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Interview with Alfredo de Palchi
Intervista ad Alfredo de Palchi

Daniela Gioseffi
in: The Cortland Review, nr. 15

In his apartment in Union Square, New York City, Alfredo de Palchi led me past shelves of books, collected vases, and objects d'art to his small study where a beautiful cat lolled lazily across his desk in front of a charming picture of Luce, his daughter, prominently displayed. We settled into chairs, and I began by asking him to say something about his early life, his wartime experiences and how he began writing poetry.

AdP: I saw my first light around Verona, Italy, in the Venetian region. My hometown was, and still is, busy with people of peasant extraction and the narrow minded. Being a natural son, I had a mother with plenty of love but not much culture. But, instinctively, she gave me books to read, and she encouraged me in my pre-teens and early teens to pursue my passions, such as the violin and watercolors. Writing came later when I was challenged by an older, published poet, a fellow political prisoner. He encouraged me. He read some of the letters I was writing to a girl. He said, 'These are not letters, these are poetry. Why don't you put these in verse?' I said, 'Well, I don't know. I could try.' And that started it.

DG: Can you tell us how your experience as a political prisoner influenced your writing?

AdP: Those experiences are much too complicated to define. One needs to be a little knowledgeable about what was happening to Italy. There was a war and, at the same time, a civil war. Though allied with the Germans, Italy was divided. On September 8, 1943, the Italian government betrayed Germany, so a lot of Italian soldiers were made prisoners of war by the Germans.

DG: Because they went AWOL? They didn't want to fight?

AdP: Yes, so Italy went with the Americans and the Allies. Soon after, little battles started here and there. By 1945, at the end of the World War, Italy was in a full-fledged civil war. At the frontier, it was the Germans against the Allies. At the same time, it was Italians against Italians. Now, imagine an adolescent pushed here and there: I suffered cruelty from all sides. I felt only contempt for every side.

DG: How long were you in prison?

AdP: I passed six years in prison.

DG: Six years of your youth? From what age?

AdP: From almost 18 until I was 25, in the spring of 1951.

DG: How terrible to be imprisoned in the bloom of youth. Did you write during your imprisonment?

AdP: Let me explain this way. As I told you, this friend, this older poet told me what to do. I can say, yes, the past influenced my vision of life and poetry. It could be easy to say that poetry helped me to survive. It did not. I survived my physical nightmares from childhood and as a grown man because I was mentally strong, and I had contempt towards the 'so-called' enemy—inferior human beings. Try to understand: you were at war with the others, so you were obliged to go with each other, and I didn't want to go with anyone. I was young, not old enough to be a soldier. You are caught here and you are caught there. I saw a murder happen during the war. You can call it killing, you can call it murder, you can call it war. They asked me about it, and I explained as much as I could, but they didn't believe me; they wanted to know more. I said to them I didn't know more. How the hell could I know more? There were other people there who saw it. Why did they pick me? Anyway, that is the story. I offended the army with what I was saying. As a matter of fact, even when I came out of prison, since I didn't do military service, I couldn't leave Italy. They refused to give me a passport, so I complained. I went to a general and said, 'I don't want to do military service, I would rather go back to prison, to where I was. I don't care.'

DG: When did you start to write poetry?

AdP: First, as I have already said, I was challenged to write poetry in 1946. But I started seriously in 1947, at the age of 20. In the beginning I was not just compelled to write it. I became obsessed. The result was the poetry of The Scorpion's Dark Dance, poetry from 1947 to 1951 [published after more than 40 years from its inception]. This friend told me, 'Write.' So, I pick up and start to write, and as I said, The Scorpion's Dark Dance was the result.

DG: And did your very first writing come fresh out of your mind or had you been reading in prison?

AdP: Oh, yes, I read a lot in prison; there was a library there, but I read mostly books by French authors, in Italian, so I made culture from French literature [laughs]. It was unbelievable. That started it. I was even dreaming poetry, you know, writing in my dreams! Something! I had another collection which has been lost by a critic—a critic in 1951, who, as a matter of fact, before leaving for France said that he would like to have me to publish, this critic. Something happened to him; he moved, he lost his wife to another man, and he lost my manuscript, and it was the only copy I had! I remember one thing: stylistically it was different from The Scorpion's Dark Dance, because at that moment I was reading the Bible, so I was influenced not by religion, but by these waves of music—Bible verses. It was that kind of poetry—images.

DG: Your writing was influenced by the Bible?

AdP: I think so.... I read the Bible, yes, but I read it as literature. I'm not a religious person from the beginning.

DG: What's fascinating to me is that this poetry sprang out of you in this way, almost like a young Rimbaud.

AdP: If you want to say. Thank you very much to mention Rimbaud because, at that time, I was interested in this kind of poetry, of Rimbaud and somebody else—I don't remember the name—and Gerard de Nerval, and naturally, my beloved Francois Villon, who is 15th century.

DG: Villon was a major influence for you?

AdP: Well, I don't know if he was an influence. I can't say. For sure, he is one poet that I like.

DG: Well, Villon influenced Rimbaud, and this first book of yours, for me, is Rimbaud-esque.

AdP: Yes, it is something.

DG: Yes, you know, it is the rage of a young man who sees what a crazy world it is, and he's furious...

AdP: [laughs]

DG: ...because the world is insane.

AdP: But, you see, the Italians don't know this book.

DG: The Scorpion's Dark Dance?

AdP: They don't know this book. They will never publish it because I don't write like them, or they don't write like me, so we are completely different. At that time nobody was writing like that, nobody.

DG: Like the French symbolists? Nobody?

AdP: Nothing like that. I don't know if the French were writing that way. For sure, they were writing better than the Italians. And at that time I didn't appreciate very much Ungaretti or Montale. I started to appreciate them later. I appreciated other people before them.

DG: So would you say that those French symbolists are still your favorites over the Italians?

AdP: In a sense, yes.

DG: ...because there is this starkness to your poetry. It doesn't have the dense lines of a Montale; it doesn't have any of the religious intonations that Montale, sometimes... you know? So, it's still closer to the symbolists than to Montale.

AdP: But there is still some religious connotation in The Scorpion's Dark Dance because there are a couple of images that I have there that are scornful... eh..., how do you say it? Ironic. For example, I don't remember the poem in its entirety, but I remember I used 'The Word' from the Bible, meaning God, you know. And I said, in a sense, that I will continue His work—horrendous work—that I will continue to do the destruction that is going on, since I—not myself, but humanity—we are doing that.

DG: What is your philosophy of writing, then, besides the challenge?

AdP: Frankly, I don't have a philosophy. Well, I don't know to have a philosophy. In fact, I don't even care in philosophy; I never cared. If I have a philosophy unknown to me, then one feels it in my work if it is there. Otherwise, I don't care about the philosophy.

DG: So you told me something about your favorite poets, the European ones. Who were your favorite American poets? Or do you prefer to talk more about the European ones?

AdP: Let me start this way. I can mention some European ones: Francois Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire, a few more French poets, all from the 19th century. Among Italians, there is Dante; then I jump to the 20th century, mentioning Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale. There are maybe a couple more. I refuse to mention contemporary living poets. I mention only the dead ones: T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Laura Riding, and I wish to surprise you with the name of Stephen Crane.

DG: Stephen Crane? What is it about Crane?

AdP: I like his poetry. Short. Snap. As a matter of fact, I translated some poems of his. They are short poems; maybe they will reappear in some magazine. Maybe.

DG: That's very interesting. Not many people speak of Crane.

AdP: Maybe, maybe. I must shock somebody with a name that very few people expect.

DG: Yes, I'm very well aware of him because he's one of the country's early poets and one of New Jersey's first poets. Who do you think has been the greatest influence on your own writing?

AdP: Again, I don't know precisely. If I say one or two names, maybe because I used some similar words—not images—I could be thought as a follower. Consciously I follow nobody. I remain, for good or bad, myself: Alfredo de Palchi.

DG: I’d like to ask you to say something about your association with Chelsea and how and why it became early noted for its internationalism and love of translations.

AdP: I must say that Sonia Raiziss and I did not found Chelsea. It was put together in 1958. We both came in as editors in 1960. Soon after, the magazine was edited all by Sonia and myself, but the real editor was Sonia until her death in 1994. The story of how and why Chelsea was founded is too long. It was founded during a dinner at a Greek restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

DG: So it is, in fact, named after the neighborhood.

AdP: Yes, yes.

DG: Now what about the international aspect of it? Was that something that you and Sonia had a particular interest in?

AdP: No, I started at the beginning with the first, second issue, something like that. There was, for example, Samuel Beckett, Raja Rao, an Indian writer, and others I can't remember.

DG: What is your role with Chelsea magazine today?

AdP: For obvious reasons, I never wanted to be the editor. Frankly, I don't do much now; I am just watching the magazine sailing along with minimal problems possible. Certainly, I can suggest to dismiss somebody if I want, so I still have some power.

DG: But you're basically there for a kind of quality control, helping the magazine survive.

AdP: Yes; that's right.

DG: How did you come to be a champion of poetry and of Italian poetry in America?

AdP: Well, I started soon after I came to New York City, on October 12, 1956. For sure, I started, with the very important help of Sonia Raiziss, to publish in the Atlantic Monthly, in 1958, some Italian poets totally unknown here, including Eugenio Montale, and in Poetry magazine. That's way back.

DG: You were the first one to translate Montale into English?

AdP: Yes, in the Atlantic Monthly and Poetry.

DG: And who were the other Italians that you translated?

AdP: There was Vincenzo Cardarelli, Leonardo Sinisgalli, and, yes, another one, a poet that was discovered by Montale: Lucio Piccolo, who was a cousin of the prince of Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.

DG: There is such an ignorance of the Italian language here in America.

AdP: Exactly. That is the reason. And still there is unknown Italian literature in America, at least the good ones.

DG: And of course everyone agrees that Italian is a musical language, so it's ironic that Americans don't have more knowledge of this very musical language and its poetry, that people who want to make musical poetry have no idea of the musicality of the language.

AdP: There is musicality in Italian, certainly, yes, but that doesn't mean that because there is musicality, there is poetry.

DG: Even Mozart chose to write his operas in Italian. And yet there is an objective sense about musicality in Italian by all people, so it would be useful to the American ear to know more Italian.

AdP: Certainly, that too. But my purpose is to push Italian literature, mostly poetry, anyway, here in America, naturally choosing good writers, good poets from the 20th century. We had very good poets. Today, I don't know. We will go on and see.

DG: As a trustee of the Sonia Raiziss Giop Charitable Foundation for Poetry, what would you say is the vision of this trust, or at least your vision and what your part has to do with your championing of Italian writing and Italian language poetry?

AdP: I will speak briefly on that. Until now, it has supported a few magazines here and in Italy, some very small and not-for-profit publishers, literary prizes here and in Italy, literary societies, cats and dogs, etc....

DG: Despite the fact that one might see some cynicism in your poetry, I know you have a great feeling for children and animals, so the charitable foundation does other things besides cultural things.

AdP: Oh, yes. Yes.

DG: Tell me about the prizes you have founded in particular.

AdP: One is a prize that the Academy of American Poets is giving: the Raiziss/de Palchi prize. [The Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Award] In one year, it is given for a book [a translation], already published, of an Italian poet. The book doesn't necessarily have to be a recent one; it can be years old, but it is established that it is a good book. That one is for $5,000. There is also the fellowship, given in the next year: $20,000 for a person who says, 'I would like to translate so-and-so' [enabling an American translator 'to travel, study and otherwise advance a significant work in progress']. We choose the best.

DG: From sample translations or completed work?

AdP: From samples. And this year, for example, the $20,000 was won by Emanuel di Pasquale for translations of Silvio Ramat. The book will be published by the not-for-profit Bordighera, Inc.

DG: And the prizes you founded in Italy?

AdP: Well, in America there is also the Bordighera Prize that you know about, huh? That is slightly different. It's a prize for translations from English into Italian by authors of Italian origin or name, Americans with a name of Italian origin and translated into Italian. That is interesting. Maybe, if we are lucky, we continue.

In Italy, I subsidize the established "Premio de Poesia della città di San Vito Al Tagliamento." But three years ago I founded, together with an organizer, the "Premio de Palchi/Raiziss" for young people from 18 to 29 years old, and that is a prize given every year.

DG: A book publication prize for young people?

AdP: No, we give around $3,000 for the first winner, and a little less to each, the second and third. The last two years, they received—I don't do anything on this prize—at least 1000 poems, from which they chose twenty of the best—what they considered the best—and they made a booklet in Italian. It is nice. The young people love to see their poetry published. It's very encouraging for them.

DG: Do you think that poetry is more a part of the Italian diet, of Italian life, than in America?

AdP: I don't know that. I can’t say; I don't live there. I know that millions of Italians write, but nobody reads. Everybody wants to write, but nobody reads. So the books there remain unsold, as usual. I think it's worse there.

DG: Worse than in America?

AdP: Yes, worse than America because, there, everybody wants to publish, but nobody wants to buy. They spend maybe $15, $20 for, what is it, for a CD, for music that I call 'noisy noise,' but they never spend $15, $20 for a book.

DG: Do you think it's very Americanized now, the Italian culture with the rock and roll music, with even less reading than America?

AdP: You go in Italy, okay? You don't hear them speaking English; they are speaking Italian, but it seems to be America.

DG: Well, it’s true, American culture is colonizing the world, the same way it is happening in Tokyo...

AdP: Everywhere! Everywhere!

DG: That music, of course, and Hollywood, and films in particular.... At least the Italians seem to have made more of an art of the film early on. So you would say that it's really an American culture wherever you go today?

AdP: Yes, it's an American pop culture. Yes.

DG: What have been the most satisfying moments and accomplishments of your career in literature?

AdP: It should be the publication of each book. Instead, my most satisfaction is when I have accomplished a manuscript or a single poem. I know I have written something good when I feel very, very sexy. When I am writing and I know it is something good, I get hot. Unbelievable! Unbelievable! Even if it has nothing to do with erotic poetry.

DG: I understand what you mean, you get excited.

AdP: Excited, yes.

DG: ...and the blood flows, and you feel alive. I understand. So which of your books excites you the most? Do you have a favorite?

AdP: Oh, I like all four! [laughing] I don't know because each book is different. Like it or dislike it, what it is, but each book is different. They can't accuse me to write the same book over.

DG: No, no, and actually, if we were to put the books in their proper chronological order as written, ...

AdP: The Scorpion's Dark Dance should be the first. Then Sessions with my Analyst. But do you see, the poems from this book—the last one, and also from the previous one— were written more or less also when I wrote Sessions with my Analyst, but were a different style. Do you see the difference?

DG: Yes, but this latest book came before the prior one in writing, chronologically, that is. The Addictive Aversions was written before Anonymous Constellation.

AdP: Not all, not all. In between, they are mingled, except I chose the poems that they go from. One book goes with another book.

DG: So, how long ago did you write the last published poem?

AdP: "Mutations," in 13 parts, was in '87. That is the last one published.

DG: We have quite a large subculture of poets here and magazines and activities and readings. Is there an equivalent amount of those per population in Italy?

AdP: There are magazines in Italy, literary magazines, but they function in a different way. Here, as you know, anybody can send the editors poems or articles and so forth, and be rejected or accepted; then after, send to another magazine and be accepted there; and maybe come back later, after 3, 4, 5, 6 months, come back again because they know how the system works. In Italy it is not like that. There, a bunch of people get together, found a magazine, and they publish themselves. They discuss about themselves: 'Did you see my beautiful comma in the last article, how beautiful it was?' Now, I am trying to make fun about it, but that is the way in Italy. That is why it is difficult to publish in magazines in Italy.

DG: Because it's much more nepotistic?

AdP: Yes, between themselves, between 4, 5, 6 people together.

DG: So there's not a sense of democracy?

AdP: No.

DG: Of course, there's a great deal of nepotism here as well, but you feel that there's more openness for something new.

AdP: Yes, yes. Here, most magazines are open. Maybe you don't succeed to appear, but they are open; you can send the poems. In Italy, you can't even send.

DG: Doesn't it end up being a bunch of old farts, then?

AdP: Yes, yes. But at least, sometimes, somebody succeeds, too. For example, I see people that submit to Chelsea. They send in material, and they say, 'I've published here and here,' big names, big magazines, and I say to myself, 'How is this possible that these people have been published in these magazines when I am rejecting them?'

DG: It must have to do also with knowing people. There, probably, I'm sure, just as here, they let a few in, people they get to know.

AdP: Maybe... maybe. I think it is also that.

DG: Social contact plays a huge part in American poetry. Maybe you don't feel that in your magazine Chelsea?

AdP: No, no...

DG: But social contact is very powerful in America, as to who gets published, that is.

AdP: You know, I'm sure that editors know who I am, that I am with Chelsea. I'm talking about editors, now. They send to Chelsea. Sometimes I'll accept them; sometimes I'll reject them. What I do to him, he does to me, so perhaps it is this same editor, and when I send him my poems, he rejects them without one word, a rejection slip.

DG: Do you think that's because you don't belong to a 'school' of Italian poetry today? What are the major movements in Italian poetry?

AdP: Well, presently, there is no school or movement in Italy. Most of the so-called poets write as if they were just blowing wind: cascades of words, no meaning, no life. Maybe that is a movement. I'm being pretty nasty, but I dare to say the real poetry in Italian is created here, in America.

DG: So there is a very expressionistic movement in Italian poetry now?

AdP: [silence...] ...it is only that there is no experience in what they write. No life experience. They think they are talking about life, but it's all in their heads, that's all.

DG: So it's very solipsistic—machinations of the brain.

AdP: Yes, cerebral.

DG: Would you say it's very similar to the poetry of the Ashbery school, the Jorie Graham school of writing?

AdP: Let me answer in this way about these people. The poetry in America, generally speaking, is powerful, except what comes out of all the writing programs, from all the followers, imitators of the few powerful ones. So that's my answer to that.

DG: Yes, but you don't want to mention the names of any contemporary American poets?

AdP: No, I don't. I don't want them to come after me. [laughs] I prefer the Italians come after me.

DG: [laughing] That's because there's a big sea between you!

AdP: Also because I speak badly. I am not a very good speaker, but I read. And I understand what I am reading, and I can judge a poem. Yes, most of America's poets imitate each other. I told the people of the Academy of American Poets once, I said, 'You know, all the poets that you present or are now reading, for me, all sound the same.' You can pick one name, and that covers them all. They all sound the same.

DG: Where would you prefer to live and write if you could choose?

AdP: Let me go back, then. I didn't produce very much work. I write when I feel that it's the right moment, beginning with an image or thought, while riding a train, while walking, or while I am in my studio. To finish—if it were possible—a poem, I take my time. I don't rush. This is the reason why I only produced four books. But each one is different from the other. I can say I didn't repeat or copy myself while I was in Italy, in France, in Spain, or the United States, where I reside. I would like to live everywhere.

DG: [laughing] That's the best place to live. Well, I think we have finished all of the questions. Is there anything you would like to add?

AdP: No, at this moment, it doesn't occur to me to add anything. I would like to thank you first—many thanks to you, Ms. Daniela Gioseffi—and then The Cortland Review for having me as a guest.


Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award-winning author of twelve books. She has edited two prize-winning compendiums of world literature and reviewed poetry for many prominent publications, including American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, and Independent Publisher. Gioseffi edits Skylands Writers & Artists Association, Inc. and Wise Women's Web, which was nominated for "Best of the Web," 1998. Her latest book of poetry, Going On: Poems (Via Folios, 23), was published in May, 2000.

For more Alfredo de Palchi, read Daniela Gioseffi's book review of Addictive Aversions in Issue Eight.

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