Babelmed | 11/10/2005
The Cypriot-born cosmopolitan writer and academic Stephanos Stephanides has finally published his first collection of poetry, Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems. Here to talks to Adrian Grima about his human and poetic search for the blue moons that enrich our lives and loves.
An Unexpected Rush of Stories
Because of our collective attempt to distance ourselves from ourselves, the poetry of Stephanos Stephanides is a conscious, if necessary, attempt to construct an often intimate home full of memory, full of stories, even little stories, full of emotions and sensations that awaken the collective and personal connections dormant in the many names of places and persons and their spoken words. “We gather news from the globe each morning,” he writes, “Yet we have taken refuge / Dwelling in rooms untouched by death / and poor in stories.” We have become “dry dwellers of eternity / Stowing away our mothers and fathers / in hospitals and sanatoria” (“Ultima Multis – The Last Day for Many”).
The poet and his readers “come together to turn the fallen tombstones / Looking for inscriptions / That will stop the future turning into empty time.” His desire is not to “waken” the dead in order to surrender life to them but rather to allow their stories to “rush,” quite unexpectedly, into this “untouched” world and “rescue the flame of life.” Because in the poetry of Stephanos Stephanides, acknowledging the dead, re-membering or re-constituting their stories is to “Touch the sparks” that make life “glow;” reconstructing the stories of the past means giving “every second of time” the possibility to recover its breadth and depth, its sensations and resonances.
I repeat the question the poet himself puts to Walter Benjamin in “Ultima Multis – The Last Day for Many”: Where is history’s new angel?
“In our imagination, in our memory, in our forgetting – I don’t know – perhaps in our hope to salvage and piece together ruins – in our promise of fulfilment – as you see the poem is dedicated to Walter Benjamin who evokes this image of the angel of history while discussing a painting by Paul Klee called ‘Angelus Novus’ in his Theses on the Philosophy of History – this is one of the critical tropes or topoi in modern literature that fascinates me most for the way it evokes the relationship of past, present and future and in evoking the critical dialectic in our mode of being as humans – the angel is moving with his back to the future which he cannot see and is only able to see the past which is falling continuously into dissolution. This is intrinsic to temporality and historicity – the angel of history is in the human imaginary, which holds promise – even if the promise is only a promise and not the fulfilment itself, the human imaginary holds promise and we have to explore and cultivate this promise. What is special about this poem for me is that it was written a couple of weeks before the check point opened (April 2003) when we never dreamt that this would happen. In an almost prophetic way it seems to speak directly about that event – and a Cypriot Turkish poet translated and published it in Turkish without my realizing until it appeared in the newspaper. It is gratifying when the reception of a poem seems to have nothing to do with the poet’s conscious intent.”
Because of his personal and academic interest in dislocation, migration, diaspora, memory and forgetting, the subject of memory has appeared at every turn since I got to know him in 2003 at a conference in Delphi on “Places and Spaces: Culture, Memory and Identity.” It was in Delphi, incidentally, that I first heard him read “Archaeology of a Tooth,” an initially anecdotal poem about a tooth that self-consciously attempts to “bridge the gap,” to fill “memory’s holes” with significant “words.” We then met at an international conference he convened on Cultures of Memory/Memories of Culture in Nicosia in February 2004.
He finally visited Malta in May 2004 to read a paper at an ACUME Symposium on Cultural Memory and Literature and we grabbed the opportunity to organize what turned out to be a quite unforgettable informal poetry reading at the Bir Mula Heritage House in Bormla with a group of young writers from Inizjamed. Ever since that poetry encounter, whenever I think of Bir Mula I almost hear the voice of Stephanos beside me read his poetry and the intimacy of the atmosphere in that “touched” room on the top floor of the old Maltese house with its profoundly Mediterranean history. In my often unreliable memory that human and poetic encounter, those voices and reverberations have marked Bir Mula forever.
Memory in Fragmentation and Deracination
So we talk about memory. Does he still think, as in “Archaeology of a Tooth,” that memory lies “in the shadow of a shadow,” in “fragmentation and deracination”? Was he thinking of his own experience of memory here?
“Yes, memory is in fragmentation and deracination. It is a continuous re-membering after a dis-membering for all of us as it is articulated through language in its processes of inclusion and exclusion – there is no unitary origin that we remember – there is always a beginning before a beginning – but underlying all that the poem does enact a very specific personal experience of memory. My first dislocation from Cyprus was when I was suddenly taken to England by my father as a child (I allude to this also in “Larnaca Oranges”). I found myself in a dark Manchester out of place and out of language and soon realizing that I would never return to the rural world of my childhood that always lingered as a place of warmth and light. My second summer in Manchester was unusually warm and long and in my exhilarated playing I fell and broke my new front tooth – broken forever and hidden with a crown. At the moment of the opening of the check points in 2003, I developed a terrible toothache in the same tooth – it seemed like a very meaningful coincidence ‒ I had to have it extracted and when I crossed to go to the village (the same day as I went to the house I was born alluded to in “Sentience”) I was without the tooth and my tongue kept slipping through. The next day, my friend Elizabeth, an American sculptor who had been with me, gave me a big wax tooth. My dentist (to whom the poem is dedicated) had told me years before that any extraction of my teeth would be hard because the roots of my teeth were strong from the natural minerals in the water I drank in my village as a child. He had died the year before and his son extracted my tooth. My father and mother had also been dead more than two years when the check points opened. The extraction of the tooth brought all these and other associations together and gave birth to this poem.”
Stephanos Stephanides was born in Trikomo, about which he has written “Requiem for Trikomo,” in northeast Cyprus in October 1949. He went to the UK as a child, where he lived until finishing his education at Cardiff University. He has travelled widely and has lived in several countries. For many years his life and work were in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and as such his native language ceased to be his dominant tongue. He writes in English, which became what he calls his stepmother tongue at the age of nine or ten, but other languages reverberate in his writing. As well as poet, he is a literary and cultural critic, ethnographer, translator, all with a commitment to and interest in cultural translatability and memory.
In the 1980s he spent years in Guyana, a country of breathtaking beauty perched on the north-east coast of the South American continent and dominated by mighty rivers which provide essential highways into the rain forests and jungles of the interior. This experience had a profound impact on his life and work, especially his close friendship with communities of descendants of Indian indentured labourers in villages and sugar plantations. Their cultural expression and grassroots spiritualism inspired work including poetry for which he was awarded first prize in the 1988 poetry competition of the Society of Anthropology and Humanism (USA), a book Translating Kali’s Feast: the Goddess in Indo-Caribbean Ritual and Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), and two documentary films, Hail Mother Kali (1988) and Kali in the Americas (2003). Hail Mother Kali was nominated for an award for excellence by the Society for Anthro-Journalism (USA) and the footage is in the Smithsonian Institute’s film archives.
Some of his poems in Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems were written in or inspired by Guyana, especially the region of Berbice in the South, which is also the name of one of the three most important rivers in Guyana: “Dreaming Fieldnotes,” “Cane Grove Moon I,” “Cane Grove Moon II: Sky of the Heart,” “The Lotus of the Mud Flats,” “Sacrifice,” and “Haikus for Celal.” Kali is the great Indian goddess of cosmic powers. She is not only the mysterious source of life, she is the very soil, all-creating and all consuming. Kali is said to have emanated from the brow of Goddess Durga (slayer of demons) during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces and she is considered the “forceful” form of the great goddess Durga. Kali’s fierce form is filled with awe-inspiring symbols that have equivocal significance. In “Cane Grove Moon II: Sky of the Heart,” the awestruck poet protests that for the great goddess who “forever” watches [over?] him, his “grief” becomes her “victory.”
“My experience of travelling and living across cultures has had a profound effect on my sense of self. After my first displacement to England that I described earlier, I did not see my mother for six years by which time she was remarried and living with my American stepfather in Taiwan. I made the journey from England to Taiwan alone as a young teenager and it had a profound impact on my imagination – not to mention getting to know my mother again in the context of a new language and culture. I have ever since been compelled to enter new languages and cultures and take journeys. Often these were great adventures in vast countries such as Brazil and India where I often travelled alone on buses and trains and in my younger days often hitchhiking and sleeping in the open air.
My deepest personal involvement has been with Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian culture but after living in Guyana for six years in the 1980s I became profoundly involved in Caribbean culture and more specifically with Indo-Caribbean culture because of the large population of descendants of Indian indentured labourers in Guyana. I spent most of my time with Indo-Caribbean communities in villages and sugar plantations and this gave rise to a book and two filmed documentaries on their culture expression. This in turn led to my deep interest in Indian culture and I have made several trips to India, thus the Indian theme is very strong in my collection as India and its diaspora is a significant part of my life. The best part of travelling is the marvel in the unexpected. What you will learn about others and yourselves usually comes as a surprise. You might have an instinct about what you are looking for but the gift is in the delight of the unexpected revelation. You could say I am looking for blue moons that I never know will occur but reveal themselves when you least expect them. Isn’t this what enriches our lives and loves?”
30 Sept 2005
The Dislocation of Being Human, and Cypriot
At a time when his native land of Cyprus has slowly started to breach the walls of its internal divisions, poet Stephanos Stephanides reflects on dislocation, migration, diaspora, and routes instead of roots.
I ask Stephanos about the comforting sensuality in the many voices from the present and past that unsettle the reader of his poetry. I want to know whether it is a sensuality in which he as a poet finds his own comfort. But Stephanos is intrigued by my use of two particular words: “comforting” and “unsettle.” He clearly doesn’t want this interview to be a one-way affair. I understand him perfectly, I suppose: after all, his poetry often deals with one person’s urge to connect with moments in the past and in the present, with real people, with words, sounds, smells, losses, loves.
I find his Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems unsettling precisely because he seems both awestruck and attracted by the fierceness and protection afforded by the “forceful” Indian god Kali; unsettling because of the “omnipresence” of “memory,” the anguish of loss and the sweetness of a place or person revisited: today I know you will come, he writes in his beautiful poem “Sentience,” “in the exact spot in the sea / Where we feel the sensual bosom of our dead mother.” The poetry of Stephanos Stephanides is populated by the dead and by the living whose existence seems to acquire an increased, largely indefinable significance according to how much they can connect with the/ir past/s. It’s unsettling poetry, as all engaging poetry (and art in general) tends to be, I suppose, because “Everywhere the dead send their messengers.”
With “unsettle” somehow settled, Stephanos asks me whether “comforting” is the right word or whether it should be “anguished,” or “sometimes comforting and sometimes anguished”? He himself has made up his mind: “Probably both because sensuality is never still or fixed so the feelings bodily experience arouses have to be contradictory because the body is always changing and bodily experience is always changing and the body carries the memories of our joy and pain – as a creature of the Mediterranean, I feel this intensely in the culture and in the sea and in the landscape – it is enticing and alluring but also full of ruins and stones scarred with the wounds of its multilayered history, long dry summers thirsting for water. This is something I like to delve into and could say more…”
Stephanos Stephanides returned to his native island in 1991. He tells me that the opening up of the checkpoints of partitioned Cyprus in April 2003 for the first time since 1974 unleashed manifold feelings and energies for Cypriots, especially those who had been displaced as a result of the partition, “and it has been a catalyst for our creativity as human beings and as artists and poets.” The poem “Sentience” is a lot about Stephanos and his relationship with a tormented Cyprus and with memory. I tell him that I experience this poem as a series of “goings,” of profound separation that can be partially bridged by some “comings;” it’s a deep desire for Oneness in space and in time. It is a poem born out of a strong desire for political and emotional unity…
“The title came to me after the poem as happens most of the time in an attempt to clarify for myself the creative experience in writing the poem. The title tries to seize the mode experience of a very special moment in a special mode of perception that is sentient and not intellectual – you could call it a kind of spectral sensuality or sensuality in the spectral – sensuality is a desire for presence which can never be absolute like midsummer is a time full of warmth and light that you know will begin to diminish as soon at it reaches its zenith. The poem was written soon after one of my first crossings to the north after the checkpoints opened and you could describe it as an experience of post-memory. A friend of my father took me into the house I was born, which I only knew through stories – my parents lived there without being married (very daring in a village in Cyprus in those days) and the marriage itself was short lived. The presence of that brief and ghostly passion and ghostly dreams seemed to linger in that room and the inner and outer came together as I stood on the green balcony with the panoramic view of the village and the road beyond.
The day after that visit I met a Cypriot Turkish artist, Aşik Mene, and I was describing how I felt. He seemed to understand my experience completely and asked why I had not taken him with me. I had only known him about an hour so his question did not make sense on a rational level, but somehow post-memory and pre-memory linked in our conversation and that is how I worked my experience with him into the last few lines.”
Stephanos’s poems are full of names and dates; he attempts to shoot photos that somehow “seize the house in my voice” (“Requiem for Trikomo”). I ask him whether the poems are really a “post-mortem,” as he suggests in this poem, or whether they are the act itself of shooting photos, or both?
“The post-mortem is the ‘after death’ or the afterlife – not in the metaphysical sense but in the sense that stories or histories live on and the living on comes from our awareness of death – we are dying as we are living on – a kind of losing and finding that goes on at the same time all the time. I experience this very intensely with the detour of ‘return’ to my place of birth that somehow ceased to exist or was lost forever because of the impenetrable wall of partition but its life continues through new friends who inhabit the landscape and there is a renewal of life as well as mourning – this is what for me is behind the “Requiem for Trikomo.”
The image of the photos came to me as my wife Kathy was shooting photos to seize the moment on my first journey back to Trikomo after the opening of the check points – poems and photos are different kinds of art forms but they both seem to enact this lost and found allegory in their hidden stories – and I love old photos – but then this moment they seize never stands still and their meanings change all the time as they are read by different people in different contexts in different times. It is a dynamic kind of allegory; their stories are retold always differently.
As far as names and dates in my poems (well dates are just there at the end to give some kind of vague chronology) but names – yes I like names – they are mysterious signifiers of the people who populate the poetry. The names are mysterious for most readers who do not know who they are but they gain life from the images around them, whereas only I may know the specific story or context that brought them there or even I do not always know because there is an unconscious process in the creation. Many people not named are also evoked in the way I have poached their words, touch, look, and gestures as they seized me with their spectral presence.”
Talking about memorable words, I refer Stephanos to the title poem “Blue Moon in Rajasthan” and it’s extraordinary line, “Drivers stub out their love in roadside huts.” He tells me that this came from his notebook jotting while he was driving to Pushkar in Rajasthan, India, on a kind of pilgrimage to Saraswati, the goddess of poetry, books and the arts. “We stopped at a roadside restaurant and there was a long line of trucks along the roadside. The restaurant was almost empty and I was puzzled. The driver explained that the drivers were in the huts that were around the place and told me it was cheap to buy a fuck in India – perhaps suggesting that I might be interested too. I settled for a coffee and hot samosas in the restaurant and looked around the shop next door where there was a display of the Kama Sutra translated in various European languages.”
Writing as Renewal
In an article about the “Translatability of Memory in an Age of Globalization” (Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1, 2004), Stephanos Stephanides suggests that “when a writer adopts a language other than his mother tongue as his literary language, there is a possibility for expanding the capacity to hear diverse accents of idiom, history, memory and identity.” He himself is one such writer because although his mother tongue is (was?) Greek, and despite his acute and profound awareness of memory, he has chosen to write poetry in English.
“Language, memory, culture, and identity are not equivalent categories albeit overlapping or interconnected. It is not simply a choice between the vernacular of my native island and an international cosmopolitan language. I left Cyprus as a child and grew up and was educated in the UK. English is lived experience for me and I have lived through different forms of English, not only UK English, but I have lived and worked in Guyana for many years in a Caribbean English cultural environment and many years in the US before returning to Cyprus. I am also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and have many memories and intimate experiences related to those languages and cultures.
In Cyprus there is also Turkish. Since the opening of the check points I hear it and feel it all the time through the many close and intimate friendships I have developed as if it has always been within me but only now disclosing itself to me through the emotions of its sounds which I hear in my friends’ voices without knowing the meaning.”
When, in the introduction to his English translation of Niki Marangou’s poems in Greek (Selections from the Divan, Nicosia: Kochlias, 2001), Stephanides talks about how “writing like translation,” from translatio, moving across, “is a continuous movement toward its own complementation, a desire for the renewal of life after displacement and fragmentation,” one realizes that what he is saying also applies to his own poetry. He observes that although retrieval “is always already incomplete, we may find joy in the fleeting movement toward the possibility of renewal, rather than nostalgia at the loss and ruin of the past.”
In “Larnaca Oranges” he speaks about how he pursues the taste of his father’s “dislocated oranges.” It’s the inevitable dislocation of being a human, of being a Cypriot, of being in search of Oneness that can perhaps only be glimpsed through translation into some other form, like poetry… After all “our dreams are in the tombs / tombs are in our dreams” (“Broken Heart”). I ask him whether he agrees.
“Well first I should say that I am not fond of the word Oneness especially with a capital. It implies a certain metaphysical homogeneity, which I like to defer from in my poetry. My gods and goddesses are polymorphic – I take pleasure in the multiform experience of peoples, cultures, and the diversity of natures of the people I love.
But then I like your usage of the word translation as it suggests the metamorphoses of life and constantly changing forms – an original that is always absent. Poetry is like that, a pursuit of a dislocated original that may never be there or may never be found except in the pleasure of its multiplicity of forms and expressions. Oranges were the last thing my father had asked for before dying in Larnaca in early October, 2000 where he was vacationing. It was from Larnaca that he took me off to England many years before also in early October. It was uncanny this coincidence of dates and then we (my stepmother and I) sent him off to be cremated – to Bristol – the destination of his first journey with me and his last. So yes, it is the dislocation of being human, being Cypriot, of being who we are as human beings always living in translation and dislocation.
The lines you refer to in the poem ‘Broken Heart’ are lines of graffiti I saw on a wall in the old city of Nicosia in the early nineties accompanied by a childlike drawing. I jotted them in my notebook and kept going back to look at it. It alludes to the tragedy of Cypriot history but then says so much about our human condition. Dislocated by our birth and yet with knowledge of death – not knowing essentially why we are here. I rarely eat oranges without remembering my father or slice a water melon without remembering my mother instructing me how to do it properly – I always remember people, living or dead, by the things I touch, taste, smell, see, and hear. Some of these sense experiences are really charged because of the intensity of the emotional experience related to them and these often lead to poetry.”
I ask Stephanos if Cyprus will ever “sweep him away for celebration,” an allusion to a line in, “Blue Moon in Rajasthan” which has nothing to do with his native land.
“Always and never. I am always celebrating the people and the places I love but then there is the sadness of its violent history and this leaves a deep wound. I do not have faith in the ability of our politicians to heal it or to bring about a solution that will truly heal this wound. This will not prevent me from celebrating the beauty of what we do have and what we can make of it despite the politics.”
Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems by Stephanos Stephanides is published by Kochlias Publications (Nicosia, 2005), ISBN 9963-8758-1-5.
3 October, 2005