CULTURE

Poet Yiorgos Chouliaras: ‘Poetry is an inquiry into the universe’

Poet Yiorgos Chouliaras crams a lot into his life. A former university lecturer and magazine editor who now works full-time for the Greek government, he is still active in writers’ organizations and finds time to distill his thoughts and experiences into poetry. His latest collection of verse, «Dromoi tis Melanis» (Roads of Ink), out last month from Nefeli, contains new work and a selection from five earlier volumes. From epigrammatic one-liners and a stripped-down version of the national anthem by Dionysios Solomos, to more extended poems in moods ranging from angry to contemplative, Chouliaras’s work is marked by playfulness and a penchant for paradox. He puts new spin on old myths, invents words, unpacks every meaning of a word and its relatives, then turns them all inside out and back to front so as to squeeze out more versions, more possibilities. Even the poems themselves in the latest collection are printed in reverse order of creation. Chouliaras talked to Kathimerini English Edition about his work. Why write poetry? I think poets write to account for that first poem nobody understood. This is reflected in the reverse selection in «Dromoi tis Melanis,» with poems moving backward in time, from the year of publication in 2005 to 1970 – two years, that is, before my first book came out. Probably the oldest poem in the book is a reflection, literally referring to a boy running to cross the street with a mirror on his head, as this image soaks (into) his mind. The poem’s first line states that «It rains as in that poem by Sachtouris.» I was very moved when he wrote to me, having received the book, back in 1972. I was, in fact, wondering whether to have the poem read at the launch of «Roads of Ink,» when they called to tell me he had died. Miltos Sachtouris first set me free from the «generation of the ’30s.» Titled «Half [My] Luggage I Am Taking With Me,» it is a poem of departure in the 1972 «Eikonomachika» volume, a word I conceived to mean «[Related to] Image-fighting» while directly alluding to «Iconoclasm,» as eikona (from which the word icon is derived) is an image or a picture. The image of water recurs frequently in your poems. Poetry is like water. It’s all around us, inside us, but we don’t know we are made of water. It’s the same with poetry. We find ourselves – whether on land or inside land-imitating contraptions, floating, submerged or airborne – at the center of water. And water, of which we are mostly made, is at our center. We are born bathed in fluids and we are washed when time comes for us to sink. But we are mostly not aware of this. It’s the same with poetry. It’s all around us. It is inside us. But we rarely, if ever, know it. Our solidity depends on being fluid. There is no life without poetry. Poetry (from poiein, which means «to make») is what we make. Life is what we make of it. It is perhaps sad, but may also be fortunate, that we don’t know it. Talking about «Roads of Ink,» you spoke of reconfiguring the past and of the content of a poem as a pretext. Ink is fuel spent on the road. We may wish to change the future thereby. Instead, we are only able to change the past; by rewriting it. The conflict between the oral and the written, between form and content, between history and creation: These are all represented here. Is a road book a book for the road? We wish roads to take us somewhere; anywhere. What is certain is that they take us away. The content or theme of a poem must be conceived of as a pretext. It is literally not the text. When confronted with grand ideas, I become a formalist. If confronted, however, by formalities, I’d rather go for content. In poetry, what matters is not what you say, but how you say it. Having said this, it only matters if you have anything to say. Tell us more about the tension between written and oral… Poetry emerges at the border between the written and the oral. It is a struggle, a contest, and a sexual union between these two forms or forces of language. In epic times, memory aided by metered rituals became a registry and writing depository. In our times – in the West since Gutenberg, that is – poetry is a necessarily written craft that returns or must pretend to return (as no origin is authentic) to its oral origins. This is why readings are required. Although contemporary poetry is too complex to be understood without the hypertextual assistance provided by books or other print and electronic media, very much is lost if voices are not heard. The poem «Oralists and Scribes,» in memory of Julio Cortazar, is perhaps an irreverently macabre ascription of this process. Good advice to poets is to write. Better advice is to read. The best advice is to erase what they cannot hear. In what sense is poetry a denial of history, as you commented once? Any potentially outstanding act of creativity, such as poetry, is a denial of history. It is an act of standing out of the stream that takes everyone along in its indifferently, leisurely or violently becalming way. What is heard and is then written becomes sacred. It is a scripture. Each poem starts a new religion. Human modesty is firmly based on this kind of hubris. At the same time, humans are both creators and creatures of history. Their home is to be found neither in concrete houses nor in abstract nature. The home of humans is history, which is lived self-knowledge that appears to exceed understanding. Poems, when and if they work, as acts of human creation, are historically grounded to the extent they deny their parentage. Don’t think of poetry as exalted or obscene. It’s both. Very much like mathematics, poetry is an inquiry into the universe that takes humble, everyday words – similar to numbers crunched by accountants – and builds simple and elegant linguistic designs that can only be compared to the enchantment of higher mathematics. You believe writers can benefit from the experience of exile. Diaspora and exile are necessary conditions for writers today. Whether internal or external, imposed or elected, ugly or beautiful, these experiences always raise their head into a writer’s lap. Since Babel, language is provincial and the dream of a universal tongue leads to nightmares. Writers, even when their words become the coin of a lingua franca, are provincial creatures whose home turns into a language in exile. Poetry may be untranslatable, but language of and by which it is made, is by definition translatable as it belongs to a community of speakers. Chouliaras concluded with a characteristically quirky description of writers at work: «As hare-brained as writers may be, they still resemble turtles in their motion, alive in the shell of their language as they move it along persistently in hieroglyphic, cuneiform, ideogram-generating, alphabetic or any other conceivable patterns.» From Greece to the US and back again Yiorgos Chouliaras was born in Thessaloniki in 1951. After leaving school in 1969, he went to the United States to study at Reed College in Oregon and the New School of Social Research in New York City. He worked in the US as a university lecturer, cultural adviser, newspaper correspondent and press officer, and in Ottawa as a press counselor at the Greek Embassy. He returned to Greece in 2003 and works as a press counselor at the General Secretariat of Information in Athens. Chouliaras founded the Greek literary reviews Tram and Hartis and was editor of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, as well as other literary and scholarly periodicals. His essays and articles on literature, cultural history and international relations have been published widely in Greek and English. «Dromoi tis Melanis» (Roads of Ink), just out from Nefelis, is his sixth volume of verse, and his first book to be published since he returned to live in Greece two years ago. The book contains new poems as well as selections from five previous verse volumes published by Tram and Ypsilon.