#wearedaphne: A Conversation with Abigail Ardelle Zammit, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Abigail Ardelle Zammit is from Malta and has had poetry published in a variety of international journals including Boulevard, Gutter, Myslexia, The SHOp, Iota, Aesthetica, Freefall, Ink, Sweat and Tears, High Window, The Ekphrastic Review.  Abigail’s two collections of poetry are Voices from the Land of Trees (Smokestack, 2007)and Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin (SPM, 2015), which won second prize in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing (Lancaster), and is currently working on a collection of poems exploring the connections between place, body, and the female experience.  

KMD: Tell me about the larger project that these thought-provoking hybrid texts are culled from.  

AAZ: These Daphne erasures were actually the first hybrid texts in a project that is still in the process of finding whether it wants to expand or remain self-contained.  For the last four years I have been wanting to write about the assassination of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a way that would allow me to bring to the fore the controversial realities from which her writing sprang and the turbulent socio-political climate that made her untimely demise possible.  The poems I wrote before I fell upon the blackout project did not totally capture the largeness that I was aiming for, perhaps because I was getting conflicting feedback depending on the extent to which my readers were exposed to the narrative of Daphne’s untimely demise, with editors situated in Europe advising me to cut out detailed references to the car bombing context, for instance, and readers in the USA and elsewhere wanting to know more about the actual circumstances of her tragic dispersal on the 16th of October 2017.  

The pandemic served to exacerbate what had already been, for me, a period of somewhat painful intellectual isolation, not least because despite the presence of a raging virus, the island’s wealth-frenzied, propaganda machinery was still working its ways into the public psyche.  It is a force of formidable capacity, dulling the consciousness of strangers, friends, and relatives alike.  The end of 2019 had seen the shocking testimonies of criminals involved in Daphne’s murder and the consequent revelation of the most harrowing political scandals, all of which underlined the impunity and corruption that reigned supreme even at the highest levels of government.  It was a period of social awakening and mass protests which led to the resignation of the then prime minister.  Nonetheless, everything stalled with the advent of the virus – law courts, mass gatherings – it was enough to simply survive the lockdown.  Perhaps I refused to write about the pandemic because I was angry with fate for its strange reversals.  

It was late in 2020, however, that I came into closer contact with experimental poetry and writing communities outside Malta that appreciated its relevance and artistic value.  Once my consciousness was filled with the generative fluidity of the hybrid texts I was reading, I suddenly saw a way into my own Daphne project and the shape it might take.  Since then, I have been engaged in creating experimental texts out of my own poems, the Daphne-centred poems, composed earlier, as well as others.  The larger project is thus still in the making and I am not sure whether #wearedaphne must remain self-contained, or become embedded within a new collection of more experimental writing.  There’s definitely a surprise in store, and I am toying with the idea of going back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this time mining the translated poems, rather than the prose narratives, in order to see where the words will lead me.

KMD: Within the context of this project, why was it important to place classical texts in dialogue with contemporary ones?

AAZ: With Ovid’s Metamorphoses we are looking at a fictional text that is relatively remote in time; one written by an exiled male writer who had somehow been swept into the world of political intrigue (the reason for his banishment from Rome has also been attributed to political motives, apart from his scandalous guide to seduction, the Ars Amatoria.).  One crucial element is therefore the inevitable change of one’s writerly trajectory as a result of isolation and/or political turmoil, and the convenient distancing effect one earns from looking with hindsight at the already-written, one separated by time, space, translation, and transmutation into prose, thus bearing no direct connection with Maltese current affairs.  Given the particular hyper-partisanship of Maltese society, I consider distance and fictionality two essential tools for risk-taking and satirical play.   

Another element is Ovid’s vivid depiction of scenes focussing on the abuse of power – gods, and goddesses, but mainly male deities lusting after beautiful girls and pursuing them to the death, the story of Daphne and Apollo being one such case.  Despite understanding the context of shifting gender politics, re-reading the Metamorphoses as a woman can at times be a challenging experience given the moral ambivalence within which rape is presented, an ambivalence which lent itself to the moral vacuum that I was experiencing in my daily life.  It suffices to say that on the self-same minute the island was shaken by the news of the car-bomb, a casual acquaintance remarked that Daphne had been asking for it – that those invectives she had written, the uncompromising, acerbic vocabulary of the proverbial Echo – were sufficient justification for a cold-blooded plot to assassinate her.  If kick-backs and wealth stashed away in off-shore companies have become the common currency of island politics, then abuse is not only unpunished, but institutionalized; the powerful are not unlike those lusty gods set on pursuing their victim, irrespective of the personal and social upheaval they may cause.   And it is indeed fit that Ovid should situate his poetic endeavours in the Iron age, where gods and humans are increasingly corrupt and where chaos reigns supreme. To say that the mighty take and squander because they can, and that nobody is holding them responsible for it, is to engage directly in political discourse, but to take Ovid’s artwork and let it speak, is to allow a historical work of fiction to tell and retell, the text already a myth, now transforming itself into another story of the already-written.  This time round, it is not fiction, but the rules of hybridity still allow for the amalgamation of history and fictionalization – the honest acknowledgement that whatever is recounted bears the mark of craft and narrative selection, rather than undisputed Objectivity.  

The last point I wanted to mention in this regard is that if metamorphosis is seen as the demise of the self as we know it, then Ovid’s representation of change becomes a contemporary artistic vehicle for the representation of transformation in its many forms – social, political, cultural, artistic, personal, as well as the sacrifices that are made by individuals and communities for the sake of the general good.   The assassination of Malta’s foremost investigate journalist has an indelible quality to it that has formed and transformed whatever is to come – there will always be the time before Daphne was killed, and the time after Daphne was killed.  It seemed to me that the best way to capture this transformation as it was in the process of happening was to engage with Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Unravelling the words was a fascinating, at times chilling experience, a reminder that history binds us on so many levels, perhaps because we have not heeded the lessons it has been trying to teach us.  

KMD: Relatedly, what is the relationship between writing and social justice for you as a creative practitioner?

AAZ: As I reader, I am increasingly interested in voices that move away from the solipsism of the narcissistic self in order to embrace the socio-political issues of the time and place from which they emerge.  The pandemic has shown us that we need poetry and the creative arts even more urgently during challenging times, not because they can bring back the dying, end wars, or solve conflicts, but because they offer solace, sanity and human connection; being enamoured of metaphor and ambiguity, the poetic word, in particular, does not break under the iron foot of oppression, but stares the language of polemic and propaganda in the face, opening the doorway of imagination, which is the only door through which compassion, understanding, and the will for change can really make an entry.  In a recent talk, the poet Carolyn Forché spoke about the way our language lives through our traumas and tribulations; even when we do not directly engage with the crisis of our particular age, language ‘bears the impress of what we have lived through’.  As a citizen and creative practitioner, I feel that my consciousness has been irrevocably altered by the treachery, injustice and inhumanity that the island to which I belong has witnessed, which is why pretending that nothing is happening would be inconceivable; engaging with the events through a pre-existing text has not only been therapeutic, but necessary and inescapable.  

Many years back, I was moved to write about the genocide in Guatemala following the US-led military coup; at the time I had faced a weighty dilemma concerning the ethics of representation – Who was I to write about a place I barely knew and a people whose reality was entirely different from mine?   The poems in Forché’s seminal collection Against Forgetting kept me afloat, particularly Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Vocabulary’ with its contrasting opening and closing statements: ‘But how can I tell their story / if I was not there?’, and ‘Let them speak for themselves’.  At the time I found my answer in a multiplicity of dialogic discourses, allowing the soldiers, the guerrilla fighters, the poor, the representatives from Amnesty International, as well as the Generals, to speak for themselves in the first person, so that their clashing voices would, I hoped, give some semblance of the complexity of a truth that needed to be told, and in a language that readers from outside Latin America would be able to understand.  

By the time I was writing Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin, I had come to believe that my dedication to social justice must perforce take gender discourses into consideration, which is why in most of my poems I adopt dramatic personae and speak from the point of view of other women, be they real or fictional; in ‘The Maltese Venus’ sequence, for instance, language carries the urgency of a female voice that is confident and unabashedly human.  As a female writer, I am particularly sensitive to the way in which we are often undone by a phallocentric language which subjugates, controls and dehumanizes.  It was therefore doubly ironic for me to take Ovid’s words and make them my own so as to tell the story of ‘is-saħħara tal-Bidnija’, or ‘the Bidnija witch’, as Daphne was called by her enemies; it was convenient to use a male vehicle from antiquity in order to underline the pivotal role of investigative journalists and the precariousness of their lives in a world where the systematic obfuscation of truths has reached dystopic proportions.  

KMD: Erasure is a literary practice that is charged with tension, metaphor, and possibilities for using the page as a canvas, a visual field.  Why did you choose erasure as the vehicle for this project?  Since there are a number of ways to present erasure on the page, why blackout?

AAZ: In my search for ways of engaging with the tragic significance of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, I pondered the question of naming, and how a name can come to represent a particular loss, as well as a violation of universal significance.  At the time, I happened to be re-reading The Metamorphoses so Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo story was the one I went back to in search for answers.  The words stood out with haunting clarity and for the duration of the first erasure, the language was my guide, working its way into the creative moment, making itself anew with almost horrifying foresight.  Following the first erasure, it was then a matter of developing trust in the existent text, of believing that within those pages, everything had already been told, and that it was a matter of bringing it to light so that it would illuminate a contemporary context.  I did not want to alter or shift the words around, but merely to extract and select.  No comma or full-stop was to be added for the sake of convenience.  The rules and constraints of the form would provide the framework I needed to work within and inspire all the creativity that I required.  If, as Isobel O’Hare would have it, erasure is an act of uncovering, ‘a sort of archaeology of language’, then the primary thematic violence of Ovid’s fictional transformations would unearth the violence of the present moment, just as much as the sensuous descriptive detail of the whole would serve to unveil a recent event which is still hard to assimilate into the public and private consciousness.   Erasure and selection also freed me from the particularity of direct naming and specific references since the selected text carried with it the gift of multiplicity and universality – ‘Augustus’ gateposts’, for instance, becoming a symbol for any system of government that is being assailed by the voice of dissent.    

What the status quo wants is forgetfulness and amnesia; what language demands is an incessant return where each dig brings to light a new archaeological find.  I hope that Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was trained as an archaeologist, would herself have appreciated the dynamics of my communion with an ancient text, which brings me to your second question.  In this kind of black-out erasure, there is less text, than there is non-text, the white space hijacked by the aggression of black ink. From a satirical standpoint, blackout is a linguistic play on 17 Black, first mentioned cryptically by Daphne in conjunction with the word ’Dubai’, and eventually revealed to be a secret offshore company owned by the man who now stands accused of engineering her murder.  Since blackout poetry often carries activist and political intent, it seemed particularly apt in allowing me to comment on the disappearance of dissident voices, not only Daphne’s, but so many journalists from around the world whose lives have been cut short.   

With blackout texts, the source is not erased, but lies hidden under the black marks, illegible in my case, but still present, a metaphor for the chaotic layers of lies and deceit, the superimposition of testimonies and counter-testimonies in maddening conflation.  That the Daphne case is not yet closed and that there has not yet been any justice at the highest levels, is in itself a perpetuation of blackout darkness in its worst forms.  

Redacting words through word choice, word order and spacing allowed me to come to terms with silence and social upheaval, the long textual pauses erupting with tension, the page’s canvas enacting the violence of censorship and control.  It is significant that The Metamorphoses has also been considered an epic about the act of silencing, Ovid’s silencing by Augustus replicating itself every time someone is transformed into a tree, or a creature bereft of language.  The parallel with the assassinated journalist is obvious, and I hope that it may allow #wearedaphne ‘to expose the human cost of suppression’.  Yet Running Commentary, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Notebook, lives on.  If anything, this form of artistic experimentation has allowed me to do away with myself; it is fit for the poet to get out of the way, so that the words can speak for themselves.  

KMD: What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

AAZ: I am currently fine-tuning what I hope will be my third poetry collection, one that takes its inspiration from place and that utilizes feminist poetics in order to question the ethics of representation.  Apart from hybrid experimentation, most recently I have been working closely with form and metre.  Ideas usually spring from the amalgamation of apparently disparate currents of thoughts, which is why I want to play with poetic expression in all its forms in search for a language that is as regenerative as it is emotionally resonant.  

A Folio of Erasures by Abigail Ardelle Zammit