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The Pomonan - "What if we're the first Chicanos to ever go to Elba?"

David A. Romero

Aug 29, 2022

"What if we're the first Chicanos to ever go to Elba?" Matt Sedillo, author of Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Press, 2019) asked, as he and I sipped hot coffee at a blue table on a ferry cutting through the cool winds and waters of the Mediterranean...

"What if we're the first Chicanos to ever go to Elba?" Matt Sedillo, author of Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Press, 2019) asked, as he and I sipped hot coffee at a blue table on a ferry cutting through the cool winds and waters of the Mediterranean on the way to the island, off the coast of Tuscany, Italy.

"I don't know. It's definitely possible..." I answered, in wonder at the suggestion.

The island of Elba is most known around the world as the site of Napoleon's first exile, from 1814 to 1815. The idyllic island with its scenic views and leisurely pace is now a vacation destination for Italians and international travelers looking to relax.

It's been said that Elba is a difficult place to get to, even for native Italians, let alone two Chicanos from LA County.

I had missed my first flight. One of the airlines for my second had lost my bag. Sedillo was exhausted and anxious from navigating a train system to get from Milan to Pisa, where we eventually met up. We had to chase after the ferry. You could say things had been running smoothly.

Frequent collaborators, Sedillo and I have often traveled together across the United States. Between us, we've received honorariums for hundreds of appearances at colleges and universities. I've visited a handful of countries, though none before as a professional poet. Sedillo, in contrast, has traveled to England to perform at the University of Cambridge and has also made in-person appearances in Canada and Cuba.

We were excited to participate in the inaugural Elba Poetry Festival.

The inaugural Elba Poetry Festival pulled in poets from the USA, Italy, Hungary, Albania and Canada, and included nearly a dozen events. The festival was organized by Mark Lipman of Los Angeles, editor-in-chief of VAGABOND and chair of the Culver City Book Festival, who secured the support of Elba's many communities, and alongside co-directors Angela Galli and Edoardo Olmi, had gained twenty-four sponsors on the island for the festival.

Sedillo and I, along with over half of the poets invited, including Lipman, stayed in the picturesque hillside community of Poggio overlooking the port community of Marciana Marina.

The festival lineup included: Sedillo, myself, Lipman, Olmi, Hungarian Beat Poet Laureate Gabor Gyukics, the Albanian poet Gaetano Blaiotta, as well as the many Italian poets and writers: Maria Elena Danelli, Paolo Gambi, Sandro Sardella, Flaminia Cruciani, Arianna Dagnino, Serena Piccoli, Giovanna Olivari, Isabella Esposito, Jonathan Rizzo, Angelo Mazzei, and more, many of whom have been published in international anthologies and some of which have appeared on Italian television.

Throughout the course of the festival, poets bonded over their experiences traveling and reciting translations of each other's work.

A personal highlight for me was seeing the reaction from Italian audiences for my line, "I am not Italian" in my poem, "My Name Is Romero," the title poem in my collection My Name Is Romero (FlowerSong Press, 2020), conveying how in the United States Caucasians often mispronounce my name as "Romeo," a character of Italian origin in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Perhaps even more intriguing, was how the Italian poets, from Sandro Sardella of Varese, to Edoardo Olmi of Florence, embraced the ethnic pride in my poem, exclaiming during public readings, "Sono messicano!" which translates to, "I'm a Mexican!" Sardella recounted to me that as a youth, he had travelled to Mexico in order to connect with a people and a culture he had long admired.

And so it was, many of the Italian poets connected with us, and were inspired by us, Chicanos; by our pride, by our poetry, by our swagger.

Anna Lombardo, the Italian poet, translator, and festival director from Venice summed up Sedillo's poetry and ethos, by stating in English in her best Chicana accent, "We are rich. We are Mexican. F you."

At one point, the founder of Poetry Renaissance and Poetry Everywhere, the social media sensation, poet, and multidisciplinary artist, Paolo Gambi of Ravenna declared to Sedillo and I, as he drove us from one performance on Elba to the next, bumping the Chicano DJ Deorro's beats from his car's speakers, "I'm not Italian! I'm Mexican!" He then tried to tell us Chicanos that we weren't really Mexican.

Fue loco. We hadn't traveled halfway across the world for an Italian, even a famous one, to try and throw the same nonsense at us that we Chicanos get in the US. Matt threatened his life.

It was all in good fun though, and from the festival arose plans to write new translations of poems and entire books, collaborate on future projects, and host authors for other international poetry festivals, both in Italy and in the US. And in spite of their disagreement in the car, Sedillo and Gambi in particular, formed such a strong friendship, both during the festival and after, that Sedillo is making plans with celebrated Angelino poet Linda Ravenswood to bring Gambi to LA for performances and presentations while Gambi has already worked with the University of Pisa to award Sedillo with The Dante Laurel: an award named after Dante Alighieri that will be awarded to Sedillo at the tomb of the legendary poet and author of The Divine Comedy.

Following the festival on Elba, Sedillo, Lipman and I embarked on a trip across Italy's western coast that took us from a performance at the University of Naples to an autonomous student-run space associated with the University of Florence. After that, a party broke out and the student DJ bumped cumbias until the cops shut us down - - y que!

In the days following that, Sedillo and I embarked on a trip that brought us to Paris, France for a feature with an organization called Paris Lit Up in the district of Belleville.

Chicanos in Paris. We definitely weren't the first, but we still made our mark. Speaking of marks, Mark Lipman plans on organizing a second Elba Poetry Festival in 2023 that will welcome even more international authors, maybe some more Chicanos, maybe some poets and writers from Latin America. With Sedillo now the Literary Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles and he and Lipman old friends, who knows what's possible?

One Italian newspaper in Varese wrote of the inaugural Elba Poetry Festival of 2022 with the headline, "Elba, the Capital of Poetry." For myself, for Sedillo, and for many of the other poets involved, it was.

To our Italian friends and fans: grazie mille.

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