Sunday, October 21, 2018
FRAMED – PATRICK SAMMUT INTERVIEWS MARIA GRECH-GANADO
You are what you eat is said of physical fitness, as you are what you read may be of a sound personality. Though always an asset, personality has little to do with a craft or career which requires only professional texts, concerned mainly with what one does, rather than is. On the other hand, the reading of Literature provides pleasure in the form of stories, poetry, drama, even while it implants knowledge and develops character without our being aware of it.
In a good novel*, for example, we may absorb elements of history, sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, philosophy, etc. inherent in our own or different cultures, even while we respond to the beauty of language. Of course, skills may be derived from other branches of the Humanities, newspapers, magazines, even comics, but Literature offers us the opportunity to interact with the complexity of countries, characters, events beyond our experience. This strengthens, not only knowledge and imagination, but also qualities essential to humankind, like compassion and generosity.
As we need curiosity, time and patience at the beginning of a friendship, books too need a degree of commitment, but the inherent wealth they afford the enrichment of one’s personality can never be stolen. They can, however, become addictive.
*I am thinking of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – though, of course, that would be in translation. Perhaps a Shakespearian History play, Fahrenheit 451, The Grapes of Wrath, The God of Small Things, Leli ta’ Ħaz-Żgħir, Things Fall Apart, etc.
2. FRAMED is your most recent poetry collection. When and from where did it come from?
I doubt any poet writes for a collection – at least initially. The idea for one, at least for me, comes when inspiration starts to revolve around a specific theme, because of some random circumstance, or thought. Then the writing itself takes off in a direction I have to follow, and I start thinking of a collection.
The first shove towards Framed came when Nicholas de Piro enquired whether I had any poems for his book on portraits. Though he eventually dropped the idea of using literary texts, I had already written two or three to add to poems about pictures written beforehand, and others came naturally to join them.
It was once more, however, one of Elena E. Giorgi’s pictures that drew the whole collection together. ‘Once more’, because I had already used her picture ‘Doors’ for the cover of ‘Taħt il-Kpiepel t’Għajnejja’. This time, her picture ‘Displacement’ inspired the poem, Framed, because I thought it reflected the alienation of my bipolar disorder as also the ever-increasing sense of dissociation between various aspects of my personality, especially my public and private selves. It was all perfectly portrayed by the split figure of a woman – her bottom-half sits on a sofa, with an empty frame on her lap, while, at some distance away, her top-half hangs on to a frame hanging on the wall, attempting, perhaps, to climb out of it.
Never have I been more convinced of a title’s relevance to the states of mind in any of my collections than with Framed, except, perhaps, for Ribcage.
Displacement – inspired poem and title, ‘Framed’
Time Forward - inspired the poem, ‘Boy’
Blown Away - inspired the poem ‘Over the Rainbow’
1. Why the title Framed?
When it comes to poems about concrete items like apertures, pictures, mirrors, etc., I think it obvious that the poems are reflections on what it is they frame. The word in itself also seemed a perfect umbrella term for themes in the collection about frames of mind to do with thought, reflection, feeling, rather than description. ‘Frame’ finds a place in countless ramifications of various disciplines, linguistic, social, psychological, philosophical, financial, etc. and is here used metaphorically.
Moreover, I often feel that our very identities are ‘framed’, not only by our genes, but as in Heidegger’s concept of Thrownness (Geworfenheit), which randomly flings individuals into a specific time-span between birth and death –as also into a social framework that determines our norms, beliefs, conventions, traditions and thereby our eventual choices. Even as a child, I remember feeling very confused by postulates of free will. I wish I had the mental energy today to read more of writers like Simon Baron-Cohen.
2. You quote Elinor Wylie and Eleanor Roosevelt as an opening to this new book. Which of these describe you best: fearless, strong, cheerful, wise? Why?
I stopped trying to describe myself to myself ages ago. Not only do we all keep on changing as we grow, but I also tend to change my mood according to circumstantial fluctuations during the same day. I can be all of the above in certain circumstances, or the exact opposite in others. Sometimes both simultaneously. For example, I’m strongest when I refuse to hide my vulnerability, question everything fearlessly even when it might disturb my comfort zones, but dread arguments merely meant to assert aggressive points of view. I smile no matter what. I agree with Shakespeare that nothing is but was is not. Perhaps my bipolar disorder has something to do with this, but most of what I think and feel is inherently paradoxical. Odi et amo.
3. Do you prefer reading literature (poetry, fiction, drama) or philosophy? What about cinema, music, and theatre? How do these help you in your writing?
I don’t like reading philosophy at all, when it’s written as a discipline. It tends, like legal jargon, to wring any poetry out of language and render it a befuddling tool subservient to a dry analyses which I simply cannot follow. Literature overflows with philosophy (as also psychology, history, sociology etc) where the medium is language at its most vital and creative. Though it is the medium I enjoy most, the different creative ones you mention come very close. For personal reasons, I’m no longer able to participate publicly as Maltese interest in cultural events grows, but music accompanies me when I write, read, or simply try to fill my mind with some beauty (mainly classical). And I’m always searching for films of a certain substance to watch at home. I love best what engrosses me so much that I forget my separate identity. Or, as TS Eliot would put it, become the music ‘while the music lasts’. When conflicting pieces of myself are absorbed and harmonised, it must inevitably help my writing.
4. The pensive “I” in Framed is suspended somewhere between childhood and old age. How do you react to this?
It’s a lovely line, almost poetical, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what it means. The statement implies that childhood and old age are at opposite poles, whereas I tend to think of Time as circular rather than linear, so that there doesn’t seem to be much distinction between the two. They are states of Being as opposed to Doing. I think the pensive ‘I’ in Framed, like my relentless pensive eye everywhere, hops between contexts in my experience, which might not seem logically connected to others, but are imaginatively aligned in my mind. It’s so difficult to explain, which is why I have to use poetry – metaphor is based on such an alignment, and when I can trace the patterns it evokes, they can’t help but be multilevelled as well. For me Life is what exists within this circular frame – no ‘between’, except, perhaps, with spirals.
I think T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets comes closest to capturing this experience in words. His poem is a complex ‘raid on the inarticulate’. Towards the end, there are 4 lines which continue to be of great import to me ‘we shall not cease from exploration/ and the end of our exploring /will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time’.
5. Framed also includes a 20-page short story named “Inside William (1991)”. What was the idea behind such an inclusion in a book of verse?
I wrote ‘Inside William’ ages ago when I began to struggle with a growing need to discover who I really was, or rather who I wasn’t.
William is, of course, the body, the human frame in which Bill (Reason) and Will (Imagination) live together in us all. Noting the difference of others through the metaphorical 2nd window, Reason thinks in terms of better and worse. Imagination sees the same difference but enjoys finding out what others are like, remaining as non-judgemental as a child. The piece developed more as one of playful mysticism than a story, and I didn’t know where to place it.
When I came to publishing Framed, I realised that the ‘story’ could serve as a kind of introduction to what constitutes the experience of the spirit’s 3rd window, through which poetry can fly, avoiding the pain of difference altogether. It’s a perspective that looks into oneself, unlike the windows which look out at others. The pensive ‘I’, perhaps, more of a reflection than a narrative. And it contains a good amount of word play. I decided it had found its place in Framed as a prose poem.
6. You write verse in both English and Maltese. What is your experience as a poet and writer with these two different languages?
It amazes me that a potential poem chooses its own language. I was brought up with English as my prinċipal language, then studied and lectured English literature. My Maltese tended to be very shaky, and I still have problems with vocabulary and grammar, pronouns and spelling. I tend to be lazy, so didn’t read much Maltese classical literature, unless I had to.
But when it was my friends who wrote Maltese literature of a high standard, I felt the language struggle inside me for some fresh air, the same air my friends were breathing. Nobody was as astounded as I when my Maltese poetry met with a certain regard – I’d hidden it, till a friend showed it to someone who was publishing an anthology (PSI) and he included 4 of mine. I love playing with the Maltese vocabulary because of the multiple meanings of words defined only by their context. I think the sound of Maltese well used has a magic all its own, as well. I tend to use the English iamb, rather than the Maltese hendecasyllable sometimes still, with positive effect too, I feel.
Strangely enough, I found it far more difficult to break out of the grammatical constraints of a language not my own, learnt with grammatical precision some 40 years before. I still like most of Ribcage (2013), but would probably not have published much of Cracked Canvas (2015) today. I wanted to launch a Maltese (Il-Hofra Bejn Spallejha) and an English collection simultaneously, in protest at those who tend to disparage one language or the other, so published both too soon. Like it or not, I’m something of a perfectionist, and despite their containing some good poems, I think now that both collections were relatively mediocre. I should have waited to publish the good poems in my subsequent ones, respectively 9 and 13 years later.
I can’t put my finger on any distinction in my feelings about which language I’m using, and am happy I’m able to write in both. I think, though, that I feel more fulfilled when it is a Maltese poem that reaches out to others.