INTERVIEW Hans Ulrich Obrist
Alda Merini was one of the extraordinary writers and poets from Milan. One of the outsiders of the Italian Novecento, she belonged to the poets who went their own way – off the beaten track. In the second half of the 20th century, she was considered to be among the greatest contemporary poets. Her work is characterized by the experience of spending more than 10 years in a mental health clinic and by an erotic religious mysticism. With Hans Ulrich Obrist, who retrieved this conversation from his archive for STXDYOZ, she talked about the idea of utopia shortly before her death. The power a mental archive can have. She explained why she no longer recognized Milan as such. And recited her poem, “Love Lesson”.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: These are your works?

Alda Merini: Yes, I wrote them.

H.U.O.: This is a series of new works, right? I hadn’t seen them last time.

A.M.: No one needs to see them, they are mine.

H.U.O.: Are they private works?

A.M.: Should the author’s private sphere not remain private? I am already a monster, what do I have to do with exhibitions? Exhibiting breeds monsters.

H.U.O.: Ernst Block defines utopia as a non-place. I would like to know what your idea of utopia is.

A.M.: Utopia is a mental vainglory that sometimes goes beyond madness. A vainglory. The utopian proves nothing. Are we full of utopians or not? The world is full of people who wake up in the morning and think they are Napoleon. We have to fight those who don’t give us any proof that they are somebody. For example, there is no proof here that I am a writer, because there are no books or anything like that, either because I get rid of them or because I give many away. It is assumed that a writer lives in a nice house or something like that. It’s a cliché to assume that a writer has a certain way of life, that he behaves in a certain way, according to what are common standards. Instead, the writer does what he wants, or perhaps his utopia is to do what he wants.

H.U.O.: Your place of work is like a cabinet of curiosities. Could you tell me a little bit about it?

A.M.: This is a bunch of memories, it’s not even an arrangement of things. These are gifts that my friends gave me. For example, this was a picture they took of me in the hospital, where I was allowed to smoke. But, at that time, I had psoriasis on my hands, which were bandaged, as you can see; there is the juxtaposition and a mixture of smoking and pain. It was very nice.

H.U.O.: Did you edit this picture afterwards? Did you rework it?

A.M.: No, I didn’t. It is beautiful, a little surreal. It’s certainly not a cliché photograph. It’s not cliché, it’s very personal. Look at that beautiful one on the wall. These bandaged hands always make you think of stigmata and, in a way, they are. I mean, it’s pain.
Then there are a couple of cartoons that Mondadori is doing, which are meant to be a mockery of my interest in priests. Because he wrote the Magnificat, the priests woke up a little bit to the problem of a woman facing the condemnation of a son from the marginalized life.

H.U.O.: What does your archive look like? How does it work?

A.M.: I never had an archive or a library. Of course, no one thinks that in ten years in a mental institution, you are completely out of the world. What archive could I have? It is not possible. My archive is in my head. If you lose the head, you lose the archive. But all great people have a mental archive. They don’t have to have the book with the little numbers. Their archive is all in their memories, in their “I was…”, in their imagination, the imaginary archive that doesn’t exist in their old latifundia, it’s their secret archive that they don’t want to talk about.
When Vanni Scheiwiller passed away, everyone hurried to search for the archives. They found nothing, as he was the true archive.

H.U.O.: Was the apartment vacant?

A.M.: Yes, there was nothing inside.

H.U.O.: Instead, there is a poem dedicated to him on the door.

A.M.: That’s correct. It was both mentally jarring and helpful for us. We lost our teacher and our source of information when we lost Vanni because he had a tremendous memory. Whenever we needed to know something, we could just call Vanni and he would say, “In the tram, this happened and that happened.” For us, it was different, we didn’t remember anything because the poet is someone who lives cheerfully, enjoys life and doesn’t care. The poet enjoys life to the fullest. Many fail to comprehend this and assume that the poet should be suffering instead. However, the truth is the poet doesn’t care. Freedom is the key to the poet’s writing style, allowing the poet to write effortlessly, without restrictions.

Unfortunately, no one truly understands the essence of freedom, not even those within mental hospitals or prisons. If one aspires to be free, then that is a product of one’s wild imagination and nothing else.
Imagination is not limited to poets, but accessible to everyone. For example, when I imagine this house as a palace, it becomes breathtakingly beautiful. It is essential. Dreaming is essential. Without a collective imagination, we cannot live.

H.U.O.: Who else besides Vanni Scheiwiller was important to you among the poets?

A.M.: We had significant figures like Manganelli and Remora – they were masters of style who taught us directly about life. I would also like to mention Giacinto Spagnoletti.

H.U.O.: What is your relationship with the visual arts? Do you have a dialogue with the visual arts? I ask this because in the avant-garde of the 20th century, there were many collaborations, various bridges between the visual arts and poetry.

A.M.: Yes, I worked with Baj, Sanguineti, Baglieri, and Bergamini for some time. We had poetry and illustrations going on simultaneously. Later, I collaborated with Cassinari and Dova. Unfortunately, all of them died, and we were left a little without our own work. The poet and the painter can inspire each other, creating a beautiful collaboration. We were all good friends and had fun on outings. The poet’s laughter was especially enjoyable. Sadly, this is something that is not as common now, don’t you think?

H.U.O.: And what did you do with Baj?

A.M.: We wrote books about toy soldiers. He recently passed away and it was difficult. Among other things, I couldn’t go to the funeral because of the leg, and I felt sorry for Roberta, who was a great woman, a woman who stood behind Baj, a victorious woman, a great person. Interestingly, women are never jealous of me because I don’t take away their husbands. In fact, I take them home to their place, you know? I bring stray dogs home when I find them. We have many dogs without collars who are lost. It’s like a metaphor for people without owners. We have many wandering dogs. Parrots and dogs go around to make up this metropolitan zoo.

H.U.O.: How do you see the city of Milan today?

A.M.: You know, I’m on the verge of death, and I don’t care about Milan anymore because it’s not even Milan anymore, Milan is now a bottling of strange things. It is a cocktail. The Milanese are no longer there. The Milanese were me, Raboni, Manganelli, Quasimodo, although he was an import. Then Cucchi, Turoldo, those great men who made Milan great and whose work is now being exploited by all these Chilean, South American experimenters who have no idea how much effort it took us to rebuild Milan after the war.

H.U.O.: And Fontana, did you know him?

A.M.: Yes, but not that much.

H.U.O.: And Rotella?

A.M.: Yes, of course. But, you know, sometimes we brush against each other, and we love each other very much precisely because we are each on our own. If not, envy arises. We try to avoid each other precisely because we love each other. It is a way of leaving the other free to do what he wants. Ours is not a friendship of presence.

I have had lovers whom I saw practically once, but whose feeling lasted a lifetime and animated a whole landscape.

H.U.O.: I must say, I am fascinated by the bandaged hands in the pictures you showed me earlier, because they appear almost everywhere in this house. They are a recurring element.

A.M.: It was a gimmick of mine to photograph them, and then it was successful, this story here of photographing a detail instead of the whole body. I think Gresini is a master of these things. For example, look at this picture, how beautiful it is, very environmentalist, by the way, taken by him.

H.U.O.: And who is the subject of the picture?

A.M.: He’s Ridolini, the Monsignor, prefect of the Ambrosiana Curia, that is, the one who has the most power, let’s say “legislative” power, over works of art. He is the curator of the Ambrosiana Library. But do not focus on the subject, whether he is represented or someone else, it matters little, it is the value of the photograph that is the point. You know how I know that? You take Botticelli’s Primavera as an example: In the three planes that make it up, there is the dynamic of movement. In the School of Athens, there are three different overlapping situations, but in Giotto, everything is flat. So, perspective is born, from perspective comes photography, photography goes into perspective, a beautiful mess happens, and a beautiful picture comes out.

H.U.O.: Can you tell me about this image?

A.M.: That is a painting.

H.U.O.: It is a painting by whom?

A.M.: An unknown artist. It’s two women in love, the way the bodies are depicted is very beautiful.

H.U.O.: And Corriere della Sera?

A.M.: It’s not a body. That is a collage. Can’t you see that it’s pieces put together? It could be a threat. When Riina sends his threats, he uses the pieces from the Corriere.

H.U.O.: One question I almost always ask when I interview someone, is about unrealized projects. Do you have any?

A.M.: Yes, of course: I never made love to whomever I wanted to, those are projects that went wrong. Those are real projects. We don’t care about the rest.

H.U.O.: What about other projects? Are there any books yet to be written?

A.M.: I hope not, because I have written so much that I am a little tired. I would like a little more health as a project, I really love freedom.
Here, this is the testimony of ten years in the mental hospital. It explains what went on in there. It’s a good book, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth. Because it basically ended after Ravoni, and then they got rid of all the old stuff.

H.U.O.: Are you sad about what happened?

A.M.: It is very sad, because the “pesce d’oro” has ended. The “pesce d’oro” was the most beautiful part, more golden than the Civil War. What Vanni did then was on an amateur level, whereas now they do commissioned books. There are no great poets anymore. After Ravoni, we all ended badly, no? Unfortunately, that is the case. Poetry did not give themes, but more or less paths to follow.

H.U.O.: Do you do poetry readings? As a performance, I mean.

A.M.: I used to do it, but now I can’t climb stairs with my leg. I have never played so much in my life as I have this year. Are you happy?

H.U.O.: I am very happy about this interview. It is a nice continuation of our meeting two years ago, a chapter that is added. Poetry has resisted the market. What do you think about that?

A.M.: Because maybe poetry doesn’t seek profit, it doesn’t enter the market, it doesn’t sell. Let’s say the poet is generally pure of heart, it’s not that he says I’m going to make a poem so I can make a lot of money. Then comes the critic who buys it, publishes it, makes it universal. But the poet himself does not work to make money; otherwise, he would not be a poet. For example, Umberto Eco had a number of things, the car, the secretary, the bagman, but the poet generally needs only a sheet of paper, which is ideally one of the cheapest things on the market. When he writes, all he needs is a little imagination and the masterpiece comes out. But he has to have a feeling, a fuse, an opportunity. Then, we poets, even if we don’t get paid, say we are very satisfied with fame, while others are not. Others also want the bombastic name.

H.U.O.: You mentioned a number of Italian poets to me, but what are some of the international poets you have been in touch with?

A.M.: I know few of them. If we talk about inspiration instead, I would say Mallarmé, Valéry. I translated a lot of Valéry, before the mental hospital. Then André Gide, the French, they were great masters.

H.U.O.: Did you translate Mallarmé?

A.M.: No, I just read him. Even Lermontov, they were all great inspirations for me. García Lorca. If you don’t know these people, you can’t understand Italian poetry.

H.U.O.: What about Lorca? What is your connection to him?

A.M.: I would call it a linguistic connection with García Lorca, it’s not that I knew him personally. I find him to be a very romantic man in these figurations of his; he makes such beautiful allegories, so loving and so warlike, that I really like him.

H.U.O.: Which of Lorca’s works do you like the

A.M.: The Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejìas. But the problem is that when we went to school, we studied things, we memorized them; unfortunately, they don’t do that anymore.

H.U.O.: Did you translate Lorca?

A.M.: No, I just read him. I’m not the Pope, I don’t know that many languages.

H.U.O.: Are there any poems about Milan in terms of its architecture?

A.M.: What I can tell you is that poor people’s courtyards have nothing to do with modern architecture – which I think is gorgeous – but, at the same time, I don’t think it’s understandable for people of our age. I mean, when you see this superimposition of photographs, can they give the idea of a small modern architecture or not? There is nothing useful in it. They are juxtaposed and that’s it. The architecture promises a solidity, a use of these spaces, right? Do you understand that?

H.U.O.: Which poem is written on that painting?

A.M.: Love Lesson.

“I would see you, driven by your thoughts, closing your eyes and denying your God. I, too, did it one day in a fire of love, and when I came to my senses, I had the worst outrage that man can see. Dark springs invade my days, and I am so happy to have met you that I have even forgotten my thoughts.”

What this means, simply put, is that when I sinned in love, I closed my eyes so as not to see divine judgment. Instead, when I opened them again, I found all these springs because God had forgiven me. So I thought about divine punishment. I said to Monsignor, “I would like to see you abandon your God and enter the hell of passion so you can see whether and when God forgives you.”

H.U.O.: Thank you.

A.M.: You are welcome. But I write very little these days.

H.U.O.: What magazines do you love?

A.M.: Oggi, Il Tempo, La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera.

H.U.O.: What about poetry magazines that have meant something to you?

A.M.: Ah, not so many. If you want to make a new one, call it Delirium. Isn’t that a good idea? The Delirium: lost opportunities of poetry, art, cinematography. “The Lost Opportunities” could also be a good title. So you can line up everything that hasn’t been done. Will you give me the Nobel Prize?

H.U.O.: Didn’t you turn down the Nobel?

A.M.: How much money do they give with the Nobel? Maybe it’s better to play the football pools. Books pay so little. Now there is all this desire to do artistic activities, but I think we lack work force. What is the most important thing? We need people to fix sewers and pipes. Making poetry is also that, no? Or is it not?

H.U.O.: We haven’t talked about cigarettes, you’ve been smoking them the whole time. I had read in different newspapers that you smoke 1,000 cigarettes a day.

A.M.: No, I smoke 70 cigarettes.

H.U.O.: Cigarettes are another thing that can be found all over this house, so that is another recurring theme.

A.M.: Do you have any idea how old I am?

H.U.O.: No.

A.M.: I’m 74. And you know what’s kept me going?

H.U.O.: Cigarettes?

A.M.: That’s right. Cigarettes.

H.U.O.: Not coffee?

A.M.: Coffee? No. Vices, lechery, games that are not communal, eating, drinking. All excessive things. The rule kills, you understand? The rule has always killed man. The regulated man will never reach heaven. Is it true or not?
However, I am proud to be the only woman in Italy who does not speak English, because although I was Manganelli’s friend, I refused to speak English.

H.U.O.: Why Manganelli, did he speak English?

A.M.: He was a professor of English, he translated all the Elizabethan plays, but he was Italian. With Manganelli,

I spoke the only language I knew, which is the language of love, which is Italian.

H.U.O.: I have one last question for you.

A.M.: It’s always the last one, it seems to me!
And this is a never-ending conversation.

H.U.O.: The question I wanted to ask you is: What did you mean when you defined poetry as a place of nothingness, what does that mean?

A.M.: Do you pay attention to all the crap other people say? Don’t give a damn.

H.U.O.: What would be your definition of poetry, then?

A.M.: The definition of poetry? There is no definition of poetry. A tremendous pain in the ass, because you come after the poem. It’s not that it comes alone, it brings everything. It’s like the Annunciation: Somebody comes in that nobody invited and starts saying “you’re going to write a poem,” and they get pissed off because they didn’t really feel like it. It’s the same thing.

H.U.O.: This is a wonderful conclusion.

A.M.: And it was the same with the Magnificat: Someone comes along with wings to give me this task, even though I had other plans. And, indeed, Ungaretti says: “I would give all this glory for a little serene humanity. A simpler life.” In short, poetry is a complication, a female complication. Guys, go to the amusement park!