ATHENS NEWS, FRIDAY , 21
athens arts + features news
Face to face with Olga Broumas
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
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"
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
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
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".