Poetry Reading & Conversation with Immanuel Mifsud

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC. [silence]>>GRANT HARRIS: Good evening, and
welcome to the Library of Congress. I am Grant Harris. I am Chief of the European
Division here at the library. The European Division and the
poetry and literature center, in partnership with the Embassy
of the Republic of Malta, and greatly supported by the Arts
Council of Malta in New York, present tonight a poetry reading and
conversation with Immanuel Mifsud. The European Division is
responsible for providing reference and for developing the
Library’s collections relating to continental Europe. We hope you have a pleasant time
at the Library this evening, and please come back
to use the collections. For almost every country, we think
we’ve got the largest collections outside of those countries. Please turn off your
cellphones and recording devices for the duration of the program. Also be aware that this
event is being recorded as a Library of Congress webcast. In a few minutes my colleague,
Lucia Wolf, our specialist for Malta and Italy, will introduce
poet Immanuel Mifsud, and after the poetry reading, Lucia will interview
Mifsud up here on the stage. Now, however, I have the
privilege of introducing to you the Ambassador of Malta. This is His Excellency
Ambassador Pierre Clive Agius. Thank you for being here. [applause]>>AMB. AGIUS: Thank you very
much, Mr. Harris, Mrs. Wolf, Ruth. It’s a big privilege and
honor to be here, really too. I want to thank you for braving
the cold weather and coming to the Library of Congress. You’ll be rewarded,
because you’re going to discover a very fine intellect,
some very measured words from one, I think, of the best
authors we ever had in Malta. He’s the winner of the European
Prize for Literature of 2011, and you’ll discover
he’s all enveloped in this very human
and humble persona. You’ll come to discover
something, another aspect of Malta. Probably he’s going to be a
better ambassador than I am. He’s going to take you to
Malta, and you’re going to feel his words really
coming from the heart, which I think conveys
the best spirit of Malta. But, before I make space for him,
there is something which I want to share with you out of conviction. This is the sheer fact that
we are in this institution, in the Library of Congress. This is, for a country like
mine, this is very historical. It’s the first time that a Maltese
writer, a Maltese author, comes here and he shares, within this
institution which houses humanity. I say this houses humanity,
the history of humanity, the dreams of humanity,
philosophy, the discoveries. The discoveries of diseases,
and so on and so forth. There is, in this institution,
there is a part of every corner of the world, of all of us. It’s common heritage of
mankind in its own right. I’m extremely, extremely touched
and humbled by this evening, and I will take this memory with me when I finish this term
here in Washington. I want to thank you very much
for the space you’ve given us, and what you’ve given to my country. But, now it’s time to make space
for the real star of this evening. Thank you very much. [applause]>>LUCIA WOLF: Good evening. I am Lucia Wolf, the European
Division Reference Specialist for Italy and Malta. Welcome to the Library of Congress
for this wonderful event dedicated to Malta, and to Immanuel Mifsud. Before going any further, I want to thank the Arts Council
of Malta in New York. Without their support we would not
have had this successful event. And I especially want to think
Dr. Laura Falzon, there she is, who is here, and will come to the
podium at the end of the program so you can say a few
conclusive words. Thank you. Also I want to thank from the
bottom of my heart, His Excellency, the Ambassador of the
Republic of Malta. Thank you for your patience and
your full support throughout this coordination. But, let us move on to the star of
the evening, Dr. Immanuel Mifsud. Immanuel Mifsud was
born in Malta in 1967. He has published eight poetry
collections, including a collection of travel poems, Km, kilometer, in
bilingual edition with translations by Maria Grech Ganado,
and Confidential Reports, which was published in
Ireland with translations by Maurice Riordan and Adrian Grima. I’m sorry for my pronunciation. He has also published 10
collections of short stories, including Sara Sue
Sammut’s Strange Stories, which won the National
Literary Award for 2002, and was later short-listed
for the Premio Strega Europa. Of course he is very
well-known internationally for his award-winning novel, In
The Name of the Father and the Son, which won the European
Prize in 2011. [music]>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD:
That was the Trio Noir. It’s a jazz combo from
Malta, of course. That was the launch
of their last album. As you can see, it was
performed in a former chapel. I chose this because I collaborate
with Noir, and there are two tracks from this album which
includes some poems of mine. And well I thought
it would be very nice to have them here via
technology this evening. Before I start, I share the
Ambassador’s excitement, and also a huge sense of responsibility being the
first Maltese writer to come into these walls to read. For me it’s a huge thing, and
I will, like the ambassador, this will be a day which, of
course, I will never forget. But, I would like to thank all of
you for braving the cold weather, and the traffic I have to say,
and come here this evening. Thank you very much. I’m going to start reading
a poem, given that a couple of days ago it was
St. Valentine’s day, which it seems is being
celebrated, how should I say, quite regularly now
year in, year out. It’s a love poem divided
into different pieces. When you dress in black
you spread the night over your breast, and
hide the full moon. Which, however, comes out
to peep through your eyes. Your hair pulled back is
a wind that doesn’t steer. Your hands are folded in a caress. You’re thinking that
tomorrow the sea will rise to take you, you don’t know where. Maybe it will take you where eyes
have never seen, ears never heard. Your fingers grasp the leaf
you spread the dream on, which was born once
while you were sailing with your loved one still
hidden in your embrace. Your eyes read the horizon he
painted for you, the hidden one who loves you in the
depths of your breast. Your eyes wish to cry in the
middle of a smile as soon as you finish reading the poem. Your lips are a long night
which scarcely wants to end, dreaming with the movement
of violence on boundless expanses
of green grass. A blue night, which turns
silently melancholic, lost among large expanses
of white sheets. Your lips are the small
island which is drowning. Slowly the water rises, sweetly. This drowning becomes
sacred as it ends. Its very peaks are
covered by the blue sea, the island which is lost in memory. Your lips are the stillness
falling slowly, slowly. Soon they’ll be heard crying. They’ll soon be silent. When you come down to
lie on the sea’s surface and you forget the corners
one by one because you wish to get quickly to the sand. You wish to hear your
own voice reply to the call you throw
to the restless sea. When you come down to lie on the sea’s surface your
face touches its face, its body your body, while
you fly far away in order to forget these corners
which have risen one by one, people’s unintentional
bumping into you. You wish alone to approach the
sand where your clothes fall in a heap while you still walk,
nude as the sea, as is this silence, this bay which has
hidden in early morning. You wish to forget, to feel alone. You wish to sleep to the naked
sound of water rising on you. You wish to sleep,
to dream, of silence. And then you look at the
earth with shut eyes, and see black pictures
coming towards you. Of course that was a translation, and all the poems I will be reading
were originally written in Maltese. I would like to thank my translators
for making it possible that I read to people who do not
understand my language. Speaking of my language, I would
like to read just a snippet in Maltese so that you
will hear the language. So, this is just the beginning of a poem I shall be reading
right after this excerpt. It is called Macedonia Square, the
main square in Skopje, Macedonia. [reading in Maltese]>>So, that was Maltese. Now the same poem, but the whole
lot in English translation. Macedonia Square. I always meet you, you spirits of
old cities, ghosts playing violins, the same songs old and
dim, always about loves that have tried and failed. Always the same death in
the middle of the square. By now I’m used to having you
appear out of nowhere to bestow on me your solitary welcome. Strings, destined to play
only images familiar, like the same sweaty embrace,
and tears of silver dropping on our lapels and running
everywhere. It’s raining, but you keep
on rambling through streets that are bursting with lore of kings
and queens, who sketched a map that, silently, we can’t help but follow. Just for tonight, we shall sit at
table, smoke a cigarette together, and then we’ll cry, and feel the
tears give us pleasure only we two can understand. Because there is no one else
left in this old city like us. [pause]>>Since I came here
I forgot my name. I slept in seven different beds, climbed up mountain tops,
dipped my feet in lakes. I spoke some four languages I didn’t
know, browned in the blazing sun, froze under the biting hail. I met people whose
name I never learned, I ate and drank all they gave
me and heard their stories and those of their ancestors. I rode cars of every
shape and color. And then they drove
me to the city’s end. I asked them where I
was, but no one answered. This is another poem from Skopje. And rain starts falling
heavily again. Again, that song we heard six
months ago when we were alone, looking shyly at each other, undecided whether to
make love or not. And then you said, “Better not,
because tomorrow you’re leaving.” Then you cried, and I stared, lost my eyes along the
edges of your hair. Again, that stuffy weather
and humid, dropping loads of leaves before they died, and again that song
we heard six years ago when we were alone together, looking
with nostalgia at each other, and decided what should or next
words be after, “How’s it going? It’s been ages.” And after a few uneasy seconds
I spot the strange marks, sad and silent, that
the rain left scattered in the corners of your face. Against your wishes you have to
tell me again, “Hurry, run now. The plane is waiting.” Everywhere I go I seem
to find someone waiting. If it’s not the plane then it’s
a strong gust of wind rising up and pouncing from behind every
corner, with tearful eyes, with sure marks of aging. I look up, and the lights
turn to green again. I would like to read two
poems about my mother. My mother was a very
religious person, and when you say a
very religious person in Malta, it means very Catholic. The first poem I’m going to read, I was told that this ritual is
no longer allowed in churches, but up to a few years
ago, right after the end, or just before the end of
the mass, before internment, relatives could go and read
a message or something. And when my mother died, which
was on the eve of Christmas, one of my nieces read this poem, which I wrote specifically
for my mother’s funeral. I have to tell you, it’s never
been read, not even in Maltese, except on that particular day,
so this is really a premier, because I’ve never read
this poem in public before. It’s called of course,
A Poem for Your Funeral. Mom, I remember you sitting out in
the yard peeling tangerines for me, and telling the lovely stories
which you always knew how to weave. And Mom, I remember
you telling me once that you’d seen the stars fall
one by one, and there were so many that the sea lit up. Before I went to bed
you always told me that the rain was only
Our Lady’s needles. If you touched them they
wouldn’t prick, as they were holy. The wind was nothing but the voice
of God singing, and the lightning and the thunder were the toys which
Jesus dropped while he was playing. I remember you, Mom. Beautiful as red roses, as orange
blossom, Narcissus, or as daisies. I remember, Mom, your
voice like violins playing or stopping according to their wish. Then, they stopped once, for all. Everything ended. And now even flowers feel the
muted silence, and the sea, which once lit up,
has been switched off. So go, Mom, because the candles
have been lit by someone. Someone awaits you with
a bouquet in his arms. And make sure you smile
Mom, and have a happy feast. I saw the fresh water
running among the trees, carrying the remains of my mother. From afar they were
carried, by frosty wind that blew over the grave. By the sheer waters
searching for a foreign land. By happy dolphins, by strong waves,
by icy rivers crossing mountains and resting for a while in valleys. The fresh water runs
gracefully among the trees which waited centuries for
my coming, and when I arrived to greet the fresh
water approaching, I saw it had brought me
the remains of my mother. Her bones, and her hair. Her blue dress with white motifs. Bits and pieces from her coffin. For 100 lira we had bought it. Now bearing some dizzy worms
which had been feasting upon her. While bathing my feet in this fresh
running water, against my bear skin, the remains begin rubbing. Then they all gather gently
to rest just below me, looking me straight in the eye. I’m not sure if they
understand my smile, whether they think its pleasure,
or whether they take it as a sign that the end is near,
and it’s summoning me to slide into the water. This is a poem from
Portugal, from Lisbon. So there’ll be no more death
now, it’s just passion, you know. It’s called “St. Nicholas
Street in Lisbon.” You’d figure that from under her jet
black hair would stream the sound of an old guitar. That from her matching eyes would
tumble the songs of fishermen, and tall tales told on the way
back home with a full catch. You think it was her painted fingers
that parted your hair like a breeze, and you think it was
her voice that woke you when there was no one
left to hear you. You think that in her handbag she
pegged your last remaining years until your bones fall to the ground,
and you won’t have the strength to pick them up and
put them back in place. You spot her walking toward you
languidly, looking up and down, smiling as she notices
you noticed her, and your heart starts beating
harder, and your forehead, that’s the fresh rash
from the Atlantic. But then you feel your legs wobble. You’re scared. For so long you’ve been craving this
encounter; now she’s here right next to you, close enough to smell the
perfume creeping along her neck. You can see stray wrinkles
sauntering about her face, and her heart pulsing
underneath her shirt. You can touch her too. She’s right at your fingertips. But now your strength
has completely left you. You stand there staring like
a kid waiting to be punished, like a kid waiting for some present. “Let’s have a coffee,
and then we’ll go.” And it’s true. She has cords circling
around her head. Her eyes, the sole
voice of the fisherman. “Want to come? I have a cottage on the shore, a bed
where you can lie, bread and water, a large window through which you’ll
see the sea staring at night, crashing, waiting for us. In my bag I hold the waves, strong
and cruel, just like my hair. So, you want to go, right?” So, you really want to go right? You really want to go with her. You want to have your
wish come true, see the dream unfurling
sweetly into reality. But you can’t. You’re too scared. And you tell her, “No,” because
you still have your mother’s milk beneath your teeth. “Some other time,” you say. “I’ll come again to wait for you. I’ll catch a plane. I promise I’ll be back. I’ll sail against the wind again. I’ll walk, climb hills, rappel
cliffs, to get back to the city. I’ll sit once more in
this very same spot to make sure that you can see me.” But now you see her far away,
no more than a tiny speck. She’s left you savoring just her
scent, and said she won’t be back. Because a gust of wind
blows only once. All right, some more
passion from Spain. There is this beautiful
square in Cordoba, it’s called Plaza de la
Corredera, and it’s been used for different purpose
throughout the years. It was a market, it was a place where there were bullfights
once, et cetera, et cetera. So, this is Plaza de la
Corredera in Cordoba. Imagine yourself starting
to cross the square, naked as God upon the seventh day. Underfoot the bull’s
blood is still boiling. A slightly moist red
rose is in your hair. In your left hand, there’s
a black fan the color of sweet wine that’s
been poured cold and which your full
lips can still savor. You are crossing the square without
your noticing that out of sight, behind a half-closed door, staring
at you, there is this foolish poet. Imagine that you’ve reached
the middle of this square, naked as God upon the seventh day, the spilt blood’s reek
is growing slowly rusty. In your hair, a dry
red rose is wilting. In your left hand you now carry
a suitcase with folded cloths which have begun to crease, and letters you’ve
received but never opened. You’re there right in the
middle, and you notice under one of the arches there’s
a poet studying you. His look is a bull’s look. Imagine that you’re
right across the square, naked as God upon the seventh day. The rain is pouring down
and cleansing everything. Your eyes, your lips and
hair, are leaking dye. Your left hand moans. Your navel’s lost within
a troubled sea. Fatigue from the long walk
weighs down your legs. You reach the edge and
turn to look behind. An aging poet, on his life’s last
day, prepares at last to enter you. Come down here to Plaza
de la Corredera. Stare at the dark women and the men. Smile only with your lips. Keep your eyes hard. Stop up your ears. Ignore the noisy crowd. Instead, just listen
to the sudden paces of that man standing
right there opposite you, the man who’s fully armed to wound
the bull, his eyes two tiny swords, two sharpened daggers, his lips
shutters ajar to the night’s depths. The bull appears. The crowd’s murmur fills out. The man who holds himself right
opposite raises his swords aims his daggers well. You sit and smoke, sitting
at your black coffee, your big green eyes
blending well with the hue of blood rusting the tiles where
the bull’s writhing soul was spewed as five bombed out of
upon that afternoon. 40 degrees, and thirst,
and sweat, and lethargy. You take the sandals off, place
your bare feet upon the empty chair where opposite you, a little while
ago, the wary toreador rested, dazed by the hefty
cheers of the crowd. 40 degrees. You draw your hair into a bun. There’s sugar in the bottom
of your cup, and ashes. 40 degrees. The moon prepares to rise and hides
the blood which is still there, soiling the grooves
between the tiles, spreading a sheet which
can shroud death. You turn your head to look at
the old woman, lovely still, sitting upon a stool
selling her fans, and in her chestnut
eyes you see the crowd, orgasmic at the blood
that’s being shed. And there, under the arches, mark
the man still searching for you, his hand smeared with blood. Let your eyes remove his clothes. Raise your head as you
divest him of his cares. Bewitch him with your own. Spell within spell, mystery entwined
with mystery, gaze locked in gaze. The bull is ready for the fight. 40 degrees, and your
dress clings to you. An immense fly teases your neck,
and you pull out another cigarette to smoke in the silence
of afternoon, of the gaze, in the silence of vapor drifting from the cup towards
your green eyes, melting like the bull’s
cry, stretched in the rot. His eyes seeking an elegy in
yours, late in the afternoon. His eyes turn dry. 40 degrees. This square buries a bull,
but forgets to wash its blood. And so, as you sit with
your black coffee, smoke, the green of your big
eyes mingles with memories which reach into the corners. 40 degrees. But as you rise to make your way to
bed, your body, drenched in sweat, suddenly shudders, your lips tremble
a bit, and your teeth chatter. You’re leaving one
fully armed man behind, leaving a whole population
soaked in the blood of an abandoned bull stretched
full-length in a square. I can still savor the taste
of those green olives, the spidery cuttlefish
swimming in lemon blood. I can still feel the
sun dry up my hair. I can still feel my body
quicken to flamenco, with inviting glances of the dancer. They taught her body,
now it could live death. Tonight, in this four-star hotel,
she’ll steal into my room for us to spend this night in
celebration of running water. Take me. Take me with you where
you’re not meant to take me. Carry me with you where
you’re not meant to carry me, into the corner there
is reserved for others. entangle me unawares
inside your web. Kiss me over and over
until I’m out of breath, and let that fan conceal
me with its shade of death. Your eyes seem to have
grown while I undressed. I felt them, slightly
damp, climb up my bodies. My toes first, then my legs,
up to my waste, up my thighs. A moonless night was in your eyes,
a hurricane embracing stormy seas, both rising, moving further, up to
stroke my navel, to hang suspended from the nipples of my chest. But see, they never,
never reach my eyes. Tell me, how scared are
you of my lewd gaze? Lie down. There are no webs in me,
nor does death lurk behind the fan. Let me take you, and make you
what you feared to be, my darling.>>I would like to
read one last poem. It is a poem which I wrote after
the nth case of people leaving from northern Africa heading towards
Europe to try to make a new living, fleeing their troubled countries. As you know, many of these
people, unfortunately, they never make it
ashore, and they end up drowning in the Mediterranean. So, yes, there was the
passion of the Mediterranean, but now there is the
other side of our sea. We Mediterraneans are
very full of our sea, very proud to be Mediterraneans,
but we are also very sorry with what is happening
with these people. This poem is called,
Will This Boat Arrive?. It is based on two things: first,
on the account of one survivor in Lampedusa, which is
an island far from ours, but it’s part of the
Italian archipelago, and I’m sure you’ve seen that image of that little child
washed ashore, lifeless. So, Will This Boat Arrive. Will this boat arrive? Will it? Or will it lose breath,
seizing just before the sea stops and land begins, a land
that does not know us? I walked through alleys,
I walked through streets, through hamlet, town, and city. Everywhere, sweeping crooked
steps just to keep on moving. I crossed rivers and
valleys, climbed mountains which swore they’d return
to crush me beneath them. Still I walked on through
fickle suns, phasing moons, reaching out to pluck a bright star,
blow it, and send it back home, so it might, through the window,
warmly kiss my mother, my father, my sister, that is if they
still are, if they are still. Before me, wave upon wave of sand, a
yellow, fishless, and waterless sea. I walk on, counting all
the steps and notes, holding the white plastic
bag in my hands. A bottle of water, a cluster
of dates, a handful of photos, some travel sickness pills,
old papers folded certifying that I’m a learned one, a jacket, a
jersey, and of course the passport. I got burned, frozen, terrified
most by the dark; that is, till the Ghibli blew
in, taunting and cruel, its searing hot winds burning
down, tearing skin with fine dust, and swearing one day it
would return to crush, bury me, secretly, its gusts. I wept mightily, prayers rolling
where there once had been tears. Prayers to a God full of mercy. I supposed he would hear. I summoned him, calling him
by name more than once, twice, in the nothingness surrounding me. When I dozed off, I dreamt of
voices I used to hear often, wafting through lush tree branches. I dreamt of the voices of old folks
I knew, maundering on for hours. I dreamt of the voices
of apples, ripe melons, of milk sauntering freely
through my mother’s full breast, and spicy voices rising from
Latakia leaves, pungent, being smoked by olive dark men. Then I dreamt again,
of sweat, and of bones, of cold black holes piercing
me, pleading me, “Don’t go!” Telling me to turn back,
“get away from the shore, pay no attention to men with boats. Beware the water,”
they say, “It’s cruel.” The voices cry out
danger, warning me sure, “Don’t step on another man’s land.” I woke with a jolt. And so before me descends a blue
carpet unfurling to that cold land, a land that’s afraid of,
yet doesn’t even know me, a land that I’m no less
determined to set foot on, so I walk on towards the boats. I carry this bag that I have chosen, packed it with my whole
story, one bag. And even that will soon get
lighter once, at gun or knife point, I pay my passage to climb
into their sea craft, challenging voices
urging me to stop. Will the boat make it? Will it? Once upon a shore
there were children playing, chasing a ball, running
and laughing. Someone from afar, someone
from afar gunned them down, and there was no one left
on the beach save the ball, which stood there waiting. I remember that ball
bouncing across and back sand. I remember my cousins laughing,
running, the ball bouncing, speeding faster than us, then
the wind joined in playing with the ball, and it
started playing with us. We were trying our best
to outrun that wind, reach the ball it had
cruelly snatched, racing to see who might
get it first. Of course I was the last. I ran the slowest. I couldn’t beat the wind. But I ran, I ran, we all did! The taunt of the wind, the
sound of laughter, and then, then someone from afar, someone from
afar gunned us down, and no one, not one of us reached the ball. Still the wind stayed
on, having already won, kept playing on its
own, but with my face to the ground I see nothing
at all, only darkness. Now I have no idea how long
I’ve been here waiting. A day, two, three? More? I wait. Locked up with strangers
locked up with me. And we look, and we look at the
dark blue sea, and we count. Counting every strange, and
very strange numbers of, sounds, bank notes for the guy
with the Kalashnikov, steps we take wasted deep
into the water to get to this fragile boat
meant to transport us, and I see that my bag is
swelling with the sea. My passport inside,
close to tatters. Faces of my loved ones
now drifting in water, my pills one by one
melting and dropping. My dates have lost their
sweetness, quickly turning salty. The jacket and the jersey
threadbare, I lose all my story. Now drenched, watch it dissolving. Like caught fish packed in
crates, we set off for the unknown. Behind me, ashore with damp sands, there’s no one left
there save a gust of wind and heavy silence you always hear as
you close one book to open another. There is a curious white
blot, and it’s spreading, carried neither by
wind nor by water. But I can see clearly, there’s
a child in a red top face down kissing the sand, washed by
the sea, a cleansing for burial. And the wind begins to blow as
it always does when it wakes, but the red-shirted
child does not stir. And the boat carries
us off now, away, away. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe. And we ask, will this boat make it? Will it? Or will it
lose breath, seizing, just before the sea stops, and … The waves, the sand, mountainous,
crushing, screams, darkness, cold, thirst, cries, and suddenly … Thank you very much. [applause]>>LUCIA WOLF: So, we will watch
a video, a beautiful video, produced in the Czech Republic
with Dr. Mifsud as a protagonist in it, on the sea, in a boat. I won’t say more. We will give Dr. Mifsud some
time to transition into a part of our program which
is a conversation, a briefer conversation, but a
conversation between the two of us. Thank you. >>LUCIA WOLF: I would like
to take advantage of the fact that you’re here, and have you
read also a couple of passages from In The Name of the
Father, rather than me doing it.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Sure. Right.>>LUCIA WOLF: Because it is
inherent to a question that I wanted to ask you, which is
very much tied to a video that we have just seen, The Sea. Starting to, when you
get home, you collapse.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: To?>>LUCIA WOLF: To The Tower,
“I’m afraid of a lot of things.” “I’m afraid of a lot of things” … Yes, “I’m afraid of
a lot of things”.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Yes. When you get home you
collapse onto the nearest chair and then lace your boots. You always unlace the left
boot first, and you ask me to pull your boots off for you. Once they’re off, they feel heavy
in my hands, and you tell me to line them up neatly
under the bed. And you roll along like
a boat on a rough sea. And the sea gets rougher
once your boots are off. No shortness of breath in spite
of all the cigarettes you smoke. You dive to the very bottom of
the bay below [inaudible] to bring up sea urchins, scores of sea
urchins in the wicker basket. They reek of the sea. The smell of sea urchins is
alien to me, and I’ve never been down to [inaudible], and
those dark depths scare me.>>LUCIA WOLF: Beautiful. I have another passage related
to the question we are going to, and this time it is about the
father drawing squares in the sand.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Okay.>>LUCIA WOLF: If you
could please read from, “You call me, and I
come next to you”? Should I show you?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Yes, please.>>LUCIA WOLF: I’m
sorry, we didn’t prepare.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: That’s all right.>>LUCIA WOLF: It’s improvised. You call me … Read it from [inaudible].>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Okay. Pardon me. You call out to me because
you want to take a picture, but I’ve got a castle to build. I’ve no time for pictures. You take your pictures
one after the other. I want to build a sand castle so
that I can enjoy tearing it down. Then, just as I’m finishing
the castle, you get up and walk away, alone. Not far from where the foam boldly
laps the shoreline, you call me and I come next to you and
with a dead twig in your hand, you etch a square in the wet sand
littered with lifeless jellyfish. “Look at the square,” you say. “Now we’ll wait for the
sea to come closer.” And the sea does come closer,
and when it ebbs away I realize that the square has disappeared.>>LUCIA WOLF: So, Dr.
Mifsud, from your writing, from the poems you have
read, from the video, it seems you have an ambivalent
relationship with your country, and you don’t mention your country
very, very often in your works. The images of the sea
conjure up your country and show this ambivalence. I wanted to ask you if … In your works the sea seems
to be synonymous with, or a metaphor of Malta, and
the sea is at times the father. It takes away and forces
you to be brave, just like a nation would also do. Or the mother, in a poem of yours,
Wariness, free-falling into the sea, is like falling into the embrace
of the mother, letting go. The sea is isolation, as you
were saying, but also the route for travelers, colonizers, at once
full of possibilities or entrapment. I understand this, I am from a
coastal town in southern Italy. I don’t come from northern Italy,
I come from southern Italy. And you were saying something about
the sea before, that Mediterraneans, who have the sea, are full of
this pride of having the sea, but at the same time it is
something that takes away from us because it isolates. It made me think a lot about an
Italian songwriter, Pino Daniele, from Naples, who talks about
the sea in these terms. My Neapolitan isn’t good
either, but [foreign language]. This is what it means: “Those
who have the sea are happy fools. Those who have the sea know
they do not have anything.” What is your relationship
with the sea?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Well, I think,
as year old pointed out earlier on, it’s an ambivalent relationship. Partly because I think I have
an ambivalent relationship with everything. There is always this need to
relate to something, or to someone, but at the same time there is
also an inability to do it, because there is this
natural tendency to isolate. At this time I’m isolating
myself most probably. What is my relationship to the sea? I think people who live on islands,
especially small islands … In Malta, basically you can see
the sea from practically anywhere. It’s that small, and also it’s
hilly, so it makes it more easy to look down and see the edge. And I think the sea
is, on the one hand, something which gives us an
identity, so we love the sea of course, but we are
also very conscious that the sea is isolating
us, so it angers us maybe. So there is this love
and anger at the sea. Once I was talking to a
fisherman, and you’d expect that a fisherman would
take the sea for granted because they are all the time
working near or on the sea. But it transpired from
our short dialogue that fishermen too have
this ambivalent relationship with the sea. Because it gives them their living, but at the same time they know
they are risking their lives when they are on the sea. So, I think this ambivalence
is quite natural. It is also an issue with me
and my country as a whole. At one point you feel you belong, at
one point you feel you don’t belong. I had all the opportunity
to leave, and when I was 16, I remember I was obsessed
with leaving, with emigrating, like
my brothers did. When I had the opportunity,
I did not. Not even that, I am married to a
foreigner, and I got the foreigner to Malta rather than
I leaving Malta. So, life can be quite
ironic sometimes.>>LUCIA WOLF: Yes, could this also
explain your love, your fondness, for countries in eastern
Europe, in northern Europe?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Yes, but
my love for those countries, it started when I was
still very, very young. I was maybe, what, 11, 12. The love started on
a linguistic level. Because I used to hear the news,
and I used to hear these words which rang so beautifully in my
ears, like, “Czechoslovakia,” for example, such a beautiful word. Or “Romania,” I don’t
know, or “Yugoslavia.” These, somehow they attracted
me more than, I don’t know, France, Netherlands, Germany. I don’t know why, but I
remember, it was the sound. Of course I was too young
to know what Yugoslavia and Romania, et cetera, et cetera. I told before how religious
my mother was, and I remember every Saturday she
used to receive this newspaper. I’m sure the ambassador will know
which paper, it was published by the church, [inaudible],
devoid of truth. I was young, and I used
to leaf through it, and there was always some
page, even two pages maybe, demonizing the communist east,
because they are killing priests, or because they are
this and this and this. So in my mind I had this
conflict, in a young boy’s mind, I had this conflict that I am
so in love with these words, Czechoslovakia, et cetera, but then
the church is teaching me to be wary of them, you know what I mean.>>LUCIA WOLF: The devil.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Of course
growing older I realized that Yugoslavia, simply across the
sea, it’s so near us and the rest of this eastern Europe,
then of course when I grew up I started reading, and
I realized how in love I am with the arts of these countries. Of course it was very sad for
me what happened in this region, et cetera, et cetera, but that is
a different discourses altogether.>>LUCIA WOLF: Yes. Going back to this, your book of
poems, your collection of poems, Polska And Slovenska, talks
about Poland of course, and also Slovenia,
and talks about … refers to, sorry, it does not talk. It refers to it, conjures up the
holocaust, and it also refers to the communist regime
in these countries. Can you talk more about
this collection of poems, and what led you?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD:
Well, the Slovakia part, my wife comes from Slovakia, so by
now it’s my second adopted country, because we visit the country quite
often: two, three times a year. Of course it was one of these
words which I fell in love with when I was a little boy. Poland is a country which
produced so many artists I admire. Kieslowski when it comes to film,
Herbert and Szymborska and Ruzevich, and Kantor and [inaudible]
and Grotowski, it’s such a rich country,
with such a sad history. Because if you were to
look at just the map of Poland throughout the years, geographically Poland
is never the same. At one point it even
vanishes from Europe. That book was, basically it marked
my first visit to the two countries, and the impression
they left upon me. In the Slovak part, when we
are there we live in a region which is very well known
for having been the core of the partisan activities
during the war, the revolution against the fascist regime there. And so, you can feel
in the woods, you know, every so many meters there is a slab which commemorates
some event, et cetera. As with Poland of course, as
well, the history of the country, the collective identity of the
people as a people who suffered from Nazi Germany, from
communist Soviet Union. I have this, maybe morbid, I
don’t know, tendency to identify with countries and
people who have suffered. I feel I am obliged to show
empathy towards these people. On the other hand, as we were
saying yesterday, in another event which we had yesterday, I
always have this problem, it’s an ethical problem, whether I
have the right, being a foreigner to both these countries, and
others I’ve written about. And the ethical problem comes
from, do I have the right to tell the story which is
not mine, which I had never, ever anything to do with it? Do I have the right to do it? It’s an ethical problem
which I haven’t yet resolved.>>LUCIA WOLF: Beautiful. I have prepared two poems
from Polska and Slovenska, but I did not bring it over
here, but one was about a child in the Holocaust, children
in the Holocaust. That was extremely tragic, because
I remembered being in Prague, and being in the Jewish cemetery,
and this woman just kneeling on the ground and looking
at children’s drawings, children from the Holocaust,
and she was just crying. So, it somehow brought
me back to that image. Another one was about a
woman in Czechoslovakia, a stranger on a train
maybe, or even on the road. But, I would’ve liked
to talk more about that. I am insisting on these countries
because in the European Division in particular, we start off
as a Slavic center of study, so I was very curious about your
relationship to these countries. But let’s return to Malta, I
don’t know how much time we have, but about Maltese literature
and language. They are both relatively new, in the sense of Maltese
language becoming recognized as a national literary language. Although Malta had this long
history, and was colonized by many, as you were saying, and in any
similar circumstance the language of the colonizer became your
language, the language of Malta. It started to appear as a
recognized national language in the 19th century, and
it started to be valued as a literary language
short after that, but really in the post-independence
period of history in your country?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: The language
itself is much, much more ancient than this, because as you know,
the language has a Semitic base, coming from Arabic of course,
and then there’s romance. In our case, by romance we mean
Italian and Sicilian superstructure, and eventually an English
superstructure to that. Of course this reflects
the history of the island. So, as for language, language
is a very ancient thing, and our Romantic poets
were very proud saying that this language is
an ancient language. I can understand the Romantic poets, because one of the magnificent
things about this language is that it basically braved
through all the foreign rules. As for literature, although
we have a poem going back to the 15th century, but
it’s a solitary thing so far. So when we talk of our
literature we go back only to the end of the 19th century. That’s when literature
started to be properly written. Remember that although the
language is an ancient language, it was officially recognized as the official language
of Malta in the 1930s. Of course it was a very
cunning political move from the English government to basically put aside
the Italian influence. It’s not that they wanted
the Maltese to be, you know. Then eventually, for us one huge
thing was having the European Union recognizing Maltese as one of the official language
as the European Union. Something which our romantic
poets would not have dreamt in a million years. I always make with my students
that if they were alive, they would be so happy they
would drop dead there and then.>>LUCIA WOLF: Wonderful. I think we have Time for
one very short question. I’m sorry we have to … But okay, I will ask you a little
bit, maybe lighter, I’m not sure.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Okay.>>LUCIA WOLF: When did you
decide to become a poet, and why?>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: I always
tried to avoid this question.>>LUCIA WOLF: Yes, I know, but
that’s why I’m putting it to you.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Now you
know why when I answer it. But, the first time I answered it
was in Romania, because In The Name of the Father was published in
Romanian some two years ago I think, and there was this journalist, and I thought that off the record
she was asking me this question. I answered her very honestly,
and not only was it published, but it was even translated into
English, and I said, “Oh goodness, no, this I shouldn’t have said.” Anyway, now it’s public
so I can tell you. It’s a very unpoetical
reason why I became a writer. Basically, when I was
in high school, and with us high school is 16, I
used to go to the state high school. At the time we used to
call it the New Lyceum. It was a two year course
before entering the university. In Malta there is this, although
it’s changing now, but from 10 years until 15 they used to segregate
students between boys and girls. Now it’s changing. Although I went to a church school
and I can’t see that changing in church schools,
although you never know. Of course after spending all
your adolescence just with boys, and suddenly you start seeing
girls in your classroom, now it was a very beautiful
experience. Let’s put it that way. You start flirting, you start
dating, that usually is … In my time now, of course. Now things have changed. I’m looking at the ambassador, because we were undergraduates
together, so it’s like I’m trying
to confer with him. It was the time when usually
boys, in my generation, started dating, et cetera. There was this student in my
group who started dating a girl on the grounds that
he was writing poems. And I said, “That must be something
which impresses girls, it seems.” And I said, “If he did it,
why can’t I do it as well?” So I started writing poems. You can imagine what
kind of poems they were. Ironically this other
person stopped writing soon after when most probably
the purpose was reached. He became a prominent politician, so
of course I’m not mentioning names, and a member of parliament as well, whereas I continued
writing poetry and prose. Basically that was the story.>>LUCIA WOLF: Thank you
very much, Dr. Mifsud.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Thank
you for this invitation.>>LUCIA WOLF: Thank you everybody. This was wonderful.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD: Thank you.>>LUCIA WOLF: I would have liked to ask a lot more questions
and have you read.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.>>LUCIA WOLF: Maybe another time.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD:
Maybe another time.>>LUCIA WOLF: All right, thank you.>>IMMANUEL MIFSUD:
Thank you very much. Thanks. [applause]>>LUCIA WOLF: Dr. Laura Falzon,
I would like you to come up here and say a few words, because this
is a small way of thanking you for everything that you’ve
done for this occasion.>>LAURA FALZON: Thank you so much. First of all, I’d like to echo
the same feeling as the Ambassador and Immanuel, just voice that it
is an honor for me, but also really for the Arts Council of Malta in
New York, as that is who I represent to be partaking in this event,
and to be sponsoring it. Also of course it was
the Ambassador’s idea, and he convinced us basically, so I
really want to thank the Ambassador for making this happen, really. I also want to thank everyone
who came today, braving the cold. I mean it’s not as cold as New York. And for your support and interest
in Immanuel’s work, and for showing such interest and enthusiasm for contemporary Maltese
literature and art. Which, as here tested, is not
only exciting and dynamic, but one that continues
to sustain a long line of oral literary traditions that define our own sense
of being, us Maltese. As someone who is very
proud of being Maltese, but of course also American, I consider this event
a very special one. In a way it is a landmark
of recognition. We would be the first to claim the
ancient truths of our language, like you were discussing. But we are also very much
aware that more often than not, a lot of times we have to
explain, where is Malta, and what language do you speak? All sorts of things. So, being an expert, I know how
even a country like Britain, where I lived for 17 years
before I came to America, and of course you know
Malta considers England as the colonial motherland. Even there I always have to explain
where Malta is, what Malta is. According to them, they only
heard of Maltesers, the chocolate. And the Maltese dog. Everybody says, “You’re the first
Maltese musician I’ve ever met.” Or, my husband, he’s an
academic and a writer as well, so in the United States I’ve
also often had to do this. And these quick explanations, I
must say that we tend to take a lot of pride, us as Maltese,
not just being Maltese, but also Mediterraneans. Because we often feel that we have
been privileged with a story that is at the crossroads of history. So, indeed, being Maltese and being
Mediterranean is complimentary to us, and that as we speak our
own language, we invoke the North and the South of the sea. Whereas you have noticed
from Immanuel’s reading, our language sounds at the
same time Romance and Semitic, and we are very proud of that. I’ve prepared probably a little bit
too much, but I just very quickly. Somehow, as a musician I realize that without this aesthetic identity
I find myself at a loss as well. Playing music that is inspired
by a constellation of cultures and sounds is not that
dissimilar from speaking a language which represents a collective,
basically, of cultures. So, Malta’s artistic heritage
is very much a product of this collective, between
the local and universal. We are attached to the sea, as you
identified in his writings as well, and in a way Maltese literature
claims Beckett’s cosmopolitanism in the ancient times, which
have made our imaginary. We all feel proud, I speak for
myself, but I know that I speak for all Maltese, especially
the ones in this room, Immanuel and the Ambassador. You know, we are very proud
when Maltese arts, language, and literature are heard
in cosmopolitan setups, like for instance those of New York, where a lot of people heard
Immanuel a few months ago when we had him there to participate
in this literature festival, and he captivated the audiences
and everybody was so interested in his books and his writings. And of course now here
in Washington, DC and this wonderful institution,
the Library of Congress. So, I want to say thank you
all for engaging and sharing and being here today, and this would
not happen unless we have a master. Of course having somebody
like Immanuel, especially, as the first Maltese
to ever be invited to the Library of Congress,
it’s great. Without the mastery of somebody
like him, maybe you wouldn’t think so highly of the Maltese language. He’s taken it all over Europe
and all over the world, and his writings have been
translated into not just English but several other languages,
as he has told us. So, this is just a little
fraction of what he’s written, so hope this would tempt you into
looking at his other writings, all the books that are translated
and his forthcoming ones, and also to introduce you to
Maltese arts and literature, and hopefully you might also
visit Malta at some point. Just to finish, I hope that
tonight’s event is the first one of many that would feature Maltese
arts and culture here in Washington, DC and especially at
the Library of Congress. Of course I’ve already thanked
the ambassador and Immanuel. I want to also thank Ruth Ward who,
she’s very passionate about Malta, Maltese literature, and especially
Immanuel Mifsud’s writing. And ten, special thanks
to Lucia Wolf. I know that, her incessant work,
belief in Maltese literature, and belief in Immanuel’s work, and
commitment to make this happen. I’m sure that you had to go against
a lot of odds for this to happen, and I thank you very much. I understand there is a display.>>LUCIA WOLF: Have a display
outside, and I would like everybody to enjoy, and we have also a
reception, so please partake.>>LAURA FALZON: Thank
you very much. [applause]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc dot gov.

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