In poverty stricken Greece, poetry is getting richer. Karen Van Dyck, editor of a new anthology, looks at an artform in revolution
Protesters Greek flags Athens.
Protesters wave Greek flags during an anti-austerity rally in Athens. Photograph: Alexandros Michailidis/Demotix/Corbis
by Karen Van Dyck
Friday 25 March 2016
When there is less to go around, people fight, grab, get tough. Lately, Greece and the Balkans have been living with more than their share of less. Hunger, unemployment, slashed pensions and ruined businesses are rife in Athens. Electricity and water shortages reach levels associated with countries at war. More than 27% of Greeks are unemployed. Fifty-five per cent of young people, particularly those in the areas of technology and education, have left Greece to find work elsewhere. Forty per cent of children were living in poverty in 2014, and the number is now approaching 50%. Public debt is the highest in Europe, over 180% of GDP, while austerity measures make staying in the eurozone as difficult as a Grexit. The need for fast answers pushes voters to political extremes. Broken promises and corruption on all sides breed unfounded accusations and fatalism. Hardly anyone keeps money in the bank any more. News of murders and robberies shares equal airtime with ads for hi-tech security systems. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq arrive on islands such as Lesbos in their hundreds, and at times in their thousands, not wanting to be in Greece, but unable to get to countries with better social services. And where the refugee boats go, local fishermen follow, lining up on shore to jockey for their engines, hoping to resell them at a profit. More people, less to go around.
Poetry, though, is one thing there is more of. Much more. Poets writing graffiti on walls, poets reading in public squares, theatres and empty lots, poets performing in slams, chanting slogans, and singing songs at rallies, poets blogging and posting on the internet, poets teaming up with artists and musicians, teaching workshops to school children and migrants. In all of the misery and mess, new poetry is everywhere, too large and various a body of writing to fit neatly on either side of any ideological rift. Even with bookshops closing and publishers unsure of paper supplies, poets are getting their poems out there. Established literary magazines are flourishing; small presses and new periodicals abound. And if poetry production is defying economic recession, it is also overleaping the divisions of nation, class and gender. Not since the Greek military junta, known as the Colonels’ Dictatorship, in the early 1970s, when poets such as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Jenny Mastoraki and Pavlina Pampoudi first appeared, has there been such an abundance of poetry being written. Indeed, the historical affinity does not stop there: it is those same poets who are doing the lion’s share of mentoring in the new generation.
The anthology Austerity Measures samples this living tradition, bearing witness not only to the hard lives being led in Greece and the Balkans today, but also to what poetry does best: offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities. From the lyrical dream fragments of Anna Griva to the apocalyptic neorealism of Stathis Antoniou to Thomas Tsalapatis’s wry postmodern prose poems, nothing here is as one might expect, even from the Greek poetry of the recent past. Not many statues; not much myth, at least in the classical sense; no patriotism; not even the very intense light or references to the sea we know from the Nobel laureates George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis.
What most distinguishes the poetry of this new millennium from that which came before is, on the one hand, its diversity – there are no clear-cut schools or factions – and, on the other hand, the cultural conditions that it takes for granted. Loosely connected, living in Athens, Thessaloniki, and smaller places such as Patras, Ksanthi, and Syros as well as outside Greece, many of the new poets have had ready access to computers and the internet since childhood. The reality they seek to represent – most obviously in poems with titles such as “Empty Inbox” and “Txt Message” – is infiltrated by, and includes, the virtual. They have grown up with the understanding that vast stores of information and a wide range of different languages are only ever a click away. There are more women writing than at any time since the dictatorship, as if the hard times have levelled other inequalities.
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In the end, these poets pose the question of what it can mean for poetry to be political, or to be apolitical, in times of social and economic crisis. They live within the limits of capital controls and unrepresentative referenda; if they live abroad, they are invested in the news of family and friends living within those limits; but, in every case, they write through it. Even in the work of poets who began publishing earlier than the past decade, austerity and an uncertain future are unavoidable presences.
But what is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? If, as William Carlos Williams says in the lines that I have made the epigraph to the anthology, “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found” in poetry, then what is there in this writing that could have made those lives less miserable, or even saved them? If it’s “difficult to get the news from poems”, doesn’t this mean that it is nonetheless somehow possible – especially if we come at poems “at a slight angle to the universe”, as EM Forster described the Greek diaspora poet CP Cavafy?
Austerity measures call both for cutting back and for turning limited resources to new and creative ends. In poetic terms, this often involves rhyme and syllabic count. AE Stallings dramatises this resourcefulness by repurposing a news headline, “Greece Downgraded Deeper Into Junk”, and using that headline’s last word as one of the two repeating rhymes of a villanelle embedded in a prose poem. Similarly, the traditional 15-syllable line of the folksong, not coincidentally called “political verse”, winds its way through much of the original Greek in this collection, surfacing at the most unexpected moments. Yiannis Efthymiades’s meditation on the final moments of a jumper from the World Trade Center, “9/11 or Falling Man”, takes still another inventive approach, following the spirit of its long 27-syllable lines by expanding the brevity of a 10 second descent into a series of poems that runs for 27 pages.
This question of resourcefulness can also point to a more general ethos of recycling, reminiscent of the empty shopping trolley, put to an imaginative range of uses, that shows up with growing frequency in contemporary Greek film, art, and even a promotional video for Piraeus Bank. More often than not, in this poetry, it is the icons of the everyday that bring the crisis home: Ikea cartons for a roof in Jazra Khaleed’s “Words”, for instance, or a caterpillar eaten alive in the centre of Athens in Iana Boukova’s “Black Haiku”. In “Mama’s a Poet”, meanwhile, Glykeria Basdeki turns household chores into a grammar lesson (“all day she cooks up commas / sweeps tenses under the rug”) and, in so doing, makes poetry about the everyday political: “comma”, in Greek, means both the punctuation mark and a political party. These poets’ relationships to history and current events are a mixed bag, sometimes in-your-face, at other times told at a slant, but always pulling at the corners of language, asking it to take in more, to be more open. The times are an invitation to speak out against dogma, division, and monolingualism – and also, often equally importantly, simply to register the lived experience of Greeks today, the news that stays new when headlines move on to cover other parts of the world.
• Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck is published on 28 March by Penguin. To order a copy for £8.79 (RRP £10.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.