MHR: Your poems are revelations. Do you believe in the Muse as a force of nature or supernature?
AB: I do believe the Muse exists. Whichever form it has, it is there and whenever she kindles my soul I write. I am unable to write unless I am driven to words by the Muse. I am not a writer who writes every day. That’s not how it works for me. I cannot force a single word out of my pen. The spark comes to me unexpectedly and I always write a poem from beginning to end in a sitting. Sometimes I realize that it is almost a trance-like experience. I am driven. Words pour out on the page. I myself am quite fascinated by the process.
MHR: You are a poet and a translator. Where do you think your passion for language(s) come(s) from?
AB: I guess my love for languages comes from two main episodes linked to my childhood. When I was 4 and 5 years old I spent two summers in a Kinderheim in Zug, Switzerland. The Frauleins who ran the place were German-Swiss ladies and the kids who spent their summertime there were from different countries. That was my first experience in a totally international environment. It was a sort of Babel to me and it made me consciously aware that languages were not barriers, that I could learn things in a different language. The second one is connected to the 5 years I spent in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where we relocated when my dad, who was an Engineer, was in charge of the construction of two oil refineries. I attended American schools. And, it was very much a “live or die” experience! I had no other option than to learn the language. I remember I was quite fast at it. I guess I have always had a penchant for languages. I have learned French in high school and at University. I have a Master Degree in Foreign Languages. Today, translations are my daily bread. Languages have indeed shaped me!
MHR: What do you think are your dominant themes? I sense Love, History, Art, The Body, Womanhood- Woman-heart, and myriad other passions. Have I missed something or would you like to express something more?
AB: Yes, I guess you have captured many of the themes I am obsessed with or my demons. When I speak of demons, I refer to the Ancient Greek daimon, the inspiring force. Love in all its facets is indeed one of them. Art and History, too. Given the fact that I live in the Eternal city, I guess this is a sort of inevitable fate. I am the product of my historical past and my eyes and soul are imbued with art whenever I go for a stroll. I’d almost say it’s part of my DNA. The Body is a key element of my writing. Somebody told me my writing is “muscular,” I guess you can tell there is blood, sinews and heart in it! Womanhood is certainly there. Many of my icons are women and I celebrate them in my poetry. I would always love to express more in my poems. I am attracted by many themes although the ones you have mentioned are possibly the ones I feel a closer bond to.
MHR: Your poem “Les Goddesses” gives very clear professions and pronouncements about female artistic impulse. What did writing this poem teach you that you want to impart to us?
AB: This poem was inspired by a visit to an exhibition on Contemporary Art in NY here in Rome a few summers ago. The video “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey was part of this show. I remember sitting in this dark room lit only by the black and white video itself and being literally captured in a vortex of images and recordings. Davey recorded her life on a tape as she walked around the rooms of her home. Her lens capturing frames of her inner life and of the changes in the outside world. Her words encapsulated what she loved most. I was touched by her mentioning Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinean poet I am very fond of, whose work I had discovered just a few months earlier. It seemed a sign. Les Goddesses is a declaration of love to oneself, to being writers/artists, to all the artists that inspire us. I wrote this poem in a sitting—as I do most of the times – the morning after attending the exhibition.
MHR: The body is explored in the poem “Landscape with Muse” and the lovely metaphors are succinctly defined. What inspires you to write the body?
AB: I love that poem. The body I mention in the poem is Helga Testorf’s body, the Muse of painter Andrew Wyeth. The Helga paintings are immensely beautiful and they depict a sensuous woman’s body in many different poses: on a stool, lying on a bed or even in plein air. I found very intriguing how almost nobody was aware of these paintings for a long time. How both Helga and Andrew kept their work secret even to their spouses. How the 45 paintings and innumerable drawings that span a cycle of almost fifteen years were stored at the home of one of Wyeth’s students. Those drawings and paintings are an amazing tribute not just to Helga, but to the woman’s body. Wyeth candidly admitted that he had to fall in love with the model he was working with and you can tell! Those works simply teem with love.
MHR: Your inspiration for most of these poems are writers and artists to whom you are devoted. How does this devotion to creators sustain you as a writer?
AB: I feel a great bond with writers and artists in general. I guess the reason lies in the mutual need to recount the world via words, lines or color. Whatever the medium we choose, the aim is to depict the inner and the outside world as a present for viewers and readers. Literary works and artworks are gifts to the world. A concentrated expression of sentiments and feelings.
MHR: Do you believe we can channel other voices as poets? I do. In your poem, “Las Dos Fridas” impeccably taps another heart. Can you speak of the process in writing this poem?
AB: I hope to be able to! Frida Kahlo has inspired several of my poems. I turn to her as a sunflower to the sun. I remember distinctly how, maybe 25 years ago, I walked into a bookstore and, in the Art section, I saw a book dedicated to her. I was unaware of her work. The cover depicted a detail of her “The Broken Column” painting. In it, her backbone is a column and her body is pierced by nails as a feminine version of St. Sebastian. That sense of suffering struck a chord in me. I bought the book and have read almost any book I could find about Frida over the years. Reading her diaries has enabled me to “hear” her voice. This is why I’ve attempted to write this poem in first-person. This poem is inspired by her painting “The Two Fridas,” basically the two versions of her same self. The way she saw herself and the way Diego Rivera liked her. It’s a big painting that I’ve seen “live” here in Rome. It’s a painting that deals with the dissolution of the self, with her divorce from Diego. I have been there myself. I have experienced the end of my marriage and I have had to put together the pieces of me that were left to move forward. I can totally relate to that exposure of one’s heart. This is also why I could quite confidently use the “I” POV in this poem.
MHR: Your poems are homages to artists and writers in “Love & Other Demons.” What does your worldview say to the reader in your best guess of what is in their minds as they read these poems?
AB: Many of the poems in “Love & Other Demons” are a tribute to writers and poets I love. I hope to be able to convey to the reader this same love as it is, after all, what ignites me to write most of the time. I couldn’t imagine a closer way to touch my heart or to understand the motives of my writing.
MHR: In “Caravaggio-like Love” the form’s suspension is calculated perfectly. How did this poem come to be? Was it lightning fast or a more laborious step-by-step kind of poem?
AB: This poem is inspired by the very physical act of walking barefoot for a while and having dusty feet and then lying on the bed close to my boyfriend John who was asleep. The first thought that came to my mind was my favorite painting by Caravaggio, The Pilgrims’ Madonna, in the Roman church of St. Augustine. In it, two pilgrims are kneeling in front of Mary who is holding Baby Jesus in her arms. The canvas shows us the dirty feet of the wandering pilgrims as they revere the woman in front of them. Mary is wearing a crimson red velvet dress; whose color is unparalleled. This is a love poem for John. That red expresses in a truthful way the passion I feel for him. It was written in one sitting.
MHR: And lastly, do you believe in absolute Truths with a capital “T?” Please elaborate why or why not.
AB: This is a very philosophical question and I could write a whole essay on it! To keep it very short, I will say that I believe I have developed a more Relativist approach over the years. I find it more and more hard to relate to absolute Truths. Truths are indeed many.
Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator living in the Eternal city. She is the author of four chapbooks: Guerrilla Blues, Nocturne, They Talk About Death and Diagnosis. Her poems and translations have appeared or are upcoming in magazines such as Gargoyle, Plath Profiles, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Waxwing. She has edited an Anthology of New American Poetry and she keeps working at the biography of a contemporary American poet.
6 thoughts on “An interview with Alessandra Bava”
Very good and probing questions. Starting with the ‘muse’ was especially informative. Thank you both for what you’ve shared.
Thank you, Susan!
Alessandra is brilliant! Happy to call her my sister. Clare, your questions were so insightful! Great interview!
Thank you, Michelle!
Thought-provoking interview with a wonderful artist! Thanks for this.
Thanks for your thoughts.