Controlled Experience: Berfrois Interviews Dimitris Lyacos
by Calliope Michail
Dimitris Lyacos is the author of the Poena Damni trilogy (Z213: EXIT, With The People From The Bridge, The First Death). So far translated into ten languages, Poena Damni developed as a work in progress over the course of thirty years, with subsequent editions and excerpts appearing in journals around the world, as well as in dialogue with a diverse range of sister projects it inspired.
Your work has been widely characterised as “genre-defying”, “avant-garde” and “postmodern”, engaging with major narratives of the Western Canon and utilising fragmentation. In the epigraph to your third book in your Poena Damni trilogy, The First Death, you quote Hodges: “Nothing in this book is original, except perhaps by mistake”. Can you comment on how this relates to your writing?
Certainly, this sentence does not relate to my work in any postmodern sense of employing pastiche or any other technique of imitation, benign or tongue-in-cheek. I remember the first-ever review of this book back in 2001, where Robert Zaller, mentioned: ‘“Nothing in this book is original”, Lyacos says slyly, “except perhaps by mistake” – a remark that is itself a quotation’. I suppose this remark in the beginning of The First Death may be easily understood as ironic because of our aesthetic priorities: Originality is one of the major goals of any creative endeavour, it is the hard currency of our aesthetics – you are on the safe side if you possess it, whether an artist or a collector. It has not always been so, however.
Originality as a measure of excellence is a romantic concept, further developed during Modernism and finally dealt with playfully by postmodernity. I suppose this has a part in what Durkheim has said about the cult of the individual in modern societies: we all want to be different and appreciated in our uniqueness. If we remind ourselves of Shakespeare’s appreciation of similarity, on the other hand, we may realise that different aesthetic criteria existed in a not so remote past. The typology of a byzantine icon in its own context can be another example: the artist’s signature is preceded by the expression “by the hand of …“ showing the artist to be a humble medium, liberated by his ego and subsumed under the collective. Here, to appreciate the originality of the work would be in obvious contrast with its scope. Therefore, when such originality appears, it does so “by mistake”, even though from our “etic” point of view this is what we value more.
In like manner, The First Death, is presented as a book whose authorship shouldn’t matter: it is found by chance by the narrator of Z213: EXIT in the train and is kept among his papers. So, when you read it you have to consider it as a book within a book, not the current narrator’s original writing. It is a poem somehow left on its own to tell the story of its abandoned human subject claimed by an alien world.
Reading your work, I was struck by how the (human) body, its parts and functions – as a site for the narrative voice(s), or as ‘metaphor’ for other, un-embodied aspects – emerges quite prominently in your poetry. Can you talk about your use of bodily language, if you will, and what role, the body plays in your work?
I take this as a question about The First Death since you mention poetry – I do not consider the other two books of the trilogy as poetry. There, you are right, the human body and its parts are prominent from the first section onwards. Is it a body, however, as opposed to a mind? Descartes wonders in a famous turn of his thought, while looking outside his window: What more do I see now, other than cloaks and hats, of ghosts or dummies presumably walking out on the street, with springs in them that make them move the way they do? If I judge them to be men it is by the sole powers of my mind. In a way, we have all learned to think like this, segregate minds and bodies, and then try to resolve the so-called mind-body problem. We are used to perceiving the mind, if it exists, as hidden away and the body as a medium through which it announces itself in the world. As a response to that, there exists a considerable “body” of philosophical texts going at pains to overcome this dichotomy, a classic example being Merleau-Ponty who, insistently, and sometimes repetitively, tries to show the derivativeness of such distinctions. He proposes “the body-subject” that is entirely in the world as both perceived and perceiver, with no added mental realities hidden outside it.
Perhaps you could look at The First Death from that angle: the subject is bluntly present and impossible to disentangle from anything mental or un-embodied. The body-subject goes ahead to struggle in and against the world, in an on-going interaction with its surroundings. Everything exists together in that common universe, and the metaphors that constitute the text, rather than mirroring the physical to the mental, or vice versa, attempt to show both as one. The body is not, to go back to Descartes again, a garment that you can remove; if you do, you will remove everything else with it. One way to show this in the poem, was to use a varying range of viewpoints through which the subject is perceived: third-person is alternated with both second and first-person narration. This, hopefully, helps create a more ambiguous perspective as to what is there and where from it is perceived. Simultaneously, there is one constant, background frame in the book — the island where the action takes place, like say, the geometric limits in Bacon’s paintings. In Bacon, however, the plasticity of the body stands out from this geometry, while in The First Death the whole setting is plastic and the body-subject is gradually engulfed in the larger organism.
I find it interesting that you single out The First Death as poetry. Even though With the People from the Bridge resembles an ancient Greek play in form and Z213: EXIT, a mix between prose and poetry, I read all three through the prism of (narrative/experimental) poetry. Poetry has notoriously been hard to define, which sometimes results in categorising writing that cannot clearly fit within a certain genre as poetry. Do you think about form and genre when writing?
Yes, you are right, there seems to be a difficulty in categorising some works so they end up pigeonholed as poetry. On the other hand, I have seen With the People from the Bridge being part of postmodern fiction courses curricula together with books that are straightforwardly prose texts. I think, in general, as the narrative aspect of the trilogy became more salient over the years, people were more and more inclined to see it as a piece of fiction. Of course, as you say, you can call it narrative poetry. If you think of poetry as a family resemblance concept, you may consider narrative poetry to approach prose more than other poetry sub-genres.
In borderline cases however, like Poena Damni, one might want to become a little more descriptive as far as the disparate parts of the whole are concerned. These have assumed different forms due to scope and functional role in the context. At first glance, the word “scope” may not say much here but we all have a grasp of it when comparing the “scope” of different but related works, say a novel and the film based on it. Mixing genres would be mixing scopes, and I remember an anecdote involving my late friend, unpublished poet and economist Titos Fragoudis, who, upon request for a financial assessment, came up, in a board meeting, with a report written in verse. Next day, he was fired. I suppose the company was scandalised by the emotive and speculative scope of poetic form, which, contrary to a pragmatic prose assessment, is not so good for business.
I wish I could have witnessed that board meeting. Many of your characters are outcasts of society, scapegoats, fugitives, isolated perceptions speaking from the margins. Do these kinds of characters allow for a more profound introspection into the human experience?
Since I started with an anecdote, let me continue with one more: There is a Roma friend of mine, Babis, whom I randomly meet around my neighbourhood when I am in Greece. I have him in a passage in Z213: EXIT, so, when I see him around I say that I owe him royalties and invite him for a drink. Last time I saw him he stayed with us in a tavern up to the early hours of the morning, at which point I offered to give him a lift. When, a few minutes later, he got out of the car on a dark nondescript street, he made an on the spot decision about where to go and what to do next. As I now recall his solitary figure in this dark street while driving away, I come to think of Keats’s “burden of the Mystery”. After we get out of the non-thinking room in the huge mansion of life, we reach the splendidly colourful maiden-room of thought which entices us with the discoveries we make there, before we see it darken from the discovery of pain and suffering; and, as we realise that, we see the doors around us opening to dark corridors leading to the unknown. Who dares follow them when nothing is given, abandon planning ahead and open up to whatever may come? We carry with us a backpack of ideas, theories, insecurities and the detailed scenarios we project onto the future. Unlike us, outcasts, fugitives and people in the margins are the ones possessing the negative capability, the power to bear the “burden of the mystery”; immigrants cross seas that might engulf them. Their fear is overcome not only by the hope of a better life but also by their acceptance of those darker alleys, where time and space are created at the moment in which they are experienced. Z213: EXIT is the journey of such a man, whom I don’t know if it is right to call a “character” – in order to call him that, one should know more than what is found in the book and, perhaps, more than I know about him myself.
An ‘archetype’, perhaps? You write in Greek, your mother tongue, and have had your work translated into thirteen different languages. No matter how good the translation, the work often experiences a certain loss or transformation. Reading your work in English or German, for example, how does translation affect the original?
Your question sounds a little like backward causation. And although this is not really about an effect preceding a cause, it rings a similar bell, when you say that a translation affects the original. In a past interview I had mentioned how we worked together with Shorsha over the years on the English translation, and of the helping hand of his translation to the original. Sometimes, when we wouldn’t find a satisfactory solution to a problem, it would turn out there was something wrong with the Greek. The English translation – like a mirror – faithfully reflected the blemishes of the object standing before it. In the end, and as far as the English translation is concerned, it was a long but very interesting process, certainly not easy to describe in a few lines. To complicate matters, I would often come up with new versions for Shorsha to translate, so we ended up concurrently developing two texts, original and translation, which makes you wonder which one of the two was “the original”.
As far as translations in other languages go, I am very interested in reviewing them before publication, if I am able to. In general, a constant dialogue about the text and its ramifications affects future originals. A new situation at the moment is my relationship with my new translator into English, Andrew Barrett, with whom we already have a very fruitful theoretical dialogue – some of it we are publishing in interview form – although there is no book to translate yet. In the end, the whole thing feeds back to a text, and it is great to be part of an “author/translation team”, even if that regards languages that one is ignorant of. My translator into Georgian, Tatia Mtvarelidze, has produced a translation that, when I see it I feel like I am looking at the Voynich manuscript, yet, her points, questions and remarks during the process have added new parts to the conceptual whole. Same goes for my Chinese translator, Xueping Shao, who (despite the fact that there has been a poor connection whenever we tried to talk) is writing an article on the Biblical elements in the trilogy. In general, to transpose a text into a new language is only ever rewarding, and we are not doing much justice to it when we continuously insist on the “lost in translation issue”. Edgar Lee Masters mentions a father’s untranslatable silence in front of his son. At least texts can be translated somehow.
I didn’t mean to emphasise ‘loss’ earlier, but rather, as your answer illustrated, look at the multidirectional transformative power of translation (which sometimes may include a certain ‘loss’ that is not to be ‘mourned’ because it gets balanced out by unexpected ‘additions’). Speaking of translation, the trilogy has found life beyond the page, having parts of it adapted, performed and displayed in other media (dance, sound & sculpture installation, paintings, video, music for violin and cello, etc). Can you tell us a little about this aspect of your work?
Strictly speaking, it is not an aspect of my work, these are works by other artists that seem to have felt that what I do could be useful to them, and that is why there is so much difference, stylistic and other, among these works. Some of those bear a more tenuous relationship to my text while others keep closer to it. Certainly, this is due to the nature of the medium as well, music is more abstract and a visual arts project is bound to take distances from a written text; on the other hand, a theatrical performance can be an instantiation of the text per se. Over the years, it has been very interesting to see various people put my work to use and, at the same time, from my side, I have been also intentionally working on the trilogy as if it were something “more than a piece on a page” – despite the fact that I always considered the page to be its natural habitat. In a way, the situation is like making a mould be the sculpture itself; there is a self-sufficiency to it, and you can make your casts of it as well. I enjoy seeing texts grow in and out of the page to form a larger synthesis, smaller pieces turn into mythology, simple movements become a rite. If you take the example of the oldest love poem in history, Sumerian L.2461, it is a monologue in the context of a sacred marriage. The text is part of a world and it makes full sense in it, it is one element in a “controlled experience”. I think I also tried to create an experience, as much as such a thing is possible on a page, and from a certain point onwards it was great to see more people adding extra dimensions to it.
About the Author:
Calliope Michail is a London-based poet and translator. Her first collection of poems, Along Mosaic Roads, was published in 2018 by The 87 Press.