(This is an excerpted, adapted, and expanded version of an oral interview broadcast on Trafika Europe, Europe’s literary radio station, on 27 February 2022. The link to the radio interview is given below.)
By John Taylor*
John Taylor: A little girl would chase butterflies through an alfalfa field, with her hands open like a net in the air or she would catch them by their wings when they stopped on flowers. Held between the thumb and forefinger, they were like colored sugar coatings that she might have eaten. But it was enough for her to talk to them, barely moving her lips or murmuring in her mind, until the butterflies, resting on her shoulder, no longer fluttered off: they had become attached to her. And yet not long afterwards, they would be inert, enfeebled leaves. After playing some games in which they responded, as if tame or drowsy, to all her desires, the little girl understood that the time had come to bury them in a place, beneath a staircase, where, inside a corolla of white pebbles, crisscrossed twigs, and flaccid flowers, she had created a small cemetery. . .
Buona sera, cara Franca Mancinelli!
Franca Mancinelli: Buona sera, caro John! Good evening to all of you who are listening to us on Trafika Europe Radio.
J. T.: What you listeners have just heard is an excerpt from her story “The Butterfly Cemetery.” It is the title story of her new book, The Butterfly Cemetery, a volume of prose writings published by The Bitter Oleander Press. I am delighted to introduce you to this Italian poet, who is considered to be one of the most original, intense, and deep-probing poetic voices to have emerged in Italy during the past fifteen years. Some of you may already know her verse poetry and poetic prose, since nearly all her writing is available in English. I have had the deep and intellectually stimulating pleasure of translating her work, which includes her prose poems, collected in The Little Book of Passage (2018) and her verse poetry, gathered in At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (2019). Both translations have been issued by The Bitter Oleander Press. And soon will arrive her new collection of verse poetry and poetic prose, All the Eyes that I Have Opened, a book that will be published in English by Black Square Editions. Titled Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto in Italian (and published by Marcos y Marcos in 2020), this book was awarded the Europa in Versi Prize in 2021. Simply stated, Franca Mancinelli is one of the most exciting literary discoveries that I have made in some forty years of writing about and translating European literature.
Franca, let’s begin by talking about The Butterfly Cemetery. The title story, which is also the opening narrative in the book, is highly significant in that it reveals one of the key personal sources of your writing and one of its salient themes: your discovery, as a child, of the phenomenon of death, your subsequent search for a deep and genuine way to consider death, to set death in perspective with respect to your life and to any human life. In brief, a “new possibility of vision,” as you often put it in regard to your attempt, through writing, to delve into a negative, painful or disturbing experience and draw from it a different way of looking at life, a means of seeing even more distinctly what has been “given” to you by the wound, the loss, the abandonment, or, in this case, the death of butterflies. This autobiographical story is set during your childhood. You recall how you would play, as a little girl, with butterflies.
F. M.: Yes, The Butterfly Cemetery, the title of this book, refers to a childhood game. Turning back to this image after so many years, I realized that it also comprised what the experience of writing represents for me. By writing we hunt for beauty, we try to capture it, to hold it firmly, forever, in our hands. But in this desire of ours, we do not take into account that we are taking away the possibility of flying, of living, from the butterflies. The beauty that we manage to bring to a halt on the page is actually dead: we are burying it, with the same innocence and cruelty that children have when they play their games. Is it possible to write while letting beauty fly freely? For the time being, my way of looking makes me acknowledge a book as a butterfly cemetery, a place where, with all our love and care, we find ourselves burying what has been dearest to our heart, what has illuminated and guided our gaze. The dream we then have is that the beauty, from this burial, can somehow have another life in the reader's gaze. It is something like a faith.
J. T.: In your personal essay “A Book of Poetry: A Living Structure,” which is also comprised in The Butterfly Cemetery, you similarly write: “For me, a book of poetry is a lighting point, a possibility of vision: a brightness that reaches zones which, just beforehand, were inaccessible, having caved in under the accumulation of time and its happenstances. I write when something from the darkness beckons to be watched.” Franca, the dichotomy of darkness and light or “gleams,” as you have sometimes precisely put it, is another recurrent theme of your writing.
F. M.: It's true that the dynamics of darkness and light are a central concern for me, right from my first book, Mala Kruna (2007), which you translated in At an Hour’s Sleep from Here. This is probably because I still have to learn something important about the relationship between light and darkness. When I’m in the dark, I keep falling and getting hurt. Then comes the writing, like another gaze, like a celestial mother: a force greater than me reaches me, reconnects my fragments, embraces me entirely, just as I am; it teaches me to look into the darkness, to recognize the trace of a light that is traveling; this force that comes from writing guides me back to walking within life.
J. T.: When speaking about writing and books, you often make analogies with light and darkness.
F. M.: This is true. For me, a book is “lighting point,” the space of our existence. It contains messages that have reached us through the matter of language, often unconsciously. When writing, we are traversed by a light that we do not see in the present: it is a light that goes through our darkness and becomes visible only after a certain amount of time, when the book is printed or, sometimes even later, through a reader’s eyes in which has lit up, as if by miracle, a glimmer that had continued to remain in shadow. It is surprising how much our eyes can remain tenaciously closed, for decades, to messages that we keep forgetting, or diverting, as if they had been sent to the wrong address, while we are elsewhere, on the move, ever elsewhere. I have had the immense fortune of encountering your gaze, John, which has made me understand that translating is the highest act of love and care that can be carried out in regard to a literary text. Much more than critics, who often do nothing but recognize something that agrees with their own framework, or that allows them to put forward their own discourse, the translator makes a genuine journey through the matter of the language, sinking down through its layers, meeting up with silence, the impossibilities of words, the losses and transformations of meaning, until a way can be found that leads back to his or her land. Language is, in fact, like land, like ground; and it is inside language that poetry lives. But language is also, fundamentally, landscape.
J. T.: Landscape is in fact an essential element in several texts included in The Butterfly Cemetery. Reviewing At an Hour’s Sleep from Here in Modern Poetry in Translation, the British poet Caroline Maldonado pointed out that you had “absorbed and internalized [your] environment to express [your] deepest and most complex feelings.” Maldonado added that “Central Italy is earthquake country and the fault-line metaphor is central to [your] work, even at the level of [your] language itself” which [. . .], as you say in an interview, “‘can crumble like chalky stone and tufo without warning, to be shored up by [your] metre as by the fine metal netting used to contain falling rocks.’” Let me ask you this: Are such intimately known landscapes such as you evoke in, for example, your prose piece “Inside a Horizon of Hills,” not to mention many of your poems and prose poems, actually “inner landscapes”? In that prose piece, you define a specific countryside that lies a few kilometers from the Adriatic coast, a plain from which the two lines of hills that delimit the Metauro Valley can be distinguished. “My whole childhood was attracted to this unmarked limit between the plain and the hills,” you explain. “My imagination gravitated around this point where two worlds joined.”
F. M.: It's true: those hills belong to a landscape that I feel inscribed in my soul. The hills of The Marches, of the area in which I live, are so gentle that they make one think of the waves that remain visible on sandy sea bottoms. The hills are, in fact, a prehistoric seabed. I grew up looking at a line of hills that seemed to begin just beyond my grandfather's field. My horizon is a line of hills. Every time I look at it, I feel rekindling inside me that ancient wonder I experienced as a child: the plain and, suddenly, the land that rises, creating another world. Even now, when I walk in those hills, I feel something similar to a joyful air along with the protection emanating from that place, from the simple fact of my being there. I believe that we humans, not unlike trees, feed on the place in which we live, through the roots we have in the earth, and those we have in the sky—as is recalled by the ancient image of the overturned tree, to which, as you know, I'm attached.
J. T.: Indeed, you use this image of an overturned tree as one of the two epigraphs in The Little Book of Passage. You cite the French philosopher Simone Weil’s words: “To tell the truth, trees are rooted in the sky.”
F. M.: Yes, how much effort I have made, how many difficulties I have had in recognizing my roots in the earth . . . in belonging to a place, to a house, to a body. Simone Weil’s sentence came as an answer to this question that continued to haunt my life. Now I know that I can sink my roots in the earth only if I have a space in the sky, where I can open my other roots. We do not live only in places that can be recognized on the geographical map, but often in places that have been created through our emotions: sequences, images that have belonged to our life or that we carry within us, as a legacy. I also really like to live, whenever I can, in a threshold space into which the lives of other human beings and also of other life forms enter. A space that is shaped like a blank page.
J. T.: “. . . how many [animals] / would rather not be us, / not be ensnared / between our human contours” is a remark found in one of your best-known poems, “A Spoon in Sleep.” Borders and limits recur as themes in your writing. In The Butterfly Cemetery, the limit can be something that impedes a human being from reaching his or her innermost reality, as you explain in your text “An Act of Inner Self-Surgery.” Language also forms a “limit,” as you note in your personal essay “The Invisible as the Facing Page.” “Writing is a defeat,” you observe, “the acknowledgment of a limit, an impossibility. Language cannot fully restore to us our experience of reality: its charge of beauty will always be limited by the words that can barely reflect it.” Let me ask you a question that is at once theoretical and personal. Once one crosses the delimitation, in whatever form it might have taken on, where does one arrive, or, at least, where does one hope to arrive? Is it perhaps a kind of “origin” or “source” that you are seeking? An invisible origin or source which you cannot see but which you sense must be there?
F. M.: Yes, I think that I indeed write in an—impossible—attempt to get beyond this limit, which exists both in the very nature of language and in our being. I am reminded of the ancient metaphor of writing as weaving: by writing we try to weave everything together, to join ourselves back up into the unity of the cosmos. There is nothing new in all this. I mean that we are not actually creating anything; we are trying to recognize the texture of creation and to make it visible, to make it shine. It is rather similar to a game that we play as children, such as joining up dots with a line so that a figure emerges. Everything is already there in the reality facing us; we only have to try to have eyes capable of recognizing, and the possibility of carrying out that creative act which is poiein, an act of making which enters living reality, which demands our presence, in every moment, in order to be.
J. T.: You often mention this notion of poiein, this creative act that involves “making”. Our English-language readers are probably already thinking of Ezra Pound’s famous concept of “Make it new,” which he actually borrowed from Chinese Neo-Confucian sources probably going back to the twelfth century. But if Pound’s slogan stresses craftsmanship—the “making”—your understanding of the Greek notion of poiein is very different. Before the “making” comes listening, attentiveness, an openness to that which seems to be “outside” the self, a receptivity to voices or words that do not necessarily come from knowledge or literary intentions. Significantly, when you begin a poem, the first letter is not capitalized. In your essay “Poetry, Mother Tongue,” which is also included in The Butterfly Cemetery, you notably write: “I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer in this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.”
F. M.: Yes, this is something I’ve felt, beginning with my first book. Starting a poem with a capital letter seemed to be an act of pride and, at the same time, like building a wall. Instead, I prefer that the beginning of a poem remains open because it does not belong to me. After this, I respect standard punctuation: I use a capital letter after any period. But in the beginning, I like to honor the gift that I’m receiving. I am welcoming a voice that has reached me. I try to care for it on the page, in this language which has come to me as an inheritance from my ancestors, and which is still alive thanks to the energy of the millions of lips that have continued to pronounce it, to acknowledge its meanings. Thanks to my reading of Pavel Florensky, and in particular to his fundamental little book called The Magic Value of the Word, I have developed this way of looking.
J. T.: Indeed, the writings of the Russian thinker Pavel Florensky, who was an Orthodox theologian, a mathematician, a physicist and much else, have marked you. There are also aspects of your thought that can be called “instinctive.”
F. M.: Yes, the idea of language as a “mother dough” was already in me, instinctively. I thus gave this title to my second book, thinking of natural yeast, which resembles the matter of poetic language. It is a very high-density substance, a generating ingredient, which can give life to many things but at the same time is very fragile: if it is not welcomed in by one who nourishes and cares for it, it dies. I cook only basic meals and, alas, I would not be able to care for a “mother dough”. . . But I like to think of this yeast which can live for generations and which, by tradition, is not bought but is received as a gift and is, in turn, given as a gift. Poetry is also a gift, and poetry, like a “mother dough,” asks those who receive it to do a job, a creative act of making which is, in turn, a poiein— poetry calls upon everyone to shape and knead the dough, with their own hands, to make their own bread, their own meaning, with their own experience and emotions.
J. T.: What you have just said shows how and why you have by no means restricted your writing to the self.
F. M: Writing gives me this marvelous opportunity of living beyond myself, on a threshold where I stop being myself and meet up with other living forms. It is a way of existing that is not allowed in everyday life, except at the cost of great— even fatal—dangers. This is why, when writing, one can live at times within the perception of something similar to a recovery, to a reparation: it is as if language, our mother tongue, gives back to us a form of presence that belongs to us much more than that to which we are constrained to by the world: a presence closer to the origin, to the source of all things. Inside the creative matter of language, we can again live through the primordial experiences, the childhood of humanity: speaking through silence, stammering and interrupting ourselves, shattering thought, trying to find the names of things. Staring into their eyes, awakening them as if from a long sleep.
J. T.: In another personal essay comprised in The Butterfly Cemetery, you evoke your hometown of Fano and the statue of a woman—Fortuna—who stands in the central square. “Around her extends a town,” you write, “that I could recognize and call with only two single syllables, almost two musical notes or two opposing answers: fa no [do not]. The place name denotes unrest, uncertainty—like something which, once pronounced, would like to be called back into the darkness beyond the throat. It is in this language that I speak, the language that I have been taught by an inland rippled by the Adriatic.” In the same prose piece, you depict yourself as being “made of the almost never clear water of this mild, half-enclosed sea, which becomes furious every so often in winter with the shores that have constricted it.” You often make such analogies or, even more so, appeal to an imagery of metamorphosis between human forms and landscape features, natural elements, or the attributes of animals.
F. M: Yes, it is for me a form of salvation and at the same time of reparation. It is like taking a deep breath, completely filling my lungs, after my diaphragm has long remained compressed. This is what I feel every time my human contours are again crossed by other forms of life, by the swarms of presences that are next to us, suspended, that are waiting to be or that have already been. In Hinduism, all this is acknowledged and made fully visible. I am thinking of the images of their deities, who are often both man and woman, both animal and human being. They have several arms and hands that hold different objects. Behind the act that we are making, they also recognize what we have not done, what we have desired, what moves us, what we fear. It is all there, near us, around us, suspended. Quantum physics says something similar. I think that I love to write precisely out of nostalgia for this ancient possibility of being in the world that belonged to us, before monotheistic religions and positivist science. Basically, it is nothing more than an enhanced exercise of perception: the possibility of seeing inside ourselves not only the human form that has apparently developed, but also the tree and the animal that we have been—its flapping fins, its wings.
J. T.: The Butterfly Cemetery has three sections. The book is divided, twice, by a blank page that shows only an ancient symbol of a butterfly. This was your idea when we were putting the book together, even as you used a spiral symbol, on a blank page, to divide the sections of All the Eyes that I Have Opened. What do these blank pages, with their symbols, mean?
F. M.: The blank pages give a rhythm to my books. They mark the rhythm of vision and breathing. As in any journey, we need a place to halt, to let what has entered our gaze, our listening, settle in. In this blank space, the life of anyone passing through the pages has the possibility of encountering the life that I have tried to translate into words. To me, a book without blank pages seems a deaf monologue, a house built for nobody: dark and without windows. Beginning with Mother Dough (2013), my second book, which you also translated in At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, I started inserting blank pages between written pages. Without the blankness, the meaning would not rise like dough. For publishers, these blank pages often cause worries: will readers perhaps take them for a printing mistake? Because of this, thanks to advice given to me by the poet Fabio Pusterla, I placed a spiral on each of the blank pages that give rhythm to my new book, All the Eyes that I Have Opened. This spiral is a prehistoric symbol that appears on our first stone pages, and it refers to that movement which connects a “beginning” and an “end”, and an “end” and a “beginning” — as in these two lines, which I love, from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”: “In my beginning is my end,” and “In my end is my beginning.” This “beginning-end” and “end-beginning” (as I call them) are at the heart of All the Eyes that I Have Opened, and also express my vision of poetry.
J. T.: The spiral symbol on the blank pages, your implicit and explicit use of this “beginning-end” and “end-beginning”. . . Your poetics are based on a cyclical view of being.
F. M.: In fact, it ultimately seems to me that the greatest teaching that poetry gives us is this process of returning to a cyclical time, of transformation, in which every loss, every death, is nothing more than a movement towards life. A poem indeed lives in this polarity, in this electric current that is created between beginning and end, birth and death. With every end and beginning of a line of verse, each time that we end a line and go down to the next line, poetry is teaching us something that belongs to the life of nature, of the cosmos, and that we often forget.
J. T.: Let’s explain how the book came about.
F. M.: The Butterfly Cemetery is a composite book, which collects more than ten years of writing. It is an unexpected book, which took shape all of a sudden, thanks to this long time period. The same thing happened to me as a child when I would play with butterflies: I would make a tomb of white stones for one butterfly, then another tomb. . . and suddenly I realized that I had put together a small cemetery. It is a special book because it was born first in English. It was born from the strength that your eyes gave me, John, which guided me to collect and find an order for these prose texts written on different occasions and in different forms, some of them autobiographical narratives and others reflections on writing. This is how, like good busy beavers at work, we have arranged the branches of this dam of ours. Blank pages have also returned to the structure of this book. The book would have been too asphyxiated if we had divided it into sections with titles. A blank page provides an opening, it offers the possibility of welcoming something unexpected, which is passing through. In this case, a butterfly.
J. T.: A butterfly indeed flies in our book.
F. M.: Yes, we decided to revive an ancient Greek symbol of the butterfly, slightly modifying it so that it would suggest flight. This last trick was an intuition of our very astute editor and poet, Paul B. Roth. Otherwise, the stylized butterfly might have been confused with a cross. Instead, our butterfly is alive, it is flying through the air, on the blank page . . . before being captured, entering the piece of writing, entering the cemetery.
J. T.: It is as if an element of nature participated in the writing of a text, a book. . .
F. M.: Yes, this is what I hoped for, at the end of The Little Book of Passage: to let Nature speak directly, to let Nature have the last word.
J. T.: In that beautiful final prose poem of the book, you write: “You’re tired. You're making the buds break out. The bark is splitting apart, no longer resisting. With closed eyes, you keep fighting. The earth is a rock, crumbling into tiny pieces of gravel. It is a wall and a door. Keep sleeping. The leaves are speaking to each other like brothers. From the heart to the crown of the tree, the leaves are thinking up a sentence for you.”
F. M.: I can add that Maria Lai, a great Sardinian artist, explains in an interview that while she was setting up one of her outdoor installations, the wind suddenly disrupted the order of her pieces. And she understood that the order had to be what the wind had decided. Like her, I also believe that art cannot be based on closed forms that prevent primal forces from entering them.
J. T.: Another artist, Kiki Smith, is also very important to you. She generously let us use her tapestry “Congregation” to grace the cover of The Butterfly Cemetery. There is a passage in your personal essay, “An Act of Inner Self-Surgery,” in which you detail various drawings by Kiki Smith and, in particular, “Congregation”. You show how they participate in your search for the “force of transformation” that can come from a painful experience, for the “possibility of vision” that can result from reworking, through art or writing, such experiences. Let’s also recall, as you have written elsewhere, that our English verb “to congregate” can indicate a group of animals that have come together as well as a religious assembly, a group of people who have congregated for a ritual. Kiki Smith indeed explores this deep connection between religiosity and nature. Not unrelated to this is your scrutiny of a human being’s relation to the cosmos, to the universe. You once showed me this line from the Bhagavad Gita, and it in fact appears in your (uncollected) prose text “Like a Pearl Necklace: For Sabrina Messaqui,” which evokes the latter woman’s artwork: “I go through this whole universe as does a thread its pearl necklace. In a poem from “Jungle,” the first sequence of All the Eyes that I Have Opened, you transform this line by evoking “le morti” (deaths) and by using “we” instead of “I”:
deaths are time’s beads
we go through them like a string.
sono le perle del tempo, le morti
le attraversiamo come un filo.
F. M.: This is true. There is certainly the memory of that passage from the Bhagavad Gita in those lines. And the idea that the deaths we go through in our existence, or in several existences, are nothing more than openings or passageways that make a transformation possible and, even if we do not realize it, have a beauty in themselves, although this beauty is perhaps unbearable or indecipherable in the eyes of the living. On one of my winter walks along the seashore, I found between the shells and branches swept up by the waves, a large, soft, spherical creature with reflections ranging from blue to purple. I stayed there for long minutes, staring at it. It was a dead jellyfish. If I had come across it alive, in the sea, it would have brought my strokes to a halt with a jolt of pain and fear. Now, however, I could stay and contemplate the jellyfish in all its mysterious beauty. I believe that when we are immersed in existence, something similar happens to us as when we are in water: unexpected pain paralyzes us, undermines the full confidence that we had, the strokes we have made up to then and the ones we thought we would continue to make. Yet what touched us with its thin tentacles is precisely this beauty, not yet visible to our eyes.
Link to Trafika Europe Radio broadcast with Franca Mancinelli (https://omny.fm/shows/trafika-europe-radio/franca-mancinelli-the-butterfly-cemetery?in_playlist=trafika-europe-radio!bowery-poetry-speaks).
Link to the website of The Bitter Oleander Press (https://www.bitteroleander.com/).
Franca Mancinelli was born in 1981 in Fano, Italy, where she currently lives. Known for her acutely crafted and existentially incisive poems and poetic prose, she is considered to be one of the most original poets to have emerged in Italy during the past fifteen years. In English, her prose poems are available in The Little Book of Passage (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018), her verse poetry in At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2019), and her autobiographical narratives and personal essays in The Butterfly Cemetery (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2022), all three books translated by John Taylor. In 2020, Marcos y Marcos published a new collection of her poems and poetic prose texts, Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (All the Eyes that I Have Opened), which was awarded the Europa in Versi Prize. Taylor and Mancinelli also carry on a dialogue about literary, philosophical, and spiritual issues: the first part was published in the special feature, on her writing, in the Autumn 2019 issue of The Bitter Oleander; a second part appeared online in Hopscotch Translation (July 2021). Mancinelli is frequently invited to read from her work at European literary festivals, has been selected for the ongoing European poetry project “Versopolis,” and participated in the European program “Refest: Images and Words on Refugee Routes” in February 2018. From this latter experience was born her Taccuino croato (Croatian Notebook), now published in Come tradurre la neve (How to Translate the Snow, AnimaMundi, 2019).
* John Taylor is an American writer and translator who lives in France. He has translated several French, Italian, and Greek poets, including most recently two books by Philippe Jaccottet: Patches of Sunlight, Or of Shadow (Seagull Books) and Ponge, Pastures, Prairies (Black Square Editions). His recent collections of poetry include the Dark Brightness (Xenos Books), Grassy Stairways (The MadHat Press), Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (Bitter Oleander Press), and a “double book” co-authored with the Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges (The Fortnightly Review Press). His first two books, The Presence of Things Past (1992) and Mysteries of the Body and the Mind (1998), were republished in 2020 by Red Hen Press.