Interview by Noel Tanti.
When I first met Miriam Calleja fifteen years ago, she had just joined a fringe theatre company that some of my friends were involved in. As a new addition to the group – as happens in any small social circle – she was immediately ‘tagged’. In Miriam’s case it was ‘she who writes poems’.
As far as I can recall, she never recited any poetry during the shows, choosing instead to involve herself in comedy sketches. A decade and a half down the line, and with several publications under her belt, Miriam is currently a well-established literary voice.
It wasn’t an easy journey. Miriam is the first to admit that poetry is possibly the least popular of art forms. With very few exceptions, such as the Instagram-based Atticus, all-round artist Rupi Kaur, or the Oprah-endorsed Amanda Gorman and Maya Angelou, one rarely sees poetry gracing the bestsellers lists. In Malta, this appears even more true, given the minuscule market, abetted by the fact that, as a country, reading is the opposite of endemic.
This is a very strange thing, considering that children love to read poems and adolescents love writing them. At some point poetry morphs from being an enjoyable pursuit to something which is kept at arms’ length.
‘I think that the education system carries some of the blame here,’ says Miriam. ‘At school I recall loving my literature lessons, but poetry wasn’t my favourite. The poems we studied were not modern and therefore hard to relate to, both in terms of themes and of subject matter. A more contemporary selection would have helped a lot. Seeing how almost everybody goes through a poetry writing phase, it seems to be a legitimate stage of growing up.’
A consequence of shunning poetry is that budding writers will keep their work to themselves. The fear of being judged or even ridiculed is a real one. Especially when you consider that poetry is often a means of expressing deep feelings.
‘This is something which used to worry me a lot at first. It is the reason why it took me years to finally share my writing with other people. But later on I realised that, no matter what, my relationship with the poem, and with the experience of writing it, remains untouched by the reader or listener. There is a kernel of intimate truth in the poem which is solely for me.’
(On publishing her first anthology, Pomegranate Heart (EDE Books, 2015), Miriam declared that it was ‘akin to hanging up dirty laundry but with an ISBN number.’)
Words are essentially a means of communication. Even when we’re trying to make sense of the existential mayhem that beleaguers us, we are still in a conversation (with ourselves). The writerly skill takes centre stage when it comes to transforming a personal reality into a universal experience. And one knows whether they were successful only when the work is out there.
‘We don’t know what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ without other people’s opinions. We understand our own writing better when we start to share it, and that is how we can grow, observe our flaws, get more from our practice.’
Easier said than done. Reading your work for the first time in front of total strangers remains a daunting task. Miriam’s first public appearance was during a literary salon: ‘It was the first time that I read my work in front of a room full of people. This was a turning point for me. Afterwards, people came up to me to tell me that they were touched by my poems, that they could relate to them on a personal level. They felt that they weren’t alone. Poetry was very important to me but the fact that my work could make a difference in someone else’s life, just blew my mind.’
Eventually, Miriam organised these salons herself, an experience which she cherishes greatly. During the last few years, she has been conducting creative writing workshops, forging a space for fledgling artists to share their work with likeminded people. Writing is essentially a lonely endeavor and inviting listeners, readers and other writers to engage with you, enriches the experience. ‘Poetry is just one aspect of what it means to be human. When successful, it allows us to understand each other better. It minimises the rifts between us because it resonates on a level that we share with numerous other people.’
The encounter becomes even more meaningful when artists collaborate with each other, especially if they combine different art forms. Miriam is a firm believer in this. ‘When you ally poetry with other forms of art, you create a space for an exchange, allowing an abundance of content to emerge that would otherwise remain concealed. The marriage of different minds and of different creative wellsprings propels one’s work to exciting, uncharted territories; to new dimensions of interpretation. Especially when you’re working with someone on your same wavelength.’
One can see this in Luftmeer, an art book featuring photography by Anne Buscher and Sanne Vaassen, and poetry by Miriam. The work is the result of an artist residency in 2020 at the Villa Waldberta in Germany. Images and words converge into a myriad of ideas, feelings and intimations, whose unifying agent is the artists’ consciousness, inspired by their surroundings and the interaction among themselves. To use Miriam’s words, [a] line traverses, connects.
Miriam is however adamant to stress that in working with other artists in this way, there is no invasion of intimacy because there is no need to decipher every single detail. ‘Collaborating is not analysing. Finding someone to collaborate with, and being in harmony with their work, elevates your work. This broadens your reach in terms of imagination and audience.’
Therefore, it all boils down to nurturing a poetic mindset and working hard towards maintaining it; allowing the personal to intermingle with the universal; meeting people and sharing ideas, building on these connections. If I had to meet Miriam now for the very first time, her tag would be ‘she who sees poetry in the world’.
Miriam Calleja will be opening the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival on 27 August, at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from showshappening.com.
This article was original published on Newsbook: https://newsbook.com.mt/en/miriam-calleja-she-who-sees-poetry-in-the-world/
20 August, 2021