In the six year’s of Cinnamon Press’s history I’ve frequented launches in London and Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Cambridge, Bangor and Yorkshire, but never, until last week, in Sassari, Sardinia.
The invitation to attend a three-day poetry festival in Sassari, at which the Cinnamon Press poetry anthology, Minorities not Minority: a window on Italian Cultures, Volume 1: Sardinia was being launched, came a couple of weeks before the event and with the six day marathon already taking up a good chunk of October I wondered if I could make it all, but thanks to the amazing organizational skills and persuasive powers of Silvana Siviero (one of the books editors), I found myself on a plane to Cagliari and suddenly moving from an autumn day in Cambridge (where I stayed with Cinnamon author, Jane Monson, before the flight from Stansted) to 330 onan island replete with palm trees.
Silvana and the second editor, her partner Andrea Bianchi, picked me up and drove the three hours from Cagliari to Alghero on a road oddly reminiscent of the A470 through Wales, and a similar length, though with undoubtedly more sunshine. At Alghero the car was returned to the hire company and one of the book’s translators, Professor Giuseppe Serpillo (aka Pino) arrived to take us to Sassari. Pino is a professor of English literature, specializing in Irish literature and translated the poems from several Sardinian minority languages into Italian before Silvana and Andrea translated them into English. The whole process was done under the editorship of Michele Pinna, a professor of Sardinian literature and president of the ‘Istituto di Studi e Ricerche Camillo Bellieni’.
We met Michele later at the hotel, together with Clara, a local teacher who was to perform the Sardinian poems, before heading off for the first of many fine meals. After thirteen hours of travelling, much of it in distinctly un-Welsh heat, I was feeling tired before the evening began, but a few minutes in such good company revived me. I was greeted warmly by Leonardo, the poetry festival organiser and soon had a circle of friends, not to mention amazingly generous hospitality.
The centre of Sassari is nine hundred years old, a labyrinth of cobbled alleyways between tall, flat-fronted buildings in coral and yellow plaster that suddenly open into tree-lined squares. Walking me back to the hotel that night, Pinoshowed me a typical square and the duomo by moonlight, a building which represents some of the range of cultures who have held Sardinia at various times in history. Built in the thirteenth century, it was enlarged in Catalan Gothic style in the fifteenth century, has a Baroque façade courtesy of Spanish colonial restoration in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century and a Romanesque bell tower.
The next morning Silvana and I explored the interior while waiting for a lift to the official opening of the festival, a marathon of poetry and poetry awards before another wonderful meal. In the afternoon Silvana and I did more exploring, walking through the Piazza d’Italia, an elegant nineteenth century square surrounded by such buildings such as the Neogothic Palazzo Giordano and the neoclassical Palace of Sassari’s Province, where the ancient royal apartments of the House of Savoy were located. We visited the beautiful theatre and the university and found the old cattle market and slaughter house of the city along the way and resisted the temptation of shops on the way back.
Then for the event that I’d come to take part in. We met in the same jazz café that had hosted the previous evening’s meal and it was soon apparent that the packed seating would not be enough. People, including lots of young people, crowded on the steps and stood in the bar to hear poetry. Andrea and Silvana opened the evening with a talks and poetry about and from Wales, written in Welsh and translated into Italian by them for the Italian small press,Mobydick, before I read extracts in English of the series of prose poems I’m working on, centred on the abandoned slate mine at Cwmorthin.
Then to Minorities not Minority. Silvana interviewed me about working in Wales, publishing in English and about the project of publishing the Sardinian anthology, skillfully translating my answers. I spoke about how important it is to write in the language in which we dream, whatever language might be and about the Ciaran notion that we live not in a country, but in a language. The words we use to describe reality affect that reality, interacting on every level with the psycho-geography in which we find ourselves. Yet we also want to reach out to those who dream in other languages. R.S.Thomas tells us that translation is like kissing through a handkerchief, but better that than no kiss at all. Whatever the colonial past and sins of English, in this moment it offers a bridge between dreams that might otherwise not heard beyond their immediate circles. The vision of the minority languages series in Italy is to honour the particular languages, but also give them a wider platform.
The talk over, a group of Sardinian poems were read by a local language official before Clara took the floor and stole the show. No Sardinian was necessary to recognise a truly gifted performance poet. Clara declaimed and chanted, even sang the poems in a haunting folk style that was deep and evocative; spell-binding. At the end I read a translated poem in English and the poetry over there was more feasting before Faxtet, a brilliant jazz quartet led by Guido, the publisher from Mobydick, played lated into the evening.
The next morning we took the same event on the road – or rather to a school in Sassari, with another packed audience including three of the poets from the anthology. Clara was once again brilliant and I finished proceedings with two of the Sardinian poems in English to a guitar accompaniment.
At yet another fabulous lunch I was privileged to meet Paul Polansky, poet, prose writer and indefatigable campaigner for persecuted Romany minorities, most recently those still under threat of genocide in Kosovo.
THE CZECH SOLUTION by Paul Polansky
Her father took the child from her breast
and watched the bubbles in the rain barrel
while her mother and aunt dressed in mourning.
“When you get married you can have another,”
her mother consoled her while her father
cut up the pieces and fed them to the pigs.
During the war, her brother became a guard
at Lety and told the others how to get rid
of the dark-skinned babies born in the camp.
Only a dirty Gypsy allows the illegitimate
I was also delighted to meet Jack Hirschman, San Francisco poet laureate, committed Marxist, political activist and superb poet, as this example shows.
MENORAH by Jack Hirschman
The basin of winter water
from the stream in which
I throw my face the morning after.
The candle is burning.
Neither mystic democracy
to fall back on. Nor an ideology
of secularity. Just the bed. Sacred.
Candle still burning.
No temple to regain but the overthrow
of all this painful indifference
that lives in the heart of things
we’ve become. The candle goes on burning.
Fed up with chips to play,
to eat, to read whole books on
off a screen. The candle
A guerrilla in the frigid jungle
of Nothing. Darkness but for
the burning candle.
Is this history, pre-history,
post-history? I look out the window.
Snow is on the branches of a poem
I wrote 30 years ago. Now. Tomorrow.
The candle glow will be turning blue.
O days of singing, dancing
and the dreidelings of glee,
why do you remind me of me?
I’m turning into stone again.
The candle’s dimming.
A child is licking the melt .
The candle is dark.
The afternoon was spent sight-seeing, with Pino kindly taking us to the ruins at Palmavera, first settled by Nuragic people around 1500 BCE and then to the beautiful coastal town of Alghero, where we listened in to the sound of the local language there, a close relation to Catalan, and visited the church of San Francesco, a darker, simpler building, despite the huge Catalan style marble altar, with the most beautiful cloister that made me think of being on the island of Iona, with the addition of arched colonnades and pastel plaster work above the stone cloister.
The final dinner was a time for farewells. Michele and Pino both asked me to return. I said goodbye to Paul and Jack and to the wonderful group of young people and poets who had been helping throughout the festival and finally to Leonardo, the gracious, always smiling festival organizer who warmly said that in publishing the book, ‘You speak for us.’
It was an amazing few days. A wonderful landscape, especially in the greener north; a fascinating and beautiful city; a wonderful glimpse into culture and language and an endless stream of good food all made it three days to remember, but above all I was moved by the people – warm, endlessly generous and hospitable, gracious, intelligent and open. I hope I’ll meet some of those wonderful people again – it was an unexpected trip that turned out to be more than I could have imagined and if that’s kissing through a handkerchief then it was certainly a powerful kiss.