An Interview with Alessio Zanelli

Alan Corkish interviews Alessio Zanelli . . . You can visit the Erbacce Poetry Journal here.
Alan: Hy Alessio and welcome to erbacce … I just typed into google the words ‘Alessio Zanelli poet’ and got swamped with hits, I gave up counting how many hits after I reached the 200 mark. Most of what I got is detail about your work, where you live in Italy, how English is your adopted literary tongue etc., but what erbacce readers really want to know is about you, as a human-being, as a political animal, as a man of ideas; tell me about the real Alessio Zanelli …

Alessio: The ‘real’ me is a simple man quite absorbed in his little world, but very attentive and sensitive to everything happening outside its limited boundaries. From some perspective, it would be wonderful to be able to live completely isolated, but it would also be utterly useless! The way one is affected by the world ‘outside’ is mirrored not only in how one acts, but also in what one writes. Therefore, although my writing is strongly symbolic and metaphoric, so much that it often seems completely abstract, deep down it always reflects the real world as I perceive it and my views on everything that meets my eye, my ear, my heart and my mind. Today most editors are desperately seeking ‘honest and concrete’ poetry, by such adjectives meaning poetry about real people, real places, real facts, but in so doing they forget that often reality can be better described and conveyed to readers by means of imagination and allegory, in other words, of apparent fiction. I rarely write ‘concrete’ (referred to subject matters and not to visual features of the lines on the page), or ‘barely factual’, or ‘minimalistic’ poetry, but be assured that everything I write is intimately linked to the real world in which I breathe and move. My poems are never the mere result of what in Italian is called a volo pindarico (a simple flight on the wings of fantasy). I spend my days doing what most people do: working or having fun, straining my body and mind or relaxing, loving and hating, etc., but I never miss a chance of observing what’s going on anywhere around me (be it either a step or a thousand miles away) and of thinking how to make a poem out of it, not even when at work or during my long and solitary runs in the countryside. So, I can’t reply to all the issues you touched in your question, you’d need to be more specific, but I certainly am an animal human (or a human animal?), and a ‘political’ subject in my own way.

Alan: Imagination and allegory equal ‘apparent fiction’? Is that right? I mean is that what you are saying because I’m not at all sure I agree. It’s the word ‘apparent’ that throws me a little I guess … is this the Zanelli’s mischievous sense of humour? Are you speaking with your tongue in your cheek?

Alessio: Alessio: No, no, no! (remember the song by Deep Purple?). Imagination and allegory (some call the mix of the two ‘imagery’) are not tools to invent stories or simply fantasize. Indeed, they’re powerful implements to describe, and sometimes interpret, the real world. Therefore, by ‘apparent’ I mean ‘seeming’ (and not ‘evident’ or ‘obvious’). To put it neatly and plainly, in my opinion good poetry should be about real events or feelings but leap out at the reader’s eye and mind as if it were a straight product of the poet’s fantasy. I hope this clarifies what I expounded before, and I’m sorry for the misunderstanding about the acceptation of ‘apparent’. That said, it should now be ‘apparent’ (here actually meaning ‘easily understood’) that I don’t like minimalist or bare poetry very much, except when the poet’s ability in employing and mastering the language is so great that he can picture anything he deals with by a few terse yet really powerful lines, or even words. Here’s my perfect example of such poetry (I translated it from the Italian original by Giuseppe Ungaretti):

We stand
as in autumn
on the trees
the leaves.

Unfortunately, the poets endowed with such a power are really few. Even more unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

Alan: Right! I see what you mean now. I too am impressed by people who can handle the short powerful poems well; good Haiku for example, but sadly that too is scarce as hen’s teeth. One thing that intrigues me: I am a huge fan of Joseph Conrad who, as you know, wrote in many other languages other than his native tongue. Is there a particular reason why you choose to write mainly in English?

Alessio: Well, it’s quite a long story to tell! I have never studied English at school, since the only foreign language I’ve ever studied is German. Anyway, when I was a youngster, like almost every teenager in the seventies, I was particularly fond of rock music, and the worldwide language of rock is English. It so happened I also used to be the singer in the local cover band, having to write the lyrics of original songs once in a while, when not aping the most famous British or American bands of the time. It all began there, since I soon fell in love with the language, so fascinating because of its sound, richness and malleability. Of course the leap from the lyrics of Smoke On The Water or Whole Lotta Love to the Proverbs Of Hell of Blake or the Sonnets of Shakespeare is a tremendous one, but things actually went like that! I began studying English as an autodidact and writing poems in that language in 1985, adding several journeys to the UK, the USA and Canada over the following years. I can’t say I master the language like a native, but English certainly is my second tongue and I use it whenever I can also as a spoken language. Today I own over 300 books of English poetry (of which I’ve read about 50%) and my personal library includes some 50 volumes on the English language: dictionaries, thesauruses, usage manuals and reference books of any kind, on style, punctuation, quotations, etc., as well as books on literature, poetry and poetics (any English Professor from Oxford or Cambridge would envy me such library). Furthermore, I try to read as many books of various genres as I can in English (often even translations from other languages, Italian included); also, my video library includes nearly 200 films, which I watch set-up in English of course. As to poetry, so far I’ve had over 200 works published in (usually small) literary magazines from 12 countries, mostly the UK and the USA. Ah, I hope you won’t take it amiss, but when writing I usually adopt the American spelling and usage.

Alan: Yes I had noticed the American spelling; but you are forgiven my son. I want to leave lots of room for your exceptional poetry but I personally am really curious as to how the poetry-scene fans-out in Italy! Liverpool is awash with poetry readings on any given night; what about where you are? And one presumes people read in Italian? Do you attend open-mike sessions and do you ‘perform’?

Alessio: The poetry scenario in Britain is much richer than in Italy, from whatever point of view you look at it. Whether you consider the number of literary magazines, or of poetry readings, or of whatever happenings related to poetry, there’s no contest! It may seem strange or even unbelievable, but yes, one of the countries of poetry and literature par excellence (mine) has quite less to offer to beginning or experienced poets than the most of other countries. There are poetry readings and competitions in Italy of course, but it’s nothing comparable to what happens in the UK (or the USA), as to both quantity and quality (as well as the number of people attending them!). Actually, I think that readings are a dimension of poetry fully to be discovered in Italy, but maybe first poetry itself should be rediscovered! So, I have attended a very few readings, either as a listener or a performer, and in most cases it’s been just on the occasion of the launch of my collections or of poetry competitions organized by foreign people who live in Italy (e. g. the beautiful Poetry On The Lake Festival, organized every autumn in an enchanting locality of Piedmont by my friend and fellow poet Gabriel Griffin).

Alan: Personally I feel performance-poetry will be the final nail in the coffin or poetry-as-art … but that’s me … I feel we’ve actually skirted around politics so one final question. Do you have any strong feelings about the current Gulf Wars? One way or another? And do you ever feel a need to express an ‘opinion’ in your poetry?

Alessio: I agree with you on performance-poetry only partly. It certainly is an important means to circulate poetry and allows poets to add a special dimension to their creative process, as they can interpret their own works and bring out what they consider most important: sound, rhythm, mood, ambience, emotion, you name it. At the same time, adhering to the classic conception of poetry, I think that the ‘intimist’ character of poetry, that private and silent relation between a poem on the page and each reader, is also of the utmost importance, so that written (thence silently read) poetry can well stand per se. Let me try to put it in simpler words: poetry readings and every other kind of performance-poetry are of great significance for the emotional involvement of the author, but not necessary, and should never add to nor subtract from the intrinsic value of a poem.

The Gulf Wars? Oh my God, I’ve changed my opinion on such dramatic events many times and it’s quite difficult to come up with something definitive. Anyway, here’s my point: the military invasion of Iraq had to be avoided, or at least carried out only after further negotiations, in case of a negative outcome, and only with the general approval of all the influential nations (those of NATO, plus Russia, China, Japan, etc.). Now that la frittata è fatta (havoc has been created), in all fairness I wouldn’t know what to suggest to fix the disastrous situation: the various ethnic and religious groups living in Iraq keep on affording indisputable proofs that they strongly hate each other, and that Saddam was the only bond keeping them together (i. e., keeping them from slaughtering each other). That said, I really don’t know what the consequence of the withdrawal of the international troops from Iraq could be, even if phased: would suicide bombings and killings de-escalate or would we witness an even fiercer rendering of accounts?

Social and political issues are present in my poetry, but only when spontaneously coming to the surface of my inspiration (I never force myself to treat such subject matters, but when it happens I really speak my mind!). Here’s an example of such poems (about the eternal fratricidal war between the Israelis and the Palestinians):

Thrice Holy Land

It’s on Time’s cover—again!
Allah’s bomb took twelve or so—
Starred tanks razed hovels to the ground.

Those bearing the Cross hold silent in between.

That way—men keep on going to the land
When on both sides there’d be need
For the land to go back to men.

The globe’s rulers attend.

It’s on TV right now—again!
This time the bomb took only ten—
Soon will endangered David take revenge.

first published in Poetry Monthly (UK)

Alessio Zanelli is an Italian poet who has long adopted English as his writing language and his work has appeared in over 100 literary magazines from 12 countries including, in the USA, Antietam Review, California Quarterly, Chiron Review, Concho River Review, The Iconoclast, Italian Americana, Main Street Rag, Poesia, Poesy and Potomac Review. He is the author of three collections, most recently Straight Astray, the poetry editor of Private Photo Review, an international magazine of b/w photography and short writings, and a featured poet in the 2006 edition of Poet’s Market. Alessio’s website can be found here:

Copyright© 2008, Alessio Zanelli. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

An Interview with Alessio Zanelli
Scroll to top