Trevor Conway – interview with Ndrek Gjini
BY TREVOR CONWAY
Ndrek Gjini’s poem CALENDAR is deceptively simple. It enchants the readers on a very direct level, with references to communists, grapes and the speaker’s grandmother. But it has another, more abstract, level to it. The implication of the speaker’s use of a personal calendar is that time itself is a fiction, a construct we’ve created for convenience.
In fact, the speaker’s own fiction is “true” and “meaningful”. He/she rejects convention in the form of the common calendar. Maybe we all function via such personal calendars, though. When we look at photographs, we don’t say, “That was the third of August 1993”. We might say, “That was the day we went away on a day trip”. Even “9/11” conjures up images of an event, rather than the date itself. And most of us remember where we were when such significant events occur, linking small experiences in our lives to such global happenings.
The conventional calendar, with all its labels and numbers, is also anchored in events, such as the turning of Earth, the phases of the moon and Earth’s journey around the sun. We instinctively look beyond this planet to understand something as big and abstract as time. At the same time, we learn from our peers and our families, as the poet does here. Usually, such learning relates to very practical things, but here, a grandmother’s teaching causes the poet, and the reader, to look into the distance.
BY NDREK GJINI
My grandmother had a true calendar,
a meaningful, eventful one.
“You were born four moons
after the heavy flooding
which killed half of the town,
twelve moons before
the communists dynamited the church.
It was just two moons after
the grapes were ripened,”
she used to say to me.
As a child, until I began school,
I knew nothing of the fact
that I was born on 1st October, 1963.
If I tell you my birthday
with the current calendar,
I tell you nothing about myself.
But, what if I use
my grandmother’s calendar?
There’s a sense here that the older ways of life have more charm than standard, or perhaps more modern, methods. In what ways, do you think, has modern life affected poetry?
The world is a much-changed place to what it was in my youth in the 1970s. Extensive changes in technology and communication have ended a traditional way of life that had been static for many generations. Without leaving our homes we can now see and hear about events as they happen in almost every part of our planet. New machines and gadgets have brought us more leisure, and more ‘free’ time and all this has happened in one short generation. These changes have affected all our ways of thinking and the way of writing as well, including poetry. However, despite the ease and pleasure provided for us by these changes, they have destroyed many of the old customs of life. The art of conversation within the home and among neighbours around the fire at night with no Radio, TV, Laptop or IPad is practically gone. I’d say these kinds of conversations were more engaging than poetry readings in the Galway, London or New York pubs, where everyone there pretends that they are listening to you while texting or tweeting at the same time.
Time is almost presented as a kind of language in your poem, with different measures of time used by different people. Do you see any connections between time and language, both in general and specifically in terms of writing?
To answer your question I firstly would like to tell you that ever since humans first noticed the regular movement of the sun and the stars we have wondered about the passage of time. Prehistoric people first recorded the phases of the moon some 30,000 years ago and recording time has been a way by which societies have observed the heavens and represented the progress of civilization.
Secondly, I’d say we have to realize that time is not a date in the calendar, it’s a feeling, a happening, an event. Language is the same, so every single change that these events bring to our lifestyle is reflected in it too.
Family members are recurring characters in your collection The Death of Night, as they are in this poem. Apart from appearing in your poems, have family members influenced your writing in other ways?
Yes, my mother was a really quiet, shy lady. I used to hear her reciting all these rhymes when she was praying. Prayers in Albanian are very musical and rhyming. At the time I didn’t know anything about their meaning but I loved the rhymes and that was how I came to love poetry.
Why do you write?
I can’t tell how many times I’ve asked myself the same question until I decided to write about it: “I am a citizen/ of this hero-less town,/ not strong enough to fight –/ that’s why I write.”
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Sorry, I don’t have one. I don’t know why we’re so uncomfortable with the idea that talent is not just a gift from God but a craft that must be worked on for thousands upon thousands of hours. There are so many aphorisms about writing I can co-sign two of them: “Writing is rewriting”, and “You can’t teach someone to write.”