Still writing in his mother tongue after all these years

At the end of Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, the Chrysler Building gleams in the winter sunshine. Van Morrison’s powerful bluesy vocals are belting out «Too Long in Exile» on the car CD player, as Nicos Alexiou is taking me down to his favorite joint in the West Village. A permanent resident of New York City since 1984 and a professor of sociology at Queens College, Alexiou has already published five poetry collections in the United States. His latest anthology, titled «Circular Wounds,» will be published this month in Greece by Zaharopoulos. Incisively and sensitively, Alexiou spoke to Kathimerini about today’s America, the crisis in Greece and why he insists on writing in his native tongue, Greek. New York, New York «I left for the USA in the early 1980s. I was forced by circumstance as my mother was in need of serious surgery. As a child I grew up with the slogan ‘Yankees go home’ ringing in my ears, but at the same time I was surrounded by the mythology of jazz, the blues and the beatniks. I suddenly found myself in the world’s most magical city, New York. This is where I had my first contact with sociology and I ended up doing a graduate course on social class and national identity at the State University of New York. I got to study what I’d already read in American literature and I witnessed the powerful influence of grassroots movements on the country’s political system,» he told Kathimerini. Living language Although you live abroad, you have chosen to write poetry in your native language. How do you feel about that? I have chosen my homeland to be that point in between; it’s like walking a tightrope. In spring, I am publishing another collection of poems titled «Astoria.» To write in Greek and to dream in Greek while you are away from the country first of all helps keep the language alive in the collective consciousness and culture. By extension, it also helps build a sense of identity and community. However, because the Greek-American community does not give its poets too much credit, and because Greece has failed to include poets of the diaspora in the literary canon, people like me end up on the outer periphery. How long have you been writing poetry? I have been writing poems since I was a teenager, but this urge became stronger in the years that followed. It’s no easy task. Poetry is a wonderful albeit unhealthy process. A poet must be capable of uncovering all that is blanketed under the dark and pull it out into the light. The price of this is that people rarely acknowledge it. What is your take on the Greek crisis? I recently visited Greece following a lengthy absence. I saw accumulated anger – but people don’t express it because they are looking for a new political vocabulary to do so. A few may resort to violence but the vast majority are standing speechless and confused. What we are witnessing is the necessary modernization of obsolete state structures. But the quick and makeshift fashion in which this is taking place and the exclusion of working-class people from it all is a sign of social barbarism. The Greek nation-state is called upon to adapt to the demands of the global game: competitiveness, the accumulation of wealth in fewer hands, the transformation of the labor market. The idea that modern-day imperialism is undoing the state is wrong. In fact, globalization itself has to do with the transformation of the state. How did we get here? Greece’s peculiarities, along with the hardships that we Greeks were subjected to because of wars and dictatorships, mean that we never had the luxury of turning our difficult experiences into wisdom or launching a public debate on history and identity, like other advanced states. Sixty years on, we are still suffering from some form of posttraumatic civil war syndrome. However, instead of promoting this debate, Greek governments went on to feed the patron-client system, exploiting people’s victim mentality that craved wealth and a chance to climb the social ladder. This is more or less how we reached this state of overconsumption and heavy debt. How would you describe contemporary America? What we are witnessing in Greece today is the local manifestation of a global phenomenon. In today’s globalized economy, the bourgeois class enemy of the 19th and 20th century has been replaced by multinational companies. Sober-minded Americans are as pessimistic as the Greeks because even though they drew some hope from the election of Barack Obama, they now realize that no American president can really change the economic policy of the US as this is designed on the basis of specific interests. Young members of the diaspora You have been a professor at Queens College, which has the biggest community of Greek-American students, for many years. How do you find them? These kids have strong feelings for their country of origin. But they are misguided on a cultural level. They learn Greek from songs on YouTube and learn to admire Greek pop singers. Their grandparents and parents were poorly educated people who came to the USA as cheap labor. So they need help to discover anything of real value that Greece has to offer on a literary, musical and artistic level. The Greek language survived because we had two mass migratory movements to the USA that fed the country at the beginning of the 20th century and later in the 1960s. We must pay attention to this generation or it will be the last one to speak Greek. If these kids, who are not migrants but American citizens, do not change the current structure of the community, then more and more will turn out like C.P. Cavafy’s «Poseidonians.»