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The Old New World

By A.E. Stallings

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.

Comments (8)

  • On October 9, 2007 at 9:14 am Francisco Aragon wrote:

    I appreciate and empathize with, I think, one of the undercurrents of this post.
    During the years I lived in Spain (1988 -1998), despite how much I loved living there (and would go back in a heartbeat under better circumstances), I sometimes did very feel isolated.
    My day job was hawking the English language to professionals in their places
    of work (eeking out a living wage) all the while trying to write and translate poems.
    I’ve been enjoying your posts and look forward to seeking out your work. I’m especially
    interested, for obvious reasons, in growing more acquainted with those (American) poets
    who are taking a crack at from “the Old World” as I tried for a stretch.
    I’m going to try and make your reading in Chicago.

  • On October 10, 2007 at 10:24 am Andrew Shields wrote:

    “The term was newly coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669-1752), a Swiss medical student.”
    Whenever I get homesick (which is not often), I think of this nice bit of trivia: “nostalgia” was coined by Hofer to refer to the Swiss mountain people’s homesickness for their mountains whenever they were “down in the valley,” so to speak. AND he coined the term in Basel, where I live!

  • On October 11, 2007 at 6:38 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for your comments. Hope to meet you in Chicago, Francisco. Andrew, great story! I don’t think I knew that… unless you told it to me before.

  • On October 12, 2007 at 7:42 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Hi Alicia:
    I will be in Chicago this coming Wednesday, October 17 to attend a reading by the poet, Peter Ramos, who is flying in from Buffalo. Peter graciously agreed to fill in for a poet who had to back out of PALABRA PURA—-the Chicago reading series I co-curate with the Guild Complex. The series takes place on the third Wednesday of the month at the California Clipper. For more information, please visit: http://guildcomplex.org
    F

  • On October 12, 2007 at 7:44 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Hi Alicia:
    I forgot to add: (!)
    I’m also going to be in Chicago on Sunday for a Guild Complex board meeting, and depending on the timing of things. I’m going to try and make your reading.
    F

  • On June 21, 2008 at 12:04 pm Jade wrote:

    Thank you.

  • On July 6, 2008 at 5:49 pm Kyla wrote:

    Thank you.

  • On December 4, 2008 at 9:50 am Tatiana wrote:

    very interesting and informative


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, October 9th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.