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ATHENS NEWS, FRIDAY , 21 NOVEMBER 2008
athens arts + features news

Face to face with Olga Broumas

ADRIANNE KALFOPOULOU

THE POET Olga Broumas, who doesn't often make public appearances, treated a mesmerised
audience to an evening of poetry on November 19, sponsored by the Fulbright Foundation and hosted at the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies.

Olga Broumas admits to having precious little time for social contacts "because if you have to work for a living and support yourself as an artist and be an artist, something has to go". And in a weekly schedule that involves three full days at Brandeis University, located at Waltham, Massachusetts, where she teaches and directs the writing programme, she drives home over 100 miles every Thursday night to a spit of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, and there hardly talks
to anyone.
For someone who admits to being "the last one at a reading and the first one to leave", her presence filled Cotsen Hall at the Gennadius as her voice danced and sang images of "fabled/ light", "rain-/green Oregon", "Resinous weeds/grown taller where the water/dripped" and "the
unmarked shore/young Homer roamed", as well as the poems of Greek writers Odysseus Elytis and Kiki Dimoula.

A day before the reading, I met Broumas at the Fulbright offices, where she generously agreed to an interview. I asked of her influences, of when her devotion to language began.
"I've been writing since I was four. When my father taught me to read, he neglected to tell me that reading and writing are separate activities," she laughs. "I didn't go to school till I was seven, so I had three years, and my basic play was reading, writing and drawing. It was a room of my own."
She describes sitting at her thraneio when the other kids were learning to read and write. She would sit by herself writing and reading on her own, but "by third grade I started listening".
Broumas' listening goes back to a childhood household where French, Arabic and English were spoken along with Greek; where during her grandmother's visits (her mother is originally from Alexandria) her mother and grandmother would switch into Arabic or French when they wanted to speak privately.
"And, of course, that's when I perked up and really listened," she says. I ask who the poets are that she later found herself listening to the most, and she speaks almost immediately of Elytis, whom she began translating at 18 when she first went to the US on a Fulbright fellowship to study
architecture. He was her favourite poet, and she smiles when she describes how she carried him with her.
"I wanted to tug on everyone's sleeve and say 'read', but he was in Greek and everybody there was American. And when I went to find some translations... and you know everyone has their poet inside them and somebody else's translations are a little bit like watching your lover being
made love to by someone else, so I started to make my own to show my friends."
Elytis, she says, taught her that "you can sing with language". He also taught her to take leaps and
make unconventional juxtapositions. But it is not only Elytis' music that influenced her, it is also
Janis Joplin's and Joni Mitchell's, both of whom she says "spoke cleanly from their hearts".
There is also Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck that was with her during the time she was writing Beginning with O, the first Yale Younger Poets award-winner by a non-native English speaker. Rich taught her "that I must use my intellect", that if you are adikimeni - "a word that doesn't translate into English unless you say 'un-justed" - then "you write with the
voice of justice. You do not write as a victim. You don't write as a complainer."
And then there's WS Merwin, the first American poet she was introduced to in the States, from whom she learned the simplicity of expressing one's heart. Merwin "opens his heart, presses a piece of paper to it and prints the paper. He's so directly simple. And he taught me that's really all I have to do."
But Broumas laughs, adding: "Of course, when I do that, something else comes out. But the gesture is the same." I notice heart, melody, dance and Greek are among the words that come
up several times in our conversation. Despite her 42 years in the US, Broumas does not consider herself Greek-American. She says simply, "I am a Greek who writes in English."
She tells me there are three things she trusts: "That I am inalienably Greek, a woman and a poet." Those three things, she continues, "can't be altered". So, when I speak of the many voices in her work, of the borrowings from myriad traditions - Hindu, Native American, Roman, Ancient Greek and Chinese, to mention only some - she nods and says that she has always been open to influences but that "no matter what I take in, it only augments those three things that remain unalterable".


© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved
akalf@hol.gr