Interview // Deborah Woodard Discusses the Poems of Amelia Rosselli

by Anne Greeott | Contributing Writer

In the summer of 2019, I chatted with Deborah Woodard on email about her new translation, Obtuse Diary, from the Italian of the eclectic, post-World War II poet, Amelia Rosselli. We began the interview via email but were able to revise in person at Deborah’s favorite café. When I was still living in Seattle, we used to meet there once a week to speak Italian. When I asked how it felt to bring out this essential volume of Rosselli’s experimental prose, Deborah said she felt both relieved and gratified. She’d found a simpatico publisher in Seattle’s Entre Ríos Books and a talented Seattle artist, Lisa Buchanan, to tap for the cover art. In her words, “The cover makes me think of the labyrinth of Roman streets and Rosselli’s fractured psyche.”

You’ve been translating Rosselli’s work for over 20 years now. How has your understanding of this poet developed over that time period, and how has her voice influenced your own work?

Let me start with a little background. In the winter of 1996, I’d been translating Rosselli’s poetry with Giuseppe Leporace for a year or so. I had drafted a letter of introduction to Rosselli and was planning to go to Rome to see if I could meet her in person. I distinctly remember Giuseppe coming down the hall of the French and Italian Department at the University of Washington with a newspaper in hand and the sad tidings of Rosselli’s suicide.

Though I was never to meet Rosselli in the flesh, I did go to Rome that spring and felt the subtle yet distinct reverberations of her passing. For instance, I picked up Diario Ottuso (Obtuse Diary) in Fahrenheit 451, a bookshop at Campo De’ Fiori. It was just out from a small press called Empiria. I used that copy for many years. And I’m happy to say that Fahrenheit 451 is still there; I just checked that out.

Giuseppe and I met Daniela Attanasio, a mentee of Rosselli’s and the author of an afterword to that Empiria edition. We also visited the late Marina Mariani, who in her frank and generous way gave me a sense of how Rosselli was both part of her generation and on the sidelines, neither desiring assimilation into any particular camp of poetry, nor receiving it. People knew about the lapsus, Marina said to me, and they leave it at that. (In an early and extremely influential introduction to Rosselli’s work, the filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini formulated the theory of the lapsus, unconscious omissions in the text that Rosselli let stand.) 

On a more intimate plane, Giuseppe and I gleaned quite a bit about Rosselli’s frame of mind in her later years from Angelina Orsolini, her donna di servizio, or housekeeper. Angelina was sitting at a table outside the restaurant where she worked, folding napkins, dropping them in a basket, and periodically wiping away her tears as she spoke with us. Clearly proud of the role she had played—half confidant, half mother bear—she spoke of Amelia’s disappointments: a trip to Sardinia with some other writers that was called off, her disillusionment with writing itself as “useless.” I learned something about the material conditions of Rosselli’s life from that encounter that has stayed with me to this day.

Fast forward to 2019. I’ve had the good fortune to complete three translations and work with several wonderful co-translators. I have a sense of what a Rosselli poem or prose piece looks and feels like, but the poetry doesn’t necessarily become easier to translate, even if the goal is a little more in focus. One refers to translation problems, and certainly issues arise that have to be resolved in one way or another. And yet, at the same time, Rosselli’s multidimensional language remains a mystery to dwell within, not a problem to be resolved. If it were simply a problem, I’d have burned out long ago.

As for my own work, I’ve been very influenced by Rosselli’s use of alliteration and repetition—often hypnotic. From Rosselli, I learned that repetition has a flavor and a pitch. Overall, my poetry has become more disjunctive, principally through the use of collage. My interest in preserving the gaps between meanings definitely owes something to Rosselli. And I appreciate her sense of humor; her experimentalism is never dry.

Let’s return to the Roman spring of 1996 for a moment. What a poignant moment to make those human connections, just shortly after her death. Do you think it is essential to feel that closeness to the author as a person in order to translate well?   

I felt informed by Daniela Attanasio and Marina Mariani. And I felt close to Rosselli by virtue of housekeeper Angelina Orsolini’s own visceral response. What devotion! A little of it rubbed off on me. However, feeling close to the author could help or hinder. Certainly it can be a great help to get the inside scoop, but the author can suffocate the translator, even when well-intentioned.

How did the three translators collaborate in order to produce such a careful and elegant final product?

I worked with each collaborator sequentially, which I suspect was key. Each translator made a distinctly different contribution to a thorny text. Ultimately, it felt unified, and with its thorns more or less intact.

Thorns intact, yes! Especially with various translators in the mix there can be a tendency to blunt the thorns. Could you tell about one or two of the particular thorns that you were careful to keep?

Late in the game, I came up with “newly plainted boulevards” in the opening of “First Italian Prose.” Roberta indicated that there was an emotional component woven into the phrasing. I hadn’t liked any of the previous versions—which by the way, I have repressed!—so “newly plainted” was a breakthrough. Now that I look at the Treccani Italian dictionary again, I recall that “inalberare” can mean raising a flag on a vessel, or, emotionally speaking, flaring up. Here’s the line in its flare-rich context:

I don’t know which new rigor has brought me to you, houses of the black land. The drafting of fields pushes you to the limit of the newly-plainted boulevards. Among wrung bushes the houses arise violent. A fire of lit grass breaks the act.

Plainted/plaintive is softer on the emotive spectrum than a flare, but it seemed preferable to “newly-planted.” So, it wasn’t a thorn that was kept as much as a thorn the ping of which we eventually were better able to convey.

What would you say Rosselli’s prose contributes to her repertoire and how does translating her prose differ from translating her poetry?

Well, it’s good to have every bit of her oeuvre that we can get. Obtuse Diary is a diary, even if she strove to make it “as little autobiographical as possible.” It’s intimate and obsessive. As I step back from it, I viscerally take in the full extent to which it’s about profound loneliness and alienation. It’s almost as though her hands are compulsively tracing the contours of her own face, as if to reassure herself that she exists.

Rendering prose in English, even poetic and imagistic prose such as this, can be much harder than poetry. The sentence is in many ways a more difficult unit of composition than the line. I admire the way you move between poetry and prose in your translation work, Anne!

Thank you! And what a compelling image. I think of the publisher’s hope, “. . . that this book adds to the evidence of the horrors and ruptures to self and language that fascism and authoritarianism cause.” What implications do you think this book might carry for our current times as we see various nations including the U.S. and Italy swing toward authoritarianism?    

Obtuse Diary speaks to the damage rendered by war, trauma, and dislocation. In Rosselli’s case, the trauma arose directly from fascism, most certainly. Amelia came from a distinguished family: a family of activists and intellectuals, with those two pursuits never seeming at odds with one another. While in prison for their anti-fascist activism, the Rosselli brothers, Carlo and Nello, wrote beautiful, in a certain sense almost serene, letters to Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, their mother and Amelia’s namesake. The family bonds were tightly knit. In 1937, living in exile in France, Carlo, and Nello were assassinated by Mussolini’s operatives. Two hundred thousand people attended their funeral in Paris.

Amelia was raised in Larchmont, New York, a prosperous community that took in many distinguished refugees during WWII. It was rumored that no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt interceded on behalf of the Rosselli family. Amelia’s adolescence, which included contact with nature and a strong high school education, was ostensibly a stable time, but the damage had been done. Rosselli suffered from paranoid depression as an adult and, ultimately, took her own life in 1996. The protagonist of Obtuse Diary struggles with delayed adolescence, which she identifies as such. She remains “the daughter with a devastated heart,” unable to overcome her early trauma. So, in 1968, in her late thirties, Rosselli wrote Obtuse Diary and was recollecting, or perhaps still enmeshed in, the PTSD stemming from her father’s assassination by order of Mussolini.

I’d say that this book resonates with what we’re going through right now politically, and speaks to the collateral damages of the same.

You’ve also just published your “playlets” No Finis, Triangle Testimonies, 1911 inspired by the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and written in the voice of the survivors. Both of your books out this year give voice to other people’s voices, that’s really beautiful. Taken together they create a kind of choral effect. Do you think this translation and other kinds of writing which create a space for the voices of others somehow populate a void or restore something that had been missing?

Thanks for mentioning these two books together. I’ve always attempted to give voice to others—whether directly in persona poems (Plato’s Bad Horse) or in what I think of as writing alongside the consciousness of others (Borrowed Tales). I loved working with dialog in No Finis, an adaptation of a voluminous trial transcript. There were so many possibilities—similar to the way, translation, that there are so many possible approaches. (Rosselli says, “How many tiles to design an approach for yourself!”) So, it’s more of a question of selecting from the tiles, or words, in order to fashion a coherent design. It’s less of a void and more of a need to order what is already there.

In terms of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the survivors were almost universally immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Italy. They took sweatshop jobs and jobs at places like Triangle. Often they were little more than children: “You were not any bigger or heavier at that time, were you? / It is a year ago. I was smaller. / You were not any stronger that day, were you? / I don’t know.” (“Mr. Steuer and Ethel Monick,” in No Finis, Triangle Testimonies, 1911)

When Amelia Rosselli moved to Rome—the setting of Obtuse Diary—she was an adult, but, like the immigrants to New York City’s Lower East Side, her adolescence had been compromised, or bruised, one could say. She wasn’t dragged into court like the factory workers, but her psyche was put on trial on a regular basis, in the form of shadowy “great masters” whose words were “full of fat won from the cold.” Section II of the Diary unfolds her “refugee” experience:

. . . But nothing was owed one, as with horror she realized after a few months in the new city that at first appeared to her very sad and useless. She urgently followed her intentions, and obeyed the intentions of the others: she worked till she tired herself too much to be able to follow her own instructions. Without instructions she became aware of being, but she insisted on recognizing only the instructions of the others, in full obedience, in pride in her humiliation, in mathematical simplicity in calculating her current obligations forgetting the tortures misunderstood in the past.

She didn’t think of dying, or of dying from it, or of having to accept the pity of others; on the contrary: so hard and simple and pure was her intention that she was destroyed by it, nearly, as she wouldn’t admit that it could be hard, pernicious, and inhuman, this raffling off of her person, listing it among the useless objects.

After these two publications, what kind of work is drawing you most for your next project? Also, do you think you will one day teach a class at Hugo House on Rosselli? What might be the focus of such a class?

Hmm, I have a policy of not teaching my own work, including translations. I’m not saying that it should never be done, but it would make me self-conscious. I’d love it if someone else included Rosselli in a class.

Roberta Antognini and I are about to start translating Rosselli’s Documento (Document), which she wrote during the years of 1996 to 1973, when she was at the height of her creative powers. Roberta has suggested that the title is somewhat ironic: how can poetry really document an experience? I’m excited to start the translation process with that idea in mind. Documento is Rosselli’s longest collection, but I would say that there is a feeling of openness and directness to the poetry. As we get further into the project, that initial impression may dissolve!

Deborah Woodard is the author of Plato’s Bad Horse (Bear Star, 2006), Borrowed Tales (Stockport Flats, 2012), and No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911 (Ravenna Press, 2018). She has published several chapbooks, including Hunter Mnemonics (hemel press, 2008), which was illustrated by artist Heide Hinrichs. She has translated the poetry of Amelia Rosselli from Italian in The Dragonfly, A Selection of Poems: 1953-1981 (Chelsea Editions, 2009), Hospital Series (New Directions, 2015), and Obtuse Diary (Entre Ríos Books, 2018). Along with her co-translator, Roberta Antognini, she has recently begun translating Rosselli’s longest collection, Documento. Woodard teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.

Anne Greeott‘s translations have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Bitter Oleander, Italian Poetry Review, Atticus Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She received a Fulbright grant to translate the poetry of Mario Luzi in Italy as well as an ALTA Travel Grant, and holds an MFA in translation from the University of Arkansas.

Cover image: “Over there” by Lisa Buchanan (