Dr. Justin Vitiello, Italian professor, was on hand to recite poems from his latest book, “Suicide of an Ethnic Poet.” In the book, Vitiello attempts to balance the life of a professor with the creativity of a poet harmonizing three different languages: English, Italian and Spanish.
“I started writing in Spanish and Italian when I knew what I was doing in English was good,” Vitiello said.
As students entered the Honors Lounge on Wednesday, Vitiello chatted with his audience on the assimilation of Italian language into American culture.
During the reading, Vitiello sampled some of the poems of “Suicide,” which cover dissent in the 1960s, parenthood in the 1970s, and romance in the 1980s, among others.
Some of the poems were originally written in Italian, others in English, but Vitiello said all of the poems in his book appear in Italian and English. Translating them, or ‘transposing,’ as he said, is not an easy task.
“It’s a process of saying, ‘OK, this is how this sounds in English, now how should it sound in Italian or Spanish?” Vitiello said.
As a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” Vitiello submersed himself in the languages he uses in the book. He recently returned to a normal schedule in Philadelphia after two years of teaching Italian at Temple’s Rome campus.
Vitiello’s globetrotting has its roots in the same era as much of his poetry, the 1960s. In 1963, as part of a Fulbright Scholarship, Vitiello spent the year in Spain, when it was still under fascist leadership. Vitiello has long believed that it took this international experience to gain the perspective he has on America and its politics.
“Well, [becoming a citizen of the world] is a constant process,” Vitiello said. “I saw America much better from Spain. As long as they weren’t reporting on the Spanish government the Spanish newspapers were pretty good.”
During Wednesday’s reading, Vitiello related his experiences in Spain through two poems, but he also told of his experiences from all over Europe, including his work in Finland and studies in Sicily. One poem, titled “Love Poem, Hardly Remembered,” describes the barrier between Vitiello, who was stuck in Sicily when his love was in Finland. A student was so struck by the poem that he is now animating it into a cartoon.
“I always thought of this poem from my point of view, never as a cartoon” Vitiello said.
He also used the reading to cover a different kind of love: the love of a father for his son. His poem “Mujik” was named for a toy belonging to his son.
“Some suggest that my poetry is full of rage. I have love poems; I have poems about my children. I don’t want you to think that I’m an angry old man,” Vitiello said.
Early in the reading, Vitiello spoke briefly about the Vietnam War era. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Vitiello was partially responsible for a famous series of “teach-ins,” where students and citizens sought clarity and truth in a turbulent period.
“The teach-ins started as educated people wanting to educate people on things. Before that the American people didn’t know much about [the war],” Vitiello said. He still remains mindful of national politics, just as he did in the 1960s.
While Vitiello has always written poetry in light of his heritage, he didn’t start writing in Italian and Spanish until he knew that he was writing well in English. He explained to his audience the decisions he makes when choosing which language he should write a poem in. Vitiello calls the translation of poetry “transposition,” because it is another poet’s job to use his or her own language to translate his imagery.
“I call it ‘transposing’ because it’s impossible to translate some things. In one of my poems I have the image of ‘chipmunk cheeks.’ You can’t say that in Italian. It had to be transposed into ‘cheeks with dimples,'” Vitiello said.
When Vitiello had recited his final poem, he said a simple “thank you,” and gave the stage to any willing readers. It’s just another part of the linguistic balancing act that Vitiello performs, leading the life of the artist and of the listener as well.
“When you learn a second language, when you become multi-cultural, it really gives a better perspective on your own reality,” Vitiello said.
Chris Reber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.