Fragile as We Are: A Conversation with Adrianne Kalfopoulou

When I sit down to read Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s poems or essays, I find myself sitting up straighter, more awake and attentive to the words in front of me, to the world. Her most recent book, A History of Too Much, responds to the Greek Euro crisis with tenderness, ferocity, and urgency that startles and dazzles. The images evoked and questions posed haven’t left me—just as was the case with her essay “Transitional Object, a Grammar for Letting Go” that we had the honor of publishing. Adrianne was kind enough to chat with me via email about her creative process, working across genres, and the complex bittersweetness of her work. —Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer: Where did A History of Too Much take root? When did you know you had a manuscript in progress?

Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Thank you, Ashley, for the opportunity to talk to Juked about this collection of poems. I think some of the first poems were written in 2009, maybe 2010, when the much used (now over-used) term “the crisis” started to be heard in Greece. I didn’t really feel I had a full collection until some years later. I’m generally slow with poems. I started to realize various strands feeding into the group, or what began to feel like a group, that there were several histories coming together.

AF: How does a poem typically begin for you? Sound? Image? Language?

AK: My muse is rather fickle. I’m generally caught off-guard and at somewhat of a loss in the writing moment. Not infrequently I resist the impulse, at least initially. It’s perverse given all the rhetoric on following rather than turning your back on what calls you to the table. In some ways I court the illusion of some higher force/energy that will compel me “no matter”—a fallen romantic impulse I guess, but ultimately what keeps me is what’s happening in the poem. The collection as a whole goes in and out of forms, and as I’m not typically a formalist, I found this surprising but also particular to the collection. I have several triolets, a fixed 8-line poem with 2 rhymes, with its roots in the 17th century, and 2 rangy essay-like poems, “Where the Contour Lies” and “A Poem, in Pieces” that explore emotional and physical thresholds. So I think images, and sounds, link up in different ways given the poem’s demands, and the language is born of that.

AF: When I read “Skin,” a poem that explores how honey heals wounds, I felt that its contradiction of sweetness and violence reflects other contradictions within the book, like human connection in “an era of goodbyes” (as you write in a later poem). Do you find that these tensions occur naturally or does this happen through the course of revision?

AK: Yes, I think the “contradiction of sweetness and violence” is a tension in my work; it’s often a catalyst for writing. My “sweetbitter” muse—to borrow from Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s word for eros—is from the Greek γλυκύπικρον, that translates as “sweetbitter” and seems in keeping with the kinds of ambiguities that can also feed the impulse to create; to answer to a rupture or wounding. Foregrounding sensory responses that are contradictory can be a way of salvaging a complexity that’s still vital. Sometimes that’s implicit in the subject matter, as in the violence of the financial dismantling of Greece that feeds into a poem like “The Goodbyes,” and sometimes it’s more enigmatic and mutable as in “An Invitation” and “The Road,” poems about erotic love.

AF: I admire how you shift between different formal structures throughout the book. Is the decision to write about a subject within the form of, say, a prose poem (“Clothing the Dead”) versus a more spare and structured form (“Exilic”) versus something altogether looser (“Poem in Pieces, A Log”) one you make consciously? Or is it organic?

AK: It is organic. As I mention earlier, content dictates the form. I’ll sometimes realize that what I’m writing lends itself to one kind of form while I might have been working with another; that was the case with “In a Pomegranate Time.” The adverb “extravagantly” presented itself and, well, I thought it rather extravagant. Not very subtle; through several false starts I let the poem lead me. Rather than trying to tone it down which would have betrayed the poem’s impulse, I started to rework it into a ghazal, a Persian form traditionally about melancholy or unrequited longing, so there it was. There was no need not to let the poem have its extravagant say!

AF: You’ve published books of both poetry and essays. Are there challenges in writing across genres? What, for you, is the relationship between these two ways of working?

AK: I like to move between the genres the way I like to move between poetic forms depending on what it is I’m working on. But I’ve increasingly been drawn to the essay, particularly hybrid expressions of it that interface with lyric tropes, such as the use of repetitions, and the ways imagery condenses meaning, which includes the use of visuals. There’s a space where it’s hard to define genre boundaries in some works, a book like Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women or Andrea Rexilius’ To Be Human Is a Conversation, straddle categories and combine methods. I admire how these practitioners of the form, or forms, as poets who define themselves as such have expanded the parameters of that term, and genre. For myself, I tend to know when what I’m writing is an essay, or if it’s a poem; the subject matter I’m involved with usually chooses for me.

AF: Earlier this year, Juked had the privilege of publishing your essay “Transitional Object, a Grammar for Letting Go.” In it, you write about your experience of working with Syrian and Afghan refugees at a shelter in Athens. I wondered if you could speak to the process of writing this piece?

AK: Yes, thanks. It was a hard piece to write, and it went through many revisions. This is usually my process, but this one was somewhat more torturous I thought, partly because of the circumstances of that period. It was very important to me to weave the various strands into the telling, or writing. And I wanted them to be equally important: that I was in a new space, or spaces, regarding a job I was in more out of necessity than choice, that I was privy to some of the pressing urgencies in the lives of the refugees I had met, that a relationship I had been in had recently ended. Two close friends of mine were fired because of the financial situation in Greece and had to leave the country to seek employment; we were hearing constant updates of drowned people, sometimes whole families from capsized dinghies trying to make it from Turkey to one of the Greek islands. It seemed the EU had lost its mind regarding how it was handling or not handling the human flows. The essay tries to explore multiple feelings of displacement, whether personally immediate or more distanced. And my proximity to the literal displacement of the families I had met put my losses into another kind of frame.

AF: Among other things, this essay is about language and your experience of teaching. How does teaching inform your writing?

AK: Sometimes it’s as direct as being influenced by a text I happen to be teaching. In writing “Transitional Object, a Grammar for Letting Go” I was teaching grammar exercises from an academic writing book, They Say, I Say, in a comp class. I’d also been reading D.W. Winnicott’s work. His discussion of the nature of the “in-between” or “transitional” in “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” was key to some of the ideas I was in conversation with; that part of the title, “transitional object” is a direct reference to Winnicott. I was fascinated by his example of the 7-year-old boy tying things together with string as a way of dealing with his separation anxiety; it became a trope. And the grammar exercises in They Say, I Say were uncannily to the point. I’m somewhat superstitious about these kinds of moments; when your writerly radar is activated and you’re truly on the lookout for signs the cosmos often provides.

AF: I appreciate that you juxtapose intimate human experiences like loss and falling in love against subjects like cultural and political upheaval. I wonder: what do you feel is the role of poets and poetry during today’s turbulent times?

AK: That probably depends on the poet and their muse. Think of Dickinson and Whitman both writing during the American Civil War, one of the country’s most historically turbulent times, and each registers that violence, and period, in very different ways. It feels as if there’s a kind of explosion of engaged (and enraged), innovative, and bold voices in contemporary American poetry. Layli Long Soldier won the National Book Critics Circle award for Whereas, her debut collection which explores the legacies of her, and the country’s, Native American identity. The book was also a finalist for the National Book award. I also think of poets like Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, and Tarfia Faizullah, whose Don’t Call Us Dead, Look, and Seam, respectively, are mind-blowing. The books are both highly personal and overtly engaged politically. While very specific to particular cultural narratives—race and racism, queer identity, AIDS in Don’t Call Us Dead; the Iraq war/invasion, Iranian-American identity, the discourse of the military in Look; and legacies of violence and rape from the 1971 liberation war in Bangladesh in Seam—each connects to questions of cultural belonging and explores language as a site of resistance as much as poetry.

AF: If you were to write a book about Greece today, how would it be different from A History of Too Much?

AK: Thanks for that question, Ashley! I do feel my writing of A History . . . was different from other times I’ve put a collection together. The poems were a kind of map through a time of upheaval. I wrote them in that spirit, as flashlight moments illuminating a detail or quality of something much larger that stays hidden or not immediately comprehensible. I felt strangely on the outside of much of what is described even as I was a part of it. The poet Diane Thiel and I were in conversation about the kinds of poems that form a collection and what periods of gestation might be needed; that some books are years in the making. I wanted this collection to express a trajectory, so I wasn’t only concerned with putting together “the strongest” poems, as much as I wanted the group as a whole to orchestrate a sequence of time. I’d write a different book now, yes, but that would be expected I think. Perhaps it would be less specifically located. I like thinking about an entirely liminal book—where a reader might feel as displaced by the writing as the writer/poet might feel in the writing, of knowing but also not knowing where the locations might be.

AF: What are you working on now?

AK: I’m writing essays again, and taking some risks. I have two essays in a working manuscript that incorporate visuals, and one that tries to negotiate sentence structure in ways that might invite multiple perspectives. It’s not that these strategies are new but they’re new to me, and what I’m trying to do with them. Some of the subjects in “Transitional Object . . . ” are explored further: ideas of refuge, loss, belonging, or not belonging, how language helps salvage us, fragile as we are.  

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