Our intern Aurora is interviewing faculty members at the Siena Art Institute, reflecting on the challenges of 2020 and looking forward to the year ahead. This is the second interview of her series, speaking with our Creative Writing instructor, Jeff Shapiro.
Jeff Shapiro, born in Boston, USA, and living close to Siena since 1991, is a music-lover and a prolific writer. Before coming to Italy, he spent time in England and worked with people trying to overcome issues of domestic violence. He co-authored Prone to Violence, a non-fiction book on the subject. As a journalist, he wrote for the UK version of Cosmopolitan and had pieces published in New Society and the U.S.-based magazine International. More recently, his short stories have appeared in Verso and The Sigh Press.
He has published two novels so far, Renato’s Luck and Secrets of Sant’Angelo. He teaches Creative Writing at Siena School for Liberal Arts and at the Siena Art Institute, along with English Conversation at Siena Art Institute and Università Popolare Senese.
PROJECTS INVOLVING SART
Jeff came to the Siena Art Institute in a rather odd way: he was singing with the Polifonici Senesi chorus, where he met a student from the Siena Art Institute. Once she learned of Jeff’s work as a writer, she convinced him to come and talk with the director Miriam Grottanelli De Santi who at the time was searching for a Creative Writing teacher…
The mission of putting together the first seminars was a challenge, because Jeff had to face questions of whether writing could be taught and also how. Another delicate point had to do with audience: especially through the first few years, Jeff taught Creative Writing to English-speaking people, and only later did his classes include Italians as well. Interaction with students whose mother tongue is not the same as his has helped him grow, ultimately enhancing creative experimentation.
Over time, Jeff has developed an approach to teaching that focuses on the senses and on the subjectivity of viewpoints. As Jeff himself says, he always tries to “make the music of words resonate with the emotional content of any particular scene”. An example of this approach may be seen in the Creative Writing workshop for children which Siena Art Institute organized in October and held in Villa Brandi, near Siena. Jeff took part, exploring facets of writing with a group of curious and playful kids.
A bridge to the marginalised
Thinking about Siena Art Institute’s outreach to marginalised communities, Jeff recalls the Italian word coscienza and its two meanings: the first is “conscience”, involving the ethical core and so, as Jeff himself says, the use of art as “a way of interacting with everyone, including the privileged and the marginalised alike”; the second meaning is “consciousness,” for art “makes us open our eyes and see.”
This theme has been developing in Jeff’s own mind since his experiences in London, which put him in direct contact with victims of domestic violence, especially children.
Now, as a part of the Siena Art Institute team, Jeff can continue doing this kind of empathetic work, also helped by the settings of this particular school, which is a natural nest of welcome and respect that emphasizes integration, in order to fight the leviathan of marginalisation.
DON GIOVANNI STRIKES BACK!
Having published two novels with Harper-Collins and Berkley-Penguins books, two stories set in the warm atmosphere of Tuscany and whose use of language was acclaimed as sensational and astute by some scholars, Jeff is now ready to launch his third novel.
The idea behind it is absolutely majestic: inspired by one of his favourite musical pieces, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Jeff decided to explore the interpersonal dynamics more deeply. In writing a novel based on Don Giovanni’s musical score, he has tried to render the sounds of specific passages with the almost infinite potential and power of words (as we have already said, Jeff has always loved challenges in writing), while also wondering how sexuality, attitudes and behaviours in society have changed since the time of Mozart’s masterpiece. Ultimately, Jeff chose to transform Don Giovanni into a woman. Indeed, he went so far as to invert the gender of all the characters. Whether publishing houses will decide to publish it or not, no one knows yet, but we will soon see!
Living in Italy has given Jeff a second life. Even if he has continued to live as a “perpetual foreigner,” he now feels that, “after years and years, maybe the facets come together in a unified whole, and you realize you’ve been enriched by the process.”
Language and its secrets have been the main friends that have driven Jeff’s lifelong adventure. Having the opportunity to compare various languages, playing with them widely, and also teaching something you perhaps can feel and experience only in your mother tongue – even our thoughts are formulated in our native language – has proved a never-ending chance for growth during Jeff’s special journey.
This is the power of words, one of the brightly shining stars filling the Galaxy of Arts.
And this is Jeff Shapiro.