Alexandra Kostoulas: Poet of Paradox
Alexandra Kostoulas is a poet, writer, and writing instructor centered out of San Francisco, California. She runs the Jack Grapes Method Writing course, a method for searching within to bring writing without by her old mentor and writing teacher. (Grapes, a poet and playwright from LA, developed a system of teaching writing whose goal was to find the deepest part of the person and have him or her express this on paper.) Since coming of age, she is a Muse of the poetic form, as her entire life is surrounded by the power of poetry and the written word to shape reality. She is also a writer who fully feels her Greek- American identity in herself and her writing.
“I write from the perspective of a Greek-American woman because it is who I am,” she says. “I like mythological themes and the language of lyric and Greek poets, modern and contemporary. I import Greek words into my work when I feel it flavors the work.”
Born in Chicago, she moved to Los Angeles with her parents (her mother is a clinical psychologist.) At 17, she became the youngest poet to be invited to join the Los Angeles Writers and Poets Collective. Her early poetry which she characterized as “raw and aggressive” became tempered, “more eclectic and spiritual” as a result of attending a UCSB reading by Berry Spacks, a Jewish convert to Buddhism. Her poetry grew up to include more nature-oriented themes. In a seminal move to San Francisco, she switched to writing fiction as part of an MFA in Mills College. She credits Charles Bukowski and lyrical poets such as Odysseas Elytis and Yannis Ritsos as co-inspirers of her oeuvre.
One of her novels-in-process is entitled Persephone Stolen. It tells the story of a Greek-American girl whose yiayia gives her a priceless artifact which she at first thinks is junk, but turns out to be stolen. She then goes on a quest to sell the artifact to save the family home in San Francisco. As a performance poet that makes cross-country reading circuits, she reads from Love Poems to Strangers, Leaving Los Angeles, a collection she states is about “leaving yourself to find yourself.”
Indeed, much of her conversation about poetry and writing involved paradox and double speak. Poetry is necessary yet unnecessary. Poetry transcends boundaries, yet is fixed on the particulars of the individual identity. A dedicated space as part of the WEWORK building in a highly tech oriented area of San Francisco has allowed her to spread the message of writing to a community of people who number from 5 to 100 at any given time. They have become her parish in a way. “The writing workshop is like a church service where people show up to show the Spirit and goodness,” she asserts. “While technology comes and goes and is constantly upgraded, poetry will always remain faithful to itself.”
She says this at the same time she admits that poets are marginalized figures. Even Plato placed poets outside the Republic believing they had to be marginalized and outsiders in order to be accurate observers of what was happening on the inside, she cautions. Yet even with its marginalized status, “poetry is our strength. In the technocratic world, what drives the Internet is good content. Poetry is good content. Corporations would do well to hire poets to write their copy,” she believes. “Good literature connects you against time and space and transcends the boundaries of race and gender. It’s like the whispering to you from inside your heart.”
While it is universal, her voice is staunchly Greek. “I can’t erase my Greekness even if I tried,” she confesses. “I can’t make my main characters anything but Greek.” As a writer whose ethnic identity makes up so much of her work, she admits that she finds more affinity with the community of writers of color and other minorities than with Anglo-Saxon writers. As a Diaspora writer, she points out that most of the great Greek writers of the 20th century were Diaspora Greeks, Cavafy for instance.
“In order to survive,” she explains, “we have to establish a culture of Diaspora Hellenism.” While we live in the tradition of the ancient Greeks, that is not who we are. While there is an uninterrupted line of Greek poetry, a thread that goes through our creative root, we need to present the best that we are today. In a way we have to surpass the tradition, to speak truth to our unique identity as Diaspora writers.”
This she finds is especially true for Greek women writers who are twice marginalized, first as ethnic minorities and then secondly as females. “We come from a culture where in its entirety panders to the male” she points out. “We have to set up the culture to support self-worth in women.”
You can read more about Alexandra Kostoulas by logging onto her website methodwritingsf.com. She has recently founded a new institute for the teaching of writing in San Francisco called The San Francisco Writing Institute.