"Infused with the Voices of the Past"
A Conversation with N.C. Germanacos
N.C. Germanacos is a poet, translator, and educator based in San Francisco and Greece. His most recent collection of poetry, Ora et Labora, will be available to purchase through the Paideia Institute Press online store next week. His forthcoming book, Potshards, will appear later in 2020 with Conflux Press.
How did you become a poet? What inspires your poetry?
I started writing at an early age. My background is what inspired me the most: I grew up in Wales with a nostalgia for Greece, the home of my grandparents. My father taught me Shakespeare in my early teens. I tried writing prose in my late teens — a complete disaster; poetry came more naturally to me. I then stopped writing to run a school in Greece, and resumed just four years ago when I began working on Ora et Labora.
“You plant trees in land / where rock has deepest roots,” you wrote in Ora et Labora, the poem that lends its title to the whole collection (O&L, p. 29). Your own roots are Greek, British, and American all at once. How does your cosmopolitan background influence your poetry?
I come from a family of Master Mariners. My paternal grandfather was a Lacedaemonian from the Mani peninsula (hence the suffix -akos in my surname). There, people were either fishermen, pirates, brigands, or mariners, with a fierce sense of independence. In the 1890s, he jumped ship in Cardiff, where he settled with his wife, who was from Mykonos. Even though I was a bookworm, I grew up wanting to go to sea like my uncles and cousins, but unable to because of my poor eyesight. Greeks, as you know, are a sea-people so going to sea is central in my imagination, like a never-to-be-achieved fantasy. My poetry owes a lot to the island of Kalymnos, in particular. When I lived there, I often sailed on sponge-diving boats. You could call me a wannabe captain!
When and where do you write poetry?
I write every day: sometimes it’s a good day, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I write for hours on end, sometimes I get up in the middle of the night to work on a poem. Books, notebooks, and iPads are all around me. I take inspiration from day-to-day conversations, or from my readings, or cues from overheard encounters around the city. A simple word in a text or TV show can trigger a poem.
You said that your readings stimulate your own work. What do you read?
I mostly read history these days. Criticism and politics, too. I don’t read much fiction anymore. My latest discovery is a book by Andrea Marcolongo, “The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek.” Above all, I read and reread Shakespeare and Homer.
You do seem to be fond of Homer, as you often evoke the Homeric world in your poems. I’m thinking, for instance, of Polyphemus I: “Odysseus said, ‘I have no wish / to see my words outlive me. Too many / babbling already. My name is word enough’” (O&L, p. 106). How did you get interested in Greek antiquity and the classical tradition?
In Cyprus, where I went to school for several years, the curriculum was that of the Greek Education Ministry, even though Cyprus was then a British Crown Colony. So I got a grounding in Ancient Greek. I then continued to study Greek in Wales and eventually got a scholarship to Oxford. At school, I was a big fan of Euripides: admittedly, his Greek is easier than the language of Aeschylus and Sophocles — but he’s also a very modern author. Homer looms large in my poetry; I love the Presocratics and the lyric poets, too. I read the Palatine Anthology over and over. Ah, one more thing: Byzantine liturgical poetry is extraordinary. Sadly, it’s largely unknown to the Anglophone world: no poet of stature has translated it, though I’d recommend the English versions by Bishop Kallistos Ware.
Besides those voices of ancient Greece, you also echo several modern Greek authors in your collection. In Across the Straits, for instance, you refer to George Seferis as the Poet with a capital P: “Memory hurts wherever you touch it, / the Poet said, who fled home, / happiness, and history” (O&L, p. 81). Who are the poets of Modern Greece that you consider yourself to be influenced by?
Cavafy, without question. His use of Modern Greek is peerless. I taught Cavafy to American students for decades, in Edmund Keeley’s translation. Cavafy’s use of history in his poetry is a big influence on my work. He is always hovering over my shoulder as I write. So is Seferis. I translated Yiannis Ritsos’ shorter poems into English so he has undoubtedly influenced me. Besides these great poets I’m also indebted to the tradition of Greek demotic folk song, which goes back to the Middle Ages but is still alive today. Think of Greek women improvising verse lamentations around a deathbed, or Cretan men sitting in a circle and exchanging improvised satirical couplets with each other. The Erotokritos [a 17th-century verse romance by Vikentios Kornaros — Ed.] is still popular in Crete: you can hear people singing those rhyming couplets at weddings and dinners. When I was a child, we had an illiterate maid who could recite reams of Digenis Akritas [a medieval folk epic in Demotic Greek — Ed.]. In short, oral poetry never died out in the Greek-speaking world.
How would you describe your relationship to Modern Greece?
I moved from the U.K. to Greece at the age of 25, and discovered Modern Greek culture. I love bringing Greek into my work, but also other languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish. Things you say in one language are often very hard to express in another. You see, we Greeks of the diaspora are a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural lot. On my mother’s side, I’m a Cypriot: all of my family lost their homes and businesses in the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, and ended up living out of suitcases, wherever they could carry them. Greeks have been a wandering people for ages — either as explorers, colonists, emigrants, or refugees from invasion and subjection. This is why my book ends with two poems devoted to Aylan Kurdi [the Kurdish-Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe with his family in 2015 — Ed.]. I wanted to convey the misery and heartlessness of the times we live in.
Indeed, death itself is a crucial theme in your poems. One of my favorites is The Captain’s Cap: “But Charon never quits — / sneaked up, snatched him from his house — / no, it’s not the sea that claimed him for her own — / I know, I know, he loved her more than he did me — / no, Charon yanked him from his bed” (O&L, p. 67). Would you say that the way you deal with the idea of death is somehow mediated by classical antiquity?
Death does not only end life, but also defines and prescribes it. For the ancients, death was a reality you couldn’t sweep under the rug. Life was short and often brutish, for both men and women. Their idea of Hades, of an afterlife, was vague. Ultimately, what mattered to them was that Hades was not-life. So since life was so short and friable you had to give it as much meaning as you could… To this day, in Greece, Death is referred to as ο Χάρος, and the phrase “Charon seized her” is a very common way of saying “she died.” In the modern Rebetika music tradition, Charon features prominently because the composers and performers of Rebetika songs were marginalized people living on the fringes of society and crime. To them, Charon walked by your side, talked with you about misfortune, lost love, prison, and hashish — then seized you whenever he fancied — your companion and killer.
Another recurring topic in your collection is manual labor. Take, for instance, the opening of Dry Stone Walls: “I build these terrace walls while I still can — / steps of earth and stone up rocky slopes / so our beloved olives climb into the sky” (O&L, p. 48). Is this ultimately the source of your attachment to the Rule of St. Benedict?
For me, Labora means “work on the land” — with your bare hands. I don’t use gloves when I work on my farm in Crete: I want earth, plant, and stone in my bare hands. And I think that’s part of what St. Benedict meant. He wanted work-on-the-land to be part of his monks’ discipline: their ἄσκησις (askesis). I’m not a believer, so to my mind Ora means that working on the land is in itself a form of prayer, or meditation, which removes you from the cage of ego and puts you into the manual, marvelous world around you. And yet my dear friend Fr. John — an Orthodox priest and theologian — has observed that I put an awful lot of God into my poetry, for someone who doesn’t believe in Him. I suppose he is right! I wrestle with God, I argue with Him in my poems, before I dismiss Him. Then I start the ἀγών (agon) all over again…
We’ve talked about your life in Greece and the U.K. What’s it like for you to live in the States?
I’ve been coming here for four decades, and settled here permanently for five. San Francisco is very exciting and intellectually nourishing; I’m fortunate enough to have lots of wonderful friends in the Bay Area. I like writing, thinking, living here. I’ve been fascinated by modern American culture ever since my teens. In the U.K., American literature wasn’t even on the map back when I was growing up — except for Hemingway, perhaps. I read lots of American prose and poetry in my teens: Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, and Eliot have always been my favorites.
Do you feel you should address the critical issues of our times in your work? If so, how do you do that?
Living in the States now is both exciting and terrifying. I address that issue in the book I am working on now, What Else?. I’m deeply concerned about the current obsession with messianism. It’s inimical to the very concept of democracy: democratic societies do not need or want messiahs, because every citizen has a responsibility to sustain, promote and defend democracy. Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, says that a house you don’t take care of crumbles away. If we do not care for or maintain the house of democracy, it will perish. In the late fifth century, the Athenians learned the lesson bitterly when they put their trust, their treasure and their menfolk into the hands of the brilliantly manipulative charlatan, Alcibiades — and at a time of Plague to boot! They surrendered their democracy to a con-man, a mini-messiah.
Do you have any advice for those of our readers who aspire to become poets themselves?
Steep yourself in the poetry of your language: be prepared for a lot of study and hard, discomforting work. You need to filter, so you’re not just imitating or regurgitating what you’ve read. No amount of work can make up for a lack of talent, to be sure; but your talent must be infused with the voices of those who spoke before you.
Nick Germanacos was born in Cyprus in 1940 to a Greek father from Wales and a Greek Cypriot mother. At the end of the War, he was left in Wales in order to receive a British education, but eventually moved to Greece in 1965. There, he worked as a teacher and translator, especially during the years of the Military Dictatorship of 1967–74. His reputation as a translator rests chiefly with the work of the poet Yannis Ritsos, and the prose writer Thanassis Valtinos. In 1976, he started a school for American students taking their gap year on the Island of Kalymnos. His wife, Anne, is a teacher, activist, writer, and a native of San Francisco. Together, Nick and Anne relocated the school to Crete and ran it until their retirement in 2005. They now live in San Francisco, but return to their home and farm in Crete every year. Nick began Ora et Labora in 2016.
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