Texts

Who writes my poem?
– this is the theme of the 30th literature festival „Druskininkai Poetic Fall“. Here you can find some texts on poets and poetry.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Danae Sioziou

Danae Sioziou Danae Sioziou

"I am and will be a reader in the first place"

Danae Sioziou (Δανάη Σιωζίου) was born in 1987. She grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany and in Karditsa, Greece, and studied English philology, cultural management and European history. Currently, Danae Sioziou is working and living in Athens. Literary critic, Greek language specialist, and translator Elžbieta Banytė spoke with this guest of Druskininkai Poetic Fall 2018.

Elžbieta Banytė (hereinafter, E. B.): A few years ago, I saw "Burn The Script", the Greek TV comedy series, where one of the episodes was "Germany vs. Greece". You were born in Germany. Do you think this kind of humor has any good basis? Namely, laughing at cultural stereotypes (for example, at Germans, who are said to only walk when the light is green, while the Greeks don’t even bother to look for a zebra crossing). How do you understand the "Greek mentality"? If such a thing really exists, is it reflected in your creative work?

Danae Sioziou (hereinafter, D. S.): I had not seen this series before. I only watched it now. It made me very sad. It‘s not funny at all: this humor is primitive and cheesy, one that does not offer anything to me as a viewer. It does not cheer me up and does not give me the space to think. I guess stereotypes, fortunately, do not necessarily prove to be true. Moreover, they are merely an instrument for making a caricature of nations‘ peculiarities and cultures and, among other things, can open doors to dangerous phenomena such as the legalization of radical and racist attitudes in the minds of citizens. Television is a very influential medium, so I can’t treat it with indulgence. I’ve watched a lot of TV shows and films, and I‘ve read books and articles about the relations between these two countries. Sure enough, nations do have historical identities, but they’re made up of many components – and often, it’s not even a singular thing. However, people‘s everyday routines are constantly changing, so life can’t be based on stereotypes and oppositions. We must commit ourselves to protecting the fragile and truly not self-evident assets of peace and democracy.

When we moved to Greece – too late for me to be able to become a real Greek and too early to be just a German or a German Greek – something happened. There was a celebration of October 28th going on, and some child, mocking my accent, told me to go back to my homeland (he meant Germany), and I was a little disturbed and told him that my homeland was here. He gave me that interrogative look. This experience was not traumatic, but I remember it. Just as I recall the kindergarten teacher in Germany, who regularly compared the children of immigrants with the little Germans. But there was another woman who was good to us all, and spoke with everyone in his or her mother tongue. When we first arrived in Greece, I saw the Albanian immigrants who worked in the fields all day without a break and did not get anything to eat, who did not even dare to utter a word. The family women often gave us food that we could carry to them secretly because we were still small and could not be seen among the high corn cobs. We felt pity for the Albanians because we also had immigrants in our families, and, moreover, our previous generations were living in poverty due to the German occupation and the civil war that forced the part of my family who resided in the mountains to resettle.

As a child, I identified Greece with a paradise because we would come there only in the summer, and in my childish eyes, it all looked perfect and full of colors that I could not even imagine in Germany. One day, during a religion lesson, I was sharing the desk with D., a child whose family had just moved from Albania. I was the only one who knew his real name, because he kept it secret from others. When the teacher of religion asked what was paradise, D. and I responded with one voice: "Greece!" We were wrong. A few days later, he was brutally beaten at school, because he was a foreigner. I didn‘t get beaten and felt extremely lucky.

I think if some kind of mentality is visible in my poetry at all, it’s the mentality of a stranger – but one that goes beyond stereotypes. The one of a person who grew up and lived in different places – even though, in my own case, being partly privileged. The following quote from Camus expresses something about me: "On the contrary, in a world where the shadows of illusions and light splits, people become strangers. This exile is without refuge, because it does not contain the lost memories of the homeland or the hope of the promised land.” (The Myth of Sisyphus )

E. B.: When I think of the Greek poetry tradition, there are many poets emerging in my mind who lived in the periphery of a multilingual world. Sometimes I think ironically that the best Greek poets did not literally speak standard Greek. We may laugh at it, but for them, the Greek language was just one of many. The best examples are Dionysios Solomos, Constantine Peter Cavafy and Giorgos Seferis. How do German and other languages influence your own poetic expression?

D. S.: It’s curious that someone who is many light-years away from Solomos, Cavafy and Seferis thinks so. By the way – no matter how funny it sounds – I always feel a little bit angry at the fact that Greece still has not paid enough homage to the female poets, so that the whole world reads a canon composed by men and only comprised of men‘s surnames. Solomos and Cavafy are separate cases. And Seferis, after all, was not bilingual from childhood. Yes, he is an important poet, but he criticized Cavafy unreasonably. It was his generation that compiled a bibliography of Greek poetry that holds until now. There is not a word about women, which is very sad.

I consciously emphasize gender roles because the so-called gender bias in Greece is very strong. Together with your rightly raised language question, these are two of the most important engines for my develoment. I was writing in both languages until eighteen, although at sixteen I had chosen Greek as my major one. I was fortunate because my mother was Greek, so I always heard it around. I think I’m missing some kind of emotional connection with the Greek language, which I try to compensate for by reading and creating on my own. I‘m afraid that the linguistic structures in my mind are irreversibly affected by the German language, whose main features are long sentences and the transitional plasticity of words. Greek gave me a rhythm and a more complete understanding of language structure, while fairy tales and legends from various countries set my fantasy free and unraveled my fascination with paradoxes. I studied English philology and history, which in turn cultivated my tendency to tell stories.

I am and will be a reader in the first place. Bilingualism is both a gift and a misfortune. Perhaps it was the problem of setting out my thoughts that pushed me toward books. When we arrived in Greece, I spoke Greek rather poorly, even though it was my family‘s language and I liked it. All this had paved the way for the situation where communication became a translation challenge for a long time. It corrected my reading habits. I liked horror stories, adventures, fairy tales and lyrical poetry.

Greek poetry hit me on the head along with the German, but the strike of the former was stronger. When I read a poem that I loved for the first time, it felt as if I left my body and flew out into space: in the literal sense, for some time I lost myself. I never feel like this anymore. I started reading so that I could talk about this experience accurately, and eventually ended up writing, or at least thinking that I was capable of doing it.

Today, I write in Greek, but I dream and swear in two languages. Sometimes I like to write poems and songs in English. But I have chosen Greek to fall in love with and cultivate. This is the language I practice in creating poetry and the one that touches my emotions most truly.

E. B.: What about poetic influences – which ones are the most important? And what influence do your various activities have on your texts?

D. S.: The first great Greek poet that I liked a lot was Nick Engonopoulos, whose language and style freed me from the fear of only speaking correctly, and also showed me that, in a language, everyone could capture new worlds; Paul Celan taught me that I could create my own words; the aforementioned Solomos granted me the magic of language – the feeling that you could merge with his texts completely. The American female poets from the time of my studies allowed me to feel very courageous, even though I was not so, and proved that mastery is genderless.

I studied foreign languages so that I could read as much literature as possible. From 2009 to 2011, I was a member of the editorial board of the Teflon literary magazine, and among other things, I would translate underground German poetry, Afro-American female poets‘ texts and Aboriginal poetry for it. In my personal library, I have mostly classical and postmodern literature in foreign languages: American, Russian, German, and also quite a lot of so-called postcolonial literature.

I read most of the Greek poetry collections that come out nowadays, and I also try to get into canonical works, which I had read only sporadically and superficially – perhaps due to the fact that they are presented in such a way. I am also learning to rate the rare gem kind of books – ones that had not received due attention in their time and were underestimated, but despite that, allowed whole generations of readers and writers to liberate their creative potential. It seems to me that the lists of books being read in Greece are extremely incomplete and full of holes. A few years ago I got interested in the Balkans, but the most recent books I have read are by Justyna Bargielska, Hera Lindsay Bird and Ocean Vuong.

Another branch of the arts that has made a great influence on me is fine art, but I don‘t want to elaborate on it now.

E. B.: Then, the standard question. Which books – out of all that mass – would you take with you into an uninhabited island?

D. S.: I wouldn‘t take any books into an uninhabited island. I would take my beloved man and probably matches, some wine, ink, and paper.

E. B.: Ok, I‘ll put it in a different way. Which poems by other authors would you like to have written?

D. S.: These are "Only Because You Loved Me" by Maria Polydouri, "Mad Girl‘s Lovesong" by Sylvia Plath, "Where Are the Women" by Lucille Clifton, "There Are Unicorns" by Nike-Rebecca Papageorgiou, "Abbreviation for a Dream" by Nikos Karouzos, "A Ukrainian Story" by Paulina Marvin, "Chanson of a Lady in Shadow" by Paul Celan, "Bolivar" by Nikos Engonopoulos, "Cactus Tree" by Joni Mitchell, "Phaliros" by Lorentzos Mavilis, and many more; I am actually very jealous of poems, but my fascination is stronger than jealousy.

E. B.: Your book is called Useful Children‘s Games. Why? What games do you play with the reader?

D. S.: Useful Children‘s Games is a book that has grown from the idea and atmosphere of the game. A game involves not only imagination and mind, but also corporeality and rhythm. It is both a poetic metaphor and the action and atmosphere of the game that we know from childhood. In one way or another, this topic has been touched on by so many poets and prose writers whom this book is looking back at and talking to. For example, the book‘s architectonics is divided into four sections/spaces. Three of their titles come from Walter Benjamin‘s works and memories. Benjamin in particular, among other things, was a fairy-tale collector, who mastered the stages of childhood with almost anatomic accuracy, and he always read and studied poetry voraciously. Thus, the three chapters emerged: "The Zoo", "The Crypt" and "The Criminology Museum". After that, I added the last one – "The Park". This section is a fake exit, which basically brings you back to the starting point, and the game starts again, only the rules are different. The sections begin with four short phrases spoken in the dark, which means that the book‘s space and reference network is much wider than is immediately visible.

What interests me are interactions, corporeality and the relation between the spoken and written word in poetry. I also look at how different social spaces are developed, defined and expanded. The role of literature in general, and of poetry in particular, in creating them remains both the issue and the challenge for me. Another thing that I think a lot about is how to create poetry that is supposed to be both original and technical. This is my main goal in this book.

In my case, new poems come carrying sponges to erase the rules, wanting to live, and with many other poems digested – some better, some worse – in their stomachs. Sometimes they are a bit scratched up, but just because there‘s a lot of rage. Some of them sprout up to the sky, others dig into the ground. I firmly believe that, as I wrote in the book, life strikes again when a poem grabs it.

E. B.: Four of your poems have been published in the anthology Austerity Measures (compiled by Karen Van Dyck, released by Penguin in 2016). Do you think in other countries there is much interest in the movements of Greek artists, and why?

D. S.: The Austerity Measures anthology came out at the very peak of the crisis, so it aroused an even stronger international interest in what was happening in Europe and Greece. In my opinion, the current crisis in the Western world – no matter how big its differences are – is, first and foremost, an identity crisis, and Greece has appeared in the epicenter, so it reflects the depth and extent of the problems. In recent years, the escalating crisis and the abundance of refugees and illegal migrants has led to a lot of bitter disappointment among many people. When everyone is suffering and the overall atmosphere is horrible, then the language suffers, too, as Orwell said. I agree with him.

Crises are always a matter of concern, because the fate of humanity is somewhat common, and most people live in volatile, insecure conditions. Literature can bring us together effectively, but most importantly it maintains a living human spirit and voice, not metaphorically, but directly: after all, books save lives, build symbolic capital and, ultimately, social space. My poems included in Austerity Measures were written 10 years ago and belong to the first period of my creative work. The compiler chose them far-sightedly, perhaps because Useful Children's Games appeared in that year, too, and then came the translations of my texts into other languages, which led to my creative awareness of wider social contexts.

A translation is always a gift, it‘s the second life of a book, a gesture of generosity and openness – and also, a magic spell, as it opens a way for the work to remain known. More importantly, the translation encourages public speaking about poetry and literature. All this is neither simple nor obvious.

E. B.: Do you agree with the sometimes stated opinions that there is a generation of "writers of the crisis"? If so, what is it that defines it? Do you feel yourself belonging to it?

D. S.: It‘s not easy for me to divide people into generations and I don’t always believe in the age criterion. I would say that understanding a generation – which is both useful and complicated at the same time – falls into the field of literary studies. As a poet, I don‘t feel competent to consider this issue because it would mean an aspiration to attribute myself or others to certain groups rather than a discussion of the phenomenon of literature.

The artists whom I admire and whose work I pay attention to today create different kinds of art: they are prose writers, poets, painters, dancers, choreographers, sculptors, film makers, or musicians. Perhaps, every artist of the present creates a unique world influenced by his or her personal biography and society, therefore some collective mood, ideas and experiences sometimes crystallize. The attention of the West often focuses on political, kinesthetic, and performative aspects of art. This is spreading in a spectrum: from political engagement to pornography.

E. B.: This year‘s topic of Druskininkai Poetic Fall is "The Sound and the Fury in Literature”, borrowed from the title of William Faulkner‘s novel. What is your opinion about "the sound and the fury" in poetry? Are there many such poems in the Greek tradition?

D. S.: William Faulkner is someone I admire and read – good God, what talent, what ideas. The sound and the fury carry noise and tension, and therefore fit in with music, sensibility, sea and love – and perhaps, with creativity as well. Even though I continue to believe more in the sweat of the one who labours in the factory day and night than in the sound and the fury.

Poetry needs to be understood more broadly than a way in which "professional pen-pushers" or talented and hard-working poets express themselves – it can express everyone. In Greece, poetry can express people of all ages. It is being read and sung – sometimes a little more, sometimes less – which says a thing or two not about the poetry itself, but about the sociopolitical and historical situation of the time.

I don’t believe is a separate, distinctive tradition of "wild" Greek poetry. However, I believe that the noisier the poems, the stronger the hand that is writing them – like a wild horse’s leap, like the drumming of a loving heart, like the knock of the king‘s murderer on the door, like an eclipse of the sun, and like a meteorite shower.

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