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Nonfiction

The City and the Writer: In Rome with Moira Egan

Moira Egan talks with Nathalie Handal about poetry and pandemonium in Rome.
Three side-by-side portraits of writer Moira Egan
Photo copyright © Eric Toccaceli

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

Hot. The Pride Parade passes directly underneath our apartment. This June, I went downstairs to greet them, the entire wonderful, colorful, exuberant gamut of drag queens, activists, sign-bearing nonbinary kids. Blue hair, tiaras, gold lamé. “Mamma, tranquilla. Sono gay, non fascista.” Tens of thousands passed by, I would say, and I was glad. The party continued all night. That’s as much a part of Rome today as those listeners of all ages who are queuing up at the Circo Massimo to hear Vasco Rossi, Italy’s sort-of answer to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger.

And it’s just hot. 93 degrees on my American phone, nearly 34 centigrade. We’re grateful for the least little bit of air. This makes getting onto public transport that much less fun. Masks are still mandatory. A lot of people don’t see it that way. My husband, an epidemiologist, still double-masks on public transport. The virus is still around.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Lockdown. The pandemic. I didn’t leave our home for months. Thank the gods for our “terrace” up on the roof. Never has hanging the laundry up there (providing me the opportunity to walk for twenty or thirty minutes) been such a joy. In the early part of the lockdown, at 7:00 pm, we all went to our windows and terraces to sing and wave at each other. It was terrible all around the world, I know, but to live in a society that relies so heavily, for connection, for communication, on baci e abbracci made it that much worse.

Early in the pandemic, we lost a dear friend to the virus. He was a poet and a guitarist and a man of huge heart and gentle soul. He had just retired. He planned to write and sing his retirement through.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

So many—poets, writers, artists, architects, everybody—have written about or responded to Rome, how can I say something new? The way the sunset sometimes Tiepolos the clouds. The anomalous Sunday morning hush: no traffic, no frenzy; people who still go off to visit with God in church or with family for lunch. The bright green flash and freaky-shrieks of Rome’s own “pandemonium of parrots,” descendants of the escapees from some hapless bird owner’s cage.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

So many, but here are a few you can read in English: Antonella Anedda. Franco Buffoni. Paolo Febbraro. Valerio Magrelli. Jeannie Marshall.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), not just because it was my mother’s favorite church when we lived here ever so briefly when I was a child. She used to go in and sit on the pew and enjoy the quiet and the cool (and the brief escape, I imagine, from three kids under the age of five). And if you look to the right of the altar, there is Michelangelo’s Moses. He has horns: a bad translation, wrought eternally in marble? Much has been written about this figure (see, for example, Freud’s essay) but I still like the story that, after finishing him, Michelangelo slapped Moses on his marble knee and said “Talk to me!”

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

These places aren’t secrets, but the Cimitero Acattolico (more commonly known as the “Protestant Cemetery”) and the Keats-Shelley House are not to be missed. The cemetery is beautiful, worth a visit in every season, whether melancholy autumn or bright green spring. I’ve lived here for fifteen years now, and each time I visit, I find a new memorial that touches me—aesthetically, emotionally, or, more often, both. It’s an oasis. Find there Keats, Shelley, Corso, Gramsci, the unnamed son of Goethe, the uncle of Edvard Munch, the cat Romeo.

Equally evocative is the Keats-Shelley House Museum, at the bottom right of the Spanish Steps, as you look up. It’s the former boarding house where Keats actually died, having come to Rome in an attempt to live a little longer. A group of American and British bankers and others realized that this house had to be preserved as a monument, not just to Keats, but to Romantic poetry and all of its ideas and ideals. In recent years, it’s become a lively center for lectures, readings, exhibits, and workshops.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Coming from the city center, if you take a left at the Piramide instead of a right and head down via Ostiense, you will find some lively, lovely neighborhoods. Garbatella off to the left is its own sui generis space, created when What’s-His-Name decided to displace many denizens of the center so that he could build his very own triumphant Fori Imperiali that led to the balcony where he gave his speeches. These denizens ended up in a garden-laden, almost-planned city, now ever more full of great restaurants, pubs, and art centers.

Ostiense is similarly full of interesting places to eat, drink, see art (Centrale Martemartini not least), and listen to poetry. Reconstructed lofts and industrial spaces. Both of these neighborhoods remind me of the East Village of NYC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I first moved there. Graffiti, energy, a movement to make things better.

 

Where does passion live here?

Everywhere.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly?

I have a poem called “Campo de’ Fiori” (not a very original title) which was inspired by sitting at the late, (sort of) lamented Sloppy Sam’s, waiting for my husband to arrive. A number of crazy things were swirling around me, and putting together the sounds and the images, I wrote this sonnet, mostly as I sat there. You can find this poem in the anthology Poems of Rome, edited by Karl Kirchwey and published in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poetry Series.

 

Inspired by Levi, Outside Rome does an outside exist?”

For Romans, no. For me, who will never be a Roman, no matter how many years I live here, yes.


Copyright © 2022 by Moira Egan. All rights reserved.


Moira Egan
’s most recent volume is 
Amore e Morte (Love and Death), a bilingual poetry collection (Edizioni Tlon, Rome). Her work has been published in journals and anthologies on four continents. She has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and has held writing fellowships at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; the Civitella Ranieri Center; the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center; and the James Merrill House. She lives, teaches, and sometimes even writes in Rome. 

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

Hot. The Pride Parade passes directly underneath our apartment. This June, I went downstairs to greet them, the entire wonderful, colorful, exuberant gamut of drag queens, activists, sign-bearing nonbinary kids. Blue hair, tiaras, gold lamé. “Mamma, tranquilla. Sono gay, non fascista.” Tens of thousands passed by, I would say, and I was glad. The party continued all night. That’s as much a part of Rome today as those listeners of all ages who are queuing up at the Circo Massimo to hear Vasco Rossi, Italy’s sort-of answer to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger.

And it’s just hot. 93 degrees on my American phone, nearly 34 centigrade. We’re grateful for the least little bit of air. This makes getting onto public transport that much less fun. Masks are still mandatory. A lot of people don’t see it that way. My husband, an epidemiologist, still double-masks on public transport. The virus is still around.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Lockdown. The pandemic. I didn’t leave our home for months. Thank the gods for our “terrace” up on the roof. Never has hanging the laundry up there (providing me the opportunity to walk for twenty or thirty minutes) been such a joy. In the early part of the lockdown, at 7:00 pm, we all went to our windows and terraces to sing and wave at each other. It was terrible all around the world, I know, but to live in a society that relies so heavily, for connection, for communication, on baci e abbracci made it that much worse.

Early in the pandemic, we lost a dear friend to the virus. He was a poet and a guitarist and a man of huge heart and gentle soul. He had just retired. He planned to write and sing his retirement through.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

So many—poets, writers, artists, architects, everybody—have written about or responded to Rome, how can I say something new? The way the sunset sometimes Tiepolos the clouds. The anomalous Sunday morning hush: no traffic, no frenzy; people who still go off to visit with God in church or with family for lunch. The bright green flash and freaky-shrieks of Rome’s own “pandemonium of parrots,” descendants of the escapees from some hapless bird owner’s cage.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

So many, but here are a few you can read in English: Antonella Anedda. Franco Buffoni. Paolo Febbraro. Valerio Magrelli. Jeannie Marshall.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), not just because it was my mother’s favorite church when we lived here ever so briefly when I was a child. She used to go in and sit on the pew and enjoy the quiet and the cool (and the brief escape, I imagine, from three kids under the age of five). And if you look to the right of the altar, there is Michelangelo’s Moses. He has horns: a bad translation, wrought eternally in marble? Much has been written about this figure (see, for example, Freud’s essay) but I still like the story that, after finishing him, Michelangelo slapped Moses on his marble knee and said “Talk to me!”

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

These places aren’t secrets, but the Cimitero Acattolico (more commonly known as the “Protestant Cemetery”) and the Keats-Shelley House are not to be missed. The cemetery is beautiful, worth a visit in every season, whether melancholy autumn or bright green spring. I’ve lived here for fifteen years now, and each time I visit, I find a new memorial that touches me—aesthetically, emotionally, or, more often, both. It’s an oasis. Find there Keats, Shelley, Corso, Gramsci, the unnamed son of Goethe, the uncle of Edvard Munch, the cat Romeo.

Equally evocative is the Keats-Shelley House Museum, at the bottom right of the Spanish Steps, as you look up. It’s the former boarding house where Keats actually died, having come to Rome in an attempt to live a little longer. A group of American and British bankers and others realized that this house had to be preserved as a monument, not just to Keats, but to Romantic poetry and all of its ideas and ideals. In recent years, it’s become a lively center for lectures, readings, exhibits, and workshops.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Coming from the city center, if you take a left at the Piramide instead of a right and head down via Ostiense, you will find some lively, lovely neighborhoods. Garbatella off to the left is its own sui generis space, created when What’s-His-Name decided to displace many denizens of the center so that he could build his very own triumphant Fori Imperiali that led to the balcony where he gave his speeches. These denizens ended up in a garden-laden, almost-planned city, now ever more full of great restaurants, pubs, and art centers.

Ostiense is similarly full of interesting places to eat, drink, see art (Centrale Martemartini not least), and listen to poetry. Reconstructed lofts and industrial spaces. Both of these neighborhoods remind me of the East Village of NYC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I first moved there. Graffiti, energy, a movement to make things better.

 

Where does passion live here?

Everywhere.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly?

I have a poem called “Campo de’ Fiori” (not a very original title) which was inspired by sitting at the late, (sort of) lamented Sloppy Sam’s, waiting for my husband to arrive. A number of crazy things were swirling around me, and putting together the sounds and the images, I wrote this sonnet, mostly as I sat there. You can find this poem in the anthology Poems of Rome, edited by Karl Kirchwey and published in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poetry Series.

 

Inspired by Levi, Outside Rome does an outside exist?”

For Romans, no. For me, who will never be a Roman, no matter how many years I live here, yes.


Copyright © 2022 by Moira Egan. All rights reserved.


Moira Egan
’s most recent volume is 
Amore e Morte (Love and Death), a bilingual poetry collection (Edizioni Tlon, Rome). Her work has been published in journals and anthologies on four continents. She has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and has held writing fellowships at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; the Civitella Ranieri Center; the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center; and the James Merrill House. She lives, teaches, and sometimes even writes in Rome. 

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