Katerina Iliopoulou is a poet, artist and translator. Her poetry has been translated into many languages and featured in literary reviews and anthologies in Greece and abroad, and she has taken part in a number of international writing and translation programmes and festivals. She has published three books of poetry, including Mister T., winner of the Diavazo award for best debut collection, and has translated the work of Mina Loy, Robert Hass, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (Ariel, due to be published) into Greek. As a member of the arts collective intothepill she has co-organised projects that bring together poetry and visual arts, and is co-editor of greekpoetrynow.com.
SJF: Your translations are highly regarded, those of Sylvia Plath and Mina Loy amongst others, what draws you to the work of certain poets in order that you would turn their work into the Greek language?
KI: In poetry we do not walk alone, we walk with our kin, our blood relatives who we discover on the way and who appear to us as necessary for our being. In Mina Loy and Sylvia Plath, two poets quite different from each other, I found elements that were necessary for me. The tremendous force of language, the sense that they were both creating a poetry of inquietude, a poetry searching for its idiom. I wanted to bring that force into the Greek language. And of course translation is the deepest reading one can do, the closest you can get to the text. I like this proximity and what it offers me. Translation is an exercise to fight for the unattainable. The poem is the most foreign element inside a foreign language. The attempt to translate the poem represents the most provocative initiative in a dialogue, the undertaking of the ordeal to make the impossible possible.
SJF: Could you detail the work of the collective intothepill, it's aims and activities?
KI: Intothepill collective (2005-2009), was based on the notion that the various languages of art are symbiotic and aimed at producing works that involve people from different media. It explored ways of alternative presentation or communication of the work of art, often employing irony, deception, interaction between artists and the public and the sense of innocence and game. Such work was the multimodal Karaoke Poetry Bar, (presented in the Athens Biennale 2007) involving visual artists, poets and the public in a real but constructed bar, where the audience instead of singing popular songs got up on stage to recite poems from contemporary Greek poets. New projects and collectives have generated from this, with similar aims and ideas such as greekpoetrynow platform of contemporary greek poets.
SJF: Clearly Greece is a country with an immense tradition, and I say this avoiding allusions to antiquity. In reference to the last century the volume of profound Greek poetry has been immense, likes of Ritsos, Elytis, Seferis, Sikelianos, Engonopoulos... Is this acknowledged by the Greek poetry community – that is the poets, the critics, the people in general, in the present day?
KI: It is actually very much acknowledged. I have the impression that the more recent generations of poets have developed a somewhat different attitude to these ancestors. We have the distance to look at them and we are able to relate to them in more complicated and unorthodox ways than just being in awe of their impact. The stereotypes formed by the broader educational system and the formal institutions, through which we usually see their work, somehow constrict their vision, create opaque filters of perception and cast foregone routes. Odysseas Elytis said once that the way to read a poet is not by seeking for a teacher but for a confederate in our innocence. Poems are like wild animals, they cannot be imprisoned by interpretations. Whenever we read poems we reform their past, present and future. We need to read these poets in the light of our time if we want to keep them alive within our language
SJF: Is there a sense that contemporary poets are able or unable to meet the challenge of the recent quality of Greek poetry?
KI: It is hard if not impossible to speak of your contemporaries in terms of evaluating their work. You are too close to them. On the other hand it is essential to be in contact and dialogue with the poets of your era. I definitely try to be and I know there are some wonderful poets writing in Greek today. We live in a time where every artist is a lonely experiment, there are no movements or more concise ideological groups. Contemporary Greek poetry at its best is extremely diverse, in search of and in dialogue with other poets and artists, Greek or international, trying to find the way to express itself in terms of our time, and to make any comparison with the past would be unfair.
SJF: Does poetry play a significant part as an artistic medium in people's lives in Greece? That is, is poetry read by many, in schools, by the average person? Are poets famed for their poetry still?
KI: I think that poetry in Greece today, as in many other countries, is written by many and read by few. I wish some of the stereotypes about poetry and poets would disappear and I believe in poetic propaganda, spreading poetry, making it accessible to more people, revealing the incredible joy of it. Most people have a vague or distorted idea about poetry, perhaps because poetry is the only art which has no exchange value through money. So the managers of culture cast it as non-existent or useless and that is why poetry is absent from the mainstream media, television, magazines or newspapers. Of course poetry is difficult, it demands your attention and to accept that it rather asks than answers questions. A poem will stay with you forever like a companion; people who read poetry know that, so their participation, their reading, lasts longer and goes deeper than the average say reader of best selling novels.
SJF: What affects has the recent economic turmoil had on Greek poetry and it's contemporary poets?
KI: It is still very early to evaluate the situation but if we look at the recent history of Greece we will see that we have been in an almost constant state of crisis, war, civil war, dictatorship. Many of the poets we know and love have written their poetry in much more difficult circumstances. The artist is always in a state of dispute with his time and environment, he is the critical mind and the witness, the eye that is not afraid to look and report. I am just worried about the notion that in times like that we ask art to become useful, to bring forward answers for what we cannot explain, which is wrong. Poetry is always the field of the multiplication of questions, or it loses its critical quality which is freedom. Artists do not change the world, they rather invent inconceivable structures of words, sounds, images, meanings. They are worriers and founders upon the chaos of possibilities.
SJF:In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
KI: I believe that poetry is a universal language, but more importantly it is also the language of doubt. Poetry opens up space within what we consider as reality: more space for us to cross and look through and think, a space of risk where our conscience is awakened, where we question our beliefs and ideas, where we become active. I am not in favour of the notion that poetry is sound, (although it can be music), I always need to listen to what the poet wrote, so I am grateful to the translators. Within all the different languages we hear the footsteps of others, the poem is the passage and because of it we traverse borders, genres, structures, distractions and transformations. Listening to a poem is a conscious and energetic act (praxis) that can change you.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation. How do you feel about that idea?
KI: The poet is an observer whose testimony is both personal and cultural. It so happens that I write in Greek but I am far from any notion of being representative of a nation or tradition. I would not know how to begin to define these words. Being a poet I am very careful about words and their weight and as Giorgos Seferis wrote " whoever carries the heavy stones will sink". I do not want to sink, I prefer to float. I am grateful for the gift of the Greek poetic tradition, but it is not the only tradition that has formed and continues to form me. As an artist I try to move against the notion of a definitive tradition, or language or truth. I am afraid that our world is extremely different from the ancient world and its ideas, and I propose we form our relationship with antiquity in the light of this difference. Perhaps a look in the abyss of this "otherness" is more useful than the reassuring but fake notion of any continuity.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.