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Language as a Way of Seeing: Tea with Florentine Poet Elisa Biagini

March 7, 2019


Elisa Biagini, Florentine poet and artist/ World Literature Today.


Elisa Biagini sits at a desk, a dim light peering down on the piece of paper before her. On a nearby laptop screen, there are tabs open on varying topics: from Paul Celan, a German poet, to the mining industry of Italy in the 20th century. She begins to write in her native Italian:

“Una pagina è

grande quanto

un sorso…”

Collecting research on specific subjects (as shown here) is an essential step in Biagini’s process for creating poetry collections.


Since the age of twelve, she has experienced the world around her through writing poetry. Whether it is an eyelid, a piece of paper, or a nail in a drawer, Biagini uses the minute to capture larger themes such as life and death. Biagini discussed this, the general craft of poetry, and her art installations at a La Pietra Dialogue, last Wednesday.


Biagini has dealt with art and poetry throughout her entire life. She received her laurea (a post-secondary academic degree in Italy) in contemporary art history, which she said has heavily influenced much of her poetry.


Following this, Biagini moved to the United States to pursue a P.h.D from Rutgers University in Italian literature. Biagini said that when she found the Italian literature department to be “boring”, she began discretely auditing other creative writing classes as an escape. It was here that she met her close friend and role model, Alicia Ostriker.


“[Alicia] started saying ‘You in the back, who are you? What are you doing here?’ so I started writing for her and learned the actual craft,” Biagini said.


Biagini would ultimately become a professor herself, teaching creative writing, art history, and travel writing at New York University’s Florence campus. While her writing classes do involve a substantial poetry component, Biagini also has her students write rap songs, prose, and anything that involves “playing around with language.” She said that teaching the writing and poetry of others does not explicitly affect her own work but instead motivates her to be an active writer, be creative in her approach, and look at her work in new ways.


Another way that Biagini re-examines her work is through working with translators. Translating poetry is an issue about which Biagini is well-versed as a translator herself.


She said that it is impossible to thoroughly recreate the poetic qualities such as voice, style, symbolism, and rhythm in translation.“I would call [translated poems] recreations more than translations, I think that’s more appropriate,” Biagini said.


Despite this, Biagini said translating is still a worthy and necessary effort for poets and translators. She also mentioned that sometimes, poetry is even enhanced when it is translated into other languages.

While Biagini is multi-lingual herself and has written poetry in English in the past, she said it is more natural for her to write in Italian. It is what helps her write “what she knows.”


Exploring the familiar is a consistent theme throughout Biagini’s art and poetry, it is why she writes about the human body and household objects.

“The element that’s always constant in my writing is the human body,” Biagini said. “The risk is always to repeat yourself inevitably but it’s also really the only way you can go in-depth with things. If you kind of jump from one thing to another, you never really struggle.”


This is also a recurrent concept in Biagini’s latest poetry collection, ‘The Plant of Dreaming.’ The collection is a creative dialogue between Biagini, Celan, and Emily Dickinson. Biagini said that she has read Celan and Dickinson so much that she considers them her uncle and aunt. The middle section of the collection features her grandfather, a former Italian miner, giving the collection a genealogical theme.


In the same way that her art history credentials have influenced her poetry, Biagini’s poetry plays a role in her visual art installations.


Some of her art has included writing poetry on pillowcases and draping them from windows in the Santo Spirito area of Florence, a statement about individuality. For this project, Biagini met with members of the community and asked them to tell her their life stories through a single object. Biagini requested a used pillowcase from each of the participants on which she then, using snippets from their individual stories, wrote poetry on the pillowcases and publicly displayed them. She has previously had installations in facilities such as Palazzo Strozzi.



For aspiring poets and writers, Biagini’s prescription is to read a lot. She said that being a poet was 70 percent reading, 20 percent writing, and 10 percent sharing. She also advised that young poets be “vulnerable” in how they share their poetry by sharing face to face and workshopping the writing of their peers. Finally, Biagini stressed what she considers the most important key to poetic success:

“Be curious. Be extremely curious.”                                      


To learn more about Elisa Biagini read her profile made by NYU Florence students 

















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