Dimitris Kountouras is a musician and musicologist, specializing on early music instruments (traverso, recorder) and the historical performance practice of early music. He is the director of the early music ensemble Ex Silentio and appears often in concerts with bayanist Konstantinos Raptis (as Duo Goliardi) and the Athens Camerata. He has given concerts as a soloist and chamber and orchestral musician at Sala Verdi in Milan, the Pablo Casals Hall in Tokyo, Megaron in Athens, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Styriarte festival in Graz, the J.S. Bach festival in Riga etc. He has recorded works for music labels Carpe Diem and Talanton with Ex Silentio, and played in baroque opera recordings for MDG and DECCA Classics.
His ensemble Ex Silentio (with Theodora Baka, Thimios Atzakas, Elektra Miliadou, Andreas Linos, Tobias Schlierf and Nikos Varelas) has performed widely at festivals in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Holland and Italy. Their latest recording, titled MNEME, won the PIZZICATO magazine Supersonic prize and was shortlisted for the prestigious International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) in the Early Music category in 2016.
Kountouras has published articles on early music interpretation, text and music relationships in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He teaches historical flutes, chamber music and early music performance practice at the University of Macedonia, the Athens Conservatoire, the Filippos Nakas Conservatory and the Aghios Lavrentios Music Village. He spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the work of troubadours in the Latin Empire of Constantinople, how Greek music fits in the eastern/western music framework, the common elements of Mediterranean music and the unique profile of Greek instrumentalists.
Tell us about your latest research on the passage of troubadours trough the territory that is now Greece, during the time of the Crusades. What does your research show as regards the multicultural character of the region?
The idea for the project "Music and poetry of the troubadours in the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica after 1204" came up a few years ago, when I was studying the life and work of French troubadours Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and Elias Cairel, who passed through the Greek world after joining the 4th crusade. These troubadours, along with fellow Frenchman epic poet Conon de Béthune, lived for a while in the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the feudal Crusader state founded on lands captured from the Byzantine Empire.
So, while the events of the 4th Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 are well known, little is known about the activity of these troubadours who accompanied the Crusader Kings to Byzantium. We don’t know much about their life while in the East, or how their work influenced cultural life in the newly formed Latin Empire of Constantinople.
These two troubadours, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and Elias Cairel, followed the new king of the Kingdom of Thessalonika to the city and resided there for some of their more creative years, leaving music and poetry of high quality and rich historical references. Studying their work helps shed light on the life and art of early 13th century Thessalonika, as well as on possible interactions between these Latin musicians and Greek-speaking artists of the time.
What is the relationship between "eastern" and "western" music? The latest work of your group Ex Silentio bridges these worlds by approaching Mediterranean music through early music.
In Europe, as compared to the East - in this case, the Near East and the Arabic world - polyphonic forms were developed quite soon, at least as far as court music is concerned, while in Eastern musical culture, monophonic idioms endured longer in court and in popular music. Ιn Europe, there was a lot of focus on forms, complicated structures and harmony, while in the East there was more emphasis on the melodic material and the singing quality of modal music.
Despite different national and cultural backgrounds, there are various things in common in all the musical traditions of the Mediterranean basin; this is what we tried to uncover and showcase in our Mneme CD, starting from the Arab-Andalousian tradition of Spain, continuing onto Catalonia, Provence, Italy, Greece and the Sephardic tradition of Salonica. In order to highlight these connections, we focused on monophonic repertoire, troubadour singing and instrumental dances from East and West, as well as known Greek traditional songs (such as To Kastro Tis Astropalias). A common element between traditional Mediterranean and early music are lengthy verses, something we highlight by interpreting these traditional songs as medieval, long, rhapsodic sagas.
Where would you classify Greek music in an eastern/western framework? Do Greek musicians have something unique to offer to the world?
Greece has been always influenced by both European and Eastern music; since 1850, Greek music was also strongly influenced by the rich Italian musical and theatre culture. Nowadays, it is striking how many different musical styles one can find in Greece: traditional and popular music, classical and early music, Balkan jazz and impro. It is fascinating that all these styles coexist in harmony and form an organic part of contemporary Greek music culture. So, in Greece you will find musicians playing all kinds and styles of music, just like in Europe. What´s more, lately, we are witnessing increasing activity in classical music, as well as in improvised and even in early music.
There is often an interesting background in some Greek musicians, as they combine a western/classical music education with oral/traditional music experience and training. The survival and diffusion of traditional music in Greece is something unique: there is nothing akin to that in western or central European countries. That profile certainly gives an interesting and open minded approach to music making.
Furthermore, more and more Greek instrumentalists have experience and training in both classical and traditional instruments, by and large due to the special High Schools in Greece specializing in a musical curriculum. This development is quite recent, as the institution of musical High Schools was established only 20 years ago, but I find it can definitely give intriguing and unexpected results.
*Interview by Ioula Livaditi
Yannis Efstathiadis was born in Athens in 1946. He studied Political and Economic Sciences at the University of Athens. He has published poetry, novels and short essays on music as well as gastronomy under the pen-name Apikios. He is also music producer for national radio station 3 (Trito Programma) of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation. In 2012 he received the State Literary Award for best short story or novel as well as the Kostas and Eleni Ourani Foundation literary award for his music and literary essays.
Yannis Efstathiadis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Κλεινόν, which presents a visual and emotional mapping of Athens through fictional testimonies of renowned (and unknown) people in a multifaceted narration about the city. He comments that Athens “weighs emotionally upon [him]” and that he loves “this bustling presence of people, who, when they commute, entertain, shop or protest, make the city’s temperature rise”.
Asked about his preference for short stories, he quotes Borges, “who asks himself why write a novel when you can unfold the plot in just a few pages”, while he notes that he draws his ideas “from what happens in reality and mostly in the imaginary and the dreamy”. He discusses the similarities between writing and radio production, explaining that “you write on radio as well, just through another technique” and that “a recording studio, unlike a television one, bears the aura of an ascetic cell that also matches the writer”. He concludes that poetry is currently undergoing “a creative poetic renaissance” with a rise of new voices and a revival of older ones.
Your latest book Κλεινόν presents a visual and emotional mapping of Athens through fictional testimonies of prominent Athenians. Tell us a few things about the book.
The book came about by coincidence. It was inspired unintentionally by David Connolly, who, during one of our meetings, asked me if I had a piece of writing regarding Athens to be included in an anthology in English he was preparing about the city. I said no, since all my writings focused mainly on time rather than space. Yet, his question became an indirect bid for me, which resulted in this book. I wanted to draw a polyphonic document about Athens and I chose fictional testimonies of renowned (and unknown) people in relation to the city. I chose people active in different fields (politicians, writers, architects, scientists, athletes etc) so as to achieve a multifaceted narration.
The memories are mostly mine providing the book with an autobiographical character, as the writer puts his own experiences on the words of others. That is the reason the various narrations do not follow a chronological order. They are intentionally disarranged, as is often the case with memories. There is only one concrete symbolism: the first piece (midwife) is birth and the last (Chalepas) is death. And, of course, there are interspersed short pieces by known writers, which act as intermezzos, defining locations and connecting people.
“What is attractive in a city like Athens is the people themselves, not as individual persons but as a strong flavour of life that you get to taste every second of the day”. What does Athens represent for you? How has the human and social geography of the city changed over the years?
For me Athens - actually, its very centre - is the city where I was born and the city where I grew up. Thus, it is a city that weighs emotionally upon me and the same goes for its bad aspects (impersonal buildings, unregulated and artless signs, stray wires etc). I love Athens and I love it with the difficulty it entails – it’s easy to love beautiful cities, as my wife likes to say. I love this bustling presence of people, who, when they commute, entertain, shop or protest, make the city’s temperature rise. I love Athens during all its eras, in its entirety. Even more so – as it becomes evident in the book – I remember Athens, I don’t just feel nostalgic. Nostalgia often turns overemotional, which in no way characterizes me either as a person or as a writer. I opt for the Doric simplicity of memory.
You write short stories that are often snapshots of a person's life. What makes you choose this form of writing? Would you argue that the short form can better depict ‘the human condition’?
Indeed, I write short stories – short novels as I tend to call them – and this may be due to my poetic origins; I solely wrote poems during the first 20 years of my writing career. But what guides me is a quote by Borges, who asks himself why write a novel when you can unfold the plot in just a few pages.
"Whatever the country, whatever the landscape, a writer’s influential space would always be the square metres of his desk”. Do you follow a particular writing procedure? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From the few square metres of my office I try to communicate both with the “outside” and the “inner world”; to describe, to record, to witness, to trace, to “hear”, and to communicate. I draw my ideas from what happens in reality and mostly in the imaginary and the dreamy. At times I am a realist, and often a surrealist. I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in observation, memory and invention.
A novelist, a poet, an essayist, a radio producer. What is the binding thread?
It’s writing that unites them all. I will repeat something that I said some years ago: “The radio; you write on radio as well, just through another technique. In essence, you write – otherwise you cannot control either time or style– imitating the spontaneity of improvisation and seeking immediacy and warmth. Besides, I see many similarities between a recording studio and a writer’s office: a recording studio, unlike a television one, bears the aura of an ascetic cell that also matches the writer. You are alone (the sound engineer is always a discreet presence), the light is dim, you wear headphones which isolate you from the outside world and you just listen to your own voice. Isn’t it what a writer does in the few square meters of his office? He is alone, in a low-lit office and he only “hears” his own voice…”
You have stated that you are an avid poetry reader. How do things stand as far as literary, and more specific poetic, production in Greece is concerned?
I believe poetry in Greece underwent a crisis towards the end of the millennium – a more or less barren twenty-year period. Thus, it was with great joy that I witnessed a rise of new voices or a revival of older ones in recent years! We stand before a new creative poetic renaissance.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Ahead of Friday’s informal meeting of EU heads of state in Malta, the Greek government argues that Greece is meeting its fiscal targets, is working hard in order for common ground to be found, and that new measures are not necessary. In an interview with Alpha radio State Minister and government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said the economic and political conditions for an agreement exist because the vast majority of our partners in Europe do not wish a technical rekindling of the Greek crisis. Stressing that the Greek government will not accept additional measures, Tzanakopoulos underlined that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble's stance “is based on his vision for Europe: Austerity, harsh fiscal adjustment and indifference for any growth prospect…"
Greek News Agenda* asked Berlin-based economist and TAZ jourmalist Ulrike Herrmann to comment on the the different approaches toward the Greek debt issue and Wolfgang Schaueble’s tactics.
Ulrike Herrmann has written extensively on the current euro/financial crisis. Her recent publications include Der Sieg des Kapitals | The Victory of Capital (2015) and Kein Kapitalismus ist auch keine Lösung (2016). She also frequently participates in political debates in radio and television, including the WDR 5's Presse club and the Phoenix TV channel.
What, do you think, is at stake in the different approaches among IMF, the European Institutions and Greece concerning the Greek debt issue? How can Europe handle the Greek debt and European debt overall in the future?
It is obvious that the IMF, the European Institutions and Greece have very different interests. The IMF is correct in its analysis that there is no alternative to debt relief and that the primary surplus required from Greece should not exceed 1,5 per cent if Greece is not to suffer another severe economic downturn.
Vice president of the European Parliament, Dimitris Papadimoulis, recently wrote an article under the title “Schaeuble could destroy eurozone, not just Greece”. How do domestic German politics influence Wolfgang Schaeuble’s stance?
Schäuble has always allowed the German voters to harbour the wrong impression that there will be no tax payer's money involved in the rescue of Greece. Hence, Schäuble refuses to discuss any debt relief for Greece. At the same time, Schäuble wants the IMF to continue its engagement in Greece because otherwise the rescue programme would have to become an issue in the German parliament.
In the long run, Schäuble cannot pursue both aims. Either he accepts debt relief for Greece or the IMF will leave the programme. But Schäuble strives to keep the issue unresolved and "below the carpet" till the national elections in Germany have been held which are scheduled for September 24th.
Could you comment on the so-called “EU’s democracy deficit”? [How] does it relate to the rise of extreme Right in Europe?
It is a huge problem that the rich Euro-countries reduce the poor Euro-countries to the status of colonies which have to accept the orders from abroad. This won't work.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis. Many thanks to Nikolaos Vlahakis, Press and Communication Counsellor - Embassy of Greece in Germany
Eleni Priovolou was born in Aggelokastro, Aetolia and lives in Athens. She studied political sciences at Panteion University. She has written twenty books for children and teenagers and seven novels: Μετά φόβου [With fear] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2016), Φωνές στο νερό [Voices in the water] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2015), Vino Santo (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω [As I wanted to live] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), To τέλος του γαλάζιου ρόδου [The end of the blue rose] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), Για τ’ όνειρο πώς να μιλήσω [Hοw could I talk about the dream] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2012) and Tα χάρτινα πουλιά [Paper Birds] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2011). Her novel Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω received the Readers’ Award of the National Book Centre of Greece (EKEBI) in 2010. Το σύνθημα (2009) received the Literary Book Award for older children of the Greek literary journal Διαβάζω.
Eleni Priovolou spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest novel Μετά φόβου, which tells the story of two women set in the turbulent times of World War I and the subsequent National Schism in Greece. She talks about how challenging it is to write a historical novel, noting that “the absence of true democracy, the transformation of the citizen to a customer, and the dependency on financial elites has led the country to a dead end”.
Asked about the importance of language in the literary re-creation of a specific era, she notes that “language isn’t something static and fixed, but something flexible and developing”, and that she always “uses it in conjunction with its ancient past and cultural heritage”. She observes that “art is by its nature anti-systemic” and that “the art of writing is a political act”, while she concludes that “the fear and silence of a uniform mass of people in motion is [her] greatest fear for the future”.
Your latest novel Μετά φόβου [With fear] was recently published and has already received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.
Μετά φόβου is based on the three quotes written before each chapter. The first one is a quote from Aeschylus’ Eumenides which means “Remember, don’t let fear go to your head” [«Μέμνησο, μηφόβος σε νικάτω φρένας»]; the second quote is based on the lyrics of the poet Manolis Anagnostakis “Love is a fear th at unites us with others”; the third and final quote is based on the lyrics of Yiannis Ritsos “Don’t be afraid of them. They count on your fear”.
Our main character, Aristi Vorria, fights through fear and guilt to win her freedom as a human being and as a woman. She doesn’t abide by the rules and suggestions of others and constantly goes through fire and water against all kinds of power and authority. The path she has chosen is beyond reach, as is freedom. Our second character, Dialechti, chooses to be shielded insafety and settles to life of quiet persistence. In the background of these stories there lie the tragic historical moments of World War I and Greece’s National Schism.
The ‘Trilogy of Athens’ [Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω, Για τ’ όνειρο πώς να μιλήσω, Το τέλος του γαλάζιου ρόδου] delves into the political malaise that has been afflicting our country from the 19th century onwards. How challenging is to write a historical novel? What would you say “is to blame” for this ‘Greek malaise’?
I would say that all of my books are politically conscious because I am a politically conscious citizen; this has led to my early literary expression. Writing a historical novel is particularly difficult, especially when the researcher is constantly looking for the secrets and lies hidden between the lines of history, when he doesn’t settle for the obvious truth and doesn’t compromise with the historical facts that serve the purposes of a particular dominant ideology. Giving up one’s ideology is a difficult task, especially when the writer is confronted with facts he didn’t use to believe in and then finally has to pull the rug under his own feet. I wouldn’t call what’s happening here in Greece a ‘malaise’: I would call it misjudgment. The absence of true democracy, the transformation of the citizen to a customer, and the dependency on financial elites has led the country to a dead end.
How important is language for the literary re-creation of a specific era?
To me, language is the essence of literary creation. I sometimes dare to break syntactical rules for the sake of harmony. I am keen on recreating linguistically the different eras I am writing about, such as 19th century, interwar era etc, in the most accurate way possible, not only for the sake of accurate historical illustration but also for the preservation of words that tend to disappear from our vocabulary. In my opinion, language isn’t something static and fixed, but something flexible and developing, and I always use it in conjunction with its ancient past and cultural heritage.
You have been writing books for adults, young people and children. How are these activities combined? What differentiates them and what is the binding thread?
That’s right. I address all ages and write according to my personal expressive needs. I treat children not as a separate but an integral part of our society, a constituent subjected to the same rules and consequences as everyone else. That is why I often use fairytale symbols to talk to children about themes that are more adult. In my opinion, literature is universal. The only thing that changes is the way of writing, so that its meaning can be grasped by the young reader.
“Culture should be anti-systemic, otherwise it just serves the system’s purposes”. Could you elaborate on that?
Art is by its nature anti-systemic. It’s not very common to see artwork that glorifies authority or the system that supports it. Unless, of course, we talk about an authoritative regime where artwork is dictated by force. In that case it’s not art, but awful kitsch. Take for example Greek poetry competitions of the 19th century: If a poet wanted to win the first prize, he had to write 500 verses full of chauvinist nonsense and patriotic stupidity. This is not art. On the other hand, there is a question: Is it possible for a great artist, whose work is against all kinds of authority and power, to consort with authority representatives or supporters so that he or she can remain in the public eye? In any case, works of art provoke, criticize and clash with authority.
Would you say that art, and literature in specific, is a political act, a conscious decision to participate in social change?
To me, the art of writing is a political act. In my works, I have created the world as I would like it to be, and it is for that world that I fight for, not only for myself but for future generations, even if it seems utopian. I firmly believe that political change is up to each citizen, as long as they realize that they carry their own responsibilities in all the aspects of their lives. In my opinion, political change doesn’t come about from the top of the hierarchy but from the base, the citizens, who should be fearless and educated. The education system should nourish responsible citizens and not components of manufacturing machinery, incubated people who think and act unvaryingly. The fear and silence of a uniform mass of people in motion is my greatest fear for the future.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
President of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2002 (with the European People's Party Group), Nicole Fontaine, a lawyer by profession, began her political career in 1984 as a Member of the European Parliament (1984-2002 and 2004-2009). After being appointed Alternate Minister for Industry from 2002 to 2004, she taught at Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she held a Jean Monnet ad personam chair for 5 years. She is currently teaching at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris and is also Affiliated Professor at the ESCP Europe Business School. Nicole Fontaine, along with journalist François Poulet-Mathis has co-authored the book “Brexit: An Opportunity?” (Auteurs du Monde, 2016)
On the occasion of Nicole Fontaine’s visit to Greece and speech on “Europe after Brexit: How to reinvent the project of a Europe with Unity and Solidarity?” at the French Institute of Greece (28.01), our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* spoke with her on the biggest challenges facing European integration, the consequences of Brexit and the EU ‘s relationship with the US in light of Donald Trump’s presidency.
What are the main challenges facing European integration right now?
Over the past 10 years, the EU fell ill. It fell ill because its institutions are perceived by the people as part of a constraining technocracy, because of lack of leadership and vision and finally because of its inability to anticipate and manage major global phenomena such as globalization, financial and migratory crises and the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, as a result, the EU lost its citizens’ trust. So today, the priority for the EU is to rebuild itself. Having taken note of past mistakes, it is imperative that the EU is strengthened and able to meet its citizens’ expectations, to whom it had promised "an area of freedom, prosperity and solidarity". The challenge is to restore this aspiration to its full potential and to make it a reality. In a turbulent world we have made our strong and united voice heard. For EU leaders, this is a historical responsibility.
Some analysts claim that Brexit is the beginning of the dismantling of the European project. Do you share this view?
Some had predicted that a Brexit would bring about the final destruction of an already ill Europe. While it is true that there was the risk of a "domino effect", it soon became apparent that the negative effects of Brexit were mostly affecting the British. Only a few days after the result of the referendum, more than 3 million citizens signed a petition asking for a second referendum ... this has never happened before! And today, opinion polls reveal that in the event of a new ballot, the result would be different.
Concerns are strong, despite Theresa May’s conjurations: the British living in Europe are concerned, as is the market and many businesses, some of which have decided to leave the UK. For my part, I always thought that, on the contrary, if Brexit happened, it could be an opportunity for Europe. An opportunity to clarify things, because the British entered the European Community in 1973 exclusively to benefit from the advantages of a large market, and they always refused and prevented the progress that would have made it possible to meet citizen expectations. An opportunity to give us a shock, and to invite European leaders to rethink Europe, making it stronger, more united, more effective. Today, with the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, this is not just an opportunity but an imperative necessity.
In your opinion, does Donald Trump's election move the United States further away from Europe and weaken international cooperation?
The positions presented by Trump during his electoral campaign - some of which were immediately implemented since his inauguration - are extremely worrying. Of course, commercial competition between the United States and Europe has always existed, as we have seen through several emblematic disputes within the WTO. The Presidents of the USA that preceded Trump did not really want a political Europe that interfered in the resolution of world conflicts. The friendship however between the United States and Europe remained, through our cooperation to defeat Nazism during the World War II, an unshakeable bond.
Today, President Trump is changing the geopolitical map with decisions that are likely to exacerbate disorder around the world, and the European Union has a responsibility to react. The threat of calling into question the solidarity of NATO member states in the event of an attack compels the European Union to establish its own defenses.
The coalition between United States, Russia and Iran to bring order to the Middle East, especially Syria, forces the European Union to form a real common foreign policy and to intervene in the name of the values on which the European project is based. Thus, international cooperation is without a doubt in our future and the European Union must seize this opportunity to enhance its influence.
*Interview: Costas Mavroidis amd Maria Oksouzoglou, translation to English: Ioulia Livaditi
Holder of the keys to a nostalgic, bittersweet cinematic universe, director Tassos Boulmetis was born in Constantinople in 1957 and came in Greece in 1964. He studied Film Production and Direction at the University of California (UCLA). His first film “Dream Factory” gained 8 awards in Greece and the Golden Award of Fantasy Movies at the Houston Film Festival. His second film, “Touch of Spice”, was the biggest selling Greek film in the history of contemporary Greek cinema, selling 1.600.000 tickets. The film also won 9 prizes at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and other international distinctions, while it was also screened at numerous Film Festivals around the world. His films “Touch of Spice” and “Mythopathy” are coming of age stories of a male character, sharing a lot of autobiographical elements and taking place in a past that Boulmetis represents in detail, with a sarcastic smirk.
On the occasion of the Best feature film award for “Mythopathy”, Boulmetis talks to Greek News Agenda* about loss, which is the subject matter of his film work. He refers to the 80’s as the decade in which the basis for today’s crisis was set. Commenting on contemporary film production, he stresses that it goes on, despite difficulties and that it produces good festival material, but artistic success doesn’t always translate in ticket sales. He adds that, interestingly enough, the crisis has helped Greek Cinema, as far as International Festivals are concerned, because there is a growing interest on Greece and the outcome of the crisis.
“Mythopathy” was awarded best feature film award at Hellas Filmbox Berlin Festival. Is this your first interview after the award?
It is. “Mythopathy” has participated so far in film festivals that relate to the Greek Diaspora, such as the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, San Fransisco Film Festival, as well as Sao Paulo Greek Film Festival and Nuremberg. It will also be screened at the Greek Film Month in Paris and in Brittany. It appeals to the Greek Diaspora. As far as international film festivals are concerned, “Mythopathy” has been invited to the Constantinople Film Festival and will be screened in April. It has also been invited to the European Union Film Festival, which takes place in the USA, where a selection of European films is presented to the American public. Hellas Filmbox is a new Festival, which began last year. It is organized by young, energetic people and I dare say that it accomplishes its aim in the sense that it brings Greek film to the German public, 20 days before the Berlin film festival. It also brings them in contact with distributors. Some of these distributors have shown interest in “Mythopathy”, which will also be screened around Germany as will happen with the rest of the winning films of the Hellas Filmbox.
Loss constitutes a prominent issue in your films. How do you perceive the feeling of loss at a period of crisis that Greece is going through?
For me, there was a sudden realization. With my second film, “Touch of Spice”, I was faced with a huge success which I tried to manage as humbly as possible. I was enjoying success during a period of prosperity for Greece (Olympic Games etc). At the same time, I was intrigued by an idea which I was trying to approach in a humorous mood, despite the fact it was hiding something serious: what happens to a family or a society when it starts to deconstruct the myths on which it has build its narrative? The entity of a community runs through a history, a narrative. I don’t necessarily mean political or religious history; I mean something more than that, its internal narration, which structures the myths that hold it together. So what happens to this community when you start to deconstruct them? The answer is simple: the community falls apart. As I said, this was a concept that intrigued me, but the only way for me to express it was through a humorous story. I had been working on this concept, when two events occurred in 2010: two unpleasant events that helped me understand what was hiding beneath my thoughts: the first tragic event for me was losing both of my parents within a year; the second was that Greece officially entered a crisis.
I was overcome with emotion as Greek society was going through this loss. On a personal level, I had lost the people closest to me and as a member of society I had lost an era that would never come back. I realized then, looking back at my previous films which include my first, lesser known film that the core of my work is about loss and how people deal with it. In “Mythopathy” I decided to talk about loss mainly on a social level. This is an autobiographical film, in which the basic protagonists are my parents and I, but it isn’t a film about my parents only. Many elements of the father’s persona in “Mythopathy” are drawn from my own father, who used to sell travel items, as well as my mother. I have also drawn many elements from my parents’ life in Constantinople for the parents’ personae in “Touch of Spice”.
By realizing that loss is the running theme in my films, I felt the urge to talk about the time I was a teenager, when I decided to become a film director and study film in the USA. So the film takes place between 1974, after the fall of the Junta, to 1981. I left for the USA in 1980, the beginning of the period during which the script of the crisis we are currently undergoing was written. To me, the whole spectrum of Greek politics from Right to Left holds its own part of the responsibility. In the years following the fall of the dictatorship, all political parties promised prosperity. PASOK, the ruling socialist party of the time, undertook the task of realizing that promise for prosperity and today we are experiencing the results of that promise. “Mythopathy” and “A Touch of Spice” share a bittersweet, “sarcastic nostalgia” as you have described it in an interview. Is contemporary Greece a different country to that of the 70’s?
In a sense it is, as far as values are concerned. Throughout this time, the political parties, accordingly to the time they stayed in power, promoted corruption at the expense of ethical values.
It is not by chance that viewer reactions to “Mythopathy” fall into two groups: the first concerns those aged over 45, who come out of the cinema with a sense of nostalgia, longing for the feelings of hope and optimism of those years. On the other hand, younger viewers tell me they envy the protagonist who left to pursue his dream. So this is the theme of “Mythopathy”, that in Greece we have lost times that are never coming back. And, as you can see in the film, every character is trying to come to grips with loss: the mother’s unaccomplished dream to travel to the south, the father, who is a down-to- earth person, is consciously trying to survive on a fake story, a myth. He represents a social class in post civil war Greece in the 60’s that is trying to survive and construct its own identity. So the father makes up and sells a story, a myth. Mother is aware that the story is a fake, but pretends to believe it, in order to keep her family together. Thus, there is a silent, unspoken and unconscious complicity for the survival of this nuclear family in a society that seeks prosperity.
Parents in your films serve as a comic relief. They represent the “ancient regime” watching the dawn of a new world they don’t understand, while worrying and trying to protect their child. Does this reflect the way you perceive Greek family and parenthood?
I totally agree with your remarks; and yes, it does reflect my personal experiences. I also have a brother whom I love very much and he likes to joke with me because he is absent from my films. I tell him that if I put him in the film not only would the cost of the film rise, but the psychological toll on me as well, because there would be an extra relationship for me to analyze! On the other hand the characters of the parents relate to my cinematic references. I like Woody Allen’s sense of humour and the depiction of his parents in his films, especially in “Radio Days”, where they are arguing over ridiculous things, trivialities. These quarrels reminded me a lot of the ones we used to have at home.
What is the role of women in «Mythopathy»? Has it served as a political allegory in the film?
It has and I have to say that I was worried it might sound sexist, which wasn’t my intention at all. In the film, my hero is trying to understand himself at a time when his sexual awakening is taking place. This is a part of his personal journey towards the construction of his sexual as well as individual identity. Unfortunately, he happens to be extremely unlucky, because he fantasizes of women who are linked to politics. Politics, in one way or another, take away from him the objects of his desire one by one. I used this concept as a vehicle to show that politics have taken from Greeks everything they desired.
You work on your own, carefully elaborated stories with a historical background, persisting on minute detail. How easy is it to fund an expensive film production in the current economic situation?
Not easy at all. I was lucky to get financial support from the Greek Film Centre, Cosmote, as well as the Onassis Foundation. I also had other sponsors with product placement in the film. There were also other co-producers that contributed with digital effects. “Mythopathy” did not cover its production costs, but at least we are not in debt. As far as historical dramas are concerned, digital effects are of a great help but they are also very expensive. I am lucky to be collaborating with the same production company (MAGIKON) as in “Touch of Spice”, which undertook part of the production cost. If I were a newcomer, it might have been impossible to make this film.
You were the first chairman of the Hellenic Film Academy and have invested a lot of time and energy to this endeavour. Could you comment on this experience?
It was my first experience of that kind. At some point, the Gavras committee on Greek cinema, under prominent Greek-French director Costa Gavras was established, and he asked me to join. Other members included Apostolos Doxiadis, Yorgos Tziotzios and Christos Mitsis, an excellent team, which had no corporate interests. We had a lot of fruitful discussions and one of the outcomes was the request for a Greek Film Academy in line with established Film Academies around the world. Film Academies are private institutions founded by members of the cinematic community, which have nothing to do with public funding. For example, the Film Academy in Germany was founded by 85 film directors, in France by a group of producers, distributors and directors. These are private institutions which set targets as well as criteria for member eligibility. What are the targets of a Film Academy? First, to promote national cinematography, secondly to promote the art of cinema in general and, last but not least, to organize events and bring national cinematography and cinema art closer to the audience. The Greek Film Academy succeeded in these targets. It was founded by 106 film professionals, it has established awards and it has organized amazing events. In that sense, I consider my term as chairman as successful.
What do you think of contemporary Greek cinema?
The number of films produced has been very good, despite current economic circumstances. Greek films are doing well in festivals, but they don’t sell at the box office. There are many reasons for that - the public isn’t attracted to these films. Take “Mythopathy” for example: my collaborators and the distributors estimated that ticket sales would be higher, because of the success of “A Touch of Spice”. My expectations were more modest. The film sold 150.000 tickets, which was very good in the current situation, but it was lower than my collaborators’ estimations.
Another positive aspect, as I mentioned earlier, is the interest for Greek films from film festivals around the world, meaning that we have very good festival material. Greece has a very prominent new director, Yorgos Lanthimos, making great films causing a stir. His work has a distinct style, it is globally acknowledged and each film is an original. Lanthimos initiated what is called the New Greek weird wave, which was followed by other Greek filmmakers, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Critics associated the New Greek weird wave with the crisis. This crisis has focused attention on Greece and there is a growing interest on what the cultural product of the crisis will be. This fact has benefited Greek cinema, because festivals are interested in Greek films. The same has happened with Turkish and Iranian films. So, in the context I described above, there have been Greek films that worked on the theme of the Greek family and its distortions. There are some Greek films on incest and are being read as political allegories. Danish cinema has also worked a lot on the theme of incest, bringing it to the fore as a social problem. Personally, although Sophocles was the first to work on the issue of incest, I don’t think it is one that represents Greek society, as it is a problem common to all societies.
What about your future plans?
I’m currently working on a documentary on the AEK basketball team on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary (next year) of the team winning the European Winners Cup, in Athens, in 1968. The year 1968 was a milestone year as regards political events around the world. This Cup was important because it was the first international distinction for a Greek sports team. On the occasion of the Cup anniversary, this documentary talks about the history of the team, the people etc. Let’s not forget that AEK has its origins in Constantinople. When I was living in Constantinople, I would often come across AEK fans and became a fan too, when I came to Greece.
*interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Sia Anagnostopoulou is a SYRIZA MP and associate professor of History at the Department of Political Science and History of Panteion University. She has been visiting professor at the New York University, the University of Cyprus and the Έcole des Hautes Έtudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Her main research interests are nationalism in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and colonialism in Cyprus. She has published two monographies: Asia Minor. The Greek Οrthodox Communities, 19th century-1919. From the Rum millet to the Greek Nation (Athens 1997, in Greek) and The Modernization of Turkey. Islam and Turkish-Cypriots in relation to Kemalism (Athens 2004, in Greek).
Professor Anagnostopoulou is a member of the Paneuropean Committee of the Academy for European History created by Transform! Europe, a member of the Greek Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI) and a member of the Board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute.
From 2000 to 2003, Anagnostopoulou headed the Cypriot Foreign Ministry's research team on issues concerning Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community. In the January 2015 Greek legislative elections, Anagnostopoulou was elected as a SYRIZA Member of the Hellenic Parliament for the prefecture of Achaia and was appointed alternate minister for European Affairs. Following the last legistlative elections of September 2015, she was appointed alternate minister for Education, Research and Religious Affairs until November 2016.
Sia Anagnostopoulou spoke to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the progress of the ongoing negotiations on the Cyprus issue, the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks, the importance of installing an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups in one european state as an act of resistance against a galloping nationalism and the EU-Turkey refugee deal:
How would you evaluate recent developments on the Cyprus issue?
Very significant progress has been made. The negotiations between the leaders of the two communities, the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community, are at a very good point. First of all, there is a historic development, symbolically and literally speaking: it is the first time since 1974, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, that the two communities have exchanged maps outlining territorial proposals.
This is important because the leaders of the two communities are trying to define their space -the "border" between their communities- by themselves and through negotiations. In fact, the two communities are trying to reconstruct a "border" of trust and peace between them, thus in practice annulling the consequences of the invasion that has violently imposed a frontier of hatred, dividing the Cypriot area into two worlds, two enemy "countries". Through the presentation of maps, the Cypriot leaders claim that they, and not the Turkish army, are the ones with the responsibility to manage the Cypriot area. This is a first step towards the solution, and it is indicative of the determination of the two Cypriot leaders to move forward.
What is your assessment of the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks?
This is the first time that the European Union has become more actively involved in the Cyprus issue. In my opinion, it is necessary to get more involved, especially since Cyprus is the southeastern border of Europe, the border between Europe and the Middle East. The solution of the Cyprus problem must be at the heart of European policy. Also, through Cyprus (not only Cyprus, of course), the European Union will reinvent itself; it will reinvent its "world" and its region, and the values that prevail in its relations with its neighbours.
The solution of the Cyprus problem, the border problem of Europe, will give out the message that: 1) the European Union has political responsibility for its borders; 2) It does not permit the perpetuation of "grey zones" in its territory, and of zones that lead to the division of its frontiers between a “Christian world” and a "Muslim world", one against the other; 3) It puts a definite end to its colonial past and to nationalist politics that undermine Europeanization efforts of its region; and 4) it turns its borders into a bridge with its neighbours and not a "wall of hatred” between the European world and the "barbarians".
In short, the resolution of the Cyprus problem, especially at a crucial time for the future -not only of Europe but of the whole world- will demonstrate that European values persist and that the world (on a local, European and global level) is not divided by criteria of culture, colour and religion; on the contrary, respect for democratic institutions, equality and justice is the basis of coexistence. Therefore, the solution of the Cyprus problem, i.e. the formation of an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups under the same state -Cypriot and European- can be an act of resistance against a galloping and threatening nationalism.
Some argue that "no solution" on the Cyprus issue is always the best solution. Do you share that view?
Not at all. First of all, by adopting this view, we accept the consequences of the post-colonial period, of ethnic conflicts and, above all, of the Turkish invasion, as something that happened "naturally", without political intervention. As a result, we passively comply with the notion that at this very intense historical moment in time, when problems in the Middle East and Turkey create a framework of instability, Cyprus -at least part of its area- is prey to this instability.
This means that we accept that Cyprus is potentially a gate to the importation of this instability onto European soil. In reality, allowing almost half of the territory of a European area to be outside European control and outside the control of the Cypriot state is not a good sign for the future, particularly at this time when the future does not seem so peaceful.
What is your view on the implementation of the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey on 18 March 2016 on the management of refugee flows?
This agreement could show that Europe is cooperating with neighbouring countries in order to solve a serious problem, a humanitarian problem, in order to more efficiently protect refugees from traffickers etc. However, this agreement is not the result of a humanitarian policy but an emergency management policy, dictated by the rationale of retaining the problem outside European borders. The European Union, which is very effective at imposing economic regulations, proves uninterested in applying humanitarian rules with the same zeal. So the European Union has capitulated to the threats and nationalist policies of member-states that do not accept refugees on their soil, but refuses to deviate somewhat from its economic rules when it comes to countries like Greece, which face a humanitarian crisis and which, at the same time, provide a humanitarian roof for refugees.
*Interview by Irini Anastopoulou, translated to English by Ioulia Livaditi
Anastasia Poulou is a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich. Prior to this, she was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Anastasia Poulou holds a PhD in Law from the University of Heidelberg, which addresses the impact of the Eurozone crisis on social rights in the EU and the role of courts adjudicating social rights in times of crisis. For her doctorate Anastasia received the second prize of the German Thesis Award by the Koerber Foundation. She received the award during a special ceremony at the German Bundestag in Nov. 13, 2016.
In her thesis, Dr Poulou explores the terms and conditions of financial assistance, as stipulated in the agreed MoUs between the countries’ government and EU institutions, as well as the domestic laws used to implement the agreements. She examines whether social rights, as guaranteed under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in four countries affected by the economic crisis - Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus - had been violated, and who is to be held responsible. Anastasia Poulou’s current work investigates the new typology of European governance in the area of social policies and its impact on the design of national welfare systems.
Greek News Agenda* asked Anastasia Poulou to comment on MoU’s austerity measures and their consequences on social rights in Europe and the prospects of EU’s social policy:
MoU’s austerity measures in Greece and other European countries include cuts in labor rights and the right to free negotiation. Do these cuts violate social rights guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU? Who is responsible for these violations?
In all cases of European financial assistance, Eurozone countries received loans which were made dependent on their compliance with extremely broad in scope economic policy conditions. Even informally regulating economic policies, the conditions related to what one would call the core of social policy, namely healthcare and pension systems, education, and labour sectors. For example, in the case of Greece the minimum wage established by a national general collective agreement had to be reduced by 22%. This reduction, introduced by law and without the consent of the collective bargaining parties, constitutes an interference with the right of collective bargaining protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. This measure was so detailed and left no leeway to the Member State concerned, that the interference with the right of collective bargaining can already be attributed to the EU institutions proposing the measure. On the contrary, in the case of healthcare, the conditions entailed reforms, which aimed at the general objective of reducing public expenditure, but left a margin of appreciation to the national authorities with regard to their implementation. Hence, in this case a potential violation of right to healthcare could not be attributed to the EU institutions, but only to the Member State implementing the measures.
How can social rights be protected in times of crisis? Should social policy decisions be free from EU interference?
The development of the welfare state has been historically linked with the establishment of nation states. In this context, the enjoyment of social benefits is conceived as a key part of national identity and citizenship, and thus every Member State had, at least till the Eurozone crisis, some leeway in the allocation of social benefits. Even if one disagrees with the absolute confinement of the welfare state to the nation state, the question of who has the power to decide on the social benefits available to citizens should be considered carefully. Even though formally the EU has limited competences in the field of social policy, in times of crisis EU citizens feel left out of decisions that affect their ability to design and enjoy their welfare system. Given the fact that alienation from the European project is a real danger, an important challenge that EU social policy has to face is to reconsider ways in which EU citizens could meaningfully participate and co-determine decisions that directly or indirectly affect their social well-being.
Social policy regimes vary across Europe. What do austerity policies in the European periphery mean for the EU’s social policy as a whole?
A significant part of the European population, mainly in the European periphery, is sceptical about the European integration process because they feel that they have lost out in recent developments. The burden of austerity invariably falls on the most vulnerable populations, multiplying the disadvantages to which they had already been exposed. At the same time, the cuts in social benefits and assistance in countries, where social policy regimes have always been relatively weak, sharpens the inequalities between the European periphery and the rest of the Member States. Hence, the big challenge that EU social policy has to face after the financial crisis goes to the heart of what “Social Europe” means and how it can protect a minimum of social rights for all EU citizens.
Can European Commission‘s “Pillar of Social Rights” defend Europe’s values and social model in the context of the current fiscal orthodoxy/“rules-are-rules” policies?
The preliminary outline of the ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’, presented in March 2016 by the European Commission, should be welcomed as an attempt to defend European social values in a period when matters within social policy are framed primarily as a burden on public finances and an obstacle to economic success. Nevertheless, the preliminary outline of the Pillar presented is still far from the desired outcome. The draft text fails to give concrete suggestions on how to operationalize social rights in the framework of the new EU economic governance and treats social policy as subordinate to economic policies. These weaknesses will have to be overcome, if the Pillar aspires to become a weighty reference tool to drive social reforms in the EU and not just a simple reminder of the existing EU social “acquis”.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Read Anastasia Poulou recent articles: Towards A European Pillar Of Social Rights: An Opportunity Not To Be Squandered; Europe cannot ignore the social impact of economic “recovery”
Kiriakos Gialenios was born in Thessaloniki in 1978. His first novel H νόσος των εραστών [Lovers disease] (Melani Editions, 2011) was shortlisted for the State Literary Award for Debuting Author in 2012 and the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation Award for New Writers in 2011. His second book titled Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα [Only dead fish follow the flow] was published in 2015 (Psichogios Publications).
Kyriakos Gialenios spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα, which, “within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories” combines crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. He comments on intertextuality as a conscious decision on his part, while he mentions that for him literature is “a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden”.
Asked about the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on his work, he notes that in his books, “the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real". He concludes that “in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation”.
Your latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα seems to combine crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. Tell us a few things about the book.
I will start with something more or less commonplace. We write the books we want to read. Structured and written the way we want, incorporating as many influences and obsessions we may have. Thus, within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories I try to fit poetry, crime fiction and a noir atmosphere. In places described but never named, through characters that always hide more that what they reveal, with love pulling the strings and settling on fates and lives, in an era when cynicism and irony seem to prevail over sensitivity; in this framework, the book is an effort to capture the most intense human instincts, positive and negative.
The book seems to converse not only with your first book H νόσος των Εραστών but with classic works of literature as well. Was this intertextuality a conscious decision on your part?
Both intertextuality and the connection to the first book Η νόσος των εραστών were conscious decisions from the very beginning. The two novels may of course stand on their own; there is no interdependence, just that sense so eloquently expressed in the saying: Nothing is real, everything is permitted. Literature constitutes for me a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden.
The heroes of your book all have ‘exotic’ names, while the titles of the various chapters are quite pretentious. What purpose do both choices serve?
The titles of the chapters are predominant elements of the text. Whenever I read a book divided in such a way, I try to discover what the title refers to, and this, in turn, defines the context of the specific chapter. Thus, on my part, I try to condense into a single sentence the sense and content of each chapter. Let’s say it acts as a point of reference as to what the reader is to expect in the following ten to twenty pages.
As for the names, in an environment where nothing is named and all situations are on the verge of an infinite dystopia, I felt that the naming of the characters should adhere to the atmosphere of the book. Thus, I avoided any relation to the Greek environment, aiming at the same time at dissuading the reader from identifying with familiar faces and situations.
The book takes place in a town and a country that are not specifically defined, while the word “crisis”, though never mentioned, is constantly implied. Would you say that the book describes the end of a collapsing world and the beginning of a new one that is struggling to be born?
I tried to approach the modern era through the daily lives of the characters, which have, however, been defined to a great extent by how things were prior to the crisis. There comes a moment when they are called to face up to the exaggerations and the decisions they made at a time when they felt invulnerable and mistakenly believed that Fate is a pet that can always be put on a leash. In any case, the book seems to balance on the verge of a before and an after, at that critical moment when the characters all realize that their lives will never be the same, even if they don’t really know what is in store for them right after the next turn.
What has been the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on your work?
Undeniably Thessaloniki is a huge melting pot of peoples, religions and cultural influences that go centuries back. In this respect, it can act as a fascinating canvas for artists to create their micro-cosmos. As for my books, the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real. What I try to convey through the pages of my books is maybe the city’s atmosphere, which I consider ideal for noir novels.
“Art is a fantastic journey into a world where anything can happen and mostly all can be forgotten. This timeless escape from normality acquires even more importance when in crisis”. What is the role art is called to play in times of crisis?
I insist that in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation. For that short or long period of time they choose to “travel” with their imagination or with the talent of the artist as their vehicle, they opt for an escape from the everyday routine and the roughness of the daily survival.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou was born in 1983 in the city of Drama in Northern Greece where he lives. He has studied Law and Political Sciences at the University of Thessaloniki. He has published four poetry books to critical acclaim: Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου (Thraka, 2015), Με ύφος Iνδιάνου (Melani Editions, 2014), Μισές αλήθειες (Melani Editions, 2012) and Έκαστος εφ' ω ετάφη (Gavrielides Editions, 2007) His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies and recently in the anthologies of contemporary Greek poetry Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, edited by Theodoros Chiotis (Penned in the Margins, 2015) and Austerity Measures, The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck (Penguin, 2016).
Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest poetry collection which “includes prose-like poems, poems and letters” noting that he “chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art”. As for the poetic language, he comments that “the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why”.
Asked about whether poetry and photography are communicating vessels, he says that “a poem may contain such intense and potent 'magery' that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem”. As to the effect of reality on poetry and vice versa, he notes that “reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence”, while in turn, for poetry to re-form reality, there is required “a peculiar combination of vision and consistency”.
Your latest poetry collection, titled Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου [In the house of the hanged] was awarded the O Anagnostis Literary Review Awards 2016 for poetry. Tell us a few things about the book.
Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου is my forth poetry collection. The award was both a great joy and honor, not just for the book but as recognition of the ten years I have been writing poetry. This poetry collection was quite different from the previous ones, both in terms of theme and language. It includes prose-like poems, poems and letters. They all refer to real artists, writers, poets, painters, photographers, from Kafka and Cioran to Rober Walser, Tsvetaeva, Mark Rothko etc. I put them in eras and places different from the ones they lived in; they meet and interact with each other, uttering words they have never actually spoken.
I chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art. In other words, I underwent a “re-mystification” process – like short films on a blank page – for artists that have left their mark on me, either through their work or some aspects of their life; and I felt as if I returned, in writing, the love that they unwittingly bestowed upon me.
As Petros Golitsis notes, Sifiltzoglou, “in his capacity as a traveler, captures snapshots through his photographic writing, resulting in often cryptic ‘conclusions’”. Would you say that poetry and photography are communicating vessels?
A poem may contain such intense and potent “imagery” that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem. It’s been three years that I am involved in photography and I have come to realize that poetry and photography can go hand in hand, not so much in terms of representation or “a decisive moment”, but mostly in terms of figurative meaning, intense meaning; a bullet that strikes instantaneously and aims straight to the soul, the mind and the eye. A shot that hits all three may act both as a poem and a photo- as long as the artist arms, fires and shoots straight to the target.
Your poetic language decomposes conventional linguistic norms and established conventions. What role does language play in your poetry?
From my first through my fourth poetry collection, language varies, shifts, taking shape in different ways. I’m not just interested in the theme, in ‘what’ I say but I try to baptize and re-baptize it in a new way of linguistic expression – difficult bets not easily won. I sometimes think that the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why.
Language is the vehicle, the engine, but it may also become the fuel, or even the driver, it can move very fast, take dangerous turns and it may even send you down the cliff, straight to the abyss, in a meaningless leap; attention is required and the artist has no excuse saying “I was unaware”. Therefore, I try, by “guessing”, by turning upside down, not just words, but whole sentences to give my poems each time a different form – hoping that, even to some extent, I have managed to do so, given that what we want and what we achieve can be completely different things.
As Fryni Kostara eloquently put it, Sifiltzoglou is “not a poet of the elaborate but a poet of the substantial, who, through the depiction of the simple things of everyday life, urges us to look behind the superficial”. What is the effect of reality on poetry? And, vice versa, how is reality re-formed/trans-formed in poetry?
Reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence. Even what we call “everyday reality” is actually a major part of our life, where everything can be found. I often say that I picture reality as a “huge lovely dump”, from where you can fish diamonds; even completely worthless materials that, at a first glance, seem non-poetic, may be transformed into poetry. It all depends on how open you are, how socially aware, how sensitive your ears are to what is calling or whispering to you – what additional windows, doors, skylights, basements or micro-cosmos you are in need of.
As to whether poetry may reform reality, it depends on the individual, from the artist to every single reader; and it’s demanding, tricky, requiring a peculiar combination of vision and consistency. In other words, it comes at a cost – yet a worthy one. I can’t say more, just bear in mind the words “vision”, “consistency”, “cost”.
Should poetry be socially or even politically ‘militant’ in times of crisis?
There are no “musts” in Art, yet there are certain “obsessions” among artists. These two elements can rarely go hand in hand just casually, spontaneously, or unselfishly. Even in extreme situations, social or political ones, “musts” feel strange or raise suspicions. The thing is whether the artist wants or can overcome himself and his obsessions so as to hearken to the extreme and express it in his way. In many cases, the artist considers himself to be the centre of the universe, even when the world around him is on fire, while in other cases he chases after this extreme reality and blows everything up.
In my opinion, extreme situations give birth to intense stimuli, which, depending on the sensitivity and the antennas of each individual, may become landmarks or prove to be nothing. There are people saying that “the era indicates or dictates…”. I, on the other hand, think that when the “natural frequency” – to use a physics term – of the creator, vis-à-vis extreme situations, coincides with the “natural frequency” of society, then yes, the “pace” of poetic verses can even make bridges fall.
You have been living in a provincial town of Northern Greece. How do things stand as far as artistic and literary production is concerned in the Greek province? How easy is for writers of the Greek province to have their voice heard?
Although I have been living in a small provincial town of Northern Greece called Drama, I should say that literary production has and continues to be doing well. Both in the previous decades and during the last few years, there are quite notable writers here. In a small town, time flows slowly allowing for a deep assimilation of everything – if, of course, that’s what you are after. It’s as if you are part of life and as it unfolds, you can take a step back, keeping your distance, so as to make the next few steps on a more solid ground. Not to mention that you really have the time and convenience to read wonderful books by others!
I truly enjoy walking around the town, greeting people every two steps, engulfed by a feeling of familiarity; I can’t stand the myth of the distant, mysterious, unsociable poet. North of my town, there are virgin forests and rivers, uninhabited villages, rare species of fauna and flora; it’s there that you bend your head, free of ostensible poses, it’s there that you can feel living poetry dying and then created anew.
No, a provincial town does in no way deprives you of “a large audience”, especially now with the internet and social media – as for the past, maybe, not to say definitely yes. For an artist, whether living in the capital or in the most distant town or village, the main agony is what to “bring to the table”; the book leaves his hands and starts its journey – it’s somewhere on the way that it will find the “erudite reader”, even if he doesn’t form part of the larger audience.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou