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The Poetics of Diaspora:
Greek US Voices
Nicos Alexiou (Νίκος Αλεξίου), Αστόρια: Εξορία, άνθρωποι, τόποι, ποίηση. Astoria: Exile People Places. Boston: Somerset Hall Press. 2013. Pp. 129. Paper $14.95.
Nicholas Samaras, American Psalm, World Psalm. Ashland: Ashland Poetry Press. 2014. Pp. 233. Paper $22.95.
Stephanos Papadopοulos, The Black Sea. Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press. 2012. Pp. 53. Paper $15.95.
Yiorgos Anagnostou (Γιώργος Αναγνώστου), Διασπορικές διαδρομές. Athens: Apopeira. 2012. Pp. 63. Paper €10.65.
Chrestos Tsiamis (Χρήστος Τσιάμης), Μαγικό Μανχάτταν. Athens: Melani. 2013. Pp. 100. Paper €10.
Aliki Barnstone, Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press. 2009. Pp. 228. Paper $16.95.

Anthropologists and historians, especially of seafaring nations of the postcolonial condition such as the Caribbean, have shown how diasporic movement and transatlantic mobilities are anything but marginal in the constitution of the modernist imagination. On the contrary, movements across the Atlantic and the resulting diasporas have played a fundamental role in the making of the -isms that have colonized our ways of thinking, including capitalism (Mintz 1985) and racism (Gilroy 1987).

Greeks have moved across the big water into the Americas and back in several moments of the modern period, forming a vibrant, if dispersed and increasingly more diversified, United States-Hellenic or grecophone diaspora. The twentieth century, especially until the 1970s, saw major Greek exoduses, as people sought employment, higher income, and a better life outside the [End Page 161] boundaries of a country that faced different degrees of economic stagnation and political unrest.

Yet back home in the language’s metropolis, diasporic poetry was left aside for decades in favor of the Athens-centered generation of the thirties, at least as far as the modernist imagination is concerned. A much-discussed process of centering the linguistic creative stake by anchoring it to Athens took place. This taxonomy resonates with the way in which poetry is taught at schools and perceived by the public at large. Poets were the most prominent advocates of this group, which aimed at a nation-building process based on the aesthetic category of ελληνικότητα (ellinikótita, Greekness) thoroughly linked to the country’s geography and selective, idealized view of Greek history.

The legacy of those modernist poets—who were exclusively men, overwhelmingly bourgeois, and who influenced Greece more than any other group of writers—has come under scrutiny as of late. The debate has been ongoing since the 1980s, though some interesting new contributions, such as Tziovas’s (2011), seem to only raise a reluctant yet acute critique of the nation-building aims and successes of the 1930s group. Diaspora and movement had little place in this generation’s scheme of things. This might have been partly because of this group’s exponents’ own migratory routes to the capital: from islands, the Peloponnese, and Smyrna, they flocked into Athens to consolidate a literature of the young, dynamic Greece on the rise. Critically reviewing the 1930s legacy implied reconsidering Greek poetry as an Athens-based phenomenon—although later generations, and most prominently that of the 1970s, have been even more Athens-centered in the scope and problematics of their poetic concerns.

The process of revision has by now been fully reversed. First, it has properly established Cavafy at the forefront of Greek modern poetics—a poet who only visited the nation-state of Greece once in his life. Second, it has re-appreciated early nation-building poetic voices such as Andreas Kalvos and Dionysios Solomos. As the famous George Seferis quote goes, referring to Kalvos, Solomos, and Cavafy, these were “[o]ur three great dead poets who did not speak Greek.” Seferis would endow this ideology with a sense of uniqueness, as well: “In no other literature do I find a similar example” (1974, 63; see also his Kalvos essay in Seferis 1999, 64–76).

Recent criticism has favored other voices, too, that stem from outside of the sheer geographical bounds of the modern Greek state. Thus, the readership has rediscovered authors as different and fascinating as Nikos Kavvadias and Nikos Kachtitsis, who lived their lives mostly abroad or in constant wondering. The array can be expanded to prose writers who delved for a long time on foreign shores, from cosmopolitan Lilika Nakou to political exiles Melpo Axioti and Dimitris Hatzis. [End Page 162]

This makes reviewing the diasporic Greek poetry of the twenty-first century an interesting and necessary endeavor. What is more, it is now a pressing, urgent matter, especially in the light of the current crisis in Greece: an estimated 224,000 Greeks, mostly young graduates, left the country to immigrate abroad between 2010–2013 alone (Lamprianidis and Pratsinakis 2015). What has been established as the writing of Greeks abroad is now experiencing a revival. In relation to this revival, what I would like to argue here is that the Greek diaspora does not identify with the idea of απόδημος Ελληνισμός (apódimos Εllinismós, outward migrating Hellenism). The apódimos notion to conceptualize Greeks abroad is limited and limiting: it frames Greeks or Greekness as nationhood or as a linguistic community that derives from or refers to a certain, very specific homeland, the South Balkan country known as Greece. It is in relation to this concern that we might need to review diasporic poetry today as totally decentered and hybrid.

In fact, my argument here is both that Greek poetry must be, and indeed is, decoupled from the nation state and that this ongoing revival is a phenomenon that is internationalist and decentered by its very nature. The drastic brain drain of recent years has been dramatically exacerbated by the no-future narratives of a deepening debt and financial crisis, largely the outcome of austerity policies. A Greek flight of predominantly educated individuals has brought Greeks to places as diverse as the Netherlands, Germany, the US, China, and Dubai at a magnitude that has yet to be measured. Meanwhile, these Greeks have been producing new writing. In this essay, I am thinking about the revision of literary history in the light of its ongoing re-creation, enriched with new migratory patterns and new sociocultural realities in an increasingly more complex world.

These people establish nests of Greek language production and reproduction abroad, rubbing shoulders with older and newer forms of Greek, in hybrid formats, resonating diverse temporalities. Let me refer to examples of my own experience of a decade abroad in a variety of places. One is likely to speak with first, second, and third generation Greek speakers in America; with Albanians or Bulgarians who speak Greek after having lived in Greece for a while and then re-immigrated to Norway; with Turkish-Cypriots who recall the old tongue in London; or with newly arrived Greek expats in South Africa.

In this light, coming to terms with the new or fairly recent poetry stemming from Greek-American voices and from recent Greek immigrants to the United States is more than timely. In appreciating poetry in a group of voices, however, one runs the risk of constituting a narrative of different poets jumbled together under the ambiguous category of “diaspora.” For this reason, I should state clearly that for me these poets are diasporic in that no common body of experience or imaginary arises when they are taken as a group. Their diasporic vantage point evokes a plethora of views over both the body poetic and poetics [End Page 163] in general, the relationship between language and its geographical-cum-experiential constraints, and the dialectics between home and beyond. This poetry and its diasporic formation is construed in, channeled through, and mitigated by “quiet undercurrents” that in the US are gaining recognition (Anagnostou 2011, 279). The books considered here come from these US undercurrents and should attract recognition on both sides of the Anglo-Grecophone Atlantic.

In Stephanos Papadopoulos’s (b. 1976) fascinating little book, The Black Sea, one comes across a consistent, twofold unrootedness, a relation with language rather than place. The reader also encounters a sense of selfhood that aims to explore a detached, far-away home, an unsituated linguistic identity. In his case, the imaginary of the far-away, imagined home evokes Pontos, the Black Sea area in which the poet’s grandfather was born. Papadopoulos’s gaze is that of a traveling poet with an acute capacity for personalizing historical events: for turning History into history, story, and narrative. Conflicts as well as reconciliation are well documented in the book (as in the fantastic “Circassian Whore” poem). The poems tell stories, and their consistency in form make the book somewhat of a conceptual geography of poetics. Papadopoulos sees the poetic personhood as a diasporic voice in History that works its way in exile, from a Black Sea, Pontian Greek-American viewpoint.

Of the same generation but writing in Greek, Yiorgos Anagnostou (b. Orestiada 1960) is more decidedly diasporic in creating a self-narrative as a collective portrait of first generation immigrants in America in Διασπορικές διαδρομές. Mingling with the previous waves of Greek migration, the poet reflects on the creative, tumultuous, but often very whimsical creole Greek of New York Greco-Americans. He thus attempts, and achieves, the imaginative reconstitution of a contemporary diasporic Greek as a creolized language and culture. As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by the hybrid formats that Anagnostou proposes: the line between his fiction and the ethnographic data-collection (words and phrases that he collects in the US) is blurry. In a sense, this a storied ethnography. His grasp of the language(s) within his Greek linguistic experience as spoken on both sides of the Atlantic allows him to capture a creativity oscillating between cultural worlds, fertilizing both, and creating a new linguistic worldview. The result is creative, often funny riddles that suggest almost a heteroglossia of sorts.

Like Anagnostou, Christos Tsiamis also writes in Greek, and he too was born and raised in Greece (Patras). Tsiamis, I understand, has been based in New York for about four decades. His Μαγικό Μανχάτταν ranges in rich Greek and takes different forms of poetry, but it is mainly rooted in what seems to be a dreamy sort of prose-poem (Lorca is referenced in the book). Long, elusive, and captivating passages are straddled across the book, among shorter poems. Tsiamis is a well-read poet, who narrates in an evocative fashion, most convincing when he adopts a good degree of ironic distance (among his references [End Page 164] is the deeply sarcastic Nicanor Parra). Tsiamis, again, brings an oscillating feel to his version of diaspora. The concept here is that of a suspended sense of in-between—although, maybe ironically, the poet is more consciously American than Greek in the wonder that he expresses for the urban US sites in which he wanders, even if he returns to his birthplace often.

Nicholas Samaras, another New York poet, has spent some time in Patmos, which might explain the apocalyptic tone of his poetic voice. His book American Psalm, World Psalm is composed of 150 Psalms, written in different forms and exploring different settings, including some Greek nostalgia. The biblical style of poetic delivery (one thinks back to Ginsberg’s style, for instance) is not among my favorite poetic forms; however, this sizeable book has interesting moments. Samaras, a significant poet who won the Yale Young Poets prize two decades ago, marries his biblical and musical ambitions with a general humanistic vision. (“No Greek or Jew,” the reader thinks, evoking the Pauline ecumenism.) I see this blending of worldly difference and cultural diversity in a long opus that embraces classic religious content as operating as a backdrop to an internationalist setting of ecumenical intent. The world of poetry contains us all, as the Ecclesia includes everything, to think with Nicos Gabriel Pentzikis.

Nicos Alexiou was also born in Greece (Volos, 1959). His Astoria’s subtitle, Exile, People, Places, is descriptive of the book’s content in an almost exhaustive fashion. The poems are distributed in three sections, bearing their titles from the subtitle. Alexiou has pointed out, like this essay insinuates, that Greece has failed to include poets of the diaspora in the Hellenic literary canon, forcing poets of his kind toward a periphery of Grecophone poetry. This sense of inner linguistic exile is an interesting recurring theme in the book of this permanent resident of New York City since 1984. Maybe it is precisely this kind of exile that we need to overcome, when thinking of diasporic poetry as a decentered phenomenon, which claims a conceptual space of its own, independent of a Greek motherland.

The work of Alice Barnstone, the last of this loosely diasporic group, is interesting and unique in many respects: she is the only woman, the only person from a mixed family (her mother a Greek artist, her father an American author), and indeed the only one of two born in the US (Bloomington, Indiana, 1956). Most importantly, though, this is a poet who was raised as a poet (her first book, introduced by Ann Sexton, was published at age 12) and lives as a poet (Barnstone teaches creative writing). For the matter of diasporic poetics that concerns this review, her book, Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems, covers the entire creative biography of Barnstone and thus presents a rich spectrum of interests, styles, and poetic visions.

Barnstone, unlike others in this group, does not live in New York City but in Connecticut. The Greek-speaking communities abroad have moved beyond [End Page 165] the classic points of reference of Astoria, Queens, or Greektown, Chicago. The new world conditions of hyperdiversity, the novel patterns of migration, and the innovative fertilization of the Greek language with sociocultural backgrounds unrelated to a nostalgia for the nation-state suggest a closer examination of the diasporic realities in our day. Quite possibly, it is maybe time that we put postethnic as an implied prefix to Greek diaspora (see, for instance, Hollinger 1995). This is a diaspora that no longer acts or imagines itself as an epiphenomenon to a certain metropole. Instead, its actors experience, present, and describe it as a polymorphic condition. The many layers of diversity built into it are likely to multiply in the future, in an ever-changing world.

For the moment, we need to appreciate diasporas beyond fixities of place and fetishisms of nationhood. What most of the poetry discussed in this essay suggests takes us beyond specific sites and indeed presents the nation, the metropole, and the mother tongue as formats up for constant renegotiation. Nostalgia does exist, in some cases. But it extends into landscapes of difference, which extend from dreamy urban walks (as in Tsiamis’ work) to ecumenical narratives (as in Samaras’ book), to the playful creation of new lingos (as in the creole formations used by Anagnostou). We encounter therefore a nostalgia coupled with mimicry, parody, and micronarratives. When it comes to the great narratives of Greek history, these also appear personalized, yet traumatic (as in Papadopoulos’ The Black Sea), suggesting new forms of belonging and locality. The idea of home and how it interacts with newfound homes is important: but home can be an idiom to resist the New World, it can be a nesting place conditioned by new modalities, and it can be situated in a third area between Greece and America, depending on the poet’s idiosyncrasy. What counts more than the dialectics of home and elsewhere is the diasporic subjectivity’s dynamic nature: always in movement and undergoing processes of constant diversification of selfhood.

Diversification is a (mainly urban) reality that takes place for a variety of complex reasons. It reaches such degrees of escalation that it becomes perceived as “super-diversity,” or indeed “hyper-diversity,” as urban sociologists have suggested (Chimienti and van Liempt 2015). Diasporas are becoming internally more diversified and present us with new and fascinating complexities. The point of Alexiou on the Greek of the outer periphery is important. However, I am not arguing for an anti-canon of any sort. These enormously variegated poetic voices operate in unexpected forms and with surprising yearnings. They are diverse and hybrid with their take on language and urge us to think—as diasporas do—outside the box of the nation-state’s borders. At a crucially historic moment, when Greece is becoming the gateway to Europe (Cabot 2014) and to a better life for many refugees, away from the horrors of war, it might be a good time to rethink the definitions of diaspora, transmogrified from foreign [End Page 166] havens of nationhood to the positives of endurance, resilience, and adaptability. This might add to the internationalism that we so urgently need to comprehend the realities of human movement in our world today.

Theodoros Rakopoulos
University of Bergen, Norway
Theodoros Rakopoulos

Theodoros Rakopoulos is a social anthropologist, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bergen. He has published on Sicilian anti-mafia cooperatives, as well as the Greek solidarity economy movement of food distribution. His research interests include cooperativism, labor, wealth, food, solidarity, and, recently, conspiratorial thought in Greece. He has also published two books of poetry and two fiction books in Greek and was awarded the National Prize for a debut author in 2011.

REFERENCES CITED

Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2011. “Reading the Hyphen in Poetry.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 29 (2): 279–290.
Cabot, Heath. 2014. On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press.
Chimienti, Milena, and Ilse van Liempt. 2015. “Super-diversity and the Art of Living in Ethnically Concentrated Urban Areas.” Identities 22 (1): 19–35.
Hollinger, David A. 1995. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books.
Gilroy, Paul. 1987. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Lamprianidis, Lois, and Manolis Pratsinakis. (Λαμπριανίδης, Λόης, και Μανόλης Πρατσινάκης.) 2015. «Η νέα εξερχόμενη μετανάστευση από την Ελλάδα». [The new migration from Greece]. Enthemata Avgis, 6 December. Accessed 11 December 2015. http://www.avgi.gr/article/6083960/i-nea-exerxomeni-metanasteusi-apo-tin-ellada.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.
Seferis, Giorgos (Σεφέρης, Γιώργος). 1974. «Απορίες διαβάζοντας τον Κάλβο». Δοκιμές, Α΄. Athens: Ikaros.
———. 1999. «Ελληνική Γλώσσα». Δοκιμές Α΄ (1936–1947). Athens: Ikaros.
Tziovas, Dimitris. 2011. Ο μύθος της γενιάς του τριάντα: Νεοτερικότητα, ελληνικότητα και πολι-τισμική ιδεολογία [The myth of the generation of the thirties: Modernity, Greekness and cultural ideology]. Athens: Polis. [End Page 167]