Dimitra Kotoula was born in Komotini, Northern Greece in 1974 and grew up in Xanthi. She is an archaeologist/art historian. She is the author of two poetry collections: Three Notes for a Melody (Nefeli Publications, 2004) and The Constant Narrative (Patakis Publications, 2017). She has translated, among others, selected poems by Louise Glȕck, Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. Her poetry and translations were presented in literary festivals and have appeared in literary journals in Europe and the US such as: Ποιητική, tbj, Διάστιχο, φρμκ, Poetry Review, The Columbia Review, The Mid-American Review, The Denver Quarterly, World Literature Today, Copper Nickel, Anomaly/Drunken Boat, The Blue Lyra, upstreet, New Poetry in Translation, Poesis International, Nuori Voima, Lyrik Vännen etc.
Selected poems by her have been translated in thirteen languages. A selection of her work is forthcoming in the US translated by the poet Maria Nazos. Forthcoming also are: her third poetry collection You would be totally undefended (Patakis, 2021) and a translation of the latest book Faithful and Virtuous Night by the Nobel laureate Louise Glȕck in collaboration with the poet Haris Vlavianos (Stereoma Publications).
Dimitra Kotoula spoke to Reading Greece* about her forthcoming book, noting that it is about “words and poems, and the healing capacities of language, poetry and of the art”, and adds that “the ultimate topic of the arts, poetry, [her] poetry included, is the Other, how we relate to fellow humans and the world around us”. She also explained that “language is the raw material of poetry”, “a mechanical tool with infinite possibilities, capable, principally, of inspiring moral (re-)actions”, she commented that “the true poet, usually, relates to the world he/she inhabits by opposing to it”, and concluded that for her “political is any outcome destined to fellow humans or the world that is inspired by goodness and compassion”.
Your third poetry collection titled You would be totally undefended is forthcoming. Could you tell us a few things about the book?
Well, yes! I have completed my third poetry collection last spring in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The book is heavily influenced by that. What I have tried to do was to understand, to assess what was going on, the exact circumstances we were all living in during these days, and we still live in nowadays, how we could relate to the new reality that was emerging. I have tried, if successfully time will tell, to find the right words to talk about it, to be honest, to test if words could sufficiently talk about something huge like that…The book was also inspired by my desire to address to my fellow humans. I felt a strong sense of duty to record and respond to the situation using language as the sole tool to build from scratch or elaborate on intimate relations. I have sort of talked to my fellow humans from the honeycomb that I had deliberately isolated, like everyone else, myself. I wanted to reassure them, and me actually, that words can still do good. Interestingly enough, during the same period I was translating Louise Glück’s latest poetry collection, an allegory, in fact, on death and how the arts treat absence and loss! So, yes, going back to your question, my forthcoming book is about words and poems, and the healing capacities of language, poetry and of the art, its persistence and will, its unique ability to address an open call to our best qualities as humans especially during periods of crisis.
Your poetic production may be scarce yet is characterized by a marvelous condensation. Which are the main themes your poetry touches upon?
Yes, it is true that I have written on the financial crisis, history and the ars poetica as much as on motherhood, memory, love and human relations. I have got a strong need to unearth the past, rescue memory and, at the same time, to look deeply into the present challenging regular narrative, creating gaps or building bridges. Trying to understand, trying to become a poet not because I already am one. You know, those who perceive themselves as poets already suffer from spiritual imperialism! I am trying to avoid this. In any case, the ultimate topic of the arts, poetry, my poetry included, is the Other, how we relate to fellow humans and the world around us. How we remain conscious, truly concerned about the human condition. The art of recording, documenting and questioning this complex net of entanglements is the very topic of poetry, mine too.
Your most recent book The Constant Narrative seems to constitute a kind of ‘manifesto’ of the underlying principles of new Greek poetry. Could you tell us a few things about the book?
The Constant Narrative was published in 2017, thirteen years after my first poetry collection. It consists of two major parts, and, although the poems span over many years it was composed as a single poem of many styles and tones. I tend to write books, not just compile a collection out of somewhat loosely connected individual poems. I need a central narrative line and I build the book around that. I struggle with language a lot. Seferis used to say ‘I write thousand of verses to keep just one’. I keep that in mind when I write, it’s so encouraging!
As for your comment, it is an honor, a great honor for my poetry to be read as such; to be honest, I don’t know. I mean what I have tried to do with this book was what every poet more or less successfully does; to expand the instances of our lives, to examine in depth the structure of experience, to look harder, to rescue things from mediocrity and the ordinary especially in challenging times like those we are living in, open up the individual into new skeptical, maybe, terrifying territories… But I am not alone in this; I am in ‘subtle creative co-existence’, as Marina Tsetaeva brilliantly puts it, with fellow poets, very few though, of my generation. Time will judge whether we have done our job decently.
Commenting on your literary language, Vangelis Hatzivassileiou notes on your use of “first-person and sometimes third-person narrative to forge an idiom that combines a visual perception of the immediate, tangible environment with a kind of lyrical transcendence of the world of objects as well as a purely acoustic record of the senses”. What purpose does experimentation with language plays in your writings?
Language is the raw material of poetry. A tool, a mechanical tool with infinite possibilities, capable, principally, of inspiring moral (re-)actions. And, thus, certainly, a dangerous tool. Poetic language seeks to illuminate the life of things, expand (self-)consciousness. Per definitionem, it speaks of something beyond that which it speaks of. This is the rhetoric of silence. The poet needs to respect, nourish this – it is not easy. You need to look deeply into the past and, at the same time connect authentically with the ‘now’. The way each poet handles that creates the particular tone, the style (yfos) of his/her poetry, his/her distinctive voice. Then, the poem rests exclusively in the hands of the reader. A poem is written twice; by the poet and the reader. I invite readers to actively participate, to connect, to respond, positively or negatively to my poetry. Only thus I consider a poem to be complete. My deep concern during this process in the musicality, and rhythm of my verses aims at re-establishing poetry as hearing too. And of course, Greek, the language I am working with, particularly welcomes that.
You have translated among others selected poems by renowned American poets such as Jorie Graham, Louise Glȕck and Sharon Olds. Which were the main challenges you were faced with?
I was extremely lucky! During my life as a poet, I have come across with some of the most extraordinary female poetic voices of our time – with two of them, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, I have met in person. To translate them was, in fact, a personal need to explore further their fascinating poetic universe. Due this spring is the translation of Glück’s, now a Nobel laureate, latest book in collaboration with Ηaris Vlavianos by the Stereoma Publications. I have been translating Glück since 2000, yet still it was a real challenge; the delicacy and dynamics of this well-grounded in reality poetic voice are, indeed, unique.
There is something irrepealably lost in translation as in any other incarnation. Besides the struggle to keep, of course, the content, negotiate the lyrical tone and metrical/musical allusions, the greatest challenge for me was to communicate to the reader that quality, the tone of silence –unique for each poet– that follows and, hopefully, stays with us after we close a book. It’s quite an adventure: to keep the mood, the influence of it intact. What I have learnt from dealing with the poetry of these three unique women is humility, balance, how to craft perfect imperfections.
How does poetry relate to the world it inhabits? How would you define its political character especially in times of crisis?
The true poet, usually, relates to the world he/she inhabits by opposing to it; a tough demanding job. Beauty, the ultimate topic of all arts is, in a strict sense, a moral quality. You understand and give credit to the beautiful. An era of crisis is, or at least it should be, by definition an era of intense awareness (the actual noun crisis=krisi comes from the Greek verb ‘krino’, to judge). It particularly welcomes poetry, the arts in general. ‘Political’ to me is any outcome (action, product, feeling, thought etc.) destined to fellow humans or the world that is inspired by goodness and compassion. Under this light, a love poem could be drastically political. In the same sense, the call of poetry has always been ‘political’ and it is a ‘political’ act the responsibility to respond to it. To paraphrase Ezra Pound, it really matters that great poems get written, but it doesn’t matter a whit in which language. Sooner or later they will be discovered and resonate globally. This is the fate of good poetry, sometimes it takes long for it to be discovered but as soon as this happens is there to stay, becomes an indispensable part, although we very rarely realize it, of the world we inhabit.
In an interview to Reading Greece, Theodoros Chiotis comments that the poets writing at the moment “had to negotiate their relationship with modernism and postmodernism, identity politics and notions of national and ethnic authenticity”, “a generation which engages and dabbles in many different art forms and converses with its fellow non-Greek poets… often challenging the concept of cultural and national boundaries”. How do Greek poets relate to world literature nowadays? How does the local/national interweave with the global?
I have already talked about being in ‘creative co-existence’ with –very few, though, I have to admit– fellow poets in my country and worldwide… Of course, there are also the literary festivals, the on-line periodicals, the electronic platforms… As for me, since I am not in any of the later, I do not have a fb or insta or whatever account, I owe the resonance of my poetry outside Greece, exclusively to gifted translators, to whom I remain deeply grateful, themselves poets in the majority of the cases, such as Maria Nazos in the US, Hans Thill, Ulf Stolterfothand, Jan Wagner in Germany, Fiona Samson in the UK, Claudiu Komartin and Angela Bratsou in Romania to mention just a few. At the bottom line we all inhabit the same world. This current pandemic clearly proves that. By definition, any true poet is cosmopolitan outside the limitations and barriers of a language, no matter how ‘small’ or ‘difficult’ this might considered to be. And there is an increasing concern nowadays by prolific editors, well-established publishing houses and journals, both in Greece and worldwide, for quality translations that bring to the foreground poetic voices that worth being heard.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou