INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST: SACHA PIERSANTI
Cover: Sacha Piersanti, photo of D. Ignani
Hi, tell us a little about yourself, your studies, your passions.
It is always difficult to talk about oneself — writing about oneself is even more treacherous. I will stick to facts, avoiding self-reviews and self-indulgence. I was born in Rome, in a neighborhood that until shortly before I was born was a real “bad neighborhood”, a working class district (Primavalle is the name of it — one of Italy’s most famous contemporary poets, Valerio Magrelli, writes about it with amusing wit in a poem of his where he calls it a place “even further away than Bengal”). I studied in that area as well, my high school wasn’t far from there. Classical studies. Then I enrolled at Sapienza, where I graduated in modern literature with a thesis on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Formatively speaking, it hadn’t been great, so I took a brief hiatus from studying before applying, some years later, to a master’s degree program in theatre criticism at Rome’s Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica Silvio D’Amico. A more hands-on kind of academical experience, in a sense, thanks to which I was introduced to the Italian theatre and music scenes and started to actively write as a critic of the performing arts. Though my principal occupation remains, so to speak, literary writing, I do also write as a critic of theatre and music, producing reviews and conducting interviews, in an attempt to contribute as much as possible to the discovery (or re-discovery) of artists and professionals who lack the visibility they deserve. I always enjoyed mixing it up, the so called “high” art and the so called “low” art: I don’t think there are such things as first-class and second-class artistic and cultural expressions: there is artistic expression. And an artistic expression either is or is not. Point. All moralistic and intellectualistic matters aside, I believe it of fundamental importance to recognize the intrinsic value of the artistic creation, no matter what “category” it belongs to. This argument is particularly dear to my heart, especially with regards to the general opinion a certain literary culture seems to have about song-writing (great passion of mine and very often source of inspiration for me): we’re at each other’s throats all the time to determine wether or not lyrics to a song can be called poetry, and arbitrary yeses and nos start flying around while everybody seems to have forgotten that “poetry” (if not “literature” in general) is nothing but the way in which words are aligned on the page, black on white. Words. The word. I would say that is the center of my studies, of my interests, of my production: the word. With all that it entails, strengths and limits, the open sky and cage that it is. The word, yes, with all that this… word means: sense, sound, rhythm — it’s all in there, I think. In the word that’s also always a fact, for there is no word that isn’t performative, no word that isn’t also body.
Authors or works of the past from which you draw inspiration or admire.
For convenience, I will cite a few names, perhaps sorting them out by field of action and interest. Without a doubt I have to mention those who are something like my masters in poetry: Giorgio Caproni, who has truly been a sort of lay priest for the aforementioned word: he fought it his whole life, and always loathed it, even, but never could avoid working it, digging it, probing it until some profound nucleus of humanity had been reached. Caproni taught me to trust words completely and, at the same time, distrust them: self-deceived, we all believe we know “things” because we name them, while really all that does is push us even further away from them. And though we may realize this, we cannot help insisting on doing it. In brief, the lesson is: you know nothing has meaning, there is no victory in sight, but you write and live as if there were a meaning, as if it weren’t true that victory isn’t an option. I believe there is no better lesson to be learned.
Of the same visceral lucidity was Giuseppe Ungaretti, author of the first book of poems I ever read in its entirety, as a kid. And speaking of “poets”, but earlier ones, I would say my points of reference are — especially with regards to the rhythmic-melodic aspect of the verse, fluid and then broken and then fluid again — Cavalcanti, John Donne and, from an even more distant past, the great latin lyric poets, Horace above all: translating some of his verses inevitably shook and changed the whole bone structure of many of my writings to come. I could name many more, but let me switch fields now and mention teachers of priceless ethical and literary lessons like the great French philosophes (and that handful of Italian thinkers who had the courage of trying to import the Enlightenment over to our side), the great English novelists (Sterne, and the always too little praised Forster). Speaking of prose, I must bring up Aldo Busi: it was by reading his novels that I learned how essential it is to constantly remind yourself of your mediocrity to (try and) overcome it and transform it into something productive. This has to be the most significant lesson great literature gives (if it must teach anything at all), it opens your eyes to your own smallness and insignificance, and in that way educates you to constant exercise. I bring to an end this infinite list of names and references by mentioning Shakespeare’s plays, mirrors to your most despicable traits, conjurers of that hidden side of you you hoped to never have to face. Lastly, I can’t forget some of the most exceptional songwriters in the history of Italian music: Fabrizio De André on top of all (but right up there with him I place the very much alive Roberto Vecchioni and the rare bird, master blender of “pop” and “poetry”, master also of a healthy and much needed lightness: Renato Zero, whom I wrote a whole book about, Zero, nessuno e centomila, Arcana 2019).
And though I sometimes forget it, someone else who has inspired me more than once is the always intangible Joni Mitchell, also still living and yet almost primeval and, for that reason, capable of evoking, at once, something both ancient and ultra-contemporary in us.
Finally, a last “thanks” goes to Jackson Pollock: his messy controlling the uncontrollable suggested many a sound to me, especially for my earlier poems.
Tell us about those works of yours that you think are important for the language you use.
I’ve never very much liked talking and commenting on what I write: I would rather my books talked for themselves [two poems from L’uomo è verticale, translated by Augusto Cerruti, at the end of this answer]. I will only say two things: the first is that I’ve always tried and am still trying, with all my strength, to place the human being at the center — subject of every book, every poem, every verse, every word is the human being, too often reduced, however, to a single empty word, “humanity”. “More human”. “Staying human”. But what does it mean? In my books I try to explore our dimension: we are human, and that holds so much meaning that we often don’t remember what it means. To me, being human means to have full consciousness of our mortality: we are human and finite, mortal, bodies and minds constantly wearing out while trying as best we can to win a battle we have already lost. Once again, then, at the center of it all is the word. Words and memories. And that will be true as long as humanity — this thing we are all integral part of, a unique biological phenomenon full of marvels and burdens — will last. What’s more fascinating than that?
The second thing I would like to point out, because I think it has (or it will have, or maybe not, who knows?) its relevance within contemporary poetry, is this: I have never written nor will I ever write a “poetry collection”, I write books. Organic, uniform books that follow a single internal course. Such difference is vital to me for I think the idea that one would only “look through” poems or merely “leaf through” a book of poems is something that contributes to undermine the true importance of poetry in our lives, and “collections” of poems do favour that behavior. I could write pages upon pages on this, commenting on and analyzing the so-called cultural industry and today’s approach to reading in general, but I will spare you that.
I will only add that I believe another fundamental aspect of my literary research is that it tries to neutralize the distinction between body and word, word and action. For that very reason I am also involved in a number of theatre projects (e.g. L’ora dell’Alt, Rome 2016-2017 and Paris 2019).
From L’uomo è verticale (Empiria, 2018), translated by Augusto Cerruti
1 – Mother-slave who ruminates despair
Mother-slave who ruminates despair
what were you thinking as a child
what do you say, at night, to the child
that you were surely when I was
project not intended, plan
and feeble footprint in the guts?
Slave-mother who chews on misadventures
what were you thinking as a girl
what do you say to the girl
that you never were because woman
wanted upper hand
when the man had the arrogant
predictability of male
and you who drooped
on a sense of duty
– by nature your duty –
left to him, the illiterate
of respect, the privilege
of guiding every step
you took, you’ll take
you’d have taken and would take?
Servant-mother who cannot
articulate but laments
expert in the washing
of floors and dishes
why didn’t you accept
my guidance to wash
your conscience ungloved
at the end of the holy
Killing the woman
going by your name —
it wasn’t less criminal.
2 – In the highest degree of risk
In the highest degree of risk
we discover that trusting
has much greater weight
than all that mistrust.
I’ve seen women and men
strolling with a smile
past the beastly guys
armed with their guns
but totally unsuspected
of any flick of folly —
no one even has
the most typical of doubts,
that: what’s he gonna do?
Clearly, grey-green stains aren’t stains to be afraid of.
But then each time we cross
the street doesn’t it mean
gifting to a stranger
our living, our death scene?
Your final thoughts on the current situation of art, how you feel as an artist in this historical period.
I will stick to what I know: theatre, music, though only to a degree, and literature. I would say that, in different ways and with different repercussions, all three disciplines are, at the moment, in the very same desperate situation. Generally speaking, the characteristics that turn a work into "a work of art”, those details that make a piece of work somewhat extra-ordinary, unexpected and expressive, seem to have been put aside and crushed by the two principal nemeses of contemporary art. On the one side, the so-called market. Which pushes the artist to be constantly producing, and at a hectic rate, leaving even the “consumer” unable to enjoy a given artistic creation wholly and thoroughly. A market, a cultural industry that focuses on spawning restlessly tons of books, shows, albums and singles, causing an enormous inflation of the purely artistic value of the “product”. That is the oldest nemesis of the industry and an ancient grumble that will make anybody sound anachronistically grim and antiquated, but most importantly: it isn’t exactly the main bête noir. The real bugbear of the cultural industry is the grave tendency it has to invest into and sponsor for the creation of a certain artistic aura and literary quality around contemporary facts, themes, or given human cases, that wouldn’t otherwise posses any such value. There is a constant attempt at turning any important matters of mere social interest into the next artistic masterpiece. This is a delicate topic, I understand that: what I mean to say is that I consider it a great risk for the future of artistic disciplines to judge a literary, musical or theatrical work solely on its contents — or, worse, its author’s biography. A novel on “women’s conditions”, a poem “against femicide”, a play “on LGBTQ+ rights”, a song “about immigration” aren’t automatically great art. Just as a holocaust survivor, a victim of terrorism or the homosexual man or woman who suffered discrimination and wrote a memoir about it is not necessarily a great storyteller. Perhaps this phenomenon is most clearly visible in today’s pop music, where the “story” and “theme” of a song seem to always be enough to imbue it of “artistic” value. But even the publishing industry is largely impacted by this trend and the ever-growing success of the so-called “gender literature” is good evidence of that, not to mention the constantly increasing number of “and author” additions to everybody’s title: “politician and author”, “journalist and author”, “activist and author”, “director and author” — essentially, it seems like something is “literature” the moment its topic, theme, and story are of some “fundamental importance”. In short, I believe that having lost the attention towards the language, the style and other technical details of the artistic product is really a shame — and it is dangerous. Not so much for us today, no, but rather for tomorrow’s humans: how many of those works that are today almost unanimously regarded as “great shows” or “great books” will actually stand the test of time? I mean, Boccaccio is still Boccaccio today not just for his — forgive the overstatement — “feminism”, but rather for his innovative style and language. Just like Woolf isn’t Woolf because she was “trans-friendly”: Orlando is a masterpiece of immense creativity and narrative technique. And I could go on mentioning hundreds of other fitting examples, fortunately.
All things considered, then, “the current state of art”, if by “art” we mean whatever is currently in the spotlight, seems to me it isn’t too good. But luckily in the underwood, in the shadows beneath, there is a movement — non “mainstream” nor tied directly to the great cultural industry — that is working hard and in stark opposition to form in order to mould an original, authentic language. A movement that does not surrender to the systemic habit of producing “content” that will attract followers. A movement that, if resilient enough, will still exist when we’ll be past.