The Ulysses of his generation
In his new anthology, Bliet, poet Norbert Bugeja wanders along city streets, listening to a chorus of voices. Stanley Borg lays siege on the poet’s walls.
“ Works of art are of an infinite loneliness,” wrote Austrian poet Rilke. And that is exactly the feeling that you get when reading Norbert Bugeja’s new anthology Bliet. A current of yearning flows through Mr Bugeja’s poetry; yearning that has the poet wandering along city streets.
“ All of us are curious about our pasts, especially when our knowledge of them is hampered by loud voices,” says Mr Bugeja.“ For a long while our literature itself served as a discourse of oppression, privileging absolute notions of nationalism and religion. It’s still with us. All those religio et patria apologists on this island – there are many of them around, as recent events have reminded us – are products of this literature that they were force-fed at school.
“ My poetry is obsessed with unearthing those layers of our experience and historical consciousness that the discourses of power in Malta and in our region at large conveniently keep choosing to ignore. My ghosts are very often those selves, what Mario Azzopardi’s poetry had called ‘ my poor downtrodden people’, the muted voices of our own ‘ oppressed dead’, craving a literature that situates them in history and in time. My poetry’s yearning is to respond to their yearnings. My wandering is a relentless quest to excavate and foreground their lives.”
In his critical introduction to ‘Bliet’, Adrian Grima writes that Mr Bugeja’s poetry is alive with a “mischievous energy”. How curious is this energy?
“ I cannot write unless I travel,” Mr Bugeja says. “I’m constantly on the lookout for the next exhilarating experience, the metaphor which is expecting me round the next corner, be it in Tangier, Cordòba, Algiers or Alexandria. The ‘mischievous energy’ comes from there.”
“You do not travel because you’re wealthy – you’re wealthy because you travel. That ‘mischievous energy’ is nothing but the ability to draw assertive images, to associate ideas, to dare to write about the people you meet, unsparingly. You meet a new person, notice the way they twitch their fingers, and there’s a metaphor ripe for you to pick. I look at people’s faces all the time. Good poets never simply read between lines, they also read between lies. Then they couch their loot within a poem – that’s the mischievous energy.
“In ‘Bliet’, words scatter across the page, leaving blank spaces for the reader to fill in. Is this ‘scattering’ a side-effect to the bricolage manner that you employ?” I ask Mr Bugeja.
“It is, because I cannot but think of myself as a bricoleur. This is why the anthology is titled ‘Bliet’ (Cities). How can one ever represent a complete image of a city, or a series of cities, in a single poem or a single book? I can piece together several meaningful experiences I come across in the cities I visit or in those I conjure, but then, I am always only a writer. I also live in a city whose ongoing drama does not really need me as a protagonist, as Malik Solanka discovers to his surprise in Rushdie’s Fury. There are many readers out there who will read my poetry and piece their own images together, just as every city exists because of the many lives who shape it just by inhabiting it.”
With bricolage, the reader gets the feeling that lines from one poem were written separately, and then left to simmer before coming together.
“The poems in ‘Bliet’ are not only eclectic in their range of allusions, but also the sheer diversity of experiences that makes them,” confirms Mr Bugeja. “ A teenager on his way to an opium den in Lebanon could find his way in the same poem as a 100-year-old tailor gazing at the sea in Vittoriosa. The whole venture is serendipitous in the extreme, just as the contemporary Maltese writer’s journey is serendipitous. We do not live in the shade of some overbearing literary tradition that barely leaves us a breathing space. On the contrary, we’re almost embarrassed because so much has not been accomplished in our literature.”
“ We therefore have to work on multiple fronts, tap various sources of reading, of observation, of experience, before we can essentialise the motifs of our poetry. That’s my method. I’m a corsair. I loot indiscriminately, then I try to make sense of that erratically earned wealth on my own. The cut-off point usually comes when I realise that what I have in my hands is a random string of meaningless events, as Orhan Pamuk writes when he talks of life and creation. Once the quest for meaning is clearly frustrated, then I can piece a significant poem together.”
For me, Mr Bugeja is the Ulysses of this generation, ever wandering. Yet he also carries a part of his city with him.
“I’ve lived away from Malta for five years now – it has been an immensely enriching journey,” he says. “ I live amid a buzzing hive of academic activity. I am participating, full-time, in one of the most respected academic communities this side of the Atlantic. What I keep learning from these writers, poets, academics, artists, intellectuals is that these very professions need errance, the state of venturing from one realm of thought to another as the very nerve centre of their being. The age of cloistered productivity and parochial behaviour has long since passed, even if Malta is still attached. We can never underestimate George van den Abbeele’s claim, mainly that if we really want to call existing orders into question, in placing ourselves outside them and establishing ourselves at a ‘critical distance’ from them, we are already thinking of thought as errance, as travel.
“ Both as an academic, as a lecturer and as writer, I think of myself as errant because the distance between one thought and another necessitates a quest,” continues Mr Bugeja. “ The quest of ‘Bliet’ has been that of travelling further afield than Maltese poetry has done over the past half century in my exploration of form, metaphor, imagery, rhythm, style. Whether my writing has succeeded or not, I leave that for the critics to debate.”
Mr Bugeja’s cities are a chorus of voices, an unplanned architecture of smells, tastes, sights. Yet the poet’s roots are firmly rural.
“ It is difficult to speak of a clearcut distinction between country and city, especially now that mass communication keeps collapsing one space-time boundary after another,” he says. “ Some of the multiple voices that people my cities find their origins in my hometown, Siggiewi. A ‘ chorus of voices’ is precisely what Siggiewi is – an expanding geographical area where rumours thrash about wildly, and with gusto. Poets are professional gossips – they listen, embellish, relay. This is what’s left in me of my town, this mastery of the grapevine.”
Mr Bugeja’s voice is very clear in his poetry. Is this a symptom of a “minority” language? For instance, in English prose, the reader gets the feeling that the author is trying to disappear. But with Irish prose, the author is ever present. Is it so with writing in Maltese?
“English literature has for a long time legitimised its existence as a normative one, just as France placed itself as the supreme judge of world literature in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Mr Bugeja answers. “Goethe himself felt German literature was provincial in relation to France. But the epoch of English literature as a puritanical, self-sufficient, dominant construct has long since passed. Think of James Joyce. Think of Derek Walcott, and many others. They did not have the weight of a canon behind them. They wrote under the sign of post-colonialism. What do writers do in that position? They seek wider systems of reception and transmission for their work.
“ It is therefore not only bourgeois cosmopolitan globalism that enters the world stage, but literature as well. We start speaking less of French or English literature and more of a world literature. This is an increasingly diffuse trend among literary systems that want to go beyond their national culture. Reasserting the author’s presence in this day and age is one way for ‘minority’ literatures to ‘ hate the majority properly’.
“That is, to work critically within the majority tradition, to insinuate very assertively those aspects that identify you, into a majority language.
“The English English author may afford to disappear, the Maltese English one may not. At least not for the moment. The imminent step is that: to make one’s own voice eminently, perhaps even aggressively, visible in the other’s language.”
In Mr Bugeja’s poetry, words frequently scatter. Yet the reader gets the feeling that they embrace life in hope.
“Scattering, dissemination, relation – if any hope survives for us in the present, then it must exist in our enthusiastic practice of these acts,” says Mr Bugeja. “Ryszard Kapuscinski, the amazing Polish traveller-reporter, writes that each book is yet another expression of our struggle against time, against the fragility of our memory. Like a shifting sand dune, memory erases itself, disappears, reshapes itself into the present. Words in my poetry scatter in the hope of keeping up with the workings of memory. Sometimes I hope to perpetuate the actuality of the past into the present. Other times, I attempt to keep up with the future, to sketch the present anew before it is yet again reconfigured by some monstrous, powerful discourse. I try to capture the sounds of Malta’s southwestern coast before it is raped by high-rise hotels, before the floodlights get riveted to its beaches. Is this effort all in vain? Perhaps. Well, at least my writing survives.”