Moments of Absence

Editing at Caffe degli Specchi on a drizzly morning

Editing at Caffe degli Specchi on a drizzly morning

Life in the last couple of weeks has been busier than I’d quite anticipated. A writing project that I’d been poking around the edges of for a couple of years finally came together, and last week I signed a contract with my publisher for a collection of essays, articles, and other (mostly) previously-published works to appear under one cover. What this means is that I’ve been busy collecting files, making sure I had permissions from original publications, and messing about with the idea of self-publishing, though that has gone by the wayside, as it is just too much work for me.

The thing about writers is, ideally, that we write. It means that sometimes we disappear into ourselves and our notebooks or computers for days or weeks or months at a time as we work our way through our projects. Stuff gets neglected. Like, say, eating and sleeping. Also, blog posts.

My printer is out of ink and I need to get some more to finish printing out the draft manuscript. I’m spending a good deal of my time editing. In a couple of cases, it means taking the draft file and the published book to make sure that the two match, because editing happened between file and print.

Admittedly, a compilation is a lot easier than starting something from scratch. I’ve got about twenty years of material here to go with, and folks who are familiar with my work are looking forward to it. I’ve been asking around for cover blurbs and have got people working on front matter for me. Once something approaching layout is done, I’m also going to have to work on indexing the book, because nonfiction books without indexes are an affront to humanity.

Poems that I composed earlier this year for an anthology were accepted, so now I’m just waiting to hear about editing, printing, and publication dates. My friend Slippery Elm is editing the anthology and he’s back in Vancouver, BC from his cave in Spain. He says he’ll be returning to Spain after the end of autumn. He also sent me Spanish translations of a couple of my poems that he likes; they look lovely, even if I can’t read them very well. I’m enjoying the bits where Spanish and Italian have similarities.

Italian metal band Rhapsody of Fire in front of Teatro Verdi

Italian metal band Rhapsody of Fire in front of Teatro Verdi

Triestino pedestrian street at night

Triestino pedestrian street at night

My brother is here in Trieste, and we celebrated his birthday last week. We went out for Indian food to a place we hadn’t been before called Krishna, which was pretty good. It’s located just off Viale XX Settembre, across the street from an Indian grocery. I was very pleased that when I ordered chai, I got an entire pot before the meal arrived, as opposed to a small cup at the end of the meal. Of course, this also meant I didn’t sleep that night, but chai is worth it.

Most of Italy right now is shut down for Ferragosto (the Italian Wikipedia site is far more informative.) and the annual summer holidays. Ferragosto began in about the year 18 BCE as a festival introduced by the emperor Agustus, as a time of rest after hard agricultural labor. Today it’s apparently associated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by the Catholic Church. Lots of shops are closed outright, or have much reduced hours. Quite a few of my friends are or have been out of town. Ginger, the tea shop I like, has been closed down for the better part of a month now and will be re-opening on Wednesday, so I’ll have to drop by and say hello and see how the motorcycle trip went.

The heat here has been pretty intense for me, with my delicate Northwest climate sensibilities. We’ve had a lot of humidity and quite a few thunderstorms. I’m supposed to start Italian classes in early September. The Venice Film Festival is coming up, and I might go down for a day with some friends to see a movie or two. If I go, there will be pictures and review(s)!


Ballerina performs in Piazza della Borsa


More dance in the piazza


Learning Italian, one word at a time

There’s an Italian film festival currently running in Seattle called Cinema Italian Style. Sponsored by Seattle’s sister city of Perugia and organized by the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), it has been bringing Italian films to our grey, drizzly city for several years now. There’s an interesting looking lineup for this year, and the festival runs through the 21st.

Yesterday I got on the bus and went down to Seattle to meet my friend Irene and see Slow Food Story with her at the Uptown Cinema in Queen Anne. We grabbed some Thai at Racha before the movie and talked about moving and travel and immigrant cultures. My friend Mimi was selling tickets at the cinema so we spoke briefly before moving along. I was glad of this chance to see her again, even if it was only for a few moments in passing.

I have been interested in the Slow Food movement for several years now and had read a little about it. I have appreciated and supported the ideals as I understood them. There’s a Slow Food Seattle that I’d heard about but never become involved with, as I learned about it after I’d moved north to Everett. I was eager to learn more about the people behind the movement.

The film itself, I found funny and charming. The leftist politics of the founders didn’t surprise me at all, though the evolution of the movement from those roots was fascinating to watch unfold. There are criticisms of the movement, of course, though they were not addressed in the movie. My enthusiasm for my move to Italy was massaged a bit by the movie; I’m eager, but it’s easy to forget that eagerness sometimes, in the midst of everything going on around me and my disappearing life here. I’m delighted to still be engaged with my friends and doing things with them as I am preparing to leave, so sharing this movie with Irene, then some hot chocolate at the Cintli Latin Folklore cafe with her and another friend, R, afterwards, was a delight.

One of the things I realized in watching the movie — Italian with English subtitles — is that I’m starting to get a little bit of Italian language in my head. People were speaking at normal conversational speeds and I was getting words and phrases and, sometimes, entire sentences without the help of the subtitles. I hadn’t expected that, but it pleased me greatly. I am not going to claim any skill with Italian at all, but it was good to see how much progress I’ve made from my “doesn’t know a single word” status back in June. I’m encouraged by that progress, even if it’s not much yet.

Learning a language without anyone local to converse with in that language is always a challenge. I learn well from books, but language requires context more than many other subjects and, for living languages at least, it requires conversation to actually understand the flow and cadence of the words. As a poet and writer, facility with language is important to me. The ability to reach into the heart of something with words, to express it so that others can touch that space with me, is a core part of my identity.

English is my native language and, though I have occasionally been able to translate from other languages with the help of dictionaries and grammar books, it is the only language in which I have any fluency. My grasp of English is a thing I’ve always had pride in and enjoyed. Yet here I am, moving to a country where I will struggle to understand and be understood. I’m going to sound like the village idiot for a long time. I will lose that everyday, taken for granted ability to know and be known, to express myself clearly and concisely, and to sound like an intelligent adult.

My intention is to learn Italian, and to learn it well. I want to be able to have conversations about things that matter to me, beyond asking where the bathroom is, doing the shopping, and figuring out how to get to the closest museum. I want to be able to read and write about complex concepts, and to write with fluency.

I have always been a fan of poetry in its native language, even if I can’t understand it that way. I love poetry books with facing page translations so that I can try to get some idea of what the original must sound like, what the flow of the language is like. One of my brother’s friends recommended the poetry of Alda Merini to me (there is very little about her in English), and I have an edition of some of her poems translated by Susan Stewart that I have been dipping into, Italian on one page, English on the next. It’s not going into a box, but on the plane with me next month. Poetry in any language can be difficult to follow. It tends to extend language to its limits, relying on allusion and reference, deeply enmeshed in the culture in which it is created. The Italians go as far as saying traddutore, tradditore — translator, traitor — a phrase that has its roots in Latin, omnis traductor traditor, every translator is a traitor.

Poetry, taken from its original language, can never entirely express itself as the original author intended. It may come close but, as Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” A translator can attempt to achieve the meaning and lose the original poem, or to work on a literal translation, in which case it frequently loses the beauty of what makes it poetry at all. It is a complex issue, and one that can’t actually be entirely drawn in absolutes. The skill and facility of the translator as a poet in her own right does make a difference. The translator’s understanding of the culture from which the original poem arose also affects the translation.

When I step off the plane, I will be living a life in translation.  I hope someday to be able to live my life in Italian.