Interview - Miriam Calleja Shaw

You have recently published a book called COVID-19and the Virus that Shook the World. It provides a sobering look at virus infections and pandemics, with particular emphasis on the COVID-19 strain. Presently, the cases have diminished in Europe but the spread has moved elsewhere. However, how safe is ‘safe’ at the moment?

With the way things are evolving with the ’new’ coronavirus, it’s very difficult to answer this question. The WHO just last weekend warned that the worst may be yet to come. We are certainly witnessing an atrocious amount of deaths and illness in the US. We don’t yet know with certainty which factors are affecting the progression of the pandemic. Indeed we don’t even know about all the symptoms that appear with COVID-19 infection. The relative ‘safety’ is different for everyone, depending on the state of their immunity and certain other factors. For a person with average health who isn’t too old, the danger of getting severely ill may be low – but we need to think of the big picture. Is this person going to come into contact with elderly parents, with patients, with people with compromised immunity? Is this person living in a community where the healthcare system is easily overwhelmed? Do we know enough about our own health? And, even if the symptoms aren’t too bad upon infection, do we know about the future consequences? There are so many questions that will only be answered with time, because we need to know what effects the virus will have on us, and what effects we can have on it in terms of preventative or curative medicines. My short answer is: we need to exercise caution for a long time yet.

You are a pharmacist by profession but many know you primarily as a poet. Is there poetry in pharmacy?

Once you start looking for it, there’s poetry in everything – it’s incurable. As a pharmacist I work in community and also in other areas that require me to use language, where the primary aim is to make information as clear as possible and to avoid misunderstandings. As you can imagine this is vital when it comes to patient information. It really makes me appreciate clarity and how to better get information across where it is needed. In my poetry I’m also portraying a message, or a number of messages, and I believe that clarity can enhance connection. This is a muscle I’m flexing in both areas and I enjoy the intertwining threads that they share.

In your first anthology, Pomegranate Heart, there are a number of poems that tackle a very intimate kind of memory. What are the challenges involved in taking a very personal experience and passing on its ownership to your poetical persona?

I remember the shock of sharing my poetry after years of keeping it to myself. I wanted to take it all back for a moment – it was akin to hanging up dirty laundry but with an ISBN number. But then it became clear to me that everybody reads poetry through their own lens, their own experiences making my truths murky. I try to play with words to evoke a universality so that the experience is not just mine. I’m expressing my need to write and to tell my story, but I’d also like to evoke a moment of ‘You felt that? Me too.’

In Inside Skin you collaborated with photographer Zvezdan Reljić. What came first, the poem or the pic? Or was it a more symbiotic relationship?

Sometimes you meet a person or an artist who really feels/gets your work. I like to think of Zvezdan as one of these persons. We did not have endless discussions or what goes where, which poem goes with which picture. I think, but I can only speak for myself of course, that we trusted the process of intuition, of casually weaving the poems and images together until they seemed to fit and find each other.

You are very active in the local scene, not just as a writer but also as a literary facilitator. In fact, you run regular creative writing workshops, and before that, you organised a number of literary salons. Can you tell us something about the importance and/or need for writers to collaborate and share their works-in-progress?

We need to be honest with ourselves – words are designed to be shared. Yes, we may write for ourselves in a cathartic way or keep a journal. However in essence I believe that growth can only occur upon sharing. As writers most of us crave some sort of audience. We don’t know what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ without other people’s opinions. We understand our own writing better when we start to share it, and that is how we can grow, observe our flaws, get more from our practice. I have had the pleasure of facilitating creative writing workshops for 4 years now and I can say that most writers just need the tiniest of pushes to grow. It must be done with care and understanding, but also with a certain ‘strictness’ about the writing practice and that its nature is grounded in work and dedication and not in some sort of other-worldy gift. As regards collaboration – I’m like a kid going to a candy shop. Finding someone to collaborate with, and being in harmony with their work, elevates your work. With the written word, and especially with poetry, this broadens your reach in terms of imagination and audience.

You write in both Maltese and in English, but primarily you go for the latter. Do you find that you have two voices, one in Maltese and one in English? And if so, are they conflicting voices, complementary ones or entirely separate of each other?

Even though I get asked this question a lot, it hasn’t become easier to answer. As a bilingual writer I don’t feel conflicted, I feel richer in my choices than if I wrote in one language. The closest I can get to explaining how I choose whether to write a piece in English or Maltese is the ‘place’ where the poem comes from. This means it depends on the time and place, if this is a memory I am writing about. I am also rather influenced by what I would be reading at the moment, and if I’ve watched, heard, or listened to someone else’s art represented in either language. I tend to write in English more often because my world contains more English than Maltese, and also because I know it will reach a wider audience. Having said that, I always read a poem in Maltese when I’m reading abroad.

Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share with us?

I enjoy cooking when I have enough time to do it. The pandemic has created mixed emotions on this. I’ve had to cook much more than usual, and because I tried to limit my shopping trips or deliveries, I didn’t have the liberty I usually have. My happiest day is receiving vegetables, and since I’ve made a decision to eat less meat I’ve had to challenge myself to be more adventurous with my recipes. It’s a creative outlet that I mostly enjoy. And of course I love to eat!

What book, film or song would you recommend to us? (Yours don’t count!) Why did you choose this?

I’m going to cheat because I think it’s an important thing to say right now and I believe you’ll forgive me. I think we all should be reading, watching, and listening to books, films, and songs that will help us to understand other cultures and other people. I think we should be actively doing this in order to connect at a time where connection is easy but oh so difficult.

To finish off: What’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to you?

That being around me inspires them.
If you would like to buy Miriam's books you can do so from here:


Remember (EDE)

You can also read some of her published poems HERE.
For updates about Miriam's work and her workshops, follow her over HERE.