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Amelia Rosselli

A trilingual writer who described herself as "a poet of exploration," Amelia Rosselli has only recently been recognized as one of the major European poets of the twentieth century. Born in Paris in 1930, she was the daughter of the martyred antifascist philosopher Carlo Rosselli and the British political activist Marion Cave. Raised in exile, in France, Switzerland, England, and the United States—in interviews, Rosselli remembers her years in the US with great fondness. She finally settled in Italy after the war, first in Florence and then in Rome. Except for a year she spent in London in the mid-seventies, Rosselli never left Rome, where she took her own life in 1996. The tragedy of her father's death and the loss of her mother when she was only nineteen were central to Rosselli, defining her in many different ways: from her "trilingual language" and cosmopolitan upbringing—though she thought of herself more as a refugee—to her political engagement and deep social consciousness. Rosselli was the author of seven collections of poetry (one, Sleep, in English), a translator of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, among others, and an accomplished musicologist and musician who played the violin, the piano, and the organ. OBTUSE DIARY, Rosselli's only work in prose, was first published in its present format in 1990.

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Obtuse Diary

A Conversation with Poet and Translator Deborah Woodard

12/01/19

Deborah Woodard is the author of Plato’s Bad Horse (Bear Star, 2006) Borrowed Tales (Stockport Flats, 2012) and No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911 (Ravenna Press, 2018). She has published several chapbooks, including Hunter Mnemonics (hemel press, 2008), which was illustrated by artist Heide Hinrichs. Her poetry has appeared in Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, 2013), Filter, Handsome, Gargoyle, Shake the Tree, Zoland Poetry, and elsewhere. She has translated the poetry of Amelia Rosselli from Italian in The Dragonfly, A Selection of Poems: 1953-1981 (Chelsea Editions, 2009), Hospital Series (New Directions, 2015) and Obtuse Diary (Entre Rios Books, 2018). Deborah teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.

In this interview, Deborah Woodard discusses her recent translation of Amelia Rosselli’s Obtuse Diary, a collection of the Italian poet’s early experiments in prose, as well as her own practice of poetry that often engages in oblique forms of translation.

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In Obtuse Diary, Amelia Rosselli refers to clarity as “a fake lake.” For me, the term “obtuse” conjures high school geometry, and I picture an angle moving toward the horizontal. The common use of the adjective is dull or slow, so the very idea of an obtuse diary is curious. How do you understand Rosselli’s use of the term?

The persona Rosselli develops in Obtuse Diary is obtuse, or slow-witted, in the sense that her development has been delayed by personal trauma that also had a distinctly public side. Rosselli was born in exile in Paris in 1930 to anti-fascist activist parents, Marion Cave (British) and Carlo Rosselli (Italian) who had fled Mussolini’s Italy. In 1937, her father and her uncle (Nello Rosselli) were assassinated by Mussolini’s operatives. Although Amelia’s time in Larchmont, New York, where Marion and her children eventually found refuge for the duration of the war, was stable and even happy, the trauma of her father’s death was a wound that never healed. When she settled in Italy after the war, first in Florence and then permanently in Rome, Rosselli was starting from scratch. She was the daughter and niece of heroes of the resistance, but she was also a rather isolated young woman, the ugly duckling who was, in truth, the swan.

In my view, Rosselli’s obtuseness was her way of resisting a post-war world that’s broken, but also shallow and materialistic. Coming up against these corrupt veneers renders her dim. “Clarity is a fake lake.” No way to see oneself clear through this mess. So instead, she envelops herself in protective dullness, or numbness. At the same time, she comprehends all too clearly: “She didn’t want to know that she was the target of many, and of the laughter of so many: she was unable to discern in the silence of other hidden ones a too-real furor of her own.”

You’ve been translating Rosselli’s poetry over the course of many years. What draws you to her work, and to the practice of translation? Your own work as a poet is often engaged in oblique forms of translation, moving among different discourse worlds or inhabiting borrowed texts.

Yes, I agree that I’ve always tended toward oblique forms of translation in my own work. That’s a really good insight, Eva. I feel fortunate that I also was able to be an actual translator, thanks to Rosselli. I stumbled upon her work, more or less by accident. I pulled her first collection, Variazioni belliche (War Variations) from a bundle of books a friend sent me from Italy, discards from her own library, that I’d stowed in a sideboard. I was looking for a translation project. Initially, I put the book back under the sideboard, but then I gave it a second look, and felt drawn to its extreme hermeticism. What made the poetry difficult, was also its allure. I never solved the mystery of Rosselli’s verse, and so I never moved on from translating her. Roberta Antognini and I have recently started work on Documento, Rosselli’s longest collection. After that, who knows?

Your most recent book of poems, No Finis; Triangle Testimonies, 1911, uses transcripts of the trial in which Triangle Shirtwaist owners were ultimately acquitted of murder. Your focus is on the aggressive cross-examination of workers, most of whom were young women who were not native speakers of English.

Each poem is a set of interrogations, fixated on details of doors and windows, keys and locks, a relentless questioning broken only by the workers’ own muddled recall of trauma. The poems are quite moving, the difficulty of speaking contrasted with the defense attorney’s insistence on answers. What drew you to evoke this horrific event, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers, from the standpoint of the trial?

I’d been trying to write about the American labor movement. My mother had worked as a labor organizer, and both my parents were socialists. I’m still trying to figure out the labor book, if, indeed, it’s a single collection. I mean, I say American labor, but part of what I’ve written so far takes place in Denmark, as I was attempting to collage and reconstitute an unfinished manuscript on economics by my father. The juiciest bits for my purposes took place in Denmark, oddly enough. Anyway, I was always somewhat aware of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, as a touchstone, and I started reading about it. Then, in 2011, I was in New York City—actually, for a Rosselli conference—and I went to NYU’s centennial exhibit on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It was held on the first floor of the Brown Building, the site of the fire. At that exhibit, I learned of Cornell’s online archives of the fire, including the transcript of the trial of the factory owners. I considered other ways to address the tragedy—but the transcript pulled me in, and I ended up focusing on that. Then, with illustrations added by John Burgess, the sequence became a book. The poems, or playlets, as I think of them, seem to be a good length for bookstore and pop-up performances.

The trial revolves around a locked door and whether or not a key was hung beside it. Hence, the focus on locks and keys. I see the witnesses as empowered, despite the manipulations of Max Steuer, the defense attorney—himself an immigrant, though from an earlier wave of migration—who was able to adroitly switch up and manipulate linguistic registers. Though not likely a conscious strategy, and certainly erratic in nature, the witnesses’ linguistic glitches and digressions become a mode of resistance. They can delay answering questions and, at times, avoid them altogether. They aren’t reliable or helpful witnesses, as they’re befuddled (obtuse, like Rosselli’s narrator). My hope is that the playlet-poems can be performed in more than one way, and that the witnesses can win some of the time.

Borrowed Tales is a collection of prose poems that, while pilfering from diverse sources, including McGuffey Readers, case histories, biographies, and art installations, are not retellings but new and strange narratives.

I’d love to hear how you work with sources, using the sequence Gordon and Martha as an example. In this work, Gordon and Martha are siblings, and Martha is a quite daring graffiti artist. It’s a marvelous sequence—dizzying and inventive in its conjuring of Martha’s creative flamboyance and her “iridescent ambivalence.”

The names of your characters, Gordon and Martha, are nods to the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, known for his practice of removing sections from buildings slated for demolition, and documenting his interventions in photographs and films. Your work, though, is not about the artist, although images of abandoned buildings abound as we follow Martha marking space: her “arrows directed the eye, embedded themselves in sinking doorways.”

I am trying to figure the relation between Matta-Clark and your fictional graffiti artist Martha, and I am tempted to make a connection between Matta-Clark’s cuts and the graffiti artist’s ‘burning’ of walls – or between cutting and tagging. (“Tags covered what they did not own.”) Am I overreaching? How did you arrive at the character of Martha?

Well, though this wasn’t the plan, Borrowed Tales teems with children and young adults. Even Hamlet and Ophelia are probably rather young. Gordon and Martha radiate a light-hearted sunny energy, despite their trafficking in the grimy art of graffiti and Martha becoming a vampire at the end of the sequence. (I had a dream about vampires on the subway.) Gordon and Martha speak to my positive feelings about the brother and sister bond. There’s great loyalty between them, and I love it when Gordon says that “He knew his sister Martha was a genius.” Martha is the prime mover and principal artist and Gordon readily accepts this.

Glad that you like “iridescent ambivalence,” and please do overreach a bit when it comes to Matta-Clark and his techniques! I had already settled on the name “Martha” as I’d had a dream about one of my godson’s younger sisters, Martha, being pushed in her carriage over a little bridge, in, perhaps, Central Park. Given that dream, when I scissored apart “Gordon” and “Matta,” “Matta” was destined to become Martha. Under other circumstances, those syllables could have turned into, say, Mattie. But the die was cast. I must say that it was odd to learn, down the road, that Gordon Matta-Clark had a twin brother.

In the cosmology of Borrowed Tales, Gordon and Martha are the children of a woman named Lorna. I based Lorna on an actual person, a student of my father’s at Goddard College and, later, my sometimes babysitter. Lorna had given up a baby for adoption. After the death of my mother when I was ten, I moved to New York with my brother, to live with my father and stepmother. Lorna was in New York, working as a waitress. She brought me packets of Saltines from the diner where she worked. I felt that we had each suffered a loss, and that these losses couldn’t be talked about. They were taboo. I always wondered what happened to Lorna, and so she landed her own section in Borrowed Tales. She has given up Gordon but appears to be raising Martha. Somehow, Martha finds Gordon and they form an allegiance, but they never speak of Lorna, their mother. That’s taboo, though we don’t know why. What Gordon and Martha have in common beyond their sibling status is their penchant for creating and inhabiting imaginary worlds. They do so with considerable panache.

There are many wonderful moments in “Gordon and Martha,” but I’d like to ask you about one particular passage. At a certain point in Martha’s evolution as a graffiti artist, she ceases to tag. You write:

Martha’s early tags had influenced the hands of other writers. The tags were like cups of tea made up ahead of time that had grown cold.

The image of pouring tea—so cozy, domestic, a small gesture—is in stark contrast to the practice of tagging, often done in harrowing circumstances, and so central to the graffiti artist’s identity.

Martha seems to have come to the limits of what she could accomplish with tagging. So she turns exclusively to burners, or murals. As for the tea, it’s an odd image, I agree. It was probably my tea, to be honest, as, when one cuts images and notation into a poem, who knows what will persist. Such as a cup of tea grown cold. However, if I’d tried to think about what a young graffiti artist’s beverage of choice might be, it could have been cliché. Red Bull? Let me digress by saying that I love seeing hardboiled detectives in U.K. police procedurals put up the kettle for tea.

Graffiti art is also considered defacement and “bad” writing, so this brings me to your collection Plato’s Bad Horse. The book’s title alludes to Plato’s image of the soul as a charioteer trying to steer a pair of horses, one sensible and one impulsive.

The title poem raises the question of unreliable or ill-formed memories: “My memories have become too burred / to be of use, like horses that cannot be ridden.” In a later section of the book, you reflect on “mnemata-driven recitations,” spurred by the discovery, after your father’s death, of a manuscript in which he discusses memory devices and argues that they played a role in the writing of the gospels. You write: “Poems that had remained in draft for more than a decade, stalled by the gaps in my memory, began to emerge as I opened myself up to the repetition and variation of a few key images.” 

I am fascinated by this attempt to transform memory fragments into memory devices. I’d love to hear about your process of working with memories – described as “useless” in the title poem but in later poems appear and reappear as support beams.

In the following passage, you refer to the search for mnemata:

I had my own notes: guideposts, ditches of dark water in the snow.
That day, I was going to buy some blue teal silk,
so perhaps the mnemata could be bolts of cloth as well,

…or in the basement,
the wicker basket of gray clothespins….

The clothespins took on the gray of temple pigeons.  

Did your exploration of mnemata-driven structuring devices in Plato’s Bad Horse influence later poems? I’m thinking, for example, of your repetition and re-purposing of images in Borrowed Tales.

As a collection, Plato’s Bad Horse includes older ways of composing while ushering in the new. You’re focusing in on the most important aspect of the collection for me—namely, the start of collage in my practice.

My father, a professor of psychology and the son of a Presbyterian minister, had been writing a book about the gospels for some time. I learned what a book meant emotionally and materially through his living within the promise of his evolving work, a psychological study that wove together what he’d learned as a child with what he’d dedicated himself to as an adult. After his death, I kept rereading his unfinished manuscript. However, though my father wrote quite lucidly and directly, I found it hard to track the text, no matter how many times I read it. This went on for a number of years. It was quite frustrating.

What did sink in for me was that a mnemonic was a memory device. It could have been something like beads on a string that a story teller would finger, rather like rosary beads, in order to jog his memory, or he could click his fingernails together, or something like that (reminiscent of what people are doing at poetry readings these days!). I hypothesized that anything could function as a memory device: as a series of guideposts.

Consequently, I took up a pair of scissors, photocopied my worksheets so as not to destroy the originals, and put everything through a simple slice-and-dice collage process that I’d learned from the late Kathleen Fraser, with whom I studied for a brief but influential time at a writing conference in Santa Cruz.

Here’s the exercise I learned from Fraser. Take a piece of writing, generally typed, fold it in half and then scissor down the central fold and between the lines. Turn over all the half lines, so you can’t read them. They’ll resemble the little strips of paper one pulls from fortune cookies. Next, take a new sheet of paper and, selecting two half lines at random, tape them together to form a new line. Continue until all the half lines are taped to the paper. Then type up your new piece. Voila!

I remember Kathleen Fraser saying that she wanted to go home and put all the poems of hers she’d “never liked” through this process. This is what I did with my drafts. Paradoxically, splintering the drafts enabled ideas to cohere and psychic material to take more fully embodied form. I’m so grateful to my students, my second teachers, in respect to collage. Unbidden, they started revising their cut-ups, carefully teasing out narrative, shaping lines, and refining imagery. Revision was the missing link.

The mnemonics in the latter half of Plato’s Bad Horse and all of Borrowed Tales were created through this collage plus extensive revision. I also used it to compress and augment the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire trial transcript; though I didn’t cut lines in half, I added in my own material more sparingly, and I often restored narrative sequences. One thing that I haven’t mentioned in regard to this practice is that it tends to shorten and tighten texts. When I type up a worksheet of taped half lines, I select from it, going fairly quickly so as not to overthink. The trial runs to hundreds of pages, so condensing was key.

My last question is about your poem “Ghismonda in Calabria: A Tentative Libretto.” Ghismonda is a figure from Boccaccio’s Decameron, but you’ve placed your characters, including a reader and a translator, in contemporary Calabria. The narrator says, “Translation, my mind wandered, was not / that different from the stop-start of the Metro.” In this poem, are you reflecting on your own experience as a translator of Italian? A frequently quoted line from George Steiner is “Every language is a world.” How has your experience of Italian shaped your own creative work in English?

Overall, translating Rosselli has made me a more experimental poet. She writes in Hospital Series: “Life is a vast experiment for some, too /void the earth the whole into its knees / piercing lances and persuaded anecdotes, I sow you / world clasped by the laurel.” Lances are pierced and anecdotes persuaded. This opens up possibilities right there. Rosselli’s oddities have a certain heft. In one of my mnemonic poems in Plato’s Bad Horse, I wrote: “Some haystack it was, munching hay.” It never occurred to me before, but that line may be indebted to Rosselli’s. Both her lines and my own here give me a certain boost, though I can’t really tell you why.

Yes, I took a stab at writing about translating in “Ghismonda in Calabria.” The poem—which is not collaged, but which works with fragments found in my worksheets as another approach to accepting fragmentation—translates Boccaccio’s Ghismonda into a modern Ghismonda, or “G.” I was, in fact, helping the actual G (not her real initial) with a translation of an article. It was so much fun working with her in her airy study in Piazza di Bologna (which is in Rome, not Calabria. The place names make the poem challenging to track, I admit). I hadn’t been translating all that long at the time. To be able to work with “G” to bring a few paragraphs into focus in English did open up a world to me. As we were working, G’s daughter, darted into the room to model a series of bathing suits: “When we’re done, we crack the blinds, / we shift our chairs. We watch her daughter’s / rapid-fire change of bathing suits.” The translator is always auditioning new garb, seeking new ways to tweak the target language and to let the original text shine forth.

Rosselli is an incredible mentor. She can make a bank shot and yet somehow she is completely lucid, too. And she can write about the same themes over and over again without getting stale. How does she accomplish this? These are the questions that keep me translating her.

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