Z. D. Ainalis was born in Athens in 1982. He is a poet, a translator and an essayist. His poems have been translated in English, French and Portuguese. He lives and works in Mytilini. He has published so far the following works: Electrography (2006), Fragments (2008), Michalis Tatsis – Holding up the stake with the hands (2011), Sheba’s silence (2011), Mythology (2013), The tales of the desert (2017).
Artwork by Alexandros Karavas
Ζ. D. Ainalis spoke to Reading Greece about what has changed and what has remained the same since his first poetry collection in 2006, noting that “the main difference between 2006 and 2019 is that back in the ‘00s I was mainly interested in the poetical ‘how’, nowadays I am mostly interested in the poetical ‘what’” since “in times of emergency, the message is what matters the most”. He mentions that “the absurd in his poetry springs for the ‘within’ as a reaction to the ‘outside’”, while the connecting link is “the faith in the insurrectionary power of human spirit”. As for the relation of poetry to the world it inhabits, he explains that “the poet in modern societies is a pariah”, “a systemic error”, yet it’s poetry, and literature at large, that constitute “a vault of humanity’s lived experience, an ark of humanity’s vicarious memories”.
He also comments that “pluralism is precisely the power of the modern poetry of the Greek poets who appeared after the ‘00s”, and adds that “this multifaceted poetry assembles a remarkable variety of poetics, of experiences, of experimentations, of contents, of moral attitudes”. As for the recently launched literary magazine Nord-Nord East, which “focuses on the neglected – in Greece – form of the literary essay”, he explains that the aim is “to create the necessary conditions to think and talk and interpret literature outside the well-established practice of ‘public relations criticism’”, and concludes that the magazine is “the imprint of a lively, thriving literary community that fights against all odds the darkness of the times”.
Not much, actually. First of all, you have to take into consideration that The tales of the desert was written in 2009. So, the distance between the two books isn’t as big as it may seem. I wrote Electrography (whose second edition was published a few months ago by a new editor) at the age of 22-23. And I wrote The tales of the desert at the age of 27. A decade ago... Many changes occurred in my life between those two books. Nonetheless, both of them fall within the boundaries of the same writing period. Electrography signals the beginning of that period (and in the same time the beginning of a freshly acquired authorial self-confidence) and The tales of the desert (together with MichalisTatsis) signals the end of that period (and in the same time the beginning of an authorial crisis - which is inextricably connected with other “crisis” in my life - and which lasted, more or less, until 2015). Between Electrography and The tales of the desert I wrote two more poetical books (Fragments and Mythology), always experimenting, always trying to find new ways of expressing myself. Always trying to find new ways of expressing the same agonies. In result, those four books are entirely different between them. Still, I feel that one can easily distinguish the same poet behind them, the same person.
The year 2010 was a turning point for me, from many aspects. The two books that I wrote between 2010 and 2015, Sheba’s silence and The monody of the desert (the latter will be published this Fall by Kedros Publications) tread, more or less, on the same paths. My poetics changed drastically since 2015. Critical changes in one’s life, and in the surrounding society, result in - or should result in - critical changes in one’s poetics. Stagnant poetics is the hallmark of an absurdly, implausibly stagnant, “closed” life. The book that I am working on assiduously since 2015, A Little Something Later, is entirely different from whatever I have written up to now. I would say that the main difference between 2006 and 2019 is that back in the ‘00s I was mainly interested in the poetical “how”, nowadays I am mostly interested in the poetical “what”. I don’t want to be misunderstood: “How” I express what I want to express still plays a pivotal role in my poetry. Nevertheless, “what” I need to state is now the centripetal force of my poetry. I deem it urgent to deliver my message. And I need this message to be heard. In times of emergency, the message is what matters the most.
In his review of your work, Dimos Chloptsioudis notes that you “employ a surrealistic metalanguage in order to deal with the absurdity of realism”. What purpose does language serve in your poetry?
As of late, more and more people seem to consider my poetry surrealistic, which always surprises me. I have never thought of myself as a surrealist poet, in any way. Of course, I have studied for a long time the surrealist poets, Greek and French (whose works I have also translated in Greek). But this doesn’t make me a surrealist poet. I am coming from a slightly different tradition: I come from Mayakovski, from Ritsos, from the anarchist and left (or leftist) poets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Aris Alexandrou, Mihalis Katsaros, Manolis Anagnostakis, Tasos Leivaditis, Viron Leontaris. And I have a “cavafian” propensity for history. Moreover, not all “paradoxical” poetics are part of the surrealistic literature (e.g. the works of Sachtouris, Gonatas, those of late Leivaditis, or even more, to use an extreme example, the works of Mihalis Katsaros).The absurd in my poetry is inscribed in the tradition of Camus or Kafka. It springs from the “within” as a reaction to the “outside”, it affronts it, it collides, head on, with it. It rarely follows the poetical rules of the surrealistic movement. Even my “irrational” imagery has most certainly its roots in the messianic tradition of medieval theologies. In Romanticism. In Walter Benjamin. However, behind all these traditions (messianic tradition, medieval literature, Romanticism, Surrealism, Russian Futurism, Camus, Kafka, Benjamin, Greek political poetry etc.), one can easily discern the connecting link: the faith in the insurrectionary power of human spirit. One’s poetics is one’s attempt to shape history, to shape the world. And the vehicle for this is language. Literature is probably the only art which tools and means coincide. There are infinite ways of using one’s language. Nevertheless, one cannot do this unless he studies the infinite ways that his language has been used before him.
“Ι don’t believe there are times more mundane than others. Poetry has always been in the margin”. How does poetry relate to the world it inhabits?
Well, it doesn’t… let’s be frank… Usually, poetry - literature or art in general - has its roots, in modern societies at least, in some kind of discontent. The poet in modern societies is a pariah. His craft is a solitary one in a mass society, with a mass organization, mass production, mass media and massive institutions and structures. He works alone in a nondescript working place, his kitchen table, for example, or a coffeehouse. He doesn’t need a smartphone – he can easily do his job with an object as obsolete as a bic pen or a pencil. He thinks and feels differently in a massive line of thought and feeling. Capitalist societies killed communities and upon the dying of the communities the social role of the poet faded out. Somehow, the poet doesn’t fit in modern mass society. He’s a systemic error. He lethally loves his reveries, he dreads reality too much. Everything seems too difficult, too harsh and too absurd to him. So, in a sense, poetry is a glass window: the poet looks at the world from the within and the world looks back at him from the without. There is no actual contact. But in the end, the poet locks eyes with the world and the means to that is poetry.
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?
As I said above, the poet in modern societies is a pariah. He/She faces constantly the following paradox: his craft, his principal “job” has become a side job. He/She doesn’t earn his living by doing what he considers to be his main “job”. If one is poor he will have a difficult life anyway. But if he’s poor and he wants to be a poet, then one has to know beforehand that he will have an impossible life. In order to be a poet I have made many difficult decisions these last 15 years. Those decisions are giving daily my family, my wife and my two daughters, a hard time. This is something that I have to live with. And I am infinitely grateful that they still bear with this. The problem is precisely that poets in Greece (I don’t know what happens elsewhere) don’t have a class conscience. They are reluctant to lose the aureole of the “Poet” and, thus, to be considered common workers, or at least workers of the spirit. I even doubt that there are a handful of Greek poets who would refer to their activity as a “job” instead of an “art”. However, a person who devoted his/her life to literature should be able to gain his/her life, as anybody else, from his/her activity. And yet, I don’t have the slightest idea how could this be possible… I fully understand what Thoreau writes in Walden regarding the work of the writer, I fully understand the practical complications of what I am saying but, nonetheless, I honestly believe that a poet should gain his life by his principal work.
There were times in my recent life that I was working in two or three different jobs (plus a fourth at night: literature) and even then I could barely gain my life. It’ s simply too tiring. Too disheartening. I would like to earn my living by what I consider to be my main job and my purpose in this life: literature. And the fact that, as Benjamin writes in regard with the “afterlife” of a literary work, humanity wholly understands it at least a hundred years after the author’s death, it doesn’t mean that the work isn’t needed. On the contrary. Poetry, literature at large, much more than History itself, is a vault of humanity’s lived experience, an ark of humanity’s vicarious memories. These memories contain the power to shape individuals in the future and thus, by doing so, they contain the power to shape history.
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?
I don’t agree at all with the first part of the question. First of all there is no “generation” with a literary, philological meaning. Still, the “new” poets are indeed, in some cases, multicultural. In their majority they are middle class, they are well educated, they often live abroad, they speak three or even four different languages, they read a lot in other languages and they often translate what they read in Greek. OK. But multiethnic? How? It is absurd. On which basis can one claim something like that? Greece is not U.S.A. and Greek language is not like English. I happen to be familiar with the work of about 200 modern Greek poets who published at least one poetical book after the ‘00s. I can only think of a dozen that are from a mixed origin and even less, four or five, who don’t have Greek as mother tongue. And the fact that one adopts an exotic nom-de-plume, doesn’t make him/her what he/she claims to be! So what does “multiethnic” mean in the context of Greek-speaking poetry? And multigenerational? It’s certainly not “multigenerational” (the term again used with a literary meaning: this of different biological generations amassed in a coherent literary generation with a specific and concrete theoretical opinion about literature).
I have extensively argued in an essay that the poets that appeared after the ‘00s belong in three different biological generations. The poetry of these three different age groups is entirely different. And it is certainly difficult to spot analogies in the poetry of the representatives of each age group. However, this pluralism is precisely, in my opinion, the power of the modern poetry of the Greek poets who appeared after the ‘00s. This multifaceted poetry assembles a remarkable variety of poetics, of experiences, of experimentations, of contents, of moral attitudes. This alone should be a sufficient enough reason for anyone to take an interest in modern Greek poetry.
To use Manolis Anagnostakis’ words, “there are two kinds of literary magazines: those who constitute ‘collections of good texts’ and those that aspire to ‘launch a public debate in order to form a new narrative’”. What is the story behind the recently launched literary magazine Βόρεια-Βορειοανατολικά [Nord/Nord-East] ?
Βόρεια-Βορειοανατολικά (Nord/Nord-East), is a literary magazine focused on the neglected -in Greece- form of the literary essay. Its second issue has just been published. What we try to do is to create the necessary conditions to think and talk and interpret literature outside the well-established practice of “public relations criticism”, abundant in newspapers and reviews. This new second issue is precisely dedicated to the poetry of those “new” poets, who were born in the ‘80s and who are already in their forties – a “burned generation” indeed, my generation. I want to believe that Nord/Nord-East is a collective wager. Or, at least, it is a wager for me. I always believed in the political power of literature. Back in 2014, when we have decided with my wife to leave Paris and return to Greece, I was determined to contribute to the making of a literary community. I considered and I still consider that this is not possible in Athens or in any other enormous European metropolis. I wanted to contribute to the decentralization of the literary phenomenon in Greece. So, once in Lesvos, with a group of talented and restless people, Dimitra Glenti, Alexandros Karavas, Stelios Kraounakis, Christos Martinis, Natasa Papanikolaou, Eleni Roussopoulou, we formed the first editorial group, which expanded in the second issue with the additions of Panagiotis K., Yannis Mamakos and Yannis Pattakos. What seemed perhaps too difficult two years ago, the creation of a literary magazine based in Mytilini, is a reality now. And this magazine, Nord/Nord-East, is precisely the imprint of a lively, thriving literary community that fights against all odds the darkness of the times.
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?
There are no “recipes” for good translations. I strongly believe in the concept of “translatability” that Walter Benjamin develops in the Task of the Translator. In a sense the role and the responsibility of a translator lies essentially in the understanding of the writer’s/poet’s era and, consequently, in the understanding of the writer’s/poet’s psyche. The translator needs to “understand” the writer that he/she aspires to translate. So, the translator has to read -a lot- about the writer, the writer’s time, his/her society, the general history of his/her time. Then he/she has to read -again and again- his/her works, I mean the totality of his/her work. Then he/she has to read a good part of what it has been written about him/her. Then and only then, the translator may hope to develop empathy towards the original work. If that happens, and if the translator is lucky enough, he/she may hope to understand the work’s “aura” and to decipher its “translatability”. One can certainly “transfer” a work of another culture in his/her own culture, but this means essentially to “recreate” this work. A word-to-word translation is simply pointless. It aspires to “transfer” the content of a literary work, risking thus to sacrifice its literariness.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou