An Interview with Eleni Fourtouni - Poet and Translator

Eleni Fourtouni: Recording Angel of Greek Womens Voices

Interviewed by Jena Woodhouse

Do migratory birds feel pain before departure, as we do, asks Eleni Fourtouni as she prepares for her annual migration. She is about to leave her island house, on Aegina, for her North American home in New Haven, Connecticut. Born in 1933, in a 500-year-old Byzantine village on Mt. Parnon, in Laconia, Fourtouni describes her childhood as golden, despite the presence of Nazi occupying forces, resistance fighters, executions, civil war and other hardships. It was nonetheless a time she cherishes, because, she says, she never had cause to doubt that she was loved, and she was brought up never to succumb to fear: a true daughter of Sparta. Her grandparents, she says, were married 80 years, and were never heard to raise their voices in anger at each other. Eleni completed her secondary education in Athens, and, with her parents blessing and encouragement, accepted a scholarship to an American university, a move which was to simultaneously enrich and complicate her life. She graduated in Social Studies from Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, and then in Criminology from the University of New Haven, where she met her husband, a poet and academic. Her two children and grandchild continue to occupy first place in her scheme of things.

Fourtouni retains the sense of personal freedom that is a legacy of her upbringing, combined with a passionate attachment to her place of birth, and Greece as a whole. She is essentially a maker, in the sense of the Greek word, poiisis: as a poet and as a translator of Greek womens verse, and also of diaries left by some Greek women in resistance; and a maker of homes. The latter is a hands-on project: this petite poet/muse does not baulk at demolishing walls, or building them, and relishes the kind of physical labour many would find daunting. She also loves planting and tending gardens and orchards, and says that contact with the earth and with her Laconian mountains is vital to her sense of well-being.

She embroiders tapestries designed by her artist daughter, Rachel: vibrantly-colored images of Eve before Adam, the Medusa, and other female archetypes. She has a captivating personality, the kind of charisma we associate with Fourtounis distant ancestress, another Laconian Eleni.
In an interview at her house on Aegina, an island one hour by ferry from Piraeus, on November 17, 2000, she offered a glimpse into her private world, her life and work.

- Can we begin by talking about your lifes journey how and where it began, and formative influences?

In the mountain village where I was born, Vassara, in Laconia, it was a primitive way of living. We had to draw water from the wells, we had no electricity, only olive oil lamps and a fireplace. I helped with the ploughing and the harvesting and the gathering of olives. You know, I had a wonderful childhood, just wonderful. I love my childhood, its golden. I never felt, you know, Am I loved? That was never an issue. It was a way of life. Now, everybody is so worried: Am I loved? Am I not loved? Its ridiculous. I was very much loved and very much approved of. I had a great, great childhood, despite having lived through the war and the civil war.

- Was your village actively involved?

Very much so. It was active in the resistance, but there were also collaborators. There were a lot of reprisals, of course, on account of the resistance fighters. I remember the Germans would come at crack of dawn, and houses would be burned and pillaged. People would be hanged in the square. I admired very much the men and women in the resistance, and I know that if Id been older I would have joined. The thing is that no matter what, I was never afraid. I never felt fear, because nobody in my family ever showed fear. So after all these horrors that I witnessed, I dont remember being afraid, and Im still not afraid. Fear is the only diastrofi (aberration, perversion, perversity), as a poet friend of mine said.

After the war we went to Athens, and I finished high school there, and when I was 18 years old I went to America to study.

- So your family encouraged you to do that?

Yes, my father and my family thought I should continue my education, and I dont know why America, not Greece, but Im really glad I did that.

- Wasnt it unusual for a girl of your generation to be encouraged to do such an independent thing?

In 1952, yes, it was, but my father and mother were both very liberal people, very free, and when I left, my father said, Dont be afraid, you can do anything you want to, and he said, Dont forget, Marie Curie was a woman.

Unfortunately, my father died six months later, of lung cancer. He was sick when I left, though that was not apparent, and I know now why he told me I should go to America. He gave me wings. He wanted to liberate me, and he knew I was restless, and he realized that it would not be good for me here (in Greece), because in 1952 there were not many opportunities for women, and I think before he died he gave me this gift, this voyage. And I didnt come back until six years later. I studied, I just loved America the most exciting part was the libraries. I could not believe what I saw, it was a miracle for me. When I first entered an American library, it took my breath away.
 
Slowly I realized that all these books were there for me, and I could borrow any book I wanted, without paying any money for it. Well, I spent all my college years, practically every day in the library. As a result, I almost never went to lectures, I had to take additional courses to compensate, but I read and read and read and read.

- I remember Stratis Haviaras saying the same thing about when he went to America.

Yes, because here we had nothing. The only thing I was deprived of when I was growing up was books, even though my parents brought me books, and so did my uncle, who was a professor of philosophy. They brought me books, but I read them right away. My father had a trunkful of books, and it was so much my thirst to read the written word that I worked my way through them. I read (Dostoevskis) Crime and Punishment when I was seven years old, and was very disappointed, because after the murder I expected more action. I read the Communist Manifesto, all kinds of things, A Thousand and One Nights, and I asked my father, What does it mean, taking ones virginity?

He never told me, so of course I never knew until it was too late. But I think my socialist ideas came from that reading, even though I didnt fully understand After that, I went to my grandfathers house. He had a lot of glassed-in bookcases. This was great. But when I opened them, the books were all in German, because my uncle had studied in Heidelberg. I never had any desire to learn German, because it reminded me of the (Nazi) invasion.

In America I stayed with relatives who put emotional mountains in front of me. (You can never go to school, you dont know English well, etc.) They made a match for me with a Greek-American, Al Pacino lookalike, who was looking for a nice virgin from the Old Country. He was 32, I was 19. The marriage lasted two months. Divorce was a word Id never heard before, so it was a very difficult thing for me. I was 19 years old, my father had died in the meantime, I didnt know English well, I had no money, no friends I didnt fall apart, I made my way, working and studying English, and the next year I went to university, where I was astonished by the libraries and all the windows opening to me. I loved Maine. There I met my husband. He was brilliant, a poet. Hed come into the caf every day with a sonnet for Helen, but I never wanted to get married. Anyway, he convinced me that we should. I was very flattered that a brilliant poets happiness depended on me, but the first week after I was married, I thought (with dismay), Oh goodness me, this cant be! I have to get out of this. It took me 20 years. It was a good marriage. We had two children, and I was happy to be a mother. I never wrote anything during that time, I took care of my children, but at the same time I was always restless, always searching.
 
We came to Greece during the junta, and thats where my writing odyssey begins. (This visit, while exceptional in many ways, was not an isolated one. During the intervening period, Eleni had often visited Greece with her children, spending the summers there, sometimes staying six months at a time.)

But my writing career begins during the junta, when we came here on my husbands sabbatical, and I saw that not all was peace and harmony, as the New York Times described it. And we decided to try and translate poems of people who were writing about this situation, not for publication, but to send them to our friends in the States. And then I looked around (as I described in my introduction to the books, in search of womens voices)

- Did you start translating first, or writing your own pieces.

Translating. I had never written anything, nor had I thought I would. But translating the first book, Greek Women Poets, and just taking it apart from one language and putting it in another gave me the idea that maybe I could do this too. And I started very slowly and timidly at first, using words very carefully, very carefully. And then I wrote the book, Monemvasia, in the heat of passion, during a winter in New Haven.

- I love the freshness and intensity of your work. Your language is never tired, and the poems are so spirited.

Im very careful, actually, I really struggle. Even though it comes out that way, I struggle. I dont really have a language, per se. I left the Greek language when I was 18, and thats when I was so proud of really knowing Greek, and I could use it, and it was perfect. I felt this exuberance and enthusiasm about language. And then I went to America, and started all over again. So I feel now when I write that I have hand tools, not power tools. But I do like the English language very much, I love the short, harsh sounds of the Anglo-Saxon language, it suits me, it reminds me of the area where I live, because its very rocky, and its a great language for me to express my (feelings, nostalgia, love). Whereas sometimes when I translate from English into Greek, some of the very long, polysyllabic words just dont fit. And of course many of my friends here (in Greece) and poets think that Im a traitor, because I dont write in Greek, so they dont consider me a Greek poet, and one friend of mine hurt me terribly by saying, How dare you put yourself in your book of Greek women poets when youre not a Greek poet?

- But your voice fits very well in that book, in fact.

Maybe. Then my husband and I were divorced, after 20 years of marriage, and I lived happily ever after. And some day I want to write a story about a woman divorced and living happily ever after. Well, anyway, marriage is fine when it suits somebody, but it just doesnt suit me. It never did. I had a very good husband, he was not oppressive, I just didnt like the situation. I cannot live with anybody.

- In your poetry, you give the impression of being a passionate defender of women, in the sense of their right to fully develop their potential as human beings, and live their lives free of socially and patriarchally imposed limitations. Would you care to comment on this, if its a relevant point.

As a woman, I have to speak for myself and my rights, and my right to have choices. My grandmother didnt know how to read, and she always cursed her lot in being a woman, because her brother would not allow her to go to school. She would go to school to learn how to read, and her brother would come to take her away. And she would always say to my grandfather: Read to us. Read to me, Nicholas, I live in this world like a blind person. That made an impression on me, I suppose, although not consciously. And then my mother was pulled out of school at fourth grade, so that her brothers were free to go to university. One of them became a very famous professor of philosophy, and a philosopher himself, another a lawyer. And my mother would express pain at the thought that she could have become a better philosopher than her brother, but she wasnt allowed. I was perhaps lucky not having a brother. And yes, of course, I see all the injustices done to women all over the world. Every minute, every second, a woman is abused, by men. But Im not a separatist in any way, I like to live peacefully with everyone. Including the Turks.

- How do you see womens estate, here in Greece, now?

Much better than it used to be. At one time, abortion was the only means of birth control in Greece, but since Andreas Papandreou we have family planning and other methods of contraception. In fact, Papandreou changed the marriage laws, and gave women total equality, on paper, more than we have in America. Things have changed, a man is not the head of the household, in theory, and when I go to my village I see that women there are liberated, but in that village (Vassara) they always have been strong and powerful. I am amazed at the young women now. Theyre free, theyre beautiful, they go out, they do what they want. So I think there are great opportunities for women now. And naturally its a bit difficult for men, a time of transition, because they had their standards set, and now theres a little confusion. I know that my son has gone through that. But they will be relieved, dont you think, not to have all that responsibility. When I first became conscious of feminism, my first reaction was to feel sorry for my son and my husband, to have been burdened by society with all these demands, to have to prove themselves, to produce, to support a family all alone. So I think that things are getting better.

- Today is November 17, and your work as a translator is devoted in part to Greek women in resistance, in the political as well as the personal sense. So who and what do you commemorate today? Do you have any special feelings about this anniversary? (The student uprising against the military regime which took place at the Athens Polytechneion on November 17, 1973.)

This morning on the radio I heard some songs by Theodorakis, with lyrics written by Marina, a woman in prison during the junta, which I translated and used in parts of my book on women in the resistance, and I was moved to tears when I thought of those young people who put their bodies in front of the tanks. I celebrate the young men and women who decided to say no. But thats also a tradition in Greece. When the knife goes to the bone, people rise. Its a tradition everywhere, probably.

- Do you believe in an eternal Greece?

What do you mean by that?

- Some spirit or some essential idea of Greece that isnt compromised by time and change.

I dont think in these terms. I dont really think about it in a nationalistic way, even though Im very Greek.

- It goes beyond nationalism, I think.

And yet I havent thought about that, as I dont think in terms of immortality. I like to enjoy the olive trees. I feel great contact with the land, and as long as the land exists, it will be Greece for me. But I dont believe in anything really, I am part of things, more than believing in them.

- Can you tell us more about your poetry?
Where its taken you, whats happened there for you?

Being involved with the work of other people, translating and writing about the work of other people is a very good thing for me, because just being involved with my own poetry, my own feelings, I would feel self-indulgent. The repetitious I bothers me. I admire very much the work of Victoria Theodorou, because she has been able to get out of herself, to step outside of herself, and write about the world around her, instead of being involved in navel-gazing. But poetry is something you do, I dont really think about it. I write because I have to. I dont know if I want to achieve anything by it. Its very important for me that what I write is well wrought. I work on it, and Im very careful, especially since English is not my own language. Im very careful about the words I use. There are only so many for me, and not more. Theyre almost like jewels and precious stones that I have to use sparingly. Its very important for me to find the right word, and I do struggle and labor over it a lot.

- In a way, its almost an advantage that English is not your first language, because it doesnt show, and yet you take so much more care.

I take a lot of care, I take it very seriously, because I dont want to be sloppy. My most recent poems, which I plan to publish soon, are about my village. You know, I just sat there one time and I wrote them, and I felt as if the mountains were dictating the poems to me. I wrote several poems every day, but after that, the part that I love most is working on a poem. I feel as if I"m sculpting away, chiseling away, until the form that I really want and what I want to say is there. And I find out what I want to say as I"m doing it, and most of the time the poem leads me to a different place from what I had envisaged. Theres a poem about a snake. I was driving to my village, and there was a hawk, and he had this dangling silver snake, high in the air. In Greece we say, freedom or death, but for that snake it was freedom and death, because thats the only way that snake got to soar. I wrote a poem about that, but it wasnt about that at all in the end, it was something totally different. So I feel that I have to follow the poem. Its almost like having my own children. I bring them up to a certain point, but then they have their own way.

- How have womens voices in Greek poetry changed in the last few decades?

Very, very much. In the early 20th century women used to write just love rhymes, but then slowly they became more involved in social issues, issues about them being women, rather than just somebody who loves somebody else and who is loved by somebody else. Although theres plenty there, its one of the important aspects of life. Poetry by women now is about almost the same issues as poetry by men, but with a different point of view, I think.

- Do you have much contact with other writers?

I dont, simply because Im very busy. Ive been writing a novel now for years. Im very involved with landscape and the sea, and my children come here, and Im rebuilding my house in the mountains. But I do have some friends who are poets. There is also a snobbishness in the Greek literary community about Greeks like me who write in English. There are also academics from foreign universities who have made a career of being involved with Greek literature.

- Do you believe that a poem in translation can be equated with the original?

Ive read some very bad translations, totally literal, where every comma, every word is there. But the effect is so heavy, the spirit is not there. You have to capture the spirit, and the important thing is to make a good poem in the language into which you translate.

- Is it a matter of skill or of talent?
   
I think its a matter of inspiration and insight and intelligence.

- When you translate a poem, do you struggle to preserve its form, or just the spirit?

No, I preserve the rhythm. The poets I have translated do not use rhyme, so that isnt an issue.

- Do you think of yourself as a poet first or a translator?

I dont label myself. I just like to write. Its a very important thing in my life, and when I dont write, I dont feel right. Its a very elemental need for me to write, to sit down and struggle over passages, and make them come out the way I want them. I love language, particularly Anglo-Saxon, and of course Greek, which I read a lot. I write essays, short stories, and Im trying to write a play, because I think every subject needs its different treatment, and I find it very limiting to confine myself to one genre.

- Can you say a few words about your play?

My play is about a trial here in Athens, a very sexist trial of a woman who supposedly conspired with her lover to have her husband (a policeman) murdered. It happened six years ago. It was a witchhunt. The killer was referred to as Mr. So-and-so, but she was the whore, the Clytemnestra, the Medea, the tigress. She was a young woman, and she knew too much, she read a lot. She was beaten up in court, and nobody would listen to her. I dont say that she didnt conspire, but the trial itself, from which I have 500 pages of the minutes, resulted in her conviction and a life sentence. The most striking thing was that nobody listened to her. It was as if she hadnt spoken. It was an amazing trial and I was shattered by it, the way it was conducted. I had an interview with her in jail, some years ago. Im doing the play in a classic form.

- Are there any criteria by which you choose a text for translation?

Yes. There was this poets circle, in Athens, and the poets would gather to spend the day talking about their work, everybodys work, poetry in general, and it would always come to an impasse, because they could never reach any conclusions. They could never agree on what was a good poem and what was not. Finally, by three oclock when it was time to go home for lunch, they would have reached a point where they doubted the value of poetry, even the concept of poetry. However, there was a self-invited guest in this gathering, a certain Kyriakos, who (according to Carouzos, my informant) was not all there: a very perceptive man, and they would always turn to him. It was a foregone conclusion, a ritual.

Well then, Kyriakos, they would say, who is the fairest of us all? He would immediately tell them, precisely, and he was always right, and they accepted his judgment, but they could not understand how he knew. They never dared to ask. You dont ask the oracle how the oracle knows. On one occasion, however, they had one of the newcomers ask. Oh, said Kyriakos, its very simple. Take a book, any poetry book, open it anywhere. Put your finger on a page, then look at your finger. If your finger has blood on it, the poem is good. Simple.

So I choose a text for translation viscerally. Really, a poem has to touch me.

When I first started to translate Greek poetry, I realized that there wasnt a single woman poet among many, many books recommended to me by various people. And I realized that only two women poets had been translated into English at the time. So I started to translate them to promote their work, to liberate their voices for other readers.

I love all the poets Ive worked with. Kiki Dimoula, for instance, has such a wonderful voice, so passive, and so mundane, and so Cavafian, yet she writes about desperate things. But the fact that she writes them in such dry language saves them from melodrama. What makes her poems so powerful is her very subdued language.

Victoria Theodorou is a woman who does not put herself in a spotlight. She is a housewife and a grandmother but she was in the Resistance and in exile for six years. She wrote one of the journals in my book. And she is a marvellous poet. She is so subtle. And she does not shout. She has managed to come out of herself. She is a very tender, very good poet. At the same time, she is hardly known in Greece. It is amazing. She is never in the papers. She never pursues such goals as fame. She is humble to such an extent that sometimes her humility irritates me. Its too much.   

In my own poetry, I want to touch people, and I do want people to understand me. I like clarity, I like a clear voice.

This interview was recorded at Eleni's summer home on the island of Aegina, near Athens, Greece, on November 17, 2000.


A cycle of poems by Eleni Fourtouni is reproduced here with the author's permission.

KILLING TIME

1.

June.
The month of the gadfly.
One two three...Dozens of bodies.
Hundreds.
In one good day - thousands.
Who counts?
Swarms dot the windowpane.
The swatter swoops down,
once twice thrice,
sharp staccato sound,
reminds of other times
when the window shutters of this house
were sawed in half and machine guns
propped against them disgorged fire
into the flowering fields.

(After the war my mother nailed the shutters
together with strips of
wood, but the crescent dents from the hot iron
muzzle are still visible)

One two three...
dozens alight on my legs and arms,
the corneas of my eyes,
if I let them.

Fragile.
Green-eyed.
Lidless.

A flick of the wrist is all it takes.

Dozens of bodies.
Hundreds...
Who counts?


2.


Arghiro said she counted fourteen,
fourteen bodies left in the ravine.
Traitors, every one of them,
hired to kill.
Part of their faces missing,
their lips crab-gnawed,
flies copulating in the eyes.

They dug the graves -
Arghiro and four other women,
captive partisans all of them -
between the plum and walnut trees,
where now sun-bleached sheets
billow over stalks of anise and balsam.

We drove our pick axes into the earth,
we, too, driven,
impaled by the indifferent sun -
brutal as our captors.
We wrapped the rotting bodies
in lengths of linen cloth
meant for lace-edged, bridal sheets,
laid them in the shallow graves,
heaped over them handfuls of earth.

I should not be telling you this, you live in that
place. Alone.

But she finished her story
because she knew
I had to know what the earth knows,
what the earth has suffered.

After the burial,
they took us away, and all the herds.
The dogs stayed.
They got fat and lazy
that June.
The fourteen do not rest in peace.


3.


It is again June.
Balsam flowers in the meadows,
my house is white-washed with lime
smoked with sulfur.
A poster of a partisan
on the door she stormed
forty Junes ago.
On the walls
pictures of my mother, her mother,
and her mother's mother.
Snapshots of my children crown
the hearth.
My son's eyes,
the color of retsina wine,
and my daughter -
her face lifted to the sky -
breasts the four winds
like the proud-bodied women
on a ship's prow.
They keep guard over me.
On the burial ground
I have planted a garden.
The earth has healed.

The fourteen MUST rest in peace.

And I must intercede,
plead for them,
as Antigone pled for the traitor
left at the crossroads.


4.


I performed the libation at sunset -
milk and honey -
for they were children once.
Once they played tag
with those they were hired to kill,
quarrelled over games of marbles
with them.
Once.

Before the pestilence.

That night
the dogs returned -
Vlaha and Elli, fierce herding hounds,
descendants of a long line of bitches
born and bred among the mountains
of Lacedaemon. Like the rest of us.


5.


Traitors will have no burial
no libation
no forgiveness
no peace
-Lycourgos, Lawgiver
of Lacedaemon.