Poet, academic and one of the frequent Vic Books patrons who most brightens our day, Marco Sonzogni is co-editor, with Timothy Smith, of a new anthology More Favourable Waters: Aotearoa Poets Respond to Dante's Purgatory.
Marco teaches at the School of Languages and Cultures at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington and is the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. We chatted to Marco about his love of Dante, what he likes best about Wellington and why coffee must rhyme with company.
What’s your day job?
I am an academic here at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington. I do teaching, research and administration for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the theory and practice of translation and intercultural communication in our School of Languages and Cultures, in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. I also work alongside an international and interdisciplinary whanau of MA and PhD students exploring an exciting array of topics – from traditional tattooing to military objects, from Kung fu graphic novels to Instagram poetry; from book cover design; from subtitling to website localization; from translation as literary criticism to translation as creative writing.
What's your connection to Vic Books?
I am a patron. It is fair to say I have been visiting Vic Books every day since it opened – for a coffee and chat, or for a book, or for a buzzing background during a photoshoot or interview, or simply to stretch my legs in-between classes and meetings and spy on what foods are available or being prepared. In other words, I am a devoted and addicted patron!
You recently co-edited an anthology, More Favourable Waters: Aotearoa Poets Respond to Dante's Purgatory, in which 33 Aotearoa poets were commissioned to respond to Dante’s Purgatory with an original work of their own. How did that project come about?
The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death (1321 – 2021) provide the inspiration to celebrate in an original and poetic way of the greatest poets of all time. As it happens, Dante situated the middle book of his Divine Comedy trilogy, Purgatory, under the Southern Cross and not too far middle earth – an obvious excuse, I thought, to invite 33 Aotearoa New Zealand poets of different ethnicity, culture, age, place, and writing style to engage to respond to the 33 cantos of Purgatory. So each poet received a ‘purgatorial passage’ (in Clive James’s down under English translation) and wrote their poem with that passage in it.
More Favourable Waters is an amazing anthology and each time I read it, I am moved not only by the actual poetry written by these authors but also by how profoundly they engaged with Dante. There is no better way to celebrate a work of literature. Dante is also the subject of a course we have been teaching at this university for decades, opening it to students who are not studying the Italian language, literature and culture. Anyone who is interested in the ethics as well as the aesthetics of a work of literature, anyone who contemplates the idea of writing one, should find a way to know Dante, even superficially. More Favourable Waters and also Quantum of Dante are examples of how rewarding reading Dante can be.
Quantum of Dante, is published in Italian by Beatnik. It’s one of the most exquisitely put together books, with gold edging on the pages and embossing. Was the design your concept?
At the end of this crazy book there are a couple of pages in English that explain it. The complex text of Dante’s timeless masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, has been reproduced in a two column format like a Medieval manuscript, like the early copies of the never-retrieved original looked like. And given that Dante often relies on animals to convey his feelings and his messages, the animal in his name had to play a role… It took Sally Greer, the talented and courageous designer of Beatniks, 5 minutes to get my madness and translate into a book. The only way to get this book is indeed to get it — that is, buy it, open it, browse through it, and let loose the busy anthill inside it… There are a few surprises between those Moroccan covers (the colour of the Pope’s shoes, which is probably making Dante toss and turn in his grave…) but the reader has to give me a chance and work hard for them…
When you type into Google "why is poetry so ..." the next words that come up are either “powerful” and “important”, or “boring” and “hard to understand”. Why do you think opinions about poetry are so divided?
Poetry is condensed communication – great poets pack a lot in far less verbal material than an ordinary person does using language in an ordinary way. For this reason is both powerful and important, and for the same reason can come across as boring and hard to understand if that process of condensing meanings and feelings come at the price of accessibility and relatability. Mind you, a great deal of contemporary poetry is becoming worryingly self-centred and self-serving. The competition of a tweet, of a Facebook or Instagram post, or of a slam performance, is challenging what poetry is and does. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can generate new modes of expression and engagement with words. However, what it seems to be happening — all over the world and especially in those parts of the planet where there is the silent assumption that the only creative language on this earth is or should be English — is that a growing number of humans quicken to call themselves poets. Without having had any sustained exposure to reading and studying, never mind practicing, different types of poetry and poetry from different languages and cultures. But this is a complex and controversial topic, and certainly another story for another day with another strong coffee from Vic Books! All I will say is that I have been very lucky — many poetries have been living in me since I was a child so my concern is not to be good enough to voice them as indispensable voices within my own voice…
Tell us about a project of yours that stands out.
Editing Seamus Heaney’s Complete Translations for Faber & Faber (not long to go now before they come out). Working on the poet and for the publisher that have influenced me so profoundly as a student as well as scholar of poetry in English is an at once the best and worst thing that could have happened to me. I have to raise to the occasion now and deliver a book that will surprise, shock, and sustain many. Most importantly, I want to repay the trust and friendship the Irish Nobel Laureate gifted me.
Translating into English and annotating the poetry of the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi will always have a special place in my personal and professional life — not least because of an unexpected link to Aotearoa New Zealand… And finding a 2000 year old nail-cleaner as the amulet the Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale sent to this American-Jewish muse Irma Brandeis is also very special. The common denominator there is, again, luck — I have been steeped in luck so all I have been doing is to try and deserve that continuous luck.
You were born in Italy, have lived in various parts of the world, and now in Aotearoa. What are your favourite things about Wellington?
Pretty much everything about it apart from how expensive certain rather basic things are. It is a city that has the feel of a village; it is workplace and holiday destination at the same time; it is earth and water, it is hillside and seaside. It is native flora and fauna. It is the whole wide world in a cool capital city. You think you have seen all about it in one week and 16 years later it continues to surprise you…
What are you reading at the moment?
Do you really want to know? David Silva’s The Order because I am practicing spy fiction with the Vatican as the setting (a loooooooooooooooooooooong story! all will be revealed in due course). And Bhanu Kapil’s mesmerizing collection of poems How To Wash A Hart (winner of the TS Eliot Prize in 2020) — a tour-de-force that feels like a lullaby, proving yet again the magic that gifted poets can work with language. I hope to be able to translate it into Italian and work with some of Italy’s leading women poets.
I have just completed the translation of another powerful book of poetry, Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise (winner of the TS Eliot Prize in 2019) with some wonderful Italian poets and the experience has been so rich and so rewarding.
Are you enjoying it? Why?
I am enjoying David Silva’s novel because it is at once so familiar and so alien. And if an author can get away with a character description such as ‘Luscious Luigi’ (Luigi Donati is an archbishop and private secretary to Pope Paul VII), then there is hope for us all.
Which literary character do you most identify with and why?
Can I chose a poet? I think I can, can’t I? I have to say Catullus because his poetic persona and real persona are so adherent. And I wish I were able to do with Italian or English what he did with the Latin language, making poetry in Latin a three-dimensional experience — a graffiti that detaches itself from the wall, comes right at you, wraps around you like tinfoil and makes you feel naked even if you are wearing all the clothes you have in your wardrobe… Or William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment comes close (what a name, for starters, and what a character, and what a novel!).
Hardback or Paperback?
Paperback — the softness of a paperback has always given me the illusion of cosiness with and easiness into even the most inaccessible of contents. I am thinking of Finnegans Wake here: I think I manage to finish it, twice, because I bought it, twice, in paperback…
The filtered coffee I share with Lisa, our School Manager, when I get to work. It starts the day on a positive note no matter what awaits us. An espresso always reminds of home — of my late father making it for my mother and then for all of us when we reached the age we could drink it. It is not easy to make a good espresso. It is not easy. Anyway, coffee to me has to rhyme with company, and I go for different coffees depending whom am coffeing with. And when I coffee by myself, then it is... sorry I cannot bring myself to say it… what little Italianness is left in me would evaporate for good.