Poetry editor Donald Futers on a new collection of Greek verse and the birth of a resurgent contemporary Greek culture
Not long ago, a university lecturer in Athens found themself in a difficult position. They were charged with teaching a class on poetry, but their country’s economic crisis had become their own institution’s funding crisis, and neither they nor their students could afford to buy the textbooks on which that teaching relied. There seemed to be nothing else for it. Abandoning their campus, they led their students through the streets to one place they knew they would find an abundance of contemporary verse, completely free of charge: on the heavily-graffitied walls of a stadium.
Unknown to most English readers, something remarkable has been happening in Greece over the last decade. While the national debt has skyrocketed to nearly twice the country’s GDP, while the population has suffered under the burden of recession and austerity, and while the fates of islands like Lesvos have become intertwined with those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants trying desperately to reach the European mainland, Greek poetry has enjoyed a renaissance unlike anything the country has seen for nearly forty years. From the pages of magazines, to cafés, to blogs, to the very buildings’ walls, few venues and surfaces have been safe.
Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck, is the first book to gather the best of that creative outpouring in all its diversity and originality. The poems it collects are not only about political and economic crisis, street fights and migration, but also about bodies, nature, love, myth, and the particular textures of domestic life lived in times of extremity. They are written by men and women, cis poets and queer poets, Greeks and non-Greeks, in Athens, in small towns, and on the borders of nation and language alike, where influences enter in from Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian and even Persian. In assembling an overview of this staggering range, Van Dyck – herself deeply involved in this contemporary scene and its translation – has provided us with a unique window onto the lived experience of Greek society today, in a way that The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway has called “fascinating, revelatory and only possible through poetry.”
Examples of the more explicitly political verse featured in Austerity Measures are already available online. In the FT, there is Stamatis Polenakis’s cool and collected Poetry Does Not Suffice (£); in The Guardian, there is the Amiri Baraka-esque Words, by Chechnya-born protest poet Jazra Khaleed. Today, however, I would like to share something different. Originally published in 2007, as the first dark clouds of the global financial crisis were beginning to gather, Katerina Iliopoulou’s Mister Tau in a Seascape depicts a moment of relative calm taken back and secured from the fervour of the modern world.
Mister Tau in a Seascape
by Katerina Iliopoulou
He is picking up a pebble from the seashore
He observes that the pebble has the noteworthy attribute
That it does not have an inside and an outside
The two are one and the same.
Then, because he cannot think of anything else
He decides the pebble is the enemy of the world
And hurls it far away.
The fallen pebble creates what we call
A ‘hole in the water’
Mister Tau feels a terrific attraction
An inexplicable envy for the pebble.
Therefore he takes another one and puts it in his mouth.
At first it is salty.
It is a sea thing.
A little bit later it isn’t anything.
A hard mass of silence inside his mouth
That swallows his voice.
To his surprise, however, he discovers
That even without a voice he is able to speak.
Evidently his appeals have been granted.
A flock of seabirds lands at his feet.
When they fly off, they leave behind them an unreadable text.
Mister Tau stoops down and starts immediately to study it.
Translated by A. E. Stallings
'I remember caresses, kisses, touching
each other's hair. We had no sense that
anything else existed'
- Elena Penga, 'Heads'
'Nothing, not even the drowning of a child
Stops the perpetual motion of the world'
- Stamatis Polenakis, 'Elegy'
Since the crisis hit in 2008, Greece has played host to a cultural renaissance unlike anything seen in the country for over thirty years. Poems of startling depth and originality are being written by native Greeks, émigrés and migrants alike. They grapple with the personal and the political; with the small revelations of gardening and the viciousness of streetfights; with bodies, love, myth, migration and economic crisis.
In Austerity Measures, the very best of the writing to emerge from that creative ferment - much of it never before translated into English - is gathered for the first time. The result is a map to the complex territory of a still-evolving scene - and a unique window onto the lived experience of Greek society now.