Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Cristina Perissinotto

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Cristina Perissinotto

Cristina Perissinotto talks to Open Book about writing poetry in Italy, in Greece, in Ottawa and in the mornings before the demands of her roles as Professor of Italian Studies, of Medieval Studies and as Coordinator of the Italian Language Program spirit her away to a more hectic place. Her first collection of poetry in English, Exhale, Exhale, was recently published with Guernica Editions.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Exhale, Exhale.

Cristina Perissinotto:

It is a collection of poems I wrote over the past few years. To have a book out with Guernica was one of my goals for this collection, which traces different stories that have to do with my life in the USA, in Canada and in Italy. Much of my poetry is inspired by the spirit of the places where I have lived, so the reader will find a number of unusual places described in the book.


How is breath important to your poetry, particularly in this book, whose title reminds us — twice — to breathe?


As women, we too often hold or breath, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, we typically breathe with the upper part of our lungs; only when we get into a meditative state do we relax the muscles of our abdomen and breathe “from the belly button.” It is a very good practice, trying to find a meditative space in which the body is oxygenated and strengthened.

Metaphorically, we hold our breath all the time, waiting for something better to come — love, a good job, a trip somewhere, the release of our latest book. This book reminds us to exhale and take in the ride, let the spirit of the place enwrap us.

“Exhale Exhale,” the eponymous poem, speaks of the spirit of a particular place, Venice, one that is very dear to my heart, and of the natural breathing of the Venetian Lagoon. More specifically, it refers to the art of glass blowing, the ability to create something with one’s breath.


How would you describe your writing process?


My best writing time is the morning. During the semester, all of my classes are in the afternoon or evening. For years I’ve awakened, made tea and sat down to write; in the summer, when I am in Italy, I awaken, make coffee and sit down to write just the same, only the beverage and the surroundings change. I have learned to respect my routine no matter where I am. I write every day, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. I like silence, which is precious and sometimes hard to come about, so I don’t play music while I write.

I have my desk by the window. It is very important for me to be able to look outside while I write. I am fortunate in that in my home in Ottawa the window opens to a garden, and so I can see the passing of seasons.

Writing is a solitary process, and as I write I feel the need to belong to a virtual community of kindred spirits. For this purpose, I often read books about the writing process and belong to a few virtual writers’ groups.

A couple of years ago I began applying for writing retreats. I was very pleased to be awarded three writer’s residencies in Europe. My writing routine does not change much when I am at a residency, but I do tend to write longer hours, leaving the exploration and sightseeing for the late afternoon and evenings. For the last two years I went to a writer’s residency in Greece, and this year I have been invited to write in a Viking island off the coast of Sweden.


You teach Italian and Italian studies at the University of Ottawa. How does your fluency in another language influence your poetry?


It makes more sense to me to write poetry in the language in which I am immersed. Keeping several languages active in my mind and in my writing has been crucial for me; this requires a special dedication and love for languages, frequent trips and the ability to keep up with everything: the news, books, novels and academic writing in different countries.

I also write in Italian, and one of my poetry books, Taprobana Tea, has just been released in Italy.


Can you recommend some Italian poets whose work you particularly admire?


Besides Dante and Petrarch you mean?

Over the years I have managed to surround myself with poetry. My web browser opens every day to Poetry Daily, and I receive Garrison Keillor’s daily “Writer’s Almanac” in the email. I am often invited to poetry readings and used to have a weekly poetry show at a local radio. Now I have a weekly poetry and philosophy column in the culture page of the Corriere Canadese, the Italian newspaper in Canada.

I teach Italian literature every year, so I am never too far from this subject matter. I could write pages and pages of recommendations, but I do recommend reading Eugenio Montale, Nobel Prize winner for Literature. His poetry is intense, deep, linguistically rich and sophisticated. Here is an example from “Cuttlefish Bones”, the first stanza of the poem entitled “I Think Back of Your Smile”:

Ossi di Seppia

Ripenso il tuo sorriso, ed è per me un'acqua limpida
scorta per avventura tra le petraie d'un greto,
esiguo specchio in cui guardi un'ellera i suoi corimbi;
e su tutto l'abbraccio d'un bianco cielo quieto.

I also would recommend reading Ariosto, for his humor and magic; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a wild fantasy, written in the Renaissance, with a number of plots, twists, turns, humour and madness, love and cliffhangers, and even lunar travels. It is the perfect read for any season, and good background reading for the Harry Potter series.


How do you balance your work as a poet with your responsibilities as an academic?


I write academic articles, books, poetry, all at the same time. I have many responsibilities as an academic and things get pretty busy during the semester, so sometimes reading poetry or working on a poem is a welcome change of pace.


What is one poem you wish you had been the one to write?


Montale’s "I limoni" comes to mind, and Billy Collins’ "Forgetfulness". Many of the poems by Medbh McGuckian, and that poem by Sharon Olds, entitled "Topography". Also "Ithaka", by Cavafy. Sorry … these are more than one.


Do you have another creative project in the works?


I have finished an academic manuscript and I have submitted another poetry manuscript. I have a novel in the works; The poetry collection is about deception, and the novel is about chance encounters with evil.

Poet and scholar Cristina Perissinotto has enjoyed important life passages in Montreal, Ficulle, Ottawa, Champaign-Urbana, Portogruaro and Venice. Her poetry is published both in Italian and in English. Professor Perissinotto teaches in the Italian Studies and Medieval Studies Program at the University of Ottawa. Exhale, Exhale is her first collection of poems.

For more information about Exhale, Exhale please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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