Tuesday, June 06, 2017

2017 G37 Summit of Poetry, Sicily

A panoramic view of Caltagirone
A few months ago I received an unexpected but wonderful invitation to participate in the G37 Summit of Poetry (Summit della Poesia), "La Potenza della Conscenza." This poetry gathering aimed to bring together established writers from several of the G7 countries, including established and apprentice Italian poets, to share their work in venues near where the G7 participants were planning to convene in Taormina, Sicily in late May. Of course I said yes. The dates, May 25-27, fortunately fell after the last of my domestic readings and Commencement, and did not conflict with any other commitments, and having visited Caltagirone, Sicily for a poetry festival at the end of 2009, I figured the trip and the festival would be nothing short of remarkable. Having now returned to the States, I can say without hesitation that once again, the Sicilians did not disappoint! The hospitality, warmth, kindness, generosity, and attentiveness of our Sicilian hosts was superlative at every point during the trip, and though I have traveled a little bit around the world, never have I been treated as well as I have when in Sicily. To everyone who made the festival and our visit possible, milione grazie!

In the Labyrinth of Ariadne
(Gianfranco Molino near the entrance)
The brainchild of Sicilian native Antonio Presti, a major figure in contemporary Sicilian and Italian art, and the director of the Fondazione Antonio Presti Fiumara d'Arte, based in the exquisite little seaside town of Castel di Tusa, and managed expertly by Josephine Pace, a brilliant poet, businesswoman and Caltagirone native, the G37 Summit of Poetry represented both a complement and counter-force to the gathering of political power on display just down the road in Taormina. Alongside the demonstrable power embodied by the presence of the world's most powerful politicians, who included US President Donald Trump, the G37 organizers envisioned a festival that promoted and reinforced "The Power of Knowledge," which would include international voices and those from cities and towns across Sicily, Italy, and the globe.

The Tyrrhenian Sea at sunset
To quote some of the event literature (and I'm hewing here to the translated English in the original documents): "The Foundation Antonio Presti Fiumara d'Arte intends to activate...a big 'word's event' to reach people's hearts, touch their roots, reawaken their humanity that sometimes [asleep], graying because of the mediocrity" of our time. Rather than viewing the G37 Summit as a "snub" to the G7, the Foundation suggested that it wanted "to be a mantra, a subtle pervasive melody that direct[s] people differently looking upon this earth...of which Sicily, with its contradictions, is a perfect synthesis." The poetry summit was, therefore, intended to be a living poem, that would
affirm the superiority of the principle of Beauty than that of finance and economics. The real aim is promote a collective thinking: economic power is subject to the power of knowledge. To be free, men and women need to nourish by knowledge.

At the Birch Forest
reading, Mt. Etna
(photo by C)
Central to G37 Summit's theme was the dynamic assembly of the collective knowledge and wisdom, the artistic power, of poets, writers, and artists of all kinds, speaking to locals and visitors, and sharing words that might carry beyond Mt. Etna's slopes and the baroque churches where the readings took place. The idea of investing words with such power, or believing that they could possess such power once more, underscored not just a profound faith in literature and art, but also a recognition of Sicily's ancient past, and language's sacred, spiritual, metaphysical and psychological potency. Reading poems in the open air, amidst the spectacular Bosca di Betulle, or Birch Forest, one of the rare stands of birch so far south in Europe and uniquely from Mt. Etna's black, volcanic soil, as well as in the historic small-town churches, the poets and musicians, would underline what the Foundation saw as a clear message, "the value of being as opposed to the logic of having." Or, as I saw it, the power of language's presence, in and of itself, its capacity to bring reality into being and to shape it, as well as its resistance, however small, to the commodifying machinery of global neoliberalism.

The high-school age student participants wrote poems based on the theme of "knowledge." Their teachers then selected some of these poets to read during the two day-long sessions at the Birch Forest on Mt. Etna. The students would thus, to quote the Foundation, become "not only passive receptors of the poetic Word but, through a prior preparation of the school, first-person protagonists of the expressive modes." They would also be active members of the audience for the published poets, and one of the highlights for me was meeting some of the young poets and their classmates, particularly those who were studying English, as well as those who were immigrants and refugees. One, Ibrahim, who introduced himself to C and me, mentioned that he was living in one of the local towns, but was originally from Gambia, and thanked me for my poem in English. I spoke briefly with a few others before taking a few selfies (which may be floating around Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites, though I haven't seen them). A third component of their participation entailed collaboratively producing "ethical manifestos." These texts would provide "essential theoretical, moral and ontological support" for their poetry, their lives, and their futures.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Caltagirone
Before we headed to eastern Sicily, however, we had breakfast at a hotel along Palermo's sea coast, then headed through the center of Sicily, via the picturesque, elevated town of Enna, to Caltagirone, where we had the pleasure of spending a little time with our dear friends Josephine and Gaetano, their daughter Giulia, Josephine's sister Miriam, and her husband, Dino, her adorable new baby, their parents, and other members of her family and friends. Caltagirone looked exactly as it had last time, and those famous stairs were no less difficult to ascend, though we did it several times. We also got to tour Josephine's family factory, which was humming and a work of art in itself; she and her sister truly merge the worlds of business and art. I also participated in the first of several interviews, this one with a local bureau of RAI, the major Italian media company, and though I have not seen it, I think it went well. Josephine translated fluidly and swiftly, I thought, my pedestrian English into the approximate, melodious Italian. Trump's name and policies surfaced during this interview and others, and all throughout the trip. At one point, when I discussed his tenure without mentioning his name, an interviewer asked me specifically to say "Trump." They wanted me to put him on the record.

On TV, with Josephine, in Caltagirone
(Photo by C)
After our stay in Caltagirone, we headed the next day to Savoca, where the first of the readings took place that evening in the Mother Church Santa Maria of the Assumption into Heaven. This was my first opportunity to meet most of the other poets, which was another of the great pleasures of the trip, as were the stunning mountainous landscapes, which wound down to the rocky coasts, in Roccalumera and Castel di Tusa, skirting the Tyrrhenian Sea. As some of the photos make clear, these truly were mountains and not merely hills, and looming amidst all of them was the still active Mt. Etna. In fact on the way to one of the other cities, we could even smell the volcano's almost suffocating sulfur as we sped through a tunnel. The Sicilians' gift for navigating the hilly roads impressed me yet again. Thankfully, though they drive very fast, they were also skillful at navigating the flat(er) highways and tunnels.

In Enna
Before I say more about the events, let me list the participating poets, some of whom joined only one or two of the readings, though all of the poets from outside Italy read at every venue. The poet participants included: Antonella Anedda, Alessio Arena (a very pleasant young poet from Palermo, I believe I heard someone say), Maria Attanasio (one of Sicily's great living writers, whom I met when she passed through Chicago years ago, and who it was a joy to see again, along with her fun husband Gianni), Mariano Baino, Michaël Batalla (from France, and we got to meet his lovely wife, Virginie, a filmmaker), Alberto Bertoni, Elisa Biagini (who had received her doctorate in the US and translated American and Anglophone poets), Tiziano Broggiato, Sebastiano Burgaretta (whom we met during our previous visit in 2009), Tiziana Cera Rosco (a poet living in Milan, who with her boyfriend Ted, originally from Canada, became our traveling companions, especially towards the end of the visit), Giuseppe Condorelli, Giuseppe Conte, Gianni D'Elia, Antonio Di Maura, and Flavio Ermini.

Walking toward the Pyramid
Also reading were Giovanni Fontana, Biancamaria Frabotta, Gabriele Frasca, Mariangela Gualtieri, Biagio Guerrera (a friendly poet whose work drew from Sicily's rich linguistic traditions, who spoke excellent English, and who was my cue to approach the stage, as I often missed the detailed Italian instructions about reading order), Andrea Inglese (another talented younger poet who'd taught in Paris), Vivian Lamarque, Paolo Lisi, Rosaria Lo Russa (a Milanese poet we'd met in 2009), Roberto Mussapi (who we got to chat with towards the end of the trip), Luigi Nacci, Aldo Nove, Carmelo Panebianco, Antonio Riccardi, Margherita Rimi, Cia Rinne (a Swedish-German-Danish poet remarkably fluent in multiple languages, and the author of poems that ranged with playful swiftness between them), Evelina Schatz (a wonderful Russian-Italian poet who read in both languages), Marco Simonelli (another young Milanese poet), Ida Travi, Patrizia Valduga, and Sara Ventroni.

C in one of the rooms at the Museo Hotel
Atelier sul Mare, Castel di Tusa, La Stanza
della Luce, designed by Pepi Morgia
Moreover, others who played important roles, in addition to the poets, Antonio Presti, and Josephine Pace, were the kind, indefatigable Gianfranco Molino, of the Foundation; other members of the foundation (including Giovanni--a painter, with whom I spoke about his work in my very broken Italian), Adriana La Porta, Josephine's thoughtful colleague; Alessandra Caccioppo; Elisabetta Raffa; Carmelo Damico; Antonio Musumeci; Lorenzo Di Silvestro; the Polyphonic Choruses of Castiglione and Linguaglossa; Alfio Priolo; the students of the ITS Steve Jobs in Caltagirone; the various curates of the churches where we read; the caribinieri and rangers in the Birch Forest on Mt. Etna; all of the others who ran the video equipment, answered questions, kept us on schedule, drove us around, and just provided a continuous welcome; and whoever translated my poems, which occurred with great speed and for which I offer my deep gratitude! I know I am leaving out other important people, so my apologies, and to all of you, thanks so very much for everything!

Returning to the events, on May 26 and 27, we read with the students from the morning through the late afternoon in the Birch Forest, in Piedimonte Etneo (literally the foot of Mt. Etna). In honor of the birches, we were urged to wear white, which gave me an opportunity to 1) sport a pair of white jeans I hadn't worn since last year but thankfully could still fit and 2) buy a white pullover in Caltagirone. Each of the two Mt. Etna readings opened with a ritual procession, led by Carmine Elisa Moschella, pictured in the video below, singing and descending into the valley where the main event occurred, followed by performers who would go on to wrap the birches very slowly, rhythmically really, as the speeches unfolded. At every event Antonio Presti would provide an overview of the festival and share his thoughts on the importance of what we were doing.

In addition to Carmine's songs, musician Michele LaPaglia improvisationally and impressionistically accompanied the poetry readings--unless poets asked him not to--using a series of percussion and wind instruments. He concluded both of the Birch Forest events in conjunction with audience members who were equipped with brightly colored plastic tubes that doubled as whistles, issuing ethereal tones in response to Michele's. Between the ritual opening and the closing music, established and student poets, whom Antonio Presti introduced and often posed questions to, read for roughly 3 minutes each. Nearly all the poets adhered to these guidelines. Michele performed with the poets at the church readings too, and I am still amazed at how he often found an appropriate accompaniment to the work each of us read. (I did ask him to produce a darker tone for my poem "Words," which is a litany about mis-understanding as reality.)

Salvatore Comodo, one of two
Italian politicians we met
In addition to LaPaglia and Moschella, May 26's Mt. Etna reading featured also featured Daniela Motta, with students from Guttuso Art Institute, the Mazzei-Sabin Agrarian Institute of Giarre (a nearby town), and the Steve Jobs Institute of Caltagirone. The May 27 Mt. Etna reading included LaPaglia, Moschella and Motta, the students from the Guttuso Art Institute and the Steve Jobs Institute of Caltagirone, and students from the Classical Grammar School of Giarre, the Linguaglossa Amari Linguistic and Linguistic Grammar School, and the Amaryllus Lyceum of Riposto. On the first day on Mt. Etna, in Linguaglossa, the Etruscan Piedimonte, after the reading concluded, C and I hiked with a number of poets and their partners and friends to the Rifugio Soggiorno, or food campsite, and I want to thank Dr. Wayne Winnick yet again for helping get my knees into shape to do this. (I could not imagine what this would have been like had they not be able to take the long, twisting, ascending march over the volcanic soil.) It was a workout but an enjoyable one.

Black cats, poolside, in Palermo
At the refugio the lunch was simple but delicious, but then I can state unequivocally that I did not have a bad meal the entire time I was in Sicily. At both the lunches and the dinners, things unfolded as multiple courses, so there were sandwiches, then salad, then meats (if you ate them), all accompanied by what we initially thought was grape juice given the plastic jugs that contained the dark violet liquid, but which turned out to be delicious locally produced red wine. I had the delightful opportunity that day to meet a number of college students from Palermo, and we worked on collaborative poems and discussed poetry, which was a lot of fun. (And took selfies!) The second day we joined Josephine, Gaetano, Evelina, and Rosaria at a nearby local restaurant, where the food was, unsurprisingly, perfect. (I had pasta with a sauce that combined fennel, pine nuts, and anchovies, and the chef pulled it off.) My favorite meal was a Sicilian specialty, the summery pasta with lemon, which was, I learned more a little lemon-lime (verdetto). I'll have to learn how to make this over here.

Poet Cia Rinne, reading
her work
On the evenings of both days that we visited Mt. Etna, we read in churches, as on Thursday evening. On May 26, we read in the municipality of Castiglione di Sicilia, at the Basilica Madonna of the Chain. The Polyphonic Choir Mater Catenae of Castiglione, the New Book Club of Palermo, and musician Antonella Furian all took part. There was also a video installation by Daniela Motta at this event and the subsequent evening one. The following night we read in the municipality of Linguaglossa, in the Mother Church Santa Maria of Grace near the downtown square. This event involved a tribute to the beloved Sicilian poet Santo Cali, read by an amazing performer, Agostino Zumbo, whom I could not understand but whose passion certainly transcended linguistic barriers. Also participating were the Choir and Orchestra of Linguaglossa, and the Linguistic Lyceum. The student musicians, like the professional ones, played with skill and verve.

The church where we read
 in Linguaglossa
We had dinners, in the Italian style, i.e. beginning at 8:30-9 pm, involving multiple courses, and running until 11 or later, at various spots. In Savoca, we ate at a (former?) monastery (I think), and each of the poets, I included, inscribed poems in concrete blocks which will eventually be placed at a new project that the Foundation is developing. The second, quite chilly evening, we dined at a winery--cantina--where we met a local politician, Salvatore Comodo--though he didn't exactly introduce himself as such--who had, he shared with us, just sat earlier that day in the ancient Greek theater in Taormina right behind none other than Trump and the First Lady. (At the multicourse, outdoor meal at this venue, I did encounter a meat whose origins I could not identify--and as a mostly-vegetarian (pescatarian?), I sampled only a tiny bit of it, but it was quite tasty.) For the readings I chose to read no more than two poems, one usually very short and the other no longer than a page, at each reading. I also chose poems that I felt were appropriate to the occasion, and public in spirit and tone. All of these events brought out healthy crowds--and everyone who drove up those vertiginous, serpentine roads to reach the readings on Mt. Etna deserve a medal--and some members of the audience were conversant enough in English to offer comments and thoughts on my English poems and, I imagine, the poems they heard in French and German.

The student poets before one of the
readings in Piedimonte Etneo
After we left Linguaglossa, Antonio Zinga drove us to Castel di Tusa, Messina, where we stayed in the extraordinary--and that is putting it mildly--Museum Hotel (a/k/a Atelier sul Mare Museo Albergo) Castel di Tusa--which is literally, not just figuratively, a hotel that not only holds numerous works of art, but also is also a work of art itself. And I mean its rooms are art installations, some so fully so that they were truly conceptual in design and function. I include photos below and on the next page. In Castel di Tusa, we were right on the sea, but we took a walking tour of the town, which rose ladderlike via steeply ramped streets. During our outing we spotted bodyguards and glimpsed a person we figured must be a famous person having lunch not far from us, and after a bit of Googling we realized after he had left that it was the President of Sicily, Rosario Crocetta. We thought about asking him for a photo, but decided we probably shouldn't bother him. The next day, at a completely different restaurant, while having a leisurely early lunch (before a second lunch at the hotel!), we ran into this same gentleman, and this time we asked for and took a photo with him, which is below. 

C, the President of Sicily, and yours truly
That day we also visited a number of the giant sculptures that the Foundation had erected near Castel di Tusa, including the almost indescribable giant Pyramid/38° Parallel, which sits high atop a mountain and which will, in a few weeks, be the site of a solstice festival. To reach the Pyramid, whose latitude is exactly that of the line dividing North and South Korea, and which you can spot from many vantages far below, you must drive up a dizzyingly circuitous road--though there is also a cow--or goat?--path that you can climb to reach it--then park, and walk up towards the triangular structure, which you then enter via a pitch-black tunnel, proceeding slowly until you come upon stone stairs that take you up into the mostly dark giant structure itself, which has a stone labyrinth inside it, and which only a thin opening illuminates. We visited it with Antonio Presti, Gianfranco, Tiziana, Ted, and a young journalist whose name escapes me, and I have to admit that at one point, as we stood near the edge of the cliff, I could feel vertigo slowly creeping inside me, though the sublime sunset over the sea helped to subdue my anxiety about the cliffs. In addition to the Pyramid, we also walked the Labyrinth of Ariadne (Labirinto di Ariana), which provided another unexpected but exhilarating workout. At its center was a tree: the Tree of Life.

The mountainside towns
near Mt. Etna
We said goodbye to Castel di Tusa and Sicily one week after we arrived, riding back to Palermo early in the morning courtesy of Gianfranco, who gave us a verbal tour as we headed northwest via Sicily's beautiful--and that hour, mostly empty--highways. The return via Palermo Airport involved far less hassle than I usually encounter in US airports, and though it felt great to land at JFK, I immediately felt a pang of wistfulness because we had such an incredible time in Sicily. I also would return in a heartbeat. To repeat my thanks from my first paragraph, the hospitality, warmth, kindness, generosity, and attentiveness of our Sicilian hosts was superlative at every point during the trip, and once again, though I have little bit around the world, never have I been treated as well as I have when in Sicily. To everyone who made our visit possible, MILIONE GRAZIE A TUTTI!

(More photos in the next post!)

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