astroflights of imagination: Kostya Tsolakis interviews Astra Papachristodoulou
Astra Papachristodoulou was described by Steven J Fowler as “one of Europe’s most interesting young poets” – and I couldn’t agree more. Her ground-breaking, neo-futurist poems marry words with beautiful, often intricate visuals that challenge the reader. Her work draws inspiration from an endless range of topics, from astronomy and Greek mythology to board games, comic books and technological inventions, while dealing with urgent societal and environmental concerns. Her live performances are always a treat to watch – I’ll never forget her Corrupted Poetry event reading at the Poetry Café in London last May, which was accompanied by a sitar, cosmic-sounding synthesisers and a generous sprinkling of ‘moon dust’…
Widely published in anthologies and print and online magazines, her poems have been translated into Russian, Slovenian and Spanish. At 28, Astra already has several pamphlets under her belt, as well as a collection, Astropolis, published by HVTN Press in 2018. Her latest book, Stargazing, is a sequence of minimalist ‘aperture poems’ inspired by the myth of Daedalus and Icarus; harana poetry was given the opportunity to publish three poems from Stargazing in issue 2. In this interview, Astra talks to me about her endless appetite for new adventures on the page and stage and the creative freedom offered to her by living in London and writing in English as a second language.
Kostya Tsolakis: Astra, hello. Your latest pamphlet, Stargazing, was published by Guillemot Press this past September. What responses have you had to it since it was brought into the world?
Astra Papachristodoulou: Bringing Stargazing into the world – I like how you put that! – has been a wonderful experience. Guillemot Press, which is based in Cornwall, is a very organic publisher, and they treat each book as a piece of art. My initial worry with Stargazing, as often is the case with visual poems, was how people were going to perceive them and whether readers would ‘get’ the poetry, because I find that people are often more used to traditional forms.
I wanted the poems in Stargazing to function as a ‘window’ to something larger. Each square poem is surrounded by white space, which represents the organised chaos around us. What I wanted to achieve with this form was for it to communicate with the content – there is a narrative going through the poems. It begins with a person that suffers from insomnia and looks out through the window at the stars, and then the story of Daedalus and Icarus appears. Through this I wanted to create a connection with Greece.
I think the story of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the most fascinating in Greek mythology. In Stargazing, the storytelling is ‘clipped’ – it’s as though you’re looking at it through a window that offers only a partial view, a part of the sky and the sea.
Much like the storytelling, the text is also censored. Imagine that the poems cover a whole page from top to bottom, but what you see on the page is what the window allows you to see. It’s as though someone has taken an eraser and deleted everything but the ‘view’ from the window. As a result, some of the lines don’t connect with each other. My worry was whether people would get that connection. Letting go of the text felt like a risk, but it’s quite freeing to do that. Despite my worry, I’m glad that Stargazing has had a good response from readers. Each person will perceive it differently and, of course, you no longer have control of the work once’s it has left your hands.
KT: Do you think many readers expect the poet to make a poem clear to them? To make the ‘bending’ for them, so to speak?
AP: I feel that people are more open to do more ‘work’ with other artforms. With contemporary art, for example. I don’t think people are as used, or – for lack of a better word – ‘trained’ to different forms of poetry, though I do think that there has been a huge shift in the past couple of years from conventional to more experimental forms.
I do find that my poems mostly appeal to poets. I have sometimes shown my poems to non-poets and they don’t know how to approach them. In all honesty, I don’t mind what people are going to think because as a poet you have to also be quite confident about what you produce and put out there. If I’m happy with something and let it go, I try not to think about whether people are going to ‘get it’.
KT: Your poems are also infused with a great sense of fun.
AP: The fun element is key. Some of my poems do come across as quite serious, but I try to make sure they don’t come across as too serious! I like to think that fun is part of my personality, so I try to portray that in most of my poems. But of course, you don’t have to force fun into a poem, if it doesn’t come naturally.
KT: At the same time, you thread urgent issues into your poems, such as climate change and the impact technology has in our lives – the damage some technological decisions can cause. For example, in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, the wings they fly with are an invention that hasn’t been used wisely, resulting in Icarus’ death…
AP: What you say about the wings is so right. It’s a beautiful metaphor in relation to technology. If you think carefully, Icarus’ wings worked perfectly fine, but it was Icarus’ decision to go close to the sun, which he was warned against by his father. Ultimately, we are responsible for the ecological catastrophe that we’re getting closer to because we’re not being careful with technology. We’re getting closer and closer to the sun. But the power of technology can also help us prevent this catastrophe.
I’m extremely sad about what’s happening to the environment. On the other hand, in a lot of my work – for example, in Astropolis – I try to present technological invention as a positive. I know this sounds like a paradox because a lot of our technology is to blame for bringing us to the state of emergency we’re in. But how can we use technology now to reduce – through smart buildings and new recycling methods that have been created, to name a couple – the damage that we’ve caused? I think this is a very exciting way for us to try and reverse this damage, though the pessimist in me fears that we’re fighting a lost cause. There’s no return to how the Earth used to be.
KT: Earlier you mentioned that you wanted to set some of your work in Greece. We grew up in a country where poetry in held in high esteem but has long been male-dominated, fairly traditional, and with an obsession with the past. At least that’s the kind of poetry we were taught in school. You’re a Greek woman writing poetry in English, your creative eye firmly fixed on the future. What was your path to the poetry you write?
AP: I come from a very, very small community in Rhodes. We live in quite a small, very conservative village on the island. I come from a household with a single father, and there was a big sense of masculinity in the family, with lots of restrictions for me and my two sisters. As you know, Greek families are quite traditional in the role of the woman.
As you rightly pointed out, we grew up with one form of very traditional, very male-dominated poetry. But I didn’t start out in poetry. I always had this huge creative energy within me but didn’t know how to channel it. Something I knew, growing up in Greece, was that I didn’t want to stay in Rhodes. I wanted to explore new territories.
Coming to London was an amazing experience, especially as a young woman. The cultural differences are huge. London has totally opened its doors to me as a creative in an unbelievable way. In England I’ve been able to rediscover myself and build a community of friends that are like me.
KT: Have you thought of going back to Greece to perform?
AP: I’ve always thought about it. But I fear that if I return as an experimental poet trying to do what I do, I’m going to be judged. Athens may be different, because I can imagine Athenians being more exposed to more contemporary artforms, while in Rhodes things can be a bit more conservative when it comes to what’s exhibited or readings.
At the same time, I feel that now I’ve gained quite a bit of confidence in my work, I’d be able to go back and perform without being concerned about what people may think. Next year I would like to arrange a flash reading as part of Poem Atlas, an initiative that I’ve just started, which promotes visual and experimental poetry. I would like to take one of these events to Athens and connect with experimental poets there. I feel there may be people there like me who haven’t had the opportunity to leave Greece or were happy to explore that creative drive back home. Greece is home to many innovators, and it’d be nice to connect with them.
KT: We’re two Greeks writing poetry in English, and here we are carrying out this interview in English. Even when we speak in Greek to each other, half the words that come out of our mouths are English. It is such an integral part of both our lives now. How do you think your performing in English would be received in Greece?
AP: I’m really not sure. There’s an insecurity inside me of not being accepted if I perform in English in Greece. It may be totally unfounded because you can’t know until you do it and, really, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. It could be because we’re so used to London, which is such an open, accepting place, as is the English language, when writing but also promoting experimental work. We’ve got funding opportunities, but also platforms for LGBTQ artists. In that respect, the UK is way ahead of Greece, but it’d be interesting and quite a fun challenge to go and perform in Greece.
KT: Maybe this fear of not being accepted is a preconception we have developed in all our years here about a culture we are in many ways removed from.
AP: It could be. After all these years in the UK, I think we may have developed an English side to us. Still, in the UK, we’re referred to as Greek poets, but when we go back to Greece, we feel that we’re not Greek enough. We’re in limbo-land!
At the end of the day, I want the focus to be on my practice. I started developing my creative voice, in English, shortly after I completed my MA in Poetic Practice in London. Based on my practice alone, you wouldn’t say I’m a Greek poet. Being called that creates some expectations. It’s funny, I sometimes send my bio out to an event or magazine without mentioning I’m Greek, but they’ll add that to it. Perhaps they feel it will add a different dimension to how I’m perceived. It is what it is.
KT: Finally, you’ve got two new projects up and running: Poem Atlas and a poetry column in whynow magazine. Can you tell me about them?
AP: Poem Atlas is something that has been brewing in my mind for quite a while. It is a new network and event series for visual poets who are particularly drawn to object poetry. I want it to offer visual poets the opportunity to come together and exchange ideas. You can find our list of events at http://www.poematlas.com – we’ve got one coming up on the 5th of December at the Poetry Café in London, which will include an exhibition of visual pop-up poems and performances exploring the performativity of an object.
KT: I love the thought of an object having ‘performativity’! And how about whynow?
AP: whynow is another exciting venture I’m involved in. It’s a new magazine founded by Gabriel Jagger and I’m editing its ‘Capital Poetry’ column. There’s going to be a series of great contemporary poets featured there, starting with Jade Cuttle this week, followed by Steven Fowler and Nadia de Vries, to name a few. What is exciting is that each week I’ll be asking an illustrator to create a response to the poem with a brand-new illustration. So, hopefully, it’ll provide this interaction between poetry and illustration.
I’m really excited about my whynow column because, although I’m known as an experimental writer, as a reader I like all different strands of poetry. So, it’s an exciting challenge for me to take a step back from visual poetry and encounter new forms of poetry. Hopefully it will also get the poets that I’ll feature interested in illustration and visual poetry themselves!
KT: Astra, thank you very much for talking to harana poetry.
AP: Thank you!