The Balkan region has long been associated with violent conflict, ethnic unrest and the fragmentation of states. Political scientist Vassilis Maragos’ recently published the book «Only of this boast I: that I loved the fatherland». Romantic patriotism and transformations of the fatherland in the case of Grigor Pûrlichev(1830-1893), (Herodotos publications, Athens 2018), sheds light on a historical figure representative of his time, the mid-19th century, which saw the birth and consolidation of nationalist ideals in the Balkans.
Grigor Pûrlichev, also known by his Greek name, Grigorios Stavridhis, was a poet born in the city of Ohrid (part of present-day North Macedonia). He had a Greek education but later espoused pan-Slavic ideals and played a part in the forging of ethnic identity for Slavs and Bulgarians. This switch in languages and identities is illustrative of the volatile nature of ethnic and national consciousness at the time, hence Maragos’ interest in his life and thought.
Vassilis Maragos has studied law, international politics and holds a PhD in political science. He has been living in Brussels since 2005, working for the European Commission. He has published a study on the formation of modern Bulgarian identity (Paisii Hilendarski and Sofroni Vrachanski. From Orthodox Ideology to the formation of the Bulgarian identity, in Greek, Athens 2009), a book of poems (Το προσωπείο του χρόνου / The mask of time, Athens 2010), essays on historical and national identity issues and he has translated poetry from Bulgarian and Polish.
Maragos spoke to Greek News Agenda* on the remarkable case of Pûrlichev, the nascence of nationalism in 19th-century Balkans, the fluidity of identities in the region and the way we can benefit from studying these issues today with an open mind.
Who was Grigorios Stavridhis or Grigor Pûrlichev? Why a book about him?
Grigorios Stavridhis or Pûrlichev was a poet in the Balkans in the 19th-century. He wrote poetry mainly in Greek. In 1860, while a student at the Athens University Medical School, he won the first prize at the National Poetry Contest held annually by the University, with his patriotic poem O Armatolos (The Armatole, a Greek mercenary under Ottoman rule). This contest was an institution of major cultural and national significance for Greece at the time. His victory stirred quite a debate in the Press (he was even described as a "modern Homer"!), as did his feud with Professor of Botany and senior prominent poet Theodore Orphanidis, who accused Pûrlichev of being a Bulgarian and an instrument of anti-Greek propaganda having used fraudulent means to win the award. It is quite telling that the Press almost unanimously rose in defense of the "young and virtuous Stavridhis ", given that Bulgarians were considered to be "dear brothers" of the Greek people, who had shed their blood for Greece’s freedom in 1821!
Left: Grigor Pûrlichev, Right: Title page of The Armatole
The fame and popularity brought to him by obtaining the laurel at the contest, however, was not enough for the young poet from Ohrid to make a caerer in Greek letters. At the next National Poetic Contest, which took place in 1862 – sponsored by the Odessa Greek merchant Ioannis Voutsinas – Stavridhis submitted a more ambitious poem, Skenderbeis (which was Skanderbeg, a Christian Albanian leader who rebelled against the Ottomans) but he did not manage to win the award. He thus returned to his hometown of Ohrid, and around the mid-1860's he embraced Bulgarian nationalism and put himself at the forefront of the movement for the ecclesiastical and educational autonomy of the Bulgarians.
His ambition to pursue a literary career, writing in Bulgarian, led him to the Principality of Bulgaria, which was founded in 1878, but despite his efforts he never fully mastered the use of literary Bulgarian. Under the influence of pan-Slavic theories of the time, it appears he even tried to invent a pan-Slavic idiom (based on the Bulgarian vernacular) – perhaps inspired by Homer's Greek as well as the Katharevusa Greek which he’d mastered – but after a poorly received attempt to translate Homer’s Iliad in this idiom (which he called Bulgarian), he abandoned his plans and returned to Ottoman Macedonia where he continued to work as a teacher in Bulgarian schools. He also left behind an interesting Autobiography in prose, written in Bulgarian, published posthumously.
Whilst not the only example of fluid ethnic consciousness at that time, Pûrlichev was an extraordinary case: originally a member of the Eastern Orthodox community (Rūm millet – Roman or Romaic nation), whose ideology he articulated in his poems, he initially – and perhaps somewhat hesitantly – moved towards a Modern Greek identity, which he probably perceived as compatible with the Bulgarian element of his genealogy and his Slavic local idiom) before moving on to a Bulgarian Slavic identity. This concept of a fluid homeland that we find in Pûrlichev, along with its romantic patriotism, is of immense importance for the understanding of Balkan nationalisms.
Besides, there has not been enough research into the relationship between the weak but culturally and ideologically ambitious Greek state of the mid-19th century with its “irredenta”, i.e. the variety of "unredeemed" populations of the Balkan hinterland, who had a complex relationship with Greek culture that had still an important influence in the region. Moreover, the 1860s turned out to be a milestone for the separation of the Christian population into the modern national communities of Greeks and Bulgarians. April 1860 marks the first attempt by the Bulgarian clergy in Constantinople to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and throughout the decade there were movements in several towns of the Balkan hinterland with a Slavic population defying the Greek metropolitan bishops appointed by the Patriarchate.
Pûrlichev (third from the left) among other teachers and students of the Bulgarian highschool in Thessaloniki (Wikimedia commons)
In short, this is a personality whose paradigm (and when compared with other figures who, despite their different native languages, did not renounce their Greek culture and identity) takes us back to the question of relations of Hellenic culture and ideology, in the course of the 19th-century with the diverse anthropogeography of the Balkan hinterland, highlighting ties and conflicts but also challenges which, to some extent, still affect us today.
It is also worth noting that Pûrlichev is among those figures which Bulgaria and North Macedonia have recently agreed to honour jointly in the context of good neighborly relations, as part of a recently ratified friendship treaty.
You discuss the national phenomenon in the 19th-century Balkans. At the end of that century, do subject peoples of the collapsing Ottoman Empire put their traditional religious identity first, or do they espouse the supremacy of a national identity?
By the end of the 19th century, this shift was largely completed especially in urban areas, yet the religious identity remained strong and continued to shape the increasingly national consciousness of the various groups. Despite their differences, the emerging new ethnic communities are based on the common framework of their preexisting religious identity. All Christian nations of the Balkans have some common features, since they come from a common melting pot, the Orthodox community. In fact, the severity of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans among Orthodox Christians who were previously united as the great Christian nation of Romaioi or Greeks in the pre-national meaning (the Rūm millet), with its predominantly Greek culture, is akin to a civil war. The partaking of all Orthodox Christians in this wider community is clearly asserted in various writings of the time presenting either the perspective of the Enlightenment, as in Rigas Velestinlis’ works (especially the New Political Constitution), or a defensive stance against modern nationalist ideology, as is the case with Historical and critical defense of the clergy of the Eastern Church, published in Pisa in 1815.
Can you elaborate on the subject of fluid national consciousness in the Balkans, allowing for easy moving from one to another, different identity? From what point in time onwards do national identities consolidate?
This fluidity is characteristic of Pûrlichev’s generation, especially for the region of Macedonia where we encounter many such examples. Comparisons with some of his fellow Ohrid townsmen – such as jurist Michael Potlis, who served as Minister of Justice under King Otto, and philologist Margaritis Dimitsas, who both chose to remain in Greece and embrace Greek culture – underlines the fluidity of individual and collective consciousness at the time. In fact, Ohrid’s "Bulgarisation" (a term used by acclaimed Bulgarian historians to define the process of imposing the use of the Bulgarian language in the city which had played such an important role in Medieval Bulgarian history) was initially challenged by a part of the city’s urban population, who wished to maintain their contacts with the Greek merchants of Thessaloniki and of Durrës in Albania. It was a time when the term "merchant" was often perceived to have an “ethnic” character as most merchants were considered to be Greek.
However, after a period of fluidity, national identities crystallized through the creation of state structures and the existence of national institutions meant to consolidate national identity (e.g. schools, national churches and so on).
Thessaloniki Bulgarians (late 19th century) by Paul Zepdji (Wikimedia commons)
At this point I would like to emphasise the relationship of the Bulgarians in particular with Greek culture. Until the mid-19th century, many Bulgarian scholars had received a Greek education and had often been taught the notion of the nation in Greek schools, which they later tried to apply to their own nation. Moreover, those who did not renounce Greek culture were assimilated into the imagined Greek community. They were the ones dubbed "Grecomans" regardless of whether their family or local environment was originally Bulgarian or Slavic-speaking, Albanian or Arvanitic-speaking or even Aromanian-speaking. Stavridhis, however, although having been accused as a "Grecoman", later turned against Greek culture, which he sought to besmirch in various writings he intended either for publication or for teaching. It is in fact interesting that – apparently influenced by the notion of continuity of Greek culture since antiquity – he tried to invent a rival Bulgarian tradition originating from antiquity, centred around historical phenomena of the northern region of Greece and Thrace (Alexander the Macedonian , Orpheus, the Pierian Muses, etc.).
When and why do Slavic-speaking populations diverge from Bulgarian and Serbian nationalism and claim a distinct national identity? Do you consider the ethnicisation process of Slavic-speaking Macedonians to be successful?
This issue is very delicate and of crucial importance for comparative Balkan history, but it is not addressed in my study which focuses on the previous period, when the key issue was the connection between Greek culture and the ethnogenesis of populations turning to the Slavic local idiom in search of a distinct identity centred on the general concept of a Bulgarian nation. It is quite revealing that Pûrlichev writes (especially speeches intended for rallies) in the local Slavic idiom of Ohrid, which he calls "Bulgarian", actually using the Greek alphabet. My research highlights Pûrlichev’s difficulty in embracing Bulgarian identity, since he is not happy with its handling in the newly-founded Bulgarian state. I believe that, though he remained loyal to this identity, he never fully identified with Bulgarian ideology the way it was shaped by a new generation of scholars and politicians in the Bulgarian state, in the later period of his life.
To address your question, I think that this ethnicisation is the result of historical and political developments in the region, especially in the early 20th century. There is of course a prehistory of distinct cultural or regional elements on which this effort is being founded. In this context, I think we ought to study, through a new unbiased perspective, the various processes of ethnogenesis so that we can better comprehend – beyond clichés – the identity of our neighbours, with whom we coexist and cooperate in order to meet the challenges facing the world today. This is an issue of substance that can advance our Balkan mentality’s modernisation and our region’s stability, which is a prerequisite for our prosperity and security. I also believe that future cooperation can be based on older forms of cultural and social coexistence.
Pûrlichev’s bust at his house in Ohrid (Wikimedia commons)
In your opinion, does the agreement on the name of Northern Macedonia appease or aggravate aggressive nationalistic views today?
The comprehensive and comparative evaluation of the history of nations and national movements in the Balkan region makes obvious that these are communicating vessels. Various national movements (in their pursuit of self-determination) have at times tried to appropriate elements of their neighbours’ heritage (and Greeks, having the oldest civilisation in the region, have been subject to such appropriation). We have very close bonds with all our neighbours due to our previous coexistence within the communityof the Orthodox or Romaioi, but also because of Byzantium, Christian Orthodoxy and the influence of Greek language and culture in the region since antiquity. What is needed today in the Balkan region is a historical consciousness that transcends the limits of each distinct national history, placing the peoples of the region within the broader history of empires and other formations in this part of the continent. After all, every people benefits from a deeper understanding of its neighbours. We enrich ourselves spiritually and politically when we understand and compare our identity with the identities of others without arrogance and narrow-mindedness. And the generosity of Greek civilisation is undeniable. Let’s not forget the enormous contribution of the classical Greek culture (a quintessential part of our identity) to the formation of modern Europe.
My personal view is that the Prespes agreement is a methodology for the conciliatory resolution of historical disputes, which could and should prove to be mutually beneficial by future developments, in the context of a positive perception of bilateral and multilateral relations in the region, contributing to regional stability and cooperation, within the framework of European integration. Let us keep in mind that the unification of Europe is principally a peace project, based on compromises and amicable relations and cooperation between neighbouring peoples.
*Interview by Costas Mavroidis. Translation by Nefeli Mosaidi. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are strictly personal.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Agreement on the name issue ends disputes between Greece and FYROM ; International leaders and press on the Prespes Agreement ratification by Greek Parliament; Rethinking Greece: Alexis Heraclides on foreign policy formation in Greece, the Macedonian Question and the need for a secure national identity; Othon Anastasakis: We must focus on the positive outcomes of the Prespes Agreement; Loukas Tsoukalis: The Prespes Agreement puts an end to a long and divisive dispute; Miroslav Grchev: the Prespes Agreement leaves the faux-patriots without fuel; “The name issue and the inescapable national road” by Prof. Nikos Marantzidis
Yannis Goranitis is a fiction & non-fiction storyteller. He was born in Athens, where he lives and works as a journalist and ghostwriter for Viografi.es | Boutique Publishing House, that he co-founded in 2015. For his first book, a short story collection entitled 24 (Patakis, 2017) he was awarded with the 'Anagnostis' literary magazine “Best newcomer prose writer” and was shortlisted for the “Best newcomer writer” award of Hellenic’s Authors Society. Various short stories have been awarded in literary contests and published in short stories collections, literary magazines and websites.
John Goranitis spoke to Reading Greece* about 24, “a modular collection of 24 short stories, which are numbered according to the respective electric railway stations”. He explains that “all stories take place, originate or are inspired by its passengers, while all incidents take place in wagons or platforms”, and adds that “the convenient literary condition 24 was based upon is that the same train moves throughout the city, thus offering a single narrative context that includes heterogeneous characters and unpredictable situations”.
Asked about the main challenges that new writers face in order to have their work published, he comments that “the Greek book market has been hit hard during the crisis, which is the primary reason publishers appear quite reluctant to publish works by newcomers”. He concludes that “writers who make ends meet solely by writing fiction are no more than a dozen”, and “it’s not just that the Greek book market is small (and continues to shrink), but that there is almost no interest in translations to other languages”. “The situation could possible be reversed in case there were applied the necessary policies; I don’t mean sinecures and political favors but a balanced policy that would not only support the book market but may also boost readership”.
Your first short story collection 24 received rave reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
The book constitutes a modular collection of 24 short stories, which are numbered according to the respective electric railway stations (from #1 Kifissia to #24 Piraeus). All stories take place, originate or are inspired by its passengers, while all incidents take place in wagons or platforms. I call the collection ‘modular’ because many of the short stories continue at next stations, while some of the characters pop in and out of the stories of others. Several book critics noted that the book is not a short stories collection but rather a novel due to the dense interconnecting threads. They are probably right and it’s true that I wrote the book within a single framework; yet I prefer to fulfill the promises I give to readers.
Most of the stories take place within the Athenian urban landscape, which, in your words, constitutes “an ideal reflection of modern life, in which the characters try to integrate and survive”. What led you to choose railway stations as the protagonist of the book? Would you say that Athens is a literary city?
The convenient literary condition 24 was based upon is that the same train moves throughout the city, thus offering a single narrative context that includes heterogeneous characters and unpredictable situations. Another thing is that the day the short stories take place coincides with a taxi drivers’ strike and a long-lasting strike of petrol stations. That’s why people of different economic and social backgrounds and origins use the train; and the same goes for passengers who wouldn’t normally take the train: from a doctor returning home after being all night on duty to the partner of a patient treated by that doctor, from a drug addict to a Troika executive, from a claustrophobic writer to a naughty boy that escapes his mother’s attention and is lost in the wagons.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
Indeed there is a strong tradition of short stories in Greece, with the work of Alexandros Papadiamantis as its obvious starting point, while major short story collections and individual short stories were published throughout the 20th century. Despite the commercial downturn in the Greek book market overall and the anti-commercial nature of short stories, remarkable mobility has been recorded in recent years, with many young and older writers opting for short form. On the other hand, contemporary Greek literature has quite important novels to display, as well as many distinct attempts in longer forms. I reckon that the distinction between literary genres is, after all, obsolete. What actually matters is the dynamics of the story, the narrative means and the distinctive style. Which mold will be used to fit all these, is, as far as I am concerned, of minor importance.
“What differentiates journalism from literary writing is neither creativity nor form or style. It’s actually the special weigh that each carries after reading”. Tell us more.
The differences between journalistic and literary writing are definitely numerous and unquestionable. Yet, there are also common elements, primarily language. This does in no way mean that the two fields are identical. Simplifying that, I’d say that words for writers and journalists are like color for artists and wall painters. That’s why I lay emphasis on the ‘imprint’, the feeling a reader gets when reading a book. And, all the more, the writer himself. I definitely don’t want to underestimate the work I have been doing for the last twenty five years, neither to be accused of unfair generalizations, but I still have to note the following: of course there are innumerable well-written, thoughtful and creative journalistic texts, as there are innumerable badly written literary texts.
Which are the main challenges new writers face nowadays in order to have their workpublished? What role do the social media play in the promotion of new literary voices?
The Greek book market has been hard hit during the crisis. This is the primary reason why publishers appear quite reluctant to publish works by newcomers. Thus, there are numerous new remarkable voices that go unnoticed and many books that never leave the drawers, while many writers are forced towards self-publishing, covering publishing expenses themselves. Personally, I was fortunate enough to have my book published by a major publishing house, which has both the network and the experience required to support a new book by a virtually unknown writer.
As for the role of social media, I reckon that they exert a positive influence vis-a-vis new publications, notification of events, contests etc, while they enable introverted authors like myself to be promoted. Yet, on the long-term, their influence may prove quite negative given that artists are exposed, sometimes irreparably, while readers may feel quite annoyed when their timelines are literally inundated with publications, comments, photos, reviews etc of books written by hundreds of authors and publishers. Not to mention the long hours in front of a screen. So balance is the happy medium.
For the majority of Greek writers, writing is not a main profession but rather a leisure time activity. Would you agree that in a country stricken by the crisis, earning a living through writing is the exception rather than the rule? Could things be otherwise?
Of course there are an exception to the rule. Writers who make ends meet solely by writing fiction are no more than a dozen, and this will unlikely change in the years to come. It’s not just that the Greek book market is small (and continues to shrink), but that there is almost no interest in translations to other languages. The situation could possible be reversed in case there were applied the necessary policies; I don’t mean sinecures and political favors but a balanced policy that would not only support the book market but may also boost readership.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Henriette-Rika Benveniste is Professor of European Medieval History at the Department of History Archaeology and Social Anthropology of the University of Thessaly. She studied History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed her doctoral studies in Medieval History at the Université de Sorbonne (Paris I, Panthéon). Her research interests include Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages and Jewish History and Historiography.
Professor Benveniste has been the Academic Head of the Project: “From Between the Wars to Reconstruction (1930-1960). The Experience of the Jews of Greece in Audio-Visual Testimony”. (Database of Greek-Jewish Survivors’ Testimonies, University of Thessaly). Her recent book “Those Who Survived: Deportation, Resistance and Return of the Jews of Thessaloniki in the 1940s”, (in Greek: Αυτοί που επέζησαν, 2014; in German: Die Überlebenden. Widerstand, Deportation, Rückkehr. Juden aus Thessaloniki in den 1940er Jahren, 2016; English and Hebrew translations forthcoming) received the National Book Award for Promoting Dialogue on Social Issues in 2015.
Rika Benveniste spoke to Rethinking Greece* on the long process of making Greek Jewish communities visible again in Greek history and the Greek public sphere after decades of silence, the need for research on Greek Jewry that challenges Greek exceptionalism and espouses a transnational perspective ― as "the history of the Jews of Greece is a Jewish history, a Greek history, a Mediterranean history and a European history all at the same time". Regarding the social and cultural diversity of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki, she points out that their political beliefs run the whole spectrum; from those who advocated assimilation to Greek language and culture, to Zionists with visions of a national homeland in Palestine, to Liberals and Socialists leading the worker’s movement of the city. Benveniste stresses the importance of encouraging complex narratives on the Shoah, instead of simplistic ones that ignore the indifference or the betrayal of collaborators, or moralistic ones that emphasize a generalized abstract “shame”, while omitting the fact that some were really guilty, in very precise and concrete ways.
Professor Benveniste emphasises that, while the extermination of the Jewish communities was a Nazi project, its implementation "was, at every step, relative to the obedience of Jews and non-Jews, the collaboration of the politicians and local authorities, the passive or active support of the Jews’ neighbours, the desire of the victims to gain time and their room for action". Finally, she asserts that studying Greek Jewish history may serve as a “referential framework” for developing historical sensibility and a critical mind, in order to resist both the racist and antisemitic discourse in Greece as well as the rise of the extreme right and the alarming rate of normalization of historical and political revisionism that is taking place all over Europe:
Jews were almost invisible in Greek history, until the 1990s, when we witnessed what you have described as the ‘coming out’ of Jewish history. Why do you think deliberations on Jewish communities and the Shoah in Greece had been absent in Greek historiography for so long?
In the article you mention, I was pointing to the fact that, for a very long period, Greek historiography had erased Jews from the Greek national entity -considered to be homogeneous. To a reader of Greek history Jews were “invisible”. When Jews, occasionally, appeared in the Greek history of the Ottoman period or the Greek nation state, they were perceived as a force disrupting the nation. There was practically no historical research conducted outside the Jewish milieu, and it was conducted mostly outside Greece. On their part, historians of Jewish history were mostly interested in the religious and intellectual aspects of the history of Jewish communities.
The interest in Greek-Jewish history coincides with the breaking of the silence on Shoah. The absence of Jews in the Greek public narratives of the post-war period was determined by a will to silence the destruction of Greek Jewry. However, we should not dismiss the fact that this was by no means a Greek particularity. In the political climate of the Cold War, German atrocities were downplayed, while the scope and the significance of the Holocaust was not understood. The victors of the Second World War were unwilling to realize that the war was not over for the Jewish survivors, whose lives had been saturated by the loss of their families and their communities. In countries like Netherlands and France, the experiences of Jewish victims were subsumed into the narrative of national heroism that pervaded postwar reconstruction. In Germany, deep-seated feelings of resentment towards the post-war political and social environment accompanied oblivion and silence about the crimes and a too quick will to leave the past behind.
In Greece, political persecutions during and after the Civil War were coupled with censorship on the memory and history of the Resistance and the genocide of the Greek Jews. The right-wing victors of the Civil War imposed silence because Greek collaborators of the Nazis were quickly incorporated into the anti-communist state and their crimes remained unpunished. Later on, the 1967-1974 military dictatorship and its slogan “Greece of Christian Greeks” tried to impose the idea of an exclusively Christian Orthodox character of the Greek society. In other words, beyond the moral and material annihilation, the haunting feelings of loss, the pressing demands of rebuilding a “new life”, the unwillingness to listen to their sufferings -characteristics which were common to survivors all over the world- Greek Jewish Holocaust survivors faced also the terrorism and censorship exercised by the victors of the Civil War.
The first chronicles of the Occupation and the deportation, at the crossroads between history and testimony, were published by Jews in the first post-war years. However, these first attempts to write the history of the Holocaust in Greece remained locked inside the Jewish community. Again, there was no willingness to hear the Jewish sufferings when the victors of the Civil War had imposed silence. The silence on the destruction of Greek Jewry imposed a silence of the communities’ pre-war history as well.
Historiography turned to the study of the destruction of the Greek Jewish communities with a delay. It was as late as 1986, when a book by Hagen Fleischer on the Nazi Occupation (“Im Kreuzschatten der Mächte: Griechenland 1941-1944 -Okkupation, Resistance, Kollaboration”, translated as “Στέμμα και σβάστικα” in Greek) devoted detailed chapters to the Holocaust; this was followed in 1993 by Mark Mazower's book “Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44”. In 1996, the Society for the Study of Greek Jewry organized a conference which dealt with the Jews of Greece under the Occupation; its acts were published in 1998, edited by me.
The breaking of the silence on the Shoah on an international level had sparked interest in Greek Jewish communities’ past. Moreover, during the 1990’s, the voices of Greek Jewish survivors were heard in a new environment dominated by the rise of identity politics. Hesitantly, Greek Jewish communities adopted a policy of cultural presence and turned towards the surrounding society. Projects of collecting and publishing oral and written testimonies were a major aspect of that decade and Fragiski Abatzopoulou’s work was an important contribution in this field. In a new space of public history, the collective memory of new comers or older ethnic groups met with official history.
The first international conference on “Jews in Greece. Questions of History in the longue durée” took place in 1991 and its proceedings were published some years later. The conference was held in Salonika and had been organized by the “Society for the Study of Greek Jewry”, which remained active for about ten years. The “Society” was run mostly by academics and it had absolutely no institutional basis. This first conference aimed at showing the complexity, the continuities and the ruptures in a long Jewish presence in Greece. It opened the new historiographical era in which the Jewish past became more visible. Up to that time, historians provocatively ignored Salonika’s Jewish past. Rena Molho’s book on the particularities of the Jewish community of Salonika (Οι Εβραίοι της Θεσσαλονίκης 1856-1919) published in 2001 was the result of the first systematic research on Salonika’s Jewish past.
After this “coming out”, Jewish history has become more visible in the Greek public sphere, with the proliferation of academic projects and relevant publications. What are the dominant narratives that have emerged and what has been neglected?
It has been demonstrated by Odette Varon-Vassard and other scholars that Jewish presence has become more visible in the public sphere with the erection of monuments, the organization of commemorative events and educational projects. This is partly due to the international conjuncture of the rise of identity politics and memory studies, which has also influenced Greece. It is also true that since 2000, people from various disciplines contributed with their work and queries in mapping the Jewish presence in the Greek past. Publications in the field of history have proliferated and we may even say that Greek Jewish History has gained some legitimacy.
This has been the result of debunking old dominant narratives regarding Greek society as culturally and ethnically homogeneous, of studying antisemitism in historical terms, of revealing differences between various traditions in the Greek Jewish communities, of working on sensitive subjects of the Holocaust such as the Collaboration and so on. Holocaust studies and memory studies prevail. This is an international trend but the hesitation in studying earlier periods is also related -though only in part- to the difficulties of accessing sources composed in different languages and researching archives located in different places.
I believe that it is too early to judge the historical work produced up to now. It is nevertheless necessary to reflect on the current historiographical situation in order to see the research’s lacunae, constraints, stakes, and perspectives. The accumulation of historical publications does not necessarily correspond to an advancement of historical knowledge or understanding. Much of this historical work is presented in meetings which stand halfway between academic events and memorial practices, between research and political conformity, between sensibility and the needs of funding an academic career. The quality of the works varies greatly, going from narratives full of platitudes (sometimes erroneous) to deeply researched, original and thought-provoking contributions. Unfortunately, monographs are still rare, but some PhD dissertations, which are now under preparation, will probably make up for this scarcity.
If you ask me what directions research should take, I would insist on the need to encourage monographs that would take into account regional factors, challenge Greek exceptionalism and espouse a national as well as transnational perspective. The history of the Jews of Greece is a Jewish history, a Greek history, a Mediterranean history and a European history, all at the same time. The research should engage with the history of the Sephardic and Romaniote Jews in the Ottoman era (today mostly conducted outside Greece) and the Greek state. A new history of the Jews of Greece under the Occupation should take into account the diversity of the history of the Greek Jewish communities and attempt to integrate it into the context of the European war. Maria Kavala’s work on Salonika and the fate of the Jews during the Occupation and in the aftermath goes in this direction. Research would benefit by seeking the continuities and raptures between the Interwar years, the Shoah and the post-war period.
We still lack bottom-up approaches; we still need to appreciate Jewish communities as multi-class entities, composed by men and women, who interacted with each other, with non-Jews and with the state. We have to examine the communities’ heterogeneities and the cultural changes they went through. We still have to study the complex Jewish-Christian relations and not only antisemitism, while at the same time we need to historicize it, to avoid a “lachrymose perception” of Jewish history. Archives wait to be researched. We have to keep in mind that research has its own slow rhythms and work has to be carried out less loudly and independently of the mass media’s own purposes. Last, but not least, the practice of historical research should go hand in hand with a critical stance towards public history.
You have said that “it is very difficult to speak in general terms about the extermination of the Jews of Greece during the Occupation.” What were the particular elements of the persecution and extermination of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki?
Nazi ideology was responsible for the Holocaust, but the extermination of European Jews is strongly related to the war’s progression, the attitudes of their fellow citizens, the role of the Resistance, the different choices that Jewish groups and communities faced. The deportation and extermination of the Jews was a German project, but without local collaboration the numbers of the deported would have been lower. There are questions which are hard to answer: What information existed and how wasit perceived and evaluated in a universe of fear or hope? What were the possibilities for protest and expression of solidarity on the part of the fellow citizens? In Greece, the three occupation zones (German, Bulgarian and Italian) had determined the temporality of the deportations. When the Germans invaded Greece, the decision to exterminate the Jews had already been taken, and in procedural terms it was formulated in January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference. However, anti-Jewish measures increased only gradually and the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki began only in March 1943. At that time the Resistance movement was only in its beginning. Let us recall that Athens’ Jews were deported one year later, in March 1944, and the deportation of the last Jews of Greece took place in the summer of 1944, when the Reich had already collapsed.
The case of Thessaloniki, with its large Jewish community and extremely high rate of losses, has -partly rightly- dominated the study of the Holocaust in Greece; it still presents unexplored aspects. The implementation of the German measures was, at every step, relative to the obedience of Jews and non-Jews, the collaboration of the politicians and local authorities, the passive or active support of the Jews’ neighbours, the desire of the victims to gain time and their room for action. Institutions, networks, rivalries and solidarity played a dynamic role.
In the introduction of your book “Those who Survived: Deportation, Resistance and Return of the Jews of Thessaloniki in the 1940s” you write that your research is "a methodological proposal for a new history of the extermination of the Jews of Greece". Could you expand on that?
In my book, “Those who survived” as well as in “Louna. An Essay of historical biography”, I make some methodological assumptions. When you think about it, survivors' trajectories are always extraordinary. Nothing is normal in the Shoah and every story of survival is exceptional. I don’t dismiss the possibility of documenting Holocaust by testimonies, nor the insight provided by a witness's story.
However, to what extent can one accumulate stories that are always exceptional and normal at the same time, each one with its own particular sufferings, cruelty, compassion and accidental encounters? Do we risk falling into the trap of a litany of repeating motives that crushes us? Are we motivated by a residue of positivist illusion that drives us to record all cases exhaustively? How does this influence historical understanding? It seems to me that an answer lies in a historiography that seeks a narrative of a collective history in which we will manage to integrate, in a meaningful way, the stories of cases that diverge.
The modalities and the suffering of deportation are not limited to a single theme with variations. Our understanding depends on our ability to take into account the differences in space and time of the persecution, the need to approach our subject by reducing the scale of observation, only to rethink again on a macroscopic level; a focus that shifts from collective Jewish destiny to the observation of a group that shares a common experience or to individual trajectories (sometimes within the same family) allows us to better understand the spectrum of constraints and risks, dilemmas and choices, while remaining inscribed to a much larger historiographic body. Archival documents, oral archives, private documents: from the administrative bounds to the common experience, from the reconstruction of a collective story to the individual case and then back to the collective. The Holocaust, a German crime conducted on a transnational level, reduced the importance of national borders. If we want to imagine a total history of the Shoah, the postwar traces of a whole generation of Jewish survivors should be taken into account as well.
Thessaloniki’s Zionist associations in the 20s and the 30s tried to forge a new Greek-Jewish identity, a “supplementary nationality”, sustained by the belief that one could be both "a good Jew and a loyal Greek". However, these efforts were cut short by the WWII and the Shoah. How has Greek-Jewish identity evolved since then?
During the Interwar period Greek governments recognized the Jewish community of Salonica as an institution, accepting its political autonomy and its members’ equality before the law. The Jews of Salonika had initiated the process which led to the law that formalized the structure and rights of Jewish communities as religious minorities. Before the war, almost all the Salonika Jews observed the Sabbath and the religious holidays. However, this did not make the Jewish population socially and culturally homogeneous nor did it reduce their self-understanding to religious terms.
Language, for instance, played an important role. The old aristocracy spoke Italian; the educated bourgeoisie had adopted French; the language that united them all, rich and poor, was Judeo-Spanish, the Castilian of the immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula. Proletarians and petty merchants lived in poor neighborhoods, at the 151 and the Regie Vardar, in wooden houses with a common courtyard. Rich merchants lived in imposing edifices at the suburb of Campanias. The community was characterized by cultural variety and social conflicts. There were Jews faithful to tradition but open to modernity, and Jews covering the whole spectrum of political tendencies and currents: those who advocated assimilation to Greek language and culture, Zionists with visions of a national homeland in Palestine as well as Liberals and Socialists leading the worker’s movement of the city. All this has been extensively discussed in the works of scholars such as Minna Rozen and Rena Molho.
In other words, Zionism was only one among the different ideological tendencies and cultural associations that characterized the Jews of Thessaloniki. It was formed in communication with the international Zionist movement, in opposition to competitive currents that penetrated the Jewish population, in opposition or in harmony with the new Greek nation-state and responding to the social and economic conditions as they were perceived by its members.
Despite obstacles arising out of political tensions and antisemitism, 1912 paved the way for the emergence of a dynamic Greek Jewish culture in Salonika. The Italian attack of October 1940 brought young Jews fighting with their Christian fellows as brothers in arms against the invader. A trajectory with many conflicts but vivid nonetheless, wastragically cut short at the time of the German occupation, as the overwhelming majority (95%) of the Jews in the city were deported and exterminated in the Nazi camps. In the war’s aftermath, the old identities such as Zionists or Socialists took different meanings, became permeable one to the other, interchangeable. They were affected by the traumatic common experience, by the State’s policies, by economic needs. Immigration to Israel, for example, was by no means the choice of the Zionists alone. To my opinion, and contrary to K. E. Fleming’s argument, the Holocaust did not complete the formation of a Greek Jewish identity; on the contrary, it made it even more complex. After all, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted Greek Jews for being Jews. More than ever, I think, today one can be “a good Jew and a loyal Greek”. However, only the second part of the phrase has a clear, literal meaning. Considering myself Jewish, I see many ways of being a “good Jew”.
Last year, the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, gave a widely acclaimed speech on the occasion National Holocaust Remembrance Day and the inauguration of the project for a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki. The mayor talked about the importance of remembering and honoring Thessaloniki’s Jews and the Museum as a symbol of “shame for what happened, for what we did, and especially for what we couldn’t or didn’t want to do”. Would you like to comment?
I cannot but recognize the mayor’s courageous role in making the Shoah an issue of public concern in the city. However, as a historian I feel quite unease with the rhetoric of his speech. We often overlook the fact that silence, forgetfulness or concealment are always linked to people and causes; in other words, concrete people forget, omit or conceal for very specific reasons, under specific circumstances. There are variations of silence. I already mentioned the censorship on the history of the genocide imposed by the right-wing victors of the Civil War, the unpunished collaborators of the Nazis who were quickly incorporated into the state machinery.
On the other hand, as we know today, those who survived the Holocaust had not forgotten anything; they had not stopped talking about itand commemorating it inside the Jewish world. It is just as likely that the witnesses of those times remembered as well the Jewish drama, with either indifference or compassion. There were also all those who had economic, political and social interests to keep quiet. The “shame” and the blame should fall on those who deserve it. In other words, in a city like Salonika, the generation of those that witnessed the deportation, knew facts, people and names.
Today Salonika is inhabited by new generations and newcomers. It is therefore time to think historically, to put an end to dominant and complacent narratives of any kind: narratives that ignore the indifference or the betrayal of collaborators, but also, the more recent moralistic rhetoric emphasizing a general “shame” which implies that all were guilty in the same way (all ultimately equals to nobody), while omitting the fact that some were really guilty, for complex reasons (which combine antisemitism and personal interests) perhaps, but in very precise and concrete way. The same goes for the state institutions. Andrew Apostolou's deep historical research on Collaboration goes in this direction, i.e. against simplifying narratives.
I feel equally unease regarding the ambitious project of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki and I certainly don’t agree with the mayor’s rhetoric statement which decontextualizes (in an almost sacrilegious way) Primo Levi’s saying on Auschwitz: “here there is no why”. Because, on this specific issue, there must be answers to many questions: Why (another) Museum? Why not another Institution, or the reinforcement of the existing ones? Why so little is known on the planning, on the content, on who and how is taking care of all that? Why the Museum’s Institute should be based in Brussels? I think I am not alone in posing these questions.
In conclusion, what can the study of Greek Jewry and the Holocaust tell us for contemporary Greek society and the various political issues it is faced with?
Free from moralizing conformism, the study of Greek Jewry and the Holocaust may positively complexify history writing and nourish a more self-consciously critical stance towards phenomena such as antisemitism, the rise of the extreme right and revisionist trends in politics. In other words, Greek Jewish history may serve as a “referential framework” for developping historical sensibility and a critical mind.
A critical stance coming from historical sensibility, i.e. the ability to recognize and interpret phenomena from the past may help us on decide how to react on various issues. For instance, to resist the racist and antisemitic discourse that spreads through many channels and in various areas of social life, disseminating poisonous prejudices. In Greece these prejudices often pertain to ideas on order and security, which justify exclusion and violence -against refugees for example. There are also conceptions of society imagined in terms of health and illness, conceptions that are discriminatory and destructive. There are stereotypes of Jews pulling the strings behind the bankers or/and behind the Left, working together for the destruction of the Greek nation. In all these fantasies, in all these discourses -coming sometimes from official lips- we recognize the language of fascism and antisemitism. This is extremely dangerous; Golden Dawn is just the top of the iceberg.
For about forty years after World War Two, no respectable scholar or public figure would have thought to attempt a rehabilitation of fascism and antisemitism. Today, the normalization of revisionist discourse is shocking: for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's national conservatism claims to reconnect Hungary with the so-called ‘natural course of events’ and to stigmatize the Left as supporters of a hated history; the ultra-nationalist Polish right is engaged in a policy which aims to conceal the antisemitic dark past of Poland. No doubt, critical alert against historical and political revisionism is much needed today.
Interview by: Ioulia Livaditi and Nikolas Nenedakis
Giorgos Lillis was born in Bilefield, Germany in 1974, and raised in Athens. In 1996 he went back to Bilefield where he still lives and works. In 1999 he published his first poetry collection Το δέρμα της νύχτας [Τhe skin of night] (Odos Panos editions). Since then he has published six more poetry collections: H χώρα των κοιμώμενων υδάτων [Τhe country of the sleeping waters] (Mandragoras ed., 2001), Στο σκοτάδι μετέωρος [Floating in the Darkness] (Melani Books, 2003), Τα όρια του λαβύρινθου [Bounds of the Labyrinth] (Kedros Publishers, 2008), Μικρή διαθήκη [Small Testament] (Perispomeni Publications, 2012), Αρλεκίνος [Harlequin] (Perispomeni Publications, 2015) and O άνθρωπος τανκ [Τhe tank man] (Thraca Books, 2017); a novel, Ίχνη στο χιόνι [Τraces on the snow] (Metaixmio ed., 2012); and a children’s book for his newborn daughter.
He has translated in Greek Indian poets, as well as the German poet Durs Grünbein. His book reviews and essays have been published in several newspapers and magazines. His poems have been translated in English, French, Spanish and Italian, while his poetry collections Floating in the Darkness, Bounds of the Labyrinth and Small Testament have been published in German.
Giorgos Lillis spoke to Reading Greece* about the main themes his poetry touches upon noting that what remains the same in his poetry is his “anguish to find a way out of all those things that deprive us of freedom”, “the man who confronts himself and the world”. He explains that “there should be no ‘musts’ in poetry” since “its purpose is to pose questions and not to offer answers”, and adds that “a politically militant poetry may lose its importance because of its ephemeral character”.
Asked about the new generation of Greek writers, he comments that “nowadays we can no longer speak of a national literature or a specific generation but of a group of people, who, despite their quite distinct traits, have left their mark with multiculturalism as their main feature, safeguarding at the same time their cultural identity”. He concludes that “only when you have really understood the text, only when you have loved and made the text yours can you translate poetry to another language”.
From The skin of night in 1999 to The tank man in 2017 what changed and what remained the same? What are the main themes your poetry touches upon?
What has actually changed is that I am now much more self-aware. I remember twenty years ago, when I wrote those first poems, I hadn’t yet understood that poetry is a demanding art. I was overwhelmed with an enthusiasm that led me to writing without even the slightest self-reflection. That certainly changed over time. I may lack that first enthusiasm, yet this helped me distance myself and see my poems more critically. What remains the same, however, in my poetry is my anguish to find a way out of all those things that deprive us of freedom. It’s the man who seeks the truth, the man who is no longer close-minded, the man who confronts himself and the world.
In your latest poetry collection The tank man there are concrete references to the current socio-political conditions. Can poetry act as a political paradigm? Is it in the capacity of poetry to be ‘politically militant’?
It wouldn’t be right to use labels for an art that is famous for not getting into molds. A politically militant poetry may lose its importance because of its ephemeral character. I believe there should be no ‘musts’ in poetry. Its purpose is to pose questions and not to offer answers. As for the poems of my latest book, they may have a socio-political tone, yet their starting point is man himself. The poems reflect my own concerns and worries. And I come face to face with myself. I have deliberately put myself under scrutiny. And I have been ruthless. If you are not eager to question your ego, then nothing can be done. You will remain static. And I definitely don’t want that. I prefer to leave myself exposed rather than feeding myself with illusions.
“When I write poetry, I have no specific plan, with my subconscious taking the lead; unlike when Iwrite a novel, which requires a plot and characters”. What made you turn to novels as a means of literary expression? What differentiates the two? Is there a binding thread?
When I write poetry, indeed I have no specific plan. I just go with the flow. It’s afterwards that I work on the poems. This editing is quite important so that you remove empty words and the essence remains. I have written poems which I had been working on for years and now that I see them published, I am not at all satisfied. As for prose, things are much more clear-cut. You have a specific theme, characters, a specific frame on which you depend to move forward. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy to write prose, yet from personal experience I reckon that poetry is much more demanding. I turned to prose once since the story I wanted to narrate couldn’t be told in verse.
Your novel Traces on the snow refers to the Greek Civil War, a historical period that has appeared in many Greek novels in recent years. What motivated you to delve into such a thorny issue? Do we think that we are ready, as a people, to look back to those events with sobriety or it is still early?
I came to write about the Civil War quite by chance. The story I wrote about, the story of young Pericles, is real. In 1992, during one of my trips to mountainous Aetolia, I met Pericles, the hero of my novel. I stayed at his house and as we were sitting by the fireplace, he told me that his parents were murdered by the National Army and that he escaped with the rebels to the mountains of Evritania. That’s when everything started. I didn’t know then that I would ever write a novel because of that narration. The idea came much later, in 2009. Although my generation didn’t’ witness the events, it has the advantage of distance. As far as I am concerned, there are no good or bad guys. Actions speak for themselves. And they are well documented by historians. The Civil War has certainly been the gloomiest period in Greek history and this has nothing to do with who is to blame. We are talking about lives that were lost, people who were hunted and lost their properties and their homes, people who were exiled. And this is something we can not ignore.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. What is it that makes a national literature appealing to a foreign audience? And to what extent does the new generation of Greek writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
Nowadays that the internet plays a primary role in our lives, it’s much easier to get acquainted with literature written outside our national borders. There are numerous writers of my generation that not only know more than one language, but also live permanently abroad, as is my case, which has exerted a great influence on their writing. I am really interested in reading what poets my age get to write in Germany, the UK or the USA. This is definitely not something new. Let’s take the poets of the 1930s, for instance, who had delved into foreign poetry and were eager to admit their influences. Yet, they didn’t just imitate or reproduce those writings, but rather enriched them with their personal poetic vision. Nowadays, we can no longer speak of a national literature or a specific generation, but of a group of people, who, despite their quite distinct traits, have left their mark with multiculturalism as their main feature, safeguarding at the same time their cultural identity.
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of a translator lie?
A translator rewrites from scratch the book he is called to translate. It’s definitely not an easy task to transfer the particularities of a language to another as you mention. You need that, even minor, intervention which will make the text sound familiar to the language it is translated to. What a translator actually does is enable communication between two languages. You need to be humble so that you don’t take too much freedom and the original meaning is lost. Especially when translating poetry, only when you have really understood the text, only when you have loved and made the text yours can you translate it to another language.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Orfeas Apergis (Athens, 1974) is a poet, essayist and performer. He has worked variously as a hospital doctor, army doctor, real estate agent, political consultant, classical singer, but mainly as a school teacher in Athens. He has been publishing in Greek literary journals and newspapers since 2006. His collected poems appeared in 2011, under the title “Y”. He has translated Byron, Bronte, Browning, MacNeice, Larkin, Hill, Muldoon, Williams, Bishop and Duncan, among others.
In 2013, he was poet-in-residence at King’s College, London, and visiting poet at the University of Barcelona. His work has been included in the English anthology Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (2015), the Spanish anthology La Busqueda del Sur [In Search of the South] (2016), and the German anthology Dichtung mit Biss [Poetry with a Bite] (2018). His work has also been translated into Swedish and French. His latest volume of poetry, entitled I glossa tous [Their tongue], came out in early 2019.
Orfeas Apergis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest writing venture I glossa tous [Their tongue], noting that the book may be read as “a miniature epic of the creation of a (creative?) self, where collective trauma is experienced as personal trauma and vice versa”. He explains that he has slowly developed “the notion that poetry should move away from the fragmentation of form introduced by modernism” and become close to what he calls “fluxional poetry”, “a narrative flow which recounts real-sounding stories, with beginning, middle and end, stories which are accretions of a lot of detail seemingly—but not really— superfluous or incongruous”.
Asked about the extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in recent years, he comments that “we, from the West, and we, Greeks magnify an extant, existing activity which has been humming along beautifully or not so beautifully but insistently for decades now, into a “new burgeoning”, a late or very early new flourish” urging to “let us poets recognise and acknowledge and celebrate and respond to the perceived increase in poetic output by re-fulfilling this self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Your latest writing venture Τheir tongue has just been published by Nefeli Publishing. Tell us a few things about the book.
All explanations and explications of their own work by the poets themselves should always be treated with caution. To draw some examples from our most ‘canonical’ poets, Elytis was furious when the philologist Lignadis published the poet’s personal “plan” for the entire Axion Esti, his most famous poem. Seferis was really cautious about explaining his Kichli and when he did eventually produce some explanatory notes/remarks, upon the insistence of some of his friends, these did not make them nor do they make us a lot wiser. Similarly, Cavafy’s explications of his poems are rather pedestrian and uninspiring – no wonder he kept them more-or-less private! In other words, poets are not the best readers of their own words!
Given the above, and all of the above notwithstanding, I could suggest one may read «Η γλώσσα τους» as a miniature epic of the creation of a (creative?) self, where collective trauma is experienced as personal trauma and vice versa. The traumas of the violent 20th century are re-dissected; they sound like family accounts of World War II and civil war atrocities, which do not make a “next generation” subject recoil in horror but, rather, fascinate. It’s a book about this fascination exerted on one by family secrets and familiar/familial wounds, and how the younger perceiving subject gets over this fascination to maybe say, or better, feel something meaningful about times present and times beyond. This new “meaningfulness” becomes a flux of felt thoughts, or thoughtful feelings, in the more opaque third section of the book, which is called “A little philosophy in the dark, with big room for explications”; so the whole idea of explaining poetry (or “explaining it away”!) does become a theme of the book.
In general, it should be approached as a fully laid out structure, like a “poetic house” (we do say poetic “stanza”, i.e. room, after all, do we not?), not as a selection of poems chosen from the ones I’ve written over the past few years. I don’t believe in self-anthologising; I’d much rather have a house built from scratch, so a book of poetry is, in my eyes, such a structure-from-scratch, a very fluid one at that.—See? I told you that poetry exegesis is rather terse and uninviting!
Have there been any recurrent points of reference in your poetry? And, in turn, how has your poetry evolved over the years?
I’ve slowly developed the notion that poetry should move away from the fragmentation of form introduced by modernism and become something closer to what I call “fluxional poetry”, i.e. a narrative flow which recounts real-sounding stories, with beginning, middle and end, stories which are accretions of a lot of detail seemingly—but not really— superfluous or incongruous. In addition, I feel the need to return, or at least hope to return, to some kind of faith, i.e. move away from postmodern eclecticism, in all but form. In other words, one may use formal eclecticism, pastiche, allusion, reappropriation, subversion, play, humour, but may at the same time aim for some deeper wellspring of truth. The truth we always repress, so it just gets inscribed into whatever we write, like Holbein’s skull in “The Ambassadors”, which, albeit invisible, always looms large on the surface of things. That’s why ignoring some sort of philosophical truth-seeking through poetry may only be done at your (and poetry’s) own peril!
You argue that “the new poetry, mine, maps a course from the west to the east without ever touching these two boundaries”. Tell us more.
I lived in the UK for many many years, too many for my own good—or, as I feel on other occasions, too few for my own good. In this, I feel closer to the Greek poetic generation of the 1930s, the great Greek modernists who were fluent in two or three major European languages; that is my “West”. The East you slowly discover if and when you decide to come back to Greece, and live in Greece not by default, as at birth, but by choice. It’s not always a very conscious or deliberate choice, but it does make you deliberate at length on what it is that makes the East so different. I feel like I’ve recolonised Greece, I feel colonial and post-colonial, I exoticise the place like Byron or Chauteaubriand would do, and I don’t feel any special privilege in writing in Greek; I could or would have written my poetry in English, save for the fact that I don’t have a complete feel for the language. So it’s all been an experience of inbetweenness—neither here nor there, the usual globalization stuff really—however, I would rather call it a here-and-there-ness, not a being in between but a being in both places at once, with the added difficulty that these are not real, objective, “out there” places after all. Both East and West and Greece and Britain are provinces of the mind.
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 trend to be explained?
There usually is what we choose there to be. It’s a perceived or “interpellated” or named burgeoning; we make it happen as we name it. So the question would be why do we— readers, audiences, communities, networks—feel the need to say that there is a burgeoning of poetry, a revival of sorts? One explanation is that this whole descriptive discourse is a neat example of post-colonial exoticism: let’s go to Greece to see a real crisis, a proper rundown devastated city, like we used to go to Africa to see the real jungle. In this very neat discourse, poetry fits in like a glove unto a not-so-delicate hand; poetry is experimentation, ferment, avant-garde communities, in short it’s a shorthand for radicalism and the promise of some sort of revolution or, at least, difference. So we, from the West, and we, Greeks (as native informants and subalterns, to recall Spivak) magnify an extant, existing activity which has been humming along beautifully or not so beautifully but insistently for decades now, into a “new burgeoning”, a late or very early new flourish.
But why do we, as audiences, feel we need to create this revivalist discourse about poetry? Maybe because we are indeed in urgent need of a revival, maybe because we need a choice again, not a choice between the Trump tower and the New Ritz in Paris, but a real choice, and poetry (as a way of truth-seeking about good living, once more) may, just may, be one of the means we have to get to have some real choice again, here and there and everywhere.
All of the above being as they may, it’s good to feel some sort of spotlight warming the cold members and extremities of poor old poetry once more. So let us poets recognise and acknowledge and celebrate and respond to the perceived increase in poetic output by re-fulfilling this self-fulfilling prophecy!
How do you respond to those that talk about a “Greek poetry of the crisis” and “a new generation of Greek poets” that in a way resembles the generation of the 1930s?
See previous answer.
Karen Emmerich argues that “translation is not a mere transfer of a given ‘original’ from one language into another, but a process by which an original is, in a sense, ‘fixed’ or created, as translators often have to adjudicate between multiple editions or versions of a text”. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?
Translation is a whole big chapter in the creative writing arts. It’s writing—dah!— but it’s always already creative and arty. In other words, it’s a craft, and beyond that it must be crafty, by being creative in a destroy-and-reassemble kind of way. So you take a work apart and put it back together again, to the best of your intentions and knowledge and craft—you do indeed fix it, but it’s not like fixing a butterfly you’ve just caught in your lepidopterological endeavours; it’s like putting it in a cocoon of your own making, aiming and hoping to get a new, quite different butterfly emerge out of your cocoon, with an equally admirable ability to fly and hover and land compared to its originary butterfly. Needless to say, a lot of this translational cocooning goes wrong—how could it not?—so you end up with beautiful collections of dead butterflies; they all have brilliant colours—still!—but they are distinctly unable to fly.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Yiannis Antiochou, poet and translator, was born in Athens in 1969. He grew up and lives in Piraeus. Antiochou holds an MBA and Master degree from the Medical School of Athens, specializing in ICUs and ISO standards. He has published seven books of poetry and translated poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, Anna Akhmatova, etc. His latest book is published by Ikaros editions. He has collaborated with various literary magazines publishing poems, essays and translations. His poems have been translated in English, French and Spanish.
Yiannis Antiochou spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest poetry collection Αυτός, ο κάτω ουρανός [Τhis, down under empyrean], noting that the book “looks like the imitation of a tumor cell that begins to multiply and becomes a neoplasm in God’s woven”, “a revolution with the goal of conquering the sacred resonance – God himself that would be dying folded in cosmic night”. He explains that up to this day his “main theme is the body’s sorrow”, while a key person in all his books is “Immortality”, which even though in his latest poems has become “a sound, a sound parasite, she still exists”. He comments that for him “poetry evolves formally through new language appointmens”, and concludes that although “verbal, syntactic and formal experimentation is of great interest”, he doesn’t consider poetry “the theatricalisation of cliché”.
Your seventh poetry collection Aυτός, ο κάτω ουρανός (This, down under empyrean) was just published by Ikaros Publishing. Tell us a few things about your latest writing venture.
I do not know, frankly I never knew how to speak briefly about a book of mine; even now that I am inside its shell. This, down under empyrean is a poetic synthesis whose starting point reminds me quite a lot of my poetic collection, Εισπνοές [Breaths] (2009) by Ikaros editions; a poetic synthesis with constant reflection on a poetic subject. In this book, I have successfully managed to abolish the heterogeneity —of “self” and “the other” —, to set a foot on the crack I have created. This book looks like the imitation of a tumor cell that begins to multiply and becomes a neoplasm in God's woven. A revolution with the goal of conquering the sacred resonance —God himself that would be dying folded in cosmic night. But this God, believed both by the poet and his poetic subject, has already died in Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”. “Gott ist tot” and the poet devours his very own existence. What a pain! It's a deeply physical book with an immense difference: language is the body.
Moreover, this book is the migration sequence of timelessness identity, the existence of an individual on behalf of whom I submitted my poetry; a life in a gravestone, hatred of freedom against every conscious view of every known world; my withdrawal, the swan song of a body, for all that while we do not see, we detain their rhythm. In This, down under empyrean the poet is its crack. The light emitted assures me that everything is moving within an extensive stasis. The greatest constant of all is time —this shatter. This book is the scream Irini Papakyriakou let out when playing on a theater stage in Paris: Tu es à moi. Tu es moi. Tues moi.
From Ανήλικης νυκτός παρίστιον δέρμα [Minor night’s drogue sail] in 2003 to This, down under empyrean in 2019, what has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry? Are there recurrent points of reference in your writings?
My answer will be a cliché. In fact, up to this day my main theme is the body’s sorrow. What has changed may be formally understood somehow within my poetic form and structure. If I am alive until 2023, I am thinking of gathering my books in a concise edition, presenting my poetry with the coherence that I now see in it. Few poems will be rescued from the first collections, and from 2009 onwards, any books that have been published by Ikaros editions may be incorporated. Then, I will be satisfied as a poet. If some poems could sustain after my death, let the ones I have chosen be sustained. Anyone who perceives my last book This, down under empyrean, will notice that there are specific repetitive signs, verses from previous poetry collections, which was also the case in the book Διάλυσις [Disintegration] (2017). Readers could recognise a key person in all my books, Immortality (Athanassia) —even though in my latest poems Immortality (Athanassia) has already become a sound, a sound parasite, she still exists.
What about language? What purpose does language serve in your poetry?
Language is a body, but I feel somehow that it is getting exhausted. In recent years, I may have been very productive and now it’s the right time to keep up silence. Maybe I am getting older. However, I suffer secretly! My language is running out. An invasive process. I am adopting German phrases trapping a new syntactic agony. I have no answers for you anymore.
To use Thomas Ioannou’s words, “writing requires a stable and robust hand. You need to keep your distance so as to see the big picture, managing to even perceive yourself as a third”. Are there parallels to be drawn between poetry and medicine?
I do not think that Thomas Ioannou’s words are effective for all the poets. Maybe I understand the adjective “robust” but I feel the need to keep dreaming on. My motto is: “carpe diem, carpe noctem, carpe vitam”, so I have faith in the moment. My point of view is that a single moment can create poetry. Extensive workout is needed only to conquer your very own language and I think that I have succeeded to conquer it. You should know that I dream poems, and what happens in my dream world is impressive. A sequence of streets, places, houses and landscapes – patterns of my dream world. I do not know how many people are dreaming the same way. How many follow the very same dream after months? An attempt to conquer the map of my unconscious. I hear and observe everything as in normal life. Perhaps this is my ability to reconstitute 90% of a dream.
There are times when dreamlike patterns make me conscious in my sleep. I am the master of my dreams, but unfortunately, I cannot always change the situations. These dreams I learned to make them poems like: "Moon enters all windows" or "Sentir le fauve" from my last poetry —and how many more; I cannot separate if it was a dream or reality. All my life is somehow a knit with the invisible thread of another world. There are so many things I learned from the dreams that I might want to record as calendar records before my life is over. I already feel more tranquil. It seems like I confess my peculiar truth. No one will confirm it, but that's not my purpose. My friends will conjure up an aesthetic deviation. My purpose is to unlock the doors that are still locked without the Gatekeeper seeing me. I have a common place with Him —a wide deep darkness. Then, I use both the blade and the catgut suture.
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 trend to be explained? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
I am already 49 years old, kinda classy and conservative, so I confess that I write and support this attitude with my poetry. I find weak the poems that somebody - in order to make the reader perceive them - should make performances about or build up impressions reciting them, breaking word for word. Let others do this. There are of course some poets, who do it very well, but this is another assignment. It is also very difficult to distinguish good poetry within social networks, since usually it is good even though it is exhausted in the few characters that promotion allows. I have almost stopped attending presentations where poetry is portrayed with cheap materials —Arte Povera is something different. There is a main axiom in art: you should respect the audience. I do not care about all this, nor do they bother me. You know the picture swallows us. I attempt my own images not to overlap reality. For me, poetry evolves formally through new language appointments. In fact, verbal, syntactic and formal experimentation is of great interest, but I do not consider poetry the theatricalisation of cliché.
“Translation is not a mere transfer of a given ‘original’ from one language into another, but a process by which an original is, in a sense, ‘fixed’ or created, as translators often have to adjudicate between multiple editions or versions of a text”. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of a translator lie?
I am not a professional translator and, therefore, I have the choice to translate poets that for me is another self. Translation is just as hard as poetry. I, personally, see it as a transfer to my very own language. So, I am trying hard to live within the poet's body. What Karen Emmerich says, I think it is the core of translation. I'm translating between writing my books, it's a way to pause my “mannerism”.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Konstantina Georganta is the author of Conversing Identities: Encounters Between British, Irish and Greek Poetry, 1922-1952 (Brill, 2012) and Three Long Poems in Athens: Erēmē Gē-Perama-Kleftiko. Translations and Essays (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2018). Her first poetry collection, Rakosyllektis Chronos, was published in 2015 by Panoptikon. She manages athensinapoem.com, a website dedicated to the collection of material on urban poetics about Athens, and akindofclock.com, where one may find a world of Greek poetry into English. She studied English Language and Literature at the University of Athens and twentieth-century literature and literary movements at the University of Glasgow, where she also completed her doctoral thesis at the Department of English Literature.
Konstantina Georganta spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest writing venture Three Long Poems in Athens: Erēmē Gē-Perama-Kleftiko, which unfolds in the city of Athens, noting that “this return to the inescapability of predetermined lives ever haunting the scene is a common element in all three poems”, “an element which in turn transforms Athens into the centre of ‘meta-politics’, which is the realm of literature”. She also talks about ‘Athens In a Poem’, “a website dedicated to the collection and dissemination of material on Greek urban poetics”, as well about its sister page, ‘a kind of clock’, which aims to “gather as many material as possible in one place so that Greek poetry may become increasingly available to an international audience”.
She elaborates on the term ‘urban poetics’, which refers to “poetry’s reaction to the urban environment”, adding that her aim is “not only to create a collection of urban Greek poetics but also to make these a common currency to the general public”. She comments that “literature helps readers envision alternatives to seemingly inescapable realities by sparking the imagination in unexpected and creative ways”, and concludes that “in order for the word of Greek poetry to reach wider audiences we need to draw parallels to the poetry created elsewhere and it is here that the work of modern scholars and translators is extremely significant”.
Your latest writing venture Three Long Poems in Athens: Erēmē Gē-Perama-Kleftiko unfolds in the city of Athens creating a thread linking the 1980s to 2010s. Tell us a few things about the book.
Athens is an emblematic city, a place of significance. It is memory embodied in a multi-layered topos, a place of ruins with the Parthenon as its headpiece. The routes one may follow in the city are numerous and the story one may narrate changes with each turn one takes. Three Long Poems in Athens: Erēmē Gē-Perama-Kleftiko acknowledges this and offers something different. Here is the option of the poetic word creating narratives that travel through the city of today but also cut into the city’s past touching on various of its corners and opening up to the readers the city’s microcosm yesterday and today. Through this itinerary, the city becomes emblematic of the macrocosm surrounding this city and others like it.
This book includes the first translation of three Modern Greek poems into English with an equal amount of texts unraveling their significance to a foreign audience. The reader is led from Kaisarianē, the corner Patēsiōn-Stournara, Athēnas street, Concordia Square and Monastēraki (Ēlias Lagios, Erēmē Gē, 1984), to the old harbor and refugee suburb of Perama 14.7km from the centre of Athens (Andreas Pagoulatos, Perama, 2006), to Psyrrē, Exarchia, Agioi Anargyroi and Kypselē and finally into all the bins of Athens (George Prevedourakis, Kleftiko, 2013). The critical texts accompanying the poems urge readers to view the poems as historical meta-texts, city narratives and depictions of the ‘meta-hellenic’, active political texts offering valuable insights into today no matter from how many years afar. This is why all three poems dwell on the pseudo opposition between the ‘here and now’ as opposed to ‘there and then’ dragging the past into the present and making the news of the past relevant again to the world today in what poet and critic Gerasimos Lykiardopoulos named the true dynamic of the ‘resistance of poetry’.
Starting from the ‘the deforming of man’, foretold in Erēmē Gē as a tortured ‘repetition’, the story moves on to the ‘extermination / of the humble / the outcasts / the predetermined’, all ‘victims / sacrificed / by the voracious / vicious money’ in Perama and the event that ‘has already happened / before it has’ in Kleftiko. This return to the inescapability of predetermined lives ever haunting the scene is a common element in all three poems, whether the place is called ‘Erēmē Gē’, ‘Perama’ or Kleftiko’s ‘Fevgada’, an element which in turn transforms Athens into the centre of ‘meta-politics’, which is the realm of literature. As Jacques Rancière notes, ‘the principle of that “politics” is to leave the common stage of the conflict of wills in order to investigate in the underground of society and read the symptoms of history.’
The poems address one’s ability to judge events and so form an opinion (in Greek, ‘krisis’) as based on one’s comprehension of these events and access to them. This most significant to society ability of ‘krisis’ is part and parcel of the origin and goal of the poetic text, itself part of the complex cultural object that is public speech. The poetic text sorts out events so as to amplify one’s ability to express an opinion. Irrespective of ‘crises’, then, the main goal of the poetic text is ‘krisis’. Indeed, Kleftiko attests to this with its epigraph, which addresses the conundrum of the formation of an opinion as dependent upon the degree of one’s comprehension of events: ‘No matter how we were told they will hear us otherwise / No matter how we were written they will read us otherwise’ (Vyron Leontarēs).
Athens In a Poem focuses on the Athenian urban experience with a presentation and examination of poems, photographs, the relationship of words with space and short texts on what makes and breaks memory in the city. What’s the story behind this pioneering venture and its sister page a kind of clock?
Five years ago, in May 2014, architect Kanelia Koutsandrea and I created athensinapoem.com, a website dedicated to the collection and dissemination of material on Greek urban poetics but also a space where we could gather different narratives that make and break the memory of the city. We share a common interest in literature, architecture, cultural and critical studies as well as the anthropocentric dimension of the urban space with a focus on time, collective memory and urban decay. The website was the outcome of long discussions on the lack of a collective consciousness of the city as imagined from within by its own inhabitants. Urban poetry was combined with architecture and urban narratives to create an imaginative map of the city of Athens which would in turn make the city’s inhabitants imagine living in this beautiful palimpsest but also aid the city to become itself. Each post we publish on our website is then disseminated via social media and the public’s interest has grown gradually throughout these years.
Taking this endeavor a step further, a volume titled Athens in Poems: An Imaginative Map of the City (forthcoming by Ekdoseis ton Synadelfon/The Colleagues’ Publications) aspires to function as an alternative travelogue to the city via 34 poems in English translation covering the period 1880s to 2010s. The starting point chosen reflects an important moment in the city’s development for, even though the establishment of Athens as a capital in 1834 had instigated a large inflow of new residents, it was only at the end of the 1880s that the milestone of 100,000 residents was passed. A city designed to be an administrative and not an industrial center - a role adopted by the neighboring city of Piraeus – was slowly emerging and the poem that opens the volume, written by the well-known satirical poet Georgios Souris, captures this still awkward moment in a city still growing. It suffices to mention that until roughly the 1880s the limits of the city remained essentially those of the Old City, with areas such as Omonia, which are today the center, remaining nearly deserted. With this in mind, readers are urged to walk through the streetscapes of Athens, reflect on the city’s historical development and see how poetry becomes attentive to the dynamic instability of the urban space. They are offered the opportunity to wander around Athens of the 1880s, imagine the circular Omonia Square of the 1930s, visit the Shooting Range of Kaisariani during the Nazi Occupation, reach the gate of the Polytechnic School in the 1970s, look at the capital as a huge fish tank in the 1980s, discover the bastion of Kokkinia, get to love the city’s concrete block of flats and pause for a while to have a glass of ouzo at the Athens Railway Station.
The sister page akindofclock.com counts only a year of life and is the outcome of my interest in poetry and the translation of Greek poetry into English. It owes its name to the idea that the translated text is a kind of clock conflating time and space in the poetic universe. The poetic text in translation is a time capsule transferring important information to the present day and also a form of memory as language is revisited to unveil the meaning of the text in a context different to that in which it was initially created. The website aspires to present ‘A world of poetry from Greek into English’ measuring life one poem at a time. On it one may find poems, book reviews, essays on translation and a library with a list of Greek poetry in English translation. The aim is to gather as many material as possible in one place so that Greek poetry may become increasingly available to an international audience.
Could you elaborate on the term ‘urban poetics’? What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits?
‘Urban poetics’ is about poetry’s reaction to the urban environment. It includes poems about the experience of the city, an exploration of the linguistic mechanisms used to reflect this experience and the way in which the language cities are built with, that is, the language city inhabitants hear or see around them in the city, is recorded in poetic form and so elevated into a symbol about what is hidden behind our everyday routines. This is a site hugely unexplored when it comes to Greek poetry even though poems talking about the urban experience have a history as long as the cities we inhabit. My aim is not only to create a collection of urban Greek poetics but also to make these a common currency to the general public. This goes hand in hand with my view of poetic texts as significant historical, political and cultural documents, pieces of imagination which can extend personal and public awareness by recording and preserving elements of the culture and human geography of their time and place. I read poems as political texts exposing the world as being insufficiently defined and thus expanding a seemingly monolithic way of knowing not only the city but ourselves and the world at large. A poetic line is not simply a catchphrase to use when words appear to betray us, it is the world imagined anew one word at a time.
Could poetry help debunk stereotypes and offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
Literature helps readers envision alternatives to seemingly inescapable realities by sparking the imagination in unexpected and creative ways. Poetry is one such unexpected and creative means of envisioning something new and it does so with the commonest of everyday tools: language. Through the poetic form language is stretched, weighed, unshackled, transformed, led to breed meaning anew. Now, if it is by naming things that we exercise power over them, then poetry is liberation from the process that says this should be so and so. And so with stereotypes. If you expose the falseness of a certain belief, then a stereotype could be no more. Poetry has the dynamic to do that and more.
In recent years the interest of foreign readers in Greek poetry has been rekindled, with an increasing number of Greek anthologies being translated in English. What is it that makes a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek poets incorporate foreign influences in their work?
A foreign audience needs to be trained into welcoming a poetry foreign to them. Greek poets have always been in dialogue with the world and there is a lot of foreign poetry translated into Greek, which has made a big corpus available to Greek readers. The bet now is to work towards the opposite direction in novel ways. Greek poetry anthologies offer visibility of a number of poets to an international audience and create a body of work in translation readily available yet we also need to have this work creatively juxtaposed with the work of other poets throughout the world so that the poetry does not remain provincial. It is in this way that it is not solely a matter of presenting one national poetry against another, which involves to a certain extent a kind of stereotyping that the language poetry represents fights against, but of showing the everyday relevance of poetry to the world today. I would like to see more collected volumes of individual poets translated so that their unique voices can be heard and linked to other voices out there. In order for the word of Greek poetry to reach wider audiences we need to draw parallels to the poetry created elsewhere and it is here that the work of modern scholars and translators is extremely significant.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Poet Maria Topali was born in Thessaloniki in 1964. Her first volume of poetry, Tea Set, was published in 1999 and her second, London and other poems (short-listed for the poetry award of the literary magazine Diavazo), in 2006. Since then she has published the books Vermion Descent (2010, Patakis ed.), a theatre musical The Dance of the Middle Class (Okto, 2012) and also a book in collaboration with Konstantine Matsoukas entitled For four hands (Gavriilidis, 2013). Her poems have been translated into German, Italian and Slowenian.
Since 1996 she has written poetry critiques and reviews for the journal Poiisi (Poetry) and its successor Poiitiki (Poetics), as well as for daily paper Kathimerini [Sunday edition, since 2006] and has translated prose and poetry from German, including selected poems by Brecht, Huchel, Lasker-Schüler and the Duineser Elegien by Rainer Maria Rilke (published by Patakis ed. 2011). Her most recent publications include: Offener Brief: Maria Topali an Rainer Maria Rilke (Edition Romiosini, 2018); Griechische Lyrik aus dem 21. Jahrhundert (Edition Romiosini, 2018); and We all sang along, poems, (Patakis Editions, December 2018).
Maria Topali spoke to Reading Greece* about what has changed and what has remained the same since her first poetry collection in 1999, noting that the binding thread between poems, translations, book reviews, narrations in prose and theatrical texts is poetry itself, “the magic and geometry of life”. She also talks about Dichtung mit Biss, an anthology of modern Greek poetry, which aims to “explore on the one hand the tendency for something new as compared former works, on the other hand the characteristics of this new poetry, since it is being created”.
She comments that “there is something special to be observed in the correspondence of modern Greek poetry with foreign elements”, that is the fact that “the new Greek poets, whether they are aware of it or not, are simultaneously global citizens/poets”, and that although “a particular local or even ‘national’ hue can add a certain charm to a work of poetry, it cannot, and especially in the long term, be the critical element of its resonance”. She concludes that “connecting poetry to real or imaginary roadblocks harbors a camouflaged form of orientalism” and that “any form of poetry, of literature, of art, has an obligation to go against the forefathers”, in order to offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities.
From Tea Set in 1999 to We all sang along in 2018, what has changed and what has remained the same in your writings?
A poet is, perhaps, not a very suitable outside observer of her own work. I can tell you what has changed and what has remained the same regarding my intentions and pursuits, but let others judge the results. When Tea Set was published, I was 35 years old; the book was not the product of a youthful surge of creation. I began writing in a rather careful and restrained manner, like someone trying out their voice and their approach. Starting out like this has a certain advantage – women poets, especially, often make such “late appearances”- namely that, in a way, the road to enthusiasm is reversed for us.
Therefore, since I now feel more certain of my steps, I allow myself to become more exposed, and my words to be more direct. Judging by the many responses I have received, both written and oral, after the publication of We all sang along from many strong readers whose opinion I appreciate, this intention of mine that I described corresponds to a great degree to the reader's experience. Of course, one can always see the same glass half-empty: as time passes, each day brings us closer to the end of our life (and creation), and our fears and apprehensions start to shrink. Thus, as we grow up, we function under the power of “what is there to lose”?
Poems, translations, book reviews, narrations in prose, theatrical texts. What is the binding thread?
The binding thread is always poetry itself. It is poetry that I seek in the literary reviews, the musicals, even in readings and discussions of children's and young adult literature, which I especially love and aim never to abandon. As my beloved poet Loukas Kousoulas says, poetry is the only metaphysics I accept: it is the magic and geometry of life. And the love.
In recent years the interest of foreign readers in Greek poetry has been rekindled, with an increasing number of poetry anthologies published abroad. Tell us a few things about Dichtung mit Biss. Griechische Lyrik aus dem 21. Jahrhundert and the three dimensions of the Greek poetry of the 21st century: political, global and innovative.
Dichtung mit Biss was “commissioned” by CeMoG (Centrum Modernes Griechenland) at Freie Universität Berlin. It is an anthology of modern Greek poetry, meaning the poetry that has been written, published and presented publicly in roughly the last twenty years. The anthology includes more than 50 poets and more than 150 poems in an excellent translation from the Greek by Torsten Israel. In it, I attempted to explore on the one hand the tendency for something new as compared former works, on the other hand the characteristics of this new poetry, since it is being created: it is too early for us to talk about more concrete features when this phenomenon is still evolving.
It is a motive for us to ponder on contemporary, dynamic developments. It is not an anthology comprised of the best, nor necessarily of those who “will remain”. Naturally, since the anthology is addressed to a German audience, I also tried to map out the country in its current phase, calculating in advance the curiosity of the potential reader: Which Greece and which Greeks make their appearance in the verses of modern Greek poetry?
What makes a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek poets incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I will begin with the second question: there is no such thing as important poetry, at least in Greece (and probably anywhere, I think) without intense, deep correspondence with foreign elements. Why this happens is a complicated matter, but a factum non the less. If there is something special to be observed in the correspondence of modern Greek poetry with foreign elements, it is a higher degree of “naturalness”: the new Greek poets, whether they are aware of it or not, are simultaneously global citizens/poets. They swim in international waters even when writing about the family village in the mountains of northern Greece, if not especially then. This, too, has its interest.
Regarding the first question: “national poetry”. Hm. What is “national poetry”, really? Do you think that, in our day and age, it is wanted and necessary? There is certainly a kind of exoticism that is popular and always will be, especially when it comes to older poetry. But the objective is always good poetry, whether it be German, Greek, Egyptian or Argentinian. A particular local or even “national” hue can add a certain charm to a work of poetry, but it cannot, and especially in the long term, be the critical element of its resonance.
Vassilis Lambropoulos notes that “of all the arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. It constitutes the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated”. What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? What can it mean for poetry to be political, or apolitical, in times of social and economic crisis?
Poetry that resounded current events in an obvious manner would definitely be of moderate quality. I believe that connecting poetry to real or imaginary roadblocks harbors a camouflaged form of orientalism – the natives rise up, the revolutionaries write and recite poetry, the timeless philhellenes are touched and lean with interest toward the southernmost edge of the Balkan peninsula: I prefer to leave behind me both the philhellenes and the national poetry we mentioned above. Both are, in essence, neo-colonialist, whether their intention be progressive or conservative.
Therefore, I can only interpret the turn of Lampropoulos' phrase as follows, in order to validate it: “Poetry, definitely cinema, but also a part of music and theatre, had assessed in advance, to a great degree, the outbreak of the crisis sometime before it became visible to the naked eye”. Poetry (and any art) that takes itself seriously sends probes into the individual and collective soul. Before the outbreak of the crisis, Greek society was a massive bubble. Is it really a coincidence that in the years of this big bubble poetry was looked down upon more than ever? Some of the elders strained against the currents to keep the flame burning, some younger ones entered the dance dynamically and confrontationally - all of this took place within the first decade of the new millennium, when nothing foretold what was to come.
Any good, true poetry is political. Any explicitly political, opportunally political poetry is in danger of being passable or even poor.
To what extent can poetry be used to debunk stereotypes related to our ancestry, our national identity and our glorious but long gone past? Could literature offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
This is a very important question. Any form of poetry, of literature, of art, has an obligation to go against the forefathers: tradition, at least in the later period, is a peculiar continuum of rifts and connections. Therefore, literature and art necessarily do this, and you are very right to ask if and to what degree we can use them in order to achieve this.
So, I will propose an example. Imagine that, starting tomorrow, we stopped reading Solomos and Seferis (the two peaks of the 19th and 20th centuries) as purely national poets. Imagine that we started reading their works in a different way: as revolutionaries in their time. As bringers of newfound, radical ideas and ways. Imagine what it would be like, if, during this reading, we put “sexuality” next to “nationality”. We, however, have placed them in the Museum, deactivated. That truly is a greek peculiarity.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
How has a girl of Greek origin invented herself through the years to become an acclaimed and respected actress and a social activist in the USA? The 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) which is being held from the 1st to the 10th of March 2019, will screen “Olympia”, an enlightening documentary about the life and the decades-long stage and screen career of Greek-American Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. Beginning when she turned 80 and through the course of three years, the camera follows Dukakis to rehearsals and family meetings, as well as her traveling throughout Greece. Gracious and real, the star doesn’t shy away from intensely personal revelations about herself.
Interviewed by the Greek Press Office in New York*, Anthoula Katsimatides, Executive Producer of the documentary film ‘Olympia’, and Harry Mavromihalis, Director of the film, talked about what makes this poetic journey in search of one’s place in the world relatable to a big audience..
Olympia Dukakis and director Harry Mavromihalis
Why and how were you involved with the project?
Harry Mavromihalis: I came up with this idea when I met Olympia. I invited her to an artists’ and directors’ workshop in Cyprus and she accepted, so I met her in Cyprus where we spent 2 weeks together and got to know her… I always loved her as an actress and personally I was fascinated to meet her. A year later, I approached her for the documentary and eventually she accepted…
Anthoula Katsimatides: … even though it was hard to convince her!
H.M.: Yes, it was hard to convince her!
Could you tell us more about your relationship with Olympia and give us some details on the moviemaking?
A.K.: Olympia was always been my mentor. She was teaching a workshop in my acting school. And when I learnt that there is a Cypriot filmmaker filming Olympia, I loved it.
H.M.: So, I went with my camera and filmed Olympia for 3 years in Los Angeles, Toronto, Cyprus, Greece. Olympia went back in Greece with her daughter and granddaughters to show them her mother’s and father’s village. Her mother is from Pelopi, a small village near Mani…
A.K.:… and her father is from Lesvos, where is a street named Michael Dukakis, after her first cousin who was running for president in the USA. So, Harry followed Olympia around for three years with money from his pocket, traveling. He also had to play the role of journalist; asking questions in order to get her reveal her true identity. It worked very well because the film is such an authentic representation of the woman Olympia is. The feminist, gay rights activist, an immigrant story comes true, it’s a film about those things and so much more… Based on people’s response to the film it’s definitely a film that will make you laugh, make you cry a little, a touching film which sometimes showcases Olympia’s funniest side; and also, the wildest spirited way, and her love of her ethnicity.
Olympia Dukakis and Executive Director Anthoula Katsimatides
Can you elaborate on Olympia’s career, her vision and passion with theater and cinema?
H.M.: A lot of people speak about the famous star which speaks at that age so freely about sex, drugs, about suicide.. She opens up, she allows us in, she touches us. When she was in Greece she went to Epidaurus and it was amazing seeing her navigate around the ruins and figure out where were the people, when she (as Clytemnestra) addressed them, how the ancient world works. To me, it was fascinating.
A.K.: To me it still is fascinating her love for theater where she began her career, that made Olympia win an Oscar as supporting actress. Her love for theater is related with her Greek origin. It is wonderful and inspiring that she could go from theater stage to the accomplishment of winning an Oscar. So, we show her essential shelf and her authentic style.
How have her Greek origins and the Greek tradition influenced her?
H.M.: What is important for the Greek American audience is that Olympia had to struggle with the principles and values her parents brought with them from Greece, a conflict in her life between these values and what she wanted to be as a young girl, to define herself as a woman in a man dominated environment where the women been seen and treated as inferior and could not do things that boys were allowed to. She had to fight for her right of equal treatment as a woman.
The film cast
What are the plans for the film’s screening in the USA and Europe?
H.M.: We’ ve finished the film and we wanted to disseminate it as much as possible, and the way to do that is through festivals. So we submitted the film to several festivals. For the USA the world premiere took place in New York last November, where Olympia and her friends live. It was an extremely successful premiere. In Europe we had to choose a place for the European premiere, Cannes, London, etc. We chose Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, because it makes sense but also because it is a very successful festival, we applied there and we were accepted. So, on March 2 the premiere will take place in Olympion Cinema in Thessaloniki. And there will be a second screening 2 days later, at a smaller theater.
A.K.: So, we have 2 screenings and we hope that our folks from Thessaloniki and the surrounding areas will come and support. We will be there and we would like to talk with them about the film. We also plan to submit our film to other festivals domestically in USA and around the world. It’s not just a story for Greeks. It’s a universal story, Olympia is a universal woman. There were many Greeks in the premiere in NY and there was a standing ovation. She is like an icon for Greeks though actually many younger Greeks didn´t know about her, this younger generation was impressed to hear her story.
Olympia Dukakis, "Olympia" (2019)
Could you tell us a few things about yourselves, your work and career?
A.K.: I have been an actress for the last 10 years. I have been on television shows, some films, two years ago I worked in Greece for the Smaragdis’ film about Kazantakis, I loved to work in Greece. But Olympia documentary touched me, because she, as an actress, as a woman, as a Greek American, as my mentor may be like a grandmother figure, she was very dynamic. That’s why I loved her, when I met her, that’s why I wanted to be a part of that film. I didn’t know exactly what my role would be, but since I had the experience and skills, I decided to be the executive producer and I used my passion for that, especially in raising money for the film.
H.M.:: Currently my goal is to promote the film apart from big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, especially in small towns across America for one-night screenings in order to be watched by as many people as possible, people that don’t have access to the big cities’ theaters. Festivals will help, but it’s not a commercial film for all theaters. I am trying to raise money for those screenings. At the same time, I am trying to raise money for my second documentary.
* Interview by Athanasios Floros, Press Officer at the Greek Press Office in New York
Dr. Kostas Gouliamos is the Rector of European University Cyprus. He is an Honorary Professor at Lanzhou City University in China and Vice President of the Board of Directors of the "Prometheus" Research Institute. He is former President of the Cyprus Universities Rectors' Conference and former Vice President of the Committee of The Cyprus State Archives while, for more than 6 years, he had been a Member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the European Social Survey (ESS).
Dr. Gouliamos has also been appointed Member to the Steering Committee for Higher Education & Research (CDED) of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg/France. According to the University of Toronto Quarterly his research work -along with Professor William Anselmi- qualifies him to “the Frankfurt School’s epigones”. He introduced (together with A. Theocharous) the concept of “marketing of war” and later he has expanded the concept in his research work.
Part of his research work has been listed in the Volume of the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS) produced by the London School of Economics & Political Science, translated into several languages (French, Spanish, Slovak, Chinese, English, Italian), and included in the curricula of some of the best fifty universities of the world.
He has published several books dealing with philosophical and political issues. Dr. Gouliamos speaks to Greek News Agenda* about his book On the dialectics of harmony, which is a dialogue with legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.
Why did you choose to speak with major composer Mikis Theodorakis? What was your intention when writing this book?
Following a systematic study of Theodorakis’ body of work, and having shared a long conversation with him several years ago, I suggested to our great composer that we should create a reflective, multiple-level rendering of the "Universal Harmony" law he had formulated.This resulted in the book we co-authored, On the dialectics of harmony, which was published by Gutenberg and elegantly designed by Yannis Mamais.
Reflecting does not however concern a simple recollection of events but the revisiting of history through a critically analytical approach of cultural, political and social actions, leading to a redefinition and advocacy of Harmony on a universal, global and human level.
Mikis Theodorakis and Kostas Gouliamos at a book presentation for On the dialectics of harmony
What in your estimation does Mikis Theodorakis stand for in terms of Greek cultural production?
Mikis Theodorakis is among the most significant personalities of Modern Greek culture, he is history incarnate. At the same time, he is also a universal personality, globally renowned and acknowledged. He has experienced peoples’ history; “many cities of men he saw and learned their minds” (The Odyssey). He is a globetrotter par excellence, a composer of high aesthetic and social level. A 20th century musical genius and one of the very few artists of our times who possess the "universality" of polymathy. A veritable Homo Universalis, defined by his never-ending concerns and ongoing struggles for humanity and justice.
His anxious quest for Greek roots as well as for humanity resulted in his creating a body of work of enormous intellectual and scholarly effort, imagination and inspiration. Through his works and actions emerges the lively, vigorous and ever-wandering figure of Mikis, who has extended the cultural vision of modern Greece and the name of the country around the world.
You note in your book that “Theodorakis’s thoughts seek the meaning of harmony and uniqueness at the core of Pythagorean dialectics”. Would you elaborate on that?
These thoughts encompass various fields of knowledge, as well as intellectual and cultural contemplations that, mutatis mutandis, broaden conceptual changes by linking the discourse and movement of Pythagorean dialectics to dialectical materialism. This coalescence in Theodorakis’ thought is expressed in tandem with the isomorphism, the homomorphism of musical systems and aesthetic elements or historical interdependencies and social relations, all of which must serve harmony as a philosophical framework but also uniqueness as a movement of mental and spiritual reflection.Harmony broadens the spectrum of mental processes and reveals the personality, the uniqueness of the individual. In any case, Pythagorean dialectics are for Theodorakis an ontological field that comprehends universal harmony.I would argue that he treats it not only as a cosmological but as dynamic dimension, with social and cultural repercussions. From this point of view, harmony - like the uniqueness he proposes - is possible as an "open" dialectic; as a concept of thinking and “doing well”.
Mikis Theodorakis points out that people’s educational levels are getting lower and that leisure time is on the decline, leading to the gradual loss of people’s uniqueness. Do you think that younger generations will be more capable of leading the world to a form of "neo-Enlightenment"?
One of the major problems of modern and post-modern societies is the production and diffusion of half-education (Adorno`s Theorie der Halbbildung), which I think is largely associated with the shortage of leisure time. We notice the increasing inability of making creative use of free time, especially in young people. People in our time can no longer develop their creative imagination and dynamism which they presumably possess. The so-called "digital enlightenment" intensifies the problem of aestheticization of political discourse and cultural expression. The ‘society of the spectacle’ (re)produces technical standardization, instrumental reason and superficial communication, thus nurturing the emergence of narcissistic personalities. Goffman has pointed out that “human beings are creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies which change from one moment to the next”. In any case, the narcissistic epidemic is, inter alia, a congenital disorder of the bureaucratisation of the spirit.
We have ended up speaking a trite language, infested with pleasing and entertaining elements that reign over the public sphere but also the biota. Is it any wonder that one of the major issues of our times is the semantic reversal and the misreading of the meaning of words?In a world of declining expectations and the omnipresence of the alienated spirit, we eventually have to fight alongside young people for the deepening and the quality of democracy, in order to break free from the fundamentalist designs of all forms of neoliberalism. Moreover, we need a process of self-reflection capable of eliminating the endless (self) destruction of Enlightenment, before we achieve what you call a "neo-Enlightenment".
A final question: You have already published several poetry collections. What was the inner need that motivated you to express yourself through poetry?
My anxious desire to submerge myself into the multipolar neurons of speech and to bring to light morphological, functional, even hidden as well as contradictory aspects of reality is a fundamental stimulus. Apart from that, the zeal for self-reflection, and for an aesthetic experimentation with speech, remind me that I have no choice but to express myself and to variously connect this expression with my actions and, consequently, with my conscience. It is within this context that I also place my poetic testimonies.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Filming Greece | “Dance Fight Love Die. With Mikis On the Road": an idiosyncratic portrait of an idiosyncratic artist; Reading Greece | Writer Elias Kafaoglou: “The democratisation of desires is what I’d like to hold on to from the ‘digital age’”