Lea Graham: Tell us how you became interested in the work of the Italian poet, Mario Luzi (1914-2005). How has that interest been sustained?
Anne Greeott: I first came across Luzi’s writing in 1997 while completing an MA in Italian in Florence with Middlebury College. In a course on postwar culture and society, Prof. Gino Tellini included an essay by Luzi that had appeared in the local newspaper. Luzi lived in Florence most of his life and periodically wrote about current issues. Toward the end of his life, for example, he made a famous public comment comparing Berlusconi to Mussolini. I lived in Florence for three years in the 1990s and continued to watch for Luzi’s articles in La Repubblica, and then in 2005 while browsing through the online version of the Italian journal Poesia I saw that Luzi had died, and that the journal had issued a special homage to his work. Out of curiosity I began translating a few of the poems in that collection, one poem led to another and that hobby has kept me busy for several years. What pulled me along was the beauty of the lyricism in his early work, as well as the sense of metaphysical quest in his later poems. He wrote about trying to find – and then not finding — meaning in everyday inconsistencies. His poems acknowledge a sort of melancholy dignity in people who have not been given clear signs in life or any particular recognition for their efforts. Still, in the midst of this uncertainty he hints at “… a liquid light / of raw spring just visible / over the high roofs.” After about the 1960s his work took on a more metaphysical, at times exalted tone and a much looser style. Through long, mystical narratives he began inquiring directly into the nature of existence and being. The variety of styles and themes in his work could keep more than one translator busy for a lifetime.
LG: Can you give us a little background about Luzi and his roots in hermeticism? Other poets, such as Ungaretti, Montale and Quasimodo moved away from its obscurity into what has been called more openly “political” and “universal.” Why or maybe more importantly, how do you see Luzi as maintaining those roots? What are the particular challenges of translating his work?
AG: In a nutshell, Italian hermeticism was a tendency in the mid-twentieth century toward very sparse, short poems whose symbolism was only accessible to a closed circle of cognoscenti. A well-known poem of Luzi’s that could be categorized as hermetic might be The Night Cleanses the Mind, in which a row of souls lines up along a kind of ledge, “… some ready to jump, others as good as in chains. // On the page of the sea someone / traces a sign of life, marks a point. // Here and there a seagull.” It’s a brief, sharp image that doesn’t give anything away and may be interpreted any number of ways. Luzi was a scholar of French literature and was influenced by the symbolists — he translated Mallarmé – and Italian hermeticism may be seen as coming from those roots. If you do research within the close context of Luzi’s experience and correspondences, more layers of his intention come to light. For example, right now I’m translating his collection Gothic Notebook (1947). While on the surface it appears as a series of conflicted love poems, Luzi describes Gothic Notebook as a much-needed release toward the possibility of love after the brutality and hatred of war. He mentions the title as a reference to the Linea gotica — the term for the front against the Germans which moved north through Italy and which had just cleared Florence when he was writing. So it’s a cloaked response to violence and to the very concrete relief of the Allies’ liberation of Florence. The second word of the title could also be translated as diary, and Luzi ties his choice of this word to the intensely personal nature of the writing. So reading hermetic poetry is kind of like trying to interpret someone’s diary.Luzi also sporadically used archaic forms of certain words, such as the Dantean term spera instead of the modern Italian word sfera, which means sphere, or the Dantean lagrime instead of the modern Italian lacrime for tears. This can be very confusing for a translator, and untangling questions like that is part of the reason that I’m here in Florence. By the same token, some of Luzi’s poems don’t exhibit any particularly hermetic qualities. Osteria was published two years earlier than The Night Cleanses the Mind, and as you can see, its content and themes are much more accessible. In The river firm … you can see the beginning of Luzi’s later tendencies where the physical and metaphysical realms interact, where elements like the city and the river let their concrete nature go and blend with the speaker’s inner world.
LG: Do you see any similarities between Luzi’s work and your own? It struck me that he earned a degree in French and did his dissertation on Francois Mauriac (1885-1970), the writer who influenced Elie Wiesel to write of his experiences as a Jew in WWII and who, subsequently, wrote the introduction to Night. You first studied Spanish and spent time in Spain. Do you feel any kinship to Luzi for his serious engagement with another language?
AG: Right now most of my own work is translation, which is just to say that’s where I’m finding most of my creative satisfaction. I love the fact that Luzi studied foreign literature and translated French literature as well as Shakespeare, but most of the kinship I feel with him comes from his willingness to inhabit melancholy, his love of the countryside and everyday experience, his search for meaning in contradictions and his truth telling when he does or doesn’t find it. In Luzi’s poem But Where To the speaker is confronted with folks having to leave an ancient way of life and art without any clear direction, and he witnesses without judgment the success or failure of people faced with that. It’s a scene that both asks a question and is very still. Those are some qualities I hope might rub off on some of my own poetry.
LG: How did you come to translating? What advice would you give to someone who wanted to begin translation work?
AG: I just felt naturally drawn to translating all through my academic career and then even in the years when I wasn’t in grad school I would fiddle with translations for fun, for the satisfaction of hearing a line or a poem in English that wasn’t there before. For a while I did some translations of legal documents and scientific articles and that was interesting and certainly challenging, but it didn’t captivate me the way literary translation has. I think the advice is just to dive in from whatever point of entry you find and enjoy the process. Try not to be intimidated by the thought that you don’t know the language well enough or by a hyped idea of what it means to be literary, and also just throw the idea of making money out the window – just like other writers, literary translators almost always have to support themselves in some other way. Connect with as many people as you can. I discovered the American Literary Translators’ Association (ALTA) in 2009 and that has put me in contact with so many people who have encouraged, supported and instructed me. Being in the MFA program in Arkansas for the past two years has also given me much more practice and perspective, as well as connections with other translators.
LG: You’re here in Florence on a Fulbright this year (congratulations!) Since you’ve lived here before, can you talk about the effects of this place on you and your work? What do you notice living here that both separates it from and blends with the other places you’ve lived (Seattle…Fayetteville, Arkansas)?
AG: Thanks. I can hardly believe that after twenty years I’m back here in Florence translating Luzi’s work in the year of his centenary. I think having lived with Italians and also having spent time with Italian relatives further north in Piemonte has given much more depth to my experience than there might have been. Florence is obviously just a city of jaw-dropping beauty. It has much more of a hold on me than I’m aware of. Spending time here has given me a sense of how regionally specific language can be. This weekend a Florentine friend taught me the verb sconfinferare, which is apparently only used in Tuscany, maybe only in Florence. Non mi sconfinfera roughly corresponds to the more common phrase non mi piace or It doesn’t please me in English, but what a mouthful of nice fluffy consonants in the first term. It would take a while to find a good English equivalent, but that kind of sensitivity to regionalisms is one side effect of having spent time here. Being in the south, Fayetteville has its own collection of charming regionalisms like the double modal might could for the standard English term might be able to, but how much gentler and more compact is that first term? By comparison, I’d say that Seattle’s version of English has a dearth of regionalisms. What connects Seattle to Florence for me might be the natural beauty of its physical environment, though of course they’re two very different landscapes. Having grown up near Seattle, I feel very connected to the land there, and in Florence I feel a similar depth of connection to the stones of the city. As a foreigner I sometimes question my right to feel so much of a sense of belonging, but then I’m not alone. So many foreign writers have felt at home here.
Photo By: Paolo Margari