Eleni Sikelianos: Is a Poet Born or Made?
Is a poet born or made? That was one of the questions posed to the famed poet Eleni Sikelianos, a third-generation Greek-American writer whose ancestry includes Nobel-nominated Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos on her father’s side and burlesque dancer and Rembekiko player on her mother’s side. The intimate conversation she had with www.greekamericangirl.com explored the roots of her ethnic identity, her journey to Greece, and the reconnection with her Hellenic past that served as inspiration for her new volume, You Animal Machine, a poetic essay about her maternal great grandmother, a single mother of three.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Sikelianos admits. “Poets are made in that they have a certain sensibility but you have to work because it’s really hard to be a good poet.”
But there is a case to be made that poets are born. It was after all the journey to uncover her Hellenic roots that unearthed the deepest core of her poetic identity. Her latest book, You Animal Machine, is the story of her great grandmother on her mother’s side, Eva Palmer Sikelianos, a fascinating figure of a woman who serves as both muse and subject to the volume. She started out playing Rembekiko music with her husband in Greek coffee houses at the end of the 19th century and eventually became a burlesque dancer. “She was such an absolutely fascinating character,” Sikelianos recounts, “that I had to tell her story.” Even though her parents did not disclose much about their ancestry, she remember stories about Eva Palmer trickling down and echoing in her imagination. She was an American who had married into a Greek family and became perhaps more Greek than the Greeks. The cause célèbre that she and her husband took upon themselves was to revive the Delphic Festival at the seat of that famous oracle in the mountains town hours north of Athens.
The Delphic Festival: Poetry as Utopia
In fact, Eva Palmer Sikelianos exhausted her family fortune to found organization that would reinstate the ancient festival–a festival that included a poetry competition, dramatic readings, as well as other intellectual contests. She believed strongly in the ideal behind the Delphic Festival, that much like the Olympics, the concentration on the arts, especially poetry, could bring about world peace. This utopian vision of using poetry to accomplish world harmony was one to which the couple clung on tenaciously. They were successful in initiating the Delphic Festival twice in their lifetime, once in 1927 and again in 1930. They were especially keen on staging a revival of Prometheus Unbound, the famous tragedy of Aeschylus, as they believed it expressed the deepest theme of the collective human experience and echoed the ideals of a democratic society–freedom, self-individuation, democracy. They saw in its protagonist the poet/artist as hero archetype.
To publicize their vision they even employed the directing talents of the Gaziadis brothers, Greek American filmmakers instrumental in the early days of Hollywood, to create documentaries of the Festival. She makes use of some of this footage during her poetry readings. She has used archival photographs of her great grandmother in her book as well.
Uncovering her great grandparents’ story became her story. She remembers that her poetic awakening came when as a child she discovered an old book in her parents’ library edited by Kimon Friar that included six Greek poets translated into English. One of those poets was her great grandfather along with heavyweights Elytis and Cavafy. “It was this book that inspired me to become a writer,” she notes. Could you make a case that it was her fate to be a poet like her creative ancestors?
The other fateful moment that served to inspire her as a poet in the Hellenic tradition was her first visit to Greece, 29 years ago, when she was 20. The trip awakened her poetic identity as she more closely embraced her heritage. “The very fact of living in Greece and looking for my roots unlocked the possibility of finding my voice” she states. She even took up a serious study of Greek; a language she had never learned at home.
Besides engaging in the psychic archeology that led her to compose her latest volume, Sikelianos is often deliberate in the use of Hellenic themes in her work. While she used her great grandfather’s style as inspiration to pen her own verse, she did undergo a creative period when she revolted against his writing which she termed “bombastic.” In this way, she chose to make her own voice, working hard at the craft. She includes Greek music in her readings, including the “lauta” (a goat-skinned pipe folk instrument). She stated that her Hellenic heritage has influenced her writing in both big and small ways. “Greek writers have always been important for me,” she recounts, “from Sappho to Elytis.”
Although born and raised in the United States, she keeps the Hellenic spirit. She just returned from a European tour of presenting her poetry in France, the UK and Greece. In Greece, she was part of the Hellenomania Festival in Athens, a biannual event that features mostly classicists but keeps a spotlight on a poet that makes use of classical tropes. The first all-Greek translation of her work has just been launched by one of Greece’s largest publishing houses, Pataki, with the title “The Book of John,” this December. (Take a sneak peak at the cover for the book sikelianos_cover.)
The Poet’s Role in the Post-Modern World
When asked what role the poet has in the modern world as her status has gradually diminished in a society increasingly driven by commercialism and material consumption, Sikelianos reassured us that a poet, albeit poor, will never go out of business. “It is the poet’s job to continue the deep work of the imagination in a consumer era when everything we are given is flattened, even experience.” A poet will never go out of business precisely because he/she defies commercialism, “cannot be tamed by market forces and is complicated and not ‘packageable’.” A poet’s job, according to Sikelianos, is to remind us to keep being human. “A poet continues the deepest human inheritance. We can’t exist without the work of the imagination. “Poetry is an art that keeps exceeding itself,” she explains, “even language can’t contain it.”
Sikelianos went on to explain that, paradoxically, a poet is a Tiresian figure who, while centered in the present, looks to the past to inform that present while also looking into the future. To requote Ezra Pound, “all times are contemporaneous in the mind; this is the mind of the poet.” Poetry, as a result, is often casting itself into the future and that is why society does not catch up to it. A poet, then, tethers the collective unconscious of his culture to all times, past, present, and future, yet defying time itself.
Furthermore, Sikelianos explains, a poet is par excellence a citizen of the world. As an artist who works in dual traditions, her ethnicity both binds and transcends her poetics. “While I feel connected to Greece, Greek culture and themes, I am also pan-national.” She takes issue with being branded as an ethnic poet as the Greek American community has resulted in a narrowing instead of a widening of perspective. “While the defining group we belong to grounds us,” she explains, “we cannot dissolve in that definition. I am more interested in exploration than definition.”
Definitions by their virtue are restrictive and Sikelianos is all about defying definition. She told us she cannot really define her own style; she leaves it to the critics. In any case, her style is hard to define; some critics use phrases such as “an experimental poet with a particular interest in scientific idiom” (wikipedia..com) or This gives the perspective of the poet all the more power currently as it forces us to go beyond the boundaries of our own ethnic group. That widening perspective is gaining all the more currency in an interconnected world. In this respect, Sikelianos follows in the footsteps of her ancestors who dreamed of establishing utopia via poetry.
“This is what the Delphic idea was all about,” she says, “we don’t have a choice any longer; we live in a global world.”
Eleni Sikelianos was born in California and received an MFA in Writing and Poetics from the Naropa Institute.
Her works include:
The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead (2013)
Body Clock (2008)
The Book of Jon (City Lights Publishers, 2004)
The California Poem (2004)
The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls (2003)
Earliest Worlds (2001)
The Book of Tendons (1997)
To Speak While Dreaming (1993)
Her work has been translated into a dozen languages, and she has participated in a number of international poetry festivals, most notably Centre National du Livres Belles Etrangeres reading tour of France, the Days of Poetry and Wine in Slovenia, the Barcelona Poetry Festival and Metropole Bleu in Montreal. You Animal Machine received a starred Kirkus Review, and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.
For years, Sikelianos taught poetry for Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York and California Poets in the Schools, working with public schools and with at-risk youth, as well as in homeless shelters and prisons. She now teaches in and directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver and is on guest faculty for the Naropa Summer Writing Program. She lives in Boulder with her husband, the novelist Laird Hunt, and their daughter. (excerpted from Academy of American Poets).