Much of what poetry is about occurs on the border – where the written words meet the white of the page. This may be one of the reasons why so much poetry is written in provincial areas and border regions. Italian-speaking Switzerland – the canton of Ticino and part of Graubünden – once played an important role in connecting and separating the Germanic and Latin, as well as the Catholic and Protestant worlds. In Ticino’s capital, Bellinzona (its folk etymology derives from ‘war zone’), a wall connecting several castles once enclosed the whole valley, to restrict movements from the north.
Poetry is definitely the leading genre in Italian-speaking Switzerland, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. It’s best poets have all operated some sort of connection with other languages and regions; and while that’s probably true of every good poet anywhere, here it is perhaps more obvious, but also more inevitable, probably because it’s an area of just 366,000 inhabitants, with different cultures on each side. So inevitable in fact, that the region seems to define itself according to opposites: very Italian in the other Swiss areas; rather German in Italy, etc. This is in fact a productive condition, in terms of translation (in both the strict and metaphorical senses) and poetry itself.
Bellinzona was home to Giorgio Orelli (1921–2013), a Swiss poet who, like no other, brought the Italian literary tradition into the Ticino landscape, and vice versa. One of the best poets of his generation, Orelli bypassed the more hermetic ‘linea lombarda’, developing a poetry of the object, made of observations, asides and anecdotes, all spun into the most captivating phono-symbolic cobweb. Sitting silently on his sofa, generations of younger poets have journeyed, poem by poem, through world literature, following the particular group of letters that happened to stimulate his ear.
Giorgio’s cousin, Giovanni Orelli (1928–2016), was one of the region’s finest authors, besides being a poet and translator (of Emily Dickinson, in the dark syllabic patois of Valle Bedretto). Other authors we must mention are: Anna Felder (b.1937), Fleur Jaeggy (b.1940), Alberto Nessi (b.1940), Paolo Di Stefano (b.1956), Anna Ruchat (b.1959), Erminio Ferrari (b.1959), Pierre Lepori (b.1968, who writes in both Italian and French), Virginia Helbling (b.1974), Tommaso Soldini (b.1976), Oliver Scharpf (b.1977) and Andrea Fazioli (b.1978). Extracts from some of these you can read in this magazine.
Within our fifty-year timespan, two seminal books were published, both addressing the deep rural misery that Ticino was only just starting to forget: the novel Il fondo del sacco(1970) by Plinio Martini (1923–1979), and the narrative essay Albero Genealogico(1969) by Piero Bianconi (1899–1984), which opens with the striking statement: ‘the distance separating my mother’s childhood from her old age is wider than the distance between her as a child and the cavemen’. That woman, by the way, is my great-great-aunt.
Two special prose writers are Enrico Filippini (1932–1988), who with his work as journalist, publisher, translator and novelist, performed miracles to bring German literature to Italy; and Matteo Terzaghi (b.1970), who in short prose works simultaneously manages to create dialogues with photography, the philosophy of language, magic and Robert Walser.
Now, back to poetry. The writer who follows in Giorgio Orelli’s footsteps, both in terms of inspiring younger writers and of writing outstanding poetry, is Fabio Pusterla (b.1957). His Bocksten is one of the best poetry books written in Italian in the twentieth century. Aside from the strong relationship with the Italian tradition, Pusterla is influenced by poetry in French, particularly that of Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, who he translated. Pietro De Marchi (b.1958), even more influenced by Orelli’s poetry than the others, seems to have reached full maturity with his recent book, La carta delle arance (‘The Map of The Oranges’), which won the Gottfried Keller Prize in 2017. De Marchi was born in Italy and moved to Switzerland as an adult, as some of the most interesting younger poets have also done: Fabiano Alborghetti (b.1970), who constantly challenges the most repetitive rhythms while addressing, in his long narrative poems, unsettling social conditions; Massimo Gezzi (b.1976), the sober and full-bodied offspring of the finest Italian tradition; and Laura Accerboni (b.1985), and her short, sharp shards of poems.
I’d like to mention several other poets, but can’t even get close to naming them all: beat poet Franco Beltrametti (1937–1995), Aurelio Buletti (b.1946), Massimo Daviddi (b.1954), Prisca Agustoni (b.1975, who writes in Italian and Portuguese and a few other languages), Elena Jurissevich (b.1976), Pietro Montorfani (b.1980), Daniele Bernardi (b.1981), Yari Bernasconi (b.1982), Andrea Bianchetti (b.1984) and slam poet Marko Miladinovich (b.1988).
Many other factors, such as time and the important demographic changes created by the most recent migrations to Switzerland, mostly from the Horn of Africa and Syria, will soon add to this list, as did the influxes from Italy and the Balkans. As I have tried to suggest, the literature of this region is strongly informed by its linguistic hospitality.
The latest experiment in this direction is an online magazine called Specimen which I and colleagues just created in Ticino. It publishes texts in every language and alphabet, and translates them into any and every other language. You can find it here: www.specimen.press.
By Vanni Bianconi
Vanni Bianconi was born in Locarno and now lives in London. He has published four poetry collections in Italian and one prose book in English, London as a Second Language. He’s the founder and artistic director of Babel, festival of literature and translation, and of the multilingual web-magazine www.specimen.press.
Photo of Vanni Bianconi © From the Author’s Archive