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Argyris Papadimitropoulos was born in Athens in 1976. His latest film, “Suntan” (2016), after a comedy titled “Bank Bang” in 2008 and 2011’s “Wasted Youth”, is his most personal one and premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and SXSW's Narrative Spotlight. Suntan has won the Best Foreign Film award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (UK) and the Mamers en Mars (France), the youth jury award in Brussels and Best Screenplay at the Belgrade International Film Festival (Serbia). It has won Best Global Film award at the Oaxaca International Film Festival (Mexico), as well as Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor at the Hellenic Film Academy – Iris Awards.

“Suntan” is about the obsession of Kostis, a loner in his 40s, working as a doctor on the island of Antiparos, with Anna, a young and beautiful tourist on vacation there with friends. Their encounter will open Pandora’s box for Kostis, who gradually loses grip with reality. Greek News Agenda interviewed* Argyris Papadimitropoulos on why some bronze while others burn in this “coming of middle age” film. Papadimitropoulos also talks about how he builds an invisible narration in his film, open to the viewer to produce his own meaning. Asked about contemporary Greek cinema production, he stresses that Greek film production is blooming, but the term weird wave is doing injustice to the artistic product of his generation.

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How do you react to various readings of your film?

I take delight in them. I love the idea of the spectators working on my film and being producers of their own meanings. I don't want my texts to be "locked". I like it when my films spark disputes and passion.

Why doesn't the film (anti)hero stop? Why does he have to fall so low? Is he being punished for something (not realizing where he stands or for his obsession) or is it just the way life is?

It’s not that he has to fall low. He just happened to fall. Some people fall, others don΄t. By no means am I a moralist. Neither do I say that when you get older you aren’t entitled to sensual pleasures anymore. I am saying exactly the opposite: any one is entitled to as many pleasures as possible. But you can't always get what you want. That’s life. The problem of Kostis, the hero, is that he cannot decode the messages he receives. Anna, the woman he desires, is a free spirit that doesn't want to commit and that is clear from the beginning. He doesn’t seem to understand that.

Now as regards why he doesn’t go away, Kostis is not the kind of person that stops. He has never been in a similar situation in his life; he has never tasted pleasure at the right time. He gets at the lowest point of his existence, in a situation he can't get out of. But this is the point I want to make, that people can resurface even at the last moment.

Suntan revolves around contrasting concepts (youth versus decay, the hard working villagers as opposed to the hard partying tourists, the bright summer against the dark theme of the film etc). What attracts you to contrasts?

Contrasts compose my everyday life, the mercurial ups and downs of my own emotions between joy and sorrow, an alternation which constitutes a part of the human condition. So they help me say more things, form my characters and show their internal conflicts. What I'm trying to do as a director is to say what I want to say without words. I don't like didactic films or preachy directors.

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The starkest contrast is between Anna and her young and privileged lot and Kostis, the one who is lagging behind both sexually and socially. Why do you embrace both sides?

I'm interested in both sides of the story. There is indeed a sociopolitical dimension in their divide. Kostis is not and will not become one of them. I try to depict life as it is and I am a firm believer that no matter how bad things are, you can subvert it and change it.

The way you depict life on the island creates a sense that you don't interfere in filming.

I like to have this effect in my films. Actually, the truth is the exact opposite. Everything is fiction that I place in a real environment with real people instead of background actors. The final outcome is the product of meticulous preparation in order to look spontaneous.

Has your career in commercials helped you in that?

Advertising offers me the possibility to continuously practice the use of cinematic language. For me, directing and choosing what lens to use comes very naturally. I also have close cooperation with Christos Karamanis, Director of Photography in the film, with whom I have been working for many years. We both make decisions regarding the film. Another helpful element for me is that I deal with situations I am well acquainted with and film in places that are very familiar to me. To be honest, few things are more familiar to me than a forty year old partying in Antiparos.

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Apart from Kostis being a doctor, the film deals almost medically in its anatomy of loneliness and the feeling of rejection. Which techniques did you use to achieve this effect?

Loneliness is an issue that existed before the economic crisis. It will exist after the crisis, and surely worsens with the crisis. Most humans do not know how to handle rejection. Human beings want to be loved the way they want and this is where tragedy comes from. I believe that Anna loved Kostis in her own way, in the way that the feeling of power stemming from her youth and beauty imposed. Everything turned badly when Kostis tried to impose his own rules. As regards how I created this ‘anatomy’, the answer is by observing people. That's what I mostly do in Antiparos. I observe the people crossing the street or sitting next to me, contemplating what their story might be.

What do you think about contemporary Greek cinema production?

I think it's exquisite, despite the size of the country and the indifference of the state. Many and great films are produced each year.

Why is there is an increased presence of Greek films at international Film Festivals?

I think that after the success of certain Greek films at international festivals, Greek productions entered into their radars.

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In that sense Giorgos Lanthimos had an important role to play.

Of course. He has made excellent films and through those films he has created a strong trademark for Greek film abroad.

What do you think of the term “Weird Wave”?

I don't mind that term. I just don’t think it does the films justice. What my generation does is much better than simply weird. I think the stories our films say are beautiful, too beautiful to be weird. And there is no weird wave, because there no common stylistic, aesthetic and thematic traits. Every artist does as he pleases, so there is no wave. Nevertheless, we closely collaborate and help each other.

One last question: How do you think people overcome their traumas?

I don't know. I haven't overcome mine yet.

* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi

Read also: Variety’s film review, Movie Maker: Lonely Island: Argyris Papadimitropoulos on Middle Age Frustration and Shooting Suntan Without a ScriptNew York Times Review: Seduced by Youth in ‘Suntan,’ and Refusing to Let GoVillage Voice: From Greece, 'Suntan' Plunges the Madness of Old Schlubs Pursuing Young Beauties 

 

Carolina Merminga was born in Athens in 1957. She studied Law and worked as a lawyer and a journalist. She has published two collections of short stories In Love (Hestia, 2005) and Today I Will not Die (Melani, 2010), and a novel Kin (Melani, 2013) and has translated Greece's Odious Debt by J.Manolopoulos (2012) and The Second Chance by Henry James (2014). Her most recent book The Greek Doctor has been shortlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature 2017.

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Carolina Merminga spoke to Reading Greece* about The Greek Doctor noting that through the life and personal experiences of a Greek doctor (1874-1941) “Greece’s entire history of that period unfolds”. She comments that “we have not come to terms with our history”, that is Modern Greek History, adding that “following the creation of the Greek state in 1833, most historical events are linked with deep social rifts and intense political conflicts, and even today writing about them seems to mean, for many, having to ‘take sides’”.

She explains that “the large form requires commitment from both writer and reader”, while short stories equally “require huge talent if t they are not to be simply an easy-write and an easy-read”, and notes that “both forms should serve that which the story requires: the way it should be told, fully and honestly”. She comments that “writing a book means listening and devoting and abandoning oneself to an inner voice and then, afterwards, checking it: re-reading it, as a reader”, and concludes that “real writers don’t turn to writing because there is a crisis. But I hope that the crisis will make people turn to real writers”.

Your latest novel O Έλληνας Γιατρός [The Greek Doctor] is included in the shortlist for the European Union Prize for Literature 2017. Tell us a few things about the book.

It is the story of a Greek man, a doctor, who was born in 1874 and died in 1941. Through his whole life and personal experiences, Greece’s entire history of that period unfolds. Beside fictional characters appear real historical ones (kings, prime ministers and politicians, military men, writers and poets, doctors and nurses) and main historical events are depicted: four major wars, a national catastrophe, elections, civil riots, executions, etc.

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In Greece, If you decide to deal with History, it’s as if you enter a minefield”. How demanding is it to write a historical novel? Where is the meeting point between history and fiction in your writings?

I believe we have not come to terms with our history –I am referring to what is known as “Modern Greek” history, because as far as Ancient Greece and Byzantium are concerned we relate to them as to a “sure thing”, safely tucked away and frozen in time. But following the creation of the Greek state in 1833, most historical events are linked with deep social rifts and intense political conflicts, and even today writing about them seems to mean, for many, having to “take sides”. But of course the difficulty of writing a historical novel depends, as with every other kind of novel, on what the writer demands of himself: If it is to be, for instance, a light “period piece”, history serves easily as a harmless, sterilized and lighty blurred canvas. A bit like choosing the right costumes and settings. If it is to be an, as close as possible, depiction of a time, then one must be familiar not only with real facts but also with the under-currents, the stories behind-the-scene, the atmosphere.

Mostly though, I believe that the tags we add to the word “novel” (historical, political, mystery, etc.) are mainly for marketing purposes. One either writes a novel, or not; The Greek Doctor is just that, a novel. So the demands I put upon myself (and what every reader should demand) are those required for a good novel: in short, that it should be well-written. The fact that my subject matter was related to history gave me the added concern of having to be very careful with my data: I started by reading a lot of history, so that I could move my characters easily and effortlessly in it. It is important, I think, that the “seams” don’t show, and by that I mean the way with which the general History is joined with the fictional part. In such a novel, “history” is, after all, the air that both the characters and the reader must breathe, effortlessly.

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Would you say that modern Greek history is a taboo issue in literature?

In the sense I mentioned above I would say it is, at least, a “sensitive” issue, filled with controversial aspects. The writer has to tread carefully if he/she does not have an “agenda”, i.e. a set opinion he/she wishes to put across.

It has been noted that in the last few years, Greek writers have turned to short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this trend?

I hadn’t really noticed! But because The Greek Doctor is 576 pages long, I can say this: I didn’t want to write such a long narrative because, as a rule, I am wary of the large form. One is not Tolstoy, and in novels I dislike, above all, useless chatter. But sometimes the story itself needs width in order to unfold properly, to breathe in the right space, to allow the characters to grow and become real characters. The general rule is a simple one: the story has to be told, and has to be told right. And that was the case, I believe, with The Greek Doctor –in fact it could have been even longer, I consciously restrained myself.

But all that is not to say that the short form is easier: quite the contrary, as we all know from the great writers of short stories. And I am equally wary of those short stories that remind me of an “impression of the moment”, or a video-clip; they require huge talent if they are not to be simply an easy-write and an easy-read, pandering to the laziness of readers who also tend to skim through books (“been there, read that”). The large form requires commitment from both writer and reader: you plunge into the story, you delve in it, you live in its cosmos. So, to answer you, both forms should serve that which the story requires: the way it should be told, fully and honestly.

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Book writing and book review constitute two completely different ways to serve literature”. Tell us more.

Writing a book means listening and devoting and abandoning oneself to an inner voice. And then, afterwards, checking it: re-reading it, as a reader. That last part is very exacting, because it resembles an out-of-body experience, where you have to examine and evaluate a part of you as someone else. The only real help for a writer, in order to do this well, comes from reading a lot of other books. Because reading is a sort of training too; an experienced reader is usually a better writer than a non-reader.

Doing a book review also requires, certainly, being an experienced reader. And it entails a certain very particular talent: incorporating the book into a larger context of expertise, of educated perception, so as to give to the reader of the review the best possible “keys” to understand it and appreciate it –or avoid it! Any sensitive and careful book review is of infinite value to literature. It acts as a lesson, as an enjoyable read, and as an incentive to regard literature as something larger: as a universe in which diverse stars scintillate in different but equally exciting ways. The reviewer is the Observatory through which we better see and appreciate their twinkle.

How do things stand as far as literary production in Greece is concerned? Has the crisis been a stimulus for artistic creation?

I am extremely hesitant in commenting on this. I think people still buy books, because it is an inexpensive gift for oneself and others. And I think people write, more than ever. But because I don’t consider literature as simply “a means of expressing oneself”, although a period of crisis may help some to vent out certain feelings, it probably doesn’t help literature. Real writers don’t turn to writing because there is a crisis. But I hope that the crisis will make people turn to real writers.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

Kostas Akrivos was born in Glafyres, Volos, in 1958. He has published novels, short story collections, and has participated in collective editions and anthologies. His novels have been translated in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, and his short stories have appeared in many European languages. He was the editor of the series A City in Literature by Metaichmio Publications and teaches modern Greek in secondary education.

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Kostas Akrivos spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Τελευταία νέα από την Ιθάκη [Latest News from Ithaca], noting that it comprises “stories inspired by characters from the Odyssey, which however take place in recent times of Greek history”. He comments that only literature “may bring out and accurately depict behaviors and people whose remains fertilize the never-ending field of great history”, adding that in the book it was necessary to “forge the individual voice of each of the characters” in order to achieve accuracy and plausibility.

Asked about the preference of contemporary Greek writers for short form, he explains that short form allows them to “better and more effectively depict a wide range of personal quests and concerns”. He notes that the literary texts written for a city “constitute the best compass not only to enter a city but to leave a city relatively unscathed” and concludes that much needs to be changed in the Greek educational system so that school becomes attractive and acquires a meaningful role.

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Your most recent book Τελευταία νέα από την Ιθάκη has received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about it.

The book comprises 26 stories inspired by characters from the Odyssey, which however take place in recent times of Greek history: Penelope is a newly-wed woman who lost her husband during the German Occupation; Achilles is an army officer who fought in 1922 and deserved to remain immortal; Calypso is the mistress next door; Telemachus is a gypsy boy who yearns for his father; Athena is a mother-protector of her children; Helen is the archetypal beautiful woman always stirring up trouble; Laertes is Kolokotronis mourning for his killed son; Elpinoras is an unfortunate lad from Crete in the Balkan wars; Polyphemus is a ravenous monk; Tiresias is a resourceful fortune teller… And Odysseus is captain of this voyage as well, although an unexpected Odysseus.

In his review of the book, Giorgos Perantonakis comments that you use the myth as a way to approach History in a trans-historical, inter-temporal framework. How is history inscribed in your writings?

I’m interested in history as the framework within which a country’s past is inscribed; yet I am mostly attracted by unwritten history, meaning events and individuals that remain lost in obscurity and anonymity. I am of the opinion that literature – and only literature – may bring out and accurately depict behaviors and people whose remains fertilize the never-ending field of great history.

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What about language? How important is language in its multiple variations and dialects for the accurate depiction of both time and space?

I am an inhabitant of a great – in every respect – language. My language is my country. Within it and with it I express myself, communicate, write and dream. By writing a book like this, where polyphony was imperative, it was necessary to listen attentively and then forge the individual voice of each of my characters. I thus decided to crack the homogeneity of narration, allowing the characters instead to express themselves in their own distinctive way so as to achieve both accuracy and plausibility.

It has been noted that in the last few years, Greek writers have turned to short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. Having written in both genres, how would you comment on this trend?

For a novel to be successful, it is crucial that its central theme moves beyond the boundaries of individuality or local collectivity, to embrace a universal idea. As Herman Melville eloquently put it, the theme is everything! If contemporary Greek writers feel an inadequacy in this respect, they quite successfully turn to short form, where they can better and more effectively depict a wide range of personal quests and concerns.

We need the literary profile of cities in order to be able to delve into their deepest spirit”. Tell us more.

History and Geography may be good and useful, but I believe that the best way of opening up the gates to a city is to feel its scratches, to know its paths and people, both contemporary and long gone, to familiarize with its sins, both explicit and concealed, to impress it in literature. The literary texts written for a city, meaning its literary map, constitute the best compass not only to enter a city but to leave a city relatively unscathed.

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What about the Greek educational system? How could literature become attractive to students? What role should teachers play in this respect?

There is lack of progress in many fields in contemporary Greek schools: mistakes that are repeated, indistinct and pointless objectives, ailments that remain uncured. The study of literature unfortunately remains one of the weaknesses of the education system. Much needs to be changed (books, teaching methods, priorities etc) if we really want students not to graduate semi-literate or functionally illiterate. Literature could help this change. The state however must respect literature and books, and all that is related. Only then could there be hope for school to become attractive and acquire a meaningful educational role.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

Elsa Korneti (1969) is a poet and essayist. She has published eight books of poetry, one of translations and one of essays, while she has translated from English, German, Italian and Spanish significant poetry works by Alda Merini, Homero Aridjis, Herta Mueller, Pieter Handke, Jochen Kelter, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, Luise Glueck. Two of her poetry collections have been distinguished as shortlisted: Α bouquet of fish bones (2009) and the Pearl Tin (2011) both nominated for the National Award of Poetry. She has been awarded first prize in a national short story competition (Prize Ta Nea) and a significant national prize for an unpublished poetry collection (Prize George Karter) under the title Normal people with a plume and a brindled tail.

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Her poems, short stories, book reviews, essays and translations have appeared in numerous domestic well-known literary magazines. Her poetry has been translated into several languages and is also featured in various foreign anthologies and magazines. She organized several successful Poetry Slams and also inspired, organized and brought on stage high spirited poetic performances.

Elsa Korneti spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest poetry collection Αγγελόπτερα noting that she enjoys “experimenting incessantly in order to reach a renewed hybrid genre that resembles a poem en prose”. She comments that “Poetry and Philosophy, when in close collaboration, can lead man to nothing less than a molding of the self”. As for language, it is “the primary tool for words to become poignant and influential”, and her personal bet is “to break away, where and when functional, from rules”. She concludes that in times of crisis, poetry is “the reconstruction of a kind of moral intelligence and global conscience, the sharpening of critical thought, the evolution and progress of society”.

Your latest poetry collection Αγγελόπτερα has received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.

The use of angels in Art is as old as humanity itself. I tried to imagine them as the metaphysical material filling the void between Heaven and Earth, as mediators to a reconciliation between the reality of earth and the vision of heaven - or even as an attempt to free oneself from the shackles of myths. Where it’s impossible to know who is hostage to whom. Is reality captive to the imagination or is the imagination captive to reality? Winged beings - some of them identifiable whilst others figments of my imagination - liberate themselves from their narrow confines by means of a transformation, or maybe a deformation, vanishing with angel flights inside the metaphysical poetic space. Through this elevation, they achieve some kind of catharsis and redemption, a release and deliverance from a world of filth, violence and stagnation, from a non-poetic world.

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From H αιώνια κουτσουλιά in 2007 to Αγγελόπτερα almost ten years later, what has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry?

My technique has possibly evolved and may still be evolving and I hope that this game never ends. I enjoy experimenting incessantly in order to reach, as experts call it, a renewed hybrid genre that resembles a poem en prose. My themes have also changed and no longer refer to the usual subjects of love, death, time, but rather focus on modern life issues such as the benefits and damages brought about by the electronic revolution and the ‘mashing’ by globalization.

George Steiner regarded philosophy and literature as the theoretical constructions of the exchange between the word and the world. Are poetry and philosophy communicating vessels? Where does poetry meet philosophy in your writing?

Poetry and Philosophy are indeed closely interrelated in my work; because Poetry and Philosophy, when in close collaboration, can lead man to nothing less than a molding of the self, to use Plotinos’ words, a never-ending process that leads man into becoming a sculptor and creator of his own cast, his own self. Working untiringly on the form of a poem is like molding yourself diligently and this process is unrelenting, perpetual and at the same time fascinating.

What purpose does language serve in your poetry? Is language a means towards unconventionality?

Language in poetry constitutes one of my preoccupations. My personal bet is to break away, where and when functional, from rules. Language is the primary tool for words to become poignant and influential. The more you “sharpen” it as a knife or an axe, the more powerful the blow to break the ice.

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Since the crisis began in 2008, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares. How would you comment on current literary, and more specifically poetic, production in Greece?

Dreamers line up against technocrats –the age-old conflicting parties in battle position.

A poem is something living, a palpable act of consciousness. The modern human condition is essentially one of mistrust with the world, as is the connection between life and existence. Poetry defends existence, as existence likewise defends poetry. “I am part of my work” the poet seems to say, given that he is indeed an integral part of his poems, together with the whole palette of the human condition.

Poetry is the most peaceful manner of demonstration, a way of demonstrating the right to defend existence. Poetry is the gun which shoots a rose when you pull the trigger.

I want poetry to return by all means: practice, observation, loneliness, speech, image, rebellion”, as Jannis Kounellis aptly put it. What is the role poetry is called to play in times of crisis?

In times of crisis, Poetry constitutes a direct response from the consciousness of the world as it plunges into the depths of existence. It is the reconstruction of a kind of moral intelligence and global conscience, the sharpening of critical thought, the evolution and progress of society.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

Theodoros Chiotis is a poet and literary theorist. His work has appeared in print and online magazines and anthologies in Greece, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Turkey, Poland and Croatia, amongst others. He is the editor and translator of the anthology Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (Penned in the Margins, 2015). He has translated contemporary British and American poets into Greek and Aristophanes into English. He has published critical work on contemporary poetry, digital literature and autobiographical discourse in academic volumes in Greece and the UK.

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He is a member of the editorial board of the Greek literary magazine [φρμκ], contributing editor for Hotel magazine, contributes Rhizosome, an ongoing narrative to the aglimpseof platform and has acted as associate editor for Litmus. He has been invited to read and perform his work in festivals both in Greece and abroad. His project Mutualised Archives, an ongoing performative interdisciplinary work unfolding throughout the whole of 2017, recently received the Dot Award by the Institute for the Institute for the Future of the Book and Bournemouth University. He is the Project Manager of the Cavafy Archive (Onassis Foundation). Screen, a collaborative book with London-based photographer Nikolas Ventourakis, is coming out from Paper Tigers Books in April 2017 with more projects coming out later in the year.

Theodoros Chiotis spoke to Reading Greece* about Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis noting that “the poets included in the book belong to, for lack of a better term, a ‘younger’ generation of poets writing, overtly or covertly, about how a significant political and fiscal upheaval impacts on society” and that “there was a very conscious decision to investigate how this experience of uncertainty and precarity carries across language and cultures”. Asked about his decision to use financial terms as titles in all of the anthology’s sections, he comments that “it felt important that poetry would approach these terms cribbed by economists from very different backgrounds and reclaim them”.

As for the current generation of Greek poets, he explains that it is “a generation that had to negotiate with their relationship with modernism and postmodernism, identity politics and notions of national and ethnic authenticity”, “a generation of multitudes”, “often challenging the concept of cultural and national boundaries on a micro and a macro level”. He concludes that “this particular historical circumstance might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for contemporary Greek literature to be diffused outside Greece”, which means that all interested parties should “rethink the cultural, social and political implications of the translation of contemporary Greek poetry and what it might ferry across languages and cultures”.

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How did the idea of Futures come up? On which criteria was the selection of the poets included in the anthology based?

Τhe anthology gestated over the period of two years. The initial seeds of the book were sown in October 2012; a two-and-a-half-year period of research and translation followed with the eventual publication of the book in November 2015. It is fair to say that the final selection of poets included in the book was dictated by a variety of factors; primarily, the poems included in the anthology tackle, engage and experiment with Greek and non-Greek poetic tradition in ways unforeseen up until now. The poets included in the book belong to, for lack of a better term, a “younger” generation of poets writing, overtly or covertly, about how a significant political and fiscal upheaval impacts on society. It was fascinating to see how this societal transition into uncertainty and precarity is reflected on both a political (personal and collective) and literary context and how these poets reflect on and mine this situation for material; furthermore, there was a very conscious decision to investigate how this experience of uncertainty and precarity carries across language and cultures.

Hence, I decided to also include poems written by poets who might not be native Greeks or second generation Greeks but have some other sort of connection with Greece. It was very important for me to explore the boundaries between languages and concepts of personal and collective identity and how these are affected and altered in times of crisis. The poets included in the anthology all experiment in fascinating, often provocative, ways with these very ideas. The anthology is a snapshot of a specific point in contemporary Greek poetic production. I am very satisfied with the selection of poets and poems included in the anthology but I certainly have regrets about the poems and poets that were left out for reasons that were purely practical. Unfortunately, a printed book is a finite product by its very definition.

Both the title of the anthology and the section titles “reflect the vocabulary of a supposedly bloodless fiscal war”, to use Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s words, while ‘Futures’ as a title is “slyly hopeful in this irony”. How did you choose these titles? And to what end?

The anthology is divided in five sections all of which derive from financial terms (Assessment, Adjustment, Implementation, Singularity, Acceleration). When researching the book, I found it fascinating how these very technical, abstract terms cribbed from a variety of disciplines have seeped into everyday language and have change how we perceive and think about certain things. I was thus very interested in seeing how one can reclaim language and how poetry can help us do that.

It also needs saying that the poems included in Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis form an oblique narrative laid out in the book by the use of financial terms. The fiscal and attendant social and political crisis tends to simplify and impoverish our discourse about current events. It felt important that poetry would approach these terms cribbed by economists from very different backgrounds and reclaim them; it felt not only timely but also necessary to try and reconsider how complex the quotidian really is at times like these.

How do you respond to those that talk about a “Greek poetry of the crisis” and “a new generation of Greek poets” that in a way resembles the generation of the 1930s?

I am wary of comparisons in general, if only because comparisons tend to flatten out complexity and circumstance. I would refrain from comparing any generation, including this one, with the generation of the 1930s which was a very heterogeneous group of poets and writers in its own right. The historical significance of the generation of the 1930s and its relevance to current poetic production is not only addressed but also recalibrated in certain poems included in Futures; the generation of the 1930s is certainly part of the poetic makeup of the current “generation” (again, a term I feel that is inadequate at this point) but it is also fair to say that the poets writing at the moment are also engaging with the interwar poets, the generation of the 1970s but also with non-Greek, non-Western poetic traditions that the generation of the 1930s did not.

On top of this, this is a generation of poets that had to negotiate with their relationship with modernism and postmodernism, identity politics and notions of national and ethnic authenticity. This is a generation of poets proficient in many languages, a generation which has lived (or still lives) outside Greece and carries with it strains and traces of this life experience; this is a generation of multitudes, a generation born in the diaspora or forced into becoming diasporic; this is a generation which engages and dabbles in many different art forms (music, painting, performance art, amongst others), and converses with its fellow non-Greek poets on an equal footing not only in person at various international poetry festivals and workshops but also in their work, often challenging the concept of cultural and national boundaries on a micro and a macro level.

The advancement of communication technologies has certainly altered the cultural landscape of the poets writing at the moment in ways that the generation of the 1930s could not have envisioned or experience. It is therefore very important to move beyond such binaries and comparisons and acknowledge the sheer complexity and richness of the work produced by the current crop of poets. We need to contextualise the current poetic production not in relation to what has gone before but what is happening in the present on a broader, transnational scale. Otherwise, we are doing the poets and ourselves, as readers, a great disservice.

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As Vassilis Lambropoulos notes “of all the arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. It constitutes the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated”. Does poetry constitute a way to talk about the present? To what extent can it be used to debunk stereotypes related to our ancestry, our national identity and our glorious but long gone past?

Vasilis Lambropoulos’ comment is acute in its observation and I agree with it; indeed, poetry seems to have made a significant comeback but I feel that we also need to go back to thinking poetry and art in general not as means of self-expression (which I have many problems with both as a concept and a modus operandi of art) but more significantly as a toolbox. Poetry can be seen as a toolbox which one sees the world with, a toolbox one can use to understand without simplifying the complexities of the current state of the world. Poetry is an opportunity to organise and rethink how consciousness works and how it is organised and how it might work.

In these times, poetry can be a way of thinking about the new parameters of our everyday life: poetry can circumscribe, narrate and navigate the New Normal, no matter how terrifying it seems. Poetry will help us understand what is this New Normal we find ourselves living in. The current narrative about contemporary Greek poetry rightly emphasises the velocity of its response to public events and their impact on a personal and a collective level. The poems written now chart and map a rapidly changing world where poetic style and intent literally conjure personal and communal identities which are multiple, hybrid and radically other. The poems written now often force us into acknowledging long received notions of ancestry and identity as non-linear ideological constructs in need of reassessment, reframing and reshaping.

In the field of literature and especially poetry, translations of younger poets are scattered. Has the crisis ignited the interest of foreign readers for Greek literature?

It is probably fair to say that the interest of foreign readers for Greek literature has been ignited by the crisis but we should be very vigilant about this renewed interest and in what ways it might be appropriated. This is a very crucial moment for contemporary Greek literature regarding its potential promotion to a non-Greek speaking audience; in fact, this particular historical circumstance might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for contemporary Greek literature to be diffused outside Greece. Of course, this means that translators working on contemporary Greek literature are not just mediators across languages and cultures but also ambassadors of contemporary Greek literature.

It is therefore very important for all interested parties to rethink the cultural, social and political implications of the translation of contemporary Greek poetry and what it might ferry across languages and cultures. Translation might carry its own voltage but it is both a gesture and a practice of cultural openness and hospitality. And as such, its sustainable growth and evolution needs to be supported and nurtured first and foremost by a consistent state cultural policy.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

Michaela Prinzinger was born in 1963 in Vienna, Austria. She studied Byzantine and Modern Greek Philology as well as Turkology in Vienna (1981-86). An academic assistant at the Free University of Berlin from 1990 to 1995, she was also a Post-Doc Fellow at Princeton University (1997-98). Since 1999, she has been a free-lance literary translator (from Greek to German), a project leader and a moderator. In 2005, she became an officially authorized translator and sworn interpreter for the Greek language.

Michaela Prinzinger Kanella Tragousti Edited

She has translated the works of Petros Markaris, Rhea Galanaki, Ioanna Karystiani, Loula Anagnostaki, and many others. In 1995, she was awarded the Joachim Tiburtius Prize, followed by the Greek-German Translators’ Prize in 2003. In 2014, she created diablog.eu, German-Greek encounters, a bilingual communication and exchange platform that aims to contribute to the proximity of Greek and German people through culture. In 2015, she received the Austrian State Prize for Literary Translation for the entirety of her work.

Michaela Prinzinger spoke to Reading Greece* about diablog.eu, German-Greek encounters, noting that “a true cultural policy should stem from civil society and not from the senior ranks of cultural institutions” and that diablog.eu has somewhat become “an alternative, unofficial Greek-German cultural institution” with a cultural policy that “comes from the base, from the center of civil society, where art and culture actually belong”. She explains that the next project underway is "the promotion of a cultural dialogue between the North and the South" through a nonprofit association in Berlin "which will aim at the development of new ideas and projects that will open up unprecedented and unexpected prospects". 

She comments that the way for Greek literature to be perceived as good literature without the need for folklore arguments is “through the development of tools that will strengthen literary translation” adding that “the Greek-German translation funding program needs an innovative approach which should go beyond unilateral, national support for translation projects”. She concludes that Greek writers are faced with almost insurmountable problems in order to have their voice heard abroad, given that, among others, “a coherent policy for the financing of current cultural transfers abroad, i.e. in the field of literature, is nonexistent”. “Yet, when there is a will, there is a way […] ideas do exist, which of course should be further spread. It’s high time the Greek state does away with its current stance”.

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diablog.eu constitutes a bilingual communication and exchange platform that aims to contribute to the proximity of Greek and German people through culture. What’s the story behind it? What are its main fields of focus and its targets?

diablog.eu, German-Greek encounters, is an online project of understanding between nations. Our motto is: culture connects; much more than money or economics. The project has sprung from the - somewhat strained in recent times - relationship between Greece and Germany. This dialogue can serve as a model for future co-operation in Europe. Up to now, diablog.eu has been a voluntary project, working only with the symbolic capital of knowledge, education and culture.

The aim is to establish a network between people, rather than institutions. To build a solid bridge, we need two pillars: the German and the Greek language. The site started as a low-budget project that draws upon the co-operation of interested and engaged people. The next step is to set up a nonprofit company. In this respect, diablog.eu will act as a laboratory of ideas and a networking tool; a starting point for many initiatives.

diablog.eu has been online since August 2014, and we also have a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, including the Facebook group diabloggers.eu (more than 3000 members, which represent a perfect German-Greek target group). Via our social media profiles, we are reaching up to 10.000 users weekly, while our website has recorded over 250.000 visits although we have deliberately decided against news and political reporting. Our project is broadly political and we are always open to any social issues that the cultural sector is grappling with.

What led me to the creation of the bilingual cultural website diablog.eu, German-Greek encounters, was actually the response I received from German publishers and media every time I proposed a Greek issue: Nobody here is interested. I refused to accept this unconditional conviction. I had friends who had repeatedly asked me to recommend Greek writers, musicians, artists. That’s how I came up with the idea to start a platform, a knowledge base, a source of information, which would promote cultural exchange.

What motivates us is not just the idea of a network, but the involvement of civil society as well. A true cultural policy should stem from civil society and not from the senior ranks of cultural institutions. Meanwhile, we have somewhat become an alternative, unofficial Greek-German cultural institution with a more human touch, while our cultural policy comes from the base, from the center of civil society, where art and culture actually belong. Our approach is at a personal level; we do not constitute an impersonal business project but we are rather active citizens showing solidarity.

The question is: Who is responsible for a country’s culture? The state? Individual maecenas and private sponsors? Or maybe all of us, the citizens right in the center of civil society, who do not want art and culture to be considered distant, elitist phenomena?

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Would you say that, in times of crisis, culture constitutes the most effective way of communication and understanding among European countries, and especially between the countries of the South and the countries of the North?

Europe needs the concept of diablog.eu. The idea could be applied to many other North and South regional relationships, where economic decline dominates the discussion. For us, creative economy means a culture of exchange, of give and take, of gift and counter-gift.

We want to open up a channel of dialogue for people who have, up to now, depended upon mainstream media coverage. To this end, we rely on help from bridge-building translators. Our common wealth is the culture we can all share. This potential could be perfectly fulfilled through the internet. Diablog.eu is not about our differences but about our similarities. Its aim is to finally cast off this outmoded philhellenism, an idealization of the Greek heritage cultivated up to the 70s and to define anew the image of Greece through a more political perspective, i.e. stemming from resistance to the Junta (1967-1974).

It is about the work of contemporary Greek authors, visual artists and musicians, who live in Greece or who, due to personal networks, work in German-speaking areas. It is also about creative people who work in German-speaking areas and share an intellectual or personal relationship with Greece that is imprinted upon their work. It is important to show that this wealth of intellectual exchange actually exists, both to raise awareness and for pleasure.

We are already preparing the next step, namely the promotion of a cultural dialogue between the North and the South. As we speak, a nonprofit association is underway in Berlin, which will aim at the development of new ideas and projects that will open up unprecedented and unexpected prospects. Based on diablog.eu's concerted effort of the last two and a half years to cultivate a cultural dialogue on equal terms, this organisation in Berlin will be in position to offer some worthy and viable work through its effective networking. 

On the occasion of your being awarded the Austrian State Prize for Literary Translation, you said that the Modern Greek culture is not easily understandable in a German-speaking audience. What is it that German publishers ask from Greek literature? What makes Petros Markaris so popular among German readers?

The novel is of course the literary genre publishers are more interested in (and obviously the same goes for readers). The interest for short stories is significantly lower, while poetry lovers constitute a small, yet fervent sect. The most renowned and popular modern Greek writer is without doubt Petros Markaris. One of the reasons is because his German-speaking publisher is quite caring and promotes him in the appropriate way. Markaris also speaks German so he is regarded by the German media as a coveted correspondent and interpreter of Greek issues.

Through his humorous and at the same time detached – due to his cosmopolitan background – look as well as through the vividness of the characters he describes, Petros Markaris has managed to transfer his German-speaking readers to the everyday life of Athens. He refers to familiar, global issues that his readers both in the Greek and the German-speaking world can identify with.

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Would you agree that when translating from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature, translators – as “cultural politicians” to use your own apt characterization - do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. How do you respond to this power?

Every translation has its own expiration date, which has to do with the evolution of language as a living and constantly changing system. Every translator has his/her own responsibility. In literature, mistakes are much less important compared to those made within a political or legal framework. A misunderstanding in a literary text doesn’t usually cost human lives, although it is rebuked by some literary critics and readers as a crime. Let’s not exaggerate. Languages are open symbol-bearing systems, which allow for different interpretations. A word may hold both great power and weakness, as you mention in your question. Through subtle linguistic variations, I can approach the reader or alienate him from a text – and the same goes for a way of thinking or a mentality.

What actually continues to restrict Greek literature, despite efforts to become known in Europe and the world, is the legacy of the “Zorbas syndrome”; that folkloristic image continues to exert influence”. Do you see a way out?

The real question is: How can modern Greek literature be perceived as good literature, without the need for teasers, such as pictures, motifs and folklore arguments? The answer is only through the development of tools that will strengthen literary translation. When it comes to historic research and the field of academics, such measures can actually have desirable results. This is obvious, for instance, in the cases of Deutsch-Griechischer Zukunftsfonds [Greek German Fund of the Future] and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. There isn’t anything similar in literature.

The Greek-German translation funding program needs an innovative approach which should go beyond unilateral, national support for translation projects. In this way, there would be created an interesting approach for other “language pairs”, so that the Greek-German example could act as a pioneer in the European cultural mediation. Literary cultural exchange would thus be improved, would exceed national borders and would be implemented at a European level in the fields of language, culture and mentality.

Our proposal is: The idea starts from two linguistic and cultural areas – a German-speaking, comprising Germany, Austria and German-speaking Austria, and a Greek-speaking one, including Greece, Cyprus and the Greek Diaspora. It refers to a dialogue between these cultural areas, a dialogue which has so far been unilaterally funded, that is by each respective nation. It’s about moving beyond this approach and creating a transnational Fund that will be financed by national, regional and inter-regional funds, private organizations and institutions, as well as by EU funding.

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What about the potential and prospects of the new generation of Greek writers? Would it be possible for them to debunk stereotypes and create a new narrative about Greece?

In one way or another, good literature debunks stereotypes. That’s not the issue. What worries me more is that both younger and older writers are faced with two major, almost insurmountable, problems:

a) In German-speaking publishing houses, there is almost no permanent personnel, that is editors, that know Greek. This reduces the chances of a book being evaluated right from the start. The editor should speak out and support a book in order to convince the publisher and his colleagues of its quality. That’s something quite difficult when the editor doesn’t know the language. Given that there is no tradition for translations of modern Greek, each editor (as well as each translator) has to start the evaluation and mediation virtually from scratch.

b) From my personal experience in Greece, there is no coherent cultural policy in general, let alone a cultural policy addressed to the outside. What is true for every other Greek state policy also applies to the cultural state policy: Major projects are implemented by active individuals and the intervention of the state leads to projects being impeded. In addition, GREAT strength and patience are required by Greeks themselves, who have to wait for months, if not years, to receive their earnings or potential funding.

Let me give you some concrete examples from the field of books and literary translation, which I know well of: The National Book Center of Greece (EKEBI) and the European Translation Center (EKEMEL) were among the first victims of austerity. Hellenic Foundations for Culture abroad, among which that of Berlin, ceased operations or are under-operating. A coherent policy for the financing of current cultural transfers abroad, i.e. in the field of literature, is nonexistent.

Yet, when there is a will, there is a way. And as I have already mentioned, ideas do exist, which of course should be further spread. It’s high time the Greek state does away with its current stance.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

Gyftakis2Visual artist Nikos Gyftakis* spoke recently to our sister publication, Grèce Hebdo**, about his work and shared his view on the contemporary arts scene in Greece. He also revealed his special relationship with music, his upcoming solo exhibition in Switzerland and the group exhibition he will take part in, on the occasion of the European Capital of Culture - 2017 Paphos events.

What is your view on the contemporary arts scene in Greece? Do you think that the level of artistic production could be considered as Greece’s advantage over other countries? 

Fine and Applied Arts in Greece are of a high level. From theatre to painting, the contemporary arts scene in Greece has a lot to offer and it does offer a lot worldwide. Everyday problems create the need to resort to what psychoanalysts call “safe places”, with art constituting perhaps the safest haven of all; also, the absurdity that we have been experiencing in recent years at various levels, fuels our imagination even more and makes the need to comment on reality through art emergent.

Fluid and swirling lines is a characteristic feature in your portraits which gives movement and liveliness to the faces portrayed. Why do you choose this structure?

Many years ago, during my studies at the School of Fine Arts, I came to a point where I had to find my identity, my personal style...both artistically and personally. I started studying philosophy, writing, and doing many drawings and sketches. The fluidity and swirl that you mentioned is the result of all the above. If we look at a finger from a close distance, we will see the fingerprint which is nothing more than a synthesis of countless curved lines swirling and each time creating a unique effect. If we look at it from far away, we stop seeing these lines and we see only the finger... and from even farther we see only the hand and so on... In other words, just like the water “moulds“ the ground creating thus the uniqueness of each landscape, I choose the color and the curved line so as to imprint the human psyche of the person I choose to paint in a way that his/her uniqueness is demonstrated.

gyftakis5In your collage artwork, you combine different notions and materials in a unique way. What are your expectations when using this way of expression?

In my collage / assemblage artworks, I combine painting with many diverse materials. I use old frames, photos, LPs (LP records), puzzles, games and gobelins (tapestry) I have found in flea markets and antique shops in Greece and on my trips abroad. These materials, with all the history they are carrying, give me the possibility to add to my artworks two very important elements for my artistic research: Space and Time. I use them in such a way so as to create a surrealistic dialogue with my portraits; then the portraits do not merely tell their personal stories but also make a social, political and historical commentary on the present and the past, the European North and the European South etc.

You have your own website through which you promote your work online and you are active on Facebook. Do you consider social media as “useful tools” for your work?

I created my own site and started being active on social media about 10 years ago. I do believe that they are important ”tools” for my work since they give me the possibility to present a sample of my work easily, fast and to a very large audience. Of course, one cannot compare seeing and enjoying a work of art “live” with seeing it online. However, if an artist wishes to communicate his/her work to the wider public – even worldwide - the new media now offer possibilities that were not available in the past. It is amazing to see, for instance, that through the Web you can "inspire" a Fine Arts student from New Delhi or sell an artwork to a collector in Seoul or Los Angeles. Some years ago, I think it would have been very difficult, or even impossible for an artist to achieve something like this on his/her own.

What is your relationship with music and how has it affected your painting?

My relationship with music and the classical piano started at the age of six. Apart from keeping me company and being a great way of expression, music taught me the meaning of rhythm. My perception of things until now has been a result of the ever-presence of music in my life. As the most abstract art form of all, music has shown me paths and given me answers that I have resorted to many times in my paintings. A piano chord could potentially be a combination of colors on the canvas, while an art work is definitely comprised of rhythm, movement and the sound-color, no matter if it is visual or auditory.

Nikos Gyftakis WoMan Oil on canvas and old BW photograph 34X41cmWhat are you currently up to? What are your plans for the near future?

I am currently teaching Art to children and adults, I am doing voice & piano rehearsals for my next live show and of course I paint. I am preparing the artworks I will showcase in my upcoming solo exhibition in Fribourg, Switzerland (September 2017) and in “Weaving Europe: The World as Meditation” (one of the European Capital of Culture -  Paphos 2017 events, November- December 2017), a very interesting project curated by Dr Efi Kyprianidou.

**Interview by Irini Anastopoulou (GrèceHebdo), translated to English by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou

*Nikos Gyftakis was born in Athens, Greece in 1981. He studied Artistic Research at Konstfack University in Stockholm, Sweden, Painting and Stage- setting Design at the School of Fine Arts, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Music at the National Conservatory of Athens, Greece. In his record, he has three solo and many group exhibitions in Greece and abroad. Among others, Art-Athina 2016 Platforms project “The waiting room”, “Compassion: on the phenomenology of being ill” curated by Dr Efi Kyprianidou & Penny Monogiou at Bethanien Projektraum in Berlin-Germany, “Portraits and landscapes of Greece” at Europahuset, for the cultural opening of the Greek EU Presidency in Stockholm-Sweden and “Ante Mortem” curated by Vagiti Ultimi, Palazzo Duchi D’ Acquaviva in Atri-Italy. In 2014, he participated in the 5th “Maiden Tower”- International Art Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan and in 2012, he was selected among the 30 finalists in the international competition “Surrealism Showdown”, Saatchi Gallery. He is a member of the “Compassion” arts collective. He has also created the stage-setting and paintings for several movies and theatrical shows and at the same time he has been curating art exhibitions and teaching Art. He lives and works in Athens, Greece.

More info: Visit the artist’s official website; The Liquid Portraits of Nikos Gyftakis (The Greek Foundation); Swirling, Psychedelic Self-Portraits by Nikos Gyftakis (This is Colossal); 

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Konstantinos Papacharalampos was born in Kavala, Greece in 1988. He holds a Diploma in Rural and Surveying Engineering from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and an MSc Real Estate from CASS Business School (London). He wrote poetry project K – On (Entefktirio ed., 2011) and took part in 1st Festival of New Writers organized by Greek National Centre of Books. His poems have appeared in leading Greek magazines and installed in situ in Action Field Kodra. He has performed poems from his second book Είναι (Íne, [FRMK] ed., 2015) in Athens, Thessaloniki (Lola Nikolaou Gallery) and London (Curious Body Soufflé exhibition) in both Greek and English.

Konstantinos Papacharalampos photo Stefanos Kastrinakis Edited

Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis anthology of UK publisher Penned in the Margins featured a poem from his latest book. Other poems from his releases were translated in German and Russian and associated with financial crisis and the Greek avant-garde scene. In parallel to his poetry he works as investment manager at Battersea Power Station in London. In 2014 he was a recipient in the first RICS Matrics Young Surveyor of the Year Awards.

Konstantinos Papacharalampos spoke to Reading Greece* about his two poetry collections commenting on his “ongoing interest in creating a new language experience in every project I release, intending to explore beyond established norms”. He characterizes himself as a ‘neofuturist’ noting that “both poetry and surveying have unique abilities to summarize the bigger human picture, a picture of constant change, our common history of ups and downs”, and that what he is after is “the balance of the changes, the place where moments exist together”.

Asked about the ‘global city’ as an inspiration in his poetry and experimentations, he explains that “London would not be the same successful metropolis it is today if it wasn’t a free city, a city that is welcoming to different backgrounds, races, religions and opinions”, and expresses his uncertainty as to whether “the voice of London will alter in a post-Brexit landscape”. He concludes that “the crisis did turn more heads abroad to look at Greek poetry, especially at contemporary poetry”, commenting however that he doesn’t believe there is “a certain national identity as such to show. Each person, each poet, has his/her own identity; each one of us is different and can still be more or less proud of a home country, whatever you choose your home country to be”.

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You have published two poetry collections so far: K - On (2011) and Είναι (2015). What is that differentiates the two books and what remains the same?

My first book is an interactive project on new starts, using topology, dialogue and minimalism as writing techniques in the poems – the reader is asked to navigate his/her own way to reach the ‘new start’. The presence of techno and electronica music scenes is also influential. My second book is a space grid project on life moments happening simultaneously. I explore the feeling of life and death occurring simultaneously; yes, life is what it is. In retrospect, the poems there go deeper into spiritual territory, as I built the book to be a meditation tool.

In the second book I also experiment further with asymmetric visual and sound techniques in writing; someone can hear the voice of mantras and underground disco among the lines. I saw Earth as the big disco ball and created poems with spread words and letters across the page to meditate on accepting us for what we are.

What is the same is my ongoing interest in creating a new language experience in every project I release, intending to explore beyond established norms. I believe it’s good to keep experimenting.

Futurism, Surrealism, minimalism, pop-art, optical poetry. How are these artistic movements imprinted on your work?

They are all part of what I call Neofuturism. It’s less of another –ism and more the experience of contemporary life and challenges ahead. We live in a world with huge technological changes; think of how often unique health improvements are made or new smartphones replace those released months ago. We already live in kind of futuristic, fast pace, times, where every single moment is somehow within its own sub-reality bubble. What I am after though is the balance of the changes, the place where moments exist together.

Neofuturism

Where do we find the line of sustainability? Where do we find the balance with respect to the environment? Do we ensure technological changes go together with advances in the human conditions? Do we deepen life chances as we deepen technological changes? This is the path I am walking on. This is how I am a neofuturist. I need to make a special mention for pop-art though, as it plays a particular role in my next project. My kind of ‘pop’ is very much the focus of my upcoming third book, still part of the wider neofuturistic picture.

You have characterized yourself as a “word surveyor”, while you use contemporary visual art techniques, mapping, installation and sound to challenge norms of language. Where do surveying and poetry meet and what is their binding thread?

I believe in change. I believe in human strengths and mistakes – I want to embrace us for what we are. Both poetry and surveying have unique abilities to summarize the bigger human picture, a picture of constant change, our common history of ups and downs – there I see an upward trend and a future of opportunities. I want this future now. My language experimentalism challenges the existing, both visually and conceptually, and asks for that change – the way that the development surveying I do at Battersea Power Station is about the challenge of bringing new life to a giant industrial building which has remained derelict for 30 years.

In his review of your poetry, Petros Golitsis comments on the priority you give to language, which re-arranges the world through innovative optic and sound combinations. What purpose does language serve in your writings?

By intention, I build my writings with three main components: optics, sound and meaning. These co-exist and interact in the lines and create something which I believe is above them; that’s what a poem is about. I don’t rely solely on just one of these three components. I believe this enables my work to be translated easily into more than one language. More than this, when I perform my work the optics, sound and meaning explorations come to life in a different way as I move across the stage; I become my own poem, performed not just printed.

The global city has always been an inspiration in my poetry and my experimentations. Starting from London, I would like to see an interactive dialogue on poetry and modern art in this era of historical change”. Tell us more

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit… What a shock. In my first book I write about reaching your goals like reaching for an apple from a tree. London was and is one of those apples. I believe in the energy of this city. We can fix those things that go wrong – and make the most out of the experience. We do need to explore more the idea of freedom and humanity – art can play its role in this. London would not be the same successful metropolis it is today if it wasn’t a free city, a city that is welcoming to different backgrounds, races, religions and opinions. I don’t know if the voice of London will alter in a post-Brexit landscape but we can use art to make more people think and remind them that division and isolation are never a good idea.

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What about Greek poetry? Has the crisis rekindled the interest of Greek poetry abroad? And, in turn, could poetry be used to debunk stereotypes about the Greek national identity and contribute to the construction of a new narrative about the country?

I think the crisis did turn more heads abroad to look at Greek poetry, especially at contemporary poetry which grew in volume recently – there are already more than two relevant anthologies. Interestingly the years that led up to the crisis didn’t get such attention. I guess the world waited for the full bad news. Poetry is useful for the presence of one country though, putting it on the cultural map of the world; yes Greece is not the center of it.

However I don’t believe there is a certain Greek national identity as such to show. Each person, each poet, has his/her own identity; each one of us is different and can still be more or less proud of a home country, whatever you choose your home country to be. It can be the world too. After seven years in London I have seen heads turning when you speak honestly and objectively about what has happened in Greece. Recognizing where you really went wrong is the first step to improve things. This is the narrative I see.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

 

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George Prevelakis is Professor of Geopolitics at the Panthéon-Sorbonne university in Paris and an Associate Fellow at the SciencesPo Center of International Research (CERI) in Paris. He specializes in European, Balkan and Eastern Mediterranean Geopolitics, in Diasporas and in Physical Planning. After leaving Greece in 1984, he has occupied teaching and research positions in Paris, Baltimore, Boston and London. During the academic years 2003-2005 he served as the Constantine Karamanlis Chair in Hellenic and Southeastern European Studies at the Fletcher School (Tufts university) and during the period 2013-2015 as the Greek Ambassador at the OECD.

Professor Prevelakis co-directs the academic journal Anatoli (Paris, CNRS Editions). His publications include Les Balkans, cultures et géopolitique (1994), Les réseaux des diasporas/The networks of Diasporas (1996), Athènes: urbanisme, culture et politique (2000), Géopolitique de la Grèce (2005) and Pourquoi une nouvelle Entente balkanique? (2010). His latest book "Who are we? Geopolitics of the Greek identity" (in Greek: Ποιοι είμαστε; Η γεωπολιτική της ελληνικής ταυτότητας, 2016) will soon appear in English.

He also frequently writes articles and gives interviews to the Greek and international media about Greece and the Greek Geopolitics (e.g.: University of Oxford (1998), Esprit/Eurozine (2011), Fondation Robert Schuman (2015).

anatoliprevProfessor Prevelakis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the Greek geopolitical condition, the global Greek diaspora, "Eurocentric" approaches to the territorial Nation-State, Greek geography (Ancient and Modern) and the East-West divide, Greece's "mythistorical vacuum", crisis as a learning process, and finally, the need for an “opening up” of the Greek identity and the reinvention of  the concept of Hellenism as a link between Europe and the emerging multipolar world:

To what degree do geography / geopolitics define a country’s identity and prospects? How do you view Greece’s position in the East Mediterranean and the Balkans?

Greece is situated in one of the major geopolitical crossroads of the world, bridging Europe with Asia and Africa and connecting the Russian space with the warm seas. For this reason, it has been constantly exposed to wider tensions. Conflicts with its neighbours as well as Greece’s entanglement in the two World Wars and in the Cold War are the obvious consequences of its Geography.

The weakness of domestic forces, in comparison to the pressures exercised from the geopolitical environment, explains another major Greek problem, the recurrent internal division, the “Dichasmos”, which has plagued Greek political life since the creation of the Greek State: pro-British against pro-German, pro-American against pro-Soviet etc.

The Greek geopolitical situation breeds favourable conditions for rent-seeking. USA aid in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a form of geopolitical rent paid to Greece. Although rent appears as an asset, it functions as a major handicap. It disorients national energies from the production of wealth; structures economic and political life around conflicts for its appropriation; promotes corruption; hinders meritocracy; turns the country introvert. The roots of the present crisis must be sought in the three decades of European (and Eurozone) rent.

mapofgr55©Benaki Museum

Geography and Geopolitics must not be perceived however only at regional scale. Greeks do not live only on Greek territory, but globally as well, in the Diaspora. Although less visible, the Diaspora’s bearing on the fate of the country is very important, beginning with the very creation of the Greek State. The Greek Diaspora, in combination with the Greek merchant marine and the Christian-Orthodox international networks, many of which are Greek speaking, form an alternative geopolitical space which -in contrast to the Greek territory- rather than being influenced, exerts an influence on the dominant powers. Thus, in 1974, after the Cyprus crisis, the spontaneous mobilisation of Greek-Americans influenced US policy of military aid to Turkey.

The relationship between the national and the diasporic Greek realities is complex and unclear, usually cooperative, although sometimes competitive. During the military dictatorship (1967-1974), most of the diaspora antagonised or was hostile to the official Greek State. As in the case of Israel and the Jewish diaspora, this Greek dualism offers political and geopolitical flexibility and resilience. The Geopolitics of Greece is much more complicated than what appears at first glance by simply looking at the map of the East Mediterranean and the Balkans.

In your latest book “Who are we? The geopolitics of Greek identity” you write that Greeks as a people, like the Jews, Persians and Chinese (among others) escape the narrow, Western-European condition of the nation-state. Would you like to tell us more?

Among the various peoples, Greeks appear as the archetype of a modern nation. This stereotype is the cause of many western misconceptions, as well as of the recurrent crises between Europe and Greece. Considered and admired as the descendants of Ancient Greeks, Greeks inspire hostility when their mentalities and consequent reactions belie this romantic view. These behavioural extremes are provoked by the inadequacy of our analytical instruments.

collagetsoliasridentity10The concepts generally used in social sciences are conditioned by the geopolitical experience of the territorial Nation-State. Well adapted to analyse the English or the French, they are much less operative in other situations. Specialists need to devise new concepts, not only in order to grasp the experience of peoples with a long past, like the Greeks, the Jews, the Iranians or the Chinese, but also because the modern State itself has become less relevant under the influence of Globalisation and the waves of technological innovation. The Eurocentric approaches have to be adapted to other geographical (other peoples and regions), and historical (pre-modern European past, post-modern future) realities. The study of the Greek case has important heuristic qualities because it introduces challenging conceptual questions. Can the concept of the Greek Nation-State be replaced, so as to describe a long-term reality? Is the concept of Hellenism the solution?

Similar to Judaism, Hellenism is a useful concept, although misused by the Greek nationalistic discourse, thus needing to be “reinvented”. This procedure claims a certain distance from the scientific preoccupation with precision. Following Albert Einstein, for whom “the more we gain in precision, the more we lose in depth”, the term “Hellenism” has to be treated in a relatively imprecise way in order to preserve its heuristic value without falling in its essentialisation.

In my book I have described Contemporary Hellenism as a “cultural sediment”, whose origins are to be found in the Ancient Hellenic World. In spite of the changes, there remained a substance, of which the Greeks of today are not the unique inheritors. Still, for various reasons, the most important of which are the linguistic continuity and the interconnections between the Greek language and Orthodoxy, they occupy a most significant position. Well founded critics accuse the Greek State’s recent policies towards language and religion as eroding those very elements. However, the long term survival of Hellenism has proven its resilience. It is protected from the blows of Stato-Nationalism by its hidden cultural and institutional resources.

The idea of the uninterrupted continuity of Greece from antiquity to modern times has been a constitutive part of Greece’s nation building process. You have written about “opening up” Greek identity, cautioning however against “certain progressive” theories that end up “corroding” some of its elements. What is really at issue here?

The issue is not so much about continuity per se, but rather about what we mean by “Greece”.  The nationalistic narrative projected to the past an image corresponding to the geopolitical reality of the Greek territorial Nation-State. According to this narrative, at least in its vulgarised form, the Ancient Greek world was a kind of Nation-State situated in the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula. Obviously this idea stems from a complete deformation of Ancient Greek geography which took the form of a discontinuous network of city-states extending from the shores of the Black Sea to today’s southern France and even further.

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The historian William H. McNeill introduced the term of Mythistory: “unalterable and eternal truth remains, like the Kingdom of Heaven, an eschatological hope. Mythistory is what we actually have—a useful instrument for piloting human groups in their encounters with one another and with the natural environment." [1] 

The Greek strongly anachronistic nationalist “Mythistory” was necessary in the competitive environment of post-ottoman nationalisms and in the European ideological environment of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. It is not useful anymore and, in addition, it can easily be demolished. It is much harder to develop an alternative “Mythistory”, adapted to the new conditions of a rapidly changing world. The moral crisis of Greece of today has a lot to do with its mythistorical vacuum. The self-perception of the Greeks has to move forward.

Thus, a more balanced interpretation of the Ottoman past can open up Greek identity and create the conditions for a more profound dialogue with both the West and the East. It can also help cope with challenges like the “demographic winter” and migration issues.

balkanantagonisms3Contrary to received ideas, a more open identity will not be weaker, but stronger. As the Prince of Salina says in Luchino Visconti’s film The Leopard, “things have to change in order to remain the same”. However, not every kind of “opening up” will strengthen Greek identity. It is also necessary to resist to the trend of deconstructing traditional symbols and institutions in the name of an already outdated “modernity”. Even if there is abundant space for the non Greek-speaking or the non-Orthodox, language and religion do remain the two pillars of contemporary Hellenism and constitute major assets in a world where the cultural and spiritual dimensions are constantly appreciated.

To what extent does the Greek crisis reveal the weaknesses of the European project? Can we interpret current political developments in Europe from a cultural geography vantage point?

There is no doubt that the European project is not perfect; how could it be otherwise in such an ambitious enterprise? However, interpreting the Greek crisis simply as a consequence of contradictions in the European economic and financial sphere misses the point. What needs to be explained in the Greek case is not why the South got behind the North; but why, among the economies of the South, Greece faces much more difficulty to re-emerge. Moving away from the North-South opposition, the problem refers to the East-West divide. This geographical shift has serious methodological implications. Geopolitics and geo-culture replace geo-economics. We need for example to understand how the different historical paths of countries like Portugal and Greece are reflected in issues like the relationship of citizens to the State or their attitudes towards tax evasion.

Today’s dominant European paradigm, based on Economics and Law, has proven unable to grasp such dimensions. There lies the real reason of Europe’s failure to help Greece during the crisis. Contrary to what is usually thought, the problem is not of a material order. On the basis of the Greek-European crisis, serious misunderstandings from both sides have led to the present dead end. With very few exceptions, Greek intellectuals failed to develop an autonomous analytical approach during the past decades. Even when criticising Europe and the West, they remained dependent on the dominant debates in the western academic environments. On the other side, in spite of its declared purpose to include cultural diversity, the European project has remained Eurocentric. West Europeans continue to project their own experience to other cultures and react negatively when those cultures do not respond accordingly.

Discords with the various European peripheries are therefore inevitable. Analysed from a cultural geography vantage point, the Greek crisis can offer useful insights to Europe to cope with problems of similar nature, present or future, and to grasp new opportunities.

en prevelakis1How can Greece move forward beyond the crisis’ constraints and out of the creditor’s tutelage? How can we rethink Greece’s geographical position and cultural comparative advantages in today’s circumstances?

A crisis is a learning process. Greeks have had to get rid of a series of misunderstandings that took form during the three decades of false prosperity. Abandoning the illusions is however a painful process. During the crisis years, it has been necessary to repay the “pain debt” accumulated while Europe furnished Greeks with the anaesthetics of easy money and unconditional solidarity. Once this debt is repaid, once the mourning of the easy past is over, Greece will be able to benefit from its extraordinary comparative advantages. Historically, Greeks flourish in adversity and decline in the easy life.

There already exist certain encouraging signs. According to the last opinion polls, Greeks are abandoning the conviction that the State can solve all problems. Also, economic statistics show that they are becoming more extrovert in their activities. The new Greece that will emerge from the crisis will be useful to Europe, not only for the obvious material advantages it can offer, but also culturally. Greeks, in Greece and the Diaspora, represent a link between Europe and the emerging multipolar world, made up of old civilisations. What seem today as a set of cultural handicaps hindering Greece’s “modernisation” or “Europeanisation” will in fact function as Europe’s asset in its effort to reconcile itself with peoples and civilisations dominated in the past and now re-claiming their place in history.

In an article published just after the Greek defeat in Asia Minor (1922), the Oxford Professor of Archaeology Sir William Ramsay wrote: “One of the most remarkable facts of history is the power of the Greek people to adapt to other nations and thereby assimilate nations to themselves" [2].

It is a quality that Europe much needs today and will need even more in the future.

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi

[1] William H. McNeil, «Mythistory or Truth, Myth, History and Historians», Mythistory and Other Essays, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 21-22

[2] Sir William Ramsay, “A sketch of the geographical history of Asia Minor” National Geographic, November 1922, p. 553-570, p. 560

Géopolitique de la Grèce (2005). Read inside the book:

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costasvergopoulos.jpegKostas Vergopoulos is professor of Political Economy at the University of Paris VIII. He has written several books and his articles are regularly published in the Greek and international press. He talked to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the need to establish mechanisms that stabilize transfers among member-states and a European Monetary Fund that would take over the excessive debts; the importance of rebooting Greek and euro zone economy; multi-speed Europe and the need to stay on the path of "more Europe" instead of giving into nationalistic pressures, and finally, on the stakes of the next presidential elections in France.

There can be little doubt that Europe is going through an uncertain phase, even one of decomposition. Do you think that European project could still gain a new impetus?

There is one thing that is certain: the founding countries of both the European Union and the common currency, the euro, are still holding on to this Union. When they are trying to take the necessary actions for the EU’s cohesion, durability, functioning and success, they are doing it to prevent its breakup. Like Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, who, since 2012 has pledged that his institution will take all necessary measures, even if they are "unconventional", to ensure the success and sustainability of the common currency.

So, if I am concerned about something, it is not so much the future of the Union or the common currency, but above all the fact that their sustainability is not assured in advance and by the standard mechanisms provided for in the founding Treaties. Instead, everything happens at the last minute, with enormous delays, with ever-increasing costs, and above all, as President Draghi himself acknowledges, by using "unconventional" measures, not provided for in the Treaties. The founding Treaties will have to be amended as a matter of urgency in order to make the European system more coherent and functional, more secure and more transparent.

Multi-speed Europe is once again on the European agenda. What are the opportunities and threats of such a prospect?

Multi-speed Europe is not a new concept, since it existed at least since the Maastricht Treaty (1992) in the form of the "enhanced cooperation" procedure among member countries. The established monetary zone is already an example, since only 19 countries out of the 28 of the Union -or 27 after UK´s withdrawal- participate in the common currency. Nevertheless, if today's European leaders are thinking about reviving this already existing idea, I imagine that it would be to allow some countries to not immediately submit to the decisions of Brussels, like the four countries of the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) especially in regards to their refusal to host migrant populations.

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However, this would be a serious concession in the face of rising nationalist pressures, and therefore a departure from European principles. I believe that Europe will not gain anything by giving into nationalist pressures; instead it should confront them with more European solutions. On the other hand, I imagine that if some countries are allowed to slow down, it means that others intend to accelerate, especially those in the euro area. I think it is time for the euro area to have a European Monetary Fund that would take over the excessive debts of the euro member countries. Let us not forget that the euro area is currently the most indebted region in the world, with total debt exceeding 100% of its GDP. In all similar cases around the word, the national central banks are busy reducing the load of debts, so that their economies can restart.

This is the case with the FED in the United States, the BoJ in Japan and the Central Bank in China. In the euro zone, since mechanisms for stabilizing transfers among member-states are still refused by Germany, it is time to set up other equivalent mechanisms that do not increase the burden on taxpayers. But to do this we definitely need more Europe and no less; what we need above all is a more significant role for the European institutions. One example would be be the issuance of Eurobonds by the ECB or the ESM, financed, of course, by the markets and under the guarantee of the whole of the euro zone. Another example would be the takeover by the ECB or the ESM of public debts exceeding 60% of GDP. Another thing to do is undoubtedly abandoning austerity policies, which actually produce recessive effects for the whole of the euro zone.

The euro will not be able to compete with the dollar to become a global reserve currency as long as the European economy is not rebooted. In any case, it is urgent to launch new European measures and policies, because Europe is already approaching stagnation; this, along with the very high unemployment rates are already feeding the disappointment of the popular strata and the rise of protest and of right-wing populism in a growing number of European countries.  Europe is not condemned to disappear, it has a future, but only if it keeps the promises of its founders. The 1957 founding Treaty of Rome promised convergence of the standards of living of all the member countries. If today some people think that they can replace the principle of convergence with that of divergence, Europe will no longer have any interest for the people. I believe that Europe’s success is always the path of “more Europe"; the return to nationalist solutions would be a regression, even for those who today demand secession.

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Will there be a place for Greece within this new framework?

Recently, only a few weeks ago, French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged in their joint statement that Greece belonged "at the heart" of Europe. What is more, this comes very naturally, given the historical, cultural and geopolitical importance of Greece in a restless and insecure neighborhood. I ofter have the impression that Europeans or Americans have a much better image of contemporary Greece than the one Greeks internalize for themselves.

Has the euro zone benefited from the IMF's experience in battling public debt crises? What is your assessment of the role of the IMF as regards of the Greek crisis?

The IMF is already capitalizing on the experience of crisis management in 180 countries around the world. However, in the case of Greece, the IMF found itself involved in a crisis management that was designed and implemented by the Europeans and notably, by Germany. The IMF has already warned that the programs applied in Greece were wrong, as they caused more recession than was necessary or desirable. Above all, the IMF puts forward as a priority the recovery of the economy. Greek economy is now in the confines of of an "unsustainable" debt -meaning debt that is impossible to pay off- that the Germans still refuse to restructure and of the requirement for a primary budget surplus of 3.5% of GDP. These two constraints must be removed if Greece is to find its way back to economic recovery. I think that, despite everything, and thanks to the IMF's insistence, these two constraints will be removed, one way or another. If a country is over-indebted, there is no point in imposing austerity policies that make servicing the debt even more difficult.

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Looking towards France. What do you think are the stakes of the presidential election for France on an economic, identity or even European level?

France, a founding member of the European Union, is still the country where all the problems of the European region and all the influences between North and South, East and West intersect. It is true that the European project is already being intensively contested; however this is mainly coming from the extreme Right, from a sovereignist and nationalistic point of view. On the Left side, the disagreement with the European project emanates from bad performance in jobs and unemployment, however on the Left side there is no wholesale contestation of the European project, but specifically of the current austerity policies that stop Union from consolidation its place in the world. Undoubtedly, the French presidential election will be an important test for the future of the Union as a whole. All in all, I think that in France the contestation of the current austerity policies has still much more traction than the stance of the Euro-skeptics who -following the example of the United Kingdom- want to leave the Union .

Marine Le Pen surfs the wave of French people´s urgent problems, such as the issue of unemployment and the jobs relocation, but actually she does not present convincing alternative proposals. France has a great economic, political and cultural potential: nowdays, its problem is not that it has to submit to Brussels, as Marine Le Pen claims, but above all that it lacks political leaders to match its potential. Nevertheless, in order to have them, it seems more realistic to seek them within the European framework than outside, to try to transform and improve the functioning of the European edifice than to abandon it. Moreover, and in view of the recent electoral results in the Netherlands, it would seem that the contestation of the European project is reaching its limits. It is now time to rethink the European project instead of leaving it, especially when, in Germany itself, we are witnessing the surge new and successful approaches for a more solidary and cohesive Europe, on the Union level as well as on the euro zone level.

Interview by: Irini Anastopoulou, Kostas Mavroidis and Maria Oksouzoglou

Translation from French: Ioulia Livaditi