Poetry

First Lesson in Poetry: Failure

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I know why I waited for so long before starting posting again on this blog. The reasons are many – one of these is that I have came back to London recently, I had to find a new place to live and start classes. I also wanted to find a good job, and I did. I don’t think I have celebrated enough the fact that I found my first paid job.

Anyway, a part from these reasons, there is one that is more important. This semester I am going to take a poetry class, and of course I need to do my reflective log about it. This may seem the same as all the other classes I took, but, well, it’s not. I was deeply scared by poetry. As a non-native English speaker, how is it possible to write poetry in another language? How is it possible to do it without even know all the complexities, the small differences, the sounds and shades of the words?

Then, before our first class, I read an article that our professor sent us. It’s Bhanu Kapil’s commencement speech at Goddard College, and it gave me the courage to face this new, challenging and frightening class. The focus of the speech is failure. This made me realise how important it is, for writers as for any other creative personality, to learn how to deal with failure. Bhanu Kapil’s father was a migrant in London. According to the story, he failed 75 times before he could be taken into serious account as a professional.

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This story spoke to me not only because everyone can fail many times before finding their own way, but also because as a non-native English speaker I know that my path in writing in English will be particularly difficult. I am reading a beautiful book by Jhumpa Lahiri, it’s called In Altre Parole and it’s all about her experience with learning and writing in Italian. She is an English writer, even if she has bengalese origins. Writing in a different language and about a different culture, as well as being migrants, is always a huge source of inspiration, but is also a great challenge. How can a person write themselves out of one life and into another? How can a person understand deeply the culture and the way of life of a place that is not theirs?

That’s it. Failure is always there, waiting for you to stumble in it. That is why writing in another language and facing a completely different culture helps you getting used to failure. Everyday I  fail. I fail when I say that I want puff pastry to the guy at Sainsbury, but I don’t know how to say it in English and I just try to describe it. I fail everyday, when i’m pretty sure a word is pronounced in the wrong way and my classmates laugh – it’s fine. Failing helps. It helps you believing in duration, which is, as Kapil says in her speech, an essential part of writing. Learning a language is hard and it takes a life. More than a life. The same goes with writing: how does a narrative become itself in time? Circles of dormancy are, says Kapil, extremely helpful. Weirdly nutritive.

Failure is an aperture to many other possibilities, for other chances, for other paths where your piece, novel or poem may go. It is important to find the joy in rewriting, the same joy we find in writing. Rewriting is writing, says Kapil. Writing is rewriting. The most incredible part of the speech is the ending: Kapil wishes the students fail. Fail in such a way that you start to shine as brightly as you did when you first began.

As this reading wasn’t eye-opening enough, we also have to read other pieces to prepare ourselves for the first class. One was a piece by Wendell Berry, an american poet, novelist anf farmer, born in 1934. It was taken from its Poetry and Marriage. The Use of Old Forms. Form, he says, serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us, deflect our intented course. I could identify myself in this piece as well – traveling to another country is a form of detour, right? Alright, now everyone tell you that having experience abroad is important for your career, so it has become a sort of standardised path, but still – if you want to learn the language, try to understand and assimilate the culture of the place, then it is a challenge. And when we don’t know what to do, then the real work comes.

Every day there are a thousand of occasions when I don’t know which way to go. And that’s when we began our journey, writes Berry. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

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This spoke to me because I know that all the pieces I wrote in the last years are deeply inspired by my traveling. In the last three years, I spent my life in very different places. I have studied in Oslo for a semester, I have come back to my city in Italy, Livorno, but studied in Florence, then I was awarded a scholarship to spend a semester in the States and now I am here, in London, where I am actually trying to settle down. The impeded stream is the one that sings. I have written stories set in Oslo, Livorno, Florence, New York City, Bronxville, London. All places that left an incredible mark in my life as a person and as a writer. Challenges, new people, new houses, new languages inspired me. I am grateful.

The last reading before class was a poem. We needed to come to that, right? After all, this is a poetry class. And of course, you can’t write poetry if you don’t read poetry. And I want to read more of it, because I know that poetry is like that mysterious guy in the corner – he’s handsome, but a little too dark to tell if he’s going to like you as well. And I want poetry to like me just as much as I want to fall in love with poetry. I know I can. The intented stream is the one that sings. Poetry will be a challenge. It will inspire me, as everything I did before. Maybe I won’t be that good, my language will be poor, my metaphors a bit cheesy. Doesn’t matter. I’ll find my voice.

This poem was written by W.S. Merwin, an American poet based in NYC and born in 1927, and it’s called “Berryman”, from Flower and Hand: Poems 1977 – 1988. It is about a man who talks to the author and expresses his view about poetry. Passion, he says, is the presence that permits everything, the essential part of transmitting emotion into poetry. Passion can bring everything to movement, to invention.

But the poem is also about failure. The man suggests to paper the wall with rejection slips, and the author asks him how can you even be sure that what you write is really good. How can you? Well, my answer would be, if they publish your stuff you don’t have to be that bad, right? But the man in the poem sees it another way, and he’s right. You can’t ever be sure. You can only be sure that you could die without knowing, if you don’t try. If you have to be sure, don’t write

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