Raymond Fenech in his office.
AN AFTERNOON WITH
A Writer, Journalist, Publicist, and Educator
ALM: Tell us a bit about yourself, about Raymond Fenech, journalist, writer, a poet. How would you introduce yourself in seven sentences, one for each decade of your life and one for next thirty years.
RF: It’s quite impossible because my life as a writer is all connected and very complicated. It started on a professional basis when I was a teenager. The first decade was all about working as a freelance reporter with my very first exclusive interview with George Mitchell, director of The Black and White Minstrels Show published in a local English political newspaper, The Democrat when I was 18. Within 2 years, I found myself working as a full-time journalist with the English leading newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times of Malta. I feel it’s important to note, I am a self-taught writer because in Malta, way back in the early 70s, writing and journalism weren’t even considered a profession – so I learned the trade mostly by trial and error. Later, I enrolled for my first diploma course in journalism with The London Educational Association, UK. This period covered almost the first decade of my writing career. When I look back, I sometimes wonder how I survived working for over seven years under the Mintoffian Regime, or as journalists described it at the time, ‘The Reign of Terror’, when Malta’s democracy and freedom of speech were at risk of being wiped out and journalists working for Democratic opposition newspapers risked all sorts of physical and mental abuse. Six months before I joined The Times of Malta, its offices had been attacked by a group of the Mintoffian Regime’s thugs and gutted by fire. The attack was the first of many others including on the Law Courts, the Archbishop’s Curia, and the Nationalist Party leader of the opposition’s private home.
After, my journalistic experience, I felt I wanted to use my creative imagination and writing capabilities a bit more, so I decided to look for a job in PR, Copywriting and advertising, a period from which I never looked back. I continued to work in this field until 2004 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After my miraculous recovery finding another job was not even an option because cancer survivors have a stigma on them that says, especially to prospective employers: ‘You are going to die soon’ so I set up my own little business, RF Copywriting and PR Services. I changed my jobs 18 times throughout my working career.
Whilst I was a journalist, I had continued struggling to market my work abroad and because there were no computers then, submissions required a lot more time to prepare and needed self-addressed envelopes and IRCs if I wanted the editor to send me a reply. I spent hours reading through poetry market directories in the hope of finding publications suitable for my work, each week sending dozens of envelopes which cost me a small fortune.
Acceptances were few, but each one was like winning a lottery and when these were from anthology publishers, it felt even better. When I started to enroll for creative writing courses in the early 90s, things started to look up as my writing became better and better. I have always been my own worse self-critic and editing my work, even one single poem, sometimes would take 40 re-writes before I can consider the work as acceptable and ready for submission.
Then came the first serious opportunity of publishing my research on Maltese ghosts in The International Directory of the Most Haunted Places by Penguin Books, USA, and other publishing opportunities basically in every genre of writing. In 1999 this was followed by my editorial appointments with two nation-wide distributed magazines, until my career was cut short by cancer in 2004. During the long nine months of chemotherapy treatment I was physically incapacitated but not my brain, so I decided to enroll for my bachelor’s degree in creative writing and then went on to read for a PhD. During the same period, I was also awarded a scholarship in poetry therapy by none other than Prof Sherry Reiter, the foundress director herself of The Creative ‘Righting’ Centre, at Touro College, Hofstra University in New York.
ALM: Do you remember what was your first ever poem about and when did you write it?
RF: Yes, of course I do. I was 12 and had fallen in love with an English girl, cousin of one of my neighbors whose name was Shirley Ann. I still have a photo of her. The poem’s title was, To Shirley Ann. She came over to holiday in Malta for a few years and used to stay with her aunt and uncle who lived right next door to us. We continued to correspond for many years, through snail mail of course.
ALM: You told once that the poetry is your favorite literary genre. Why do you write poetry? Why is poetry a literary form of your choice and how different is it from writing prose?
RF: I guess, the love of poetry writing was instilled in me from early childhood hearing my mother reciting nursery rhymes before sleeping every night. The rhyme, rhythm and musicality fascinated me. But then, I went on to school and college, where I was introduced to my favourite poet, John Keats. At secondary school, I had a queer looking teacher in my fourth grade, whose name was Mr Borg. He was a bachelor. He needn’t have told anyone that he was a teacher, a literary fanatic and a book worm because it was incredibly reflected in his personality. He was a fantastic person and excellent tutor and was one of the persons who continued to instill the love for poetry in me, especially in Keats’ works. I read everything there was to read about this incredible writer, who I also believed would have been greater than Shakespeare, had he lived longer. Keats is not only my favourite poet, but my hero. He was very capable of using his fists as much as his pen and now more than ever, I appreciate the brave battle he put up against consumption, finally succumbing to it with great dignity at 26. Besides Keats, I loved other classics, like Byron, Tennyson, Shelley, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Robert Browning, William Blake, Jane Austin, Samuel Coleridge, Edgar Alan Poe and so many others.
When I finished school, Mr Borg continued to follow my career with great interest and even edited some of my poems. I even remember one particular poem he edited: it was called, The Silent City. Once, when I was working as a reporter at The Times of Malta, we were informed there had been a burglary in a house in Birkirkara. I went to investigate and unfortunately it turned out to be his house where he lived with his sister. At first, he was reluctant to speak about the traumatic experience, but then knowing all his family jewellery had been stolen, I persuaded him to give me a detailed description of the major items that were stolen, so I could publish in the newspaper. This would not only help the police to find them, but prevent the people from buying them from the thieves. Whilst I was at his house, he took me to see his study and it was exactly as I had imagined it, a mini library with hundreds of books. He even revealed his little secret that he actually also composed music. I never saw him again after that visit and only a few years ago, I heard he passed away in the same house where I had visited him 30 years before.
In Malta we have the advantage of studying at least three languages besides Maltese, so I was also exposed to several Italian, French and Maltese writers and poets such as, Giacomo Leopardi, Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Guido Gozzano, Sergio Corazzini, Ugo Foscolo, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo; and Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Descartes, Camus, and Dumas respectively. I also had my favourite Maltese poets, but for me the best of them all was Dr. Ruzar Briffa who impressed me with his poem, Young Woman, don’t Dream … I also read some of the German writer’s works, Goethe.
Poetry has always been my forte because it came naturally to me. I have often had to get up in the middle of the night to go to my desk, grab pen and paper and write poetry lines that decided to flood my mind at that unruly hour. At times, I cannot keep up with the words as they come and if I don’t write them down immediately, I risk losing them forever. I often think this is some sort of channeling exercise. Channeling in paranormal means, the delivery of information from beyond. Journalism helped me because in poetry writing one has to be concise, leave out unnecessary adjectives, or descriptions that might sound fine but in fact are only verbal diarrhea.
Poetry is much more difficult to write than prose. Every word has to be carefully chosen because good poems should represent the essence of a story, or a saga without the need for over writing, losing oneself in unnecessary adjectives that will only serve to bore the reader to death. Everything the poet writes has to be concise, accurate, real and to the point. Readers will acknowledge a poem even more, when they can assimilate the story in it with their own. It makes them feel in good company and they will want to read more of the same. Robert Frost said: There are two kinds of language – the spoken language and the written language … words exist in the mouth not in books! The vocabulary may be what you please, though I like it not too literary; but the tones of voice must be caught fresh and fresh from life. Writing prose is easier, if you can bring your characters to life and if you can give them a human personality readers can hate or love. Every story requires a good plot, but every narrative if based on the truth will not really require much plotting because the sagas in real life all have a natural plot.
ALM: You write short stories and essays too. What is the title of your latest story and what inspired it?
RF: The last non-fiction story I wrote was, The Mysterious Priest, the one that earned me the Pushcart Prize nomination. Actually, the original was written in a much longer version and also had a different title, A Queer Happening. It is in fact one of the chapters in my memoirs, Forgotten Fairy Tales. Like my poetry, most of my stories are either based on real events and people, or are based on legends and myths. This one is no different. The first version was inspired from true events, something which my wife, Angela and I experienced in 2004, whilst I was having the fight of my life, battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was a very harrowing and painful experience, not only because of all the painful medical tests I went through, but also because I knew I was actually face to face with the grim reaper. I was brought up with military discipline as my father not only fought in WWII, but spent 35 years working for the British Services. Prior to his army days, he spent five years in a capuchin novitiate convent and according to him being in the army was like a holiday next to his days at the convent. So fear was never really a dominant feature of my DNA. I still remember him telling me, “Life is a bitch and if you are a wimp, you will not survive!” I was constantly bullied in school. I remember my mother used to wait for me with a towel and disinfectant each time I returned from school, knowing I would come back with cut cheeks, a bloody nose, bruises, or deep cuts in my legs after some fight against a bigger kid who I would have had to take down to beat off on the school graveled ground. My dad being in the army had taught me all about self-defense since I was still 7 years old. But whilst you can prepare yourself for a fight, or train as a soldier, you can never be trained to fight this dreaded serial killer, called cancer. The mysterious priest who visited us that evening was the only light I could see at the end of the tunnel.
ALM: How long did it take you to write your latest story and how fast do you write?
RF: The Mysterious Priest took me about an hour to write, but this was the longer version I mentioned earlier. Actually, I have written the best poems within few minutes and these poems required little or no editing. However, there have been technical poems, like Tanka, Senryu, Pantoum, French Triolettes, Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets, Rondeaux, Villanelle or poems with a certain rhyme scheme that required many hours and sometimes days, even months to perfectionize.
Yes, I can write very fast probably because of my journalistic background and consequently the experience I have obtained during over four decades of working in the fields of copywriting and PR. When I was a reporter, I remember the news editor, or the editor himself breathing down my neck as I was working on a story which they needed urgently to close the gap in some corner of the next day’s newspaper. Then there were no computers, or word processors, so if you made a mistake you would have to use Tippex, and if the mistake was more complicated, you needed to re-start the whole thing. In advertising, it was pretty much the same. It was a race against time and clients often phoned needing a TV, or radio script on a new product that was intended to go on air that same day. So being laid back was not an option in this kind of work.
ALM: Do you have any unusual writing habits?
RF: Well, sort of. I cannot really concentrate for more than a couple of hours on any piece of work I am writing, apart from poetry. Short stories, articles, essays and longer works like my memoirs have proved to be very tricky – it’s probably the reason why I have never tried writing a novel. But, then this, ‘defect’ also comes from my belief that people prefer to read short stories, because it doesn’t require the same kind of commitment to finish reading a novel. I remember when I was young, I spent hours reading books, like The Famous Five or The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton and I used to go through them very quickly, sometimes finishing a whole book within two days. Then as I grew older I got hooked by Ernest Hemmingway, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells and Denis Wheatly. But life was then less stressful, more relaxing and people seemed more easy going and laid back. Today, we seem to indulge ourselves in panic and stress, all self-created of course because people want to become rich and have everything, even when that means losing their quality of life, their souls and their humanity in the process. I often ask myself why have mankind invented technology with all its time saving state of the art equipment, when we are still rushing around like headless chickens? So after spending so many years in such a crazy and stressful working environment, I have set out my own rules not to allow anyone to put me under any type of pressure. Even when I’m working on an article with a deadline, I always take breaks in between – but then I do have the ability of writing very quickly when I decided I want to step on it. I hate this crazy world around us and genuinely feel sorry for young people who have no idea what they missed not having been born in the 50s. I often ask myself the following questions: Who is benefitting from all the time saved by all these technological inventions and why are we increasing the retirement age instead of cutting it down? Does it make sense that employers expect people to retire when they are almost on their death bed? And isn’t this in a way counter-productive seeing the problems European young people are having finding jobs? The world is in total chaos because it is being led by morons and mercenary politicians whose only goal is to use their power for their own personal benefits. Mr. E. E. Cummings was right after all: “A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.”
ALM: You recently won the First Prize at 2017 Adelaide Literary Contest for the best essay. Also, you are nominated for the Pushcart Prize by the Adelaide Literary Magazine. Do these recognitions influence your work and in what way?
RF: It’s funny you ask this question. Probably if you ask it to a US based writer, or a writer who hasn’t had to struggle every inch of the way since he was 13 to be both published and earn his living from writing, the answer could be different. I always tell people that it would have been easier for me to have taken up singing. At 15, a very famous local opera singer discovered I was a naturally gifted baritone with a unique voice. She was convinced within a couple of years I could have been making my debut at Covent Garden. But being young an stupid, I didn’t think I could do both writing and singing, so since singing would have required my parents to pay for my lessons, which at that time proved quite expensive, I decided to concentrate only on my writing. Of course I regret this now. So, having been so silly giving up a profession which could have definitely made me quite well off, I had to ensure I could justify my choice, at least by proving I was a good writer. A nomination for any top literary prize was only in my dreams but now it has finally happened. So of course, I am now more confident about my work and the decision I made at 15 to abandon my singing is less painful. Writing is a lonely profession especially for aspiring writers. Perhaps it’s the reason why some excellent writing talents don’t make it through. It’s so easy to give up when things are not happening and months pass without being able to get an acceptance from an editor. In Maltese we have an old saying: A sailor’s test on a ship is during a storm. Everybody can be a good sailor on calm seas. Well I guess now, this gives me a new incentive to continue pursuing my path. Writing has proved to be 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, it’s what I was taught from day one by my fiction course mentor.
ALM: You have often mentioned people’s poetry. What do you mean by this and can you elaborate on this theory?
RF: Yes, to this effect, I have written an essay called, Poetry as a Communicable Medium. Way back in the 90s, I needed to quote an essay by Rita Dove, then the US poet Laureate, so I wrote to her. She had said in one of her essays something about poetry having been taught badly in schools and how teachers needed to concentrate more on helping students understand poetry first which was more important than learning it by heart. She also said: I think one of the things that people tend to forget is that poets do write out of life. It isn’t some set piece that then gets put up on the shelf, but that the impetus, the real instigation for poetry is everything that’s happening around us. I totally agree, because I think the best writers in the world are those that base their work on their own experiences, or those of other people. Human life is full of sagas. Some are happy, others tragic and some strange, or even uncanny. There isn’t a single person out there that doesn’t have a story to tell. Hemingway, Graham Greene, Fitzgerald and so many other writers knew this and wrote most of their masterpieces about real people. That’s what people’s poetry is all about – writing poetry about events, places, people and true experiences. But most of all, it’s also about the language used to communicate with readers, which should be simple and straightforward. After all, the origins of poetry were intended to entertain the masses, the people in the street, the poor and even the illiterate. Somehow, throughout the ages this principle in poetry was lost because some academics decided they wanted to segregate this art and preserve it for themselves and the select few. They thought they had a God given right to make this art solely for themselves and so the poetry became an elite art, which in the Victorian era was practiced or recited in the salons of the richest people. Then, educational institutions gave it the stigma it has today, to the point that people cringe whenever the word poetry is mentioned. It inevitably reminds them of the bad way in which it was taught in schools, making it the nightmare of many students. Then, publishers jumped on the band wagon and started to accept poetry manuscripts only from the select few writers that had been admitted into the parochial system dictated by some self-proclaimed academic institutions which acted as the judge and the executioner. Poetry no longer belonged to the people because what people should read was decided by these parochial institutions. The publication of obscure, vague and abstract poetry didn’t help to make poetry any popular either. Poetry was originally created as a means of communication, so if the poet’s message is unclear to the point only he can understand it, then his message has been lost and will only remain to gather dust on some forgotten shelf. Milton Acorn was the founder of people’s poetry in Canada and today we are seeing poetry being recited in coffee bars, pubs, restaurants and even on the street. We are starting to see advertisements with scripts that rhyme and Rap music using the colloquial language young people seem to enjoy listening to so much. So I am hoping my efforts to make my poetry more of a pleasure to read and accessible will continue to make it more popular and establish it once again as the art for all the people. Ezra Pound in his do’s and don’ts on poetry writing once wrote: Poetry should be written at least as well as prose. Language is an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Go in fear of abstractions.
ALM: As an author and poet what are you working on now?
RF: Well, I have just finished an article on The Hypogeum catacombs and the story of the missing children. I have also got commissioned to write an article on the Moorish influence on Spain by the US based Renaissance Magazine. I am also working on my memoirs, which for the moment have the title of, Forgotten Fairytales, and at the same time preparing a book of articles and short stories, some of which have never been published for Adelaide Publishers. Every day, I work on new poems and then there is my other book on the benefits of creative writing, poetry therapy and journal therapy. Last but not least, Nostalgia is a bi-lingual book of poems in Maltese and English being published by a leading Maltese publisher. It has to be on sale at The International Book Fair in Malta in October 2017. This book has been a dream in the making for many years, since I left college. I was 17 then and met with Michael who like me loved writing poems in Maltese. I wrote mine in English. It was his idea to publish a book together and after over 40 years, we met again and he revived this project. Michael is a very busy family lawyer, but he writes divine poems in a very difficult language. Michael and I have something in common when it comes to the theme of our work – we both write about real places, people and events and traditions which are becoming extinct. Perhaps it’s the reason why I came up with the idea of Nostalgia as a title for the book. We needed a title used in both the English and Maltese language. Nostalgia will also include some sketches, all relevant to some of our poems.
Maltese is not an easy language and during the early part of the 20th century some academics also believed it was too limited when it came to finding the right Maltese adjectives for any description. Michael I think proves them wrong. However it is extremely difficult to master as a language because it sounds Arabic, but is written in the Latin alphabet. The Maltese language developed from the Siculo-Arabic or Sicilian Arabic, a form of Arabic that developed in Sicily and Malta between the 9th and 14th centuries. There is also a theory that Maltese developed from Carthaginian or Punic, the language of Carthage, a form of Phoenician. As well as the Arabs who tried to occupy Malta in 870 AD, Malta was helped by the Normans to oust out the Arabs in 1090, and between 1530 and 1798, it was governed by the Knights of St. John Hospitalliers. The Knights hailed from many different European countries, so they spoke French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin and German. In 1800, Malta became an important part of the British colony and Italian was replaced by English as the local second language. As a result, about half of the vocabulary of Maltese comes from Sicilian and Italian, and a fifth comes from English. Maltese also contains quite a bit of vocabulary from Norman and French.
ALM: In your opinion, what is the best way when it comes to promoting your writings? Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads Raymond Fenech poetry and stories, or even better – who, in your opinion, would benefit the most from reading your writings?
RF: From the very beginning of my writing career, my mentors always insisted I should start learning how to walk before I start running. Their advice was to start submitting work to the small press magazines, because the chances of acceptance were greater. Then, as the acceptances became more regular, I was to try magazines which were more difficult to access. It’s the way I managed to build up a decent publication credit list. If it’s poetry we are talking about, as promotion I would want to tell the people that my poetry is different to any other they have ever read. I resorted to writing in the people’s poetry language because it makes me feel closer to the readers. I write in the everyday language they speak, and promise I would rarely send them to the dictionary. I use foreignisms in my poems (Maltese words) to give my writing a better sense of the Maltese life, traditions, the environment, the architecture, the history and why not the language. What made me write in English was the fact, from an early age I realized that literary publications in Malta were non-existent. Besides, parochialism in the local literary scene was quite evidently not going to help or encourage me. I experienced this first hand when I was 15, and some of my poems were shown to a local academic for an assessment. But instead, he was prompt to dismiss them as youthful enthusiasm that would soon fade away and I would forget all about it! I hate to think how many other young aspiring writers gave up their dreams because their work was dismissed by this academic’s self-conceited opinions. Then, it also occurred to me I didn’t want to waste my writing talent being a big fish in a small pond. I wanted to know if I was good enough a writer, or not and if I wasn’t then so be it. In Malta – very few people read Raymond Fenech, partly because I was never promoted and because I do not write in Maltese. But then, on the other hand in Malta, few people actually read anything, not even the newspaper. I try to share my experiences in my writing with all the people because I would like them to know that I breathe from the same air that they do and I share their pain and try to show them I am with them and part of them. That is why I love Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda because in his own way, he was always a people’s poet and represented all their joy and all their grief. He reflected this in his poems and I try to follow his example and hope someday my poetry will be appreciated for these unique humane touches, perhaps even in the country where I was born. If that will ever happen during my lifetime, I do not know, but if my writing continues to be recognized abroad, I’m ok with that too. One thing for sure, at some point the local literary community will have to recognize me as a Maltese writer who for so many years has been bearing the Maltese flag each time he triumphed. But if they will one day do this it will probably not be because they would want to, but because if they don’t, they’ll simply look stupid.
ALM: Do you have any advice for new poets/authors?
RF: Perseverance against all odds. Don’t rush into trying to be published and whatever you do remember that there are no shortcuts to being a real published author. Creating a blog, or a web site and publishing one’s work on these does not make you a published author – it only makes you a self-proclaimed writer. Publishing comes with hard work and the greatest satisfaction is when you have competed with other writers, you have been rejected hundreds of times and you keep pursuing your dream until you succeed. Unfortunately, today, even journalism has been turned into a farce. Journalism’s main goals is to inform accurately and educate. Today we have turned journalism into sensationalism. ‘Reporters’ base their ‘story facts’ on gossip and information they read on internet and social media to write their ‘news’ and never bother to check if this information is factual or not. The newspaper’s primary aim is more concentrated on the number of newspaper copies sold, than being accurate and meticulous in their news reports. We read these disgraceful fictitious news reports every day and it seems it’s acceptable with the blessings of the editors of the newspapers. I remember once I went into a blog and was giving advice to some aspiring writers about the difference between publishing one’s work for real with real magazines and going through the procedure the hard way, or trying the easy way out by self-publishing one’s work on blogs or web sites. One of the students who was disappointed to discover I didn’t approve her methods of self-publishing replied angrily that I was old fashioned and that things have changed and writers publishing their work on their own blogs or web sites were considered as publication credits. That might be true for the non-professionals, but for the prestigious magazines, these publication credits count for nothing. The reason is logical, the work wouldn’t have gone through any rigorous editorial scrutiny and was not chosen from among hundreds, even thousands on the basis of merit. There was no competition whatsoever and the only reason it was published was because the author that submitted it was also the editor. I have nothing against social media, but if an aspiring writer is truly determined to become a professional writer, there are no short cutsto do that. Writing is like every other profession, but above everything else it’s an art and the only way to refine it is through acquiring knowledge through advice by professional editors and experienced writers and tutors. That is why it is a long, sometimes painful and hard road to take. Skipping the initiation, I call it, baptism by fire and proclaiming oneself published will not give you the experience, the technique, or the knowledge and genuine publication credits you need to improve one’s work. If you want to reach great heights, you have to aim for the sky. If you are afraid of criticism which might come in the form of rejections, or even short comments by the editors and you’d rather live a life of make-belief rather than reality, then writing is not for you. Anything that can be called a great achievement can only come with hard work and great perseverance. Writing is 10 % inspiration and 90% perspiration – remember that always.
ALM: What is the best advice you have ever heard?
RF: The greatest advice came through the text book of a journalism course I had enrolled for called, The Human Machine. It was a short article about how to control fear. Fear is the major scourge of most people. Every human senses fear and this is healthy when it’s used for self-preservation. But fear like everything else becomes number one public enemy if it is allowed to take complete control of the mind. Once that happens, people lose their focus, panic and more often than not make the wrong decisions. We all have fears and the only way to eliminate these is to put each and every one of them under a spotlight, dissect them and once we do that, most will discover that that particular fear was magnified beyond any realistic proportions, so in reality it wasn’t that fearsome after all. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear (Nelson Mandela). Everything we do in our lives will take courage to conquer, but you must remember that the best dreams can only be achieved by sheer determination and perseverance. Writers have a very special mission to fight against many evils and to do this, they need to believe in their own ability and to be fearless when the time comes for them to make their debut. As a poet, I always keep in mind what American poetess, May Swenson once said, Poetry can help man to stay human. My parents instilled in me a love for reading. Unless aspiring writers read the classics, their writing capabilities will always fall short when competing with the best. Always remember if you don’t read the work of your contemporaries, how do you expect others to read yours? I personally hate writing contests and the one I entered organized by Adelaide Literary Magazine was the first I participated in the last 20 years. I always considered literary competitions like a lottery and despite winning first prize, I still don’t think that to become a good writer one needs to take part in competitions. However I do strongly believe writers should all share their knowledge with their peers, especially the ones that are published and established with the young and aspiring ones. I’ve come across some selfish writers in the course of my long career and could never understand what pleasure there is in taking all their experience and tricks of the trade to the grave with them, rather than leaving a legacy of their knowledge for new authors to utilize for their own development.
ALM: Do you read a lot and what are you reading now?
RF: Well, I don’t read the way I used to – that is I used to pick a book, mostly to read for pleasure or recreation. Today, I go through stacks of books, all at the same time because I’m either studying for a particular course, or looking for material, which I need, to write on a particular subject, for an article, essay, or some other research. At the moment, I was going through the book, The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. This book is helping me to complete my memoirs. In fact, it has inspired me not only how to be courageous to write the truth, but also to base more of my poems on real people and events. I’m supposed to have enrolled for a diploma course in parapsychology, so I’m trying to get to grips with two of the text books for this course, Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research and Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants. Lastly, I am doing research for another article commissioned to me by Renaissance Magazine about the Moorish Influence on Spain, so that is going to take a lot of reading as well.
ALM: What are your favorite books ever?
RF: All the hundreds of books in my library are my favourites. However, there is one very special book I have based my whole life’s philosophy on and it is the one I just mentioned, The Human Machine by Edward Roffe Thompson. It was a text book provided in my journalism course by The London Educational Association. The book originated from a series of articles written by this author who lectured about common-sense wisdom. His articles were published in the John Bull magazine in the UK that had a circulation of 1,350,000 making it Britain’s best-selling magazine throughout the early 20th century. Each chapter deals with some of the most common problems human beings face on every day basis, offering a logical solution or advice to each. I think this book is recommendable to every aspiring writer, no matter the writing genre he intends to specialize in. I also love horror and ghost stories but have also read all the books by Dr. Lyall Watson, like Supernature, The Romeo Error, Heaven’s Breath, Life Tide, Gifts of Unknown Things, Dark Nature and The Nature of Things. One other book I loved reading was, Papa Hemingway, a biography of the author written by A.E. Hotchner. Living his own life was the greatest story ever told of all the stories he wrote about other people.
ALM: What do you deem the most relevant about your writings?
RF: Anything that is under the sun and sometimes beyond. But mostly, I am hurt to see the condition of the environment in this world, Malta in particular. I am really starting to believe that the only good politician is a dead one and that the world is being led by mercenary people with only one goal: making money for themselves and their few select friends at the expense of every Mr John Citizen. Malta until the early fifties was a haven for upmarket tourists, who visited it for its history, the unusual architecture of the old houses of character made of beautiful limestone and the quaint little villages, their narrow streets tucked away and surrounded by fields and farms. Within the last 60 years, most of the island has been converted into a jungle of concrete, replacing beautiful houses of character with mini claustrophobic apartments that have ruined the quality of life for thousands of Maltese, creating noise pollution, parking problems and over-crowding in every town. These buildings have no architectural value whatsoever because they were designed haphazardly to make a quick buck. They look all the same, like one matchbox on top of another, small prison cells for all the gullible citizens which actually buy this rubbish at exorbitant prices. There is not a single road, or street where tower cranes, trucks, giant jiggers and huge amounts of dust are not the order of the day for the poor residents living in every town or village in Malta. Most building developers are hand in glove with the authorities and the ministers concerned. These developers sponsor their electoral campaigns, so basically they can do what they like, including breaking every law on safety when these are demolishing houses in inhabited areas. We have even had serious incidents because of this irresponsible attitude and people actually died when their properties fell due to the works next door, burying them alive under the debris. Many an environmental organization has voiced their concern about the continuous unsustainable development and the serious and irrevocable consequences, but permits to build high-rise blocks of apartments keep being issued anyway. My birth place, the once quiet fishing village of St. Julian’s mostly popular for its quiet streets, small farms and fields that surrounded the small bay of Spinola has been mercilessly raped. It has been converted into a gigantic concrete town, housing the first skyscraper that dwarfs the historic 17th century Spinola Palace named after Fra Paolo Spinola, a Knight of the Order of St. John. The village and the fishermen are no more and now it’s packed solid with restaurants, bars, discos, nightclubs and hotels. The old houses are all gone and the streets are jam packed with traffic 24/24 all the year round. The noise pollution has driven many residents away from their beloved village, which not only is unrecognizable but has also been converted into a red light district, and a slum area making certain places unsafe to walk. So it is no surprise many of my poems, have been inspired by the change in my beloved village, at times cursing those responsible for its merciless rape, and reducing it into a decadent town, no one wants to live in.
ALM: What is your favorite quote?
RF: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
ALM: You are the first Maltese author to have undertaken a specialized course in poetry therapy – how did that come about and why did you become so interested in this form of therapy?
RF: Well in 2005, whilst I was undergoing chemotherapy, still quite unsure of the results, I decided I wanted to enroll for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing. It had always been in the back of my mind, but I never had had the time to do it. I thought the amount of work I would have to do on this course would also help to alleviate the continuous negative thoughts that were plaguing my mind. One day, I came across a book, The Healing Word by Fiona Sampson. I found it on Amazon Books and bought it. When I Read it, I realized it really had nothing to do with writing poetry techniques, instead it was all about how poetry was used as therapy to exorcise one’s demons. Well the subject interested me to the point I wanted to know more and then eventually came up with the idea of basing my BA thesis on Poetry Therapy. There was one problem though, I had very little access to this new discovery of mine, so I decided to write to some professionals in this field. One of them was Prof Sherry Reiter, Director of The Creative ‘Righting’ Center in New York. She answered my email immediately and told me she conducted courses for licensed poetry therapist and offered me to enroll. The only problem was, I just couldn’t afford that kind of money at a time when I didn’t even know if I was going to survive cancer, never mind finding a job. So regrettably, I replied telling her, I would have loved to enroll for one of her courses but I couldn’t afford it. Sherry took me completely by surprise only about a week later with an email that brought tears to my eyes. Sherry had simply told me she was willing not only to offer me a scholarship, but she would actually be my mentor for the duration of the course. I always believed, the mysterious priest I wrote about was some kind of angel in disguise – this was another angel sent from heaven to continue supporting me. Something tells me, Prof Reiter being a veteran in the art of poetry therapy sensed something in my email and not just wanted to give me free tuition, but also free poetry therapy sessions to improve and intensify my will to defeat cancer. Now, Sherry and I are friends and she calls me her Maltese falcon – I will never forget what she did for me and wish more people would have the good fortune of coming across wingless angels on this earth like her! Well, I am not a licensed poetry therapist, but I did do some practice on volunteers in Malta and completed the theory part of my course for which I got a certificate. It is my intention to introduce this incredible therapy in my country. Thinking about journal and poetry therapy after completing the courses, I realized that when I was in my teens and had those typical teenage depressions, I was actually self-administering both journal and poetry therapy when I was writing down my feelings in my diary and writing poetry to vent my anger and rebellion at the world around me.
The latest book by Raymond Fenech will be released in Fall 2017 by Adelaide Books
ALM: Since you have delved into so many fields of writing do you have any other upcoming projects?
RF: Only two come to mind, but it’s going to require a lot of work and preparation. I am refering to introducing writing/poetry/journal therapy in Malta. The Maltese are very sceptic about anything that is new, but when it comes to the health or medical sector, this is even more so. But I have lately been speaking with an art therapist and he was fascinated when I explained to him at some length about the benefits of these writing therapies. So, we should be meeting again to discuss our combined venture on this subject. If things go the way I expect them to go, I might even decide to invite Prof Sherry Reiter to hold a National Association of Poetry Therapy conference here in Malta. This will serve to introduce this therapy professionally locally and perhaps courses in this field could be hosted at the University of Malta in collaboration with the Creative ‘Righting’ Center at Touro College, Hofstra University, USA. I know this is a very long shot, but I do believe that this can be done unless of course, spokes are put into my works. My other project is to introduce writer’s visits at schools and colleges and perhaps even writer’s lectures to students who want to make a career out of writing. In support, I was also thinking of offering to sponsor the prizes for a writing contest, starting perhaps at one of the colleges I attended and slowly spreading this to other schools. I have already tried to talk to the headmaster of the secondary school I used to attend by writing to him several times, but never received even an acknowledgment. However, I don’t give up that easily, and now with my Pushcart Prize nomination, I’m hoping there would be a college or a school in Malta willing to allow me to develop this project. The Adelaide editor has already been kind enough to offer me his support in this project, by publishing the winning works of the students in a special page on one of the magazine issues. For that, I would like to thank him and express my most heartfelt appreciation.
ALM: Thank you, Ray. Good luck with your writing. God bless.
Ray in his study.