CULTURE

Poet wants us to get in touch with ourselves

American poet Sam Abrams has a longstanding connection with Greece, including several stints as a visiting scholar at the Technical University of Crete. In Athens on Monday, he spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the joys of biking, teaching and writing poetry, and the consumer culture he sees taking over his beloved Hania in Crete. A keen mountain biker and nature lover, Abrams wants people to get outdoors and get back in touch with themselves. «That’s part of what I’m about,» he explains, «trying to restore people to a sense of their own experience.» He contrasts the pleasure of cycling into town and chatting with a fellow cyclist to the experience of drivers stuck in the traffic on a beautiful morning. The worst of it, he says, is that «people think they’re outside when they’re driving in their cars, which is an interesting and horrible example of the triumph of metaphor. In a sense, poets have taken over the world. They’re good poets, but they’re the poets of advertising. This commercial poetry has been so successfully indoctrinated that people – especially from America – don’t know the difference between metaphor and their own experience. They think they’re moving when they’re sitting in automobiles, and they’re actually sitting still.» Leapfrogging decades His lament extends to the new consumer values adopted by young people in Hania, as depicted in his poem «Pax Tibi:» the neuro-neo-euro-Cretan youth filling the generic glitz cafes endlessly punching their cell phone keys There is more to his complaint than nostalgia. In the Koum Kapi neighborhood where he stays in Hania, cars and fancy cafes have taken over streets that people once used, says Abrams. Though he thinks Greece is holding out against Americanization better than most places, he notes with regret: «They’ve lost a lot of ground in the last couple of years. The cars have taken away the neighborhoods from the kids. The same process happened in America and I hated it. What I like about Hania is that it reminds me of Brooklyn in the early ’50s, and now it’s become like Brooklyn in the ’80s already – skipping three decades and leapfrogging into the 1980s.» Yet this has not dimmed his love of Greece which, «despite the noise and the chaos and the rubbish,» he sees as an ally of civilization and hopes will be «part of the salvation of our species.» His feeling for Greece emerges most clearly in his poem, «The Christian,» written in October 2001. It begins: While waiting in the millyard for someone to show up, we got into a heavy-duty political conversation, me, this regular guy, probably Cretan, his shiny Mercedes parked alongside my dusty rent-a-can. We talked a while, half an hour maybe. broken English mixed with broken Greek worked well enough, and pretty easily, we got to the level of abstractions and principles. What seems to strike the poet most forcefully is not so much the content of this conversation with the «Christian pacifist» who «had on under his snazzy black leather jacket / Greek navy uniform,» as the quality and temper of their discourse: Equally vehement and respectful in tones and terms, held to adagio pace by language limits, driven by two needs to understand. A subversive presence His time at the Technical University of Crete has been very valuable to him as a teacher, Abrams believes. Though he doesn’t conduct classes there, he does try to forge connections with students. These connections will feed into the senior seminar at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which he describes as «a capstone liberal arts experience, multi-disciplinarian.» This year’s topic is Globalization and Human Rights, and Abrams, who wasn’t keen on the set texts, will require his students to make a pen pal by e-mail, and then write a paper on their pen pal’s life and their own life. Speaking about his work with undergraduates at Rochester, Abrams quotes the British historian R.H. Tawney on the role of the professors of the humanities in the capitalist system as «captains on the pirate ship.» «I’m not sure that I don’t make the conscience of the robber barons a little easier by tolerating me. I seem to have some real effect on students.» He agrees with his colleagues, however, that «it’s impossible to tell for at least 10 years if their teaching is effective.» There’s a boom in poetry in the United States, and a boom in the arts in general, says Abrams. He welcomes this as a sign that some people are «too smart or sensitive to seek a sense of identity or community by wearing brand-name clothes. People, whose quest for identity and meaning in life and sense of self and belonging has reached a more meaningful level, are seeking it through the arts, and seeking it particularly through poetry.» Citing the example of a master class he ran for adults, Abrams expresses his delight that they «were writing real poems, in the sense that you write a real poem to discover something. Writing a poem is an act of discovery; reading a poem is an act of discovery. And if you know what you’re going to write in advance, it’s not a poem. And one discovers something about the way you are in the world, the way the world is in you.» The poems Abrams favors no specific style in his own verse – in fact he jokingly attributes his lack of wealth and fame to his «constantly trying new things»- but all his work is imbued with a concern for the environment and social justice and opposition to consumerist culture. Some short poems, such as «The Old Pothead’s Mrs Adds it Up,» express sheer delight in the natural world: regular visitors to our back garden a tit a blackbird 2 doves a robin my goodness aren’t we rich Others are written in direct response to current events. «On September 11, 2001,» which he read to a packed audience at Compendium book shop on November 15, has yet to find a publisher in America, possibly because he puts those events into a larger context: There was a slight divergence from norm that day In that a substantial portion of those who were slaughtered Were done in in a place of so many cameras And other recording and communication devices That focused attention on that particular crime While in other places, less spectacular means: Dirty water, treatable diseases, machetes, environmental poisons, Continued to take their quotidian toll. Other poems extol the effects of marijuana, which the Old Pothead of the poems uses «as a releaser, a guide, a prioritizer, an organizer. It’s his different drummer, a rhythm that can override the frantic cadences of the entertainment state. Pot, poetry and bicycling permit the OP to sneak out of the rush. They are places to pull off, to get out of the closed-access traffic lanes.» Nearly all the poems beg to be read aloud, to be performed. «Ginzo Blues / Second take» (1997), one of his tributes to Allen Ginsberg, is a prime example: He was so goofy made you wanna laugh He so goofy break you up to laugh Made it look so easy with his goofy poet craft He’s up with Sappho gone home with Bill Blake He’s partying with Sappho and Horace he’s home with Billy Blake I miss him so my poor heart set to break Not surprisingly, Abrams credits the influence of Afro-American music as one of his most important roots. «I’m a child of Ezra Pound and of Whitman. But I think underneath it all is the Afro-American music. All the poets of my generation and of the generation before mine are indebted to Afro-American music and particularly to the blues.» Sam Abrams: A short biography A professor of language and literature at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts, Abrams teaches creative writing, modern poetry and a special course on Walt Whitman. He studied the classics and started his professional connection with Greece in 1988, when he received a summer fellowship grant to translate the poems of Manolis Anagnostakis. Abrams was Fulbright Professor of American Literature at the University of Athens during 1989-90 and Scholar-in-Residence at the Technical University of Crete, Hania, in the summers 1993-96. During a 10-year break from a long career in education, Abrams worked as a film writer, longshoreman, laborer and in public relations. His latest collection of verse, «The Old Pothead Poems,» will soon be available from Creative Arts Books, in Berkeley, California.