Antoine Cassar’s poetry is a platform for his passion as an activist for universal freedom of movement. After a period of experimentation with multilingual verse, which culminated in the long poem Merħba (winner of the 2009 United Planet Prize), he eventually found his voice in Maltese. His poems have been translated into over 20 languages.

Looking back on his most significant career moments so far, Antoine highlights the Passport poem he wrote back in 2009, which he says opened the most doors. “That said, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint one favourite moment,” he says. “Perhaps it was one of the readings I gave in Bali in 2015, while on a panel with Mohsin Hamid. Or a particularly powerful performance the following year during a tour of Australia, with Tahriq Amawi on classical guitar spurring me on, somehow taking me deeper into the poem and at the same time closer to the audience.”

He looks back on another very surreal and emotional moment in Lampedusa, during a spontaneous protest-concert outside the Imbriacola detention centre. On one side of the fence stood around 40 activists, singing traditional Sicilian songs as Giacomo Sferlazzo strummed on his mini-guitar. On the other side, a group of women and girls from Gambia were dancing and clapping along. “A few of us began to throw passports over the barbed wire. One of them accidentally landed on the head of a police guard. After a couple of minutes, another policeman started dancing too.”

However, on a more personal level, the poet also highlights the launch of his latest book, Erbgħin Jum (Forty Days, published by Ede Books), last December at Studio Solipsis.

Most recently, Antoine began collaborating with the POW Ensemble, a dynamic band that will perform three concerts based on his poem Map of the Mediterranean later this week.

“Luc Houtkamp, the founder of the ensemble, contacted me over a year ago to tell me that he and Guy Harries were planning to compose a series of songs on different aspects of migration,” he says. “He asked me for a poem, and I sent him a revised English version of the Map of the Mediterranean.”

The original is Antoine’s Mappa tal-Mediterran, originally published by the Għaqda tal-Malti and performed with Effie Azzopardi and Samwel Grima in 2013. He considers it part of a haphazard, lifelong project, bridging maps with poetry, relating land shapes to the ancient and contemporary history of the peoples who inhabit and pass through them.

Beneath the political tit-for-tat, the Mediterranean is witnessing nothing short of a contemporary slave trade

“I have been a map freak since around the age of eight,” he smiles. “Still today I find solace and excitement in atlases: the colours and placenames, the sense of possibility, and most of all, the contours of coastlines, peninsulas, islands... shapes that come alive and interact.

“We are used to seeing Malta as a fish, Italy as a boot... The difference here is that the poem describes the shapes of a sea. The Mediterranean might look like a reclined foetus, or a stork with outstretched wings. Turn the map south-up, and it will reveal the shape of a boat. One of countless vessels which, since pre-historic times, have been weaving the peoples and languages of the Mediterranean into the vibrant yet desperate tapestry it is today. But the poem is not merely a celebration. The second half speaks of new migrations. Beneath the political tit-for-tat, and despite the ongoing tragedies, the Mediterranean is witnessing nothing short of a contemporary slave trade. The tighter the borders, the easier it is to exploit the people who need to cross them.”

Now, that poem is being set to Houtkamp’s haunting soundscape, which will form a narrative thread throughout the concert, with a song after each stanza. Antoine helped to write the lyrics of three of the songs.  “You can expect a variety of musical styles, from the traditional to the pantomimesque,” he continues. “Harries, who composed the songs together with Luc, is a highly talented songwriter and singer; a joy to work with. One of the songs is in Maltese, and his knowledge of Hebrew not only helps his punctuation and intonation but also the channelling of mood and meaning. It’s the story of a whale that swallowed the moon, set to an old piece of Tunisian-Andalusian music chosen by Luc. There’s another song about the history of the aubergine, and another mixing Maltese surnames...”

Poignantly, the first performance of this poetry-meets-concert experience will take place on June 20 – World Refugee Day. Maori in Valletta, the chosen venue, will offer a highly appropriate backdrop, and Cassar is as poetic as always about this combination. “On one side, the Tignè eyesore, a concrete icon of unbridled greed and social inequality. On the other, the military might of St Elmo. And between these two pillars of fear, blue space in which to breathe, both physically and mentally, and the promise of the horizon,” he concludes.

Map of the Mediterranean will be performed at Maori, Valletta, as part of the Valletta 18 programme on June 20, 21 and 22. Entrance is free.

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