How is a new Inkroci column born? How is an anthology conceived? Reading this story, you’re a witness to the inception of a transnational project connected to a series of poems that focus on the so-called mother tongue and the language/tongue double meaning that exists in English. Along with Andrea Sirotti, who has made a career translating post-colonial writers and editing some important anthologies published in Italy, I already have some ideas about which publishers to approach about an anthology concerning the relationship with the mother tongue … I fantasise about two Indian publishing houses…
“Better Europe or America, with texts from all over the world,” he says, but I insist: “No, no, in India, there’s a diversity of languages. There are 22 languages that are officially recognised in the Indian Constitution.”
Then he asks me about that language/tongue double meaning: is it like that in every language? Does it exist in Slavic languages? I can only tell him about Bulgarian and Macedonian, though. I can’t tell him what the meanings are in other Slavic languages, nor in those 22 languages spoken in India.
“We’ll work it out,” I reply optimistically.
“Einstein on the cover with his tongue out,” Andrea says, laughing.
“No, no, I prefer Mick Jagger’s tongue, if that’s the one they use in the Rolling Stones logo.”
And so we select the first three poems that will launch the new column and the director of Inkroci, Heiko H. Caimi, tells me: “That’s great for the poems and for poets to follow. What are we going to call the series?”
“How about the Dylan Thomas epithet ‘Two-tongued sea’? What do you say?”
“Wow! That would be great. But where do we put it? At the head of the poems?”
“You’re the boss, you decide,” I smile.
The poem we open the series with is by a Welsh poet whose name I first came across in Franco Buffoni’s poem ‘Le lingue delle madri’/‘Mothers’ tongues’ from his book Noi e loro (‘Us and them’, Donzelli Editore, 2008), which will become the second poem in our series, translated into English by Johanna Bishop for Inkroci.
When a friend of mine bought Gwyneth Lewis’ book Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2005) in Kolkata in January 2020 and showed me the cover, I told him that Lewis also appeared in Buffoni’s ‘Mothers’ Tongues’, which I had translated into Bulgarian a few years ago. He then sent me a photo of Lewis’ poem ‘Mother Tongue’.
After reading it, I started thinking about who could translate it into Italian and became convinced that I already knew the perfect translator for it: Clara Mitola, an excellent translator and lover of poetry who studied Russian and recently began studying Japanese. I was sure Clara would enjoy translating a verse like: “For a language fetishist like me/sex is part of the problem …” There was only one small obstacle: she translates from Romanian and Spanish into Italian, but not from English and Welsh, which she’s never studied. Then I decided that Angela D’Ambra would translate Lewis’ ‘Mother Tongue’ very well and that a translation of that verse would come very naturally to her: “Per una feticista delle lingue come me/il sesso è parte del problema.” No sooner said than done. Angela accepted the proposal and translated the poem for Inkroci.
Angela and I read Lewis’ book in English. We were interested in getting permission to publish the poem in the bilingual literary magazine Inkroci and augment the series of ‘Mothers’ Tongues’ (as in Johanna Bishop’s translation of the Franco Buffoni poem) and when Bloodaxe Books gave permission, it never occurred to us to check whether Lewis’ poem had already found an Italian translator: Paola Del Zoppo. As always, it was Andrea Sirotti who told me that Gwyneth Lewis had already been published by Del Vecchio (2007) and Elliot (2017) in translations by Paola Del Zoppo. And also that there are other, earlier publications with the great Faenza publishing house Moby Dick. In short, it’s already known to the Italian public, although that fact doesn’t detract from the disseminating effect of Franco Buffoni’s poem where he says:
‘That night alone in bed I read Gwyneth Lewis
Who in Cyfweliad â’r Bardd
– Interview with the Poet –
Recalls her reading habits as a girl:
I’d read stories by English writers
Hidden in Welsh covers.
That worked for a while, till my mother
Found Dick Francis inside the Bardd Cwsg
One evening after chapel. I got an earful,
A thrashing. She was a pure woman:
Just one language for life.
Gwyneth Lewis wasn’t supposed to learn English
Because her mom wanted what was best for her.’
Reading Paola Del Zoppo’s beautiful two-part essay ‘Lingua madre, madre lingua’ (link: https://fondopoesiacontemporanea.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/lingua-madre-madre-lingua-1-paola-del-zoppo/ ), I discovered another Lewis poem (‘A Poet’s Confession’) in the first part, translated into Italian by Del Zoppo and ready for our series. It begins:
‘I did it. I killed my mother tongue.
I shouldn’t have left her
there on her own.
All I wanted was a bit of fun
with another body
but now that she’s gone
it’s a terrible silence.’
Del Zoppo’s essay also includes a testimony about the poetess that can be read in Lewis’ 2003 book Keeping Mum and also in L’assasino della lingua [‘The Language Murderer’], the 2007 Italian edition edited by Del Zoppo:
‘In 1999 I wrote a book-length detective story investigating the murder of my mother tongue, calling it Y Llofrudd Iaith, ‘The Language Murderer’. The plot of the original book was set in a West Wales village, where an old lady, my embodiment of the Welsh language, had been found dead. In the book as a whole I wanted to explore how we could free ourselves of the idea of a “mother tongue” with all its accompanying psychological baggage and its infantilising of native speakers. Detective Carma, half-Welsh, half-Japanese, was the investigating officer and I’m not going to tell you the outcome.’
Gwyneth Lewis investigates the consequences of the gradual cancellation of her mother tongue, and how language disorders can lead to mental distress. Keeping Mum was initially born as an English translation of the Welsh volume Y Llofrudd laith, but took on a life of its own. The events, characters and places have been completely recreated in the new language, English. In the first part the poetic story describes a long judicial investigation into the loss of the mother tongue, in the second the investigation is conducted in a mental illness clinic where a psychiatrist reveals her thoughts. Finally, the poet presents us with twelve angels in a sequence of sonnets in which the mystery tears aside the everyday veil of depression and pain.
This is how her book Chaotic Angels – published by Bloodaxe Books in 2005, the same year that Gwyneth Lewis became the first writer to receive the Welsh laureateship and be made National Poet of Wales – got its title.
After the second poem in our series, Franco Buffoni’s ‘Mothers’ Tongues’, which like the first by Lewis has a conversational style and talks about eating, we had no choice but follow it with Barbara Ungar’s poem ‘Your Mother Serves Tongue’ from her book Save Our Ship (The Ashland Poetry Press, 2019), translated into Italian for Inkroci by Andrea Sirotti.
The next poem in our series is ‘Bivio di voce’/‘Voice at a crossroads’ by Riccardo Duranti, a poem from the 1980s that gave its title to the book that contains his Italian and English poems from that period, Bivio di voce: Poesie Italiane e Inglesi 1982-86 (Empiria, 1987). Interestingly, Duranti didn’t have an English version of that poem and translated it into English this summer especially for Inkroci to include at the end of Tom Phillips’ essay ‘Reading second-language writing’ that was inspired by another of Duranti’s books, Meditamondo (Coazinzola, 2013). The essay Phillips wrote for Inkroci was recently translated into Italian by Heiko H. Caimi (click on the title for the link: Reading second-language writing).
Next in our series will follow two poems by two authors of particular interest to me because I didn’t know of them as poets: Inkroci director Heiko H. Caimi, who we’ve been collaborating with for more than two years and who I knew as a writer of short stories and an excellent editor, but who hadn’t yet let me read a single one of his poems. And on the very same day that we decided on the title of the series (November 6, 2020), on that day, he told me he thought I should write an introduction to the series, saying “so readers will know about the spirit behind the initiative. And will be able to follow it with greater awareness” and then surprising me by sending me a very new poem he’d written that day called ‘Madre, lingua’.
And in his email to me he says (and I hope he doesn’t cut this passage when he edits this text): “Thinking about it, it’s how I was born. I don’t know if it’s up to scratch. Like all new things, I don’t know how to judge it. However, I wanted to send it to you. Maybe you’ll like it. Let me know.”
And I answer him with a smile: “I’m reading, I’m reading … We’ll also present you in the column, but after the first four poets.” I very much like the poetry, its rhythm, as well as its subject matter, but I am Bulgarian: for me, Italian is and always will be a second language and I needed an Italian reader and connoisseur who doesn’t know Heiko as a poet, because neither I nor Heiko like favouritism, we avoid it, and would also like to hear another opinion.
So, with the author’s permission, I send Heiko’s very new poem to Andrea Sirotti, even though I’m already convinced that we will publish it in the column after the first four authors we’ve already chosen and whose poems have been translated especially for Inkroci (i.e. Lewis, Buffoni, Ungar, Duranti). In the meantime, I tell Heiko and he says: “Only if you think it’s up to it. And definitely later, later. But don’t feel obliged. Mine is only a proposal, there’s no compulsion, and if it’s terrible, better not publish it than a make a fool of it.”
Then Andrea replies: “Emilia, I liked it a lot, and it reminded me of the work of a very good poet published by Riccardo at Coazinzola. Rino Cavasino, who writes in Trapani dialect and then translates himself. His recurring themes are precisely ‘language’ and ‘mother’.”
Ah, what joy! Suddenly, on the same day, I also discover Rino Cavasino as a poet, whose poem ‘Na spìngula c’un parpagghiuni’ (originally written in Trapani dialect and recreated in Italian too) Riccardo Duranti translates into English as ‘A pin with a butterfly’ with interstellar speed that same evening.
Cavasino’s poetry is also very beautiful. “You should include all three texts,” Andrea Sirotti warns me. “Of course, the original in Trapani dialect and his Italian version,” I reply. There’s no need to say it, but I’m so happy with his suggestion and by Riccardo’s English translations that, on the same evening of the special day that saw the birth of our new column ‘Two-tongued sea’, I suggest he translates the poem “if the author and publisher agree” and forward him photographs of the two texts.
Initially, Riccardo says to me: “What is it, a joke?”, but then adds: “Rino is great!” And in less than an hour he sends me his first suggestion for the English translation, adding: “but you absolutely must submit it to the author for his approval…”
As it happens, Rino Cavasino’s poem ‘A pin with a butterfly’ performs very well in both of the two translations, the author’s Italian one and the English one done so quickly by Riccardo Duranti. Cavasino certainly ‘approves’ of Riccardo’s version, messaging me: “Your column attracts me, the horizon of the two-tongued sea, the bilingual sea …”
The column aims to function as a call/invitation to authors who are interested in the theme of the mother tongue in poetry; they can follow the column and submit their poems, which we will consider and may publish in the column in future.
Translated from the Italian by the author with Tom Phillips
To submit your “Two-tongued sea” poem: firstname.lastname@example.org
Object: Two-tongued sea – submission
Previously published poems: