An Interview with Dimitris Athinakis

The Greek poet Dimitris Athinakis came of age with the new millennium.  Raised in a Greece of fast and cataclysmic change, he belongs to a new generation of writers whose works are bringing brave new directions to the Modern Greek literary continuum. 

Peter Constantine: We last met in clouds of tear gas during the May 2010 riots in Athens, in a Greece that seems markedly changed.  How does this new Greek reality affect you as a poet?    

Dimitris Athinakis: I wouldn’t say that Greece has markedly changed; Greece is what it is. There has been a downward spiral for the past twenty years, and now—literally now—everything that had been simmering beneath the surface has begun to come out. Greece's traditional attitude that everything’s all right with the world, as well as the real extent of its problems, has finally become clear, not only to our eyes but to our souls and . . . our wallets. A poet cannot stand apart from the community, nor from being human and concerned by what is happening around him. So the “new Greek reality” you mention affects me both as a poet and as an active member of the community, although this new reality is not reflected in my poems, at least so far.

PC: You feel the ongoing situation in Greece very deeply, and yet it is not reflected in your poetry?

DA: Many things that happen in my environment are indeed reflected in my poetry, though perhaps not in an obvious way.  And yet one can claim that it's not only social facts that matter—but feelings as well. As a poet my inner world cannot stand apart from the outer one. It is impossible for me to ignore how the downward spiral of my country is affecting the people around me, my community, and its functioning as a society.  To make a long story short, in my opinion these two worlds walk shoulder to shoulder, and cannot be seen or considered separately.

PC: Could you say more about "social facts" versus "feelings"?

DA: By "social facts" I mean first and foremost our sociopolitical situation here in Greece within the context of a wider globalized capitalism.  Unemployment, a festering political system, the collapse of the educational system, and weak and ineffective social services are some of the issues that have led to upheavals and a general bewilderment among the population in Greece.  The result has been unprecedented self-centeredness.  When I say that not only social facts matter, but feelings as well, I take "feelings" to mean the influence that all these problems have on our daily existence.  The individual response depends on where a person stands, both in the world and also vis–à–vis himself or herself.  In my view there must be a give-and-take between the “social facts” and a person's feelings. There is little justice, or to put it in lighter terms, fair play.   If a person is affected by what is around him in his daily life, he will feel the effect internally all the more.  Yet so many times what is happening outside is so explosive that he cannot control what is happening inside, and of course the opposite is true as well. That's what I mean by fair play. 

PC: You have lived and studied in the Netherlands.  Did that affect your poetry?

DA: I would say that as a poet I’ve been affected by some unexpected and paradoxical Dutch things.  The purity of the landscape helped me clarify my thoughts and images; the orderliness somehow helped me put my experiences in order; the pragmatic ways of the Dutch introduced me to a new self-awareness.  Holland's chilly wind and sea, the rare sunshine, the people and the poetry, have all become an integral part of me, but without my tapping into them in any overt way.  There has been a delayed effect.  In Holland I didn't write a single word or syllable; I simply lived.  It was a time of great happiness. 

PC: You were studying philosophy at the university in Amsterdam.  Has that had an effect on your poetry?

DA: Philosophy has always been my main academic interest, and Amsterdam underlined its importance to me.  There I studied Aristotle through the modern viewpoint of philosophy of science, focusing on Bas Van Fraasen, a Dutch-American philosopher.  Philosophy is my way of putting things in order.  For me, however, poetry goes far beyond philosophy.  To the extent that I can, I try not to mix the two. 

PC: What makes you sit down to write a poem?  Could you perhaps give me a "biography" of one of your poems, "A Resemblance of Order," for instance?  What was its genesis and how did it develop? 

DA: On the southern tip of Greece, in Mani in the Peloponnese, whenever there is a funeral old women dressed in black gather to sing dirges.  Some do it from the depths of their soul, others are swept away by the moment, still others sing out of some macabre habit.  The same can be said of poetry: it is triggered the same way dirges are.  I sit down to write in reaction to a dramatic event, or because something is spurring me on to write it, or, out of some paradoxical habit.   My poem "A Resemblance of Order" was born where the poem takes place: in a kitchen filled with dirty plates, next to a water heater dripping rhythmically, and where I felt a poetic spark that was buried deep in the simple daily humdrum.  That was how I experienced my "tidied house"—and that was how I wrote it. 

PC: The connection you make between dirges and the creation of poetry is fascinating.  I believe it can be said that Greece is one of the last places in Europe where oral epics and different traditions of spontaneous poetry still exist.

DA: That is the way poetry began here in Greece. There was Homer and there were the poetic and epic contests in the ancient city states, which relied on spontaneous creation. There were the many great medieval Greek epics, among which the Epic of Digenis Akritas is often cited as the beginning of Modern Greek literature: it is the most important of a series of Akritic songs, epic songs about the warriors guarding the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire. What is particularly interesting is that the epic's hero, Digenis, is half Greek and half Arab. He appears in countless demotic songs that are still sung today. After Byzantium fell and mainland Greece was under Ottoman rule, a Cretan renaissance gave us great epics like Erotokritos. Many grandmothers in Crete can sing endless passages from them of great epic beauty. Today's Mantinades and Rizitika songs improvised during dance gatherings are somehow reminiscent of the Cretan epics, as they are in the same iambic form of fifteen syllables and have the same sensibility.   

PC: Is Crete the last outpost of oral poetry in Greece? 
 
DA: Oral folk poetry is very much alive in Crete, though different parts of Greece have different poetic traditions.  In Northern Greece, in Epirus for instance, poetry and song also play a central role in festive gatherings.  The same is true of the Asia Minor Pontus groups, who have their own forms of Greek and Greek poetry.

PC: Would you say that these traditional poetic forms have a future?

DA: Very much so. There is an interesting trend right now where Cretan teenagers and hipster twentysomethings send each other text messages in fifteen-syllable iambic lines.  

PC:  Are you saying that these teenagers are actually texting each other in medieval verse?

DC: The form is medieval and the meter and rhyme are medieval, but the message content is what any American or British teen might send.  Perhaps something like: "Twice I sent u a Facebook nudge, and twice u looked away. / U harboring some horrid grudge, or u gonna reply today?"  So one can say that the medieval poetic forms are alive and developing in new and unexpected ways. On Facebook, which is particularly popular in Greece, you would be surprised how many posts of this kind are being uploaded.   History has shown that when times are rough, Greeks tend to seek refuge in poetry and song, which is very much what is happening now.  

Copyright 2010 by Peter Constantine. All rights reserved.