Italian poet Alfredo de Palchi has always avoided
conformity. As a teenager, he paid a dear price for
his fierce individualism: he was imprisoned and
tortured by the Communists after World War II in
Legnago, a suburb of Verona where he was born in
Many fine Italian poets do not translate well into
English, but de Palchi is not one of those. His stark
images and staccato rhythms have more emotional power
in their Italian originals, but they come through
very well in English translation. Regarded as
something of an anti-poet, against all establishment
ideas of what the art must or should be, he has
maintained a supreme independence from all literary
movements and has developed a style all his own. With
no interest whatsoever in participating in the
literary scene, he has done much to further the cause
of poetry, particularly contemporary and modern
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On Italian poetry
On American poetry
The war in Italy
Writing The Scorpion's Dark Dance
Solipsism in Italian journals
Interview with Alfredo de Palchi
In his apartment in Union Square, New York City,
Alfredo de Palchi led me past shelves of books, collected vases, and
objects d'art to his small study where a beautiful
cat lolled lazily across his desk in front of a
charming picture of Luce, his daughter, prominently displayed. We
settled into chairs, and I began by asking him to say
something about his early life, his wartime
experiences and how he began writing poetry.
AdP: I saw my first light around
Verona, Italy, in the Venetian region. My
hometown was, and still is, busy with people of
peasant extraction and the narrow minded. Being a
natural son, I had a mother with plenty of love
but not much culture. But, instinctively, she
gave me books to read, and she encouraged me in
my pre-teens and early teens to pursue my
passions, such as the violin and watercolors.
Writing came later when I was challenged by an
older, published poet, a fellow political
prisoner. He encouraged me. He read some of the
letters I was writing to a girl. He said, 'These
are not letters, these are poetry. Why don't you
put these in verse?' I said, 'Well, I don't know.
I could try.' And that started it.
DG: Can you tell us
how your experience as a political prisoner
influenced your writing?
AdP: Those experiences are much too
complicated to define. One needs to be a little
knowledgeable about what was happening to Italy.
There was a war and, at the same time, a civil
war. Though allied with the Germans, Italy was
divided. On September 8, 1943, the Italian
government betrayed Germany, so a lot of Italian
soldiers were made prisoners of war by the
DG: Because they
went AWOL? They didn't want to fight?
AdP: Yes, so Italy went with the
Americans and the Allies. Soon after, little
battles started here and there. By 1945, at the
end of the World War, Italy was in a full-fledged
civil war. At the frontier, it was the Germans
against the Allies. At the same time, it was
Italians against Italians. Now, imagine an
adolescent pushed here and there: I suffered
cruelty from all sides. I felt only contempt for
DG: How long were
you in prison?
AdP: I passed six years in prison.
DG: Six years of
your youth? From what age?
AdP: From almost 18 until I was 25, in
the spring of 1951.
Alfredo de Palchi
as a teenager
On the day of
defeat I search the truth
I am the
boy armed with wounds
the trampled soil
idol of clay
bread of discord
the rafter in the eye
the sling that points at the world
golden crash of the rooster
on the day of defeat I find that truth
from The Scorpion's Dark Dance
DG: How terrible to
be imprisoned in the bloom of youth. Did you write
during your imprisonment?
AdP: Let me explain this way. As I told
you, this friend, this older poet told me what to
do. I can say, yes, the past influenced my vision
of life and poetry. It could be easy to say that
poetry helped me to survive. It did not. I
survived my physical nightmares from childhood
and as a grown man because I was mentally strong,
and I had contempt towards the 'so-called'
enemyinferior human beings. Try to
understand: you were at war with the others, so
you were obliged to go with each other, and I
didn't want to go with anyone. I was young, not
old enough to be a soldier. You are caught here
and you are caught there. I saw a murder happen
during the war. You can call it killing, you can
call it murder, you can call it war. They asked
me about it, and I explained as much as I could,
but they didn't believe me; they wanted to know
more. I said to them I didn't know more. How the
hell could I know more? There were other people
there who saw it. Why did they pick me? Anyway,
that is the story. I offended the army with what
I was saying. As a matter of fact, even when I
came out of prison, since I didn't do military
service, I couldn't leave Italy. They refused to
give me a passport, so I complained. I went to a
general and said, 'I don't want to do military
service, I would rather go back to prison, to
where I was. I don't care.'
DG: When did you
start to write poetry?
AdP: First, as I have already said, I
was challenged to write poetry in 1946. But I
started seriously in 1947, at the age of 20. In
the beginning I was not just compelled to write
it. I became obsessed. The result was the poetry
Scorpion's Dark Dance, poetry
from 1947 to 1951 [published after more than 40
years from its inception]. This friend
told me, 'Write.' So, I pick up and start to
write, and as I said, The
Scorpion's Dark Dance was the
DG: And did your
very first writing come fresh out of your mind or had
you been reading in prison?
AdP: Oh, yes, I read a lot in prison;
there was a library there, but I read mostly
books by French authors, in Italian, so I made
culture from French literature [laughs]. It was
unbelievable. That started it. I was even
dreaming poetry, you know, writing in my dreams!
Something! I had another collection which has
been lost by a critica critic in 1951, who,
as a matter of fact, before leaving for France
said that he would like to have me to publish,
this critic. Something happened to him; he moved,
he lost his wife to another man, and he lost my
manuscript, and it was the only copy I had! I
remember one thing: stylistically it was
different from The
Scorpion's Dark Dance,
because at that moment I was reading the Bible,
so I was influenced not by religion, but by these
waves of musicBible verses. It was that
kind of poetryimages.
DG: Your writing was
influenced by the Bible?
AdP: I think so.... I read the Bible,
yes, but I read it as literature. I'm not a religious person from the beginning.
fascinating to me is that this poetry sprang out of
you in this way, almost like a young Rimbaud.
AdP: If you want to say. Thank you very
much to mention Rimbaud because, at that time, I
was interested in this kind of poetry, of Rimbaud
and somebody elseI don't remember the
nameand Gerard de Nerval, and naturally, my
beloved Francois Villon, who is 15th
DG: Villon was a
major influence for you?
AdP: Well, I don't know if he was an
influence. I can't say. For sure, he is one poet
that I like.
DG: Well, Villon
influenced Rimbaud, and this first book of yours, for
me, is Rimbaud-esque.
AdP: Yes, it is something.
DG: Yes, you know,
it is the rage of a young man who sees what a crazy
world it is, and he's furious...
de Palchi at age 27
"The Scorpion's Dark Dance... emerged from the wrenching of the
body and soul that de Palchi endured for several years in political
incarceration... unforgettable and unforgivable years. And the sting
is still sharp....
It is this deep hurt, mixed with his blood,
that eventually declares itself in a knotted, rough scar of tense
no more the thumps of the bullet-riddled in the wheat
the shrieks of old mouths, the beasts
trapped by fire and the dark sloshing
in the Adige
nor see a
pack of cowards
watching a body slump at the wall
the truck suddenly let go at the streetlamp
one who makes faces with his eloquent
lump of a tongue
from The Scorpion's Dark Dance
DG: ...because the
world is insane.
AdP: But, you see, the Italians don't
know this book.
Scorpion's Dark Dance?
AdP: They don't know this book. They
will never publish it because I don't write like
them, or they don't write like me, so we are
completely different. At that time nobody was
writing like that, nobody.
DG: Like the French
AdP: Nothing like that. I don't know if
the French were writing that way. For sure, they
were writing better than the Italians. And at
that time I didn't appreciate very much Ungaretti
or Montale. I started to appreciate them later. I
appreciated other people before them.
DG: So would you say
that those French symbolists are still your favorites
over the Italians?
AdP: In a sense, yes.
DG: ...because there
is this starkness to your poetry. It doesn't have the
dense lines of a Montale; it doesn't have any of the
religious intonations that Montale, sometimes... you
know? So, it's still closer to the symbolists than to Montale.
AdP: But there is still some religious
connotation in The
Scorpion's Dark Dance because
there are a couple of images that I have there
that are scornful... eh..., how do you say
it? Ironic. For example, I don't remember the
poem in its entirety, but I remember I used 'The
Word' from the Bible, meaning God, you know. And
I said, in a sense, that I will continue His
workhorrendous workthat I will
continue to do the destruction that is going on,
since Inot myself, but humanitywe are
"...de Palchi employs a language deprived of
conventional impediments, such a punctuation, ordinary syntax, and
rules of grammar....conveying an unprecedented sense of
I adjust my glance
I count the years
years cheated regretted gifted
to ravenous Babylon
if tomorrow were only sure I could perhaps
survive the deep bites inside me
isolatedunable to guess what light
will give me strength
meanwhile in this cubicle
coming of age I gnaw at myself
and scrape on stone for a different life
from The Scorpion's Dark Dance
Alfredo de Palchi in Italy, 1953
DG: What is your
philosophy of writing, then, besides the challenge?
AdP: Frankly, I don't have a
philosophy. Well, I don't know to have a
philosophy. In fact, I don't even care in
philosophy; I never cared. If I have a philosophy
unknown to me, then one feels it in my work if it
is there. Otherwise, I don't care about the
DG: So you told me
something about your favorite poets, the European
ones. Who were your favorite American poets? Or do
you prefer to talk more about the European ones?
AdP: Let me start this way. I can
mention some European ones: Francois Villon,
Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire, a few more French
poets, all from the 19th century.
Among Italians, there is Dante; then I jump to
the 20th century, mentioning Giuseppe
Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale. There are maybe a
couple more. I refuse to mention contemporary
living poets. I mention only the dead ones: T.S.
Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens,
Laura Riding, and I wish to surprise you with the
name of Stephen Crane.
DG: Stephen Crane?
What is it about Crane?
AdP: I like his poetry. Short. Snap. As
a matter of fact, I translated some poems of his.
They are short poems; maybe they will reappear in
some magazine. Maybe.
DG: That's very
interesting. Not many people speak of Crane.
AdP: Maybe, maybe. I must shock
somebody with a name that very few people expect.
DG: Yes, I'm very
well aware of him because he's one of the country's
early poets and one of New Jersey's first poets. Who
do you think has been the greatest influence
on your own writing?
AdP: Again, I don't know precisely. If
I say one or two names, maybe because I used some
similar wordsnot imagesI could be
thought as a follower. Consciously I follow
nobody. I remain, for good or bad, myself:
Alfredo de Palchi.
DG: Id like to
ask you to say something about your association with Chelsea
and how and why it became early noted for its
internationalism and love of translations.
AdP: I must say that Sonia Raiziss and
I did not found Chelsea. It was put
together in 1958. We both came in as editors in
1960. Soon after, the magazine was edited all by
Sonia and myself, but the real editor was Sonia
until her death in 1994. The story of how and why
Chelsea was founded is too long. It was
founded during a dinner at a Greek restaurant in
the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
DG: So it is, in
fact, named after the neighborhood.
AdP: Yes, yes.
DG: Now what about
the international aspect of it? Was that something
that you and Sonia had a particular interest in?
AdP: No, I started at the beginning
with the first, second issue, something like
that. There was, for example, Samuel Beckett,
Raja Rao, an Indian writer, and others I can't
DG: What is your
role with Chelsea magazine today?
AdP: For obvious reasons, I never
wanted to be the editor. Frankly, I don't do much
now; I am just watching the magazine sailing
along with minimal problems possible. Certainly,
I can suggest to dismiss somebody if I want, so I
still have some power.
DG: But you're
basically there for a kind of quality control,
helping the magazine survive.
AdP: Yes; that's right.
DG: How did you come
to be a champion of poetry and of Italian poetry in
AdP: Well, I started soon after I came
to New York City, on October 12, 1956. For sure,
I started, with the very important help of Sonia
Raiziss, to publish in the Atlantic Monthly,
in 1958, some Italian poets totally unknown here,
including Eugenio Montale, and in Poetry
magazine. That's way back.
"With de Palchi reflections are not rare and
abstract conceptualizations; they emerge out of the depth
of his mind as concrete images, leaping onto the page out
of a persisting torment."
At the changing of the ages I veer off
towards other worlds
to a point of no return
and ask my heart
with its bird's instinct
to show me the way.
from Anonymous Constellation
Arriving by boat in the United States
first time, 1956.
DG: You were the
first one to translate Montale into English?
AdP: Yes, in the Atlantic Monthly
DG: And who were the
other Italians that you translated?
AdP: There was Vincenzo Cardarelli,
Leonardo Sinisgalli, and, yes, another one, a
poet that was discovered by Montale: Lucio
Piccolo, who was a cousin of the prince of Lampedusa, author of The
DG: There is such an
ignorance of the Italian language here in America.
AdP: Exactly. That is the reason. And
still there is unknown Italian literature in
America, at least the good ones.
DG: And of course
everyone agrees that Italian is a musical language,
so it's ironic that Americans don't have more
knowledge of this very musical language and its
poetry, that people who want to make musical poetry
have no idea of the musicality of the language.
AdP: There is musicality in Italian,
certainly, yes, but that doesn't mean that
because there is musicality, there is poetry.
DG: Even Mozart
chose to write his operas in Italian. And yet there
is an objective sense about musicality in Italian by
all people, so it would be useful to the American ear
to know more Italian.
AdP: Certainly, that too. But my
purpose is to push Italian literature, mostly
poetry, anyway, here in America, naturally
choosing good writers, good poets from the 20th
century. We had very good poets. Today, I don't
know. We will go on and see.
DG: As a trustee of
the Sonia Raiziss Giop Charitable Foundation for
Poetry, what would you say is the vision of this
trust, or at least your vision and what your part has
to do with your championing of Italian writing and
Italian language poetry?
AdP: I will speak briefly on that.
Until now, it has supported a few magazines here
and in Italy, some very small and not-for-profit
publishers, literary prizes here and in Italy,
literary societies, cats and dogs, etc....
DG: Despite the fact
that one might see some cynicism in your poetry, I
know you have a great feeling for children and
animals, so the charitable foundation does other
things besides cultural things.
AdP: Oh, yes. Yes.
DG: Tell me about
the prizes you have founded in particular.
AdP: One is a prize that the Academy of
American Poets is giving: the Raiziss/de Palchi
prize. [The Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Award]
In one year, it is given for a book [a
translation], already published, of an Italian
poet. The book doesn't necessarily have to be a
recent one; it can be years old, but it is
established that it is a good book. That one is
for $5,000. There is also the fellowship, given
in the next year: $20,000 for a person who says,
'I would like to translate so-and-so' [enabling
an American translator 'to travel, study and
otherwise advance a significant work in
progress']. We choose the best.
DG: From sample
translations or completed work?
AdP: From samples. And this year, for
example, the $20,000 was won by Emanuel di
Pasquale for translations of Silvio Ramat. The
book will be published by the not-for-profit
DG: And the prizes
you founded in Italy?
AdP: Well, in America there is also the
Bordighera Prize that you know about,
huh? That is slightly different. It's a prize for
translations from English into Italian by authors
of Italian origin or name, Americans with a name
of Italian origin and translated into Italian.
That is interesting. Maybe, if we are lucky, we
In Italy, I subsidize the established
"Premio de Poesia della cittŕ di San Vito
Al Tagliamento." But
three years ago I founded, together with an
organizer, the "Premio de
Palchi/Raiziss" for young people from 18 to
29 years old, and that is a prize given every
DG: A book
publication prize for young people?
AdP: No, we give around $3,000 for the
first winner, and a little less to each, the
second and third. The last two years, they
receivedI don't do anything on this
prizeat least 1000 poems, from which they
chose twenty of the bestwhat they
considered the bestand they made a booklet
in Italian. It is nice. The young people love to
see their poetry published. It's very encouraging
DG: Do you think
that poetry is more a part of the Italian diet, of
Italian life, than in America?
AdP: I don't know that. I cant
say; I don't live there. I know that millions of
Italians write, but nobody reads. Everybody wants
to write, but nobody reads. So the books there
remain unsold, as usual. I think it's worse
DG: Worse than in
AdP: Yes, worse than America because,
there, everybody wants to publish, but nobody
wants to buy. They spend maybe $15, $20 for, what
is it, for a CD, for music that I call 'noisy
noise,' but they never spend $15, $20 for a book.
DG: Do you think
it's very Americanized now, the Italian culture with
the rock and roll music, with even less reading than
AdP: You go in Italy, okay? You don't
hear them speaking English; they are speaking
Italian, but it seems to be America.
DG: Well, its
true, American culture is colonizing the world, the
same way it is happening in Tokyo...
AdP: Everywhere! Everywhere!
DG: That music, of
course, and Hollywood, and films in particular.... At
least the Italians seem to have made more of an art
of the film early on. So you would say that it's
really an American culture wherever you go today?
AdP: Yes, it's an American pop culture.
DG: What have been
the most satisfying moments and accomplishments of
your career in literature?
AdP: It should be the publication of
each book. Instead, my most satisfaction is when
I have accomplished a manuscript or a single
poem. I know I have written something good when I
feel very, very sexy. When I am writing and I
know it is something good, I get hot.
Unbelievable! Unbelievable! Even if it has
nothing to do with erotic poetry.
DG: I understand
what you mean, you get excited.
AdP: Excited, yes.
de Palchi the poet is the man. What he has
known, what he has lived, is what he writes.
Hes one of the most instinctive, shall
I say "natural," poets I know. His
feelings become his words, his words
originate from what life has dealt him; they
swirl leap and sing from the fire
withinborn of sharp stings and shooting
spontaneously through his flesh."
Sonia Raiziss, France, 1966
DG: ...and the blood
flows, and you feel alive. I understand. So which of
your books excites you the most? Do you have a
AdP: Oh, I like all four! [laughing] I
don't know because each book is different. Like
it or dislike it, what it is, but each book is
different. They can't accuse me to write the same
DG: No, no, and
actually, if we were to put the books in their proper
chronological order as written, ...
Scorpion's Dark Dance should
be the first. Then Sessions with my Analyst.
But do you see, the poems from this bookthe
last one, and also from the previous one
were written more or less also when I wrote Sessions
with my Analyst, but were a different style.
Do you see the difference?
DG: Yes, but this
latest book came before the prior one in writing,
chronologically, that is. The Addictive
was written before Anonymous
AdP: Not all, not all. In between, they
are mingled, except I chose the poems that they
go from. One book goes with another book.
DG: So, how long ago
did you write the last published poem?
AdP: "Mutations," in 13
parts, was in '87. That is the last one
DG: We have quite a
large subculture of poets here and magazines and
activities and readings. Is there an equivalent
amount of those per population in Italy?
AdP: There are magazines in Italy, literary magazines, but
they function in a different way. Here, as you
know, anybody can send the editors poems or
articles and so forth, and be rejected or
accepted; then after, send to another magazine
and be accepted there; and maybe come back later,
after 3, 4, 5, 6 months, come back again because
they know how the system works. In Italy it is
not like that. There, a bunch of people get
together, found a magazine, and they publish
themselves. They discuss about themselves: 'Did
you see my beautiful comma in the last article,
how beautiful it was?' Now, I am trying to make
fun about it, but that is the way in Italy. That
is why it is difficult to publish in magazines in
DG: Because it's
much more nepotistic?
AdP: Yes, between themselves, between
4, 5, 6 people together.
DG: So there's not a
sense of democracy?
DG: Of course,
there's a great deal of nepotism here as well, but
you feel that there's more openness for something
AdP: Yes, yes. Here, most magazines are
open. Maybe you don't succeed to appear, but they
are open; you can send the poems. In Italy, you
can't even send.
DG: Doesn't it end
up being a bunch of old farts, then?
AdP: Yes, yes. But at least, sometimes,
somebody succeeds, too. For example, I see people
that submit to Chelsea. They send in
material, and they say, 'I've published here and
here,' big names, big magazines, and I say to
myself, 'How is this possible that these people
have been published in these magazines when I am
DG: It must have to
do also with knowing people. There, probably, I'm
sure, just as here, they let a few in, people they
get to know.
AdP: Maybe... maybe. I think it is also
DG: Social contact
plays a huge part in American poetry. Maybe you don't
feel that in your magazine Chelsea?
AdP: No, no...
DG: But social
contact is very powerful in America, as to who gets
published, that is.
AdP: You know, I'm sure that editors
know who I am, that I am with Chelsea. I'm
talking about editors, now. They send to Chelsea.
Sometimes I'll accept them; sometimes I'll reject
them. What I do to him, he does to me, so perhaps
it is this same editor, and when I send him my
poems, he rejects them without one word, a
DG: Do you think
that's because you don't belong to a 'school' of
Italian poetry today? What are the major movements in
AdP: Well, presently, there is no
school or movement in Italy. Most of the
so-called poets write as if they were just
blowing wind: cascades of words, no meaning, no
life. Maybe that is a movement. I'm being pretty
nasty, but I dare to say the real poetry in
Italian is created here, in America.
DG: So there is a
very expressionistic movement in Italian poetry now?
AdP: [silence...] ...it is only that
there is no experience in what they write. No life experience. They
think they are talking about life, but it's all
in their heads, that's all.
DG: So it's very
solipsisticmachinations of the brain.
AdP: Yes, cerebral.
DG: Would you say
it's very similar to the poetry of the Ashbery
school, the Jorie Graham school of writing?
AdP: Let me answer in this way about
these people. The poetry in America, generally
speaking, is powerful, except what comes out of
all the writing programs, from all the followers,
imitators of the few powerful ones. So that's my
answer to that.
DG: Yes, but you
don't want to mention the names of any contemporary
AdP: No, I don't. I don't want them to
come after me. [laughs] I prefer the Italians
come after me.
That's because there's a big sea between you!
AdP: Also because I speak badly. I am
not a very good speaker, but I read. And I
understand what I am reading, and I can judge a
poem. Yes, most of America's poets imitate each
other. I told the people of the Academy of
American Poets once, I said, 'You know, all the
poets that you present or are now reading, for
me, all sound the same.' You can pick one name,
and that covers them all. They all sound the
DG: Where would you
prefer to live and write if you could choose?
AdP: Let me go back, then. I didn't
produce very much work. I write when I feel that
it's the right moment, beginning with an image or
thought, while riding a train, while walking, or
while I am in my studio. To finishif it
were possiblea poem, I take my time. I
don't rush. This is the reason why I only
produced four books. But each one is different
from the other. I can say I didn't repeat or copy
myself while I was in Italy, in France, in Spain,
or the United States, where I reside. I would
like to live everywhere.
"...the experience is so internal, the reader must guess how far down it goes."
Alfredo de Palchi with his daughter Luce, 1995
That's the best place to live. Well, I think we have
finished all of the questions. Is there anything you
would like to add?
AdP: No, at this moment, it doesn't
occur to me to add anything. I would like to
thank you firstmany thanks to you, Ms.
Daniela Gioseffiand then The Cortland
Review for having me as a guest.
Gioseffi is an American Book Award-winning author of twelve books. She has edited
two prize-winning compendiums of world literature and reviewed poetry for many prominent
publications, including American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, and Independent
Publisher. Gioseffi edits Skylands Writers & Artists Association, Inc. and
Women's Web, which was nominated for "Best of the Web," 1998.
Her latest book of poetry, Going On: Poems (Via Folios, 23), was
published in May, 2000.
For more Alfredo de Palchi, read
Daniela Gioseffi's book review of Addictive
Aversions in Issue