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An Interview with Dimitris Tsaloumas
Dimitris Tsaloumas was born in 1921 on the island of Leros in the Dodecanese, then under Italian occupation and completed his education in Greek and Italian Schools. The persecution for his political views by the Greek gendarmes after those islands were handed over to Greece, compelled him to seek refuge in Australia in 1951. In Australia he studied Arts at the University of Melbourne, with English and French as his majors and subsequently he taught English and French in Victorian schools till 1982. He started writing poetry again in 1963. In 1973 he published his first book in Australia and by 1983 he had published six collections. In 1983 a selection of his poems were translated into English by Philip Grundy and published under the title The Observatory by the University of Queensland Press. The Observatory was greeted with enthusiasm by many Australian critics and in the same year it received the Australian Book Council Award. A translation of another poetic book The Book of Epigrams was published in 1985, translated again by Philip Grundy and which had also an enthusiastic reception.
In 1985 Tsaloumas published also a large bilingual anthology of his translations into Greek of works of Australian poets under the title Contemporary Australian Poetry – Σύγχρονη Αυστραλιανή Ποίηση, a joint publication by the University of Queensland Press, Brisbane and the Νέα Πορεία Εκδόσεις, Thessaloniki. Since 1985 Tsaloumas started writing poetry in English and up to now has published several collections in English. It wasn’t until 2003 that he published another Greek book of verse. This post-1985 work includes the collections: Falcon Drinking, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press (UQP), 1988, Portrait of a Dog: UQP, 1992, The Barge, UQP, 1993, Six Improvisations on the River, U. K.: Shoestring Press, 1996, The Harbour, QUP, 1998, The Storeland Harvest: new and selected poems, U. K.: Shoestring Press, 1999, New and Selected Poems, UQP, 2000, Δίφορος Καρπός, a selection of his English poems translated into Greek by the poet himself, Owl Publishing – Melbourne, 2001 and Παρατηρήσεις Υποχονδριακού Β΄, Εκδόσεις Σοκόλη, Αθήνα, 2003. His latest English collection is Helen of Troy, University of Queensland Press, 2007. Tsaloumas’ Collected Greek poems have been published under the title Το Ταξίδι, volumes A and B with the co-operation of the Εκδόσεις Σοκόλη, Athens and the Owl Publishing – Melbourne, in 1995. Tsaloumas taught as writer –in-residence at the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne, twice at La Trobe University (1987 and 1990) and at Oxford University.
Dimitris Tsaloumas also received the Westley M. Wright Award (1994) and the Patrick White Literary Award (1994), the John Bray Award of the International Festival of Adelaide in 2000, the highest distinction Emeritus Award of the Australian Council in 2001 for outstanding contribution to Australian literature, and the Christopher Brennan Award of the National Association of Australian Writers in 2003.
Dimitris Tsaloumas is a brilliant poet writing in both Greek and English. Peter Levi commenting on his poetry remarked that ‘happy is the language that possesses such a poet’. Several articles, reviews and some books have been devoted to Tsaloumas’ literary achievement. These include the book by Con Castan Dimitris Tsaloumas; Poet, Melbourne, Elikia Books, 1990 and the volume Dimitris Tsaloumas. A Voluntary Exile, a book of articles, interviews and other texts edited by Helen Nickas and published by Owl Publications – Melbourne, 1999. The last book contains an introduction and an extended bibliography.
Dimitris, nice to see you back from Greece for the Antipodian summer. Which is the place you call home?
I’ ve spent 58 years of my life in Australia, so it’s only to be expected that I should call Australia my home. Still deep down, in spite of my attachment to various places, I regard as my true home the place of my birth – the small sea-bound island of Leros.
You came to Australia in 1951. How do you remember your experiences in Leros? And why did you decide to migrate to Australia?
Which experience do you mean? Before or after the war? I remember and often live again the ones before the war with a deep sense of nostalgia. Indeed they are the deep source of my inspiration. And so, it is with the period up to the time I left, the difference being that from those post-war experiences on the island during the reactionary, fascist governments indirectly appointed by the British and later the Americans, the element of nostalgia is missing. Besides, this is why I am in Australia.
What were your early impressions and experiences of life in Australia?
I wasn’t happy at all. Far from it! I was terribly homesick for a couple of years, hoping that democracy would soon be restored in Greece and that I could then return there without the nightmare of political persecution.
Does a poet, today, communicate effectively with his audience?
It depends on what you call poetry. For instance, those who write the lyrics for the popular music bands seem to be communicating exceedingly well with vast audiences. As for us – well, yes, we do get a small number of appreciative readers. There’s always a small number of them. However, this doesn’t preoccupy me in the least, as long as I am convinced that the finished poem conforms with my idea of what a good poem should be like. I don’t aim at popularity. I couldn’t care less. Besides, this is unattainable these days.
At about 1985 you decided to write poetry in English. Why ?
It was curiosity at first but it became a felt need with time. I discovered and understood the rhythms of a language I’ve been speaking for so many years, I saw new possibilities and I set out to realize them. It’s amazing how everything came easily as if practised all my life; how easily I could invest my English verse with my customary music, bestow on this other language the inflections and cadences of my own. I was amazed, tremendously excited about all this, and I enjoyed the experience so much that it was after producing a number of books in English that I published a Greek collection – Observations of a Hypochondriac II in 2003.
Some people think you had an easy entry into Australian poetry.
I don’t know about that. It was obvious that my work had some merit, and the fact was recognized at once. I’ m grateful for the recognition: it was as unexpected as it was generous, and it came from several parts of the world. The degree of easiness or difficulty of entry into such fields is in great part, if not always, determined by the quality of one’s work.
Some others have criticized you for writing in English.
I pay no attention to them. My main concern is the satisfaction of my own creative needs.
How much has your close knowledge and use of two languages and cultures influenced your poetic craft?
It’s inevitable that the use of each language should influence one’s way of thinking and feeling, sometimes consciously, but mostly in secret, subterraneous ways. It’s very hard to say. I suppose it would be hard for a poet who writes in an acquired language to say whether what he writes reads and sounds as true as if it would if written in his own. I’ve been successful in this; in my work, I move with assurance between the two languages.
Do you consider yourself to be a pre-eminently lyrical poet?
Well, I don’t decide the nature and the form of the poem beforehand. Never. These things are determined by the theme when it emerges with some clarity from the jumble of images and the confusion of thoughts, the veritable chaos of the beginning. It all develops as the poem begins to fall into shape. There is no preconceived idea to my writing. My main concern is that the poem should be true, vivid, a mixture of drama and lyricism. Besides, the purely lyrical poem longer than 10 – 15 lines bores me to death. Unless of course it’s the work of some of the truly great poets. I like speech, gesture, conflict, crisp, clear imagery above all.
You have talked in the past with admiration for Elytis. You haven’t said much about Seferis. However, your ‘Observatory’ seems to me closer to the dramatic ‘Logbooks’ of Seferis rather than the lyrical outbursts of Elytis. Yet this is also misleading. How do you see your work in relation to other poets you like?
In the years before the war, confined on a small island under foreign occupation, cut off from mainland Greece and its cultural life, my only experience of Greek poetry and literature in general was almost non-existent. In fact, it was limited to some popular short stories and half a dozen poems from the standard Elementary School readers of my early and only Greek schooling. Whatever I learned of the language and its creative life, I taught myself, after the schools were closed down by the occupying Fascist Administration. I am a complete autodidact in this as in some other areas vital to a sensitive person’s intellectual and imaginative development.
So, given the island’s isolation and complete lack of communication with the mother country, my knowledge of Greek literature did not extent beyond some very well known names, writers such as Palamas, Solomos, Sikelianos and a few others. It wasn’t until after the war, in 1947 I think, that I came across the names of Seferis and Elytis with samples of their work in some magazines, and one in particular whose name I forget, published under the auspices of the British Council, in Athens. It was late in 1948 that I met both men in person and read their poetry published up to that time. It made a tremendous impression on me, especially the work of Seferis. It was to me a new, fascinating kind of poetic speech, a new sense of rhythm, a deeper sense of music. I had began to write (seriously I thought!) at about that time and I obviously did so under the influence of that experience. And it wasn’t until much later, until I came to Australia, that I realized this and was appalled. I laughed at my efforts and tore to small bits the two slender volumes brought out before leaving Greece. Actually, I thought I didn’t have any talent at all, and stopped writing for many years, until I found my own voice and felt sure of myself.
As for Elytis, no, he didn’t have any influence on me. I enjoyed his poetry up and including Axion Esti but didn’t care much for much that followed. I still love his earlier work, I even translated his ‘Seven short Nocturnal Pieces’ into Italian.
I don’t think you’ll find anything in my work published since 1974 that has anything to do with these two poets.
How do you move in your poetry from the private to the public domain.
It’s part of the same process as far as I am concerned. As I have already pointed out, there’s no programme to my writing. And I am not interested in the promulgation of ideas; I embrace ideas only if I can transform them into poetry. In my opinion, the artist should aim at that and that alone. Prose can do much better in the domain of ideas, propaganda and politics.
You move regularly between Greece and Australia. Does this contribute to your poetry?
I am not conscious of that. But it might have something to do with it. Besides, all my Greek books were written in Australia and a great deal of my English poetry was written on Leros. This could well be related to your question.
Do you see a mixture of Greek and Australian cultural characteristics in the writing of your poetry?
I am not fully aware of this or how it happens. I suppose you are referring mainly to my books written in English. It is inevitable that this should be so, especially in my satirical work. Satire can only thrive within the satirist’s own social context; it doesn’t function convincingly in any other way. “Portrait of a Dog”, one of my books I particularly cherish, is a good illustration of what I’m saying. But there are instances of this in “The Book of Epigrams” even – several poems in fact and some of my strongest in that book.
“…And I turned within/ to seek the comfort of those island treasures/ in your wilderness of foam and wind…” This extract from your poem “Lines to A. D. Hope” is a reference to the work of that poet. Do you feel some affinity with A. D. Hope and his imagery of Australia?
I had been asked to contribute to a volume of poems dedicated to A. D. Hope and it occurred to me that sometime before this request was made I had read a couple of poems of his which I had enjoyed as strikingly new in the context of Australian poetry in general and somewhat akin to some of my own ideas and feelings regarding the very themes of these poems, as well as the presence of a strong satirical disposition, the lack of communication between people and the resulting sense of alienation of which I had already spoken (passers-by unbridged/ amid the hubbub…) in “The Book of Epigrams” of 1982.
Would it be correct to refer to you and your work as the poet of two languages and two cultures?
It’s not for me to say. I let others be the judge of that. Not my compatriots back home though, who, with a few exceptions, pretend that I do not exist.
You have translated some of your English poems into Greek and published them in the volume “Diforos Karpos”. Do you find equally satisfying re-creating your own work in the other language?
Those are not mere translation. The poems in “Diforos Karpos” have been re-written in Greek. However, what impelled me to translate those fifty poems in “D. K.” was my friends’ curiosity back home. They wished to know what I am writing about in English and how.
Is currently any book in the pipeline? Do you feel that still there are things you want to say in your poetry?
At present I am working at a small collection of poems which will be published in May 2010. The working title of the collection will be called Thirst. It will be published by the Literary Review Planodion.
I write poems when I feel the need to do so. I begin in a haphazard way and things shape themselves in the process of sifting through what comes up. Normally, I happen to write a poem that acts as a magnet to other poems which expand and enrich in many ways, directly or indirectly, the theme of that magnet poem. Take Helen of Troy, for instance, the title poem of my latest collection, a poem about beauty, a celebration of it, which embraces even death and much that’s appalling in the human condition. Generally this is the way my collections are formed. I say the things I must say within the framework and the demands of what I am working on, which normally springs from some image, a fragment of music, a memory or some vivid image that visits me unexpectedly.
(The interview is an up-dated version of an earlier text published in ‘Neos Kosmos English Supplement’ on 30 April 2007, under the title “A poet in motion”).
Christos Nicholas Fifis
Honorary Research Associate
School of Historical and European Studies
La Trobe University