For some reason the word “poet” makes me think of men in tights, cloak, pointed shoes, and all set with plume in hand, with an audience of people cosily dosing off. I know I watch too many movies, thank you very much. But it’s either that or Rużar Briffa which comes to mind at the word “poet”. Somehow, of all the artists, I think poets are the ones that make us give a sharp intake of breath if they don’t fall under the very rigid picture we have of them.
Which is what I found myself doing when I met Patrick Sammut, 40, and Stephen Cachia, 32, both Sixth Form teachers and both self-confessed writers of poetry. “We’re not poets”, they go at pains to explain before I have barely sat down. “We really want to make sure you get this across to your readers,” says Stephen in urgent tones, “because ‘a poet’ is a title imposed by society. It’s a label given by the journalist or the literary critic or the people in your circle.” Patrick nods calmly and adds: “Only time makes a true poet.”
And this first burst sets the dynamic for the rest of the interview: Stephen is the one who pounces to answer my questions and peppers his replies with such semitically-romantic Maltese words that I have to mentally press pause and guess their meaning from the context. Patrick is the one who ponders before giving a punchy but non-nonsense statement. Halfway through I wanted to pack away my notebook, postpone the interview and lose myself in the upbeat debate which ensued. Forget about dozing off, this I can truly say: modern poets fully charge your thinking batteries.
By the end of the evening we reached the conclusion that a person who writes poetry is someone who feels the urge to put to paper that which he sees and feels, in the form of melody. Patrick believes that you are born a poetry writer. “It has to be in you. But then again, you don’t necessarily carry it all your life. Take Arthur Rimbaud – halfway through his life he stopped writing.” They go on a roll, mentioning other ‘born’ poets, who strongly influence them: Federico Garcia Lorca (Spanish); Achille Mizzi (Maltese); Oliver Friggieri (Maltese); Nazim Aikment (Turk); Pablo Neruda (Chilean) – and how through their poetry you could just reach out to beauty, maturity and whatever else is invoked by their pens.
So why is it I ask, that we, the majority of people, don’t get this? Why is it that many of us don’t reach out for poetry, dismissing it immediately as something we don’t particularly understand?
If a piece of poetry is good than it would appeal to anyone, claims Stephen: “But then again it depends on the reader and what he is looking for: Is he reading poetry just for pleasure or to try and find meaning in life?” Patrick further explains that at times readers can identify with a poem because it deals with a topical issue or if it takes a dig at authority. Current affairs motivates them to write, in fact two powerful pieces of Patrick’s talk about the Kursk submarine accident and 9/11; Kosovo made Stephen reach out for his pen.
“People tend to say that they’re not into poetry, but they forget that even a TV advert can be a poem. Anything around us can be poetry: Music, cinema, posters, designs … anything that makes us stop and reflect is poetry … you just have to be open to it,” says Patrick, “everybody eats Baci chocolate – everybody reads the bit of poetry on those little slips of paper; or the quotations on the Krystal water, or Friggieri’s lines on the bus stops … we all read poetry in some form or other”.
Stephen taps his steepled fingers and says that actually a poem has to be experienced and not necessarily understood. “There doesn’t necessarily has to be a meaning or a symbol – it’s just like seeing a painting.” And just like in appreciating an abstract paining, cultural baggage helps to appreciate a poem. “To appreciate the depth of art – in whatever form you need a cultural background,” he says
Aha, I say. So you’re saying I’m, err, intellectually challenged because I don’t happen to like Pablo Picasso’s art, for example?
“Oh no, no,” Stephen appeases. “You’ve made an informed opinion about it I’m sure. You’ve read about his art, you’ve seen it and you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not your cup of tea.”
“Actually, no,” I whisper, half apologetically. “I’ve seen some of his art and didn’t even bother to read up about it because it simply is not the kind of art I’m into. I just don’t like abstract – it doesn’t do it for me.”
Patrick intervenes: “Look sometimes, some poetry is beyond the average person. Take me, when I read something by Achille Mizzi my initial reaction is: What on earth is he on about? But I persevere on re-reading it. It’s hard work to appreciate something. I mean think of Rushdie vs Danielle Steele …”
He tails off, and Stephen muses: “You know, somehow deep down you know you like it, you’re attracted to it even if you don’t understand it.” And then, maybe still worried about the earlier cultural baggage statement, says: “What I meant before was that poetry is like philosophy, the more you expose yourself to life the more you appreciate it.”
So then I ask if poets are in reality geeks and nerds. This seems to press a sore button in Patrick, who immediately huffs: “Pop singers are poets and they’re not considered nerds.” He gets animated: “You know who’s the nerd? The guy who has no time to stop and stare. The guy who is always on the go and never stops because all he can think about is money.”
This nerd thing is a myth they say, just like other typical labels: “Poets are lazy people”, “Poets live in a world of their own”. Stephen insists that poetry brings you face to face with reality. “A poet lives in the present, ponders the past and thinks of the future,” says Patrick. Someone who is in touch with the poetry around him is definitely more sensitive to society because of his nature. So if everyone was a poet, would it be a completely peaceful world? They don’t say anything but their look says it all: Duh!
They both acknowledge that, however, writing poetry is painful. “It’s hard work, it’s a long process, you have to nurture your muse or else it dries up. You have to transfer images into words. Sometimes you have to wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s not something which you can choose not to do. You just have to do it, like when you’re thirsty, you have to drink,” says Stephen.
Their biggest problem is that as poetry writers, like any other artist, they are always in search of validation of their work. Because Malta is small, it’s often very difficult to break the market – literary circles can be very tight and it’s very easy to shut one up and glorify another. “We need to be more open to new ideas here. At least now with the internet it’s become a bit easier – we have an international readership.”
At the end of the day the pain is rewarding. “It’s more painful if you don’t release it,” says Stephen. Patrick says that poetry makes him see the beauty of life, that even in its ugliness, poetry gives you the perspective that everything is an experience. “You know, my wife tells me I’m a pessimist. But I can’t be. I’m a realist and an idealist. A pessimist would see no point in writing, no?”
So would they want their kids to be writers of poetry? “I would just want them to love books. I’d be happy with just that,” says Patrick and Stephen nods in agreement.
Source: Weekender, February 21, 2009