Antonio D’Alfonso is one of the most prolific writers in Canada today. He has written, translated and edited over forty books of poetry, prose and essays, as well as producing and directing several award winning films. His work delves deeply past our fixations with culture and the notions of who we are to expose our very humanity. He is a true 21st Century artist. In June, his creative contributions will be recognized by Athabasca University.
This year you will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Athabasca in recognition of your outstanding contributions, as an editor, translator, publisher and creative artist. How do you feel about this?
This is a special moment for me.
To be offered such recognition
is something one never expects.
The surprise was total.
“A man’s true delight,”
Marcus Aurelius wrote,
“is to do the things
he was made for.”
I dedicated fifty years
in helping other writers and artists
to express themselves
through writing and art.
It was a wonderful experience.
I do not regret a single moment.
Never easy to work
with men and women who want to be erratic.
But the books are there
for all to read. It was never
about me. It was about
the discovery of a forbidden identity.
Research is never a solitary event.
We might all work in our rooms,
but in the end it is the sharing
our verdicts that determines quality.
I was a facilitator.
I would not have written much
without having had the privilege
of publishing other writers.
To be acknowledged for my work
means that somehow we
all did something that
is worthy of analysis and appreciation.
In 1978 you started Guernica Editions and you were also the Co-founder of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers. What was it like at this time being a writer in Canada of Italian origins?
I published my first book in 1973.
It took five years before I started
to publish other writers.
I was not aware we were Italians.
Out of five books, three were
by Italian Canadians. Such a term
did not exist back then.
All I knew was that
we scanned objects differently.
Not because of our content,
our forms were singular,
It was not something obvious.
In 2016 I did not feel this way,
one acknowledges some writers
are Italian Canadian.
What seems to me important
is the need to qualify what it is
that Italian Canadians do.
Essays do that. I love essays.
Fiction can be copied.
Contents can be copied.
Images can be copied.
Ideas on identity can’t.
What is an Italian Canadian?
The terms are not recognized
legally. French Canadian
and British Canadian are.
So the job of the Italian Canadian
is whether we like it or not
a political question.
Otherwise we become solely content.
Is this what we want? To be a thing?
Anyone can write about Italians.
Anyone can write about Canadians.
Few can create Italian Canadian forms.
What these forms are
is hard to define. Future generations
will be able to delineate what forms
Italian Canadians create today for themselves.
We are like Plato’s prisoners
in a cave looking at shadows.
One day someone will designate
the light behind these shadows.
You have written over forty books and made several films, where does your work come from?
My work has always been commissioned.
I have rarely sat down to write poetry.
Or essays. Or a novel. Or a translation.
Everything I have written was commissioned.
I have nothing to say.
So many writers have written
such great works. Who am I
to even dare walk into that citadel?
Writing is a wager. A bet
on something that is not necessary.
It must not become an obsession.
Illness brings about illness.
The writer is someone who
asks questions, but does not give
answers. Writing is a question
asked to the reader.
How do you think your Italian Canadian culture influences your work now?
Does a fish know it swims in water?
A fish does not know it is a fish.
A fish does not know it swims.
A fish does not know what water is.
The moment the fish acts like a duck
something suddenly happens.
Everything that was taken for granted
becomes one hell of a turmoil.
It was only when I met Italic writers
from Germany and the USA
that a bulb lit up. The settings
became clearer, the play understandable.
Bringing back this information
to the place I lived was an essential moment.
I needed to open my handkerchief
and show off my rocks of gold.
Not everyone likes gold.
Some prefer silver.
Others enjoy diamonds.
Those who like gold smile as I do.
Name a writer or filmmaker who influenced your work the most and why?
There are so many writers,
there are so many photographers,
there are so many filmmakers
that it would be foolish to name them.
The people who changed my life
are dead or alive. Their songs are in me.
Their names I have mentioned in my writings.
All the writers I published turned me into me.
When you spend $10,000 a book
you are proving your faith to the author.
Multiply this amount by the books published
and you will know the writers I love.
500 books, 900 authors, 20,000 books
in my library. Each line, each image,
each word, each name has opened doors.
It’s not about favoritism, but horizons.
If someone wanted to start reading your work, where would you tell them to start?
When you decide on a journey
you chose a destination.
If you go to Miami
you do not bring your long-johns.
Clearly, writing is a trip.
But you never know where
encounters will take you.
You follow blindly the direction posts.
At my age the shore has been reached.
There will be some storms ahead,
but the landing-place has been touched.
I would say start with the end.
By standing on this quay
you will appreciate the voyage.
‘Isn’t it amazing, he wanted to go for a swim
but ended up exploring the South Pole.’
Everything I have done is a stepping-stone.
I rebelled against borders,
and noticed no custom guards.
Specially when it comes to ethnicity.
Once you read the essays you will
enjoy the verse and stories I tried to write.
I would have loved to be as linear
as a Renaissance man, but am a Baroque.
There is no straight line to the arrival point.
A does not lead to B, but to Z.
Being Italian outside Italy means
to be a circumference for others, but not a circle.
If a film was made of your life who would you choose to direct it?
I have written about myself
but I guess much has yet to be said.
I would love John Cassavetes (real)
and Jacques Tati (hyperreal) to direct my minute life-story.
A woman with the humour of Charles Chaplin.
A young director who captures the klutz
that I am, in spite of my trying to be serious.
A Woody Allen comedy on the dyslexia of life.
Imagine the tragic persona
who makes everyone laugh
every time he insists on people crying.
‘Forgeet ‘bout eet, laugh, you cafon’.’
What projects are you working on now?
Memoirs. Two films. A reçit on fatherhood.
I translate 1000 pages of poetry a year.
I started to write a book on Guernica.
Am collecting my poetry (all out of print).
Reprinting my essays. Translating
my last novel into English. Putting
that trilogy on Fabrizio Notte in one book.
Pretty much gathering the pieces together.
Writing is about making sure
what one did is organized.
I donated my archives to McMaster University.
Thousands and thousands of letters.
I am working on an exhibition
of over forty years of photography.
People are waiting, but I’m lazy and broke.
I have two poetry books on the go, but why?
What advice do you have for young writers and filmmakers today?
Education, education, education.
Study, study, study.
Question, question, question.
Say you’re stupid, be stupid, and listen.
Tell yourself like Octavio Paz,
‘Poetry is expressed in language,
but it goes beyond language.’
Learn other languages. Translate.
Write about yourself and the Other.
Not from the inside, but from the outside.
Be a voyeur. Peep through keyholes.
Be as radical as Pasolini, as fanciful as Cocteau.
Take nothing for granted, principally yourself.
Self is something that is fashioned, not borne.
Look on the dusty selves of libraries.
Read the books that people say are no good.
Even the worst of poems teaches you
how to be the best of yourself.
Don’t be first in line. Stay in the back.
You’ll have a better view of what is going on.
Don’t emulate the people considered good.
Only you know what is good for you.
Be generous. Put the other first.
You’re job is to do what you are here to do.
If you don’t, you will regret so much.
Imagine the fig tree that produces apples.
What good is food that is offbeat?
If you’re a tomato plant, don’t be a shrimp.