Il-Vizzju tal-Kelma - Leslie Vassallo
  Norbert Bugeja
 

Go to the interview: The Poet from Siggiewi  

 
     
 

Il-ġimgħa li għaddiet iltqajna fuq il-bank fejn spiss ipoġġi Leslie: il-poeżija. Illum se niltaqgħu mod ieħor ma’ dan il-kittieb mis-Siġġiewi. Se naraw x’għandu xi jgħid fuq il-poeżija li jikteb, fuq ħajtu, il-letteratura, u l-kitba fiha nfisha. Leslie jagħti wkoll il-ħsibijiet tiegħu bħala għalliem tal-letteratura.*

 

 

Meta bdejt tikteb? U għaliex tikteb?

 

Il-kliem, l-istħajjil, l-espressjoni ilhom miegħi ħajti kollha. Is-sens ta’ osservazzjoni, ċerta sensittività. Minn dejjem kont naqra, xi ftit jew wisq; il-kliem jibda jimliek, jitħallat ma’ qalbek u ma’ moħħok, ikun irid joħroġ. Imma bdejt nikteb il-poeżija u novelli b’mod regolari meta kelli 14, 15-il sena. Dak iż-żmien konna ċipru għax missieru kien jahdem hemm. Forsi l-fatt li sibt ruħi mingħajr sħabi tar-raħal u l-iskola ħajjarni biex nintilef aktar fija nnifsi: f’dak li nara, inħoss, naħseb, nixtieq. Il-kitba bdiet hekk, imbagħad kompliet issir ħtieġa għal fehma, tfittxija għall-verità, kif tinħoloq kelma wara l-oħra, tar-relazzjoni tiegħi mal-ħajja, ma’ oħrajn, miegħi nnifsi, ma’ l-istess att ta’ kitba.

 

Xi rwol għandha l-poeżija fil-poeżija tiegħek?

 

Il-poeżija ma naħsibx li għadha ‘rwol’ f’ħajti, fis-sens li hi xi dmir, jew xi parti li nilgħab fil-ħin liberu, wara x-xogħol, bejn ħaġa u oħra. Saret jien. Jien il-ħin kollu. Ħajti. Mode de vivre. Addiction. Nikteb bħalma nieħu n-nifs, niekol, nixrob – għax hi ħtieġa, bżonn li ngħix, ninħoloq, nitwettaq kuljum. Dan ma jfissirx li jien immur infittex il-poeżija bil-fanal. Iżda nsibha f’tiġribi u ħafna drabi tiġi tfittixni hi! Nipprova ngħixha wkoll – kif naġixxi, miegħi nnifsi, ma’ sħabi; kif nitkellem. Li toħloq sens, tagħmel il-ħajja aktar sinjura. Kultant tgħejja, tbatti – iżda hi dejjem hemm.

 

Fis-snin sebgħin u tmenin kien hawn ċertu hiatus fil-poeżija Maltija, ċertu sens ta’ waqfien u nixfa fil-produzzjoni ta’ idjoma  poetika “friska” biex insejħulha hekk. Kif kienet l-attività tiegħek fil-kitba dak iż-żmien?

 

Fis-sebgħin kelli 15-il sena. Fid-disgħin 35. Żmien iż-żgħożija, żmien il-ħolm u l-esperimenti – l-ewwel tiġrib, waqgħat, qawmien ġdid, ferħ kbir, ċaħdiet, tagħlim. L-Univesità. Id-diskussjonijiet. L-aħjar qari. Il-bidu tax-xogħol. Is-safar. Malta wkoll kienet għaddejja minn tqanqil kbir politiku u soċjali: il-kwistjoni mal-Gvern Ingliż, ir-Repubblika, il-Ħelsien, riżultati ta’ l-elezzjonijiet, it-titjib fil-ġid materjali f’taqbida ma’ l-immaturità tal-poplu; il-lezzjonijiet li jweġġgħu.

 

Wara l-moviment qawwi tas-sittinijiet, f’dawn l-20 sena, il-poeti qishom ma tantx dehru jew kellhom  ċans jidhru. Iżda xorta kienu hemm. U friski kemm setgħu. Iżda ma ħolqux xi moviment, baqgħu fil-kexxun, f’xi antoloġija, f’xi ġurnal, fost l-agħa u l-ġirja ta’ żgħożija personali, politika.

 

Kif tħoss li nbidlet il-kitba tiegħek fuq medda ta’ aktar minn 30 sena?

 

Il-kitba tal-poeżija għalija hi forma ta’ djarju fejn niġbor u ngħaqqad l-esperjenzi tiegħi. B’hekk, nifhem aktar lili nnifsi, dak li jiġri lili u madwari. L-istess kliem hu għodda li jieħdok minn verità għal ohra, ifannad u jiftaħ fik, ma jħallikx tieqaf. Kif ma tiqafx il-ħajja. It-tigrib ibiddlek, ftit jew wisq; il-viżjoni  taċ-ċirku tal-ħajja tinbidel skond fejn tkun fuqu. Il-poeżiji tiegħi tul 30 sena naħseb jirriflettu l-istorja ta’ bniedem li jrid jifhem x’qed jiġrilu, li jrid jilqa’ u jinħoloq. l-Innocence and Experience ta’ Blake. L-istil inbidel ukoll: sar inqas astratt, aktar konkret fis-sens li l-editing innifsu joħloq it-tifsira. Ir-realtà ssir il-metafora.

 

Mid-Djarju sas-Somalja u l-imħabba, minn Aldo Moro sal-biża’ u l-baħar u l-birra. Il-bagoll tal-kitba tiegħek wiesa’…

 

Kelma tajba: ‘bagoll’. Il-poeżiji huma s-souvenirs (il-floatsam?) tal-ħaja; dak li jibqa’ mill-vjaġġ li rridu nagħmlu. Tiġbor minn hawn u minn hemm, kultant ikollok aptit tarmi kollox, iżda ma tasalx; kultant tgħid ma niġborx aktar, iżda tkompli. Il-poeżija toħloqha, u toħloq lilek. Tisma’ aħbar, tara wiċċ, tħobb, issiefer, tkun ma’ sħabek fil-ħanut, tmur il-baħar, fil-kampanja; it-tibdil fl-istaġuni, fl-esperjenzi. Dan kollu, kuljum, jista’ jidher irrelevanti, mhux drammatiku, mhux importanti fis-sens materjali jew politiku – iżda kull bniedem li hu tassew bniedm joħloq lilu nnifsu (kif qal Keats) f’ħafna ħwejjeġ, f’ħafna mirja. Borges ifisser lill-artist joħloq labirint ta’ linji bir-reqqa sakemm fl-aħħar isib li kien qiegħed ipinġi l-istess wiċċu.

 

Jekk miniex żbaljat, għandek xi kitibet imxandrin f’pubblikazzjonijiet barranin, u saħansitra rbaħt konkors prestiġjuż…

 

Kif għedt int, ħafna mill-poeżija tibqa’ fil-kexxun, għax tinkiteb għax jehtieġ tinkiteb. Madankoll naħseb li kull poeta jrid ukoll jikkomunika, anki jekk ma’ qarrej ipotetiku, jew futur. Jaqsam esperjenza, hi x’inhi, ma’ xi ħadd. Jien dejjem żammejt kuntatt ma’ min irid jaqra, permezz tal-Paġni Letterarji tal-ġurnali Maltin. Kultant f’xi programm fuq ir-radju. Issa qed ninstemgħu iżjed dirett, grazzi għal Inizjamed, PoeżijaPlus, għalik. Ħadt sehem f’antoloġiji lokali. Sikwit ikolli xi ‘haiku’ fl-HQ, quarterly prestiġjuż Ingliż, u ġejt inkluż f’antoloġija internazzjonali The Acorn Book of Contemporary Haiku. Il-konkors li semmejt int kien dak tal-Commonwealth għan-novella (2000). ‘Indicator Joe’ ġiet Highly Recommended minn 3,500 storja.

 

Min huma l-awturi li tħobb taqa l-aktar, u dawk l l-aktar “serqulek” l-ispazju tal-kitba tiegħek?

 

Il-kitba ta’ awturi u poeti oħrajn ġieli tħalli effett dirett fuq it-temi u l-istil li tagħżel. Dan jista’ jkun effett tajjeb, jew il-kontra. Iżda naħseb li s-siwi veru tal-qari fuq kittieb hu li jibni fih il-kultura tal-kelma. Kull kelma wżata minu fiha wkoll it-tifsir li nghatat diġà. Bil-Malti nħobb naqra lil Rużar Briffa, Dun Karm u poeżija oħra tajba; dejjem għoġbuni r-rumanzi l-antiki bħal Ineż Farruġ, Ulied in-Nanna Venut… għat-tħaddim tajjeb tal-Malti. Il-kors ta’ l-Università ġabni qrib ta’ bosta kittieba li b’xi mod jew ieħor injettaw din il-viżjoni maħluqa mill-kliem: Shakespeare, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Wilde, Hardy… Inħobb ukoll lil Neruda, Borges, Marquez, Pessoa, Genet, Grass…

 

Inti għalliem tal-letteratura Ingliża. X’affinità ssib bejn dan ix-xogħol u l-kitba kreattiva tiegħek?

 

Inħobb il-letteratura u nixtieq ħafna li l-istudenti tiegħi jħobbuha wkoll għax naf kemm tista’ tagħmilhom aktar ‘sinjuri’, kemm tagħtihom ċansijiet biex jifhmu u joħolqu aktar lilhom infushom, isibu aktar sens u tifsiir fil-ħajja, fin-natura, fir-relazzjonijiet,  f’kull esperjenza. Naħseb limeta tkun tħobb xi ħaġa, titkellem b’aktar passjoni dwarha u dan l-entużjażmu jittieħed, speċjalment minn studenti li diġà jħobbu jaqraw, jistħajlu, joħolqu. Sfortunatament bosta studenti jieqfu jaqrw meta jidħlu fis-Sekondarji, minħabba l-ħafna suġġetti, proġetti, tagħlim ta’ memorja… Dan jista’ joħloq diffikultà  biex tfisser poeżija, jew dramm – iżda l-entużjażmu għall-użu tajjeb tal-kelma naħseb li jibqa’ miftakar.

 

 

*Din l-intervista dehret f’Il-Ġensillum, tas-Sibt, 9 ta’ Awwissu, 2003

     
 
 
 

The Malta Independent

First Sunday, June 22, 2001

 

The poet from Siggiewi

 

Joe Demanuele talks to Leslie Vassallo a lover of Oscar Wilde and the English language

“I am an alcoholic, I’m a drug addict and I’m a genius,” the controversial Truman Capote once said. The impulsive Oscar Wilde when passing through customs, pronounced that he had nothing to declare but his genius. Statements such as these help generate the image of the artist as a whimsical and conceited creature – an egocentric who sees others, even those he loves, as mere satellites lit up by his own light.

Siggiewi born Leslie Vassallo, could not be more different from this stereotype. When I first met him, he gave me the impression of a retreating man, smiling shyly and avoiding eye contact. But speak to him about poetry and he directs his brilliant green eyes at you. There is something diconcerting about his gaze. Because he does not just look at you but it seems that he can look into you. His poetry reflects his ability to observe – no, to actually see what is there. A woman catches his eye in the Harbour:

“We stopped for a beer on the quay:
a seventiesh woman, elegant,
adorned, prepared, abstracted,
passes and repasses in front of us
as if she comes everyday to wait
for someone who left.”

“Writing was a magical discovery, like that of being able to swim for the first time, a rhyme which worked out and then it leads you on everywhere, especially into yourself.” When Leslie speaks about poetry, the words flow out – unstoppable. I get up for a couple of beers and when I return, he continues as if there had been no interruption. “Poetry is god-like; it gives reason, meaning to everything, everybody, it creates, it unites.” He stops the flow for a few seconds to take a sip of beer and I take the opportunity to ask him more about himself. He skims over the details like it is a chore to speak about one’s achievements. But I manage to find out that he read English Literature at the university of Malta and that he now teaches English language and literature at a girls’ school. Before going to work each morning, he breakfasts on orange juice and poetry. “Reading a poem in the morning, sets the mood for the day. A poem is something artistic, stylish and perfect. During the day one meets so many things that are the very opposite of that!” In Malta his verses and some short stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines and have been broadcast on radio. They are included in several anthologies and recently, two of his haiku have been published in the Acorn book of Contemporary Haiku. His works appear regularly in the Haiku Quarterly (edited by Kevin Bailey). He has won prizes in several local competitions but his highest – “official” he smiles – achievement was a Highly Recommended Award in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2000, for his short story Indicator Joe, about a returned emigrant.

Why does he write? He was expecting this of course. “Because I am a writer”. The answer is logical but he goes on. “I also write so that if someone reads it, it makes his life richer. Not necessarily better or happier...” He quotes Keats who said that Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty. “Pain and death are true things” he tells me, “Therefore they too are beautiful.”

We are still alone in the bar at Ghar Lapsi and for a moment he turns to look out at the sea below us. He does not give me time to digest what he has just said because he goes on: “Poetry shows you truths which were there all the time but which were not evident. It gives you a new way of interpreting reality. Poetry develops reality; it is a diary where various impressions are connected and recreated.” He quotes D.H. Lawrence to stress his point, but I ask him about another author. Leslie Vassallo is considered by some as an authority on Oscar Wilde’s writings. He does not admit to this accusation of course but instead admits to a ‘crime’ which is much more fundamental.

“I am deeply interested in Wilde’s experiment of trying to live completely on the artistic level. The ways and means. The triumph. The downfall. The pain.” He takes another long sip and signals to the woman behind the bar for another fill up. “I only put my talent into my work and my genius into my life”, he quotes and then bursts out laughing at the sheer pomposity of that statement. Leslie tells me how Oscar Wilde perfected the image of the artist and how he took this image to an extreme so that he suffered for it. “I admire the notion that he challenged society and lived life to the full. But my problem is how to live as an artist within society.” He laments life’s constraints. “It is a chess game – strategic: but be prepared for surprises, on both sides.” Leslie continues to paint the picture of the artist as some kind of elite – not in the sense of a better man but as a different man. “There is some madness in each artist but he has touches of glory too. I accept the rules of Man but at the same time I live within my own world of symbolism and imagery.”

Leslie points to the rocks and the sea beneath us and says: “Nature is beautiful, but imagination is even more so. This theory is built up in Wilde’s, A Picture of Dorian Gray. He tells me how Oscar Wilde took the artistic temperament to the limit and how he believes that Wilde is a writer for young people. To prove his point he quotes Wilde again: “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” At that moment some young men come into the bar, and the stillness is broken by the almost picturesque way in which they are swearing most profanely. We cannot help overhearing them for some time and I realise that they are using their swearwords to punctuate and emphasise the points that they are making. “Wilde was infatuated with youth. Self love is youth.” Leslie tells me, but he sees that I do not understand what he means so he goes on. “Love is a give and take, we hear. And the more you know yourself, the more you are yourself, the more you can give. The artist gives a lot but he is not easy to love, due to his heightened sensitivity. He is often hurt.” But as an afterthought and with a smile playing on his lips Laslie says: “I can resist everything except temptation!”

No discussion about Wilde would be complete without a reference being made to his latent homosexuality but Leslie is emphatic that Oscar Wilde is not some ‘Gay hero’. “Those who look at his writings for homoerotic imagery are always disappointed. Artists do things for the sheer joy of it. The splash of colour, the word, the note. Wilde’s writings – plays, poetry, essays, short stories, novel – open a hall of mirrors which reflect facets of humanity.”

Leslie Vassallo studied English under renowned tutors such as Professor Richard Beck and Professor Vernon. “They provoked: it is what education should do. In a fast technological, materialistic world, education’s first aim must be to ensure that the generations which are caught in this flux retain their bond with nature and personal relationships which have to be worked for and treasured. My father said that I read too much; he wanted me to write: so I wrote poetry!” The fact that as a boy he lived in Cyprus amongst foreigners who looked down upon the Maltese increased his sense of isolation. But it made his writings bud at the sensitive age of 15. Nowadays Leslie sees his writings as a diary marking the passage of time. “I create from the truths I live. I am Mediterranean so I have to create art using the symbols around me. They are the sun, the sea, the night, the rocks...” he goes on but his voice fades into the background as I read another of his poems:

“I gave a few escudos
to the fair-haired boy
begging outside the church;
but what I really wanted then
was to give him a poet’s heart
so that he will fill his nothing
with yearning, anger,
experience, knowledge,
with endless faces and happenings -
and so become rich.”