Greek-American Poet Stephanos Papadopoulos Talks to TNH

Greek-American poet Stephanos Papadopoulos. Photo: Stephanos Papadopoulos

By Eleni Sakellis

The gifted poet Stephanos Papadopoulos was born in North Carolina to a Greek father and American mother and was raised in Paris and Athens. The author of three books of poems: Lost Days, Hôtel-Dieu, and The Black Sea, he is also the editor and co-translator with Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems into Greek (Kastaniotis Editions, 2006).

His translations of poems by Yiannis Stiggas are included in the recently published Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck. Papadopoulos was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship for The Black Sea and the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize selected by Mark Strand in 2014. In honor of National Poetry Month, The National Herald spoke with the talented poet about his work and the writing process.

TNH: The Black Sea brings history to life in a powerful way through a fascinating cast of characters in the sonnet monologues, some based on your family history and on your travels in the region. How intense was the research process?

SP: I never set out to truly research the subject the way a historian might. I had begun writing sonnets based on a box of photographs I had discovered in my father’s things– a series of postcards and snapshots from the 1920’s and 30’s in which various ancestors stared back at me with a certain anonymity. I knew the story of my Pontic grandfather and his siblings from my father and my uncles, but I still didn’t know the faces in the photographs. I began to invent voices, in a kind of theatrical monologue in order to give those images a story.

I kept writing until I realized that the actual landscape I was describing was unknown to me, and to continue felt false and artificial. That is when I decided to ride my motorcycle from Athens through most of Anatolia and back along the southern coast of the Black Sea where my grandfather was born. The “research” was essentially me wandering around the seacoasts and villages of the Black Sea just letting the intense beauty of the landscape and all the hidden historical memories flood back into me.

My father was fiercely proud of his Pontic roots, but he was never able to visit Asia Minor, mostly because there was still so much residual historical anger in him- he found it painful to think of his forbears exiled from their homes. So for me, crossing the Pontic mountains for the first time, and sighting the Black Sea after crossing the center of Anatolia was a very emotional trip into my own past.

My father had died the year before, so it was a very personal journey as well. I really don’t do proper research… unfortunately I don’t possess the patience and temperament for that kind of work.

TNH: What’s your writing process? Do you outline or write only at certain times of the day, for example?

SP: When I was twenty years old, Derek Walcott told me to get up before dawn to work and to never complain about not having time to write. I’ve stuck to those rules for much of my life.

Twenty years later he admitted to me that he actually woke early because he wanted to smoke a cigarette with coffee! But the truth is I like working early in the dark when most others are asleep- I think more clearly in that hour and there is a meditative aspect to writing poetry in which everything else has to disappear. For me that happens best in the morning.

I try to write consistently, but that is difficult with poetry when 90% of what you do is awful and will get thrown away. There has to be something that sets you alight, then you run with it, but having ideas and being inspired is not enough, you have to work at it like a laborer. Picasso said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Writing prose can be different, you set yourself a limit of at least a page and you just plow ahead. Poetry is more elusive- you stare out the window a lot.

TNH: Who are your favorite writers?

SP: From what country? What Age? There are too many to list, but the writers who really influenced me early on were Nikos Kazantzakis and Thomas Wolfe who just appeared like giants to me. Later, I fell in love with a wide array including Kerouac, Elliot, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Homer, Ritsos, Karyotakis, Lowell, Heaney, Walcott, Milosz, Brodsky, and the list goes on and on. I also read a number of contemporary novelists who I find to be writing better than most contemporary American poets.

TNH: They say never trust a writer who doesn’t read, so what are you reading now?

SP: That is true, a writer who doesn’t read is probably not a writer. There is a small mountain of completely unrelated books currently on my nightstand, including : Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems, Marlon James’ A History of Seven Killings, Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, Peter Godfrey Smith’s Other Minds and the poems of Emily Dickinson.

I also read magazines like the The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books regularly because the writing quality is so high.

TNH: What upcoming projects can we look forward to?
SP: I have a new book of poems I finally stopped tinkering with which I hope to publish soon, and I’m working on a prose piece. Not to be cryptic, but I make it a habit to never talk about what I’m working on. The minute you do people start asking “Are you still working on that?”

More information on Stephanos Papadopoulos is available on his website stephanospapdopoulos.com. His books are available online.

Papadopoulos also graciously submitted the following poem from a series of unpublished new poems.

Ritsos in Makronisos

By Stephanos Papadopoulos

The sun is a white dictator at noon
with dogs dead in the precious shade
water locked in stone and concrete vaults,
the bounty of flat roofs and rain gutters
from the occasional winter downpour.
An old man walks with a stick
and a black dog along the goat path,
his one arm swings puppet-like
against the outline of the mountains
now ochre stone and death; the earth
will cover no more buried poems
or hide the poet’s suffering.
His body now moved south,
held down by a slab of marble
where someone left an orange rotting in the sun.
His sad notes fluttered through the war,
and fell in pools that last the summer,
where swaybacked cattle lick the shallows—
their ribs are boat frames stuffed
with fifty yards of empty gut.
The stones here have not yet lost
their melancholy, history will not evaporate
like rain, or the watering hole, or the miserable sea
that has chewed these cuttlefish bones
and spat them on the littered shore
where the hull of our boat, named Jason,
rubs its scarred breastbone on the sand.
Someone will say, a great poet lived here,
he was beaten with sticks and told to die,
but he still wrote about the moon and bitter laurel.

(Poem Copyright Stephanos Papadopoulos)