Tatiani Rapatzikou interviews Evangelia Liana Sakelliou
A Dialogue of a Poet with Poetry
1 Do you write as a woman? Are you conscious when you write of the unique qualities that your gender has?
Few people would doubt that women’s writing exists. In terms of the number of publications produced by women and the number of positions available to women in universities, I would say that this is the biggest or among the biggest divisions within literary studies.
Concerning the meaning of women’s writing and my view on it, I do not try to write as a woman, I do not try to write in a way different from men, but perhaps some of my gender identity is presented in my poems. I believe some of the presentation of one’s gender identity is unavoidable. The most common and easiest way to distinguish women’s from men’s writing is by themes. In my case, my identity might be evident as a concern for the beauty of words or even the types of words.
However, I believe both men and women can be excellent poets as they can be excellent mathematicians or politicians and so on. Then, the question of women’s writing is a question that should lead us to ask, what is good poetry?
2 How does your work as a critic/professor of literature contribute to your creative writing? Does it interfere?
I am glad to be a faculty member at The University of Athens where I teach in addition to courses in American literature a special course in creative writing. If a person must work to earn a living, this type of employment is possibly much more preferable for a poet. There are opportunities to meet poets and writers. I have met several poets through my university position. I can also devote more time, for example, than a bank employee (Eliot) or an insurance executive (Stevens) could.
As a disadvantage, in the past promotions were based on criticism, not creative work – contrary to the encouragement by most international universities.
3 Who influenced you the most?
I could name several poets who influenced me quite a bit. I could say, however, that the performance of poetry and the rhythm and sound qualities were very appealing to me from my student days. Then I encountered the poetry of Denise Levertov. I started reading her essays on poetry and her collections—I was fascinated by her; I wanted to write my thesis on her and I did. Her exemplary life as a teacher and poet gave me a focus.
4 What role does critical theory play in relation to literature? Do you agree that it is a very important field? How important is it to you?
Let me remind everyone that critical theory grew to be a major concern only in the last four decades or so. Some literary scholars have objected to the fact that theory has come to replace the reading of the literary works themselves. This would be a wrong use of theory. Theory has legitimate uses, especially when the hard-earned interpretive ability of a scholar can be transferred to someone who has less expertise. In this case, theory can help people interpret texts better in a shorter time – and with more pleasure.
To me, literary theory is helpful if it is written by creative writers themselves, either reflecting on their work or the work of others. Also, I think poems speak about themselves, reveal themselves, so I look for theory in literary works.
5 Why only four collections of poetry?
I chose to write poetry as a path that can lead me to a much fuller life. I have created the conditions for myself that I can devote myself more to poetry than I have done in the past.
Of course, few people would say that quantity is the measure of a good poet. For me, poetry is a path of life allowing a human to become more human. To achieve this, the number of poems and the number of years one is alive are not the main factors.
6 Do you see yourself as a poet or as a critic or as a professor?
I hope they are not exclusive. I would hope that people would be readers and perhaps writers of literature in addition to their nonliterary professions.
Now I see myself as a poet who has a position as a university professor and has written criticism but who prefers to concentrate in the future on writing poems.
7 What do you feel poetry is to you?
Poetry is not the only path in life. It is not the best path. Yet, it is one that can build one’s inner self.
8 What do your titles signify?
The titles of my collections refer to the sensory or sensuous quality of poetry. I did not intend this, but now it seems to me that this is so.
My first collection Touches in the Flow (1991) has poems rooted in place, in the seascape, and it brings together the 3 cultures, to navigate between the 3 literary inheritances that I have: the Greek, the American and the British and at the same time root myself in my native language and landscape. The poems are written directly from sensory associations, rather than from an attempt to organize experience into an artificially constructed linear event.
The second collection Take Me like a Photograph (2004)--a meditation on photography and its understanding of beauty, on the perception of beauty and the ephemeral, and part of the effort was collaborating with an artist in a different medium, and from a different culture, one that I have an intimate relationship with but it is not my primary culture. The book is juxtaposing the work of 2 women coming from 2 different attitudes towards the image, 2 different perspectives but still finding harmony in a variety of ways. The poems are messages of our process of imagining both the flowers and our new selves partially made by them.
The third collection is entitled Portrait before Dark (2010). In 2009 my neighborhood and the pine forest caught fire, and my neighbors lost houses, cars, trees. After this disaster I left Greece and my black forest to go to green England and specifically to West Sussex where I was invited as a poet in residence of a private college which served as a palace in the 19th century. I wanted to create quiet, allusive poems that document the experiential changes in the life of Edward James—the owner of the palace and a patron of printers, of bookbinders, and of artists,—and Tilly Losch—an exotic Viennese dancer and star of the 20’s. The poems I wrote form a dialogue sequence and they lack titles. The book’s title refers to E.J.’s dark private life and also to my new environment after the fire. The forest serves as a flexible space in which the spaciousness of love merges with the conflicting emotions that the poems call into question.
The fourth collection, still in manuscript form, is titled Where the Wind Blows Gently (2016). The poems in the collection focus on place, as well as personal and family history, and show how island life and the sea shape peoples’ lives, send them into exile in faraway places and how they inevitably call them and their progeny back. The poems also refer to the lives of women residents of the island, how they learn from their fathers how to fish, and plant trees and harvest fruit, and thus gain a certain kind of independence. By focusing on geography I excavate memory.
Every poem is a type of knowledge that concerns life and the understanding of death. Poetry functions as a mechanism of creating, preserving and restructuring memory.
9 Your style seems to be different between your first, your second, your third and your fourth collection. The first is more experiential, the second is imagistic, etc. Do you think the photos influenced you? How?
I would hope that they influence readers. For me they gave me a point of reference. As a dancer who is spinning around focuses her eyes on a fixed point in the room, I focused on the photos as an external reference point to help me and readers find the internal balance of my imagination at the center of the spinning words found in the poems. For example, in the last lines of the poem ‘Reverence’ I write: “In the black swaying you validate your relationship with the light/ and nimble, limpid, lewd/ you sever the spirit from the stem/ and wave the bowing.”
10 How is poetry meaningful to you?
The question is answered by an entire life. If I were to say something specific now, it would be that I enjoy the performance of poems, their sound, rhythm, and the effect of moving the reader. More generally, poetry is a wonderful path of life, an activity that can take one in the direction of greater sensibility and capacity to appreciate the human qualities of experience. And the task is one that can lead us throughout an entire life.
11 How is poetry communicated to the public? Do you believe your poetry reaches the public?
Oral readings and performances, public events accompanied by poetry.
My poetry “reaches” me—I mean that poetry is important to me and I have found the experience of writing these poems to be engaging. I do want to share my joy and fascination with others. I find readings as the best and strongest way to reach out to others through my poems. Songs are not read; they are sung. Poetry is read; but even then, it is the reader who through the silent words can access the poet’s senses and speech.
12 For whom do you write?
The poet structures the poem so that readers can see how flowing acts of emotion and imagination become fixed by the boundaries of words. Reading a poem to its end is then a discovery of the origin, the making, of the poem. In Sartre’s view, poets write about objects in the world so as to reveal how they are mirrors of our inner selves, and the result of this self-knowledge is the strengthening of the imagination by the poet. In FR 1788/J 1763 Emily Dickinson writes about fame as a bee that has a song, a sting and a wing. I write for myself at the same time that I write for every person. I try to let poetry affect me and to share the experience with others. Many poets have spoken of themselves as being musical harps or lyres or other musical instruments or singing birds, and this shows that poetry is not merely a personal product. The poet feels like a vehicle of shared humanity.
13 Do you think poetry is important or useful to society?
Yes, very much. I would like to point out that society might need help sometimes in understanding the best uses of poetry. It is unrealistic and excessive to expect that poetry would turn everyone into a poet or that all of society would understand poetry in the way poets do. Nevertheless, poetry can help nonliterary people in society to remember that they have an inner self, an imagination, and that the world is in one of its aspects a reflection of our inner human selves. Most people forget this and carry on their lives telling themselves that our inner feelings are the reflection of an outer world. This is true but it is not the whole truth of a human being.
14 What does poetry do to people?
Poetry has been used for many non-poetic purposes, such as advertisements or propaganda for or against governments, psychological therapy, and greeting cards. These purposes are not entirely wasted because they at least help to prevent people from trying to eliminate genuine poetry because they are able to use it in a non-poetic way.
15 What should its function be?
Poetry can have several functions. For people who decide to become poets, it can be a life-long activity of building one’s humanity through the poetic attitude toward the world. We cannot expect many people to become poets or to let it be a dominant influence in their lives, yet we can try to help them benefit from it to some extent.
16 Do you think poetry should be read or performed?
Both. I prefer that the performance by the poet occur first. People can feel a poem before they can understand it intellectually.
If, on the other hand, someone first reads a poem silently and understands it intellectually more than someone who has only heard it, the silent reader can still miss the very important feeling presented by the poem. I recommend that poetry be read aloud to oneself if one cannot hear a performance by someone else. Few people would prefer to read about a dance instead of seeing it done or doing it oneself.
17 How is poetry different from fiction or drama?
Poetry can have its own distinctive advantage, just as fiction and drama would have their own. For me, poetry is more moving in the sense that it is more a matter of feeling than the other two literary endeavors. It is closer to the inner self. It touches the marrow of feeling more. I try to share my sense about the world and its poetic aspects, as this comes from my inner self, with others and not the other way around.
18 What are the elements of a poem? Themes?
Many poetic elements are well known to everyone. I could point out the importance of voice, though. By voice, I mean the attitude and the perspective presented by the poet. So in this case voice is not an isolated element nor does it convey a direct message.
The voice communicates an experience, a state of being to the reader and listener. It is as if at one moment in human history the poet can record what the world is like and by talking about it the poet gives the reader a “human address”: directions to a state of being, directions so that the reader can position himself or herself in the world as the poet had done. The result is that the poet enhances the power of the reader’s imagination enabling him or her to build a human world and an inner self. The poet raises the reader to a higher level of being and kindles the poetic spirit. The voice of the poet creates a human address to a state of being and this is how its imaginative power is transferred.
19 Do poems convey social or merely private messages?
I think poetry is more than private by the very act of writing or speaking the words. The poem confers a social benefit since the power in its vision can be transferred to others through the physical medium of spoken or written words. By its very nature, the poem communicates an enhanced vision; just as a hologram adds a third dimension to a photograph, a poem adds the dimension of the enhanced feeling of the poet.
20 What do your poems mean to you after you have seen them in their printed form?
During the writing process or upon the completion of a poem I am usually surprised. When I see them in printed form, I wonder if others will experience the same sense of change. Then, I see myself as a responsible member of my community because I offer some of my inner self to others as others have done for me. I feel more real, more whole, more a part of everything.
21 How do you like the translations of your poems into other languages? To what extent do you believe poetry can be translated?
Some of my poetry has been translated well into several languages. As I bilingual speaker of Greek and English, the English translations of my poems do not feel absolutely the same although they are excellent. Both translators (David Connolly and Don Schofield) did a superb job. To me, it seems as if my poems in Greek and their translations into English are like dialects of the one language called Poetry. My second collection which was wonderfully rendered into French by Claudine Tourniaire seems and sounds ‘distilled’— I feel grateful. Whenever I translate poems from English into Greek, I make choices to preserve and revitalize the dominant effects the poet intended. I believe that poetry is a human ability common to all languages; throughout history poetry has been translated well enough for it to survive and even thrive from one language to another.
Liana Sakelliou was born in Athens where she studied English Literature at the University of Athens, continuing with postgraduate studies at the Universities of Edinburgh, Essex and Pennsylvania State. She has been Professor of American literature, specializing in contemporary poetry and creative writing at the Department of English Language and Literature of the University of Athens since 1999. She has received scholarships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Department of Hellenic Studies of Princeton University, the University of Coimbra and the British Council for her academic and writing activities. She has published 17 books in Greece, the US, and France.
Tatiani G. Rapatzikou is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Literature, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh), Greece. Her publications (monograph, articles, edited volumes) focus on contemporary American literature (fiction and poetry), technological uncanny, cyberpunk/cyberculture (with emphasis on William Gibson) as well as on digital and print narrative practices. In 2009, she was awarded a Fulbright Visiting Scholar grant for her research in contemporary American fiction and digital media (M.I.T. Comparative Media Studies program). In 2012, she was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Literature Program (Duke University), and winner of the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund international competition for her project “Urban Environments in Transition” (www.asrp.gr/urban). Her current research addresses digital literature and multimodal narratives.