Catalan culture was the guest of honour at the 2007 Frankfurt Book Fair. The main slogan for the event, which constituted an extraordinary opportunity to present and promote our literature in a European context, was: ‘Catalan culture: singular and universal’.
But Catalan culture itself is made up of further singular components, perhaps the most exceptional and surprising of which being the small Catalan cultural and linguistic community in L’Alguer (Alghero in Italian), a town with a population of 43,000 in the north-west corner of Sardinia. No less unique and admirable is the poetry written in this little corner of the Mediterranean from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Such is this poetry’s loyalty to constants of historical and literary value, it can also be considered universal, thanks to its strong emotional impact.
Little is known about the Catalan-language poetry scene in Sardinia outside L’Alguer and the rest of the island, though considerable progress has been made in recent years. Three important books by the most renowned Algherese writers have been published recently: Guido Sari, Els ocells màgics (The Magic Birds, La Comarcal, 2015), Antoni Coronzu Totes les poesies i un llibre més (All the Poetries and One More Book, Saldonar, 2016) and Antoni Canu Ànimes precioses (Precious Souls, Saldonar, 2019). Then we have Franca Masu, one of the most talented singers in all the Mediterranean. This internationally acclaimed artist (it is no coincidence that she is known as ‘the Catalan voice of Italy’) is working on a book of poems that will include the lyrics of her best songs: Cordemar (Heartofsea).
A few years ago now, I published an anthology of contemporary Algherese poetry, titled La tercera illa (The Third Island, Barcelona, 2012). I chose this title because I wanted this anthology to be a taste of a unique poetic island within a linguistic and cultural island, L’Alguer, within the physical island of Sardinia. A triple insularity, in short.
Every Algherese writer takes on this exceptional situation with their own literary weapons, depending on their specific cultural baggage in the historical context into which they were born and their personal beliefs. Furthermore, the linguistic choice they make, which is never an obvious decision and varies according to the author and the stage of their career, is a reflection (and a consequence) of their stance towards this experience of isolation. This gives poetry from L’Alguer written in Catalan certain unique characteristics and unparalleled quality within our literary panorama. The Lleida-born poet Carles Hac Mor explained it best:
Because to listen to the poets of L’Alguer is to live the epic story of a Catalan language that has roamed the streets of Sardinia’s Little Barcelona for centuries, with no influences other than its own singularity. The poetry produced in L’Alguer is local yet pan-Catalan. It is of the people and yet, for those not from the town, it can be wonderfully elitist, as it makes the language sing high above its conventional poetic usage.
Luckily, this third island of Algherese poetry is not uniform. Its contours and relief vary greatly: it ranges from a more local, popular idea of poetry, deeply rooted in how people speak, to a more open perspective, with a host of more eclectic options in between. The more local version could be considered ‘conservative’ (according to the well-known classification set out by Algherese poet Pasqual Scanu). The more open perspective, meanwhile, would correspond to that of the poets whose work is aimed at a broader potential audience and who, therefore, opt for a more standard, wide-reaching Catalan. According to Scanu, this is a more ‘purist’ position, but does not eschew distinguishing dialectal characteristics. The most significant examples of this approach can be found in the work of Scanu himself, Antoni Bal·lero de Càndia, Francesc Manunta, Rafael Caria and Guido Sari.
But, between these two poles, there are more complex, eclectic styles, as is the case for the aforementioned Coronzu and Canu, for example. The former uses an intentionally everyday form of the language of L’Alguer, with all the Sardisms and Italianisms that enable him to offer lexical choices that border on the surreal, making this ordinary vocabulary highly suggestive. Meanwhile, the latter creates a literary language that, without forgoing features of Algherese identity, can be understood by other speakers of Catalan yet that, in parallel, can reflect the memory, scenery, and linguistic and cultural flavour of his homeland, inland Sardinia.
Let’s not forget the significant contribution, sitting somewhere between experimentation and irony, made by Antoni Arca, the Algherese writer with the most professional and active literary awareness. As well as poetry, Arca has published a remarkable list of narrative fiction, children’s and young adult literature, dramatic literature and essays, in Catalan, Sard and Italian.
I hope these few words act as an introduction and a lure, as a bridge between the voices of Catalan poetry in L’Alguer and readers all over the world interested in our literature. I honestly think that a broad view of this unique lyrical panorama can help readers to discover and fall in love with these poems, which, thanks to their markedly different nature, surprise us with unexpected finds. These may consist of the beauty of the language used, which can seem anachronistic to foreign eyes, or of the artistic independence displayed by the various poetic offerings, unaffected by current trends and schools of thought.
In this sense, contemporary poetry from L’Alguer in the Catalan language is an excellent example to illustrate the yet-to-be-discredited hypothesis that poetry is an artistic form that creates a ‘sense of place’ (to use the expression coined by Seamus Heaney), meaning the anthropological relationship between language and the material and collective dimension in which the individual self is constructed. For these writers who inhabit this Algherese linguistic island, writing in Catalan is not solely an artistic choice. It is a declaration of principles and an act of rebellion against a chaotic existence that, on one hand, is inaccessible and incomprehensible as an all-encompassing whole, yet on the other hand, is somewhat decipherable thanks to a shared historical language: Catalan. The only language capable of giving these writers a particular, personal (and therefore unrenounceable) perspective and a deep-rooted connection to where they belong. As Rafael Caria wrote,
JOAN ELIES-ADELL city of L’Alguer, 2020
Carles Hac Mor, ‘La dissolució de la realitat a l’Alguer’, in the catalogue MediterrArt 2006: diàlegs d’art a la Mediterrània, Granollers, Centre Experimental de les Arts Vallgrassa, 2007.