Carmelo Militano is a Winnipeg poet and writer. Born in the Italian village of Cosoleto, he immigrated to Canada at an early age with his parents. His books include Ariadne’s Thread (winner of the 2004 F. G. Bressani award for poetry) as well as a collected poems, Feast Days (2010) and the travelogue and family memoir The Fate of Olives (2006). He spoke with Alex Boyd about his novel Sebastiano’s Vine, newly published by Ekstasis Editions.
Alex Boyd: Your novel begins with a Charles Simic quote “We are fragments of an unutterable whole,” and proceeds to piece together an individual and family story from assorted moments, including the present and as far back as 1783. Did it take long to determine this was the best way to tell your story?
Carmelo Militano: I began the story as a way to kick-start my writing after a long pause. I was curious to see if I could write a story from the perspective of an adolescent—I had reread Dubliners and liked the way Joyce was able, in some of the stories, to write from a kid’s point of view. But my poetic side kept insisting on metaphor. So I launched into a bigger story, one drawn from historical events using the voice of an aging adult. Once I got that voice I began writing as much I could from various parts of the narrator’s life—he’s an historian trying to understand what happened to him when he was a young man. His voice holds the story together but it is not all cause and effect—the narrator himself is uncertain why some things happened. I wrote without a map and discovered what I was doing as I went along. Only once the first draft was done did I realize that the novel is loosely structured like in a poem, with short chapters like stanzas. In fact, one of my first readers noted this. The credit, however, for making the story so tight really belongs to my editor, Trish Loewn. She made some great suggestions. Simic’s quote came one day when I was reading his poetry as a break from writing the novel—I think I was close to finishing, and it hit me that his lines were a perfect description of the narrator’s view of events, and a commentary on the story itself.
AB: There’s a linguistic richness in your writing: a busy restaurant kitchen is like “a torpedoed ship,” and the worn edges of old bomb craters are covered with “thin wild grass.” At the same time, a Fellini quote at the beginning suggests, “There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.” With its passionate language, I felt your novel was suggesting we should cherish life, and relish the experience while we can. Is this fair to conclude?
CM: I’m a poet first. My use of passionate language and feeling is not so much a commentary, or advice on cherishing life and experience, but comes out of my reading and love of poetry and what poetry does with language and experience. I think what you picked up on is the elegiac sadness in much of the narrator’s voice when he talks about himself and his youthful experiences. He understands his story has no clear beginning, nor can it be satisfactorily concluded. All that remains is the passion of having loved and lived in a certain way as a young man.
AB: There are assorted references to a bigger, or cosmic, picture. The novel doesn’t just refer to individual lives, but the “eternal olive trees,” or the way “the names Sabini and Tommaso roll off the tongue and across the centuries.” What does the novel reveal about your notion of time?
CM: I think we’re connected to the people who came before us, and in ways we can barely understand sometimes. And we are connected to the people who will come along after we are gone. What I know with certainty is that a book or a poem written fifty years ago can live with me forever after I read it it can help shape my spirit and consciousness; the way I understand, the way I use language.
AB: You have a reference at the beginning of the novel to “the perfect Canadian,” and in conversation with me you’ve said you don’t believe in being a hyphenated Canadian. Could you elaborate on this?
CM: I’ve always been uneasy about being known as an Italian-Canadian writer or poet, although many of my poems have an Italian flavour, as does my non-fiction work. A hyphen boxes you in, and can become a handy moniker to dismiss by suggesting that your range is limited to your ethnicity. I’m Italian, but what also feeds my work are books that have crossed borders and time, such as Homer’s Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or contemporary poets such as Robert Haas and Michael Ondaatje. So, yes, I cannot help but be Italian and have absorbed—consciously and unconsciously—many specifically Calabrian ways of knowing the world and being in the world. But that’s not the only way I want to be understood or to understand. As much as I often feel distant from the local Winnipeg writing community, I still am a Winnipeg writer, who swims in the same pond, but from a working class part of town. And I’m a Canadian of Italian background, writing in English although the Calabrian dialect was my first language. I guess it’s complicated having new roots and old roots in two different places. The perfect Canadian is polite, self-effacing, reserved, discrete, and modest in expression and manner; almost impossible virtues to achieve coming where I come from.
AB: Have you felt that writing turned you into an observer, not directly influencing the world?
CM: Auden famously said poetry “makes nothing happen,” and I take it he meant poetry and perhaps writing in general doesn’t have the heft and weight of politics or the practical result of say, building a house. But observing and telling what one sees is important and I would argue a form of doing by bearing witness to one’s time and place. So being an observer, especially an accurate and skilful observer, is important not only to you as a writer but also to the culture as a whole. Writers and poets are mirrors. We need critical mirrors and many other kinds of mirrors. Business or political interests must not be allowed to exclusively define our culture and, by extension, who we are. Art gives back to us, in part, our personal reflections.
AB: What made you want to use the novel form to write what feels like a personal story? It seems to reflect an interest in writing more directly, even while that story has been shaped into fiction.
CM: As I said earlier, the novel evolved in part as an exercise. But there was also my desire to evoke the early years of my parents' generation when Italian food and culture had no real cultural cache. No one had heard of Tuscany or Italian food, never mind writing about them, although Italian cinema did a have a hold on cinephiles in North America. I also wanted to write about how immigration affected marriages and relationships, and to some extent use the City of Winnipeg in a mythic way, the way Woody Allen uses Manhattan in his movies or Dostoevsky uses St. Petersburg in many of his novels. I’m glad the story is effective enough to seem personal but much of what happens to Michael, the main character and narrator, never happened to me. Some of his frustrations and disappointments are drawn from some of mine. There are some personal family bits here and there, and then there are composites of people I have known. Outlaws such as Hughie, the thief and drug-dealer, have always fascinated me.
Alex Boyd’s latest book of poems is called The Least Important Man.