NEW YORK – For people who are not artists, creativity is something between the fingerpainting they did in school and rocket science they will never grasp.
That is what makes it so enjoyable to hear from people like writer Penelope Karageorge talk about the process that leads to such delights as her new poetry anthology, The Neon Suitcase, published by Somerset Hall Press.
Sometimes poems resonate with a reader’s memories, and sometimes with her times.
Karageorge’s “Island Inferno” grabs one with its title and with its opening line: “Greece makes you sweat for its beauty.”
Of course it’s about the summer heat, but reading it today evokes complex emotions as Greece teeters on the brink.
Karageorge, a TNH contributing writer, arrived relatively late in the land of the poets. She loved poetry and wrote it on an off for years, she said, but she didn’t concentrate on it.
It wasn’t until she won a contest for poems celebrating New York City in the New York Times Book Review that she took writing them seriously.
The contest inspired one her “instant” poems. “I wrote it right away. I Didn’t change a word and sent it in and I came in third out of 2000 entries.”
It was titled “New York Love Letters – P.S. You’re Crazy.”
“One poem, daughter of Persephone, took 20 years to write,” she told TNH, but the instant poems “are wonderful, spontaneous things. It’s pretty remarkable.”
It hasn’t happened to her that many times. “You start writing and it just keeps coming. I don’t know if God is standing over you, helping out.”
She agrees that it is the result of things percolating in the subconscious mind for years before something triggers their release. “Definitely. That’s it!” she said.
Many poems were written in her house in Lemnos. It’s a great place to write poetry she said.
“A wonderful two- story stone house right on the square in the village of Lychna, five minutes from the water.”
It is a very meaningful place because it was the home of the grandmother Sevaste – which is Karageorge’s middle name – she was very close to her as a child growing up in Newburgh, NY.
The Neon Suitcase is dedicated to Sevaste and her husband Themistocles Xanthis
They ultimately separated, and Sevaste went back to Greece when Karageorge was about three or four.
“I remember watching the boat leave.” She said she never forgot that scene. “I was crying, my sister was crying…of course they don’t tell you but suddenly this wonderful person is gone…I never saw her again.”
It is difficult to understand how Greeks endure so much heartbreak, but they do; the unbroken chain of 4000 years of poetry helps.
Sevaste returned to her house in Lychna, which eventually passed to Karageorge, who told TNH, “I kept it as it was and people are so charmed by it. There are fireplaces – which of course I’ve never lit so I don’t burn the place down.”
“It was HER house,” she said. “I still feel her warmth.”
The poem “Greek House” is about “how a house can still evoke all these feelings,” Karageorge said.
The penultimate verse reads:
I came to visit the house, to live in the house, to comfort it, remember with it, shedding tears. Loss.
Some poems are inspired by today’s Greece; others have an uncanny sense of the ancient, like the one titled “Tantalus.”
On the road to Argos,
and asked a beggar
to a well. He wept and
pointed to the dry
And in the distance,
Many of the poems “are about New York, or life, or being a woman,” Karageorge said. She calls some of her work Chick Lit.
“I am very gratified when women tell me they really appreciate the book,” telling her “you express the feelings that I have.”
She shares her thoughts and experiences about growing up Greek, and American in her work.
There are profound differences. On the Greek side “you have this whole culture behind you,” and also the eyes of every other Greek family around on you.
“Actually, it was very charming because in Newburgh, my dad made ice cream – Karageorge’s favorite was lemon – she said, “so whenever I went into restaurants of confectionary the owners would make a big fuss over me and urged treats on me and not let me pay.”
She wouldn’t let them do that – her father would not approve.
There was something wonderful about being at home in so many places, but there was an ominous dimension.
“There definitely was that feeling of being watched. She remembered “that big eye,” on the iconostasis that looms above Greek children in church.
The community’s vision for talented women was also narrow in those days, but Karageorge’s father was progressive, and he insisted both his daughters go away to good colleges. “They were wonderful people,” she said of her parents.
“My mother Melpomene was a reader and probably would have been a writer with some encouragement,” she said. Her sister Helen is a gifted pianist – and is very good at languages.
Karageorge’s readers can’t wait for the next book, and when she goes to Lemnos she plans to write a poem a day. “It’s like an exercise. It’s a great place to write. ”
She first visited Lemnos in the winter.
“Nobody told me you don’t go to the Greek islands in the winter.”
She loved it.
Greece cold and damp is still more wonderful than half the countries in Europe in winter. One is still on a Greek Island. And there are those sunsets.
“That was it! The sunsets are unbelievable.” Karageorge said.