The Dislocation of Being Human, and Cypriot

  I ask Stephanos about the comforting sensuality in the many voices from the present and past that unsettle the reader of his poetry. I want to know whether it is a sensuality in which he as a poet finds his own comfort. But Stephanos is intrigued by my use of two particular words: “comforting” and “unsettle.” He clearly doesn’t want this interview to be a one-way affair. I understand him perfectly, I suppose: after all, his poetry often deals with one person’s urge to connect with moments in the past and in the present, with real people, with words, sounds, smells, losses, loves.

I find his Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems unsettling precisely because he seems both awestruck and attracted by the fierceness and protection afforded by the “forceful” Indian god Kali; unsettling because of the “omnipresence” of “memory,” the anguish of loss and the sweetness of a place or person revisited: today I know you will come, he writes in his beautiful poem “Sentience,” “in the exact spot in the sea / Where we feel the sensual bosom of our dead mother.” The poetry of Stephanos Stephanides is populated by the dead and by the living whose existence seems to acquire an increased, largely indefinable significance according to how much they can connect with the/ir past/s. It’s unsettling poetry, as all engaging poetry (and art in general) tends to be, I suppose, because “Everywhere the dead send their messengers.”

With “unsettle” somehow settled, Stephanos asks me whether “comforting” is the right word or whether it should be “anguished,” or “sometimes comforting and sometimes anguished”? He himself has made up his mind: “Probably both because sensuality is never still or fixed so the feelings bodily experience arouses have to be contradictory because the body is always changing and bodily experience is always changing and the body carries the memories of our joy and pain – as a creature of the Mediterranean, I feel this intensely in the culture and in the sea and in the landscape - it is enticing and alluring but also full of ruins and stones scarred with the wounds of its multilayered history, long dry summers thirsting for water. This is something I like to delve into and could say more...”

Stephanos Stephanides returned to his native island in 1991. He tells me that the opening up of the checkpoints of partitioned Cyprus in April 2003 for the first time since 1974 unleashed manifold feelings and energies for Cypriots, especially those who had been displaced as a result of the partition, “and it has been a catalyst for our creativity as human beings and as artists and poets.” The poem “Sentience” is a lot about Stephanos and his relationship with a tormented Cyprus and with memory. I tell him that I experience this poem as a series of "goings," of profound separation that can be partially bridged by some "comings;" it's a deep desire for Oneness in space and in time. It is a poem born out of a strong desire for political and emotional unity...

“The title came to me after the poem as happens most of the time in an attempt to clarify for myself the creative experience in writing the poem. The title tries to seize the mode experience of a very special moment in a special mode of perception that is sentient and not intellectual – you could call it a kind of spectral sensuality or sensuality in the spectral – sensuality is a desire for presence which can never be absolute like midsummer is a time full of warmth and light that you know will begin to diminish as soon at it reaches its zenith. The poem was written soon after one of my first crossings to the north after the checkpoints opened and you could describe it as an experience of post-memory. A friend of my father took me into the house I was born, which I only knew through stories – my parents lived there without being married (very daring in a village in Cyprus in those days) and the marriage itself was short lived. The presence of that brief and ghostly passion and ghostly dreams seemed to linger in that room and the inner and outer came together as I stood on the green balcony with the panoramic view of the village and the road beyond.

The day after that visit I met a Cypriot Turkish artist, Aşik Mene, and I was describing how I felt. He seemed to understand my experience completely and asked why I had not taken him with me. I had only known him about an hour so his question did not make sense on a rational level, but somehow post-memory and pre-memory linked in our conversation and that is how I worked my experience with him into the last few lines.”

Stephanos’s poems are full of names and dates; he attempts to shoot photos that somehow “seize the house in my voice” (“Requiem for Trikomo”). I ask him whether the poems are really a “post-mortem,” as he suggests in this poem, or whether they are the act itself of shooting photos, or both?

“The post-mortem is the ‘after death’ or the afterlife – not in the metaphysical sense but in the sense that stories or histories live on and the living on comes from our awareness of death - we are dying as we are living on – a kind of losing and finding that goes on at the same time all the time. I experience this very intensely with the detour of ‘return’ to my place of birth that somehow ceased to exist or was lost forever because of the impenetrable wall of partition but its life continues through new friends who inhabit the landscape and there is a renewal of life as well as mourning – this is what for me is behind the “Requiem for Trikomo.”

The image of the photos came to me as my wife Kathy was shooting photos to seize the moment on my first journey back to Trikomo after the opening of the check points – poems and photos are different kinds of art forms but they both seem to enact this lost and found allegory in their hidden stories – and I love old photos - but then this moment they seize never stands still and their meanings change all the time as they are read by different people in different contexts in different times. It is a dynamic kind of allegory; their stories are retold always differently.

As far as names and dates in my poems (well dates are just there at the end to give some kind of vague chronology) but names – yes I like names – they are mysterious signifiers of the people who populate the poetry. The names are mysterious for most readers who do not know who they are but they gain life from the images around them, whereas only I may know the specific story or context that brought them there or even I do not always know because there is an unconscious process in the creation. Many people not named are also evoked in the way I have poached their words, touch, look, and gestures as they seized me with their spectral presence.”

Talking about memorable words, I refer Stephanos to the title poem “Blue Moon in Rajasthan” and it’s extraordinary line, "Drivers stub out their love in roadside huts." He tells me that this came from his notebook jotting while he was driving to Pushkar in Rajasthan, India, on a kind of pilgrimage to Saraswati, the goddess of poetry, books and the arts. “We stopped at a roadside restaurant and there was a long line of trucks along the roadside. The restaurant was almost empty and I was puzzled. The driver explained that the drivers were in the huts that were around the place and told me it was cheap to buy a fuck in India – perhaps suggesting that I might be interested too. I settled for a coffee and hot samosas in the restaurant and looked around the shop next door where there was a display of the Kama Sutra translated in various European languages.”


Writing as Renewal

In an article about the “Translatability of Memory in an Age of Globalization” (Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1, 2004), Stephanos Stephanides suggests that “when a writer adopts a language other than his mother tongue as his literary language, there is a possibility for expanding the capacity to hear diverse accents of idiom, history, memory and identity.” He himself is one such writer because although his mother tongue is (was?) Greek, and despite his acute and profound awareness of memory, he has chosen to write poetry in English.

“Language, memory, culture, and identity are not equivalent categories albeit overlapping or interconnected. It is not simply a choice between the vernacular of my native island and an international cosmopolitan language. I left Cyprus as a child and grew up and was educated in the UK. English is lived experience for me and I have lived through different forms of English, not only UK English, but I have lived and worked in Guyana for many years in a Caribbean English cultural environment and many years in the US before returning to Cyprus. I am also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and have many memories and intimate experiences related to those languages and cultures.

In Cyprus there is also Turkish. Since the opening of the check points I hear it and feel it all the time through the many close and intimate friendships I have developed as if it has always been within me but only now disclosing itself to me through the emotions of its sounds which I hear in my friends’ voices without knowing the meaning.”

When, in the introduction to his English translation of Niki Marangou’s poems in Greek (Selections from the Divan, Nicosia: Kochlias, 2001), Stephanides talks about how “writing like translation,” from translatio, moving across, “is a continuous movement toward its own complementation, a desire for the renewal of life after displacement and fragmentation,” one realizes that what he is saying also applies to his own poetry. He observes that although retrieval “is always already incomplete, we may find joy in the fleeting movement toward the possibility of renewal, rather than nostalgia at the loss and ruin of the past.”

In “Larnaca Oranges” he speaks about how he pursues the taste of his father's “dislocated oranges.” It's the inevitable dislocation of being a human, of being a Cypriot, of being in search of Oneness that can perhaps only be glimpsed through translation into some other form, like poetry... After all “our dreams are in the tombs / tombs are in our dreams” (“Broken Heart”). I ask him whether he agrees.

“Well first I should say that I am not fond of the word Oneness especially with a capital. It implies a certain metaphysical homogeneity, which I like to defer from in my poetry. My gods and goddesses are polymorphic – I take pleasure in the multiform experience of peoples, cultures, and the diversity of natures of the people I love.

But then I like your usage of the word translation as it suggests the metamorphoses of life and constantly changing forms – an original that is always absent. Poetry is like that, a pursuit of a dislocated original that may never be there or may never be found except in the pleasure of its multiplicity of forms and expressions. Oranges were the last thing my father had asked for before dying in Larnaca in early October, 2000 where he was vacationing. It was from Larnaca that he took me off to England many years before also in early October. It was uncanny this coincidence of dates and then we (my stepmother and I) sent him off to be cremated – to Bristol - the destination of his first journey with me and his last. So yes, it is the dislocation of being human, being Cypriot, of being who we are as human beings always living in translation and dislocation.

The lines you refer to in the poem ‘Broken Heart’ are lines of graffiti I saw on a wall in the old city of Nicosia in the early nineties accompanied by a childlike drawing. I jotted them in my notebook and kept going back to look at it. It alludes to the tragedy of Cypriot history but then says so much about our human condition. Dislocated by our birth and yet with knowledge of death – not knowing essentially why we are here. I rarely eat oranges without remembering my father or slice a water melon without remembering my mother instructing me how to do it properly - I always remember people, living or dead, by the things I touch, taste, smell, see, and hear. Some of these sense experiences are really charged because of the intensity of the emotional experience related to them and these often lead to poetry.”

I ask Stephanos if Cyprus will ever “sweep him away for celebration,” an allusion to a line in, “Blue Moon in Rajasthan” which has nothing to do with his native land.

“Always and never. I am always celebrating the people and the places I love but then there is the sadness of its violent history and this leaves a deep wound. I do not have faith in the ability of our politicians to heal it or to bring about a solution that will truly heal this wound. This will not prevent me from celebrating the beauty of what we do have and what we can make of it despite the politics.” Adrian Grima

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