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Festival Mediterranju tal-Letteratura ta Malta / Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival
‘Survival of a Nomad’ – John Portelli interviewed on Newsbook

‘Survival of a Nomad’ – John Portelli interviewed on Newsbook

John Portelli. Photo by Andrew Zarb.
John Portelli. Photo by Andrew Zarb.

Novelist, poet and education professor John P. Portelli is one of Inizjamed’s guest writers for the 2021 edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Norbert Bugeja catches up with Portelli ahead of his participation at the Festival on Friday the 27th and Saturday the 28th of August.

John, the title poem of your new collection Dar-Riħ Malizzjuż abandons its reader to the mercy of the wind. This wind is a real knave — cunning and restless, it subverts our dreams and certainties, it is errant, Homeric, a speculative force of change that may at any time lead us astray. What’s going on in this poem? What winds are being sown, here?

Any kind of wind really. Growing up in Dingli I always had a particular fascination with the wind — a fascination that I carried with me wherever I have lived, whether in Montreal or Halifax or Toronto. Yet, in the poem that gives the name to the book, in my eyes, it is a malicious wind. A symbol or image, if you will, of what I sense around me, wherever I am. But, even a malicious wind may, in fact, lead to positive results given its subversive element. Powerful for sure. And power is everywhere; it may be both positive and negative, and at times both at the same time.

Were I to pitch both these two questions to you — ‘where do you come from?’ and ‘where do you write from?’, how different would your answers be? I know you’re very much on the same page with Edward Said’s experience of exile as being ‘permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever’. Is poetry for you also a matter of leaving things behind forever? Or, as the title of a previous collection of yours (‘Luggage’) suggests, does it involve carrying things around with you? Are you a nomad, an exile or a bit of both, somewhat?

I come from wherever I was and I am, and which is exactly where I write from. Since the age of fifteen I strongly felt the urge to leave the island, which I appreciated more and more after about twenty years that I had departed. But even in Canada I moved around quite a bit. In many ways I feel like I have a bit of every place I have lived in, even if my experiences at some time were not positive. What we leave behind is never the same once we return; yet, it is always in the background. And the return can be both literal or metaphoric. We can never abandon the ‘luggage’ — however you conceive of it. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in my first collection, Bejn Żewġ Dinjiet/In Between (2001) which includes a section of poems written prior to 1977, when I left from Malta; and a section with poetry written in Canada.

Poetry for me is a mixture of what I might have left behind and the present, but also about how I might envisage the future — the literal and the metaphorical intertwine and, at times, it is difficult to distinguish between them.

Now, after forty-four years of living in Canada, I feel more than ever that I am a nomad in exile. Today, I have no fixed home, and continuously feel the need and urge to move around. I got used to surviving by the surprise/excitement/sorrow (all in one) that the lack of fixity can offer us. In exile, because initially I had to leave and, for a while, abandon the provincialism of my homeland. I would not have survived otherwise. And hence, the existential question: and now? A bit of both as, I believe, I have shown through the poems in Imkien għall-Kenn (2020) and also Xewqat tal-Passa/Migrant Desires (2017).

You’re an educator by profession — how does this aspect of your life fit in with your creative activity? Do the poet and the educator sit well together, or not at all?

The educator and the poet sit well together. But not the poet and the academic. The latter, to me, has become a representation of rigidity, posture, and I also dare add, narrow-mindedness. However, the poet and the intellectual who attempts to educate and also learn at the same time, is another story. Of course, my understanding of education is not synonymous with institutionalised and certified ‘education’ but, primarily, with and through life, especially in and through the relationship with the other — who may be very different! I hope I am not sounding arrogant. Truly, though, I feel very strongly about my critique of a very impoverished academia that has been hijacked by inflexibility and capitalism.

Dar-Riħ Malizzjuż

Your poetry is a busy, multi-city affair — a flurry of metaphor and image that travels out from the places you visit, into your writing, then making its way into us, hitching rides on our senses, getting its mileage out of our response. How does your writing travel?

In a nutshell, my writing travels by constantly challenging ‘the normal’. I truly can’t stand the conceptual construct of the normal! Ever since, at the age of fifteen when I failed all the bloody meaningless exams and was told that I am only good to be thrown into the fire (“tajjeb biss għall-ħruq”), I challenged the notion of normalcy. And the tension I have identified is one I have encountered, and continue to encounter, everywhere I visit.
I believe this tension is very present in Dar-Riħ Malizzjuż. Of course, I hope this is mostly done through metaphors and images, rather than declarations. And I try to write in such a way as to create a space for the imagination of the reader to wander and maybe also experience the tension. But, of course, every reader should be totally free for their experience of a reading or an interpretation. I hope they find it enjoyable.

Reading your work, one comes up against cities, ports and islands, yes — but these are intertwined with the bid of migrants as they take on the dangerous corridors of sea in search of a better life. How would you describe your Mediterranean, in this sense?

My Mediterranean is insatiable, courageous, adventurous and even generous – all at once! And, at times, malicious!

One last question — I get the sense that sharing your poetry is an important part of the act of writing it in the first place. You must be looking forward to your participation at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2021… and to future plans?

Very much so. Poetry, like other literary genres, is written to be shared and also discussed and critiqued through the process of breaking boundaries and transgression!

Future plans? At 67, I feel the urgency to write more than ever! Not because I want to be didactic, but because I believe in the virtue of the encounter through writing.

John Portelli will be participating in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed on the 27th and 28th of August at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from

This article was original published on Newsbook:

17 August, 2001