Maltese author John P. Portelli on his poetry collection, "Here Was"
Observations across the Mediterranean and the wider world
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with Maltese author John P. Portelli about his new collection of poetry, Here Was (Word & Deed Publishing, 2023). Order the book (in English translation) here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The views presented by the interview subject are the opinions of the subject and do not represent the views of the author or this newsletter. Browse the full interview archive here.
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THE USONIAN: When I met you last year in Malta, you took me around the community of Mdina, the silent city and old capital of Malta. I thought your poem Mdina expertly evoked that location. (“Torpid/under mist and muted bells, voicing nothing/but lifeless bougainville/in the solitary piazza.”) Voiceless, muted, lifeless—and yet you still make it sound beautiful. That tension drives a lot of the poems in this collection—beauty and darkness. How do you feel about your native country?
JP: You’re correct when you mentioned my poetry is tied to locations. In this case, you chose an example of a location in Malta. You are also correct about the tension that you have identified.
I left the island in 1977 when I was 23 years old. I was lucky to win a scholarship from the Canadian government. I went to study in Montreal. Since I was 15, my aim had always been to leave. I found the island to be very conservative. So suffocating, small. I had experienced traveling three times; I found that I left so willingly. However, as I grew older, I became once again attracted to Malta.
This is that tension that I think you’ll find in my poetry about more of these locations, whether it is Mdina, the sea, or the countryside or whatever. I prefer to characterize my work as the poetry of dialectic, of existential dialogue. In a dialectic, there are always two opposing sides in tension with each other. There are moments in our life where these tensions feel very contradictory. And yet, we experience them at the same time.
My poetry, as I reflect on it, captures these moments of tension—of back and forth between things that we love—and may not love—at the same time. Even in that very short poem, you mentioned about Mdina and by the way, I have written several poems about Mdina; I find it very inspirational. And yes, you don’t know whether it is a poetry of positivity or not. The way I see it—it’s a form of existential experience that we as human beings encounter.
TU: The sea, in particularly the Mediterranean, looms large as a recurring image in your work. But the vista is not always a positive one. In “This Sea,” the speaker declares “it inhales/utterly.” In “Nothing,” the speaker says, “its nothingness shatters me.” As an islander from a small island, how does the sea “seep into” your poetry?
JP: I mean, this is definitely part of who I am. And one of the things I had always missed was the sea. When you leave something that has been part of your being, and then you are away from it, I think you start seeing things differently. I ask openly, how can I live without it?
The Mediterranean Sea is special, not only because I come from a small place right in the middle of it, but also because of the long, engaging, conflictual, romantic history itself. It is also a historical symbol and presentation of decades of epochs that people have gone through in this little bit of sea.
Once when I was young—I can’t remember who told me this, but they said, “Once you leave, you never see the place the same.” This person was absolutely right.
A colleague of mine in Halifax would say, “When you travel and you fold your clothes, you pack your clothes, you traveled. And then on your return, you fold them, then you pack them and you return with the same clothes. But the folding isn’t the same.” This is what happens when someone leaves and then nothing is ever the same.
The younger generation today is lucky. Because Malta is a member of the EU and they can easily go anywhere in the EU, which is 15 minutes away, or one hour, two hours max.
When you go from a small village in Malta, where I grew up, to Montreal, thousands of kilometers away, it’s a completely different story. And this experience is reflected in my writing through issues and questions in which I raise concerns about identity and belonging at home. What is home for me at this stage? Is the “sea identity” part of my home?
TU: Several of your poems in this collection contend with the speaker’s mistaken identity, in which other characters fail to recognize the speaker as Maltese (such as “I was Asked,” “The Foreigner,” “The Lodos.”) How does your Maltese identity inform your engagement with the Mediterranean, and with the wider world?
JP: This is something many Maltese migrants—whether they emigrated to Australia or the United Kingdom, the United States or Canada or elsewhere—have experienced. It is found in migrant memoirs; this is a Maltese theme that arises quite often. Reasonably so.
Look at me, you see my last name? Portelli. Everybody immediately almost says, “Well, Italian or Spanish, definitely.” Of course, I say, “No.” And then they look at my features. Some people say, “Oh, maybe Tunisia, maybe Middle East.” Yes, but No, not really. You see what I mean?
This is part of our identity and uniqueness as Maltese. It can work against us, or it can work in our favor. It depends, right? And several of the poems reflected my own personal experience, but of course, there are other ones. Like the one I wrote in Haifa, that young lady in Haifa, who was extremely cautious and ethical of even identifying herself as a Palestinian in Haifa. It’s a city in Israel where for many years, Palestinians and Jews have lived together reasonably peacefully… but still. My point is that even in such a form, you learn to decipher this experience of ambiguity, even a migrant experience other than the ones that you yourself have experienced.
TU: We’ve been talking about your poems set across Europe and the Middle East and traveling across these Mediterranean contexts, but I found that when I read your Canadian poems, they got a lot more introspective, a little bit darker. They’re oblique in a very “cold weather” way. So how has your transnational life in Canada informed the subjects you’re interested in?
JP: I have lived in Canada for 46 years, and I consider myself to be lucky. I have had a good life in Canada, I worked hard, but then many other people work hard as well. I benefited a lot from living in Canada—studying in Canada, teaching in three universities in Canada, bringing up a family in Canada. There are many positive things in Canada.
But, as I experienced the world more and then go back, I tend to see things that bothered me more, even in Canada itself, which is considered a strong liberal democracy in the West. And it is. And yet of course, unfortunately, notwithstanding the very long migrant history in Canada, there are many migrants in Canada who continue to experience marginalization and racism of different kinds. Personally, having been brought up more or less in Western culture, I assumed there would be this idyllic place known for its multiculturalism where these things were not the case, but my experience eventually showed me otherwise. Unfortunately, there are still many colonial elements in Canada. And there is still lack of respect for the indigenous peoples, and even the French.
This is why one may notice that I mix a lot—the mood of the poem with the mood of the location. And sometimes the mood of the location takes its inspiration from nature and weather. So when I’m in Malta, most of the inspiration and connection would be with the sea. When I’m in Canada, most of the connection with nature would be with the snow, the ice, the freezing rain.
My second collection is inspired by nature in Canada, it’s entitled Under the Cherry Tree. The things I like to see in Canada, the blossoming of the cherries, the lakes, the trees etc. But once again, there is this sort of ambivalent attention, even as I experienced life in Canada itself. Maybe I am unfair. I hope not.
TU: Your poetry has a timeless quality in describing ancient places (e.g., from “Cappadocia,” “here, surrounded by the souls of these carved rocks”). But it also taps into modern vagaries of tech with dark humor (e.g., from “Rows,” “the cold wave of death rumbles/like a message dumped into junk mail.”) How did you find your poetic voice?
JP: I will go back to the poetry of dialectic. For the poetry of relationality—by definition, it would depend on the status of the writer as well as the status of the location with which the writer has a relationship. Now, both the status of the location and the status of the writer vary from day-to-day, maybe minute-to-minute. It is those states of being arising from the relationships of the location and the writer, from which eventually the poetry emerges.
Poetry has built in it a very strong element of the senses and emotions, but I think it also has a strong embodiment of thinking. For me, there is possibly a tension between the emotions and thinking, but this is healthy and voluntary in my case.
So having said that, imagine that you see something like Cappadocia, or something like a statue in Bologna, or hear the bells in Mdina. You have this relationship with them. And, you also critically reflect on that emotion. This is where the thinking comes in. As you do that, then possibly what you refer to as the timeless element comes in.
But for my experience, what comes first is the spontaneity of the relationship with the place with an object or even with an emotion. Most of the time, that sensation is the beginning of all my poems. Many authors have said this. You start the first line, and you never know where it would take you. And for me, this is very exciting!
TU: Your poetry elevates the practice of everyday life. (from “Aisle,” “With a lover’s passion,/ she makes/ and unmakes/ each row,/ until the next day,/ with its same tins/ and passions.”) Do you keep a journal with you? What do you look for, borrowing the language of Richard Hugo, as a “triggering image” to begin a poem?
JP: I used to go to this relatively small supermarket. It’s not like a Walmart—it was medium-sized, close by walking distance from where we live in Toronto. Unfortunately, it closed. But at any rate, I always used to see this young lady immaculately, with such passion and devotion, arranging the tins on the shelves every day. And she always had this nice smile. I mean, gosh, I’m putting myself in her shoes, all day, arranging things. This passion for arranging things—I find this incredible.
I usually keep a little notebook with me. In my pocket, or in my briefcase, and when I get these slides, these experiences, I usually jot down my initial feelings and thoughts. Sometimes, if I have time, I actually spend half an hour and write the whole thing. If not, maybe later. Sometimes I take a photograph as well. Just to capture a moment, especially if there are no people involved.
TU: When you write fiction or poetry, your primary language is Maltese, right?
JP: My generation in Malta grew up learning three languages at the same time. Maltese at home, English at school, and Italian through the radio. And then in 1960, through the TV. But I do consider my mother tongue to be Maltese.
Now, in my academic career, I have published 11 books in English. I lectured in English for 40 years in Canada, but when it comes to literature, I want to make a political statement.
Maltese is only spoken by about half a million people throughout the whole world. There is a real threat that is if we are not careful, the language will be lost, which will be very unfortunate because I think it is a bridge in many ways between the Middle East and Europe.It is a semitic language written in the Latin script. Therefore, I always decided from the very beginning that with literature I would write in Maltese; I have no problems with other languages. I know six languages. It’s not a matter of not liking the other languages. Some of the translations, I think, captured my feelings much better than the original.
TU: In the poem “A Dialogue,” two characters are engaged in a conversation. One character says, “I live in the shadow of the present… you cannot see what I see/ from where you stand;/ the endless road/ the goal being the journey/ leading to that point.” The point, the character says, is “there and nowhere.” What do you see as your writer’s journey, and is it as obscure as the destination alluded to in that poem?
JP: For the characters in this poem I did not imagine any two people in particular. If anything, I had two parts of myself talking with each other—this is why I love whenever I read that, because people don’t expect it to end like that—I like a twist. So you have completely two opposing views of the journey and destination by these two different characters. As I was writing it, I figure it could have been like a mother and son. I put it that way, but that is the image I had in mind.
John P. Portelli is a professor emeritus at OISE, University of Toronto. Besides eleven academic books, he has published eight collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, and a novel. Three of his poetry collections, one of his short story collections (Everyday Encounters, Horizons and Word & Deed Publishers, 2019) and his novel (Everyone but Fajza, Horizons and Word & Deed Publishers, 2021) were shortlisted for awards. His work has been translated into French, Greek, Romanian, Arabic, Farsi, Korean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Ukranian. Originally from Malta, he now lives between Toronto and Malta, and beyond. www.johnpportelli.com. Write to him at John.email@example.com
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