BETWEEN CATHERINE STRISIK AND VASSILIKI RAPTI
The following conversation between Catherine Strisik and Vassiliki Rapti took place at the Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA, on August 12, 2017, after the poetry reading of The Mistress (A Taos Press; 1st edition, 2016) by Catherine Strisik, hosted by Cervena Barva Press:
V.R. Catherine Strisik, congratulations on today’s amazing reading of The Mistress!
C.S: Thank you! And thank you for attending my reading here at the Armory of the Arts in Somerville.
V.R. Tell me, how did you come to poetry?
C.S.: I was 24 when I moved to New Mexico and started attending very casual writing groups. I was writing short stories where much was hidden, and fragmented. A close poet friend of mine after a couple of years said: “You have poetry hidden here; you have poetry in whatever you’re trying to do.” So she very much influenced me, being the first to notice my poetry. She encouraged me to attend poetry conferences, and I did over the next many years, attending the Aspen Writers Conference, learning from Robert Pinsky, The Santa Fe Writers Workshop, studying with Brenda Hillman and Laura Kasischke, and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I was interested in studying with specific poets, so I went to where they were teaching when I could, as I had a new baby and large family in those early days of studying the craft of writing poetry. My influences are vast beginning with Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, Tomaz Salamun and many others…. I study and read a lot.
V.R. Do you remember the name of that friend of yours?
C.S. Yes, and she passed away last week. Her name is ‘Annah Sobelman. She opened me to poetry like no one had before, pulling out the poetry in my thousands of words, directing my mind in a direction that I didn’t know existed.
VR.: It’s so interesting to hear that you started with short stories in which the poetry was hidden and I had a similar feeling, as I was reading your poetry collection Thousand-Cricket Song, where poetry is distilled to its utmost degree. The more you keep searching the more poetry you distill, which takes you on a journey to the rhythm of nature or something that I would call the matter of the language, something you also achieve in The Mistress, although the voice is different there. In other words— it seems to me- the element of the short story is still there, but it is taken to its purest expression. How do you do this? How do you come to this result? I would love to hear more about this process of writing of yours.
C.S.: (Laughing). I am not sure. Obviously, when you write, you enter another state of a higher consciousness, where the muses take over, where the ego of self-disappears, and the utterances many times appear as if gifted from a place of “otherness,” and in this state of being for me is also where I experience the most groundness. It is a pure state of consciousness --I believe--. I have learned from various teachers over many years that “less is more”. I start by reading aloud my lines endlessly, 500 times --I ’m sure--, until I start to feel “what doesn’t need to be there”. The poem directs. It’s more like a process of elimination rather than adding in. What is the mood, voice between the lines? What doesn’t have to be said with words? With few words can I capture the essence of the impetus?
VR. As you were describing this process of elimination, there was a cadence almost feminine, as if there was a weaving thread that dictated such process of elimination that is taking you to the heart of nature, something one can also detect in the nature of the Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art. I would like to hear more about the idea and the uniqueness of this journal. In other words, it seems to me that there is a parallel path in the way you write on the one hand and the way you select the poems in the Taos Journal.
C.S.: With my own work, I knew always from when I was writing short stories that there was something I was trying to reach through the physical worlds of body and nature, something textured with body and spirit and ancestry. Those themes were all in my early work. And I think because of that and because I wanted to learn more about the body for my poetry, I attended for two years massage school.
V.R.: How interesting! Seeking the tissue of poetry!
C.S.: You know, I have education in so many different fields. I am a graduate gemologist and this area of study, the gemstones, colors, facets have all found their way into my poetry. The richer my life experience, the richer my language for my poetry.
VR.: This is striking to me because that’s exactly the feeling I am getting from reading your poetry. The more I delve into it, the more I feel I discover some gemstones. You are achieving this by throwing away the superfluous and what remains, in the end, is a precious compassion, as if you gave your heart to whatever surrounds you. I felt this in both your Cambodian poetry collection and also in the Mistress. Yet here you follow a different process. While in the Thousand-Cricket Song you maintain a balance between the objective and subjective worlds, in The Mistress, the voice becomes more subjective, revealing a long process of endurance and suffering yet you were able to find another device that works beautifully. I refer to the exchange of different voices. This is the core difference between this collection of yours and the previous one. It must have been a challenge for you to follow the various voices.
C.S.: Honestly, that was the gift of this book. It was that I was able to bring in the different voices/personas and that’s how I began this book. I was in a state of mania. It was difficult to sit because –obviously I am writing about my husband, our marriage, my husband disappearing, Parkinson’s intruding in our marriage—so the other voices became the entry into this book and it was the only way I could write it. The title The Mistress announced itself as my close friend, poet, Veronica Golos and I were critiquing each other’s work which we had been doing closely for a number of years and while we were reading the work, she said to me: “You know you’re writing is as if it is a specific person, as if you are talking about someone who has come into your marriage to disrupt it like a mistress. And then we both cried “Oh my God, that’s the title of this book!” So The Mistress in this book speaks, the neurologist speaks, the husband speaks, the wife speaks. There are other poems, small poems, woven throughout the book that begin with “Before we were three,” in an attempt to give breath and space separate from the suffocating mistress and disrupted marriage, in an attempt to voice, “there was life before The Mistress.”
V.R.: It works fabulously. It is a great contribution of yours to Poetry. And it is close to Greek tragedy, its chorus in particular. I know that you have Greek roots. How does your Greek descent finds its way into your poetry? Sometimes you also use Greek words or expressions such as “Oh mana mou!” (Oh my mother!). This is very powerful for me and it immediately captures the intensity of feeling. How does the use of Greek vocabulary empower your poetry?
C.S.: Some of the Greek language, particularly as related to Greek tragedy, is so strong in my mind. I can see my grandmother praying to “Panayitsa” uttering these words; “Oh mana mou!”. All this was such a strong part of my early childhood. When I think of the past and current projects on which I am working, the use of the Greek language, the language of my origin is of great importance. The use of Greek words makes for more personal powerful poetry. Often only the Greek word can convey the emotion. It’s that familial emotion carried through into me from the DNA of ancestry. Whether I visit my family in Greece or I am here, it’s all coming from the same root. Everything is very familiar: the gestures, the facial expressions, it’s all part of the Greek experience, whether as a second generation Greek-American or Greek having never left Greece. I saw myself in my cousins in Thessaloniki.
V.R.: The interesting thing is that you come with your own voice of a poet as an observer of all these gestures that are associated with specific feelings that take you back to the roots of your own existence. And perhaps the spirituality that emanates from your work might also have to do with this same fact. You mentioned earlier, for instance, that you were witnessing your grandmother’s worship of the Holy Virgin. It is a different kind of spirituality, although the spirituality in your poetry is more related to Nature. I envision it as a huge kind heart that comes out of your poetry. (Laughing).
C.S.: To me, this is an offering from outside of myself. So much of what we are comes from that place. I know for myself that I function like that, from a similar situation. In as far as the Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art is concerned, because I work with a co-editor, Veronica Golos, we founded the journal with very different ideas. We each spoke our minds, I being a more private person and the difficulty I faced becoming more public in the position of co-editor – we found a common ground and it’s been an amazing five years working together, discovering poets on every continent, publishing translations, and the excitement and gratefulness when actually meeting poets who we have published.
V.R.: It is a great contribution of yours, as I can see the distinct voice of that journal, full of spirituality. It brings a union of both the East and the West –I would say--. This unique union that seeks the heart of the language, something that is present in both the "Taos Journal" and your "The Mistress and Thousand-Cricket Song". In the latter, you mention the Buddhist monks and practices and there is a kind of fusion of Buddhism and Christianity that seeks something primordial in terms of spirituality.
C.S. Obviously I was baptized Christian Greek Orthodox and experienced Sunday School and Greek School, and I am still mesmerized by the incense, the scents of the ceremony in the Church but as I got older, I found it difficult to embrace only Christianity. I meditate daily and have for over 35 years --this maybe is the same as a deep prayer for those who believe in the power of prayer--. There is a quietness within. Buddhism, that philosophy is easy for my mind, but the familiarity of my Greekness is what carries me through my life. There is a balance of light and dark for me. And so, --yes—the fact that you felt this feeling in my books makes me feel good.
V.R.: Indeed, I felt it as a reader but at the same time I noticed how bold and critical to your surroundings you are in your poetry. For example, the inappropriate scene with the Buddhist monk in one of your poems.
C.S.: It was a horrific scene. I was confused by that monk. I was perplexed thinking to myself: “Why is he flirting with me, standing so close to me in the temple? This is not appropriate behavior for a monk, yet, he was a man.” It was a bold poem, you are right.
V.R.: This is really another strength of your poetry. You are not afraid of speaking out, of bringing up a negative reality that you see around you and this is the best kind of criticism one can offer. You disclose, for instance, the governmental corruption in Cambodia, the miserable situation of Cambodian people, especially that of women. So, by just having this always alert look at everything that surrounds you, you make your readers aware of this social injustice.
C.S.: That was an interesting trip. My husband was hiking in Nepal and he said, “I am going to go to Cambodia.” And Dimitra was about ten at the time and I thought to myself, “I need to do something drastic” and I told my husband, “We’ll meet you in Cambodia!”. I needed something edgy, not safe, and going to Cambodia felt very much like that for me.
V.R.: So, how long have you stayed in Cambodia?
C.S.: Just a couple of weeks.
V.R.: But it seems to me that you know these people so well… I was left with the impression that you ’ve lived there for years.
C.S.: No, but we were with people with whom my husband was very intimate. And so they took us to places where tourists wouldn't go, villages, temples or old farmhouses. It was a very different experience from the one I would have had if I had gone as a tourist. We were really immersed in the deep culture in so many ways, the pain etched into faces.
V.R.: One could see that. I know you need to go, but I would like to know a little bit more about your current projects. Obviously, you just came out of a very difficult personal situation with the loss of your husband. It seems to me that writing The Mistress was perhaps the best kind of catharsis for you.
C.S.: It was cathartic, although I was writing the poems for five years prior to his death. He had seen the manuscript and read it numerous times. He knew what the cover would look like. But the completion of the book, its publication, and launch were, yes, cathartic. What will the next step for me be? I am currently working on three manuscripts. One of them, a chapbook is called Insectum Gavitis. It came almost like a joke. I said: “I need to write something lighter after these last two books. I am going to write about bugs!”. Well, writing about bugs is not so gentle. Bugs and humans have similar behaviors, reactions, sense of nurture. The poems became more complex than I anticipated, and the more I researched, the more I discovered, humans have bug-like behavior (laughing).
V.R.: I’m so happy to hear about all this and I believe you will also be surprised to hear that I just finished a translation project about insects. It’s called Light Breeze in paradise/Ελαφρύ αεράκι στον Παράδεισο by Carmen-Francesca Banciu, where she basically observes closely the daily behavior of two crickets whom she names Orestes and Clytaemnestra onto which she projects traits of human behavior.
C.S.: Wow! Amazing! I look forward to reading it. I am going to spend my time in New Mexico this winter working on this manuscript, and friends will critique. Insectum Gravitis, its tone, is very different from my previous work
V.R..: Oh, I would love to host a workshop on this manuscript at the Advanced Training in Greek Poetry translation and performance Workshop!
C.S: How lovely! I have another manuscript in progress, Baltimore Street with poems that I wrote last year during my residency on Crete consisting also of poems written over the course of 20 years having to do with growing up in a family very much influenced by immigrants, tradition, the foods prepared.
And the third manuscript I am working on is material from my trip to Africa.
V.R.: Oh, tell me more about your trip to Africa! It seems you are truly adventurous!
C.S.: It was again my husband who took us there because he wanted to climb yet another mountain before Parkinson’s progression made this impossible. So we went to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. I didn’t climb. I stayed in the villages. This was an emotionally difficult trip for me.
V.R.: Could you tell me how this trip to Africa affected your writing differently compared to your trip to Cambodia?
C.S.: Perhaps age had something to do with it, perhaps I was more adventurous 10 years ago. I felt vulnerable in Africa, and I think now the fears that shook me had also to do with Parkinson’s…both the country and disease unfamiliar in territory, and each with unknowns beginning with foreign scents. The earth felt primordial in Africa as if its smells were seeping up into me, and I was incapable of not smelling its depth and splendor, yet it jarred me.
V.R.: You mentioned the smell of the earth and I couldn’t help but think of the lines with the mud and the loss of memory that you just read. They were so powerful like a desire to unite with the primordial material of the Earth, the matter/matrix which is fearsome yet so appealing.
C.S.: Yes, I know, I know….There is always some digging going on that is really important obviously to how I get through my life… (laughing).
V.R.: And your mother said that she adores everything you write but that she would like to see you writing something more cheerful.
C.S.: You know, as a mother, she might think “why is my daughter in all this darkness/”. However, what I write, this supposed darkness is courageous, honest, emotional, yes, for some, and it might appear “dark”, the subject matters, but honestly, my writing life is juxtaposed with my whole life, and in the whole life there is joy, despair, grief, love, enlightenment, comedy and tragedy. As I write the poem takes over and writes itself sometimes numerous times and it’s not typically the prettiness in life, rather, my process, my energy as a poet stems from what is vastly uncomfortable from how I perceive my daily life to be. But, the tossing out of an apple core from a car window might be the impetus that sets this on fire. I leave “safety” to enter a state of high sensitivity and stimulation. The poem may disturb me for weeks, months in its search for itself and its depth of pureness.
V.R.: We mentioned your mother and obviously women are the focus of your poetry. And you are also a mother. Could you tell me a little bit more about the way motherhood and childbearing and rearing affects your writing? Or how aware you are of this state of motherhood as a poet? For it seems to me that mother on a mythic level is Mother Nature itself, the primordial matrix/matter/Nature which is ever present in your poetry.
C.S.: I agree. I think my work is pregnant with motherhood. I know it is. It is writing in a very feminine way, a feminine vessel to carry on life.
V.R.: And this has to do with the maternal role of nurturing as a woman and as a poet. Obviously, love abounds in your life and poetry! I look forward to seeing your new work published! The last thing I would like you to give me some information is about your poetry workshops because I am tempted to attend one of those!
C.S.: In the past, at various schools in Taos, I taught poetry classes to children. After my return from Greece, one of my friends encouraged me to start holding poetry workshops for adults. The enthusiasm has been wonderful, and at this point have waiting lists for each workshop offered. It is fantastic! It feels safe. My students are talented, risk takers, and eager.
V.R.: It seems to me that the Taos community is ideal for you.
C.S.: It is! I’ve lived in Taos for 34 years, am settled physically and emotionally here, the grand physicality of northern New Mexico enriches my sense of well-being, and poetry.
V.R.: Tell me how is it to work with children on poetry writing?
C.S.: It’s different than with adults in the level of sophistication and life experience we have as adults, although some of my most talented and honest students, students who wrote of the earth, animals, season, home, and family with such exquisite detail and emotion, were children in classes at Taos Pueblo Day School. If an atmosphere of creativity and safety exists, the writing comes.
V.R.: Thank you so much for opening your heart and sharing with me all the hidden treasures that reside in your poetry! Congratulations again on your outstanding poetry and good luck with your new promising projects!