica: How do you suggest we “translate your life?”
Elisa Biagini: Here I was trying to give some texture to the voice of the you, doing an actual translation, and in doing so, helping the you understand herself.
Guernica: You warn: “out there it’s always dark: don’t go.” Should we listen to you?
Elisa Biagini: It was someone else warning me there. I strongly believe that a poet should go out and help us decipher the world.
Nathalie Handal’s most recent books include the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía, and Love and Strange Horses, winner of the 2011 Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award. She writes the literary travel column “The City and the Writer” for Words without Borders.