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Seventy-Two Hours in Istanbul and Delphi

By Ravi Shankar

Having finished my semester teaching abroad in Cyprus (detailed in part here), I took a brief sojourn to the two countries that have been so hotly contesting the sovereignty of the small Mediterranean island: Turkey and Greece. Accompanied by my childhood friend Benjamin Goldman and Shakespearean scholar William Spates, we reveled and were reviled in turns, and what was revealed to us was a complex, multilayered portrait of two distinctive cultures on the cusp of transformation. 

Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world, and the only metropolis that stretches from Europe to Asia, is a thriving, dynamic urban space that has all the terrible and breathtaking beauty of a once glorious empire that has faded over time. Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk captures it best with his notion of hüzün, a Turkish word for melancholy derived from an Arabic root that describes “a way of looking at life that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” In the glorious façade of the city, the mosques that dominate the skyline, the ancient walls of Constantinople, the fishermen that line the bridges over the Bosphorus catching oily fish the size of toddlers’ shoes, there’s an undeniable sadness, perhaps born of the long shadow cast by the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, just as there is the palpable cosmopolitan fervor generated only in cities like Paris, New York, and London. To walk from Taksim Square towards Galata Tower along Istiklal Caddesi, is to be thronged by a mélange of individuals unrivalled in the Eastern world, from Muslims in full head scarves to Turkish punk-rockers. As you walk the pedestrian thoroughfare, you pass trendy boutiques, music shops, patisseries, art galleries, cafés, fish markets, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches, art-deco buildings and simit vendors.  

Tucked away along this boulevard is one of the treasures of Istanbul, Pandora Bookstore, one of the best English-language bookstores in Istanbul. In fact the bookstore is bifurcated into two parts, one part across the street from the other. On one side are the Turkish books, on the other the English ones, and it was in this charming place that we held the Turkish launch of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond. It was gratifying to read the poems of Nâzim Hikmet, Ilhan Berk and Lâle Müldür in the country in which they were written. Our exceptional host Elcin Yilmaz engaged us in a lively discussion of the future of books in the digital age, the difficulties of translating Turkish into English, and we drank Turkish coffee and ate lokum until the sun went down. 

After this reading and accompanied by two American poets, Julie Doxsee and Amy Newlove Schroeder who have uprooted to make their academic and actual lives in Istanbul, we went to a hidden rooftop bar somewhere in the maze of Beyoglu to celebrate the evening. Having cocktails and discussing our experiences in the Middle East, particularly as teachers of predominantly Turkish students, we were unprepared for what would happen next. From the next table, a grizzled man missing a tooth and with a Russian-looking girlfriend turned to us and shouted, "F**k off! Why don’t you go back to where you came from!"  Dismayed, intrigued, and utterly unprepared for this venom, we tried our best to ignore him but the barrage continued. We weren’t needed in Turkey, our gap-toothed friend frothed and pounded the table. We should go back to teaching in Texas! He grew more aggressive, asserting that Hemingway was the last American who ever mattered, cursing us louder and louder until the waiter stepped in to calm him down. In the uneasy aftermath of that confrontation, we paid the bill and went off into the Istanbul evening, a little dazed by the verbal assault. We tried to piece together what had caused his outburst, whether it was the fact that Julie had a Turkish partner, Will’s espousing his sympathy for Turkish Cypriots or whether it was just collateral flack from the Israeli attack of the Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza; whatever the case, it was one of the few times I had been made to feel unwelcome in the Middle East.  

It was then with some measure of relief then that we finished our trip to Istanbul the next day, munching the stuffed mussels, or midye dolma, and checking out the contemporary art galleries that dotted the neighborhood from Beyoglu down to Galata. We took a Bosphorus boat cruise that pinballed between the European to the Asian side of the city and sauntered through Istanbul’s version of Versailles, Topkapi Palace, all the while carrying the mild distaste of being American in the back of our minds like the aftertaste of overripe fruit. Later that afternoon, we took a flight out to Athens, rented a car and headed to Delphi. 

Situated along the slope of Mount Parnassus in southwestern Greece, Delphi was once considered the center of the world, the very navel, or omphalos, where two eagles dispatched by Zeus to circumnavigate the world crossed paths. It was also the site where the most recent meeting of the Paros Symposium, co-founded in 2004 by Greek poet Siarita Kouka and U.S. poet Susan Gevirtz, took place, a special meeting between English and Greek language poets. This iteration was put together by Socrates Kabouropoulos, a Senior Officer of the National Book Centre of Greece (EKEBI) and Vassilis Manoussakis, a skilled translator and poet.

After the clamor and conflict of Istanbul, I found the languorous pace of life and sunny climate in Delphi especially inviting, the food and wine at the local taverna ambrosial, and the very intense reciprocal exchanges taking place between Greek and English poets utterly captivating. Nonetheless in Delphi there were a number of shuttered shops and empty bars, the specter of the economic downturn was omnipresent and this once prominent city seemed entirely dependent on the busloads of tourists that descended upon it to glimpse the Temple of Apollo

We stayed and worked at the European Cultural Centre, a well-equipped and centrally located conference center and from 10:00 to 14:00 every day worked on translating poems, then broke for lunch, then reconvened in the evening to share our poems with each other within view of the shimmering Gulf of Corinth. For someone like me, a relative monoglot, the process began and ended in English with many fascinating linguistic diversions in between. I sat with the Greek poet Eftychia Panagiotou as she took my poems in English and rendered them into Greek, word by word, phrase by phrase, playing close attention to the play of sound, the textural and sensual qualities of the poem, the different connotations and idiomatic resonances present therein. I would answer her questions about intended and tertiary meanings and she’d read me her translations aloud, so I could hear them in Greek.

For my own part, I worked closely with Greek poet Lena Kallergi, helping bring her lovely and subtle verses, which reminded me of Charles Simic and Alice Notley, into English, thinking of pace, of the integrity of the line, of nuance and grace; for her part, Lena allowed me to take some liberties, to use her poems as a starting point for a more active and adaptive collaboration and we came away with a deep understanding of one another’s aesthetics and poetics. I’m sure she’s one of the finest contemporary Greek poets writing today. 

Among the other participants in the Symposium were US poets Edward Smallfield (co-publisher of Apogee Press), Valerie Coulton, Don Schofield, Larry Kearney, Thanasis Maskaleris and the translator Richard Pierce as well as an equal number of Greek poets and translators, incuding Vassilis Manoussakis, Siarita Kouka, Yanna Boukova (a Bulgarian poet living in Athens), Katerina Iliopoulou, Stamatis Polenakis, Dimitris Allos, Mary Alexopoulou, Phoebe Giannisi, and Socrates Kabouropoulos. Nearly everyone had both their own work translated as well as helped out in the translation of someone else’s work, and the spirit of collaboration and the seriousness of the work undertaken there was unmistakable.

Etymologically, Delphi comes from the same root as δελφÏ�ς, or "womb," and throughout the two days I was there I was struck by the sense that we were birthing something, an interlingual poetics and a cross-continental camaraderie, poems iridescent with the contemporary American idiom but rooted in the classical language of Homer, Sophocles, Theocritus and Sappho. Much of the work we did together has been archived at this site:

At the intersection of Greek and Turkish culture, there’s a wellspring of wisdom that continues to enrich us and about which we would be remiss not to take heed. As Nâzim Hikmet writes in his poem “On Living,” translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing, “You must take living so seriously/ that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees—“ and as C.P. Cavafy writes in “As Much as You Can,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, "And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,/ at least try as much as you can/ not to degrade it/ by too much contact with the world,/ by too much activity and talk." These seventy-two hours in Istanbul and Delphi left me with just the right amount of activity and talk, and returned me back to American soil heavy with life, eager to plant olive trees.

Published Oct 4, 2010   Copyright 2010 Ravi Shankar

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