Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (NYRB Poets)

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Beyond Shame: The Beauty of Lucan Poetry


The Italian town of Matera, with its arresting ancient beauty, has been elected as one of 2019’s two European Capitals of Culture. Located within the province of Basilicata, formerly known as Lucania, it is a city nestled within a small canyon carved out by the Gravina, characterised by its numerous cave dwellings or sassi, dug out from the Calcarenite rocks, huddled one over the other. During a visit for the 1948 election Palmiro Togliatti, leader for the Italian Communist Party, declared the Sassi di Matera “a national shame” due to the poor health and hygiene conditions present. This led to the sassi evictions of the ’50s and ’60s, only to be declared a few decades later a world heritage site, after the government set up a scheme in the eighties to refurbish the troglodyte dwellings.

In his memoir Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) artist Carlo Levi had chronicled the problems faced by the mezzogiorno region but also spoke of its immense beauty. His painting Lucania ’61, housed in Palazzo Lanfranchi, describes three scenes of everyday life in all its hardship and purity. It was commissioned to represent Basilicata at the Italia 61 exhibition in Turin to commemorate the centenary of the unification of Italy. He decided to dedicate this piece to the poet Rocco Scotellaro, a man whom he described as “dear to me above all men.”

We see him appear as a leitmotif throughout the scenes. The leeway for political freedom afforded after the Second World War was accompanied by an urgent drive for social justices. This was reflected is the world of film and prose which shifted its focus to portray the problems of the ordinary people. As a pioneer in neorealist poetry Scotellaro channelled the political issues of the day into his art, lending a voice to voiceless. A native of Tricarico, he would later become its first Socialist mayor at the tender age of 23. In this sparsely populated and mountainous area several thousand men had during the first half of the 20th century chosen to emigrate, mainly to the United States, one example being Scotellaro’s father who as a young man had gone to Paterson in New Jersey but like many others was forced by circumstance to return. He set up shop as a shoemaker and struggled to raise a family of four in the difficult economic clime of the South where “the sun will bake us like a crust of bread.”

Scottellaro’s poetry speaks of the difficulties experienced by people to sustain themselves and their relatives on a land which historically had been neglected; estates ordered by the government to grow wheat crops while the ground was far more suitable to grow almond and olive trees or to keep as pastures, while deforestation and polluted water supplies contributed to an epidemic of malaria. These hardships are in part vocalised in his poem “The Garden of the Poor”/“Il giardino dei poveri” (1948):

The basil has grown                                          È cresciuto il basilicoin the garden of the poor:                               nel giardino dei poveri:they have robbed the windows of air,         hanno rubata l’aria alle finestresowed the seeds on two boards.                    Su due tavole hanno seminato.The sparrows will come,                                 Veranno I passeri,the flies will come,                                            veranno le mosche,in the garden of the poor.                                Nel giardino dei poveri.Now when you don’t know what to do         Ora quando non sai che farepick up the pitcher in your hand,                   prendi la brocca in mano,then I will see you grown among the roses  io ti vedrò cresciuta tra le rosein the garden of the poor.                                   Del giardino dei poveri.

Five years after this poem was composed, Scotellaro died of an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 30. A year after his death, Levi edited the first published collection of his friend’s poetry under the title È Fatto Giorno (“It’s light now”) taken from a final poem of the same name written in 1952.

Another poet whose father had set off for America to afterwards return to cultivate grapes and other crops is Leonardo Sinisgalli. Born in the town of Montemurro, he would go on to study mathematics in Rome and later graduated as an engineer, leading to being nicknamed as the “engineer-poet.” Moving further up north to Milan, he would later become the art director for Olivetti, responsible for creating the evocative image of the rose in the inkwell. Of poetry he wrote, “The poet is the author of a single book that starts with the first poem and ends with the last. There is no break between one book and the next.” His work embodies feelings and thoughts in concrete images, using sensuous language free from pretense while drawing inspiration from the nature around him as can be seen in his poem “To enjoy the View”/“A bel vedere sull’aia” (from a collection between 1931 and 1937):

To enjoy the view many nights                           A bel vedere sull’aiawe slept on the threshing ground                      tante notti abbiamo dormito,hands deep in the wheat                                      Le mani affondate nel grano,sleep-watched by the dogs                                   Il sonno guardato dai cani.Your feet were meeker                                         Più mansueti erano I tuoi piediThan the pigeons made for fun                          Dei colombi fatti per burlawith the white cloth of handkerchiefs.            Col panno bianco dei fazzoletti.Straw in your hair                                                Avevi fili di paglia nei capelli:you set off a timorous alarm                              alle spalle muovevi il pratobehind you in the meadow.                                 A una trepida suoneria.

In his poetry he tries to reconcile science with sentimentality, marrying mathematics with poetry; both questioning the mysteries of life. Sinisgalli, having been uprooted from his town as a boy, has always had a retrospective approach, a search-of-lost-time attitude in his poetry. Some of his best poems therefore focus on the reminiscence of his memories, his childhood of summers spent on “mashed poppy stalks,” on “the bed staring at the rafters out of boredom and delight.” He portrays the bucolic beauty of Basilicata, with its haunting quality lending to a certain sense of timelessness or rather possessing an ability to transform the way time is perceived. Carlo Levi noted the following in Christ Stopped at Eboli:

In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, marufto, maruflone; the seventh day was marujiicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.

The “cloudiness” of the word crai is something which Albino Pierro illustrates in his “Always, Always”/“Sempe sempe”:

To weep                                                                  Chiange,and walk with a rope around my neck:          e caminè cc’ ‘a zuca nganne:that is all                                                                 chiste è tutte.Then, when I go to sleep,                                     Pó, quanne mi cucche,I say to myself softly in the dark,                       mi dich educe duce nd’u scurebeneath the covers:                                               sutt’I cuperte:“Tomorrow maybe, who knows…”                    “Chie le sàpete si crèi…”;Always, always,                                                     Sempe sempenight and day,                                                        note e ghiurne,stones hiss by all around me.                             Mi fischene pétre nturne.

Through writing in the archaic Lucan dialect, he created one of the most important bodies of dialect poetry of the twentieth century. His work has been translated in numerous languages and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize of Literature. Born in Tursi, Pierro mainly gained his education in regions outside of Matera and finally settled down in Rome where he taught history and philosophy in secondary schools. In fact it was on the evening of a return journey to the Eternal city from his hometown that he wrote his first poem in the Tursi dialect, “Before Leaving,” sparked by an early departure and its ensuing exasperation mixed with a sense of longing for the soil he had reluctantly left behind. This was followed by an enormous output of dialectal poetry which in his own words issued from his soul, in a natural stream, as oil gushes from the depths of the earth. The vicissitudes of the south are still present today. Basilicata is a region of a rich and complex history, but these poets have managed to channel the oscillations between hope and despair, pain and joy, and transform them revealing the ancient wonder of its land and people.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Books Decide for Me: The Millions Interviews Ersi Sotiropoulos


Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel, What’s Left of the Night, is a lyrical and erotic reimagining of the gay Greek-Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy’s three-day trip to Paris in 1897. The book, which won the prestigious Prix Méditerranée Étranger, is dizzying, fevered and beautiful, and very, very horny. It’s also chimerical: Like Cavafy himself, it exists at a nexus of concepts—identity, queerness, modernity, making art, and Greece’s tortured relationship with Europe, which has come full circle since 1897, when foreign powers commandeered the nation’s finances.

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to review the book, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to write; I kept stumbling upon more questions with each draft. Fortunately, Sotiropoulos and her translator, Dr. Karen Emmerich of Princeton University, made time to entertain both my questions and slack-jawed observations. Over the past few weeks, we spoke by email and Skype while Sotiropoulos was in China. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

The Millions: Ersi,
I know that you learned about Cavafy’s 1897 trip to Paris while you were
working in Italy in 1984. Can you tell us a little bit more about that
situation and what you discovered? 

Ersi Sotiropoulos: That’s so many years ago. In 1984 I curated an exhibition dedicated to Cavafy at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. While consulting the archives I came across references to his trip to Paris in 1897—the first and last holiday journey of his life. There was very little information about it, only a few memorabilia: copies of the review “L’Illustration,” a shirt maker’s card, etc., obviously gathered to show to his mother when he went back. Cavafy himself left no written trace, not a personal note, nothing.

I started thinking of that young man (whose future course we all know very well), his trip to Paris at a very special moment in time, his passion for writing, his anxiety to find his own voice, and how he was tormented by sexual desires forbidden back then. I started to imagine him at that unique crossroads: Alexandria in the background, both remote and cosmopolitan, further away Greece, humiliated and once more destroyed, and finally Paris, illuminated, at the height of its glory. Later, I wrote a documentary film about Cavafy for the French television series Un siècle d’écrivains (A century of writers), and the same questions kept coming back.

TM: What
intrigued you about this period in Cavafy’s life, and why did your interest in
those three days persist for the coming decades? 

ES: Writing for me is about obsession. I don’t start with a predetermined idea about a book. I don’t have fixed plans. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting impression, a voice heard in the street, someone talking in the darkness. And I have to dig into this nothing, to insist and persist. In Cavafy’s case, the void of information about his trip was the trigger. What did Cavafy do in Paris? Whom did he meet? Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century was a mecca for the avant-garde, the place where Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Edgar Degas were living and creating, where modernism was being born. What intrigued me was the encounter of Cavafy—reserved, awkward, oppressed in his personal life, tormented by contradictions and doubts—with this dazzling world.

In addition, the year 1897 has strange analogies with what
had happened to Greece recently: the Olympic Games of 1896, which flattered its
national pride for a very short time, and then once more and again a ruined,
bankrupt Greece which would suffer under international economic control for 80
years, from 1898 to 1978.

TM: From what
I understand, your novels have mostly dealt with contemporary people and
subjects, and What’s Left of the Night is your first piece of
“historical fiction,” although I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call this book
by that term. Why did you decide to take this turn in your subject matter
around 2009, at least for this book? Why was the story of Cavafy’s three days
in Paris, specifically, the one that you wanted to tell at that time?

ES: I didn’t
decide to take a turn. It’s the other way round. Books decide for me.

At any rate, I would like to point out that this is not a novel about Cavafy, the poet. Not a historical or fictional biography. It’s mainly about the making of the artist. One has to read the book as the three days spent in Paris in June 1897 by a young, aspiring poet from Alexandria. It is a pleasure trip and at the same time a process of initiation that the reader will follow alongside the man who will become the poet Constantine Cavafy. If we read Cavafy’s poems before 1897, the date of the trip, with a few exceptions they are poor, mediocre, clumsy. Then, a couple of years later, there is an immense leap forward in his writing.

What fascinates me, what fascinates us all, is how an
artist, a poet still incomplete at age 34, someone rather formal and
conventional, but possessed by the passion for writing, tortured by his desire
for men at a time when “coming out” was unthinkable: how does he make
this huge leap forward? How does he become Cavafy? These accomplishments don’t
happen in a void. They trail behind them many aborted attempts, failures,
despair, misery.

Working on this novel, I arrived at two conclusions, each of them related to the importance of the year 1897 for Cavafy as both a poet and a person. First, it’s only after that date, as I said before, that he becomes the poet we know and admire. He abandons lyricism, shakes off the influence of romanticism, and develops his own distinctive voice, in which complex meanings are conveyed in a bare, limpid form. As a poet Cavafy matured very slowly. He was obsessed with formal perfection. Just imagine that the poem “The City,” which is mentioned in the novel, took him more than ten years to complete.

The second concerns his private life. By 1897 Cavafy had
accepted his homosexuality, though socially he was a very formal and
old-fashioned person. But however tormented and secretive he may have been
about his desire for other men, Cavafy was coming to a point in his development
as a poet where he was able to write about that desire openly, in an
unapologetic, direct way, unifying his passion for the Hellenistic civilization
of the past and his passion for other men in poems that met his own rigorous
standards for publication.

TM: You’ve
spoken elsewhere about how this book took you six years to complete, and how
writing it was like “splitting your head in two.” From what I understand, these
were pretty rare circumstances for you: since 1980, you’ve published on average
one book every two years. What was different about writing What’s Left
of the Night? 

ES: I don’t
remember having finished a book in two years! Stories, shadows of voices,
backbones of novels, stay within me for years while I work on something else.

In this novel I was driven by questions. My sources were not only the Cavafy archives, but all sorts of information, books, letters, personal narratives, photos, documents: novels of the late 19th century, books on the political and economic history of Egypt, on the Greek community of Alexandria, on the artistic life in Paris, on the Dreyfus affair, on the Greek-Turkish war of 1897, etc. etc… And of course I visited Paris and Alexandria many times. Then, at a certain point, I had to confess myself that going further into this mass of documentation was an excuse for not starting to write. I hate writing. Many writers do. Each time the beginning of a new work is excruciating.

TM: I was really intrigued by how frankly you portrayed Constantine’s sexuality. He doesn’t seem repressed so much as scared: that his affections won’t be reciprocated, or that he’ll be disappointed by the reality of sex compared to his expectations. There’s one powerful paragraph where Constantine says, “he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him.” Can you discuss the relationship between Constantine’s sexuality and his creativity in this book?

ES: What interested me from the very start was to capture the moment, that exceptional moment when physical desire turns into creative impulse. What happens is that, for Cavafy, erotic desire becomes a driving force. But what is at stake in art is how desire is represented, whatever this desire is—that is what differentiates an amateurish poem from a great one: how the desire unfolds, transcends the poet who wrote about it and turns into something capable of transmitting emotion to readers who do not share the same desire.

There is a poem of that period titled “Half an Hour”—one of
the “hidden poems” that Cavafy refused to publish in his lifetime—that
has always stayed with me, especially these lines:

But we who serve Art, sometimes with the mind’s intensity, can create—but of course only for a short time— pleasure that seems almost physical.

That passage has served as a sort of central thread for my book. Like [a lighthouse] during the long years of loneliness and writing.

TM: I read
this book as a long meditation on the writer’s “process” and the irony of
literary inspiration. How, if at all, did writing this book transform your
writing practice?

ES: Writing books transforms me—they are like persons. I live with them. But if by writing practice you mean my schedule, that I start working very early when it’s still night, and that I travel all the time, I did not change. I don’t travel looking for inspiration, I travel to be myself.

In this book I followed in extremis my idea of art, in whose ardent pursuit the profane is sacralized; of an artwork that seems raising from the dust. Where does art come from? That’s the question I ask in my book. Can art come from something tiny, from an insignificant detail? Can this near-invisible detail—a tiny hair, a little harder than the others, on the pubis of the lover—suddenly gain substance and flow into creation?

TM: You’ve
been writing professionally since shortly after democracy was restored to
Greece after the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Greece and its
relationship to Europe have changed several times in several ways in those
ensuing 40 years, most dramatically during the debt crisis. To what extent has
this affected what it means to be a Greek writer, especially during and after
the crisis? 

I ask this question
because I interpreted this book, in part, as a commentary on the (often unfair)
way that a writer is torn between global aspirations and national “duty,” for
lack of a better term, especially when their homeland or culture is being
internationally humiliated, endangered, etc. 

ES: Your comment brings to mind the famous line from George Seferis’s poem: “Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.” This was true then, it is true today.

The crisis weakened the already vulnerable status of the Greek writer. Arts, the book market, were among the first victims. Crisis has impregnated everything. It doesn’t have a face, it is a complex of crisis. And what interests me as a writer is to see how, besides its devastating impact on people’s lives, financial crisis has been corroded by a deeper crisis, an existential, ethical emergency, and how menacing those little symptoms can become, that at a first glance seemed totally superficial and inoffensive. “We don’t know anything, we don’t know we’re all sailors out of work,” Seferis wrote. Once again, in this country, the poetic word is more substantial and true than the words of the politicians. And much more clairvoyant too.

What is Greece? What does being Greek mean? I tried in the book to render the very particular, and not limited or nationalist, position of Cavafy in this matter. He was the opposite of a chauvinist. He said, “Είμαι κι εγώ Ελληνικός, Προσοχή, όχι Έλλην, ούτε Ελληνίζων, αλλά Ελληνικός” (impossible to translate) [I tried anyway: “I am, also, Hellenic, mind you, not a Greek national nor a colonized foreigner who has adopted a Greek identity, but Hellenic.”] The hellenism of Cavafy is like an embracing movement—Marguerite Yourcernar gives us a vivid image—it passes through a complex series of Greeces more and more distant from what appears to us the golden age of the race, but where persists a living continuity.

TM: The value that international critics have put on Greek literature in the past decade seems to have been pegged to its mimesis of life under austerity. It’s as if they’re saying, “Greek literature is only interesting if it’s giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be in Greece during the crisis.”

ES: I think
that’s just idiotic. Whenever foreign journalists come to Greece, one of the
first questions they ask is: What are you doing about the crisis? What can the
writer do to help? That’s bullshit! All the writer can do is write. 

I remember once I was talking with Nanos Valaoritis, a poet of the old Surrealist group, and he told me how, during the years of the German occupation—when the situation was infinitely worse than it is now, people were starving to death and the streets of Athens were littered with corpses—poetry helped them survive. Poems such as “Amorgos” by Gatsos and “Bolivar” by Eggonopoulos and many of Elytis’s best poems—which did not describe the horror of the war, but an unprecedented lyric ecstasy—were written then. Those poems were not miserable or mournful, they were full of an orgasmic greed for life. 

[A writer] does not have to be a mirror for his time. This
is very silly, I think. And, always, you [a writer] have to step back a
little, to observe from a distance. I, personally, take distance. All
my friends, everybody I know, keeps asking me: Are you going to write about
China [where ]? I don’t know. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. I mean, you
need to live things first. And then maybe they will come
back to you, in a way. 

TM: Karen,
building off this last question, how has the international interest in Greek
literature changed over the course of the past decade, thanks to the financial
crisis or for other reasons?

Karen Emmerich: I can only speak to Anglophone markets, since I don’t know much about other linguistic spheres in which Greek literature is circulating. But to tell the truth, I don’t really see much of an impact in terms of quantity of books coming out—perhaps because the numbers are just so small to begin with. Certainly we’ve had several anthologies of poetry that use the crisis as a focal point—including Theodore Chiotis’s Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis and Karen Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures—and have gotten a fair amount of press. And perhaps the kinds of books publishers are willing to get behind are different: If literature from other languages is often used as cultural commentary, showing something true about that other place, Greece (in the Anglophone imagination) is no longer the place of quaint village and donkeys; it’s gritty, impoverished, urban. The extensive reviewing of Ersi’s novel has little to do with all that, of course—but Cavafy is always a draw.

TM: You’ve really been instrumental in bringing many Greek writers, especially Greek women writers, to English-speaking readers, who most likely only think of male names when they think of contemporary Greek literature: Kazantzakis, Seferis, and, of course, Cavafy. Has the crisis had any specifically adverse effect on the translation of Greek women’s writing?

KE: I hope that eventually some new names will start to fill out that list! Not only women, but more contemporary writers in general. It’s been more than 50 years since the last of the writers you named died, and that’s five decades of literary production that deserves attention. I think the crisis has had an adverse effect on the translation of Greek writing by anyone, frankly; there used to be some very limited state support for translations, and those programs shut down with the austerity measures. There has also been, as Ersi says, a decline in publishing in Greece, again because of the crisis—and if things aren’t being published in the first place, we’ll never know what literary treasures are out there that could be being translated. But again, the market for translations from Greek is so small to begin with that it’s hard to talk about the statistical significance of any changes we’re witnessing.

I would note that there are perhaps more translations of works by contemporary Greek women than by men: Jacob Moe’s outstanding recent translation of Maria Mitsora, Pavlos Stavropoulos’s translations of the wonderfully bizarre Ursula Foskolou that have been appearing in online journals, Patricia Barbeito’s translations of Amanda Michalopoulou, whom I have also translated. It’s an exciting moment, I think, for Greek literature in translation precisely because of this new crop of translators getting work out. Just imagine what could happen if we could rustle up some funding from a foundation to help support translation work!

TM: I know
that you’ve written at length about Cavafy and the difficulty of translating
his work. Briefly, what are some of the biggest challenges?

KE: They are neverending, which is why they’re so much fun to talk about. Many people who read Cavafy in English think of him as a prosaic writer, one who eschews literary devices as customarily understood. But in fact, he is a master of what Roman Jakobson and Peter Colaclides called “grammatical imagery,” using rhythm, rhyme, and even grammar itself to enact in his poems the very things he’s writing about. It’s astonishing, the tight complexity of the poems in Greek—and not just Greek as a singular language but Greeks, plural, a range of different idioms. Katerina Stergiopoulou has written brilliantly on this issue, including on Cavafy’s use of ancient Greek in epigraphs and within the texts of his poems themselves, and then of course there is the issue of Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and Byzantine phrases as well. It’s a very rich linguistic tapestry, and rich in a way that English just isn’t. So the translator has to find other means, the means of the language she’s writing her translation in.

TM: How did
you and Ersi collaborate to get the tone and vocabulary of the English
translation just right?

KE: We went back and forth several times with the translation. She and I don’t always see eye to eye, since she’s reading the translation alongside the Greek and looking at the level of the word, whereas I’m trying to work on a level far larger than the word, but I have to say the collaboration was invaluable in many regards. I don’t know if the translation is just right—she’s a stickler in her own writing for every word being in place, and in order for me to feel that way about my translations I would need six years, too. Which most publishers don’t allow, unfortunately! Or perhaps fortunately—because otherwise, if everyone felt the same as me, we’d never get to read anything in translation at all!

TM: With the crisis
now “ended,” what is your outlook for Greek literature in translation,
specifically literature by women? 

KE: The “crisis” is anything but over. I think it’s heroic of people to keep on keeping on—as writers, as publishers, as creators, as readers, as engaged humans, as humans period—given the current situation in Greece. I can’t give you an outlook, but I can give you a desire: for greater support for writing of all kinds in Greece, writing that helps hone our understanding of the present, the past, and the future. If some of that support could come in the form of book deals abroad, or royalties for struggling writers, or grants for writers and translators, then that would be a positive step. If anyone’s reading this who’s in some position of power and authority with discretionary funds to think about setting something up, my lines are open!

Surprise Me!