Danila Cannamela and The Quiet Avant-garde

The strength of the humanities at Colby is a direct result of our talented faculty, each of whom brings a unique perspective and treasure trove of knowledge on an extensive variety of topics. Today we highlight the work of one of our newer faculty members, Assistant Professor of Italian Studies Danila Cannamela (pictured left), who joined Colby in 2019. In this article, we would like to introduce you to Cannamela’s first book, The Quiet Avant-garde: Crepuscular Poetry and the Twilight of Modern Humanism, which was published in March 2019 by the University of Toronto Press. This intricate, eloquent book explores the crepuscular poetry movement in Italy.

So who were the crepusculars? Cannamela explains in her book that they were a group of very young Italian poets who lived during the early twentieth century. The two most prominent figures of the movement, Sergio Corazzini and Guido Gozzano, died when they were 21 and 32 respectively, as they suffered from tuberculosis. Perhaps due to their illness, the crepusculars sabotaged the Italian tradition of singing of glorious historical victories, of beauty and stylistic perfection, and instead sang about everyday boredom. “Poets of the quarantine”, Cannamela calls them, who wrote about everyday objects and frustrations. Confined to their homes, they described their shrinking worlds and the minor details of which they were made.

The term “crepuscular” is an adjective for twilight, coming from the Latin word for twilight “crepusculum”, yet it can also refer to the light of dawn. This group of poets did not name themselves, but received the name from Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, a literary critic. It was a dismissive title, given because Borgese considered their poetry an embodiment of the decay of the high ideals of 19th century Italian literature.

In The Quiet Avant-garde, Cannamela argues that the crepusculars served not just as the twilight of traditional 19th century Italian literature, but as the dawn of the futurist avant-garde that radically reshaped 20th century Italian literature and culture. They are the bridge connecting two opposing literary traditions. As a relatively minor poetic movement, the crepusculars are often left out of the study of Italian literature, especially in North America, but Cannamela believes that the transition from traditional poetry to the avant-garde cannot be fully understood without first understanding the crepusculars and their linchpin role as connectors and saboteurs.  This is the primary goal of the book– to illustrate and place in historical context the crepuscular movement, in relation to the 19th century poetic tradition and the futurist avant-garde.

Another goal of the book is to provide a contemporary reading of crepuscular poetry. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Cannamela believes that the crepusculars’ focus on confinement and the mundanity of everyday life are more relevant now than ever. In the book, which was written before the pandemic, she argues that the crepusculars were precursors to the fascination with material life that we see in posthuman theory. “It’s interesting to see how these poets were already exploring these ideas, considering objects as agents or co-agents in a very particular way.”, Cannamela told us. “These poets were already seeing things that scholars would explore more than a century later.”

Cannamela has been studying the crepuscular poets for more than fifteen years, writing about them for her undergraduate thesis, master’s dissertation, and PhD dissertation. While studying in Milan, Cannamela met other scholars studying the crepusculars, but when she moved to the United States, she discovered that these poets were virtually unknown. Only a few of their poems had been translated, and US scholars of Italian literature didn’t study them at all. The Quiet Avant Garde is therefore not only the result of fifteen long years of passionate study, but the first English language book to explore the crepuscular poetry tradition. If you’re interested in learning more about this unique piece of Italian literary history, you can purchase the book here. 

Currently, Cannamela is working on two new books. The first is an edited volume titled Italian TransGeographies, which creates an alternative map of the Italian peninsula and Italian American diaspora using the stories of Italians and Italian Americans who broadly identify as transgender. Cannamela and her co-editors translate these narratives, which range from memoirs, to poems, to movies, to songs, and provide a history and geographic context for the Italian transgender movement. The book starts in southern Italy, moving to central and northern Italy before migrating to the US and focusing on New York City and other cities with prominent Italian American populations. The book explores how transgender people have found ways to work together two identities– their gender, and their ethnicity– which at first seem to clash.

The second book which Cannamela is composing, tentatively titled Sour Beauty, focuses on ecocriticism and the pastoral. Pastoral landscapes were once a major feature of environmental literature, but are now considered old fashioned and are no longer investigated. Instead of the pastoral, we discuss dystopia; instead of beautiful landscapes, degraded ones. In this book, Cannamela imagines the pastoral as a recipe featuring four staple ingredients: cheese, roots, meat, and honey. “The book is a peculiar cookbook,” she explained. “I go back to what makes the pastoral, and for each ingredient, I tell a story about how the pastoral made sense back in the days of classical literature, and how it’s still inspiring new narratives. The pastoral has a sour beauty– beauty with a bitter aftertaste. It was the comfort food of the old days.”  However, this is a new project, and Cannamela anticipates that she will have many years of research and writing ahead of her before this book is complete.

In her time at Colby, Cannamela has worked extensively with the Center for the Arts and Humanities to develop exciting new courses. Last fall, she taught a humanities lab inspired by her work on Italian TransGeographies, “IT346: Geographies of R/existence: ’70s Liberation Movements in Italy”. Center funding enabled her to bring in many exciting guest speakers, including transgender activist Porpora Marcasciano, filmmaker Simone Cangelosi, director Teresa Rossano, and photographer Lina Pallotta. One student was so taken by Pallotta’s photographic portrait of Porpora Marcasciano that she is now completing an independent research project on Pallotta’s work.

Danila Cannamela is an invaluable asset to the Colby community, and we at the Center for the Arts and Humanities feel fortunate to have been able to learn more about her work. We look forward to reading her upcoming books, and seeing where her research takes her next.

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities