NEW YORK – “What matters to these poets is what happens when we forget,” said Karen Van Dyck, editor of Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, at the first European Literature Night, presented by the Czech Center New York, EUNIC, on June 2.
Greece’s inclusion as one of the 14 countries represented at the European Literature Night served as an important reminder for the need for more cross-cultural sharing through translation and highlighted the symbiotic relationship between literature, politics, and identity.
Each floor of the Bohemian National Hall – as well as the rooftop – housed poets sharing literature fromacross Europe. Representing Greece, Van Dyck read poetry in both its original Greek and in English from Austerity Measures, published this year by the New York Review of Books.
“After reading Greek poetry for thirty years I was blown away by what was happening in the last ten years,” said Van Dyck, Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature in the Classics Department at Columbia University. Throughout history, art has pushed and pulled and risen above the rubble of adversity. She said that during the dictatorship emerged wonderful poets. Now, during the economic crisis, poets are once again rising to the occasion. She said that austerity, restriction, brings forth new ideas. Writers aren’t just publishing in traditional, well-established venues but are crafting handmade zines and posting their work on the internet. They are finding ways to get their words to the masses at a time when major media conglomerates are folding.
It is not just the method of publishing that has been changing, but also the content of Greek literature. What Van Dyck noticed was that “the peripheral have become central.” Where once Odysseus was the hero of The Odyssey, now, she said, contemporary poets are focusing on Homer’s more ancillary characters: Penelope, Telemachus, and the Lotus Eaters. A reader might conjecture that the harsh austerity measures currently imposed on Greek citizens have made them identify less with the hero’s journey and more with those who are left behind to fend for themselves and those who try to numb themselves against reality.
During her reading, Van Dyck focused on mythology pastiche poems, reading Phoebe Giannisi’s Penelope – I Am Addicted to You, a poem written in verse that when she herself translated for the book she turned into a concrete poem, shaping it into the pool that Giannisi’s Penelope swims in every day. She also read The Lotus Eaters by Kyoko Kishida and translated by Rachel Hadas, and Re: Lotus Eaters by Jazra Khaleed and translated by Peter Constantine. Kishida, a Greek-born poet whose pen name is taken from a Japanese actress, and Khaleed, a Chechnyan-born poet who lives in Athens’ inner-city and is writing under a pen name, are both founders of the literary magazine Teflon.
The collection starts with poets in Athens but then expands to expatriates and those for whom “Greek is their second language,” explained Van Dyck. Austerity Measures is divided into six parts: part 1 is Tradition and the Individual Talent: Poets in Literary Magazines; part 2 is Myth and Medicine: DIY and Small Press Poets; part 3 is Unjust Punishment: Poets Online; part 4 is Storytelling: Poets in Performance and across the Arts; part 5 is Outside Athens: Bookshops, Cafes, and Poets in the Provinces; part 6 is Border Zones: Poets between Cultures and Languages. The expansiveness of Greek identity makes the country’s artistic offerings vital to exploring European literature.
On one side of the page is the Greek and on the other is the English – but even more exciting, in some, the Greek is interrupted by English words and the English by Greek words, and sometimes even other languages. “The idea was to open up the world on multilingual poems,” said Van Dyck.