The Old New World
The neighborhood I live in in Athens is called Neos Kosmos, the “New World,” a largely working-class neighborhood (though gentrifying as it is convenient to the center), with a fairly large immigrant population among the Greeks—mostly Albanian, but that is shifting now to include more of the former Eastern Bloc and occasionally Pakistan, Iraq, the Philippines. Ironically, or maybe not, for me, it is the new world. I moved here from the States in January of 1999, just as the Clinton impeachment was underway, and I was here in Greece on September 11, 2001. In short, the country, the old world, I left is a century as well as an ocean away. The Greek for homesickness is “nostalgia.” It seems right to me that in English, nostalgia is homesickness for a time as well as a place.
So it can be strange going back. As this is posted, I am already flying to the States (after that, postcards from America?) I’ll see family in Atlanta, I’ll go to the ALSC conference in Chicago to speak on, you guessed it, Lucretius; I’ll do some readings; I’ll be poet in residence (visitance?) for a week in West Chester, PA. I’ll be back in Greece at the end of October, in time to go to a poet friend’s wedding in Sparta.
Oh but I hate flying. I hate it almost more than anything. I used to be so phobic of flying I couldn’t even go near an airport. As soon as I buy a ticket, all my dreams are of Icarus. (By the way, you will appreciate this! The frequent flyer program for the Greek State Airline, Olympic, is named "Icarus"! Yikes! I mean, he wasn’t exactly a frequent flyer.) Having a child now means I must be brave, of course. I am there to make sure he feels safe. And that in turn helps me get through the ordeal. A glass of wine doesn’t hurt.
So why do I do it? The travel, the disruption of our rhythm of life here, the jet lag. On the eve of these translatlantic flights I always rue the decision. Is it just getting caught up in po-biz? It’s always flattering to be invited, of course, to come and do a reading. To be honest, I would say some of it is po-biz: that is, I am there to hawk books, to meet readers, to see poetry friends. To remind people I still exist, out here in the Balkans.
Besides seeing the landscapes of childhood, and hearing the missed vernacular, I guess the reason these visits are most valuable for me as a poet is that I get to read new poems before a native-English-speaking audience. That for me is the test of a poem. (Not, to be sure, all poems—there are some poems that don’t really lend themselves to public performance at all.) I can instantly feel where the poem goes slack (note to self! Cut penultimate stanza!), I can feel when a line hits home or misses its mark, I can feel when a pun sets a sympathetic meaning into vibration. It's visceral. I do do readings here sometimes in Greece, before a mixed audience of ex-pats and Greek speakers. But some references aren’t going to work, some wordplay is lost, I am tempted to simplify.
On the other hand, now, there are references to life here in Greece that are lost on an American audience. There is wordplay that involves Greek roots. What to do?
Well, one thing will be simply to read poems and see what works, to renew my faith in audience. And to listen to my native tongue. And to look around at my old world with new eyes.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...