Sawdust

Lorsque je sculpte mon poème

à coups de hache

le soleil noircit

le temps retient ses heures

comme une meute de chiens.

(As I carve my poem/hewing it with my axe/the sun darkens/and time keeps the hours close within/like a hound)

Anise Koltz, from Le Paradis brûle (Heaven burns)

I’ve been re-reading Anise Koltz’ poems recently. I find her dissection of life felled by death’s chainsaw and lingering despite falling particularly impressive. Her decision to switch from German to French in writing after her husband’s demise in 1971, is a political as well as a poetical choice: she deliberately distanced herself from the horrors the former language symbolized for her loved one, and consequently for her. Far from being a mere exercise, this choice of using a different vehicle to express loss and mourning is a refusal to compromise with history to wade through personal and collective pain and let truth emerge despite spoliation, or rather, because of it.

Carved with the axe of memory, her poems sound dry and implacable yet also incredibly alive, beating with the inevitable truth of aftershock. They are more like sawdust or residual wood than timber, not because she decides to focus on the wasted part of existence, but because her words testify to the impossibility of existence after deflagration, though at the same time embracing survival because there’s no other way out of death.

While Tranströmer composes poems as sound chambers for silence or afterthoughts on human wonder and despair while colliding with silence, Koltz creates afterpoems, parched moments of life after life lingering despite death hewing its pulp to pieces. There’s no way of living, she seems to suggest, but becoming sawdust, or celebrating sawdust, after the log has gone and everything has burnt down to the ground. The burning may have destroyed much, but the debris are still there, fermenting in the earth ready to sing their song in our bones, to let the word be born again. Let the healing begin.

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Changing what we know

Les paroles changent le connu

le silence aussi

Il n’y a que l’inconnu

qui sauve le connu

(Words change what we know/as silence does/there’s nothing but what we don’t know, saving what we know. My translation)

Anise Koltz, from the collection Le mur du son (The wall of sound)

Words and silence, the one changing the other, and transforming our lives too. As death crosses our way – a loved one, or someone we barely knew, because they hid their truest self from us ‒ life turns into something unknown, perhaps impossible to understand but luminous, a kite we need to fly to feel free again. Thus change comes, illuminating days with wonder, the “inconnu” reversing what we know into what we hope and crave for. It takes courage, to face pain and pass through its breath, let it pierce our thoughts with unexpected sounds, liberating our knowing with bliss and rebirth.

Burial Ground

“One has to travel far in order to find a burial ground.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés- Women who Run with the Wolves

Most writing feels like digging up secrets from the earth’s belly, pain emerging along the way. Yet writing can also be a way to explore the aftermath of rage: once released, it needs to find a proper burial ground for its excess to be transformed into something useful again.

Re-reading Pinkola Estés’ classic on how to connect to “the power of the wild woman” is proving extremely nourishing and nurturing for my new novel, as it mainly revolves around negotiating with pain, rage and all the damage they leave behind. Burial grounds are those areas, both metaphorical and literal ones, where the damage can be worked until understanding, and hopefully rebirth, can occur and the characters can find their truest goal.

Perhaps, all novels are a way of negotiating with the darkest side of humanity to give it a new purpose, to send its spark off on a new flight. A novel is a journey through poison to discover compassion shining on its flipping undertow. Each novel we create is a different route of the same journey, a different path leading to unexpected truths, an initiation of sorts.

At least, that’s what it feels like to me, and that’s probably the reason why I chose to write in the first place: to find the most glorious burial ground for what is supposed to be unspeakable but is not, something solid that needs tending and soothing, until its toxic drive is finally loosened, diluted into dreams and songs we can see and deal with, all writing thus becoming both excavating and burying what was lost, both the spade and the soil.

Digging tunnels

I’ve been writing the sequel to My Heart is The Tempest for almost a year now. At first, from December 2021 till April 2022, I mostly focused on the narrative arc of the entire story, so now I basically have both the start and the ending, and part what’s in between. At some point, though, I stopped worrying about the plot and realized the characters were slipping away, like arias lost in the flowing symphony of music. Then I knew what I needed to do: I spent part of spring 2022 and the entire summer to work on one single character only, devoting my time to what I call “tunnel digging”. Basically, it means writing only one character at a time, putting all the pre-existing pieces about that character together and start “digging” them into a tunnel to explore the character’s thoughts and moves in detail until I find their real motivations and feelings, thus helping them reach their full potential and goal ‒ getting out of the tunnel, that is.

As I watch the character move towards their personal sense of purpose and revelation, I slowly reach the end of the tunnel myself and understand how they can interact with other characters in a more genuine way. In the very moment I’ve reached the other side of the tunnel, I know I can move on to a different character and start digging again. Both my scifi novel “La foresta delle idee” (Forest of Meanings) and my China-inspired horror novel “Fiori nell’ombra” (Flowers in the shadows, neither available in English, but they may be in the future) were built that way. I feel it is an effective way to delve into an in-depth analysis of each character and their motivations. Although the writing process for My Heart is The Tempest felt more like a free-flow recording of voices running in my head than a “tunnel digging”, for Volume 2 I felt like I needed to go back to something I’m more familiar with, because it helps me develop my style in detail while following my characters’ steps more clearly.

Being the protagonist of the entire trilogy, of course Sycorax was the first I worked on until spring 2022, while I spent summer 2022 expanding the scenes on the “mysterious queen” (who is actually just a voice and the missing piece of the story in Volume 1 but becomes one of the leading characters in Volume 2). Both Sycorax and the queen are very dark characters, so I enjoyed the ride immensely. They are not exactly villains, but they tend to have a very dark take on reality at times and their dark nature always leads them into something potentially dangerous and lethal, for them as well for others. I find these the most exciting parts to write, because I tend to relate to dark characters more easily at a basic, instinctual level.

Then it was time to move on to the brighter side of the novel: Ariel, Miranda, and someone new we’ve never met before in Volume 1. Since September 2022, I’ve been focusing on Miranda, who’s not so easy to pin down and work on, perhaps because she’s meant to be quite the opposite of what the other two turned out to be. In a way, she is everything that Sycorax cannot be (at least for the time being): the compassionate one, full of wonder and genuine enthusiasm over everything. Surprisingly, I’ve found her brightness refreshing and contagious, my creative life pouring into my own like a new breath circling my own breaths. Perhaps, writing can truly lead us to a better undestanding of ourselves and shed light into a better version of ourselves, giving us new purpose and a new sense of direction, despite being so different from who we are. After all, the writing process leads to a series of affirmations about each character, so why shouldn’t we use this same process to lead ourselves into a kind of affirmation which might work for our lives too?

LINES FOR WINTER

Tonight as it gets cold

tell yourself

what you know which is nothing

but the tune your bones play

as you keep going.

Mark Strand, from Lines for Winter

Cold and walking, that is all our life seems to be sometimes. We know nothing, of how beautiful and ugly everything can get, how painful and joyful life can be, and yet we soldier on, move on, improvise our lines to the stars, our words on the page, embodying our hopes and strengths in the most spontaneous way we can possibly find, and let the bones play their tunes of unknowing and fearlessness, which is us, immersing in casual wisdom, Zhuang Zi-like flapping through a butterfly’s dream reversing into ours. Cold and walking, marking the ground with our fleeting tune till it fades and turns into snow drops, filling the space of cold and starting all over again.

PESSIMISM

“There is power and strength in optimism

To have faith and to stay true to yourself

Because if you can look in the mirror

And have belief and promise you

Will share wonder in living things

Beauty, dreams, books and art

Love your neighbour and be kind

And have an open heart

Then you’re already winning at living

You speak up, you show up and stand tall

It’s silence that is complicit

It’s apathy that hurts us all.”

Salenna Godden, from Pessimism is for Lightweights

Some poems ring so true in their simplicity to be utterly necessary, like the air we breathe. This poem by Salenna Godden came to me in a dark time of my life, when nothing seemed to matter anymore. Though I’ve never stopped writing my new novel (more to come on that), I’ve struggled with the idea of pinning down some thoughts on the writing process, the books I feel connected to, my place in the universe, something I could share and put here for others to see and ponder on.

The fact is, these are dark times indeed for everybody: death, war, floods, pollution, recession, nothing seems to bear the promise of change and empowerment we were accustomed to in the pre-Covid era. Psychological lockdown mixed with a rise in nationalism has turned the world into a ticking bomb and people into apathetic shells wearing masks and feeling nothing. Yet, this poem taught me how giving in to despair cannot be the solution, because it would only get things worse. I believe we have a moral obligation in being optimistic in life as well as art: creating new paths, dreaming new worlds, so that our world can be a better place, our path be a shining trail of moons and stars never failing to amaze and to persist, to build instead of crumbling and fading.

CENTRE

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

William Butler Yeats, from The Second Coming

“Sweet Sue,

There is

no first, or last,

in Forever ‒

it is Centre, there,

all the time ‒”

Emily Dickinson, from Open Me Carefully. Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson

The best part of poetry reading is the unexpected way words start talking and migrating to one another, epiphanies emerging along the way. Take these lines from two giants of world poetry: Yeats and Dickinson, so far apart in style and content as well as time, the raging blast of World War One facing mid 1860s peacefulness in Amherst. Yet, how one message rings around the other, how strangely their words speak to us as if uttered by the same poet taken from these strange 2020s, ravaged by war but still open to the illusion of endless possibilities.

Sometimes, it feels like we are living in a schizophrenic age, depression and euphoria tugging at our hearts and tearing all sense apart, our life but a desperate oscillation between pretense and fulfillment. Mass extinction is but a blink away and the centre constantly fails us, loosening beyond holding, already broken by human selfishness and lack of understanding. Yet, a sudden hope lights up every now and then, and every breath becomes centre without bounds, no time and space to hold it back but letting it loose, free flowing in the now and forever of bliss.

Perhaps, writing (and art in general) is a way to explore the centre that cannot hold and its dangerous breach into madness, its vanishing point turning our life (and the planet’s) into debris. But it is also a way to create a never-ending centre, an antidote against madness and mass extinction. When we write, everything stops and holds within our words, and nothing else matters but this beating of sounds breathing through our bones, connecting what the world is to what it could and hopefully will be in a different time, a different space.

Thus, the writing process itself becomes a forever of sorts, with neither first nor last but constant being all the time, what we can really hold on to instead of letting things fall apart, and before things fall apart.

Before the End of the World

One of the sculptures part of the installation “To See the Earth Before the End of the World” by Precious Okoyomon, Venice Biennale, Arsenale, 2022.

I’ve recently visited “The Milk of Dreams”, the 59th edition of Venice Art Biennale. Despite the surrealistic dream-like atmosphere the title (inspired by Leonora Carrington) suggests, apocalypse and possible strategies to resist the imminent end of humanity seem to be the topics explored the most by artists, at least in the part of the exhibition I’ve seen at the Arsenale.

Appearing last, one installation in particular grabbed my attention: “To See the Earth Before the End of the World” by Precious Okoyomon. One of the main materials used in this work is kudzu, a vine with the propensity for uncontrollable proliferation, engaging in an invasive approach towards anything standing in its way. Here kudzu is shown as both literally and metaphorically reclaiming the space of the entire planet after human beings have disappeared, their ephemeral and (self)destructive existence replaced by totems or offerings, the sculptures that we see bleeding against the wild growth of green  ̶  water, sugar cane, and of course kudzu itself, eating at the human-like blobs while embracing them in a cosmic dance of resistance and ultimate victory.

What makes this work interesting, in my view, is the use of what the explanatory notes define as “living, growing, decaying and dying materials”, in this case plants, wool yarns, dirt, blood and vines. While warning us about the lethal consequences of constant plundering, depredation, colonization and enslavement (of natural elements as of specific populations and areas of the world), Okoyomon also seems to be highlighting how change and rebirth  ̶  however fleeting they might be while facing the imminent apocalypse and disappearance of all forms of organic life  ̶  are engrained in the very fabric of the Earth, and how resilience and transformation can be the only driving force breaking nature out of the prison human beings have built around it. Maybe the question shouldn’t be: how will we humans be able to survive the mess we have caused in the first place? Because the earth will still be there after we are gone, fighting deterioration and ecstatically leap into rot to become again: open, endless and one with the stars.

Transformation

If I had to say what my writing mostly is about, I’d say transformation. I love exploring the small seeds of change hidden inside each character, their thoughts shining through like stars across the page. And when they finally explode, what a firework display it is!!

Depending on the project I’m focusing on, I may proceed by walking on a straight line, following the events as they unfold chronologically, or I may choose to walk side by side with one character at a time, hearing their skin spitting, shedding, then splitting and finally becoming brand new, perhaps tenderer or harder, as their mind.

I’m currently working on the sequel to My Heart is The Tempest; although when I started in 2021 (while still editing book one of the trilogy) my attention was primarily focused on the protagonist Sycorax and on her discovering more about herself while discovering the island, later I realized that in order for me to understand her presence on the island better I had to make a paradoxical decision: deflecting my attention from her quest to somebody else’s – what I’ve been doing for the last month, since July 2022. Sometimes, it is only through leaving the hero(ine) behind that we can truly find what we were looking for: nuances, motivations, weaknesses, sense of purpose, and even a more fulfilling and breathtaking bigger picture. At least, that’s how this new quest feels like: a transformation of a sort, pouring from the most unexpected place imaginable.

Do you ever feel that way while dealing with your writing?

First and final

“And the Big Bang has a sound  ̶  it is the final static that can never quite be removed  ̶  so the universe itself (this universe anyway) can be imagined as noise, as residue, unexpected by-product, and the last sound will also be the first.”

Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music. A History

Finally, I could put some serious thought on my fascination with noise, not so much as a genre (which, thanks to this book, I discovered I’m not particularly fond of) but more as a concept and philosophical construct. I won’t deny I deeply enjoy pop/rock music, especially when good lyrics and good voice are both involved, but I also realized that is not what listening really is about, and Hegarty’s book confirmed some of my ideas about listening as both a form of self-discipline and an opening towards the infinite possibilities of sound and its displacement, dissipation, elasticity, revelation, alteration, shock, breaking down of all barriers between the I/eye and the Other, the individual and society. As a “serious listener” (to quote a term mentioned in the book), I tend to do with music (read electronica, mainly in its experimental and dark ambient forms), what I do with writing: exploring sounds and searching for ways to expand dimensions and psychic awareness, until the divide between what I am listening to (writing) and who I am temporarily comes undone and eventually falls. It may not happen all the times, because it is compelling, challenging, and it does require a lot of time and effort (as writing does). Yet my listening often becomes a learning on how to feel micro variations or sudden flares as part of the world’s heartbeat, not as mere interference or static. Hegarty doesn’t mention this is his book, probably because it is focused on noise also a musical genre and not simply as a philosophical possibility; yet I’ve come to the conclusion that, in order for the listening to be effective and “serious”, it needs to be isolated from the rest of the human world. In other words, serious listening can only be possible in solitude, possibly because (and this indeed is mentioned in the book) noise is characterized by isolationism and antisocial tendencies, though being also concerned with a freeing of the mind and body from ego and its drives. What’s left is a poetics of the interstice, a residue of resonance within and without perception. We’re always told we live in a visual age, yet I’ve always found aural signals more timeless than visual ones, because they can liberate from the shackles of social bonds, individual wholeness and all sorts of hierarchies. By listening, you can become formless and hyperlinked, asexual and plurisexual, nihilistic and utopian at the same time, fluid in the endless stream of the space universe whose first and final breath will never be removed.