Poet Katerina Iliopoulou speaks to Elena Cardona on the inspiration she draws from Greek mythology, and how her work delves deep into the notion of memory ahead of her appearance at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival on 28-29 August
While reading your poems from the poetic sequence SOUTH this verse “And the journey is unravelling not destination” (Passage 1) made me ponder on the idea whether indeed the journey is a point of arrival to our destination, if it is the end of our beginnings, or as this verse suggests, the journey is just a beginning to more openings. Travel in your writing deviates from its common understanding that of departing or arriving in a particular place. How does this “unravelling” unfolds itself in your poetry, in the context of the voyage?
The poetic sequence, South is a twenty-page long poem in chapters in which I use the two Greek words, poros=passage and aporia=questioning (which is also a passage), as titles of the poems.
The sequence, which describes a journey through the landscape of the south of Greece, considers travel not as destination, which is a composition of intentions, but rather as unravelling. Unravelling in English as in Greek also means narrating. Memory, perception of space, meeting and separation, the idea of song (as suspension of speech), individual experience and history are some of the themes that traverse the writing and the landscape.
We are inside place and place is inside us. It gives birth to us and we give birth to it, it dreams of us and we dream of it and so it remains always new as long as we can develop with it a dialectic relationship, as long as we keep discovering it and in this process we also discover ourselves.
Your poems delve deep into the notions of memory, where individual experiences are related or opposed to history. The remnants of the past are transmitted to the present, without being lost to the past moment. At times, the reader also senses a struggle between the words, a sense of being stuck in time, with nowhere to go in these memorial spaces. How are the notions of memory, time and history explored in your work?
In my poetry, place is the carrier of the body, history, memory and imagination, where individual experience and collective experience merge. The central question is not who am I but where am I. In my work I try to bring forward the personal, memorial, sensual, historical traces, and the ways in which they form a web. With every poetic work you begin all over again to teach yourself a new language.
The language of poetry carries the idea of multiplicity, of a plural body and a plural time of past and present. I try to deal with the complex theme of identity, historical, national, gender, etcetra, using the way of poetry, that is a way of doubt and questioning and exploring, which includes the body and its rebellion, which defends whatever exists and the uniqueness of experience of every human being in a world ruled by the totalitarianism of commerce.
This sense of compressed time and the tension you are referring to, might be the result of the current historical moment, I will not call it crisis, but a transformation of the world we live in. Although I don’t think we write consciously to respond to current events, I think that in the work of an active artist the current times will be reflected anyway. And also a reflection of something else, even more important, will be there, that is the possibility of a different world which keeps on being saved or reinventing itself, within the mayhem of the events of the present.
Several of your poems allude to Greek mythology – your grandmother is Penelope unravelling a man’s suit and here is a reference to Cape Tenaron and Hades. As a poet, how has the Greek mythology influenced your writing?
Greek mythology is a collective heritage, is a common ground for dreams, projections and interpretations for poets of any nationality. It so happens that I write in Greek but I am far from any notion of being representative of a nation or tradition. I would not know how to begin to define these words.
Being a poet I am very careful about words and their weight and as the Greek novelist Giorgos Seferis wrote “whoever carries the heavy stones will sink”. I do not want to sink; I prefer to float. As an artist I try to move against the notion of a definitive tradition, or language or truth. I am afraid that our world is extremely different from the ancient world and its ideas, and I propose we form our relationship with antiquity in the light of this difference.
Perhaps a look in the abyss of this “otherness” is more useful than the reassuring but fake notion of any continuity. Using myth in poetry needs cunning if you don’t want to repeat stereotypes. My Greek identity is the language and the landscape and my relationship to myth has to do with the body, the physical presence in places linked to mythology or with words, that is with a visceral, organic proximity with elements of mythology rather that interpretations of it. Thank you for connecting my grandmother to Penelope, I haven’t thought of it!
The poem refers to the fact that my grandmother unravelled and stitched back her husband’s suit from the inside out, since it was too worn out for him to wear it. This story always fascinated me, the resilience, the female inventiveness and craftsmanship that makes things last.
Tenaron on the other hand is a real landscape, the southernmost tip of continental Greece, one of the gates of Hades, the place where Orpheus went to bring Eurydice back, where you find still the remnants of prehistoric sites and the ancient temple of Apollo, a wild and beautiful place with layer upon layer of history where reality and mythology merge.
Taking part in the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, I cannot not ask you about the Mediterranean. The sea is female. Attributing a gender to the sea, in our case the Mediterranean Sea, is difficult. In Italian and Maltese, it is male, in French it is female. I consider the Mediterranean Sea as a fluid space, where at times it is enticing, passionate and dreamy, while on the other hand it is raging, menacing and haunting. Why and how do you consider the Mediterranean Sea as “female” – because of its seductiveness, its beauty and its allure?
The word sea in Greek is female, “thalassa”, I cannot think of it in different terms and that shows how the language defines the way we think about the world. My poem plays with these stereotypes, attributing the sea with the female, fluid, receptive, soft, penetrable, mysterious and uncontrollable and the mountain with its phallic formations, hard, impenetrable, as male. In the course of the poem though, these views are overturned and thus the mountain is presented as soft and penetrable, full of waves of green, mysterious and mother like.
In poetry things are not what they seem to be or they can be more than one, my poem plays on this unending mystery of the world in which we belong, not as sovereigns but as equals with all the other elements organic and inorganic.
You describe your experience of the South “not as a geographical definition but as a horizon of thought”. Along the years the gap between the North and South has widened, being it in the context of the European continent and especially the Mediterranean region. Why do you think, we as Mediterraneans must re-think the Mediterranean Sea or the Mediterranean seas? Are we in need of a Southern thought?
I do believe there is a southern thought, culture, way of life that we need to preserve and defend. In my thoughts South represents a denial. A denial of defeat and a denial of mourning, that is the acceptance of the absolute domination of “there is no alternative” dogma.
In my poetry the South is the place which insists to be saved within what has already happened through history, within distraction, the uninterpreted past, within what is ephemeral and passing, what is secret, within song, friendship and the erotic body.
It is the place where I situate, observe and experience the relationship of human with the non-human, the animals, plants and the inorganic world.
In this place, considering all the collapses, deaths, the successive layers of interpretations and inflictions, I seek the state of “despite all that” and the companions against nothingness, against resignation from movement and possibility.
I seek the common language, which means dialogue. The problem cannot be solved, cannot be rounded, cannot fit in a specific place, but we insist nevertheless in the kind of thought that addresses the other, that creates narrative and thus action, we insist on memory as something active, we insist in desiring that which cannot be destroyed.
The interview was conducted by Elena Cardona. Katerina Iliopoulou will be participating in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed on the 27th and 28th of August at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from showshappening.com.
This article originally appeared on Maltatoday.
22 August, 2021