Olivia Sears and Chandra Livia Candiani

Writing the Road: Romani Children in Milan
Translations from the Italian by Olivia E. Sears

Poet-teacher Chandra Livia Candiani lives in Milan, where she was born, but she has Russian roots. The author of several award-winning books of poetry, she is also a translator of Buddhist texts from English into Italian. For the past eight years she has taught poetry workshops full-time in elementary schools all over Milan, but particularly in the multi-ethnic neighborhoods on the edges of the city, reaching nearly 1400 students. She begins each workshop not by explaining what poetry is but by suggesting a gentle yet circuitous path they can all take together in search of the place where words live. She then introduces the theme of silence—allowing the children to think beyond the uneasy, obedient silence so familiar to them—by imparting “the pleasure of a silence that involves listening to oneself, to the world, to others, to the symphony of which we are a part.” The silence that allows us to listen deeply. In the poems that follow, the Romani students entered that silence and found the words to articulate their experience, powerfully, for the wider world to hear.

—Olivia E. Sears

Introduction and poems from Ma dove sono le parole? : Poetry written by children on the multi-ethnic outskirts of Milan in the workshops of a special teacher, ed. by Chandra Livia Candiani with Andrea Cirolla

Chandra Livia Candiani:

My first year at the school I didn’t know there was a large Romani camp nearby that had been evacuated, destroyed by a fire. There were a lot of different ethnic groups at the school, and the Romani shared many traits with the Bosnian kids, the Romanians, the Albanians; I couldn’t have told them apart.  They were also dressed very well, much better than the other kids; later I discovered that their clothes came from charity and they received them at school. And in the teachers’ bathroom there was shampoo and soap so they could take a shower. But I recognized them as a discreet group or clan for the first time only because some of the kids in one class always wrote about the night, and it was clear they knew it well, which surprised me. They spoke about cold winter nights, about the danger of rain, of mud. And about the fire. When I told this to a teacher in astonishment, she replied: “They are Romani, they live in a camp, in shacks, of course they know the night well.”

Little by little we got to know each other and recognize each other. I remember Petruz, who told me he lost three nephews in a fire. He had brothers old enough for him to be an uncle by the age of 9, and he had already experienced brutal suffering. By age 10 each Romani child had already lived through losses, evacuations, violence, oppressions, abandonments that we could not even imagine. There is also so much joy, there is a culture of joy; joy is just below the skin—at least among those of the ethnic groups I encountered myself, because Romani is a totally generic designation and there are actually quite a few different ethnic groups.

It was not always easy to gain their trust. Every so often in the classes some girl or boy didn’t want to shake hands with a Romani boy or girl, with the excuse that they had dirty hands. It made me incredibly angry. I would stand up and  grip the Romani child’s hand tightly; maybe I was a little pathetic. Then something that Paul Celan wrote came to me: he says that he sees no difference between poetry and a handshake. And so I repeated that frequently, like saying that if you don’t shake someone’s hand you give up the possibility of writing a complete poem, one that speaks of your own internal struggles, even of your clandestine emotions, your transgressive needs. I remember a Romani child who wrote a poem dedicated to my backpack. I would come to school with a backpack full of little bells, feathers, shells, sticks, musical instruments, stones. And she wrote to me: “Teacher, if the police stop you, who knows what they will say, with all those feathers, shells, bells.” Clearly accustomed to being monitored, to facing danger, to needing to stay below the radar, unnoticed.

And then there was Marius, a boy with a body that was big and strong and silent. I remember one exercise was to write a list of things they’d see on the way home from school, and then with those words they would construct a poem. And he titled his list: “The world seen by oneself.”

Marius wrote a very powerful poem about silence, and after that class his friends began to look at him differently, with respect, because he spoke about the pain of exclusion with an almost physical precision.

And then one day I brought to school a lot of different scents in little boxes: coffee grounds or cumin or camphor or little bottles of rose water or lavender water or orange. A little Romani girl turned in a page with only two words, naming what she had smelled, essentially telling me that no, this time she wasn’t able to write anything. And yet I went away feeling that she had written, yes, this time too, though I don’t know why I felt that. At home I saw that for her smell she had written “sea water.” Well, if someone imagines that I could have gone all the way to the sea, filled a little bottle to bring to school, and that you could still smell the fragrance of the sea... you know, for me that is a poem.

And then there was a boy who in his poem about farewell wrote: “Goodbye, go to your freedom!” The teachings of a nomad.

In general, for them poetry is often easier, they have songs and music, they have the night, they have death, they are accustomed to pain and grief, but also to unbridled joy, and they know that the joy of communication is a great joy.

And now they are no longer in the schools where I go; vanished. The camp vacated so many times, in the end razed to the ground. I asked a Romani acquaintance and he said: “We are too far away to send the kids to school now, maybe some will go to some other school, but we are on the road now.”

I read some books about their culture, but I remain very ignorant about all of it, quite naive, I know. However, I feel that in my lack of knowledge there is a kind of childlike power, I feel that I come from the same place, with no ground beneath my feet . And since I was also one of the kids who didn’t get invited to parties in elementary school, I feel like their accomplice.

The following poems were written by Romani students who left the school abruptly after their camp was destroyed. They are identified by their first names and ages, except where the student preferred not to say.  



Afraid, I want to play but I’m afraid,
I want to say something but I’m afraid,
I want to sing but I’m afraid,
everyone makes fun of me and I’m afraid,
I’m afraid of everything and I am alone.

The silence passing through my veins
it seems infinite, the silence.

—Marius, age 9


My house I feel it
like a tree
that little by little breaks
like death.

—Petruz, age 10


What matters

The moon
The mountain
It is an evening where the moon hangs over the mountain
tonight it was a very beautiful night this night and then
it got so dark they were afraid and then it was
like bread.

—Fata Alexandra, age 9


The hands that write poetry
are the same hands
that do the cleaning.

—Ramayana, age 9



The storm is a joy with ice
it is a small silence.
Love is a joy.
Terror is scary.
The storm of ice is too scary
it is too much terror.

—Ivan, age 10


is a stowaway
who moves around the world
in secret.

You teacher
with your backpack with your bells
your shells and feathers
if the police stop you
what will they say.

—Anonymous, age 10



Words when
they are beautiful they smile.

Words at times
are free but also nailed down.

Words are like
a lake that never ends.

Words are like
something described
that you can
not only say
but also hear.

—Giosef, age 10


The life of Sandrino

My life is like a flower
that needs water.
My heart
is a bell
that rings sadness
my voice
seems like a cry
my life
is like a poem.

—Sandrino, age 10


One day there was rain and I
walked slowly on a very long street
and I walked slowly the grass was very green
and I went near eight trees
but I was very cold, the wind
beat down on me, but the rain
no longer got me wet.

—Denisa, age 9


Friendship is a light jacket,
a beauty you cannot give back.

Love inerasable, uncontainable,
immeasurable, rechargeable, indescribable.
Love is infinite every way of loving
is like an object.

—Marian, age 10


My heart beats
and beats hard and spurts
And they come
violent men
who seem like sharks
and they eat
all the furniture.

—Luca, age 10


The world

The world is beautiful also ugly but
sometimes too the world is very beautiful
but when there is snow
it is super beautiful
in the world there is fear
of falling fear of being run over
I in the world I go along happy.



The world

A sound of violin wraps around
my heart and things the moon
shines people are resting
the wind blows and wraps around
the wings of birds that make
an adventure of sounds.

—Marius, age 10


Today the snow
touched me
inside my heart.

My mamma is like a bird that flies
a bell that sings.

—Maria, age 9


I would like to go to Bosnia
to find my mamma again
to hug my mamma again.
I really want to play
to run and jump all day
in my country faraway.
I think about my sisters a lot
who knows how big and beautiful they got.
Living with my grandparents makes me very happy
but I would be even happier living with my family.

—Ramayana, age 8

From Ma dove sono le parole?, edited by Chandra Livia Candiani with Andrea Cirolla, (Milan: Effigie edizioni, 2015), pp. 159-184.

Olivia Sears

Olivia E. Sears, a poet and translator of Italian poetry, is founder of the Center for the Art of Translation and the journal Two Lines, which she edited for more than a decade. Recent translations include avant-garde poetry by three women poets from the past 100 years, currently appearing in A Public Space and Chicago Literary Review. She is a graduate of Yale University and earned a doctorate in Italian literature from Stanford University.

Chandra Livia Candiani

Chandra Livia Candiani (Milan, 1952) has published several books of poetry and a book of fables. In 2001 she won the Premio Montale, and her most recent book received the XXVI Camaiore Premio Letterario in 2014. She is a translator of Buddhist texts from English into Italian and teaches poetry workshops in elementary schools, homeless shelters, and AIDS hospices.