Author of the Week / 18 September 2023

Mind the border

Author of the Week: Greece

Forming identity and historic narrative through contemporary Greek poetry

I was born between 2 heritages & I want to explore that empty space, that place-between-2-places, 
that walk-in-2-worlds. I want to do it in a new way. 
(Diane Glancy, Claiming Breath)

Approaching contemporary Greek poetry as part of a wider tradition isn’t easy because the main question that arises is: which tradition of all? Over the millennia, Greece has been through a number of historical phases: Classical Antiquity, Byzantium, Orthodox, the Ottoman Empire, Wars (World wars, Balkan, civil), Balkan, Europe, Mediterranean and most recently, the financial and refugee crisis. These multiple layers have produced fossil fuel for poetry that offers a kaleidoscopic view to the readers. Poetry published since 2012 is a diverse field that expresses a particular polyphony.

Let’s say that the question has always been the same: who are we? Are we connected to our ancestors, and if so, which ones? I believe that this ‘search’ for a new identity, an identity that will subsume all the past ones but also express the current state of play, is the one that reflects the plurality one faces when reading contemporary Greek poetry. There are some trends, both formal and thematic, such as the new formalism, prose-poetry, political poetry, urban/provincial poetry, feminist and queer poetry, but it might be impossible to draw an all-encompassing map. Young poets are trying to reclaim their voice, drawing inspiration from both the Greek and Western canon, sometimes to relate to them, sometimes to reject them. This tendency towards a non-identity that is not specific and tries to describe something new, derives from the idea of the ‘non-space’ that all these identities form together. ‘Poets are important voices on borders, boundaries, frontiers, and border-regions and their crossings by strangers, migrants, and ideas. [...] In this experiment – often detached from reality or linked to reality through an analogical nexus of awkward liminal meanings, odd abstract details migrating through a web of significations, crossing boundaries of sense and nonsense – the word becomes the body of motion and the world becomes a space of solitude and alienation: a non-space.’[1]

From my point of view a country that has always been at a crossroads, amalgamating different elements from various civilisations over the years, finally becomes a border itself. Not only a frontier but also a border with a figurative meaning: limitations that come with a single label and often intersect, creating an unusual lack of identity – a lack that arises from an identity overload. As Susan Stanford Friedman puts it: ‘I wish to hypothesize provocatively that all stories require borders and border crossings, that is, some form of intercultural contact zones, understanding “culture” in its broadest sense to incorporate the multiple communal identities to which all individuals belong.’[2]

Is poetry capable of expressing new identities, and is this compatible with the multiple identities of a country? By recreating the country’s image through connecting pieces, poets try to find their spot on the map but also in history. At this point, I should make it clear that what I will try to describe is not a naive positivity or a tendency towards magical realism. Quite the contrary. No matter what the topic is, contemporary Greek poetry, especially by people in their mid-twenties to their mid-forties, is mostly a very depictive one, talking about life and portraying it using realistic images and vocabulary. As Lytton Smith wrote: ‘In the shaping of poetic form, and the forming of the poem for the reader at the moment of its reading, even poems that are not immediately “about” the geographic and political space of the border can become politically entangled with its logic and the means of its reimagining.’[3]

The dual nature of the border and the way it applies to Greek poetry is interesting: on the one hand we have the identity of the poets who live on the border, the ways it is formed and expressed through their poetry, but at the same time we also see them talking about the actual border and their experience as witnesses to the refugee crisis. Thus the term border poetry does not refer to migrant or refugee poetry, but is used to describe poetry written on the border by people who live on it. It might be closer to what Carolyn Forché calls the ‘poetry of witness’: ‘Witness, then, is neither martyrdom nor the saying of a juridical truth, but the owning of one’s infinite responsibility for the other one (l’autri). It is not to be mistaken for politicized confessionalism. The confessional is the mode of the subjective, and the representational that of the objective, and it is necessary to move beyond both and place ourselves under and before the other in an ethical relation that precedes ontology (Levinas), an understanding that humans come into being through relation.’ When talking about this border identity, we can sum it up in two main trends in poetry written after 2012: the first is when poets thematise their role in constructing their country’s identity, they open a dialogue with the past and adjust it to their current status, usually assuming a pessimist point of view. The second is the way the border and its effects, more specifically the recent refugee crisis, are depicted.

To form a new identity, one that will manage to absorb the past ones fruitfully, you need a new language capable of expressing this complexity. The need to capture the present derives from an awareness of the multiplicity of our era. As Brikena Gishto says in her poems from her collection Above Fences (Iolkos, 2022): ‘And this quest // The need to capture life. / On the body. / On the collective body.’ The collective body is formed by fractures. The stable identity is deconstructed, and like Mary Shelley’s creation, finds its way to life again: ‘and the roots / form new paths on the maps. // Fix it or break it.’ The image of a ripped map, the sacred quest to find the lost root of the family tree are motifs that resemble the way geography and history are called into question. Sometimes poets take initiative and suggest ways to reflect on how we integrate the past, like D. Gkioulos and C. Papaprilis-Panatsas did in Adartiko: ‘Come to draw lines from wire to weave a thorn. / Come to melt the medal to see what amalgam / fire and smoke will be born. Come to teach you how to build from the start. / Even if it smells like dust.’ The idea of the country being a puzzle, a mix of a few elements from which you can reconstruct it, has always been very popular in Greek poetry, but also worldwide if we consider one of the major works of modern Western literature, Waste Land.

Fusion is a possible answer to the puzzlement that many poets face when they try to find a place for themselves in the present but also in the common past. Combining elements from different styles, not adopting a stable form, trying to overcome but also incorporate the past at the same time. In her book Already Distincted (Thines, 2022), Nanti Chatzigeorgiou describes this puzzlement quite accurately: ‘And how much I suffer / for a common, lost, life // On the loudspeaker / the wind is closing up / while the life of the museum is calling me / though I am not ready / for the big jump.’ By choosing a more pessimistic approach to reality, people feel lost in their past and deprived of a purpose in the present. Katerina Asimakopoulou, in her collection titled Country of none (self-published, 2021) discusses different aspects of life, trying to find a resort into narration: ‘I am not afraid / I don’t have expectations for border abolishment / Selves merger [...] And now I am under attack / A looted country / Country of none.’

The little daily events surpass the historical ones – or at least match them – in collective memory, disturbing the sense of what is moral and what is not. Searching for what remains in this world that could restore our faith in humanity, Krystalli Glyniadaki thematises the similarities between the present and the past in her existential poetry: ‘We stay here recollecting / the bullet that someone put on an eighteen years old child’s head / while it was drinking water from the tap / or the sacks with the cats and the cinder blocks, / the human ruins in the seabed. / And nothing between. // Nothing from the silence of those whose eyes were hurt watching refugees / and nothing from the pangs of the ones that changed their faith. [...] // The art of splitting people in two is great, imagine the responsibility’ (The Return of the Dead, 2017).

If we think of artists as historiographers, the question is, are they able to face the responsibilities they have as members of society? And if they do, shouldn’t they try to present the facts objectively? Doesn’t it contradict the highly personal nature of poetic language? When an artist, more specifically a writer, chooses to speak directly about a certain place at a certain time, that comes with a great responsibility. You have to restrain yourself, take a step back, find the best way to express what happened or what you and people around you felt, that somehow goes against the nature of the strong, subjective, intrinsic filter of poetry.

The thin line between interpersonal bonds and the narration of another person’s story, sometimes the story of a friend or a student, creates a space in which poetic language rises with some unspoken guilt. Christos Martinis in Eliofor Festus (Ypokeimeno, 2019) shares his experience from the refugee camps, paying respect to the people who didn’t make it, but also to those who did manage to cross the border, from a position of deep awareness that he lives on it: ‘Taking in consideration the active participation in the events, / allow me a more personal tone, / because the processes where hard, like trees putting down roots / in your chest, like traversing your finger on the / rusted metal sheet.’

In my poetry collection I Know Those Women Who Weave in the Middle of the Sea (Thraca, 2022) I try to give a taste of what it feels like to observe people passing across borders while struggling with all the personal and social experiences that come with the journey. It is very challenging to make a distinction between the stories you are allowed to appropriate and the ones that you’re not. There is this huge difference between me narrating my grandmother’s family story, how they came to Greece as refugees, and me telling the stories of the refugees I have met recently. If people are alive, they can tell their own story, and if you want others to access it you can always translate it, or help them write it in your mother tongue. One recent example is Parwana’s Amiri books that express her own but also other refugees’ experiences that were first published in Greek by the publishing house Akyvernites Politeies.

Poetry is a very reliable way to describe and perhaps even preserve a version of history. Poets try to write down what they consider worthy of preservation. In a world that is constantly reshaping, the lines between past and present, modern and post-modern, and even sometimes poetry and prose, become blurred. What we used to call ‘a border’ is absorbed into a new way of perceiving identity, perhaps a more inclusive one. If we were to approach poetry as a part of a tradition and parallel it to a specific work of art, that would be a mosaic. A colourful mosaic in the middle of a metro station. People walk in front of it every day, some of them stop briefly to admire it and only a few understand the way it brings thousands of pieces together to create an image. A collective image, that over time becomes history.

[1] Natasha Sardzoska and Emmanuel Brunet-Jaill: ‘Introduction’. A World Anthology of Border Poetry – Blurred and Political. University of Victoria, 2022.

[2] Susan Stanford Friedman: ‘Spatial Poetics and God of Small Things’. A Companion to Narrative Theory, ed. James Phelan and Peter Rabinowin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 192–205.

[3] Lytton Smith: ‘Poetry and the expectation of the border’ in magazine Frontiers in Human Dynamics, June 29 2023.


Efstathia Paliotzika

Efstathia Paliotzika (pen name: tria epslion) was born in Thessaloniki in 1994. She has a Bachelor degree in Greek Literature and a MA degree in General and Comparative Literature. She’s currently working as an educator and a literary editor, while translating on a regular basis literary and theoretical texts from English and Spanish. Her first book I know those women who weave in the middle of the sea (Thraka, 2022) received the First Unpublished Poetry Collection Award by Thraka in 2022. The collection has also been shortlisted for the Award of the literary journal Anagnostis. Poems and translations of hers have been published in several digital and print magazines.