NEW YORK – The February 8 meeting of the Greek American Writers Association at Manhattan’s famous Cornelia Street Cafe was a celebration of the newest issue of the international literary magazine, Illuminations, and the authors and poems it featured.
The invitation to the event hosted by writer Penelope Karageorge, a frequent TNH contributor and the Association’s new director, noted that it is a special issue which “focuses on the reality and myths of Greece and Greek-America with contributors from around the globe.”
The journal’s editor Meg Scott-Copses was a special guest. Along with presenters Nicholas Alexiou, Chancellor’s Lecturer with Department of Sociology at Queens College and lecturer, entrepreneur and poet Basil Rouskas, she was seated on the stage in the subterranean space that for years has been a dark but beloved vessel for some of New York’s most original literature and music.
Perhaps in tribute to the location of long stretches of times Greek-American spend in them, Alexiou noted “good things come in basements.”
Scott-Copses first shared her motivations for the issue. Some of them are personal – her husband is a pediatrician from Greece, where she was married and baptized her children – others flow from her love of Hellenic culture.
In her editor’s note she wrote how she was struck by something George Seferis said: “There is no ancient Greece in Greece,” meaning, he continued, that “Greece is a continuous process…for us Greece goes on living.”
For some “Greek is a dead language” and Greek civilization is found in museum, “but for us,” Seferis said, “it is another story.”
Scott-Copses said “In part, it is this ‘other story’ that I wished to explore in issue 29.”
Her journey traverses the entire Greek world, with experiences of “the happening-right-nowness of modern day Greece,” expressed by Greek writers who would tell her “about Greece and the Greek Diaspora experience.”
The presenters recited their own poems from the issue, and some by other writers. And they shared some private thoughts about their works. When Rouskas read “Cousin from Athens Calling” he illustrated how personal and communal tragedy is the trigger for much literature by saying, “My brother’s death was a magnet for my writing about loss.”
Alexiou recently published a collection titled ΑΣΤΟΡΙΑ, whose poems “resonate with a very strong sense of the rich history of Greeks living in Astoria.” He writes of exile, community and the Greek identity in America and of the delights and tension of having two homelands.
Guests noted the intimate relationship between immigration and exile, whether voluntary or not.
Listening to Alexiou read “On the Outskirts of Queens, guests saw the connection between the realities of Greeks struggling through crisis on the periphery of Europe and Greek-Americans, whom he noted exist “on the periphery of the periphery,” marginalized in both the Greek and American contexts.
Poet, playwright, drama teacher and actress Lili Bita wanted to attend but was unable, but her work was presented at the Cafe. They were about growing up in Greece. People were amused, or mused about the meaning for their own lives, of a Greek girl’s “10 commandments.”
Alexiou said “They take precedence over the laws of Mosses,” and when each is proclaimed – as a child Lili Bita heard pronouncements throughout the day – there is a preamble: “girls from good families…” or simply, “good girls..
The first is: never cross their legs (bad luck, and especially bad in church) and number 10 is, naturally: 2) keep house.
Bad girls who did not keep them ended up in “jails, hospitals, or worse, houses with red lanterns where devils in human form tormented their still-living flesh.” Alexiou paused and said “I wish I could embody her performing spirit.”
Scott-Copses read “My name is Caryatid” which delighted her because her husband is from Karyes. The passionate piece about the lone Caryatid that was torn from the terrified embrace of her sisters by Lord Elgin and exiled to the British Museum. She laments in the closing lines:
My sisters no longer comfort me.
Night leaves me no star. Here I stand,
Beyond pity or hope. My name is Caryatid.
Nick Samaris also hoped to attend, but he is on the road promoting his new collection titled American Psalm, World Psalm. The guest heard “In Tharri” and “Bodies of Ascent,” with its poignant beginning “There are still places left on this earth to name yourself pilgrim.”
Karageorge recited one of her poems, “Prisoner of Summer” of a time on the Lemnos island she loves when life did not cast her in the role of carefree tourist: “Through the shutter slits, I survey the world like a captive, my view narrow, or am I the enemy, aiming fire?” The poem surveys her inner and exterior landscape and concludes:
Island of exile, of remoteness, of windows,
Of misfits, of schemers, of elders
Whose hearts burst with goodness, and yet, the whispers,
The night talk as I’m leaving and black eyes are on me.
The land of green figs and anxiety, of nervous breakdown,
and yet, and yet, the love.
Rouskas’ poems in Illuminations included “Revisting Greek Landscapes” and “Greek Island.”
When Alexiou read Neil Carpathios’ “The Only Thing I ever Stole,” knowing and guilty looks flashed across the darkened faces of Greeks and philhellenes alike – the poem is about pilfering pieces of the Parthenon.
The guilt was somewhat alleviated when Alexiou said that many of this students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice have confessed to this and when one man said a relative who worked for the archaeological service told him every season they cart little chunks of marble onto the sacred rock for the tourists.
Carpathios’ “My Summer with Yia Yia,” may have stolen the show, however, flooding Greek-Americans in the audiences with big fat memories and emotions:
She was the first human being I’d met
from another planet.
I was seven.
The Association meets at the Cafe on the second Saturday of every second month. Long-time director Dean Kostos told Karageorge he wants to spend more time writing. She has been thinking about format changes, like more “open mics,” and told TNH “I am open to ideas.”