There are many ways to write about sports, but the Italian writer Gabriele Tinti has opted for a seemingly unlikely blend of form and subject. His recent collection All over takes as its focus boxing, with poems focusing on the likes of Arturo Gatti and Arthur Cravan. I caught up with Tinti via email to learn more about evoking the rhythms of boxing, the process of translation, his friendship with Burt Young, and more.
Much of your work focuses on boxing. How did it become your muse?
Literature is fiction, representation, game, evocation in the best of cases. The truth is that we writers – not only us of course – destroy ourselves in slow motion, we are failures of action. It is for this reason that we envy boxers, we envy what we are not, what we do not have the courage to be. Cioran said, “Almost all thinkers’ lives have ended well” and this is the supreme argument against philosophy (and, if I may, against literature). You cannot elude existence with explanations, you can only endure it, love it, detest it. Life is not discussed, it is expressed. I’m trying to go beyond literature with my poetry, in order to make myself stay close to reality. Boxers, with their work (their matches) and their lives, represent one of the most authentic spectacles of suffering we are allowed to watch. Their will for tragedy is their only desire. It is that which enriches our imagination and admiration.
Do you feel that you need to evoke the pacing of a fight in a poem written about that fight? And if so, how do you go about that?
I know a lot of boxers, I have seen, I see, so much boxing that to me it is natural to bring back its rhythm, its music. Fist fighting, that terrible dance, on the other hand has a high poetic content. Because boxing is a space in which our repressed feelings, our fears and our identity anxieties all converge. Boxing resolves everything in the sense of death. It manages to do so because it is a primal display; a manifestation of an unrepeatable existential experience, a ‘true’ reality; the revelation of an internal world in which not only the body (with all its suffering) and the flesh are on the line, but also the intellect, the spirit and so-called ‘culture.’ It is a cruel spectacle made of pain and love, of the unpredictable and the serious, of boredom and great emotions.
When you appeared at the Queens Museum recently, your work was read by Burt Young, whose art also appears on the cover of All over. How did the two of you first meet?
We met in Rome. He was here making a film. We immediately became friends and immediately shared this project. He is a very intelligent and sensitive person. He went into my work without demands, perfectly understanding what I needed. We have great mutual respect and admiration. And he knows the world of boxing and boxers very well. Like me he knows that the boxer is a virus, a factor of destruction and living next to him means crying constantly. My poems are lamentations, they should be cried rather than read, as Burt does. Having completely internalized All over, he cries with absolutely no rhetoric and without any pre-arranged agreement.
When writing about historical bouts, how do you go about selecting the ones to evoke in your work?
I decide on the basis of the drama it contains. All over is actually a series of funeral portraits, of epigraphs that develop like tragedies in the form of poems, of laments. It draws its rationale from drama more than traditional poetry. Even though the arrangement seems to be that of the traditional epic based on the Pindar model, the resulting epic is a cross-valued epic. To be sung about is not actually the hero’s victory but his defeat; here he is fragile, isolated, invariably beaten. Dead. In singing death, that which seemed an epic proves rather to be a long series of epigraphs, a sepulchral poem.
The translator’s afterword for All over discusses the ways in which certain poems were translated, and the fact that the Italian and English versions of some may contain significant differences. What was the process of having this work translated like?
A translation is always a risk. Fortunately in creating All over‘s English edition, the original Italian manuscript has been revised and modified by myself in close collaboration with the translator, Nicholas Benson. Nick is the translator from the Italian of Attilio Bertolucci’s Winter Journey, and of some of the most important Italian classical writers as Ugo Foscolo and Aldo Palazzeschi. It was a great honour for me working with him. His superb work on my poems has been also guided by friendship and by shared passion. The differences between original and translation are part of shifting from one syntax (Italian) to another (English) while searching to retain the colloquial and emotional manner of the original within the concision of verse. We wanted to make poems in English that stand on their own, while still suggesting where they came from, a sensibility that should be unchanged although the medium, the language, is different.
Arturo Gatti occupies a significant place in your poetry. What was your first introduction to him?
I was overwhelmed when I saw Gatti fight. I immediately wrote about him because I strongly believe that the public feels a close brotherly bond with a champion like him, an intimate relationship based on the understanding of what he gave, of how much he put on the line, with his own pain, joy, solitude and love. To me Arturo Gatti never really lost. His life and his work go beyond poetry and sentiment. His matches were blood, sincerity, agony, spasms. They go straight to the one and only meditation that matters: that of death. Gatti was boxing, he was all style, he cursed emotion, loved pain and spilled blood. Anyone who arrives at this level of spirit and understanding risks a great deal and deserves all our devotion.
In All over, you also write about Arthur Cravan, whose life encompassed both boxing and art. Do you see parallels between his life and work and yours?
Cravan was a great inspiration to me. His very lateral, vital, anti-academic poetry is undoubtedly a point of reference for my work.
Like him, I constantly try to bring reality into my poetry as much as possible, reducing everything that is ‘invention’, ‘creativity’, ‘literature’. My poetry works to the limit, it proceeds by stripping and draining off everything that is superfluous. The conceptual design that inspires my books is always the same and is raw, existential, emotional, dramatic: returning lyricism to the last moments.
This was the case in All over and will be the case in my next book – Last Words (which will be published by Skira/Rizzoli) – in which I composed the last words of ordinary people who chose to commit suicide into a collectanea, a single, long, painful, moving poem of reality. The book will contain an essay by Derrick de Kerchove and will be enriched by pictures of people who died by suicide, taken from the scandalous series The Morgue by Andres Serrano.