Drifting Cities, the emblematic trilogy of Stratis Tsirkas, an established novelist in the international literary scene, is considered one of the most popular and widely read works of literature in Greece.
The trilogy (The Club, Ariagni, The Bat) is a saga of three cities: Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria, drifting toward chaos in a war-torn Middle East. During World War II, Egypt was the seat of the Greek government in exile (opposing the left-wing resistance movement within occupied Greece) and the theatre of extensive political machinations that preceded Greece’s civil war. This unknown cultural and political history is the historical thread running through Drifting Cities.
Tsirkas has that rare quality of integrating personal observations with the larger political scene. An Alexandrian Greek, he was the most significant literary figure to emerge from the Greek community of Egypt after the acclaimed poet Constantine Cavafy. Having lived in Egypt for more than fifty years, Tsirkas offers an insider’s view to the world behind the diplomatic scene. In his trilogy, history takes place in the background and primarily serves to illuminate the inner lives of the characters. The foreground is occupied by the lives of lesser people, noble and base, engaged or merely surviving. It displays a panoramic view of a fragmented society, driven by pressures on many fronts and labouring towards the next era.
The trilogy is saturated with the scents, hues and textures of Egypt and the Middle East. Of the three cities that provide settings in the trilogy, it is Alexandria that Tsirkas ultimately must have known best. When Tsirkas describes Alexandria, the reader grasps the strong whiff of nostalgia and enormous loss, the unique anguish of the diaspora Greeks, who have turned Greece into a potent and hence unattainable ideal. At the same time, his fictional treatment of the Arabs and representation of the East confirms that Tsirkas is not simply a Western author “narrating” the East, but rather a Western novelist writing an Eastern novel.
Tsirkas combines elements from the European realist tradition with the modernist techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue. Setting out to write what he saw as a citizen of the world and a principled intellectual, Tsirkas wrote a book which was decades ahead in style, scope, maturity, complexity and daring. More than fifty years later, Drifting Cities continues to be a vital component of the ongoing debate about the role of art and the intellectual in society.
Stratis Tsirkas was born in Egypt in 1911. In his early twenties, he became part of what was a vibrant literary scene within the Greek community of Alexandria. He is the author of numerous books of poems [Fellahi (1937), Lyrical Voyage (1938)], short stories and two critical works, one of which, Cavafy and His Era, won the Literary State Prize in 1958.
In 1959 he began writing The Club, the first volume of the Drifting Cities trilogy, which was published in 1960. The second volume, Ariagni, appeared in 1962, the third, The Bat, in 1965. The trilogy was awarded the French Critics’ Prize for best foreign novel of 1971, when it was first published in French. The trilogy has also been published in Arabic, French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish. It was recently translated in German by Edition Romiosini, within the framework of ‘osmosis’ of the two countries, their languages and cultures.
In 1963 Tsirkas was forced to emigrate to Athens, where he spent the last sixteen years of his life, active to the end both in political causes and as a writer and translator. Lost Spring, published in 1976, was a novel with an Athenian setting and intended to be first of a trilogy which Tsirkas never completed. He died in 1980.
Certain film subjects seem to attract criticism of cultural appropriation or exploitation, such as the refugee crisis or queer films. It’s quite common for a filmmaker who has made a queer film to be forced to breach the GDPR and disclose very personal (and irrelevant) information, such as his/her sexual identity, just because gay topics raise the curiosity of critics and public. So should queer films be made solely by gay directors, films about migration by immigrants and so on?
Greek Swedish filmmaker Nicolas Kolovos, whose latest film “Index” won the Golden Dionysos best film award at the 2019 Short Film Festival in Drama for “its skillful camera choreography in a 12-minute one-take and the wonderful utilization of the cinematic language, which underlines a universal issue starting from a child’s desperate action”, spoke to Greek News Agenda* about freedom of artistic expression.
"Index", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2018)
“Index” (2018) tells the story of a Syrian refugee family faced with a terrible dilemma: as they are about to depart on a boat that will smuggle them to Europe, they discover that the youngest son’s index finger is stuck in a hole in the wall of the truck that carries them. Panic ensues and they are faced with a terrible choice. Kolovos’s previous film “Fig” is about an old couple living in a remote village in Epirus. The old man, who wants to fulfill his dying wife’s last wish, will embark on an odyssey in search of a fig. In both films, the heroes are caught in an agonizing quest that engages the viewer, while the humorous plot twists allow love’s warmth to prevail over the toughest moments.
Film director, scriptwriter and playwright Nicolas Kolovos has written and directed eight short films that have been screened at a variety of international film festivals, winning several awards. In April 2016, he was awarded Greece's biggest film award, Iris, by the Greek Film Academy for his short film "Fig" (2015). He has also directed TV drama and documentaries for Swedish Television. Kolovos has also written plays for Riksteatern and Sweden's Radio Drama among others. His films and plays often portray with black humor people in risk situations and deal with issues such as identity and exclusion.
"Index", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2018)
What made you decide to tell a story about refugees and what were the challenges you faced?
The idea for the film stemmed from an incident that happened to my son two years ago: he had put his hand in a hole and refused to pull it out. As a director, I like to bring my heroes to the limit and imagine them in extreme situations; to put the protagonist before moral dilemmas. I did not make a film with long shots of refugees loaded on boats dotting the horizon; instead, I chose to focus on a family of four refugees and by setting off with what happens to their child, I wanted to show that they have the same feelings, the same problems with us. Viewers can identify with what it means to leave your daily life behind and fly into the unknown, uprooting yourself. Who wouldn't be afraid? Kids especially, who have no say in the matter of leaving their home. Their fear is immense, precisely because they have no choice. I made a film in a language I didn't speak, in Arabic, I had to do a lot of rehearsals and I went through the process of learning Arabic so that I could communicate at an elementary level. Moreover, the film is a one-take shot which was a big risk for me.
Every now and then filmmakers are criticized for exploiting sensitive issues. I did not make a film to exploit the pain of refugees; we see it constantly in the news, we read about it everywhere. I made a film about a family of refugees facing a moral and existential dilemma, something we all come across at some point when a difficult decision has to be made. As a filmmaker, I am free to discuss and make films about a subject or idea that I‘m passionate about. Just because I' m not a refugee, it does not mean I have no right to touch the refugee issue. Who determines what the artists will talk about? Ten years ago I made a film titled "I' m gay". Everyone thought I was gay and when I told them I wasn't, they were astonished and asked me how I could make a film about being gay when I’m not! And my response was “if I made a film about a murderer would you also ask me if I was a murderer”? Sometimes you see things more clearly from a distance. It is my job as an artist to understand people.
"Index", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2018)
Would you like to talk about your choice to shoot “Index” in a one take?
I took a very big risk. I took 19 shots and only the penultimate was successful. And while one shot was going well for example, shortly before the end the child would get caught in some spontaneous action and the shot would need to be redone. We had already performed some fifteen shots when production asked me to finish. But I insisted and told them I was going to do it! And we did!
"Fig", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2015)
In both “Fig” and “Index”, love wins. Do you believe in humanity and its ability to create loving relationships?
All my films talk about love and the power of love, irrespective of sex, religion or ethnicity. The power we have inside us and which we show at critical moments. This in-between space between life and death, where we want to say something but dare not, is very interesting for me as a scriptwriter and director; the dilemma of the middle-space. In my films I talk about humans, the power of love, respect and the need for human contact. I often talk about the person that never gives up even when everything goes wrong, the one that loves unconditionally. Humor is another feature of my work, to be found even in our darkest moments. For me, humor helps us breathe and that is why it is always present in my films.
"Fig", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2015)
What is your experience as a filmmaker moving between the two countries, Greece and Sweden, as regards funding and location?
There is no major difference when it comes to shooting. We speak the same cinematic language, thus there are no problems. Crews are professional both here in Sweden and Greece. The difference is in funding. International co-productions have become a common practice to find a budget.
"Fig", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2015)
In a way, the protagonists of both “Index” and “Fig” are modern Ulysses, wanderers. What is the role of the journey and quest in your work?
The refugee crisis is around us daily. We come across these present-day Ulysses characters daily. People still leave their countries and always will. Wars will never come to an end and there will always be forced population movements. In such cases, people care about their lives, not their home. And if you think about it well, all you are left with is the love for those around you. As a father myself, I inevitably wondered what it would be like if I were in their place with my child in danger. The journey for me starts from the conception of the idea to its realization. This is where I struggle as a creator to find the way to express the idea.
"Fig", dir. Nicolas Kolovos (2015)
What are your future plans?
I am currently directing a thriller series for Sweden's Radio Drama. I have also completed the script for a feature film which I hope to shoot in Greece. It's a comedy-drama about love.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Michael Herzfeld is one of today’s leading figures in the discipline of Social Anthropology; his main body of research has focused on identity construction in Greece, while in most recent years his work has also included ethnographic research in Italy and Thailand.
He is Ernest E. Monrad Research Professor of the Social Sciences at the Department of Anthropology of Harvard University; he is also IIAS Visiting Professor of Critical Heritage Studies at Leiden University, Chang Jiang Scholar and Visiting Professor at Shanghai International Studies University, and Professorial Fellow at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Melbourne, and holds academic affiliations at Thammasat University in Bangkok and the Università di Roma-I (“La Sapienza”). Before moving to Harvard, he taught at Vassar College and Indiana University. He has also held visiting appointments and affiliations at the University of Manchester, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the Università degli Studi di Padova, Shandong University (Jinan, China), Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Université de Paris-X (Nanterre), and has lectured at many institutions around the world. He holds honorary doctorates from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the University of Macedonia (Thessaloniki), and the University of Crete.
In addition to numerous articles and reviews, he has authored the following books: Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (1982), The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (1985), Anthropology through the Looking-Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe (1987), A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town (1991), The Social Production of Indifference: The Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy (1992), Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (1997), Portrait of a Greek Imagination: An Ethnographic Biography of Andreas Nenedakis (1997), Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society (2001), The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value (2004), and Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome (2009). His most recent monograph is Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok (2016). Several of his books have appeared, or are scheduled to appear in other languages (including Greek of course). He also filmed and produced Monti Moments: Men's Memories in the Heart of Rome (2007) and Roman Restaurant Rhythms (2011).
Greek News Agenda* had the opportunity to interview Professor Herzfeld on the key themes of his research on Greece, as well as on the broader aspects of his work and analysis.
Your long-standing research on modern Greece has brought forth the particular condition which the Greek state seems to be under since its creation in the 19th century: a sense of cultural ambiguity, along with an ostentatious adherence to western ideological precepts. To what extent do you consider this ambivalence relevant today?
I think the best way to answer is by means of language. Nowadays virtually no one speaks katharevousa or uses it consistently in writing, but it is always present, an ever-present and often ironic echo that can be used to claim authority, signal pomposity in an interlocutor, or simply to satisfy some criterion of elegance and balance in a sentence. It’s also more evident in formal situations – legal or bureaucratic documentation, for example. So while we can say that this artificial neo-classical language is no longer either the official language of the country or a regular mode of communication, it’s also true that it constantly reappears to tease our historical sensibilities and our sense of linguistic propriety. You can say much the same about the dual modalities of Greekness that emerged with Independence and formed the basis of most debates on the subject at least up to the fall of the military junta in 1974 – the tension between the Hellenic and Romeic models. To be sure, the latter term is heard less and less, but the sense of Greekness that most people seem to assume, more or less unconsciously most of the time, is the Romeic one, although the Western-inspired understanding of Greece’s classical roots remains to some extent in tension with this “culturally intimate” version of Greekness as well as with elements that have genuinely and undeniably persisted from ancient times though perhaps with forms, meanings, and geographical relevance very different from what the pre-1974 ultra-conservatives, for example, would ever have realized or admitted. As Greece today settles to its new role as a shining example (in a world showing signs of increasing authoritarianism) of a truly workable democracy, despite the flaws that many Greeks themselves admit, Greeks seem increasingly comfortable with a history that isn’t all helmets and heroism – that even embraces values and practices of which some Western Europeans would disapprove. Greeks today are asserting collective and individual dignity through new forms of inclusiveness and solidarity that also allow them to recognize cultural traces of the non-Western “other” in themselves. I think that this more relaxed understanding of their identity goes hand-in-hand with the strengthening of democratic institutions – especially the all-important alternation of parties of honestly differing ideological stripe, something that many Western countries are failing to achieve a comparable degree – and with the withering of the strident nationalism that in the past has so greatly embarrassed the country and made it vulnerable to geo-political pressures exerted by its so-called allies and protectors.
Some people think that the Hellenic-Romeic distinction isn’t so interesting any more, but I feel that they are missing the point – they are failing to see the still-influential shadow of what was really the core issue of my first book, Ours Once More (which, by the way, is being republished in an expanded an updated edition by Berghahn, something that I hope will contribute constructively to a more informed discussion of these matters).
Your work has introduced the term “crypto-colonialism” (a condition of nominal independence combined with geopolitical subjugation) in regards to Greek history. Could you expand on the contemporary relevance of the term as well as the qualitative differences between the Greek case and other “crypto-colonial” histories?
Greece today is ceasing to be crypto-colonial for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to think about why there has been so much resistance to the term in some quarters – a resistance that, like the fury generated by Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, speaks volumes about the attitudes that inform it. I’ve been accused, for example, of “orientalizing” Greece because I was struck by moments of claiming a “European identity” as a source of cultural pride. I wasn’t in fact denying that identity – people have the right to identify themselves as whatever they want – but the accusation of orientalism is, ironically, evidence of an orientalist reluctance on the part of some Greek conservatives to accept the idea that in respect of the history of its cultural politics, Greece can be compared to Asian countries such as Nepal, Iran, and, especially, Thailand. Why does it matter so much to them? Do they approve of the idea of “protecting the European way of life,” to cite a recent EU initiative? What do they understand by this? It’s the freedom to recognize, enjoy, and discuss cultural borrowings from a plethora of sources, and to see Greek influence elsewhere as well, that to my way of thinking represents the new strength of the country. And in that context, let’s indeed discuss what the heuristic and descriptive term “crypto-colonialism” brings together. For instance, there are clear parallels between the trajectories of the 1967 junta and the present-day Thai regime; there are also important differences. And it’s the play of similarity and difference, not some assumption of absolute similarity, that makes cultural comparison interesting and useful. I’ve never claimed that everything one could put under this label is somehow all the same. That would be counter-productive. But I do think it’s useful to get outside the usual boxes – for example, of “Mediterranean culture” (which is, by the way, an equally contested term, and I was perhaps one of the most active challengers of the concept in my early career, as you know). I’m not going to pretend that I don’t understand the attitudes that undergird the objections some have raised to the crypto-colonialism concept. On the contrary, it would be disingenuous to see those objections as unconnected to political ideology. Which, by the way, is absolutely within the moral rights of those who feel that way. But I think it is a retrograde and reactive attitude, a defensiveness of the kind that makes me suspect that these people actually know perfectly well what I’m talking about but that they consider that knowledge to be part of their “cultural intimacy” – that is, something not to be shared with obnoxious foreign critics! Or, for that matter, even with well-intentioned ones. The absolute refusal of some commentators even to contemplate the comparison with Thailand, for example – especially given the well-documented role the Thai students at Thammasat University played in 1973 in inspiring the student revolutionaries of the Athens Polytechnic – speaks for itself; and it’s not a healthy attitude for people claiming to be democratic. If they truly believed in democracy, they would at least be willing to discuss it, and wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.
Your writings on the European economic crisis have emphasized the importance of issues such as “cultural aggression” and “humiliation”. Do you suggest that in order to understand modern-day political conflicts (both international and domestic) we should pay more attention to the importance of symbolic conflicts and gestures?
Look, symbols are as material as tanks and guns and can sometimes do comparable harm. So let’s also recognize that Greece has suffered acute humiliation at the hands of its so-called friends, notably in the E.U. That, by the way, is another important point of comparison with Thailand, a country that has suffered numerous territorial losses thanks to great Power machinations in the 19th century and where its so-called friends have been so concerned to beat back the specter of communism that they had little respect for its national sovereignty. That should sound quite familiar to Greeks!
But to come to the point of your question: why must we separate the symbolic from the material? As an anthropologist, I feel an intellectual as well as an ethical obligation to push back against the perpetuation of Cartesian distinctions (especially because they also underlay the discrimination between supposedly fatalistic “natives” and proactive “Europeans”). The story of the Elgin Marbles is a perfect illustration of something that is both material (the marbles are, one presumes, quite solid!) and symbolic (and in my view have become symbolic of the humiliation that Greece suffered at the hands of the British). We can accept that Lord Elgin may have saved them from destruction, and we can debate the rights and wrongs of their remaining in the British Museum. But let’s not simply recycle the British argument that giving them to Greece – I prefer that term to “returning” them, since they were the possessions of heedless Ottoman officials at the time of their removal – would set a dangerous precedent. Repatriation is an increasingly common museum practice these days (here the United States seems to offer a rather positive illustration, even if it isn’t perfect). The point is to recognize that what one is doing is not so much handing over a material possession as righting a hurtful and consequential symbolic wrong. And the British attitude that represented the Greeks as incapable of careful stewardship is insulting, factually wrong, and – well, an equally dangerous precedent, one that should never have been set!
Your more recent ethnographic work in Italy and Thailand allows you to establish comparative observations with Greece. Regarding tourism and heritage conservation - commonly shared traits in all three countries - would you say that their importance has defined particular ways of self-perception for these societies, as well as their specific position in what you term “the global hierarchy of value”?
Dependence on tourism creates incentives for all sorts of manipulations of culture and often has the effect of reinforcing both the reality and the perception that all three countries, and many others, are not only client states but heavily dependent on tourism for economic survival. Italy, which also claims identity as an economic power in its own right, has a long tradition of catering to visitors thanks to the centrality of pilgrimage in its cultural profile; Thailand and Greece look like more recent arrivals and can’t claim a similar long and glorious history of providing for international religious visitors although both certainly do have important forms and sites of pilgrimage. So one effect of tourism is to reinforce a hierarchy that already existed and was largely imposed on the world by the Western colonial powers. At the same time, tourism does also provide economic support for people who might otherwise be in pretty bad shape. Take the case of Rethimno where, as you know, I have conducted extensive research. When I first worked there, local people seemed to have little or no interest in the historic character of their built environment. Not only did tourism change all that, as I’ve documented, but it seems that Rethimno got through the worst of the economic crisis much better than most of the rest of the country, including Athens. On the other hand, chasing tourists’ money can sometimes produce ingratiating forms of behavior that reinforce, once again, the sense that these people are dependent on crumbs from the tables of the rich, and locals lament the impact of commercialization on the social values of the past – a form of nostalgia that may be idealizing but that does nevertheless recognize genuine cultural change.
That may not always be the local perception, however, especially as the act of offering hospitality can symbolically reverse the relationship of dependency. Given the representation of tourism as a “hospitality industry” – a revealing expression that conjoins a moral value with a commercial one! – we can surmise, and there may be empirical evidence to support this idea, that local people actually come to feel superior to the tourists they are feeding, letting into their homes, and guiding around the sites. And Greeks conventionally dislike being subordinates of any kind; anthropologists have long noted the widespread resentment of being “employees,” the word for which in Greek literally means “underneath others.” In Italy, there is a much older tradition of taking pride in acts of service. And in Thailand any performance of personal humility accords well with Buddhist notions of self-abnegation – something very different from the self-regard, the eghoismos, that observers from my own teacher John Campbell on have viewed as integral to the Greek value system. So these local features produce different valuations of what it means to be a “tourist destination” and, as a result, different effects on the visitors’ experiences and a distinctive calibration in each case to the global hierarchy of value. That said, the global spread of neoliberalism does seem to flatten some of those contrasts.
In what ways do you argue social anthropology and the ethnographic method are of relevance in today’s academic landscape? What challenges do you see for anthropological research in the immediate future?
I’m very glad you asked that question! For me, anthropology is the discipline par excellence that offers comprehensive and robust responses to the evils of racism and intolerance. It’s also a discipline that has practiced reflexivity – self-awareness – in ways that, if they became habitual in politics and governance, would definitely make for a better world. I’d like to promote that idea in some of my future writings. What’s more, because ethnographers typically spend a long time in the field, they experience all sorts of situations that belie the huge generalizations we are asked to accept from other social scientists and from bureaucrats. So they are in a position of speaking truth to power – something I believe they should do more forcefully and more often than has been the case until now. That said, I also feel they should be careful not to abandon academic writing and long-term ethnographic research. Those things are the basis and source of their legitimacy as well as of their critical knowledge. If they fail to maintain those activities and the exacting standards that are required for them – excellence in language learning, adaptability under a wide range of cultural circumstances, a very thick skin and a robust sense of humor, and a huge curiosity about that miracle that is human diversity – they will yield to the self-fulfilling prophecies that are increasingly being served up to us in the form of audit packages. These, to clarify, include such absurd constructs as “impact factors” and that ill-defined but omnipresent concept called “excellence.” That might help us to resist (or at least to examine) those generalizations and predictions that anthropologists know from their practical experience simply don’t hold true in real life, but that can be made into a simulacrum of truth by cynical media management.
Anthropologists today are much more adventurous in their choices of field sites. I used to think that a good definition of power was the ability to keep anthropologists out! And perhaps that’s still true to some extent. But we have been able to study elites, powerful families, governments, planning bureaus… all sorts of sites of real social power. So that is a sea-change for the discipline, and one that has important consequences for the role we can play in the world. One dimension of this has been the emergence of robust studies of so-called “Western” societies as well as of technological and scientific sites of knowledge production. I find these developments very exciting, and I think they will also give greater heft to the ability of anthropologists to exert some degree of influence in the world – something that I believe, and not only because I’m an anthropologist myself, can only be beneficial.
I’d like to conclude with a comment about how anthropologists think about their work (or perhaps, to be honest, what I believe they should think about it!). We are an empirical discipline. That doesn’t make us empiricists. As you know, empeiria in ancient Greek meant experience; -ismos, or “-ism” in English, means the imitation of something. So the work we do is empirical; it’s based on real-life experience in real time and in real places (this also makes me, I would suggest, a genuine realist, someone who tries to model and understand a reality that is ultimately knowable only in imperfect ways). So I think we are in a good position to provide an academic critique of some of the economic, cultural, and social policies that are being imposed on whole populations. And the fact that we are an academic discipline is a strength, because academic freedom is a precious good that means we don’t have to accept others’ attempts to dictate what we say or think. Although some anthropologists do work for governments, NGOs, and other entities, and the work that they do there is often extremely useful, the fact that their discipline has a base in universities gives them a right, a mandate, and an obligation to be forthright in identifying that falsification of genuine knowledge – with all of the doubts that are necessarily attendant on knowledge – that too often pervades the world in which we live. Admitting the imperfection and provisionality of our knowledge is itself an important aspect of knowing.
*Interview by Dimitris Gkintidis
‘enasynena’ is a website which was created in spring 2018 as “a collection of poems and short films”, aiming at experimentation and the visualization of poetry. It is the joint effort of Giannis Sgouroudis, Katerina Mardiakioupi and Aggelos Koropoulis, who believe that “humans in their entirety are condemned to live poetically”. Giannis Sgouroudis was born in Athens in 1990. He has published two poetry collections Deja Vu (Αndy’s Publishers, 2014) and Stair Near the Sea (Thraca Books, 2015). His third book will soon by published by Koukoutsi Editions. Katerina Mardakioupi was born in 1988. She works as a lawyer and follows a post-graduate degree in Psychiatric Forensics at the Medical School of Athens. Aggelos Koropoulis is the man behind the website’s design.
Τhe “enasynena” team spoke to Reading Greece* about their website, which started as “a collection of poems and short films”, noting that their primary goal was for “enasynena“ to “serve as a platform for new poetic voices to be heard, while trying to match the image with words through video poetry”. They comment on the difficulties a new poet is faced with to have his/her work published, as well as on the role the social media play in this respect and conclude that “poetry will continue to be deeply personal in its social character, which is what makes poetry unique and universal at the same time”.
“enasynena” has been online for over a year now. What’s the story behind this venture of yours?
There is a story behind every venture. Some of them are quite long, worth being told and read; yet, ours is rather commonplace. The two of us (Katerina and John) met through the internet a few years ago. John liked a Pessoa quote in my facebook profile and sent me a friend request. I saw that he writes poetry and I accepted his invitation. Soon afterwards, we decided to meet in person and what followed came out of our common love for poetry. The idea to create a website that would serve as a platform for new poetic voices to be heard, while trying to match the image with words through video poetry, was actually John’s idea. We act as two persons in the same body, whose distinct reading preferences triggered the implementation of a venture that aims to give new poets the opportunity to be heard, while it will enable us not only to learn about them but also to enrich our knowledge about the poetry of previous decades.
At first both John and I were quite reluctant since were are more attracted to the magic of paper rather than to an online presence. But then we said – why not?. That’s how we met Aggelos, who undertook the website’s design, with an outstanding aesthetic result. We played long with the idea before deciding to go ahead with it, not so much because we came up with insurmountable difficulties, but rather because we wanted to create something worth reading and be sure that we can act as a team. FunFact! We now also have Angelos’ daughter, Sofia, as a binding thread, since we are going to be her godparents. One love can easily lead to another!
“enasynena is a collection of poems and short films. It aims at experimentation as well as at the visualization of poems and the creation of poetry videos for people who love both poetry and the cinema”. Tell us more.
“enasynena” started as a collection of poems and short films since what we primarily wanted was to offer poetry lovers something different and experimental, that is its visualization. Of course visual poetry is not something new; it has been tried by various new poets, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully. Herein lies the venture’s major difficulty. When words are powerful enough on their own, it’s quite risky trying to combine them with images. And, vice versa, images can have a tremendous power without words. So we focused on visualizing the works of new poets with respect primarily to the words. Our main focus of attention were words, to give them form based on how we felt when reading them. To attain our goal, we would of course have to recourse to other people, experienced in filmmaking and willing to help us with no financial gain since we have no economic resources to support our ideas. Taking all these into consideration, we have ‘frozen’ for now the idea of filming, without however abandoning it altogether.
During the tribute to Miltos Sachtouris, we tried for the first time as a team to implement our second goal, which was met with success. Takis Podaropoulos, the director of our first video poetry, loved the idea and offered both his personal time and energy to the goal, with no financial gain whatsoever. The same with Stavrina Poulou, who created the website’s introductory video. They both helped us move a step further with the demanding part of our project, and encouraged us for the rest. So, we do not abandon the idea of video poetry, but we are rather open to new co-operations and acquaintances with people willing to see their poems unfold in slow motion, behind the screen. We keep in touch with the cinema and the images we use to accompany the poems, not to mention the column by Dimitris Glyfos, titled zero-copy, with a snapshop of a movie of his choice along with his text.
You have recently organized two quite successful tributes to Miltos Sachtouris and Nikos Karouzos. What was the appeal especially among young people? What makes the poetry of these major post-war poets a recurrent point of reference for future generations?
The idea of tributes came up as a result of our decision to meet and come close to the people who support us, offering our own feeling for these post-war poets. The tribute to Nikos Karouzos came first, and Miltos Sachtouris followed. Both tributes, which were quite distinct as to their content, took place at the foothills of Acropolis, at the welcoming Little Tree Books n Coffee. Regarding Nikos Karouzos, the idea revolved around poems written by new poets on the occasion of the words of the poet himself ‘I enjoy craze, it ridicules the existence’. The response of young people to this call, to write inspired by the writings of another poet, was quite warm; maybe not so warm, since writing by order is not the easiest thing in the world. Yet the appeal of the tribute to mostly young people was something that we couldn’t have imagined. The bookstore was packed, both inside and out, and the smiles of the people there warmed not only our hearts, but the Poet’s as well, who may have been watching us from somewhere. The most moving part of the night was the presence of Karouzos’ last partner, the painter Eva Bey, who learned about the tribute by chance and decided to come, which made us quite nervous. Her warm hug in the end and her words were the best award we could have expected.
The tribute to Miltos Sachtouris followed almost six months later. The starting point was different, yet our energy remained the same. This time, we attempted to experiment more actively with video poetry and thus we decided to read Sachtouris’ own poems in a place in Metaxourgeio and let Takis Podaropoulos, an experienced director, film them. He liked the idea and helped us with the video, which was officially presented during the night of the tribute. (The video is available on our site and can be freely accessed). Poets we love and admire read Miltos Sachtouris’ poems each in his/her own tone, and brought us closer to the vibrations of words. The second tribute took place in the same bookstore, and the presence of people of all ages was quite promising as well.
Let’s not forget that it’s not always easy to approach somebody and read them poetry, but this was our goal. Poetry carries such beauty, you simply have to touch it (and let it touch you) in the right places. We don’t know if there are recurrent points of reference. There may be but when you deal with poets who lived because they wrote, it’s not at all necessary. To use the words of Eva Bey at the tribute, art doesn’t wait. You cannot put your creativity on hold to have children, earn money, gather degrees. Art happens the moment you feel it, and this may be its point of reference.
Your website offers a chance to young poets to have their voice heard. Which are the main challenges new writers face nowadays in order to have their work published? What role do the social media play in the promotion of new literary voices?
Our website indeed offers a chance to young poets to have their voice heard, as so many other webpages, some of which we really admire for their exceptional work. As for the difficulties a new poet is faced with to have his/her work published, we reckon that money constitutes the main obstacle. Publishing houses in Greece are one too many. Some among them have no publication standards as long as money is paid, and thus a writer is at a loss whether he/she was published because he/she has something worth read or was just published because he/she paid the money. Of course you don’t need somebody to tell you that you write well since writing goes hand in hand with subjectivity and you have to believe in what you write, but we reckon that this is not always the case. In addition, a writer’s anguish to be accepted by readers is most frequently there and we should bear in mind that poetry needs time to make good. We are optimistic that beautiful words are never lost. The social media can certainly help a young poet, but they can quite easily tear him/her down. That’s what the internet does. It depends on how one uses it.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares to mention just a few. How is this strong civic awareness to be explained? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
Many people support that poetry’s strong social presence is directly linked to the crisis our country is faced with in all fields. In turbulent eras, history itself have shown that arts blossom since people are looking for ways to escape from reality into something more tender and intangible that only imagination can offer. It may be the crisis, or maybe our need for a more substantial contact with our inner self and the others, that have put poetry in the forefront: on walls and public squares. Yet, poetry will continue to be deeply personal in its social character, and that’s what makes poetry unique and universal at the same time. After all poetry has always been present in our everyday life. We simply were not so alert and it escaped our attention. Nikos Alexis Aslanoglou quite eloquently responded to the question as to whether poetry can offer new ways to imagine radically different realities. To use his words: Poetry doesn’t change our life/ the same constriction, the knot of rain / the mist above the city as it gets dark. / It cannot stop a decay that has gone deep / it doesn’t cure our old mistakes./ Poetry delays the transformation/ it makes our everyday act more difficult. And we tend to agree with him.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
An old "honour" crime inspired Greek composer Dimitra Trypani to create The silent one, a work of experimental music theatre intended as an "alternative requiem", a contemporary choral ode. The play, which premiered at the Paxos Music Festival on 9 September 2019, will be presented at the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera on 11-13 October 2019.
The silent one – a contemporary khorikòn is based on actual events that took place around 1850 in a poor Greek village: a young woman, Milia, was murdered by her father and brothers for having "shamed her family" when, on her wedding night, she is discovered not to be a virgin. The story unfolds in an atemporal setting, a Dantean limbo inhabited by forgotten souls. By assuming responsibility for their horrid act, the characters find their way to atonement and redemption.
In this work, Trypani perfects the compositional tool she has been developing for twelve years, which has become a characteristic element of her aesthetic: the almost absolute elimination of "seams" between text and music, through the integration of the text into the music score. The poetic text was written by acclaimed writer, poet and journalist Pantelis Boukalas. The silent one is a co-production with the Paxos Music Festival, with the support of the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation and the Hildegard Behrens Foundation. Performances will feature English surtitles.
Dimitra Trypani studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Nigel Osborne and Greek literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. As a composer, she focuses on the creation of interdisciplinary music performances, using strictly structured polyrhythmic and heterophonic patterns both in music and speech. She has collaborated with acclaimed orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists. Works of hers have been performed in many countries (including the UK, Germany and the USA) at several important venues.
She is the founder and main composer of the NQR Ensemble, an experimental music group based in Athens, while for the past seven years she has been Composer in Residence at the Paxos Music Festival. She has taught composition, ear training and interdisciplinary music practices in various universities in Greece and the UK. She is currently working as an assistant professor at the Department of Music Studies of the Ionian University, Greece. Greek News Agenda interviewed* Dimitra Trypani on the occasion of the presentation her work at the Greek National Opera.
You have been Composer in Residence at the Paxos Music Festival for the past seven years. How did this collaboration begin?
The collaboration with the Paxos Festival began in 2013 while I was Lecturer at the University of Cumbria in England. I received a proposal then from a former colleague of mine from the Ionian University – Petros Andriotis – who was involved with the Paxos Festival, to run a children’s workshop on the island of Paxos on account of my prior involvement with music educational projects. Being away from Greece for the second time in that period of my life and having heard how beautiful the island was, I immediately agreed. So, my first collaboration with the Festival was not as a composer in residence but as a workshop conductor. Because of the success of that first project, we decided with Faye Lychnou – the "soul" of the Paxos Festival – that our project for the following year would be an original music theatre work for a children’s choir which was performed in 2014 by the Paxiot children of the workshop. With that work, my collaboration as a composer in residence with the Paxos festival officially started and so far it has produced seven very successful contemporary music theatre works, with the participation of prominent Greek classical musicians, which have been performed both in Paxos and in Athens, and also various other festivals around Greece.
What is it that drew you to the story of The silent one? Was it your own initiative or did someone propose the subject to you?
The story of The silent one is based on a real story that belongs to my family from my father’s side. It happened, as far as I can gather, about four to five generations ago, thus circa 1850s. I used to listen to this story from my parents while I was growing up, who also used to hear it from my grandmother, so in a way, this story – unfortunately very grim and very true – came to me in the form of a legend. I always knew that I would tell this story to people at some point in my life, but I did not know when and how. So finally this time has come to share and communicate, through The silent one, the many levels of its reading.
What was your creative process? Was Pantelis Boukalas’ libretto based on music you had already composed?
The creative process for The silent one began for me two to three years ago with a lengthy research on ritual lament in Greek folk tradition and especially Maniot lament – where the story comes from. Anthropologist Christos Varvantakis helped me with his PhD research on the lamenting rituals in Inner Mani. With Pantelis Boukalas, we spent four very productive months from September till December 2018 researching, discussing, exchanging notes, thoughts, material etc. in order for Pantelis to understand the background of the story and its surrounding environment, to establish all the missing pieces in order to creatively fill them and also for us to decide together what this performance was really all about. Thus the music was written after the text was finished and after Pantelis was gracious enough to allow me to add a prologue and an epilogue that I constructed in colláge form, based on excerpts from his previous excellent book O Mantis (The Prophet). Moreover, I would not call Pantelis’ text a "libretto" as I would not call The silent one an "opera". Pantelis wrote a poem and I created a contemporary Greek khorikòn.
Why did you choose to place your story in an atemporal setting? Did you want your narration to distance itself from the specific socio-historical context of the actual crime?
First of all, you are right in the deliberate distancing of the narration from the specific time-space of the actual event of the crime, through the atemporal setting. But this is not just any atemporal setting. My idea for our characters - who bore many resemblances and shared many characteristics with characters from Greek tragedies - was that we find them in Dante’s limbo, so we do not see them but we see their souls, or even better, we sense and listen to their souls. They are still in Limbo where they have to really remember what they have done and fully reconstruct their memory of the horrible crime in order to mourn, repent and forgive themselves so that they can proceed to the state of forgetting, of cleansing their memory of all the darkness, sorrow and pain that this deed has caused them. Therefore, the atemporal setting is also a setting that denotes this other world, Dante’s world, but also any world where a woman or man cannot free themselves from the pain of a very personal loss.
The work is described in its title as a "contemporary khorikòn" – the Greek word for a Greek drama’s choral part. Were you influenced by the structure of Greek tragedy?
I was not influenced so much by the structure of the Greek tragedy as much as I was from the overall characteristics of the genre. The fact that it was a religious community ritual –as is for example a wake – the grief and pain sung, shouted or whispered by the heroes and shadows of Greek tragedy, the immense power of the melodic contour and the rhythm of the language, all these have contributed to The silent one’s inner core.
Your original score for the animation film "THE OX" by director Giorgos Nikopoulos was a nominee for the Best Soundtrack in Feature Film category, in the European Animation Awards "Emile Awards" 2018. Had you ever worked for a film before? What were the challenges of working for an animated feature?
The Ox was my first soundtrack for a full feature film and an animation film, so we were very happy with Giorgos Nikopoulos that our first collaborative work went so well on a national but even more an international level. There are extremely many challenges in working for an animated feature in that the music has a much stronger presence than in a normal film, especially if the animation has no dialogue – which was the case in The Ox. I think though that it helped immensely that Giorgos and I worked very closely on and "mapped" -minute by minute I dare say- the relationship between the film and the music, and that was very much appreciated in all the festivals the film went to.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi (Photos from the performance taken from The silent one's Facebook page)
Read also via Arts in Greece: Vassilis Karamitsanis "The Greek National Opera has decisively entered a digital path"; Composer Minas Borboudakis on his work in 21st-century classical music; Nikolas Karagiaouris on the past, present and future of Greek opera
Panayotis Ioannidis was born in 1967 in Athens, where he now lives. He has published three poetry books (all by Kastaniotis Editions): The lifesaver, 2008; Uncovered, 2013; Poland, 2016; a fourth, Rhinoceros, is forthcoming. His poems have appeared in two English-language anthologies, T. Chiotis’ Futures (Penned in the margins, 2015) and K. Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures (Penguin 2016; NYRB Books, 2017), two German ones, and several (Greek, English, Swedish, and Turkish) journals. He is poetry editor for the monthly “The Books’ Journal”; on the editorial board of the biannual journal for poetry, theory and the visual arts, “FRMK”; curates the monthly poetry readings, “Words (can) do it”; and translates English-language poetry (S. Heaney, R. Creeley, T. Gunn, D. Harsent, a.o.).
© Themis Zafeiropoulos
He has also collaborated with visual artists (e.g. at the 2nd Athens Biennale) and teaches poetry as creative writing to children (e.g. in educational programmes of the Onassis Foundation’s Cavafy Archive) and adults (at the British Council, Athens). His personal English-language blogs is called “Spring’s treefellers”. Some of his poems may be found in English translations online at “Greek Poetry Now!” and “poets.gr”.
Panayotis Ioannidis spoke to Reading Greece* about the main issues his poetry delves into, noting that his books were “strictly conceived as architectural and musical structures”, and that “irrespective of the quite different terms of birth of each book”, there is that “over-arching, almost obsessive quest to highlight, to ‘immortalise’ the moment through words”. Asked about his venture, “Words (can) do it”, he explains that it sprang from a twin root: “the firm belief in, and deep enjoyment of poetry as an art of sounds…requiring auditory presentation, and the conviction that poetry is best enjoyed straight…and from the source: the people who write it”.
He comments that “contemporary Greek poetry is currently flourishing: the increasing number of good poems published in journals is proof enough”, noting however that he would greatly “hesitate to equate a burgeoning of any art with an increased civic awareness’”, and adds that “successful ‘interweavings’ or collaborations between different arts…are rare – unless, of course, they result in, and obey a new art form: the theatre, for example, or opera”. He concludes that “the newer generations of Greek writers are generally quite conversant with other linguistic environments”. Yet, “how and to what extent this will result in better Greek writing, it would certainly be quite complicated, and is probably too early to assess”.
Which are the main issues your poetry delves into? Are there recurrent themes in your writings?
Whether due to my belief that the author's view of her or his own work does not matter in the least –or matters as much as any reader's– or simply out of an old-fashioned sense of decorum, I am generally, usually, reticent to speak about my own poems, and find the prospect rather ungraceful. However, since, in one of your other questions, you pick up on the element of a self-imposed wager in translation, I might as well accept this one too: to translate my own work of words into another set of my own words.
My first four books have been composed of poems that were written without a conscious plan in mind – which, however, does not make these books “collections”: they are strictly conceived, as architectural and musical structures. (Some poems they contain have had to wait for years before finding their appropriate place in a book; others never did). The first one, The lifesaver (Kastaniotis Editions, 2008), is principally a coming-of-age book: recollections and meditations on childhood, adolescence and early youth experiences culminate in a tripartite requiem for a loved person (who was also a poet). The book's title is quite eloquent, I think, as to its intentions: how much of life can poems salvage and redeem? Is there any substance in the hope that poems might also work as life-saving devices?
Poland: Artwork by Nikos Kryonidis, Uncovered: Engraving by Bedrich Glaser, The Lifesaver: Engraving by Monika Zawadzka
The second book –whose title I have tended to translate as Uncovered, but A.E. Stallings' rendering as Unsheltered is equally interesting– also declares its intentions on the front cover: an opening up in, and –it seemed to me– a more daring approach to form, style and subject matter. Whereas the Lifesaver's poems had been chiselled –if not indeed sand-papered– over many years to the minutest (in my capacity) detail of word choice and position, in Uncovered (Kastaniotis Editions, 2013), I felt I was allowing myself a freer form, with phrases becoming more supple as well as the compositional unit instead of, previously, words; humour surfacing more evidently; etc.. A widening of the field (in the photographic as well as in the poetic sense) and a trying-out of different techniques, are some, I think, of its features. Vassilis Dioskouridis, editor extraordinaire, had pronounced it a book about a “fall”. I had found this opinion –as all his opinions– fascinating, but had not dared ask what he meant. Perhaps, though, this also fits the title and my thoughts when choosing it, since, in Greek, it is at once an adjective (as translated above), but also a noun denoting the back-yard of a tall building of flats: tiny, usually, on its own, but, when combined with that of other buildings on the same block, forming quite a large 'neutral' space, allowing surprising views of dull as well as unexpected moments, and forming a rather unusually spectacular interface between the private and the public. Equally, allowing various falls (from the surrounding balconies): of clothes, children's toys, humans on occasion.
Poland (Kastaniotis Editions, 2016) arose to a large extent from, and is coloured overall by my love and study of Polish history and culture – which inevitably also means that of Europe beyond countries (such as Lithuania, Sweden, Germany and Russia, to name but four that appear in the book) with close historical ties to Poland. The book contains personal responses to historical and artistic moments, as well as enquiries into my own position with regard to the past and the present (Europe's included). While I was finishing this book, it dawned on me that my interest in Poland (a country and people with surprising similarities to my own) may have been a response to the 'Greek Crisis', fuelling in me a hunger for History.
Formally, I feel it is closer to the tightly knit Lifesaver – whereas the upcoming, fourth book, Rhinoceros (Duehrer's, not Ionesco's), is, in this respect, a ‘second’ Uncovered. Even if Rhinoceros, too, did not start being written with a clear, or at least a conscious, intent, much like with Poland, I soon realised that it was crystallising around two obvious nuclei: the importance of art in, and for life; and death – which has nevertheless been stubbornly in the background, when not plainly in the foreground, of all my books, it seems to me. Art, not in its aesthetic role – but art as made of the selfsame flesh as life itself. (And I do mean “made” rather than “being”.) As if William Blake's phrase “The Whole Business of Man is the Arts” were literally true – and the sheer fact of death, one of the reasons for its being true.
Nevertheless, it is becoming quite clear to me that, irrespective of the quite different terms of birth of each book, there are indeed recurrent themes in all four: animals, for example – many insects, but also birds, and mammals; music; not least, the over-arching, almost obsessive quest to highlight, to 'immortalise' the (humble or revelatory, though frequently the two coincide) moment through words. More often than not, this seems to me a vain attempt (which clearly makes me a recidivist). As vain, perhaps, as this attempt at describing my own work – which hopefully will not have drained it of all interest.
It would have been far easier –and briefer– for me to speak of my other writing: the essays (the first published one being an improvisation on a theme from an essay by G.K. Chesterton), or the pieces of criticism, which are always labours of love: from overviews of Zissimos Lorentzatos' essays and Helias C. Papadimitrakopoulos' short stories, to, in recent years, more or less extensive reviews of books by contemporary Greek poets.
In 2011 you founded “Words (can) do it”, which comprise not only readings by Greek poets of different generations but also readings of foreign poetry both in the original and its Greek translation. What’s the idea behind this venture?
“Words (can) do it” [Me ta loyia (yinetai); 'mtlg' for short] sprang, in December 2011, from a twin root. From the firm belief in, and deep enjoyment of poetry as an art of sounds, therefore not only suited to, but also requiring auditory presentation; and the conviction that poetry is best enjoyed straight –no music or other 'accompaniments'– and from the source: the people who write it. There were, of course, predecessors and inspirations: the plain authors' readings that are the rule in the English-speaking world where I have lived (as opposed to the Greek norm of critic- and journalist-heavy 'book presentations'), and the small-group, workshop-like, “Contemporary Poetry Readings” that Yorgos Hantzis' curated in Athens from 2006 to 2009, upstairs at the “Dasein” cafe.
I felt that there was both reason and space to combine the two approaches: to allow poets and poetry translators to read from, and talk about their own work – in the presence of the widest possible general audience. And I like to think that 'mtlg''s itinerary so far, as well as its attendance scores, vindicate the conviction that poetry, like any art, may be deeply enjoyed by anyone who is willing to dedicate a little of their time to concentrate on what they hear, in a space and conditions (ideally offered since 2012 by the Hellenic American Union) that allow and encourage it.
It is each time a great pleasure and a considerable honour to dream up –as a match-maker of sorts– appropriate pairs of poets and invite them to present their poetic 'self-portraits'. And it would seem that some of the matches have been a pleasant, unexpected and fruitful surprise to poets and audience alike. In addition, 'mtlg' has provided the ground and occasion, again both for poets and audiences, to study anew, revisit and re-appraise Greek poets of the past, along two directions. On the one hand, poets who may not have, in the current discourse and readership, the prominence they deserve (such as Takis Papatsonis, Eleni Vakalo, Zoe Karelli); and, on the other, well-known poets but from a slanted viewpoint: Cavafy beyond the 'canon' of 154 poems; Karyotakis with, rather than above, his contemporaries; or events where contemporary poets render an homage to older poets through especially written poems 'inspired by' them; for example, by Andreas Kalvos or Nikos Engonopoulos.
The insistence that, for our March “Poetry Month” events focused on American poets, poet-translators, rather than (however excellent) translators who are not poets themselves, produce and read –alongside the originals read by native speakers– fresh translations (so far: of E. Dickinson, W.C. Williams, R. Frost, E. Pound, M. Moore, E. Bishop, R. Duncan), is founded on the knowledge that poets are best placed to understand the mechanism inside each poem, and therefore more able to render it into their own language. In addition, our other foreign poetry events that are dedicated to translators' self-portraits, and where poems are also read in the original (again, to honour the importance of poetry's sound structure), have showcased important work written in French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, as well as Ancient Greek, and English.
I trust that all of the above has rendered abundantly clear how much 'mtlg' is a communal project, whose success relies on the contributions of a scrupulously selected but continuously enriched circle of talented and hard-working poets. As for its audience, this is further expanded through the publication of the translations of American poetry and of other homages in the monthly “The Books' Journal”.
You are also an editorial board member of “FRMK”, a literary magazine aiming to explore the poetic phenomenon in its entirety. What differentiates FRMK from similar magazines?
When “FRMK”'s editor in chief, Katerina Iliopoulou, invited me to join its founding editorial board, I was only too happy to become a member of a fellowship of poets and translators whose work I esteem. As K.I. has herself said on various occasions, “FRMK”'s individuality arises firstly from its scope: Greek poets born from 1960 onwards, foreign poets from the latter half of the 20th c. to this day; also theory and essays on art in general; and a thorough embracing of the visual arts – and secondly from its editorial approach, based on committed group work. The most spectacular, even for us who carried it out, evidence for, and result of this approach was issue 11: to all intents and purposes an anthology of 41 Greek poets through poems that engage with the political (and not simply with politics, current or otherwise, a slippery road to take, that seldom doesn't result in fatal accidents), preceded by a substantial introduction presenting our principles, aims, methods, and overall view of the subject; and followed by several artists' and theorists' views. Both the anthology and its introduction were based on unanimous decisions: this obviously meant occasionally yielding to each other's particular predilections, always within the limits already set by our mutual respect for each other's very different work and outlook, coupled with our common commitment to (I would almost be tempted to say militancy for) the cause of poetry.
It is therefore a great pleasure to see “FRMK”'s audience grow steadily, in both numbers (buying our print issues and assisting at our various events) and loyalty – as well as to see our journal recognised by the State Literary Awards for 2016.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares, to mention just a few. How is this strong civic awareness to be explained?
I agree that contemporary Greek poetry is currently flourishing: the increasing number of good poems published in journals is proof enough. However, I cannot entirely share this question’s view. Please allow me to note (a little aphoristically, by necessity, within the present compass) that not every text presented as poetry is necessarily worthy of this name. Similarly, not every mode of presentation, however 'modern', 'innovative', or “audience-friendly” it may appear, is suited to the enjoyment and appreciation of poetry. Equally, I would greatly hesitate to equate a burgeoning of any art with an increased “civic awareness”. Though making art and civic behaviour share obviously vehicles (humans), occasionally stances (ideas), and sometimes instruments (language), the relative weighting of these stances and the specific use of these instruments are clearly distinct and should be distinguished between the two fields. Using the aesthetic to serve politics or, conversely, allowing politics to direct the aesthetic, not only defeat the particular purposes and functions of art and politics alike, but more often than not quite nullify any effect either of them may have otherwise had. (A quick and easy indication of this statement's truth appears once we remind ourselves that both these distortions have always been the hallmarks of absolutist regimes, regardless of hue.) I fear that these few severe-sounding statements must suffice within the limited space of this interview; my co-authors and I have treated this subject quite extensively in our collective book of essays A conversation about poetry now (FRMK Editions, 2018) as well as in the aforementioned introduction to issue 11 of “FRMK”.
Ηοw does poetry interweave with other artistic forms in the work of an increasing number of writers in recent years?
Again, this is an area that we have variously considered in A conversation about poetry now (FRMK Editions, 2018). Very briefly, I would say that artistically successful “interweavings” or collaborations between different arts (by the same or by more than one artists) are rare – unless, of course, they result in, and obey a new art form: the theatre, for example, or opera. The effort is nevertheless both tempting and, as you imply, trendy. Success depends on the breathing-together of the two art(ist)s, but ultimately requires the subjugation, however slight, of one art by the other. We may recall that great poetry has very rarely been set to music (at least to produce an important work of 'song'). Similarly, in, say, an installation comprising of both visual art works and texts, it is the general physical, therefore primarily visual, aspect of the work that will carry it – otherwise, the work flatly falls to the state of a decorated reading room. There are however, it seems to me, two fields sown with fewer landmines: poetry in performance, in essence a modified, enriched, more variously inspired recitation; and poetry coupled to photography (or cinema), thanks to the two arts sharing a number of internal processes, and possibly also thanks to the apparently 'mechanical'-'objective' aspect of the visual elements appearing complementary to, rather than repetitive of, or conflicting with the seemingly more 'human'-'subjective' aspect of the spoken or printed word.
Cover by Yannis Isidorou Drawing by Vaggelis Artemis
“I only translate poetry which, at the time, I so much like that I am willing to accept a wager”. Tell us more.
Well, as I said above, my criticism is always a labour of love. (I espouse Borges' view that we should not spend any effort on negative criticism: we should do our best to talk about only works that we love and understand; perhaps the works that we don't, will be better presented by people who do.) The same holds true of my translations: I only translate poems that I like – or, more often, love. From the first-published –in 1995, poems by Seamus Heaney to celebrate his award of the Nobel Prize– to everything that followed: substantial selections from Thom Gunn's and Robert Creeley's oeuvre; Andrew Motion's masterful “Independence”; poems from David Harsent's Night and Fire Songs and from A.E. Stallings' Olives; a.o..
Due to the oral / aural dimension of poetry I have previously dwelt on, poems for me have a corporeality. Consequently, I experience the love for a poem as a wholly bodily sensation: not simply as intellectual enjoyment, but a much fuller one, where the senses have their due part. Now, love of this sort, eros if you like, is almost a hunger for assimilation, and may result in some kind of reproduction. Therefore, when I set out to translate a poem, it is because of the desire to assimilate it so completely within my linguistic self, that I might then be able to reproduce it in another language. To put it more prosaically, the “wager” consists of seeing whether the transposition to a new language can result in a poem that is also worth loving. Thus, when translating (or, more accurately, in the translations I end up publishing, since, inevitably, some attempts will, sadly, have been abortive), I try to give the new body of the poem, limbs of similar grace and moving in similar harmony to those of the loved prototype. In less fantastical terms, while the exact reproduction of line length, rhyme, alliteration and other 'musical' effects would be, if not impossible, certainly detrimental to the translation (only twins, and then rarely, can wear the exact same clothes and look good in them), it is both possible and desirable to invent and produce their analogues in the new language. (The same is also true of puns, for example, or idioms.)
But love operates in many directions – and my love of some Greek poems conquered my hesitation at not having been born and raised bilingual, when I accepted the kind invitation of Kiriakos Spirou, founding curator of Und.Athens – which consists of an exquisitely printed map of art spaces and a beautiful, constantly updated English-language site on contemporary Greek visual arts– to curate Und.Poetry, a monthly series of poems translated in English (usually by myself) and commented on, with the view of appealing to an audience whose primary interest is in another art form.
How does the new generation of writers relate to world literature? How does the local/national interweave with the global?
All great Greek poets –I believe, without exception– have been fluent in languages other than Greek, and engaged with literatures other than the Greek one (this is probably true for writers in every language). So, while it is imperative that writers should study their own tradition (after all, language is a writer's material and instrument), it is also desirable, and welcome, that they should similarly study other traditions and follow the work of their contemporaries in other languages. This will be enriching at the very least; at best, it can prove transformative: a literal cross-fertilisation. And it seems to be true that the newer generations of Greek writers are generally quite conversant with other linguistic environments. How and to what extent this will result in better Greek writing, it would certainly be quite complicated, and is probably too early to assess.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Nikolas Karagiaouris is a baritone with a rich repertoire and multiple collaborations with some of Greece’s most important artists and institutions, such as the Greek National Opera. Born in Patras, he studied violin and piano at the Municipal Conservatory of Patras, and completed his Vocal Music and Drama studies at the Athens Conservatory.
Karagiaouris has won prizes in opera competitions in Athens and Thessaloniki, and earned a scholarship from the Greek Wagner Association to participate in the Bayreuth fellowship programme (2012). His repertoire includes major roles in operas such as The Magic Flute, Carmen, The Elixir of Love, La Bohème, etc., as well as in religious music works by Handel, Rossini, Bach and Fore, while he has also appeared in roles in Greek operettas and contemporary Greek operas.
Greek News Agenda spoke* to Nikolas Karagiaouris on the history of Greek opera, as well as his thoughts on the genre’s future.
You have starred (in 2014 and again in 2016) in The Murderess, an important contemporary Greek opera, by composer Giorgos Koumendakis, who has also been the artistic director of the Greek National Opera (GNO) since 2016. What were the particularities of such a performance, taking into consideration the unique character of an opera with a Greek libretto and musical influences from Greek folk tradition?
The Murderess has been one of my happiest experiences on stage. Contemporary Greek opera is a rare and precious thing that has been thankfully met with well-deserved enthusiasm in recent years.
When a classical singer performs in his native language, he inevitably brings with him the resonance, the lived experience and emotions of an entire musical tradition, which is, in my opinion, what has set Greek opera apart for the last 150 years and made it so charged. Let's not forget that the first Greek opera was The Parliamentary Candidate by Spyridon Xyndas from Corfu, in 1867. Other composers followed later, mainly of the Ionian School.
The GNO has since commissioned and staged more Greek language productions, often of an equally experimental character, with remarkable success. Do you think that Greek opera has a big future ahead of it?
Greek opera may not draw on a long tradition compared to French, Italian or German works, yet it has given us true gems. Our country is full of extremely talented composers who have freed themselves from pointless comparison and have found a voice of their own, drawing inspiration from the richness of Greek history, including Modern Greek history, as is the case of Pavlos Carrer with his works Marco Bozzari, Despo, Frosini etc. I am very optimistic about the future of Greek opera.
Long before the current momentum enjoyed by Greek opera, Greek musical theatre was associated with operetta, an extremely popular genre at the beginning of the 20th century that had gradually lost its appeal in the age of television. Lately however it appears to be making a comeback – a recent example being the production The princess of Sazan (1915) by Spyridon-Filiskos Samaras, in which you also starred, last June. Do you think there is really a re-appreciation of this genre? Has the audience’s interest in such works revived?
In its heyday, the Greek operetta was the most popular type of music. It’s no coincidence that it stood the test of time, as many tunes coming from there have been embedded in our collective memory and are still hummed by younger generations today. It deals with familiar themes and emotions, so for me its revival was just a matter of time.
Do younger viewers show interest in such works? Having significant experience with Greek operettas, what would you say are their defining features?
As spectators, when we listen to musical themes that we can memorise, and when these conform to the vocal standards of the opera, we are usually impressed and flattered. This combination is in my opinion the catalyst that gives operettas their unique character and makes them so popular.
Do modern productions usually try to remain faithful to the spirit of the epoch, or do they introduce innovative elements?
I feel that the only loyalty owed by any creator is to the lyrics and music; in short, to the composition, the music notation. I believe it’s almost impossible to remain faithful to the spirit of a bygone time alone. Each staging becomes interesting when it is imbued with the particular perception, spirit, aesthetics and philosophy of its contributors.
You have also starred in more popular productions, from children's operas to musicals by N. Karvelas, next to Anna Vissi, as well as a TV show. Do you believe that a wide range in repertoire is an added quality as opposed to the strict observance of what is often associated with the practice of high art, which perhaps leads to elitism?
I have the utmost admiration for my colleagues who remain committed exclusively to the opera. They are an inspiration to me and I consider them blessed. But for me personally, what weighs more is the notion of change and adventure.
In every music genre I was lucky to have worked with people who love and honour their art. In this light, I am proud of all my collaborations so far; I have learnt a lot from them, forged my technique and expanded my range of experience.
After all, talking about quality and commercialism, lowbrow and highbrow can lead to an endless and, in my opinion, pointless discussion. What counts for me is doing one’s work with passion and devotion.
You have stated in an earlier interview that every time you take up a part it becomes your favourite and you find it difficult to choose between them. Having played so many parts, do you not you feel like maybe one of them has proved particularly defining?
I suspect that the reason I have difficulty answering this question and picking out one part is perhaps this: in my consciousness and memory, it’s not so much the part itself that I keep, but rather the music, the essence of my collaborations and the extent of my transformation.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi (All photos ©Irene Smaili Photography)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Vassilis Karamitsanis "The Greek National Opera has decisively entered a digital path"; Composer Minas Borboudakis on his work in 21st-century classical music; Vangelis Hatziyannidis: "Writing for an opera was like a puzzle I really enjoyed"
Contemporary Chinese poet, essayist, literary critic, novelist, editor, photographer, documentary filmmaker, and university professor, Yu Jian (1954— ) was born and raised in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Arguably the most prolific Chinese language poet of our time, he is widely recognized as one of the foremost poets of his generation. His numerous publications, which span more than three decades and various literary genres, include the landmark five-volume Collected Yu Jian (Yunnan People’s Publishing, 2004), the four-volume Selected Essays of Yu Jian (Shaanxi Normal University Press, 2010), and more recently Who Is He: Poems 2007-2011 (Chongqing University Press, 2013).
Yu Jian’s writings have been translated into fourteen languages, including English as well as major European and Asian languages. Among his documentaries are Hometown (2009) and Jade Green Station (in collaboration with anthropologist Zhu Xiaoyang, 2003), both of which constitute a cinematic expression that allows Yu Jian to extend his poetic, humanistic vision to his ongoing ecological, socio-political, and cultural concerns about life in Yunnan. A regular guest at major poetry festivals, Yu Jian has held lectures and readings at leading universities and literary venues worldwide. He has lived his whole life in his native city, Kunming.
On the occasion of the 1st International Crete Poetry Festival, Yu Jian spoke to Reading Greece about his multi-faceted literary work, noting that his poems “are all about the theme of how I live and and how I am present in my own time” and that “each era has its own language, which is a kind of miracle made by humans that could transcend time and be present all the time”.
Asked about contemporary Chinese poetry, he comments that “it is very active” and that “there are many poetic propositions such as avant-garde, colloquialism, intellectual writing, postmodern poetry, language poetry and so on”. As for the political nature of poetry, he explains that “if art originates from shaman, then politics is one of the characteristics of art, or art is a kind of supervision or modification of politics”, and concludes that “poetry represents the highest requirement for language”, “it allows us to sustain a transcendence through language…the transcendence of definite reality”.
An author, an essayist, a literary critic, an editor, a photographer, a documentary filmmaker, a university professor. Where do all these attributes meet?
There is no clear classification for different types of writing in Chinese culture. Authors are all called "literati". "To write", as a verb, represents the highest relationship between a certain language and the world. It is used to illuminate, or summon the unknown, whereas "writing", as a noun, refers to essays, containing poetry, prose and art etc. in a narrow sense. Fusing the identities of poets, shamans, sophists, priest and writers, the literati are a bit like the Brahman in Hinduism, enjoying a high social status in the ancient China. They compose everything. A classical Chinese literatus could be simultaneously a poet, a prose writer, a painter, a calligrapher, a musician, an artist, etc., which was very common. For instance, Li Po was a calligrapher and a prose writer as well as a great poet. However, this tradition of literati has declined in China since the 19th century. My writing attempts to reconstruct this tradition and return to literati in a kind of modern writing.
"While Yu Jian's spare language and brevity may evoke the Chinese classical heritage, and the frequent topicality of his work draws attention to China's contemporary challenges, his strongest poems are stripped of national context". Which are the main themes your poetry touch upon? What role does language serve in your writings?
My poems are all about the theme of how I live and how I am present in my own time. I have never wanted to avoid the time that I am in. Writing is language writing. Language exists in time. Each era has its own language, which is a kind of miracle made by humans that could transcend time and be present all the time.
“It is possible to see eternity—to see everything—in a teacup or a sweet wrapper. Everything in the world is poetry”. Tell us more.
In classical Chinese thought, the world itself is an eternal poem created by the Creator. Laotse said: "the law of the Dao is its being what it is," nature is the enlightenment of the way of life. Confucius has also told us to "learn with a constant perseverance and application." Existence itself is poetry, and the only proper reaction to it is modest learning. As the old saying goes, "the operations of Heaven and Earth proceed in the most admirable way, but they say nothing about them." Human beings are but a language. All is poetic, transcendental, and language simply speaks it out.
It has been argued that since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese poetry has been struggling to rid itself of an over-inflated grandeur, laying emphasis on the recognition of individual human worth and self-expression. Tell us a few things about how things stand as contemporary Chinese poetry is concerned.
During the cultural revolution, the literati experienced the darkest period in the history of Chinese civilization. The Chinese language was devastated. It has been 40 years since the revival of modern Chinese poetry after the cultural revolution. Classical poetry has become a thing of the past, and modern Chinese has opened up vast possibilities for poetry. Chinese contemporary poetry is very active and there are many poets writing. In a way, poetry is not lonelier than it used to be. There are many different poetic propositions in contemporary Chinese poetry, such as avant-garde, colloquialism, intellectual writing, postmodern poetry, language poetry and so on. Poets are usually allowed to publish their own collections, which usually run to around 3,000 copies. Poets also held parties to read their works. Nowadays, most poets also publish their works on the Internet.
What does it mean for art to be political or apolitical, especially in times of crisis?
If art originates from shaman, then politics is one of the characteristics of art, or art is a kind of supervision or modification of politics. Good politics is art, but bad politics uses art. Qu Yuan, one of China's greatest poets, referred to "the beautiful government" in his long poem. "The penetrating power of the principles and the good character of the measures of government, will exert an enriching influence on the character of the people." At the level of Dao, politics and poetry lead to the same destination. When Confucius prescribed poetry, he implied the natural relationship between poetry and politics. Poetry is not just a special kind of sentence --- making activity of warlocks. In Chinese, as a kind of language sacrifice, poetry requires "innocence". Innocence is not meaning, but the uncertainty of meaning. Poetry is a different kind of politics
Chinese civilization usually provides meaning, interpretation, perspective and position to the world not through religion but through poetry. Poetry stands for the freedom of meaning, while politics governs it. In this way, poetry, the special politics, always invokes worries and hatred of the secular one. However, the boundary of it would never be controlled by that. Lao Tzu says that existence and non-existence give birth to the idea of each other, and poetry is the keeping of non-existence and uncertainty in form of language. Vulgarity and apolitism mean that poetry is seen as a linguistic game that has indeed saved the lives of many mediocre poets, and thus lost its respect. The politics of poetry does not mean some simple power relationship, it is a language relationship, but it is not preaching or propaganda. Poetry is like a kind of church on paper, a heavy vessel, naming, correcting, seducing, communicating with the nonexistent.
Rhetoric made its sincerity. This sincerity means a kind of movement of summoning the truth with uncertainty, which is not arriving, but keeping this impulse for truth without depravity. This persistence makes all attempts at certainty think twice. Through poetry we can maintain our relationship with gods, truth, etc. For poets, the gods were not just Zeus, but also Nuwa, Jingwei, Houyi,... and so on. They are political forces. They are also poetic forces.
After all, what is the relationship of art, in its various genres, to the world it inhabits? Could it be used to imagine what could be radically different realities?
At the heart of this relationship is poetry. This goes to why humans need poetry. Language is people. Confucius said: "without learning poetry, you will not be fit to converse with." Poetry represents the highest requirement for language. In Chinese, language itself is a kind of fundamental imagination. Any imagination that ignores language only leads to frivolity. Poetry is not reality, it allows us to sustain a transcendence through language. This transcendence is the transcendence of definite reality.
As the 42th edition of the Short Film Festival in Drama is due to begin on September 15, Greek News Agenda interviews* Yorgos Teltzidis, writer, director, award winner and Jury member of the Festival. Born in Thessaloniki, Teltzidis has studied film and European Culture and written and directed a number of short films, documentaries, and commercials. He has also participated at the Berlin and theSarajevo Talent Campus and Zurich Film Festival Master Class. Six of his scripts have been funded by the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) and the Greek Film Centre.
In 2012 he received the best documentary award at the Drama International Short Film Festival for his film “Pure radio”, concerning a radio station where young addicts workas part of their therapy. In 2013, at the same festival, he won the Pan-Hellenic Film Critics’ Association award for his script for “Generator”, where a heavily indebted shop owner accepts defeat in a society set ablaze by the economic crisis in Greece. “Generator” was directed by Nikoleta Leousi.
His next short film “Dye” (2015), about a family which sees an opportunity for a slight improvement in their dire economic situation by selling an apartment that they have rented to an immigrant, was nominated for the Hellenic Film Academy award. In 2016 “Dye” won the best short film award at the Hellas Berlin Filmbox festival. His latest short film, “Dam” (Fragma) (2017), about a young woman who doesn’t know what will become of her dog as her family is forced to leave their home due to the construction of a dam, won the Best Southeastern European Film award at the International Short Film Festival in Drama and was nominated for the Hellenic Film Academy award.
Teltzidis likes to tell stories about people in free fall. Whether his broken characters are situated in miserable interiors or under the beautifully shot open sky, their common ground is their inability to find comfort and understanding. In his interview with Greek News Agenda Teltzidis explains what attracts him to his dark stories, how he feels about Greek short films. He also highlights his interest in issues of identity, loneliness, the fragmentation of the middle class, the morality of the petty bourgeoisie and violence in all its forms and why he uses his characters as a canvas to depict and exorcise his fears, fears that may be shared by other people too.
Manolis Mavromatakis in "Generator" (2013), dir. Nikoleta Leoussi
Political commentary underlines your films, especially “Generator” and “Dye”. Do you feel you were a product of the crisis?
It’s true that political commentary underlines my films, but for me it serves only as a starting point. I use the socioeconomic background to build a narrative structure about the archetypal conflict of the individual against fate and not in order to point out a specific political standing. When cinema becomes a political manifesto, it loses its charm of suggestiveness. Anyway, filmmaking in a country dominated by low brow culture and cheap esthetics is, in itself, a profound political act. Issues of identity, alienation and loneliness, the fragmentation of the middle class, the morality of petty bourgeoisie and violence in all its forms are concepts that existed before the economic crisis, concepts that I always go back to. This means that even if I had begun making films before the crisis, I would make the same stories and I would be fascinated by the same characters.
Nikos Hatzopoulos, Panos Gousis in "Dye" (2015), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
In your film «Dye” you study how people of a marginal social milieu can be led to racist behaviour. Would you like to elaborate?
Coming out of the economic prosperity bubble, the middle and lower middle class lost their political ground and the first victim in its recovery efforts was the foreigner, “the other”. Thus deep-rooted racist perceptions became the field where casual fascism was cultivated as a response and as potential violent action against the other, in the form of coercion and expulsion of the helpless. This is what I was interested to explore in “Dye”, i.e., how a fascist behaviour is engendered in a typical petty bourgeois Athenian apartment. I wanted to avoid the clichés that you would probably expect to see in a short film of this kind, such as muscled men with shaved heads and tattoos. I started at the core and the breeding ground that generates them, which are the people next door.
Nikos Hatzopoulos in "Dye" (2015), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
There is a socioeconomic dimension evident in most of your films. Your protagonist in “The Dam” is a tomboy; her father is angry and resigned, and most of your scripts are about middle aged men in dead-end situations. How does harsh reality influence gender identity in your work?
The setting of the “Dam” is the cinematically unexplored Greek countryside and its codes, where patriarchy is still strong and evident in the lives of people, resulting in the entrapment for both sexes and erecting limits and barriers to free self determination that are difficult to overcome. The female protagonist is trapped in such a situation and is forced in a sense to lose her identity, while she is driven towards a violent and blurred coming of age. The socio-economic aspect lies in the construction of the huge dam, which, as a symbol/transmitter of coercion and violence of the strongest to the weakest, in the name of development, forces the inhabitants to abandon their home. It's true that I like writing stories about middle-aged men whose lives have reached a kind of stalemate, but after the “Dam” I began to explore younger characters and their passage into the adult world.
Stamatia Papathanasi, Dimitris Abatzis in "Fragma" (Dam), (2017), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
There is a prevailing sense of loneliness and alienation in your works and neither family, nor friends or romantic relationships seem able to offer any answers or comfort to your characters. Are they incapable of connecting or are they crushed by circumstances?
The characters in the stories I write are in a sense alienated, unable to communicate effectively, but still with every move they desperately ask for human contact. They are victims of an inescapable past that remains forever present. I am deeply influenced by the work of writers such as Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Breece D’J Pancake. The latter especially has played a catalytic role in shaping the emotional mechanism of my characters. I was influenced by his detached narration, aimed at a calmer observation of human despair which, as it remains untreated, turns into cruelty and inability to communicate.
Nikos Hatzopoulos in "Dye" (2015), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
How do you incorporate your fears in your stories and how do you work on their visualization?
As I like to say, we are probably writing about what we fear we are or will become, and writing is a healing process in our attempt to exorcise these fears.
Stamatia Papathanasi in "Fragma" (Dam), (2017), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
You have served as a member of the jury of the Drama Short film Festival. How do you feel about contemporary short film production?
Last year I was Member of the Jury of the 41st National Short Film Festival in Drama and this year I took part in its pre-selection committee that chose the film lineup that we will see in Drama this September. Having a good idea of domestic short film production in recent years, their number exceeds 200 per year, andI can say with confidence that the biggest problems lie with scripts and acting, with some notable exceptions. The technical aspect of filming has improved greatly. I believe that a great number of cinematographers and sound technicians can easily stand up to demanding international productions.
Stamatia Papathanasi in "Fragma" (Dam), (2017), dir. Yorgos Teltzidis
What are your future plans?
I’m currently in the pre production process of my new short film “Felix”, which is funded by the Microfilm programme of the National Broadcaster (ERT) and I have already set sail for my first feature film, whose treatment has been selected by the Mediterreanen Film Institute and is in the development process.
At the same time, the Long Shot Films Production Company, of which I am a co-founder, has just completed its first short film titled "Vouta" (Dive), scripted by me, directed by Dimitris Zahos and funded by ERT’s Microfilm programme; and two more Long Shot films are in the preproduction process after having secured funding from the Greek Film Centre and ERT.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Gerhard Falkner, born in 1951, is one of the most important German poets of our time. He has published several volumes of poems, amongst them Hölderlin Reparatur (2008), awarded with the Peter-Huchel-Prize, and Ignatien (2014). In his 2019 volume of poems Schorfheide. Gedichte en plein air he has restored nature poetry. After scholarships at Villa Massimo/Casa Baldi, Rome and the Academy at Solitude castle, Stuttgart, he was in 2013 the first fellow of the Academy Tarabya, Istanbul and in 2014 fellow of Villa Aurora, Los Angeles. His novels Apollokalypse (2016) and Romeo oder Julia (2017), acclaimed by the literary critics, were nominated for the most prestigious prize of the German literary world, Deutscher Buchpreis. Gerhard Falkner lives in Berlin and in Bavaria.
On the occasion of the 1st Crete International Poetry Festival, Gerhard Falkner spoke to Reading Greece about what has changed and what has remained the same in his poetry almost 40 years after his first poetry collection, noting that a recurrent point of reference is his "pushing the language to the edges and limits", his attempt to shape "the beauty of language itself". He notes that "the social networks are part of the infantilisation of the world", adding that this is the reason why his poetry "embraces complexity as part of the beauty", and concludes that "art could of course generate new images and radical changing realities".
Almost 40 years after your first poetry collection, what has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry? Would you say that there are recurrent points of reference in your writings?
Since my first volume of poems lots of things have changed, in society and in literature. What has remained the same in my writing is, first of all, my pushing the lanquage to the edges and limits; this sometimes makes my poetry difficult. The best example is my second last poetry book Ignatien in which what I tried to shape is the beauty of language itself.
"[Falkner]combines formal discipline with an opulent and direct sense of th present, thus preparing the ground, as one of the first of his generation, for a poetry alive with richness and sensuality as well as melancholy and pain, as it then began to gaine acceptance form the middle of the 1980s". How does lyric sensuality blend with modernist restraint in your poems? What role does language play in your multi-faceted work?
In order to succeed in this attempt I follow several layers of different languages, coming quite close to the German romantic theories by Friedrich Schlegel expressed in the famous "Athenäum fragments", where he demands to accept, next to the poetic language, the language of the sciences, or philosophy, or any kinds of contemporary discourses.
"...forgotten will our poems / be, – what will stay only / the headache / of those who did not keep them". How is the enstrangement of the poet, the disappearance of the writer in the background of the text and of history dealt with in your writings?
The assertion or thesis of the disappearance of the author has always annoyed me. I cannot confirm it.
You have been trying out novel ways of presenting your work and your collaboration with artists, filmmakers, graphic and sound designers seem to reflect your curiosity towards new shapes and dimensions of poetry. Is the combination of phonetics, dramaturgy and narrative a way to bridge the gap between the writer and the reader?
Yes, it has been quite important for me to work with visual artists, filmmakers, soundperformers etc. It is not only a bridge to the young readers but also a big inspiration in itself.
You have argued that "in systems like Facebook, there is a tightening of language, contrasting poetry,” and “people are in permanent standby positions.” How has modern forms of communication transformed the way that literature, and art in general, is both performed and perceived?
The social networks are part of the infantilisation of the world. The worst part is the reduction of complexity. This is the reason why my poetry embraces complexity as part of the beauty.
What is the relation of poetry to the world it inhabits? Could poetry, and art in general, offer new ways to imagine what could be radically different realities?
Poetry, as an attitude, can have an enormous power. We have in Germany a new message: "Poetisiert euch!!" "poetize yourselves!" and art itself could of course generate new images and radical changing realities, it has so often proved that!!