Interview with Alfredo de Palchi
Intervista ad Alfredo de Palchi
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
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
AdP: From almost 18 until I was 25, in the spring of
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
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
DG: Your writing was influenced by
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
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...
DG: ...because the world is insane.
AdP: But, you see, the Italians don't know this book.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, ...
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
was written before
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
DG: Because it's much more
AdP: Yes, between themselves, between 4, 5, 6 people
DG: So there's not a sense of
DG: Of course, there's a great deal
of nepotism here as well, but you feel that there's more openness for something
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
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
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