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Maintenant #19: Krystalli Glyniadakis

‘the Athenian heat to keep me company’ – an interview with Krystalli Glyniadakis by SJ Fowler

The concern with continually re-emphasising a contemporary poets ability to stand head to head with the greatest of their tradition in the past century is that an assumption is made, even implicitly, that the thread of that tradition, politically as well as poetically, has enough similarities that any comparison is valuable at all. Greece, like so many of the other immense poetic nations of the twentieth century, has turmoil as a bedfellow for its brilliance in poetry. However, while we might suggest that no cogent comparison can be made from the generation of Elytis, Seferis, Cavafy and Kazantzakis to the now, we can see that if those poets were by their expression ‘enlightened’ then their character is well born in the young poets of a new Greece. None appear more eloquent, informed, sophisticated and agile as Krystalli Glyniadakis. Her assured poetic tone, her remarkable craft and control of imagery is mirrored only by the clear excellence of her understanding of the poetic, and clearly from this interview, a veritable lesson in Greek poetics, her nation as a nation of poets and people.


3:AM: Your poetry often utilises careful, formal verse, descriptive and often utilising first person narratives that build the poem into a story of a kind. Is there, as there appears, a deliberate fidelity to a speech-like cadence in your work?

Krystalli Glyniadakis: You seem to have picked up on the elements that concern me most when I compose a poem: a certain cinematographic quality in the succession of utilised images, as well as an ear for the music, the tonality of the poem. I find that such elements serve well the two main reasons for which I write poetry: preservation and communication. By preservation I mean the power of a poem to act like a photograph; to capture the (subjective) essence of a particular moment, or story, and preserve it for posterity – primarily for the poet’s own satisfaction. To this extent, musicality, rhythm, and some sort of narrative help in the preservation process by alluding to multiple-sense stimuli: the vision, the taste, the smell, the feel, and the music of what happens. Much more than prose, poetry can utilise such free-playing elements in ‘printing out’ a picture of the poet’s subjective reality. Now, in addition to having this inevitably selfish motive, poetry has always had for me the magical capacity of conveying insight. It can create moments of epiphany, for both the reader and the writer; unlike philosophy (which I studied for many years), it has no need for formal arguments in order to convince its audience of certain deep, sometimes irrational, and often contradictory truths about life. In this sense, it resembles a spotlight: it can render its claims irrefutable simply by illuminating a situation in a specific way. The “aha!” moment that readers often experience whilst reading (and writers whilst writing) poetry is to me the very essence of poetic raison-d’être. Of course all art has this goal: to communicate the ineffable. But poetry needs to do that through words; and words are tricky things – unlike paint or musical sounds, words are world-building elements. That makes them both more communicable, but also less pliable than other artistic media: to the extent that they are attached to a social meaning, they afford a lesser capacity towards a free interpretation of the work of art than, say, dance movements. This is why I find it necessary to link words with ‘liberating’ elements such as musicality, tempo, speech-like cadences.

So poetry has always been for me both a medium of preservation (a photograph) and of communication with an audience (a spotlight). Utilising ‘cinematographic’ techniques, hence, creating a certain atmosphere, and simply ‘playing it by ear’ are all ways to make a poem stand out, to address and engage its audience; to elicit something more than a lukewarm response. Of course the formal elements that you mention are also part of this endeavor: I find it important to not get carried away when using musicality, syntax-as-rhythm, and/or narrative; I write poetry, not song lyrics or scenarios. There is something in poetry that needs to be preserved, and which is different from its lyricism, its descriptive capacities, its epiphanic function, its purpose to engage: it is a sense of measure, of balance, and of simplicity at the same time. The best of poems are, for me, those that include no elements unnecessary to their purpose: they are beautifully to-the-point, the way a mathematical proof is. The use of more formal elements serves the purpose of ‘reigning in’ the creative momentum, in the same way ‘snipping’ does: by cutting out redundant, voluble elements that overcrowd a poem.

3:AM: You also utilise some typographical experimentation in your poetry. Is this led by the content of the poem in question? Do you embrace a variety of poetic methodologies? Do you think this a necessary evolution poets must engage with, multiple forms of the poem?

KG: The way a poem looks (as well as the way it sounds) is as important as its content, for form and sound have everything to do with the poem’s reception: if the poem calls for lucid communication, it needs to be given space to ‘breath’ its meaning through; if, on the other hand, it challenges the reader to unlock it, it may very well do so through its form, as well as its syntax. I think I first learnt this invaluable lesson through the poetry of e.e. cummings. The look of a poem on a page (as well as its oral delivery – which is very often dictated by its look on the page) is as important as the medium used on a visual work of art –acrylic, oil, computer print-out, fabric, etc.– for both the abovementioned purposes of preservation and communication. To answer, then, your question about the link between content and methodology, yes, I believe that the form of a poem is irreducibly linked to its content, without this necessitating that the former always comes first: the content inspires the form as often as the form inspires the content.

As for whether I think it necessary for a poet to experiment with multiple poetic formats, I’ll have to say this: I think it wise for a poet to do so, yes, but I am in no position to call it ‘necessary’. Some poets never engage in methodological experimentation, at least not publicly, without harming their artistic production. I simply do not belong to this school; for me the world is rich enough to call for open-mindedness in its reception, as well as its narration: not every idea can be communicated/ illuminated or preserved/ photographed in the same manner. That would be like having to sing all the world’s songs in the same musical metre: feasible but sterile.

3:AM: You studied at the poetry progam at UEA, that seems to be bringing valuable new work from poets consistently, and poets from outside of England too, Agnes Lehoczky springs to mind. How has this experience of studying in Norwich affected your work?

KG: Norwich has been nothing less than a haven for me, both as a city and as the seat of the UEA’s creative writing programme. As far as the programme is concerned, I greatly benefited both from the MA’s rigorous structure, as well as the poetic community within which it allowed me to enter: Having to write a minimum number of poems every week (without mentioning here the other courses in which we were all engaged) and to constantly interact with other poets, inspired in me a diligent work ethic: I made it a habit to actually sit down and try to write poetry, rather than wait for the inspiration to rain down upon me. It also allowed me to challenge both myself and my audience (the group of poets with which I studied and constantly interacted) by presenting unexpected new takes on my usual poetic style. Their honest, intense, and regular engagement with my work (and mine with theirs) provided me with invaluable and surprising insights not only about my own work, but also about poetry, and even the world itself.

If there is one lesson I’d take with me from the UEA, that would be the realisation that poetry can be very much like practicing the piano: if you leave it, it leaves you too; if you constantly engage with it critically, however, you will witness a veritable discovery of your own, previously unimagined, potential – something akin to peeling down your own creative barriers one by one, to reveal fresher ways of seeing the world, more succinct and elegant ways of expressing yourself, entirely new goals that your art can serve. As for the city itself, I couldn’t have been happier with it. I moved to Norwich after an emotionally stressful time in my life and, having lived in large cities all my life (Athens, London, Istanbul), I found unexpected calm and inspiration in this town of 120.000 people, with its mediaeval churches and cobblestoned streets. In Istanbul for example, where I currently reside, I am constantly attacked by the cacophony of its sheer volume; I literally have no moment of rest. Norwich gave me the chance to stop and listen, to look inside, to digest, and to produce poetry in volumes larger than ever before. It was a perfect writer’s retreat.

3:AM: Is contemporary poetry in Greece supported by the state? Is it well funded, well received? How do you think this has affected poetry and the volume of poets emerging from Greece?

KG: Greece has a surprisingly high volume of poetry produced each year (around 380 titles, when novels alone account for 400 titles), given that Greeks are notorious non-readers! This is even more startling if one considers the shocking absence of any state funding: There are a few grants around, but these only amount to travel expenses to and from book fairs and other places in which an author has been invited to speak, and a sort of residence programme on the island of Paros. And that’s it. As for supporting the translation of Greek works, the state bothers to do so only when Greece is the official visiting country of some international book fair (and, hence, some titles must appear in the host language!) Other than that, the state stays scandalously away from supporting Greece’s literary community. This is the reason why Greek literature and poetry stay well locked within the country’s borders. Anyone wishing to translate contemporary Greek literature into another language must either pay out of their own pocket, or find a publishing house crazy enough to risk investing in something the Greek state itself ignores…

3:AM: Do political issues exert a direct influence on your poetry? Does the climate of the current economic crisis in Greece impact your work?

KG: Political issues have always been a part of my poetry: I’ve written poems on things as diverse as the American elections, the evolving relationship between Greece and Turkey, the struggle of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, etc. However, the current Greek financial crisis leaves me cold, as far as poetry is concerned: I consider it a crisis of management, rather than a political calamity. And administrative crises call for lucid, rational approaches, not powerful, idealistic, poetic even, polemics.

The real political crisis is something that has been unfolding for the past 30 years now: it is the capitulation of Greek democracy to nepotism, favoritism, and bribery, the perennial Greek disease of “let’s make as much money as possible, in the quickest time as possible, with the smallest effort possible.” After decades of being traumatised by civil war divisions –where the winners, first, and the losers later, ran the country exclusively by and in the interests of their ‘own people’s network’– Greek society had become completely complacent about its own inability to self-criticise. My generation is the first entirely apolitical generation; and rightly so, for there is nothing left to believe in: we witnessed the crushing of meritocracy and open democratic procedures by the very people who had once fought to bring down the military junta in the 70s. Even the riots that you see on international news broadcasts are not properly political: they may appear to be cries of angst against the greediness of the international capitalist system, but in reality they are the howls of a generation that is too young to realise that their communist-era slogans are inapplicable, nostalgic demands. As often, they are the cries of those who are unwilling to lose their precious, comfortable, yet borrowed lives. I cannot see myself in accord with such protestors: I think our governments are responsible for monstrous administrative errors, as much as we are for voting for them. I have been debating the crisis and the very purpose and usefulness of the current international monetary system more than any other topic in the past six months. But I believe that the situation calls for rational arguments, not motivational polemics. And, whether I like it or not, poetry lends itself to motivation, not to detailed, rational explanation; that’s why I cannot use it in dealing with this very specific crisis.

3:AM: How do you feel about the bond to ancient Greek culture in contemporary Greek poetry? Do you explore this cultural ancestry in your work? It has been such a perennial theme with Greek poets, this harking back, to the foundation of Western civilisation – is this necessary and / or beneficial?

KG: From my readings of contemporary Greek poetry, it seems to me that poets are far less preoccupied with ancient Greek culture than they were in the 19th or early 20th century. Cavafy’s generation witnessed the infant steps of a brand new, independent Greek state that needed to turn away from its Ottoman past and resume its place among other European states; hence the constant references to a glorious past, on which the new state was called to build an optimistic idea about the future: they juxtaposed the anachronistic, anatolian Ottoman conquerors with the democratic and culturally refined legacy of ancient Greece. Of course, the hopes and dreams of a new “glory that was Greece” were shattered after a series of unfortunate Greco-Turkish wars that ended in the final, 1923 humiliating defeat of the Greeks, the failure of the democratic political system, the wiping-out of hundreds of thousands of Greeks residing in Turkey, and the forced immigration of two million others to the mainland. All this left Greek society less preoccupied with its glorious past than ever before. By the time Elytis’ and Seferis’ inter-war generation had been succeeded by a new one, Greece was reeling in the aftermath of a bloody civil war that casts its shadow over intellectual and political debates to this day. Poets stopped thinking about a united, noble past and started putting into words the struggle, the division and the political hatreds they experienced during the second half of 20th century in Greece.

As for the poets writing today, the newer generations have finally started to heal from the bloody political struggle between Left and Right. But any references to ancient Greek culture are sporadic and I feel that they allude more to a feeling of defeat (what we, modern Greeks, haven’t managed to achieve), rather than to a spirit of motivation/inspiration. The interesting question, then, becomes whether such a harking back to ancient times can be proven beneficial: yes and no. It can be beneficial in the same way that ancient Greek culture has been beneficial to all humanity: by symbolising the ideals of democracy, justice, aesthetic symmetry, moderation etc. But it can also be destructive to Greeks, not least the poets and other intellectuals, if it tricks us again into falling for unfeasible ideals. I think Greek poets need to find something within modern Greece that Greeks can be proud of, and build their ‘motivational poetry’ on that, rather than run after red, ancient, herrings.

As for my own poetry, I have not yet experienced any desire to allude to ancient times. My work is very much contemporary in its historical themes, much influenced by modern Western philosophy, and directly in contact with the English language tradition. I find no interest in the ancient Greeks, apart from humbly respecting the fact that they were behind everything we cherish in our lives and art: from the ‘apollonian’ democracy, scientific inquiry, symmetry, and aesthetics, to the ‘dionysiac’ irrationalism, playfulness, and the occult. I feel that the Enlightenment has given the ancient Greeks their rightful due, and that it is time to move onwards, expanding this legacy, rather than constantly, and romantically, referring to ‘glories of the old’.

3:AM: Heidegger famously claimed only Greek and German could express the poetic, the true philosophy of expression. Does Greek as a language lend itself uniquely toward poetry?

KG: I don’t think so. I cannot, of course, speak properly for any other language but Greek and English, but my feeling is that Greek is a very fluid, even surreal kind of language that lends itself more to ideas than descriptions. In other words, I feel that it rather suits rhetoric more than poetry. That said, it all depends on what sort of poetry one likes to read and/or write: Greek’s often vague, multiply realisable meanings suit the kind of fluid, emotionally powerful poetry exhibited by Elytis, or serve perfectly the political aims of Ritsos’ poems – in a similar manner that German, I guess, lends itself to Heidegger’s and Neitzsche’s non-precise philosophy, or French has made possible the (ironically) bewildering vocabulary of Deconstruction. It is not that Greek vocabulary is imprecise in itself; on the contrary, expert linguists like to insist that Greek is an extremely rich language that can “label” even the smallest nuances between the most complicated ideas. But, again, the point is how a Greek poem is received, how it is understood: if the bulk of Greek vocabulary remains unused, the words that are used assume additional meanings, rendering their bearers multiply realisable. As Hilary Putnam said, “meanings just ain’t in the head!” The poet has to live within this reality of socially-shaped meanings as much as a politician or an advertiser does. And the reality is that the way modern Greek language has been used makes it a far less unambiguous language than, say, English. Which brings me back to the point of what kind of poetry one wants to produce. I love the precise, reserved, understated, careful ways in which poetry is constructed in the English language: the grandest of emotional impacts can be achieved through the tiniest twist in a series of restrained sentences. If you will pardon the wild extrapolation, English poetry is closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku and senryu than modern Greek poetry could ever hope to be. That’s one of the aims I have when I write in Greek: to use the language precisely, with much reserve and subtlety; to create an island of English understatement in the middle of a Greek ocean of sweeping conceptual flourishes. I don’t often achieve it. And it is hardly surprising that some of the best poems I’ve written in Greek have succumbed to precisely this overbearing power and flow of the Greek language… Nonetheless, I don’t give up the good fight, so to speak.

3:AM: Is there room for experimental or avant garde poetry in contemporary Greece? Has there been a famous modernist / postmodernist / high art poetry scene in Greece? Does it coincide, that is is it eclipsed by the great poetic generation of Cavafis, Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, Kazantzakis, that must create an indelible sense of confidence in your nation’s ability to think the poetic, to create great poets in any age. Is there a lasting impression in Greece that these poets are some of the greatest to have written in the last century? And are they remembered at the detriment of contemporary poetry, as is the case in Russia? I could even ask is there pressure upon you because of their immensity?

KG: I am not sure I can imagine any sort of national poetry scene that disallows the experimental, so I am assuming the question is about how experimental contemporary poetry fairs in Greece. My brief answer is: not very well. The reason behind this is precisely what you point out in the latter part of the question: it is not so much that the legacy of Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, etc., hinders the reading of contemporary poetry; it’s that it hinders the writing of poetry, in that contemporary poets seem to be ‘trapped’ in the legacy of the older ones (and here, I must include many other earlier- 20th Century poets and writers, such as Karyotakis, Eggonopoulos, Empeirikos, Varnalis, and even Kavadias). And this is hardly a contemporary phenomenon: it seems to me that all poets writing after the mid-70s have, in some sense, been in awe of their predecessors. Even inspired and successful poets such as Tasos Leivadites, Nassos Vagenas, Nikos Karouzos and Kiki Dimoula -all wonderful craftsmen in their own respect- dare not storm out of the shadow left by Greece’s mid-20th century poetic scene: left-wing politics and confessionalism.

Unlike in English and American poetry, –where the tragedy of WWII could not put a stop to the massive impact of modernism, or the enormous effect of mass-media proliferation (and, hence, of postmodernism)– Greece’s experience of WWII divides the country down to these days; for in the aftermath of the Allied victory came the savage Civil War, fought between the USSR-backed communist guerillas and the British-backed national army, which turned friend against friend and father against son. The war ended with the defeat of the communists, whose political voice was not restored until the socialist government of Andreas Papandreou took office in 1981, thirty years of exile, political exclusion and social stigmatisation later. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a massive part of the poets writing in the latter half of the 20th century concerned themselves with politics, and especially the struggle of the Left to fight back and be heard. And those who didn’t, seemed to either fall back to Elytis’ poetic idea of the Greek nation (which, in its turn, is a continuation of aforementioned C19 concerns with the newly-founded independent Greek state), or the individual struggle with universal themes such as death and love. And all this relates only to content. Apart from the surrealist break of the early 20th century which set off the free-verse movement in Greece, no other substantial formal experimentation has taken place since: we’ve never, for example, had our own e.e. cummings. This might also be related to the language itself, which is rarely used sarcastically and playfully in poetry. It is also related to the fact that a ‘Greek’ modernism in poetry (and, hence, its reaction: postmodernism) never took off in the same manner than it did in the English-speaking world. Post-Cavafy Greek poets were primarily influenced by French, rather than English, poetry. The little independent magazines that so promoted modernism in England, fostered surrealism in Greece –a trickling down of Breton, Elyard, and Aragon into a heavily Baudelairean scene. Greek poets did break with traditional poetic conventions; they did fight against linear narration and rhyme; they did wage war against rationalism –all characteristics of the modernist movement. But, once again, the historical events that plagued Greece, along with any absence of real cutting-edge technological innovations, so cherished by the European Modernists as heralding the way to a new, braver future, led inter-war Greek poets to write about decay and death and to forgo any faith or idealism. Karyotakis, first, and then Eggonopoulos and Empeirikos brought to Greek poetry what Rimbaud, Apolinaire, and Verlaine had brought to French. Greece’s 20th century poetry moved from symbolism to surrealism, to politically engaged poetry, to confessionalism. One of the few properly modernist poets was George Seferis; and that is only because his love of T.S. Elliot and his years in the UK caused him to lead a completely different life than that of his contemporaries. And, of course, Yannis Ritsos, whose burning, left-wing idealism could not fit in any sort of traditional structure.

So, to get back to the question about contemporary Greek poetry and its experimental potentials: yes, there are some poets who are writing today and whom I find very refreshing in their approach to poetry: Kostis Gimosoulis, Dimitris Athinakis, Nikos Violaris, Maria Topali. They are young and promising and very much concerned with ‘bending’ conventions of form. There are also individual, older poets who break with their contemporaries’ subject matter (politics, confessionalism) and have a more cosmopolitan take on life, such as Vlavianos, Kapadaes, Varveris, and Mavroudis. But there is no overall momentum that will combine these strands into one, avant garde, “new content & new form” movement yet. I am looking forward to (and working towards) its onset.


SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 4th, 2010.