Adrian Grima interviews poet Daniel Massa (The Times of Malta, 25 August 2016)
This Friday, Daniel Massa (b.1936) is reading his poetry in English and Maltese on the stage of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival accompanied by Glen Calleja and Albert Gatt. He will then be interviewed by Kenneth Wain. He doesn’t often participate in public events as a poet and has rarely been interviewed since he started publishing his poetry in 1965 in Kwartett, the first anthology of Maltese Modern poetry. I’m intrigued by what one could perhaps call his ‘reclusiveness’ as a poet, something that he is fully aware of. I ask him whether he thinks that generally poets should avoid engaging in public discourse, or whether this was more of personal choice?
‘Though I have often read my poetry and participated in a number of literary conferences in Malta and abroad throughout the Mediterranean, I have hardly ever given interviews. I prefer to adopt a low key approach and let the poetry speak for itself, rather than explain what I try to do. Readers are allowed time to discover the multi-layered approaches and to link different strands together, finding meaning and order in what must at first seem directions to nowhere.
Daniel Massa has published two collections of poetry, Xibkatuliss. Poeżiji 1965-1989 (Malta University Press 1989), a classic of Maltese poetry, and more recently Barefoot in the Saltpans (Allied Publications 2015), in which he demonstrates, according to the great English novelist Jim Crace, ‘his exceptional skill at writing in English with the intimacy of a native speaker but without stifling the cadence and percussion of his home language.’
In these works, one gets the feeling that he is writing for different audiences. Some of the poems originally written in Maltese that he has rewritten in English bear little resemblance to the “original,” and many of the references to the Maltese political and cultural milieu are left out in the English versions. Published in the late 1980s, he describes Xibkatuliss as ‘directed to a politically aware readership during a period of national conflict. This can be seen in overtly political discordant rhythms and angry voices referring to specific events which only then made sense.’ Barefoot in the Saltpans, which includes ‘English alternative re-visions of some of the original poems, was published a quarter of a century later.’ These poems are therefore ‘slanted towards non-local universal conflict and adventures.’ He is suggesting that the shift in focus has more to do with the historical and political context in which the poems were written and published than with the language medium.
I don’t think this tells the whole story. Later, Daniel Massa tells me that Barefoot has been well-received in Commonwealth countries and continues to sell quite well months after its release in Malta. The fact that these English poems rely less on the Maltese context makes them more readily accessible to a wider audience. But I wouldn’t say that this makes them more “universal” than the Maltese poems. ‘Universalism’ in poetry is a highly debatable category, because language is always rooted in space and time. But that’s another story.
I ask him about the Maltese ‘versions’ he has been writing of some of the English poems in Barefoot. He agrees that working from the English ‘original’ changes the whole dynamic. ‘One crosses over to other byways to discover the same adventures,’ he tells me. ‘Some of these poems are being published and presented on Friday at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival by poet and artist Glen Calleja in a very limited hand-made edition of 20.’ I’ve already booked my copy.
Unlike most other Maltese writers, Daniel Massa has written passionately about the sea. From within. On a political level, in his Maltese poetry it becomes something of an alternative motherland. On a lyrical level, the sea, with it rich imagery and vocabularly, and with its sensuous rhythms, is a lot like Massa’s poetry. Barefoot in the Saltpans is subtitled ‘Poetry Mediterranean,’ and there are constant references to the physical and cultural richness of the Mediterranean. But there are no direct references, as far as I could see, to the non-European Mediterranean. ‘Not quite so!’ is Massa’s quick reply. ‘Poems such as ‘Purple Epiphany’, Compostella Triptych’, ‘The Hilarious Adventure of the Dorothean Lass’ constantly throw up references to a clash of cultures in a non-European Mediterranean context. The “glow-worm ring released its ripples teasing the edges of the Asian shore” in ‘Across the Bosphorus’, he tells me, ‘highlights the perennial “mismatches” and conflicts in European and non-European Mediterranean cultures.’
My last question is about control and abandonment. Jim Crace describes Massa as a “patient” poet. Our reading of his poetry requires patience too, because there are many levels to be explored, and many echoes and allusions to be enjoyed and perhaps researched. This is the poetry of a poet in “control,” but also that of a poet letting go. What is the ratio of ‘control’ to ‘abandonment’, to use Crace’s terms, in your act of writing poetry?
‘What Jim Crace has written in the introduction to Barefoot in the Saltpans is very perceptive. I am patient writing and re-writing the poetry in my head over several days, sometimes weeks. I try to pack in as many resonances and levels of meaning as possible. Sometimes this ends in disaster and I then have to discard the attempt – which might resurface in an acceptable shape and form later. However, since many of my poems are related to action, I control the development of the action while seeking to move forward in exhilaration and abandonment towards the final goal – the redemption of time and persons as in ‘Daħlet Qorrot, and ‘Barefoot in the Saltpans’ as well as in ‘Design for a New Arras’.‘
Daniel Massa’s books will be on sale during the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organized by Inizjamed between Thursday and Saturday at Fort St Elmo in Valletta and the poet will be available to sign copies of his books on Friday. The readings start at 8.00pm and entrance is free.