Alisa Velaj was born in Albania, in 1982. She holds a Ph.D. in Albanian Language and Literature, which subjects she has been teaching at the university level while writing poetry, prose, essays, articles, and research studies.
Alisa was shortlisted for the Erbacce-Press Poetry Award in 2014. Her poems have so far been translated into English, Portuguese, Romanian, Turkish, and Swedish, as well as published in over a hundred international literary magazines. Her poetry collection, With No Sweat At All, will be published this year by Cervana Barva Press (USA), while Dreams was recently published by Cyberwit Press (India). Both collections are masterfully translated into English by Ukë Zenel Buçpapaj.
Fishbowl: So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started writing poetry.
AV: I am an Albanian born in Vlora, a town blessed with a breath-taking nature, where, since my earliest memories, I’ve had the luxury to say “good morning” and “goodnight” to the waves of the sea. It’s no wonder I wrote my first poem for the sea when I was 11 years old. I was born in a family that was heartily commitment to history and literature and much of my childhood occurred in a library inherited from my grandparents and parents. My family would always enthusiastically cherish my passion for poetry. To this day, my parents will fanatically save whatever I write and get published. I was born in 1982 and that takes us back to the era of communism in Albania, but I personally had a happy childhood and, due to certain other circumstances, only later learned from books what that system actually was. Vlora used to be a town where people loved to read and where you can still find avid readers of poetry. In my early readings, I tended to lean more and more towards poetry. As a teenager, I’d read a lot of Greek, Russian, and French writers. Even during the communist years, however weird it may sound, a fantastic job was done in rendering into Albanian a lot of world literature gems. That was the age when I first read Shakespeare and Kavafis. Afterward, my contacts list of foreign authors grew much, much longer.
It is my painful impression that Albanian literature, mostly due to non-literary reasons, is hardly or minimally known in the English-speaking world. I remain first and foremost a product of my Albanian literary tradition, and my concern will somehow only fade away the day when I see the Albanian master poets presented in their actual magnificence. No need to support my absolute conviction by picking a few names, which, after all, would be subjective and thus fall short of the credit every master poet deserves. I pray to God that day won’t be late to come.
Fishbowl: How would you describe your style of writing? Where does it come from?
AV: Oh, it looks like, indirectly, I already answered that…My writing style? I can’t define what it exactly is, but I believe in what they say, which is that STYLE is the person himself/herself…
Fishbowl: What are you reading right now?
AV: Right now, I am reading and re-reading Harry Martinson’s poetry. I would like to write a thorough analysis of his “Aniara”.
Fishbowl: So, shameless self-promotion time. What projects do you have going on right now?
AV: I am expecting my third poetry collection to come out in print in my thinking language, Albanian. It’s titled “Kolonë reje, kolonë zjarri” (“A column of cloud, a column of fire”). In 2019, a new collection of poetry will be published by Cervena Barva Press in the USA, translated into English by Ukë Zenel Buçpapaj.
Fishbowl: Any social media links you would like to share so our readers can connect and learn more about you and your work?
AV: Simply Googling my name, Alisa Velaj, would give one plenty of pages to read. I am sharing with you the link for Cyberwit Press, the publisher of my latest book, “Dreams”. https://www.cyberwit.net/authors/alisa-velaj
Fishbowl: So, tell us a bit about your featured poems.
AV: It’s three prose poems, stirringly inspired along my trips through Europe this year.
Fishbowl: Let’s take a look at the pieces.
He was unlike any other pianist. Nor could he be a man like any other. When dusk would blaze over the snow and up in the skies, the sounds of his piano would spread out of his tiny log-cabin, there by the roadside. The shivering wayfarers would pause for a moment, stunned by those sounds. They were moments flooding with sunshine. Occasionally, dusks would also witness him singing.
“My last sweetheart was thus like fall,
From warm lands she came to me,
Ah, my bed cannot be made of leaves,
It cannot, either, of warm resin be…”
Out of their wonderment, the wayfarers named the road turn by his cabin “The Trail of Tunes“.
One late evening, a different singing voice was heard coming out the cabin, while the pianist’s dog was chained outside in the cold and whimpered like a child. That’s when the stirred neighbors went up and knocked on the door. No peep from inside.
When they ran out of patience, someone busted the door open with a heavy boot. The scene was appalling. The piano man lay dead on the floor, while, sitting on the couch by the piano, a drunkard was wailing.
“He stole my sweetheart! He made me a forlorn freak! He…he…he…,” pointing at the lifeless body.
The city woke up shocked as never before, with the radio reporting the news that, responding to a madhouse doctors’ alarm, the police had apprehended a mentally disturbed man—whose wife had eloped with a musician years ago—in a state of inebriation, in the residence of a murdered pianist.
Translated from Albanian:
Arben P. Latifi
NARRATIVE OF A MAN
– 1 –
That man is a born ghost. It is precisely him, the man who goes in and out of our dreams as he pleases. He glissades along walls like a shadow under moonlight, then slumps on a tree stump and joins the crickets’ tune. The man’s singing is so charged with longing. When the man sings, that is. Or his ghost does.
When the sun sets down, he settles in a rooster’s larynx.
Cock-a-doodle-doo, cock-a-doodle-doo, the rooster starts singing, with that man’s voice!
– 2 –
No one on earth resents roosters. They drive the night away and are the first to hail light. No one, however, is aware of the ghost man’s presence in the light spectrum. This is exactly where the scientists’ ambition to generate blacklight stems from…
Translated from Albanian:
Arben P. Latifi
She boasts a crown of white tulips on her head, a pillow of tulips every time she awakens from sleep; she is a boat in her aspiration toward light, an echo encased within a tulip’s body frame… (Sounds of oars stroking the water reach her I don’t know where from…)
Translated from Albanian:
Arben P. Latifi
Fishbowl: One of the things that immediately drew me to this submission was the prose poetry, which I love when done well…and it is. Telling a good story is hard enough but to do so, lyrically, really tests a writer’s metal. What strikes me most about “The Pianist” is that what has the makings of a good ‘tragedy’ somehow starts to bleed into the periphery when the element of ‘retribution’ is injected into the narrative. I suppose that is ‘life’, though. What is the underlying message here—the takeaway?
AV: I’d like to strongly emphasize the idea that authors can never be the ultimate interpreters of what they write. Writing is what they can do best, not interpreting their work…However, I am telling you a few real-life circumstances, which led to conceiving this prose poem, hoping they will satisfy your question. In February 2019, thanks to a grant by Air Literature Vasta Gotaland, I got a residence scholarship and stayed in the former villa of the Swedish Nobel-laurate Harry Martinson, in Jonsered. It was the time of the year when I had dreamt to be there: coming from a Mediterranean country, I wanted to be there when melting snow made way to the revival of nature to, thus, witness first-hand and in full that in-between condition – from snow to sun; from frost to the gurgle of springtime blood. Fortunately, the ice started to thaw two weeks after my arrival there. All this natural condition inspired me to write a bunch of 22 poems, which I would later group under the title “My Jonsered Songs”.
But let’s get back to your question. During the first days of my stay, I could not figure out whether there were other residents in that typical Swedish villa amid the stunning nature. So, I moved around from my daily walks amid the snow, under the snow-covered woods, and along the frozen lake towards the Villa Martinson library, eagerly devouring everything I found in English and writing. It was such a delight, initially. For a long time, I had needed to be all by myself. Then, I began to feel the need for human interaction, but I had seen no other residents in the house, even though a week later I was told someone was also living there. One early morning of uninterrupted snowfall, I wrote a letter and slipped it under the door of a couple who, I was informed, were scholarship residents like me. Just as I was walking upstairs, I sprained my ankle. It was painful, even though not serious, and I managed to make it to my apartment. As bad luck would have it, my phone wouldn’t work and for three days, until I could slowly walk on two feet (without limping), my only contact with the world were a few horses visiting out under my window and staring at me with some dreamy and anxious eyes, as well as the wonderful sounds of a piano coming from an apartment somewhere near. Outdoors, nothing but snowing, everything so perfect – the cozy apartment, the peaceful surrounding environment, the music, etc. etc. On the other hand, instead – the absolute absence of communication with a human and the loneliness dancing like mad under my skin, under the sounds of a piano that wouldn’t stop playing almost all day long. It was this kind of atmosphere that drove me into thinking why lonely people commit suicide or end up in depression. The piano which I perceived as visible seeded the murdered pianist and birthed the rest of the story. Loneliness, too, always brings forth the image of a loved one coming from somewhere or rather my absolute solitude at the time created the idea of someone that should be there, but couldn’t…
Fishbowl: I find “Narrative of a Man” to be a subtly beautiful piece that smacks a little of African verse (at least in my head). The loneliness of this piece is palpable and raises an interesting question: If we ever do manage to see that ‘ghost’, what is it we are looking for that we hope to find (in general, in ourselves)?
AV: It depends on the expectation. In our realm of dreams, where it is us giving life whatever solution we want to, such a ghost may reincarnate every one of our ideals. Thus, the reincarnation turns into “our salvation”. In the real-life where the flow of experiences or the future are designed by a creator (I’d like to underline that I am a Christian believer from my early childhood), such a ghost may be a pleasant tale or an unending disappointment. ‘Why not an in-between condition?’ you might ask. Well, long-dreamt-of things, those that take the form of nightmares or haunting specters, have a sense of materialization so intense that the expected occurrence is either a triumph or a big, fat nothing…At least, this is my sentiment.
With regard to African poetry, I am afraid I am not so familiar with it. Yours is a very interesting point of view. I will soon turn a more attentive eye to that direction.
Fishbowl: “Echo” is a lovely piece (delicate, even); however, there is an underlying, determined strength beneath those petals, isn’t there? What inspired this piece?
AV: “Echo” is one of a bunch of poems written in the Netherlands, the land of tulips, which I love to visit time after time. The rest of the answer, I guess, may be found in my introductory statement…
Fishbowl: What is next for Alisa Velaj?
AV: I’ve been having a thrilling summertime amidst the amazing sea, the waves, and the often-unbearable temperatures of my birthplace. I enjoy cultural contacts, wherein I try to contribute on a volunteering basis. In collaboration with my friend and colleague Ledia Dushi, as well as with the Writers’ Union of Vlora, this September we will introduce to the Albanian public two distinguished lady poets, Anna Mattesson and Kristin Bjarnadottir, from Sweden and Iceland, respectively.
Fishbowl: Great, Alisa! Any parting thoughts? Advice for aspiring writers out there?
AV: Parting thoughts, yes, but not intended as advice to anyone. Write what is in your mind. Or better, let it out, naturally, in a true manner. No fakery, no vain embellishments. Be true and naked, just like you are in the dreams of your soundest sleep or when making love with someone you feel to your bone. When your creative moment knocks, forget altogether about success, publication, etc. etc. Self-assessment will, sooner or later, bring along other benefits such as affirmation, publication, popularity, social status, etc. So, be true and the truth will never abandon its followers…
Fishbowl: Last question…What would you want the epitaph on your gravestone to say?
AV: I am a believer. A gravestone is–to me–nothing else but a pathetic human symbol. If I were to believe that stone would mark the end of life, I’d have been certified a mad person long ago and not here giving you this interview (smile).