An Interview with Dimitris Lyacos
by Juliana Woodhead
It can seem all too rare to come across poetry as ambitious and exciting as that of Dimitris Lyacos. His work exists at the intersection of the classical and the postmodern, the poetic and the dramatic, free verse and form. Exploring relationships with death, resurrection, and memory, to name just a few, Lyacos creates a dystopic epic for the modern world – not a post-apocalyptic adventure, but rather an exploration of a world hauntingly similar to our own. This is poetry that makes you think as well as feel. Poetry as finely layered as mica; each (re)reading an unveiling.
Dimitris Lyacos is poet and author of the Poena Damni trilogy, one of the leading examples of contemporary European avant-garde literature. Originally written in Greek, the three books (Z213: EXIT, With the people from the bridge, The first death), have been translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese and performed across Europe and the U.S. He is a Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa. For more information visit: www.lyacos.net
His most recent publication, With the people from the bridge, English translation by Shorsha Sullivan, is available from Shoestring Press. The Writing Disorder spoke with Mr. Lyacos about the new translation and about his work as a whole.
Talk about your family life growing up. Where did you live? What was the environment like? How big was your family?
I was born in Athens and lived there until the age of eighteen. This is how I remember the environment of my childhood, with some reliability I hope: A 1970’s classic south-european neighbourhood in a big city and with a neighbourhood atmosphere of course – children playing and making friends out on the street, ethnic homogeneity (all greeks), none of the cultural diversity that one experiences in Athens today. A warm familiar environment – but parochial as well. In the narrow sense of the term, my family was a family of four, parents and two children; but we were living in one big garden with four aunts and an uncle, and I always felt them my family, perhaps, even a little more than my parents. To make a reference to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy let’s say that allomothering is something I was lucky to experience.
What were some of your influences growing up that shaped you as a writer? Were your parents writers or artists?
My father was (and still is) a lawyer and my mother a school principal; no considerable influence there that would lead me to explore writing, although there was a variety of literary masterpieces in my father’s library as I later realized – which I don’t know whether he had ever read but he did not seem to have a great interest in, at least when I was growing up. I only noticed those books, however, when my own interest in “literature” had already developed, so perhaps I should say they gave me a second-order kick. My first influences were all those wonderful books that most of us read during that age: Grimm, Verne, Stevenson, Dumas, London, Dickens, Defoe’s Cruso, Ivanhoe; and entering adolescence it was music; rock music first and foremost.
Name some of your favorite books as a child, and later as a young adult.
The books and authors I mentioned above would answer your question until I reached the age of fourteen. Things changed after that and, rather abruptly, if I recall. The change was from fiction to philosophy – I remember reading a volume of history of philosophy, then a short book by Kazantzakis (Ασκητική – The Saviours of God) and then I sunk into Nietzche’s Zarathustra. If one gets to that point, different roads lie wide open ahead.
What and when was your first published work?
It was a poem that had appeared when I was eighteen in an Athens’ magazine. I remember going through the different versions before submitting, and I still remember the motto I had used, a few lines from Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead”. It actually occurs to me now that the last section of “The Burial of the Dead” (from line 60 on) and With the people from the bridge seem to relate in a very interesting way; and there is a bridge and a dog to be found in both texts.
When did you first consider yourself a professional writer?
I suspect this is a twofold question: I have considered myself a writer since the age I wrote my first poem, in the sense of my “mental coordination” to that aim if you like – a professional writer, however, I think I have become upon completion of my studies, when I started writing The First Death.
Name some poets and writers you admire today.
I suppose all writers of the so-called western canon could fit here, from Homer on. Aeschylus, Dante, Buechner, Trakl, Tennessee Williams are names that I never forget, although admiration may not be exactly the right word to use here. To my mind, there is always a connotation of “unfamiliarity” when we speak of admiration (as also the meaning of the ancient greek verb θαυμάζω = wonder/admire suggests) and this is not what exactly happens when we come across a text that speaks to us more profoundly. Rather, a journey of “multiple discovery”, unearthing parts of our own insight in other authors is what strengthens our feeling that we also may eventually have something worth saying.
What are you working on now?
Hardly anything at all. The trilogy has taken an enormous amount of time to put together, twenty years now since I started writing The First Death, but also, what I had written before was, albeit rather naïf, a precursor to the same project. As we speak, having completed the trilogy only a few months ago with the Greek edition still pending publication, it is still difficult for me to come up with something new. I really don’t know – something new may even never come by at all: so far, this project has lain always ahead of me; I do not know what I will do now that it lies behind me; unless if something is not right, and I have to go back to it again; so far the whole thing has been a Sisyphean enterprise.
What are you most proud of in terms of what you’ve accomplished, and what are some of your goals for the future?
Normally, here I should answer that this is not about pride, although I am certainly pleased that I have completed the trilogy and that the work has found a readership. In the circumstances, however, I think I am entitled to feel some kind of pride about this, in the sense that working on the trilogy and seeing its gradual success over the years seemed to me like an achievement; Greece is not an easy place to be for a new author, there is certainly a “literary ladder” to climb if you want to get through to the public, and meritocracy is not exactly the rule there. I would say that Greece in literature functions more like a closed system and it is rather difficult to find your way in. So I could say I feel proud, because I have managed to circumvent that system without giving way to it. Having left Greece at a rather early age, I attempted to reach an international public first, through translation. And I have the moral satisfaction now that I feel I have arrived somewhere without making concessions. As far as my future goals are concerned, I would like to go on with my series of readings and lectures in different places around the world. It’s great to be in touch with other authors and readers, I enjoy the feedback and the dialogue.
What are your views of poets and writers reading their work before an audience?
I remember one evening in New York I had planned to meet a few friends, jazz musicians that were performing in a Harlem club. I had a reading in Woodstock earlier that day so when I got to the venue the gig was already over. Upon excusing myself to them I mentioned that I could not have possibly made it because of my reading; one of the musicians exclaimed then: “A reading in Woodstock! Why, can’t they read in Woodstock?” What I like about this anecdote is that I too believe that a reading in which the author simply reads from his work may not be particularly interesting. That is why during my readings I like to limit the time of reading excerpts; I have a much stronger preference for providing the audience with some information about the background of the work and, of course, engage in conversation – and here I would like to add that reading in the States, especially because of the openness and directness of the Q&A part, is something I enjoy very much.
What is your daily writing routine? How much of what you write is discarded?
I don’t have a daily writing routine. Ninety per cent of my time involves reading and preparing to write. You might have noticed that I publish a book roughly every five years. What happens is that after a long period of preparation I get down to writing. Depending on the nature of the work a writing routine will unfold accordingly.
How long do you usually spend on a piece?
That depends again. For example, when I was working on Z213: EXIT I was writing a new piece every two months – that related to the concept of the work: the narrator there seems to suffer from a certain kind of memory loss, what could be loosely described as my own literary version of anterograde amnesia, so I wanted him – and me – to almost have forgotten what was taken down in the previous piece before starting the next one, and show at the same time the narrator’s peculiar psychological “progress”. In With the people from the bridge the strategy was completely different: I wrote the book from start to finish and then went on to review and revise in a more detailed sort of way in order to achieve the consistency needed and refine the details.
Describe your writing space or room. What tools do you use to write?
I don’t have a permanent writing space, or, rather, I have more than one. In Berlin I write in the living room, in Athens I use different places in the house, but in general I do not have a single, comfortable, familiar space to sit down and write. Perhaps, a single familiar space might not be exactly suitable for me if you consider what I write about; what is more important is mobility, I think, and the right frame of mind.
Do you have a family? Do they understand and appreciate the work you do?
I have a daughter from my previous marriage, my parents and my girlfriend. My parents are as alien to literature as they could be, my father being a utilitarianist, protestant-like Greek lawyer; but I would not be fair to him if I didn’t say that I have had his full financial support which enabled me to “cater for myself” as far as writing is concerned, without worrying whether what I write about would help me make a living. My girlfriend is highly appreciative of what I do and looks forward to the Greek edition of With the people from the bridge; she also accompanies me when traveling for readings, which is great support too. My daughter would tell you that her daddy writes books about vampires and zombies; if you think that this is the same perspective adopted by a recent reviewer and that my daughter will be five this summer, I think I shouldn’t complain.
When did you first start writing seriously?
I started writing seriously when I was eighteen; of course writing seriously does not always mean producing serious writing. As you know very well, that takes much longer.
The poem has a wonderful blending of Classical and modern elements. What poets and poems influenced you in writing With the people from the bridge?
I would say that tragedy was the locus par excellence that always had a very profound effect on me, Aeschylus in particular; also, the form of dramatic monologue; it condenses, in a very efficient way, poetry and drama, achieving maximum effect. In the case of With the people from the bridge my initially more “dramatic” intentions were gradually bent to become more “epic” and, as a matter of course, the narrative element prevailed. This was not against my intentions, however, as I always thought it would be worth revisiting theatre forms beyond the hegemony of drama or realism. There have been dramatists in the past, as well as theorists of drama whose energies, I believe, have not been fully explored: Gordon Craig and the uebermarionette, Adam Mickiewicz’s view of the theatre as a rite of communion with the dead, Maurice Maeterlinck’s static dramas, to name just a few. “Interior” by Maeterlinck is a wonderful piece that reaches tragedy while keeping action to a minimum. With the people from the bridge, perhaps goes back to some similar source and might be related to them.
That comingling gives a sense of straddling the “real” world and some “other”. The different voices, and the interplay between them and the layout, create a strong dramatic effect. It’s an intricate piece… How did you approach writing it?
I failed twice before getting to the current version. Since I was twenty-three I had been fiddling with the idea of a poetic drama and had published then an early draft titled Nyctivoe. Roughly around 1996, I went back to it, trying to make something better out of it and came up with the second version of Nyctivoe, published in Greek and German in 2001, and in English in 2005. Progress was evident from the first to the second version but in 2009 I still thought this was a deeply flawed piece despite the fact that it had given rise to some interesting performances in other media. I decided to give it another go, hoping to fail better again this third time, as Samuel Beckett would have said. One of the differences between the earlier versions and the new one was that this time I worked on certain aspects of the subject that I had previously ignored; now I focused less on the myth of the revenant in literature and more on the long standing folk Greek tradition on the subject, which starts off in antiquity and reaches to the first decades of the twentieth century; this tradition, I thought, was richer than any other; moreover its source in ancient Greek religion as well as orthodox Christian thought and practice reveals its neglected existential dimension. The Greek revenant has, in a way, been a form that helped me integrate many disparate parts in one functional whole.
The postscript adds a haunting note. How intentional was that? And why Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery?
This leads back to my answer to your previous question. Think of the countless Hollywood adaptations of the vampire myth which by now have sucked the blood of vampires totally dry, and then think that this particular postscript is the report of an actual event that has really taken place in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery – I am quite certain you will find the published article in a LA newspaper if you look for it. I simply copied the clipping, very much like John Dos Passos would have done. You may retort that I am not really answering your question, somehow beating around the bush, but this is intentional of course. The real answer, placing the role of the clipping in the context of the book is a key I would prefer to leave the reader alone to discover.
You worked with Shorsha Sullivan on this translation as well as on the other two parts of Poena Damni, Z213: EXIT and The First Death. How did you two find each other? What drew you to him as a translator?
I met with Shorsha incidentally in 1996 when he was working as a librarian at the Tate Library, London; at the time, he had been interested in buying a couple of copies of the Greek edition of The First Death for the library. After that, he paid me a visit at home and as I had my first reading coming up at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture in London, but no English translator at all, I asked him if he would like to try and translate a few pieces for the occasion. I was particularly drawn to him because of his solid knowledge of ancient Greek and his very subtle taste in literature. It is almost two decades now since we first worked together and I could not stress enough how indebted I am to him for the quality of his translations but also for his dedication to my work. It is very important that I add here as well the invaluable help of Gregory Solomon who, together with Shorsha, and since the very beginning of the translation process has been meticulously reading every draft and offering great solutions due to his highly critical sensibility. He has functioned as the first authoritative reader of the translation and we could not do without his comments. In fact, if Gregory does not okay the translation we are not proceeding to publish. Beyond that, he is the first critical reader of my texts as well as my main interlocutor when I come up with a fresh idea and that, as well, feeds back to the translation. I am very happy that I get the opportunity to thank him in the context of this interview because his name is not mentioned in the books themselves.
How active a role did you play in the translation?
Both with Shorsha and Gregory, we are working very closely together. It is always Shorsha producing the first draft and when he is ready, I and he go through it line by line to make sure that there are no inaccuracies or misunderstandings. Subsequently he produces a second draft taking on board our notes and comments. After that we go through two more drafts in order to reach a smoother, more readable version and, of course, I get to come up with some more ideas then, to widen our spectrum of possibilities; it is always Shorsha of course that will make a final decision. At the end of the third draft we forward everything to Gregory for his comments, which we then incorporate in the next version, the penultimate one, and then we discuss the finishing touches. Some options remain open until the very last minute.
What are your thoughts on the idea that something is inherently “lost” in translation?
To say that something is lost in translation would be true but also trivial at the same time. For a translated text to be produced a whole caravan of culture has to go through the needle of the translating process and it is only natural that something would be lost. There is a very wide range of texts, as you know, especially introductions, in which translators inform us of the unique qualities that they have been unable to bring forward to the “target language”, but I do not remember any of them providing us with some information about what may be found or “gained” in translation. To bring a translated text in the context of a different culture enriches it, in the sense of it now being “open” to new interpretations. No text is like any other of course; in fact in Greece there are quite a few great, very idiosyncratic texts that I would easily say are very resistant to translation, but even those are worth planting in new ground; their fruits will taste different – like hybrids perhaps. And here I should add that we need the cultural community of the target language to welcome translation; I am happy to see that in the US you are a little more open towards translated literature in comparison to what happens in the UK for instance, and I think this results in a greater degree of innovation as far as the American literature is concerned.
What sparked the writing of Poena Damni?
Poena Damni came about gradually, so there was no spark, or perhaps, there was a great deal that had already happened before that spark. Among other things, Poena Damni is an exploration of the concept of hope in a historical moment of foundered Grand Narratives, at least in the western world, even though their constituent parts are still floating around. I felt compelled to still go back and question the foundations of the culture I have inherited, seeking some stable points of reference, or, rather, find my own starting points and then move from there to make my own assessment. My approach may have been rather paradoxical, like that of an alien coming from within, who is simultaneously experiencing a world both familiar and unfamiliar, old and new. Bearing that in mind, it may not come as a surprise that I have used a character resembling a cross-cultural scapegoat, a kind of pharmakos as the ancient Greeks would call him, someone to be disposed of by his community in the course of a cleansing operation. We can go on to speak about other important elements for the kind of structure I have come up with so far, but perhaps it would suffice to say that Poena Damni, as it stands, is the current state in a process of reloading the old system after having attempted a slightly different wiring.
What do you hope readers will take away from With the people from the bridge? And Poena Damni as a whole?
I stumbled across a recent review of With the people from the bridge the other day and what the reviewer seems to have taken away from the book was a “relentlessly grim” essence. If I have understood it well, the work seems to have provoked to the reviewer unresolved emotions, no catharsis so to speak. Brecht would be happy with this, he would say that we need those unresolved emotions to take us out of our bourgeois niche and call us to act. On the other hand, catharsis, in the sense of both emotional purgation and intellectual clarification, is a state I would be very happy to see the reader taking away from the trilogy; think of catharsis in the case of “Oedipus Rex” where Oedipus does not stop short of any grim revelation that eventually tears up the veil of his illusion, he wants to confront reality head on. I don’t know if in the arts, like in ritual, real blood is purified by “symbolic blood”, but at least I think that if there were a way to “digest” our hard realities – even in the innocuous form of a literary work – that would play a very positive role in our composure and life endurance. It would be great if Poena Damni could contribute a little to that.
Talk about the internet and social media today. Do you embrace it, or do you use it as little as possible?
The internet is the most important medium today, it has offered us an enormous amount of freedom, the access to knowledge it has given us is invaluable. There is no better way for “memes” to propagate other than through it and, I think, it has maximized the advantages of writing, since writing was invented, as a form of storage and communication. The prominence of interconnectedness which is its inherent characteristic has, of course, contributed to accessing texts in a more open-ended and, sometimes, fragmentary sort of way. Nowadays all texts are hypertexts, all structures lead to other structures. I can still conceive of a worldview that would be against using internet – I think that would seem like a new kind of asceticism which I don’t think I am ready to endorse.
How can the poet have a bigger impact on social media, and the younger generation who grew up on computers and technology?
I suppose, the poet can have a bigger impact by publicizing his work through social media in the variety of ways that are available. The poet, as anybody, can use the dialogic platforms to disseminate his work, draw the attention of new readers and get feedback. As this may be very time-consuming it would be great if other people, specialized in this, might offer a helping hand: publishers, event coordinators etc. The problem is that the whole enterprise is like a virtuous or vicious circle accordingly, depending on how much publicity the poet enjoys in the first place. Perseverance always helps here, and rather than going around knocking on publishers’ doors you can play your slots in the more hospitable digital fields.
Any words of advice for young writers and poets?
I have always been disinclined to giving advice to the young as that makes me feel a little too old. I think what happens with a lot of young authors who start writing is that they may not have something very important to say when they are making their first attempts; when, in the course of their development, what they have to say eventually becomes more interesting, they get to realize that not so many people out there are interested in listening. So, I would say, get ready for a lonesome adventure, and be patient; and think, perhaps, that by the time people will start seeking the story of your adventure you might have probably come back – and long ago – so the whole thing might have faded a little for you.
What places have you visited in the world, and what were some of your favorite spots?
I have been living out of Greece for most of my adult life. First in Italy, Venice from 1985 on, I lived there and in Trieste until I moved to London in 1992. Next stop was Berlin in 2005. Now I live between Athens and Berlin. I have had the chance to visit different places over the years and I must say that a trip to Tanzania, Africa impressed me deeply. Other than that, I love the US and I go often for readings. It has been mostly the East Coast lately, New York is one of my favorite places, Harlem particularly. Harlem feels like a second home to me, even though gentrification is, rapidly changing the character of the neighborhood. I used to be a regular in St. Nick’s pub, a wonderful place for jazz. I like to think it will reopen some day; for now, with not so many of the old jazz venues left, Paris Blues is my preferred spot.
What are you reading now?
Having completed the trilogy, I feel I am starting again from scratch and, therefore, my reading is rather erratic. “Lectures on the Religion of the Semites” by Robertson-Smith is a classic I have been reading lately, with a lot of interruptions and digressions to other anthropological and religious studies texts. At the same time, motivated by a question in a recent interview regarding a supposed affinity of my work to Lautreamont, I went back to reading “The songs of Maldoror” which I read roughly thirty years ago. It is really interesting to experience how our current and past selves link through the bridge of a text after a huge gap in time. And I also read a selection of poems by Lorenzo Calogero in the new issue of the New York-based Bitter Oleander Magazine, a great initiative on literature in translation; Calogero is a poet the Italians wanted to know nothing about until he died. After that he was fit to become the Italian Rimbaud.
What artists do you admire, past and present?
I could fill pages with names here. In the realm of visual arts and trying to keep a historical order: Bosch, Bruegel the Elder, Goya, Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Chaim Soutine, Frank Auerbach, Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg. Of course, in different periods and depending on what I am working on, I have felt close to the work of various artists and I may be forgetting some of them now. Perhaps it would be worth adding here that, after the age of eighteen there was a period in which I had been living with visual artists-friends in Venice, Italy; these were wonderful years, very important for the development of my work. And as you may know of course, the trilogy has triggered work in other media and in some of these cases I have had a close collaboration with the artists involved. I would like to keep doing that, I find this kind of dialogue very fruitful and the collaboration itself removes some of the isolation of the “sole and lonely author” experience.
Talk more about your writing process.
I think this question somehow links to what I have just been saying about the “authority” of the work. Over the years, I have increasingly appreciated the collaborative aspect of writing. It may be that the production of a text is something between me and the page, however, before I sit down to write, there are all these people, living or dead, that push through with you and eventually represent themselves, in one way or another, on the page. I usually spend long periods writing nothing, especially when I have just finished a book; since the publication of With the people from the bridge for instance, I have written nothing other than a few notes in a new document with a working title on top. There has to be something new, at least for me, when I embark on a new project and it takes time, I think, for necessary changes to happen, within and without, before I start writing with a definite purpose. In the meantime there is a lot of reading involved, many disparate things that gradually lead to the formation of a “spinal chord”. But even then, there is a lot that is removed and new elements emerge and are tested. What survives this process is the book.
Feel free to add anything you like, that helps other writers understand how you work.
A very obvious point here would be that in two decades’ time my actual production – Poena Damni – counts no more than two hundred pages overall, if you put the three books together. Solely based on that, it is easy for somebody to evince that I could not have worked the way Jack Kerouac did when he was writing “On the Road”. On the other hand, I would like the reader to be able to read through my work without stumbling on the hindrances of reference, like it happens in Pound’s Cantos for instance. Personally, I prefer covert, seamlessly integrated allusions not because I want to play hide and seek with readers and scholars, but because I aim for a text that could make an immediate impact, its different layers notwithstanding, and speak to people with different backgrounds or education: when you are in front of a door it shouldn’t take you too long before you found the key; I see my text as one door, one of many possible points of entry; whether you get in and want to stay, or where you go from there, that should be up to you.
Books by Dimitris Lyacos:
With the People from the Bridge (Poena Damni) – 2014
Z213: Exit (Poena Damni) – 2010
Nyctivoe: Second Part of the Trilogy Poena Damni – 2005
Dimitris Lyacos is the author of the Poena Damni trilogy, a leading example of contemporary European avant-garde literature. Originally written in Greek, the three books (Z213: EXIT, With the people from the bridge, The first death), have been translated into numerous languages and performed across Europe and the US. Dimitris Lyacos is Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.