Art and Peace series
In the space between –
an interview with Viviana Fiorentino
Viviana Fiorentino is a teacher, writer, poet and activist. She is Italian and lives in Belfast. She published in international webzines, journals and in anthologies (Dedalus Press, 2019; Salmon, 2020); In Italy, a poetry collection (Controluna Press) and a novel (Transeuropa Publishing House).
She co-founded two activist poetry initiatives ‘Sky, you are too big’, a celebration on international migrants day which combines poetry and music from migrant artists living in Northern Ireland https://quotidian.ie/projects/sky-you-are-too-big/ ‘Letters with wings’ (founded on Poetry Day Ireland 2020) is a poetry campaign in support of artists in prison that collected 727 poetic letters to be sent to artists in prison for their art and/for defending their freedom of speech and human rights. ‘Letter with wings’ as part of the ‘Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics’ in 2021, organised “When art meets activism”, an online event dedicated to the women artists Chimengul Awut (award-winning Uyghur poet) and Nûdem Durak (Kurdish origin folk musician and political prisoner in Turkey).
She is on the editorial staff of Le Ortique, a blog and an initiative that voices and rediscovers forgotten women artists. https://leortique.wordpress.com/
She facilitates the creative writing and photography project “Same/Difference” (Quotidian – Word of the Street Ltd – https://quotidian.ie/projects/same-difference/ exploring themes like identity, belonging, diversity and peacebuilding.
She was interviewed by Stefania Gualberti.
Stefania: How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and activism?
Viviana: The truth is “I don’t know”, exactly. If I look back at my background and experiences which led to my involvement in art, it comes to my mind all the times that I walked back and forward, that I changed my path, all the times I questioned my perspective, interrogated my way of living. My background is made of this: lots of intertwined paths. These doubts and questions led me to my involvement in art.
My first path was to study Natural Science and Biology. The connection to nature and the environment around me was for sure very important for both my involvement with art and activism. My art is a way for me to connect with the world around me, with the nature and the environment. Activism for me is living as communities which means to connect with the world around us, nature. Nature is made of human beings as well. Sometimes we perceive nature as non-human animals and plants, but nature is the whole environment, including us and all the millions of interactions between ‘we’ animals and organisms. If we take care of nature, we take care of ourselves too, this is a form of activism.
My background is also influenced by the fact that I travelled a lot in Europe. I was born in Italy and after secondary school I left the country and l went back to Italy and left again when I was 28. I lived in Switzerland, in Germany, in England, back in Germany and finally in Northern Ireland. These changes in ground and languages gave me the opportunity to shift my point of view many times. I think a revolution of the point of view is at the base of art. When you create art, you have to look at the world around you, or anything that is ‘the other’, from a different, new, perspective. To express it you need to be outside for a moment, in a space which is in between. This space allows you to create something new.
Stefania: What do you feel is special about art to challenge, connect and transform?
Viviana: Every day we listen to thousands of words, from the radio, the media, from the people around us as we receive the news from the world. In a way we become anaesthetized, we lose contact with words, we forget the meaning of words. Art, writing in my case, put these words back in a new context. That way we have a kind of revelation again from the words. This is the challenge. The art has a transformative quality. As we get this revelation, we finally see the new meanings of the words, from which we were anaesthetized, we have the possibility to transform our feelings of rage, despair, sorrow into something new, into something that can be beautiful through the act of creating.
Stefania: How do you think the creative process can help healing trauma at both individual and collective levels?
Viviana: There are two sides: one side is the power of transformation of collecting your experiences and reshaping them. The other side, the healing process, is not in the art itself but in the connection that art offers us. We create art to communicate with “the other”. For example, when I write a poem, at the end, I create a connection with another person. The healing is there whenever I reach somebody else. It can be just one single person, it can be in the future, it doesn’t matter. This connection, this possibility we have, is a flow of love.
I am not sure that art can be healing for the person who is creating it, it might sometimes, for me the healing happens in the moment the artist and the receiver connect. When you as an artist reach someone and when someone is reached by the art. The healing is not in the art but in the connection thanks to the art.
I think sometimes creating can be energetically tiring as you have to put together your fragmented pieces and you have to recollect your experiences that maybe traumatized you, so it can be a problem of re-suffering. In that moment of recollection the artist does a leap: you leave your specific individuality, your ‘ego’, for making that experiences universal. Before reaching the page, there is a process of growing, so to say, for you as artist. Somehow you are you look at yourself from outside.
This moment when you are in between space, in this outside space, is when you look at your life, and say, look that was me, but now it is an experience for everyone – you want in fact talk to many others – it becomes a universal perspective. It’s the growing of a new possibility, like a seed, you see you can grow from there. You can move forward from that experience. So, at the end, I can heal from that experience thanks to the other person that I imagine will receive my art. Art is art if it is universal, if it has something that can speak to others.
Stefania, you also asked me about the collective levels. In this sense, art can be a glue, because of its power of universality we can stick together. We can find a collective voice, in a poem, in a painting, so we can imagine something together.
Stefania: How do you overcome the barriers in groups especially people who would not consider themselves as ‘writers’ or ‘poets’? How can poetry be accessible to everybody given that it is sometimes seen as the most pretentious of the arts?
Viviana: It is a challenging question because the inaccessibility of poetry comes, I think, from an old way of talking or reading poetry in education. Because of its nature, most poetry can talk to everyone, and it is largely accessible, it depends on how we read it. What is a poem? It is something written on a piece of paper. It is like a stone, it does not speak by itself; we need to give it a voice. How is the stone made? Maybe it is sedimented with water, but where does it come from? The same questions can be asked for a poem.
In a poem, what are the meanings of the words? What are the sediments that made it? What is the poem saying to us? Doing that, we give the poem a voice and doing so we recognise a part of ourselves in there. Looking for the voices inside us and bringing them to the surface is a way to say, Look, that is what I understood, what do you think? This question is poetry.
Each art has its own tools and techniques you need to learn if you want to be a professional, but the kernel is this voice which is inside of everyone.
Stefania: How has your bilingual and migration experience facilitated your engagement in this area?
Viviana: In Northern Ireland in particular, there is a movement from the reality which was true 30 years ago of a net division between two different groups. Now there is a wealth of different cultures which still needs to be recognized by the society. Each migrant here has this beautiful great possibility to be a bridge for those people who think they are still divided. People who have more than one language, more than one culture, can be a present for Northern Ireland.
Stefania: In your years of experience is there a particular project or engagement that you want to talk about in relation to this conversation on art and peacebuilding?
Viviana: There are two main projects that are part of my art and heart. One is Same/difference devised by Quotidian artists Maria McManus, Nandi Jola, Bernarde Lynn and I. It is a series of creative writing and photography workshops. The project has been implemented for the first time in Portadown supported by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council through Peace IV funds. It was then followed by further implementations of the project with two further series. It examines the concept of identity, belonging, home, diversity and peace-building, through creative writing and expressive abilities and explores the lived – experience of migration.
The common thread is to see ourselves with the eyes of the others, being in dialogue with the others, understating my own story and listening to ‘the others’. The groups we worked with actually represent Northern Ireland’s society today, diverse.
Letters with wings was born last year (2020) during the first lockdown when the feeling of constraint in our house was a good opportunity to emotionally connect with artists and people who all over the world were imprisoned for fighting for human rights or for defending freedom of expression. We asked the public to send on social media artistic letters to address to the artists who were imprisoned. We collected more than 700 letters and we are in the process of sending these letters. The letters can be read in our website (https://wingsletters.wordpress.com/). It was fantastic, we had a great engagement as people felt the necessity to reach out to the artists who were imprisoned. It was a community project, which was the strength of it, to do something together, to imagine a possibility all together.
I would love to finish up this interview with a poem that actually inspired many of the projects I talked during this interview. I initially wrote it in Italian then Maria McManus and I worked together toward a translation in English. Please take it as a way to thank you for this opportunity.
I – Landing
Sky, you are too big;
Persian Blue –
I cannot know you.
Instead, I call on you, Land;
give me a place to put my feet,
a home for my uncertainty,
a place to doubt.
A place to live.
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