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The City and the Writer: In Athens with Dimitris Athinakis

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                                                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Athens as you feel/see it?

Athens is, above all, a beloved city, but it is a place where one feels and sees so many contradictions.  On one hand, the modern city with its skyscrapers and thousands of cars blocking streets, and, on the other, the ancient temples, the Acropolis and the Lycabettus hill overseeing everything and everyone. Modern Athens is said to be a city of cement and stone, but I would add that this city is also a paradise with its parks and groves, though there is not enough green. It’s a living organism that occasionally turns into a monster that strives to swallow up everything and everyone.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In December 2008, when the whole city was about to fall apart after the riots triggered by the murder of a fifteen-year-old boy by a police officer. Everything seemed black, burnt, ruined―I don’t only mean what I could see around me; I’m talking about the feeling in the air. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the bullet holes some buildings still have from the bloody Civil War of the late 1940s.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I think it is the way people are looking for a glance. The inner wilderness people feel when living in Athens, forces them to search for others’ eyes, as a profound need to realize all together that “we all live in the yellow submarine.”

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There is a new generation of compelling Greek poets and novelists I would recommend.  I think everyone should read Margarita Karapanou’s Rien ne va plus and The Sleep Walker in Karen Emmerich’s new translations.  Also, her translation of I’d like by Amanda Michalopoulou.  Europa Editions has recently brought out Swell and The Jasmine Isle by Ioanna Karystiani.  Then, of course, there are two great recent anthologies—A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000 (Cosmos Publishing) and The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (W.W. Norton).  These are representative collections of Greek poetry that one should read. 

Is there a place here you return to often?

I often return to Lycabettus hill. From there, one can see the entire city unfolding before one’s eyes, and breathe the last clean air that Athens has to offer.  We suffer from a constant blanket of smog, very much like Los Angeles.  On Lycabettus hill it is not only the height that counts, but also a certain mysticism. Mythologically, Lycabettus is credited to goddess Athena, who created it when she dropped a marble mountain she had been carrying from Pallene for the construction of the Acropolis.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There are such places in hidden areas of the city, where artists, writers, and poets delve into their art, where people can find the new literary waves that grow into major movements as time passes.  Exarcheia is one of the most interesting areas of the city center. Now that Greece is in the middle of its shattering financial crisis, people are struggling to find a literary shelter.  Sometimes they find it in their own houses.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Now that Athens is a multicultural city, there are a lot of different cities within this city. We now have a China Town, a Little Somalia, a Little Kurdistan. But it is not just that; Athenians are trying to build their own little micro-worlds in their houses, or within the narrow limits of their environment.  It is definitely intriguing, considering  the new harsh reality that has descended upon Athens.

Where does passion live here?

Definitely within the people.  Among other things, Athens has the ability to make you feel that passion is the one thing that will help you weather the storm of crisis. 

What is the title of one of your poems about Athens and what inspired it exactly?

 “So they said”—  this poem was inspired by the lack of green in Athens.  But I should say that Athens can be found in a number of my poems, though perhaps not in an obvious way. Living in Athens for over ten years has definitely affected me and, of course, my way of writing and thinking.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Athens does an outside exist?”

Well, yes, an outside does exist. But it is an outside that few can easily endure while actually being outside. Athens is like a tender (but overpowering) mother; one wants to escape her but cannot bear being too far away from her.

Dimitris Athinakis was born in Drama (northern Greece) in 1981. He is a poet, editor, literary translator and critic.  He studied Social Theology, Philosophy, and Philosophy of Science in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Amsterdam. He is the author of two poetry books, Horisemis (2009) and Devastation (2011). His poetry has been translated into English, German, and Serbian.  He was the editor of Poetry Calendar 2010: Time & Eros, and of Poetry Calendar 2011: The Hours of Eros.  Athinakis has translated into Greek the works of Anne Sexton, A.L. Kennedy, Percival Everett, and Andrew O'Hagan, among others, and is currently translating Bret Easton Ellis's novels Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Athens is endless—every time I think I see its mystery, it undresses differently. It’s a city that keeps rewriting it’s own myth. And I keep coming back for more of its noise and soft whispers, its legends and writers. I keep returning to Nikos Kazantzakis, Yorgos Seferis, Konstantinos Kavafis, Vasilis Vassilikos and Yannis Ritsos. Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf and Rien Ne Va Plus are must- reads, and I recently read, Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees by Ersi Sotiropoulos.

Published Jun 21, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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