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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 17:22 GMT
Poetry captivates Sicilians on the move
Sicilians reach their destination filled with poetry
By Frances Kennedy in Catania

Travellers on trains in Sicily this month are in for a surprise.

Around 50 Italian poets - from famous names to up-and-coming authors - are climbing aboard to chat to unsuspecting passengers and read their works to what is in effect a captive audience in southern Italy.

The initiative "L'Offerta della Parola" - The Gift of the Word - involves local, commuter and intercity trains leaving from Sicily's second biggest city, Catania.

The noise at times makes it hard to read out loud, so I have been mainly chatting with people

Edoardo Sanguineti
The idea is to introduce poets and poetry to people who may have had little exposure to the art, and at the same time encourage travellers to communicate, like they once did.

It is the brainchild of Antonio Presti, a dynamic Sicilian arts patron, who has spent much of his inheritance from the family cement business in ambitious cultural adventures.

"I think in today's world, poetry is a value and that needs to be promoted. It was just a matter of finding the right way to bring that out and make contact with ordinary people," he said.

Miraculous words

The initial reaction of passengers to Mr Presti's poetry crusade is perplexed, if not hostile.

On the Catania-Messina line, rolling along the coast, Salvo Basso, a young poet recites a verse in Sicilian dialect about the night his girlfriend forced him to stop writing to watch a wildlife documentary.

Travellers are soon chuckling out loud as he spits scorn about how lizards mate.

"The noise at times makes it hard to read out loud, so I have been mainly chatting with people" said Edoardo Sanguineti, one of the big names in Italian poetry.

Trains are traditionally a place of new encounters, romance and adventure

Antonio Presti
Poets taking part seem glad of the opportunity to escape their ivory towers, or readings and book launches attended by the already-converted.

In the Circumetnea train chugging up Mount Etna, 73-year-old Elio Pagliarani has achieved a miracle.

The 30 nine-year-olds from a rough school in Catania are deadly quiet as he reads them a poem about sea creatures.

The children have been well primed for the encounter - each has his or her poem written on the T-shirt they are wearing - but find the poets, young and old, different from expectations.

"I though they were all like hermits," said one youngster, "but these ones are really sociable".

Open house

Mr Presti came to public attention when he created the Fiumara d'Arte - an open air gallery of gigantic sculptures down a river valley.

He later converted a shabby pensione into an Art Hotel, having each room created, painted and decorated by an Italian or foreign artist.

He rejected sponsorship by political parties or local bodies for L'Offerta della Parola, saying that would have compromised it.

The Italian State Railways waived the tickets, local hoteliers provided the accommodation and families opened their homes - from modern apartments to antique palazzi - inviting the poets to taste traditional local delicacies.

"Trains are traditionally a place of new encounters, romance and adventure. Over the years rail travel has become as solitary as going by car. We must try to recapture that and our power to communicate with each other" Mr Presti says.

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17 Feb 00 | Scotland
Poetry in motion for rail travellers
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