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Vivian Lamarque, was born in northern Italy in 1946 and has lived for most of her life in Milan. She has published seven books of poetry to date, as well as a volume of Selected Poetry. She has won numerous prizes including the Premio Viareggio Opera Prima, the Premio Tropea, the Premio Montale, the Premio Nazionale Letterario Pisa, and the Pen Club prize. Apart from a few selections in recent anthologies, she has not been translated into English.

I am drawn to Lamarque’s work because I feel it is filled with “the heart’s intelligence” as she says in one poem. Her short, playful lyrics are entirely colloquial, yet they are masterfully precise. The poems remind me of what I like about fairy tales: a simple, childish surface that doesn't quite manage to cover mysterious and often-sinister underpinnings. One of Italy's more respected literary critics, Giovanni Raboni put it well when he said of her work, “all her own and quite rare is this grace and this candor that allow her to write poems as if she were writing a gesture that has nothing to do with literature.”

In their humor, their embrace of absurdity, these poems remind us of Russell Edson’s prose poems. But Lamarque’s work is far more concise. What relationship do you see between the form and the humor in these short poems, and what challenges did that relationship pose to you as a translator?

Form relies on tone in these poems I think. What the words hold back the tone pours out, and this tension creates much of the humor. They remind me of the way a quiet but witty person behaves in conversation: After a long wait she says something very funny and maybe even cutting, but by the time someone like me grasps the subtlety, the conversation has moved forward, or in this case, the poem has ended. 

The humor strikes me as arising from a speaker who is naturally sad but determined not to let sadness rule. In “Listen I Was Your Wife” I love the scene of  five people, at a dinner party say, sitting all together playing this comically long piano. The poem has a kind of intimate, breathless tone; yet other, more sinister information is also conveyed: I was your wife – the marriage has ended. And who are these friends? Did the speaker have a crush on Irlando who played so well? What was Ornella’s unnamed husband doing there without Ornella? In Italian, names that end in O are masculine so it turns out that the speaker was the only woman at the piano. She easily belittles her own playing “rather badly,” and perhaps this self-deprecation serves as a kind of shield. The poem ends with the deceptively simple “and you so-so” that she addresses to her former husband. Is the tone here resigned? Mocking? Affectionate? A good riddance? Nostalgic? 

All of this tone play delights me as a reader and causes me endless trouble as a translator. I feel as though I’m trying to catch a trout with my bare hands. I am tempted to bore you with examples but I’ll take a hint from Lamarque and say less not more.

In the two “Gentleman” poems, the voice that initiates the world is interrupted by another voice that questions it with childlike sincerity. Do you think of these voices as two aspects of a single speaker? As a kind of Socratic dialogue?

I often think of the second voice as that of a child. There's a loneliness in the voice “that initiates the world” as you have nicely identified it. I get the feeling that the child is the excuse for the story, but the speaker is in fact telling it in order to soothe herself. There is both tender intimacy and real distance between the two of them, and I’m drawn to the pressure this exerts on the poem.

I like the way that the romanticism of the first speaker is interrupted by the practicality of the second speaker. For instance in “The Gentleman with the Moon,” the first speaker imagines this moon that shines on the pathways of hills and mountains – it is a romantic, bucolic, nostalgic kind of image – and the second speaker wonders “and cities?” this speaker is not wrapped up in the fantasy, but is instead curious in a practical way about the properties of the world. And the first speaker, bound by a responsibility to the truth and affection for the second speaker must concede “okay sure, a little on cities too.” It wasn’t part of the story she was telling, but she has to admit that the moon shines everywhere. The dialogue saves the first speaker from wandering into solipsism.

I wouldn’t be averse to thinking that both voices reside inside the speaker. Certainly when I write my own poems I am often listening to a couple of voices that are in tension with each other. I think many writers, including myself, attempt to unify the voices into one multidimensional tone, but I appreciate the way Lamarque lets them remain separate. As a reader I feel like I’m in on a secret.

Lamarque dedicated the long series of “Gentleman” poems to the Jungian analyst, Doctor BM, that she was seeing at the time. I’m never sure how to use this information to help interpret the poems – and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be reductive – but it seems important and worth mentioning.