Gifts from the Imagination

In October 2005 Valeria Melchioretto won the inaugural New Writing Ventures Poetry Award. Here she tells Angel Dahouk about the power of memory and family ties.


Valeria Melchioretto glances over as the door of the café is opened by a crowd of customers engaged in noisy discussion. She sits quietly, hands in lap, trying to recall when she first began writing. "I really can't remember", she eventually says, and then laughs. "You should ask my mum!" And in a sense, this would probably be an appropriate introduction to her poetry so far.

Valeria was awarded a £5,000 cash prize and further tutoring by Tobias Hill as part of the inaugural New Writing Ventures poetry award in October. Eva Salzman, one of three judges who selected the winner, describes why Valeria's writing surpassed that of the other two shortlisted poets. For Eva, Valeria's voice is original, her family narratives "weighted with history, and all the writing has a compellingly quirky sensibility and intellectual intensity which appeals to both head and heart". Valeria's poems are born out of raw experience, but what they recount is not exclusive to her and those she writes about. Each of her poems is a short memoir, rich with family figures and history. Valeria has a sharp awareness of where she came from, but though her poetry is vastly personal to her and very much about her own heritage, she tackles universal themes that we can instinctively relate to. "If self-expression goes beyond the personal, people can relate to it", Valeria explains. "I draw on the personal but I think that people can relate to my work because I write about archetypal figures – when I write about my mother, people think about their own mother".

When Valeria was twelve years old, her brother moved to Paris from their hometown, Winterthur, in Switzerland. "We kept writing letters to each other but it became boring", Valeria explains, "so we started writing about events in poetic form". Valeria experimented with free verse in these letters to her brother, but wasn't aware that this was the beginning of her writing career. She trained in administration while growing up in Switzerland, and went on to work in an accounts department. It wasn't until her move to Devon in 1989 that she entered the world of arts. "It was a completely new experience", she says, "such a green country, such a different country. Switzerland is very rough and rocky, and suddenly I found myself living in these green hills. It was really inspiring, really uplifting".

Valeria became involved in theatre, and developed an interest in fine art. She was also taken to her first poetry reading. "It was Adrian Mitchell, actually", she remembers, "I didn't understand a word he was saying!" Valeria came to the UK with only very basic English. Her plan was to spend three months here learning English, but she never returned. In 1993, she moved to London and two years on, she began studying for a BA in Modern Drama with Fine Art.

Following her move to the UK and her mounting interest in art, Valeria took up her own brush and has been working on her painting alongside her poetry. As a painter, Valeria is very fond of colour, and this is discernible in her poetry as well. She is able to create visual pieces, using elaborate images that are both complex and effortless at once. "Experience is essentially an energy," Valeria explains. "It's a dynamic that you try to capture, whether in words or through painting. A poet starts with the intention, and tries to find suitable words and metaphors that will come as close as possible to the experience." Her poem, 'Meeting Mondrian by the Red Square' was crafted after Valeria went to see Mondrian's exhibition. At first, she found it hard to grasp the fundamental ideas behind his abstract paintings. Through her poem, she attempts to communicate with him, to meet with his ideas. Eventually, she was able to uncover a common theme they both share within their work. "Mondrian tried to get to the truth of the world; he tried to extract its essence", she says. "To capture the truth, he strips it bare of all superficiality. In my poems, I think I try to find the truth beyond the real".

Valeria wrote her first poem in English on the Number 29 bus in London. A year later, in 1998, it was published in Poetry London. But Valeria maintains that she never wrote with an audience in mind, nor did she write with the intention of being published. "It was really about self-expression, to express what was happening, like in the letters to my brother", she says. "I think a lot of my poems are like letters". In London, she began to take her writing more seriously, attending writing courses, being tutored by well-established poets like Mimi Khalvati and Pascale Petit. Valeria feels enormously blessed that she was given the opportunity to be guided by such inspirational figures. The knowledge and advice that these poets passed on is something that she feels played a firm part in her winning this award. "I became aware of how many people have helped and influenced my work, how many people have given me their time. I've been incredibly lucky to meet such generous people in my life who have inspired, supported, edited and published my work", she says.

When faced with the input of her family, Valeria doesn't know where to start. She hesitates, speaking softly to herself whilst staring into her lap. Although she claims not to have a very close relationship with her relatives, the influence of her family is strong and is certainly apparent in her writing. Her grandmother, who features in her poem 'Podding Peas', lives in Italy where her parents are originally from. Valeria has a varied background; essentially, she is part of a German-speaking Italian family based in Switzerland. "I only visited my grandmother once a year", Valeria tells me, "but because I saw her so few times, the experience was very intense. That's how I feel about my family – I'm not particularly close to them, but their impact on me is very intense". She undoubtedly writes more solidly after her visits to Italy, and she is conscious that her words are rooted in personal identity. "Your family are like a mirror, they inform you of who you are. Whatever response you get from your family has an effect on your whole outlook. Family have a kind of glass effect – in a shop window, you see yourself, but you also see through it into the shop", she says. "In the same way, you see yourself in your family, but you also see the world through them".

With this important award, the tutoring of Tobias Hill and wider recognition generally, Valeria is looking to her future, but is taking it one step at a time. She hopes to put together a collection, but for the moment, she is more concerned with where the next poem will come from. "Poems are gifts from the imagination", she says. "You write them when they are ready to be written. You can write a lifetime of poetry, and nothing may come of it". Valeria is ready for change, to develop her writing further. She is confident that her work will adjust and grow under the instruction of another experienced poet, and she welcomes the possibility of change. Her move away from home and the writing that ensued has led Valeria to a more assured understanding of her family. It remains an intimate perspective, but as she points out, she is now the same age as her mother when she brought Valeria into the world. "I've moved on from seeing my parents as parents, I see them as individuals. When you move away from a place or a person, you're able to acquire a clearer viewpoint. Clarity comes with retrospect", she says. With the past already written and her talent formally acknowledged, Valeria is now investigating fresh ideas and new ventures to develop a promising future in writing.

For information on the New Writing Ventures annual award scheme see www.newwritingpartnership.org.uk