The City, Prismatic: Readings


Every week we start our classes with reading quotes by what Prof Villanueva called “catalysts“. According to, a catalysis is an action between two or more persons or forces, initiated by an agent that itself remains unaffected by the action. I guess this is really the function of the quotes we are reading – which are all about poetry, writing in general, about process and inspiration. The first catalyst we read at our second session was Peter Turchi. The quote was from Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as a Cartographer. Writers, he says, don’t want just to share the collective perception, but represent what hasn’t been percieved or presented the way they see it, not imposing their vision on others as an act of aggression, but just sharing it as an act of generosity

Eudora Welty, an American short story writer, said that her goal in fiction was not to point the finger in judgment, but to part the invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence. I guess this is a very important point to take into consideration, especially in a city that sometimes I feel as alienating as London. Fiction and poetry, says Peter Turchi, in expanding the world of our imagination beyond the world of our experience, allow us a more intimate knowledge of our fellow beings that we are likely ever to have in the course of our daily lives.

Our MA is called “Writing the City”. It does take a lot of effort to write about the city, but this is not the purpose of fiction: it should not only describe the city, the story itself must ooze out the city’s atmosphere. The presence of London must come up from the smallest details in the story. And writing the city means that there will be many places packed with people. People are an important part of our writing process – it is almost ironical that a writer works alone at his laptop or notebook, but writes about people and for people. It’s people who are going to read your work (if you want, of course). And your work is all about people, about relationships and interactions. Reading and writing about people helps to discover and analyse people’s behaviour. And analysing and discovering people’s behaviour helps writing.


We have started our session 2 with readings about cities. For session 1, we had to read some excerpts from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s an amazing book really. In the pieces Ron gave us, three very different cities are described – Despina, which is reachable by sea or by camel. If you reach it by sea, you don’t see the city the same way as if you see it reaching it by camel, and viceversa. In Raissa, life is not happy. Poverty and fights are all over the place – and yet, there is something that sparks hope. I loved the description of this city. In Ersilia, strings are streched to establish relationships. This is just an overly-brief summary of the pieces he gave us to read, but Calvino’s work is inspiring (and the whole book is a must read) because, through fictional description, he makes us reflect and think about our “normal” cities, the places where we live, how they differ and how our perception of these places may change depending on our identity, our personality, our history. A New Yorker will see London differently from how a 23-year-old from Livorno could see it.

The second catalyst was Peter Turchi again, from A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic: here, he says that the aim of fiction and poetry is not to become increasingly difficult, but to become similar to a game that engages the reader. There must be a combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, satisfaction. There must be a flow state, the reader should know something and not know something equally important. The ideal reading experience, says Turchi, the one that gives us most pleasure, combines uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release. It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ungoing series of challenges and satisfactions. This is very interesting because it made me think of my final project. I am writing a romantic comedy. The reasons why I am doing it are many. I know many people consider this genre very light and frivulous, and it is. But the thing I’m really convinced is that a good fiction writer, before learning how to write beautifully and to write about difficult themes, should learn how to craft a great story. A story that involves the reader, engages them, keeps them stuck to the book until the story is over. Then, maybe, I can really start writing about important themes. I want to write a story that works. This is my objective now. And of course, rom coms can be stupid, but can also be very intelligent.

The third quote that inspired our second session was from The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965, and it goes like this: There is really only one city for everyone just as there is one major loveI loved this quote. It’s so romantic. I’ve rea a book by Jhumpa Lahiri recently, where she refers to Italian as a lover (yes, the language). She says she had a coup de fou with Italian. That was very romantic, as it’s romantic to refer to cities as loves. As lovers, cities leave important traces in our memories and in our identity. This is essential when writing about every place. The poems we read were all about Detroit, a city that I don’t know and I’ve never been to. This was an interesting way to look at it – how does a city impact a poem? How can different poems depict and represent different aspects of a city?


The first we read is by Vievee Francis, Taking It. In this poem there is a lot going on. The speaker tells the reader about the cultural differences between Detroit and the place she comes from (Georgia), but she also deals with racial issues, violence against women, rape. It’s a very violent poem, described through powerful moments: in a few lines, the speaker tells the reader about her childhood, her relationship with her abusive father and how she reacted to her violent partner in Detroit. It also took me back to the poems about autobiography. It is very surprising how in a poem you can express the smallest details that tell everything the reader needs to know about the speaker’s life, all happening in a few line. I find it really different from anything I’ve ever done before. In fiction, it’s of course not the same. And even if the poem was about the speaker’s life, Detroit was oozing out of it, it was just present in every single line, thanks to the description of what was different from what the speaker was used to (not seeing the snow, having shoes that are too thin for the weather, the accent…).

The atmosphere is also very different from Detroit as it’s described in There Are Birds Here, by Jamaal May. The speaker criticises the stereotypical way of portraiting Detroit as only a difficult, terrible place. He emphasises the good aspects of it. Detroit, for many people, is home. There are even birds there. The city’s reputation is right, but it’s also very incomplete. As every city, Detroit is complex and has many shades. Some shades can be darker than other cities’, but this does not mean its lighter shades are not worth being remembered and depicted. I loved it. And I also noticed the style of the poem, how the speaker seems to be talking to a friend as they recite the poem: they keep repeating No, I don’t mean that, No, I don’t mean this, like they are confuting someone else’s opinion. This opinion belongs to a collective “they“, the outsiders or insiders that see or portrait a different Detroit. The person you use tells a lot in poetry, it helps the reader to locate. Here the speaker uses the first person, explaining and showing their views on the city.

About Detroit, Tomorrow, by Philip Levine, there’s so much that can be said. It’s about a mother whose son is killed off, and about how her life needs to go on. The speaker describes the life of this woman right after the murder. People witness this woman. She was “seen” by a collective protagonist, the white society who does not  know how to deal with this. I really found a lot of sense of survival in all these poems, a struggle to have some hope, a difficult relationship with the different aspects and layers of this complex city. This leads me to think about the title of the session: prismatic city. Cities are prismatic, not monolithic. They are not made of only one stone, they are made of so many different materials, peoples, places, atmospheres. They are not solid or unbroken. London has so many different vibes. And this is definitely something to explore in poetry.




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