“To Make a Bridge”: An Interview with Antonia Facciponte

Antonia Facciponte
Antonia Facciponte

Antonia Facciponte’s 2021 debut poetry collection is a tender dance for her Italian-Canadian heritage. Her poems sway through melodies of family memories and memorabilia – recipes, letters, cabinets of souvenirs – and delight readers with their playfulness regarding translation, deferring the usual poignancy for things-lost for the magic of awakening, recognition and listening.

What is useful or inspiring to you about the structure of an opera that you used it as a framework for this collection of poems – especially given that your work depicts, by and large, quotidian family life, as opposed to the lush dramas stereotypically featured in operas?

I didn’t actually write this book with the structure of an opera in mind. When my manuscript was accepted by Black Moss Press for publication, I gave the manuscript to Bruce Meyer, my editor. At the time, my manuscript was a stack of poems without an overall rhythm or movement. Bruce found the opera in my words. Reorganizing the manuscript with this new structure created new, surprising, delightful resonances between the poems. And, as you mention, this opera structure also offers a strong contrast to the daily domestic stories in the poems.

There are so many poems in this work that I love for the way that they bypass a reader’s expectations: for example, the opening poem “Understanding” is absolutely marvelous for the way it re-positions bridges as sites of sonic exchange and connection, as opposed to visual. Can you talk a little bit about this re-calibration?

I write to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way—or re-calibrate it, as you say. Poetry should help us see everyday things and stories from new perspectives. I love that you mention the piece “Understanding” here, because that poem is about the curiosity that drives the writing process, and how writing is an act of rediscovery. In the poem, I let the five senses mingle with one another and get mixed up, such as when describing the moon as having a voice that gleams, or a beam of light that beckons you to listen; the senses of hearing and sight interweave with one another, and I hope to show how familiar things can be transformed and remade in ways that help us find connections with others. Back in my undergrad, Bruce Meyer taught me to look at familiar objects from new angles—and to write about it and see what I could discover through that writing. Similarly, in an English Literature class, where I read Souvankham Thammavongsa’s poem “Parsley” for the first time, I learned that writing is a way to defamiliarize and rediscover the world around us.

Follow up: your poems are rife with vivid imagery for sound, with fine-tuned word placement that create melodic and memorable assonance and consonance – can you talk a little about the craft behind these choices?

I often write narrative poems, and love being lyrical and playing with the language as I write. Playing with language is another way to see the familiar from a new perspective. The poem “Understanding” actually started out with some curious wordplay—I was intrigued by the way the word could be flipped to say “standing under,” and that conjured up the image of standing under a bridge for me (and the poem grew from there). Using assonance and consonance offers another kind of wordplay: linking words with sounds leads me to discover new ways to write about (and understand) little everyday experiences—cutting a peach, peeling onions, digging in a garden. Since this collection uses the image of a “bridge” often as a metaphor for connections forged across generations through storytelling, I love that assonance and consonance are little sonic bridges, carrying a sound from one word to the next, like a mouth carrying a story from one generation to the next.

You’ve written a few poems here that you call “translations,” though they are not traditionally of that category since they have not traveled from one language to another. Rather, they are from English to English. How do you conceptualize the act of translation in this collection?

Retelling family stories is a key part of this collection—the main speaker, or granddaughter character, retells the stories of her grandparents in verse. The way I see it, re-telling old stories is an act of translation (intra-lingual translation, that is) because they’re being re-shaped and re-made in a new voice and new form. When writing this collection of poems, I wanted to emphasize that stories of immigration are translated by the granddaughter, carried from one generation to the next, one voice to the next. And the idea of translating (re-forming) stories is important to the book overall. Though there are, as you mention, specific poems that I refer to as translations in their titles, namely because they re-write English poems into English. These inter-lingual translations started out as a writing exercise for an independent study class I had with George Elliott Clarke; he asked me to translate an English poem into English, and later explained that the exercise was meant to show me how poems are flexible and re-formable, kind of like how a song can be performed in different ways with different instruments. Translating the voices of first/second generation Italian-Canadian poets into my own voice as a third-generation Italian-Canadian writer helped me see how I craft my voice as a writer throughout those who tell stories around me.

The titular poem of this collection thinks about what a “letter” asks of a reader (I am assuming the epistolary meaning of this word): “. . . asks me prick up ears,/ learn patience/ in the present while waiting for the past to answer on paper.” You’ve included many letter-poems in this book, and I’m curious about how you would like readers to position themselves to these pieces, given that letters are supposed to be private documents, and the readers of these poems can be seen as ‘intruders’ on the family hearth?

When writing the letter poems, I wanted readers to think about how letter-writing is another form of poetry. Poems aren’t only printed and bound in books—they’re found in little everyday places. Leonard Cohen once said that “Poetry is a verdict.” I think he meant that there’s no definitive checklist of qualities that tells us if a collection of words is a poem or not; rather, we each decide, for ourselves, if something is poetry. So, in this book, I wanted to show how we can find poetry in letters. When writing these pieces, I wasn’t thinking about the reader as an intruder, but letters are, as you say, private documents. Thinking about the privacy and intimateness of letter-exchanges makes me think about how poetry offers us the opportunity for quite reflection and thought. By privately connecting with words on a page (through our own reading), we can find intimate connections with others that we never knew existed.

Can you talk about the letter-poems being written only by women?

Letter writing has a raw-ness to it: unlike a well-edited and polished poem, a letter might have been written without revision, or scribbled in a hurry. Obviously, I don’t mean to say that I didn’t edit the letter poems—I did. But I meant to show how they transparently show ‘the writing process.’ I wanted to connect this raw writing process with the cooking processes of the grandmother characters. Just as we see them toiling over food preparation to connect with and show love for their children and grandchildren, we see them toiling to write letters to connect with and show love for their family back in Italy. In this way, I wanted to show how Italian grandmothers aren’t simply the happy-go-lucky chefs of a family (as many pop culture stereotypes would have us believe!); rather, they have strong voices with stories to tell. Thinking about this now, I’m curious to write some letters from the grandfathers’ perspectives—a project for a future book!

Your poems are sprinkled with dedications – how do these function within the overall space of the collection?

This takes me back to your question about the ‘translation poems.’ I talked about how the translation poems were a way for me to think through and grapple with how my own voice as a writer emerges from other writers around me. I dedicated various poems to authors who have helped me carve out my voice as a writer—including Bruce Meyer, George Elliott Clarke, Giovanna Riccio, and Gianna Patriarca. And the title poem is dedicated to my grandmothers, who tell me stories and in that way, also shape my voice.

Another thing your poems are sprinkled with are verbal snapshots of family objects – can you talk about how you use these images to tell a story about family?

I love finding stories nestled or buried within everyday objects. Things like a small statue or rosary on display, a cutting board, a snapdragon flower—it’s easy to pass by these objects and not give them a second thought, but they have histories, tales, rumors within them. Writing about these commonplace items is, for me, a way of discovering and thinking through unexpected connections with those around me.

Another question about translation for you (inspired by “Translation of Giovanna Riccio’s “Strong Bread””): what parallels do you see in the act of translation (inclusive of same-language translation) with the translation, so to speak, of food, from one geography/locality to another? – “in absence of that rare flour,/ we create a new craft,/ kneading youthful rhythms/ into a stanza of persistence,/ baking the strength/ of song/ into our sugar dusted bread.”

What a great question. Just as stories are translated into the voices of new generations, food and recipes are translated into new cultural contexts and geographies—and in the process of that translation, become transformed. Two of my grandparents are from Sicily and two are from Abruzzi, and as I inherit recipes from each Italian region, they become mixed together in my own cooking rituals and habits. They transform in the sense that they now, from my perspective, exist in connection to one another. And just as a writer re-makes and re-discovers a story in their own voice, a cook re-invents recipes through their own hands and taste.

this question connects well to “Tomato Day” too: “this is an annual stanza –/ a verse of canning –/ to jar the memory/ in translation”

These lines you pin-pointed are really crucial to the whole collection. When revisiting old-world stories and traditions, or experiences of immigration, these poems are not trying to live in the past or glorify the past. This book isn’t about going back and staying there. It’s about listening to stories from previous generations to understand one’s own voice in the present, and moving into the future. We find ourselves by connecting with and loving each other. So when I wrote “to jar the memory / in translation,” I wanted to emphasize that these poems revisit memories of the grandparent characters, but in doing so, translate those memories and stories into the present and future.

You have so many exquisite turns of phrases in this collection. One of my favourites is from “To Silvana” on page 59, where the narrator talks about her daughter’s misperception of who sent her the gold earrings: “She mistook their sparkle to be a present from Clara, but I redrafted this mispronounced history.” (my emphasis): how do you conceive of mispronunciation in this collection, and of the people who both correct and mispronounce?

When I was an undergrad student at U of T, I read The Book of the Duchess (one of Chaucer’s dream visions) for the first time. In the dream vision, the dreamer ironically has insomnia, as he’s dealing with a difficult loss, and decides to read a story from Ovid to try to fall asleep. My professor for the course explained how the dreamer misinterprets Ovid’s story (as in, he misses the main point), but in doing so, spawns the creative act of dreaming and by extension, writing the poem. Ever since reading that poem, I’ve thought about how misinterpretations—and mispronunciations—are opportunities for creativity. For example, in “Mouthful,” I describe being unable to pronounce my own last name, as I don’t have the ‘Italian accent’ needed to say it properly; but in being unable to pronounce my name as my grandparents do, I realized that this unfamiliarness was an opportunity to grapple with my connection to the words, stories, traditions, and recipes I inherit. I may ‘mispronounce’ my last name by the standards of proper Italian pronunciation, but that mispronunciation allowed me to re-discover each sonic beat of my last name, and identity.

I’m curious about food, and the fact that, for the most part, its production and legacy is related to women – in what ways does this bear on the kinds of stories that your poems tell?

Pop-culture stereotypes ‘the nonna’ simply as a cook—the master chef preparing a huge feast to bring the family together. But this really trivializes the labour required when cooking for others, and the generations of recipes passed down to make a meal in the present. I wanted to de-trivalize the connection between Italian culture and food, by focusing more on the cooking process, less on the feast itself. I wanted to write about how these nonnas sacrifice themselves through their cooking. About how recipes are re-written and patched together (such as in “Mom’s Recipe Quilt”), and essentially, translated into new forms. About how, sometimes, grandchildren don’t understand the exhaustive labour that goes into making a meal. The title poem, “To Make a Bridge,” offers a response to this: the grandchild speaker admits the limitations of their own perspective, but in doing so, offers their writing as the grandmothers offer food. And while my book connects the women grandmother characters to, as you say, the “production and legacy” of food, I also hope to show how the grandfather characters are connected to food, its “production and legacy”—they garden and harvest vegetables for food preparation. The grandchild absorbs and inherits her grandparents’ rituals for food preparation, and the stories and histories behind commonplace tasks like peeling an onion and making ravioli.

There is definitely a delightful Old World quality to your poems, in the stories that you tell about the parents and grandparents in this collection – how do you hope that other immigrants who have come from that spate of the world will relate to your work?

I hope that readers connect with the need to re-tell stories and find one’s voice within (and beyond!) those stories. These poems focus on an Italian-Canadian family because I’m Italian-Canadian, and I’m writing about a culture I know; but while I was crafting this collection of poems, I was very keen to think about how these stories extend beyond the specific cultural context I write about. For example, even though “Intermezzo” describes the different courses in a typical Italian meal, and uses Italian words like “nonna” and “nonno” and “zia” and “zio,” the experience of quietly observing one’s grandparents is something that extends beyond ‘Italianness.’ Because at the end of the day, I’m not trying to write solely for Italian-Canadians. I try my best to write something that rings true and helps us see every day experiences in new ways.

It was wonderful talking to you about “Bridge”! Do you have any upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for?

I’m currently working on my second collection of poetry, which explores the tale-telling customs of Italian-Canadian culture and the present-day significance of family lore, superstitions, and old world myths.

Author and speaker based in Toronto


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