“We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honour it, take pride in it…”
C. P. Cavafy, “Going Back Home from Greece”
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)
Poet, translator and university professor Michalis Pieris was born in Cyprus in 1952. He has studied philology and theatre in Thessalonica and in Sydney, and has worked at universities and research centres in Greece, Europe, the United States and Australia. He has published short stories, prose and theatrical plays, as well as dozens of research papers on Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Greek Literature. He is the author of nine poetic collections and has translated foreign poetry and ancient Greek drama into Modern Greek.
Founder of the Greek Theatrical Workshop at the University of Sydney (1979) and the Theatrical Workshop of the University of Cyprus (1997), Michalis Pieris has adapted for stage and directed important works of Medieval and Renaissance Greek literature, such as the medieval Chronicle of Cyprus by Leontios Machairas and the renaissance Erotocritos by Vitzentsos Cornaros. Since 1993 Prof. Pieris has been teaching poetry and theatre at the University of Cyprus. He is also co-founder of the Cypriot literary journal Ylantron.
He has received many awards and distinctions including among others the International Poetry Award “Lazio between Europe and the Mediterranean” (2009) of Regione Lazio, Italy, the State Award for Excellence in Letters of the Republic of Cyprus for his overall contribution to literature, culture and the arts (2010), and the designation Commendatore of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by the President of the Italian Republic (2011) for his contribution to promoting Italian culture in Cyprus and furthering the cultural relations between the two countries.
In his announcement entitled “Πάθη/Passions: A Latent Poetic Collection by Cavafy” and presented at the 11th International Literary Symposium on C. P. Cavafy, “Cavafia” (2009), Michalis Pieris brought to light new material from the poet’s Archives, revealing the universal aspects of the great Alexandrian’s oeuvre. The poet and critic Yannis Varveris (1955–2011) discerns a cosmopolitan dimension in the poetry of Pieris himself, a retrospect of which is presented in the poetic collection “Metamorphoses of Cities” (1978-2009). According to the critic, the poet’s cosmopolitanism is embodied in the “brilliant breadth and eloquence of his language, which shifts effortlessly from intellectual and scholarly style to argot, from Cypriot idiom to vivid demotic Greek, from foreign toponyms to the reverent reading of an ancient stone, all in a language that creates a multi-coloured musical space, which lures the reader into exotic dreams full of journeys and erotic passions”.
The poet spoke to Zdravka Michailova in an exclusive interview for GREEK REPORTER:
You are one of the most distinguished scholars of Cavafy’s oeuvre, whose poetry you have been studying for many years now. It is a well-known fact that Cavafy abhorred the countryside and was a poet of the city, of closed spaces; his favourite poetic locus was the room and not just any room but the walled-in room. His poem “Walls” is one of his most emblematic works. “The House” as a lived and living space that has its soul, feelings and concentrated memories, is the protagonist of your play by the same title, which was staged in 2011 by George Michaelides at the Michalis Cacoyannis Foundation in Athens. Is there a subtle, subconscious presence of Cavafy in your play, maybe similar to the Cavafian influence one can discern in your poetry?
Certainly the central character of my play “The House” with all his words, deeds, feelings and beliefs, can be associated to a certain extent to the lyrical persona of Cavafy’s “Walls”. I am saying “to a certain extent” because there are many differences. I, for one, am a person who was born and spent his childhood years until the age of 12 in the countryside, in a small village of Cyprus. And yet I grew up to become an urban poet. What I mean is that I was somehow fascinated by the urban landscape and because I used to travel a lot in my life and still do, I ended up falling in love with many different cities, which I came to associate with my dreams, visions and obsessions (Rethymno, Sydney, Palermo, Granada, Venice, Catania, Saint Petersburg and many others). I think, however, that a sense of return is always present in me, a desire to go back to the earthly paradise of my childhood, which I spent in a small village among the hills and mostly in my grandfather’s house with its cellar where I enjoyed playing and felt the first incomparable erotic pleasures, as well as at the Kalamon fields where he had his garden, his trees – olives, walnuts, carobs – and his vineyard.
The critic Leandros Polenakis also discerns some implicit Platonic influences in the way your play “The House” is organised around a seemingly simple and yet highly intricate dramatic composition, which among other things incorporates an advanced Pirandellian technique, a game of facing mirrors. What motivated you to involve the audience into the role-playing that occurs on the stage?
I must admit that Pirandello’s presence is quite deliberate although it is not something that I planned. It so happens that whatever training I had in theatre and whatever talent as a playwright I might have, was influenced very early on by my acquaintance and my fascination with Pirandello’s art. In my adolescent years, at the age of 15, I think, I won first prize at a school literary competition for a short story I had written; the award was a volume with Pirandello’s plays that had just been translated into Greek. I read them over and over again in awe and as luck would have it, in that same period the small theatre of the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, with director Evis Gavrielidis at the helm, began staging avant-garde plays, many of which were written by Pirandello. I saw these performances as many times as I could. So it was inevitable that my intellectual and spiritual maturation at that early stage would be influenced by Pirandello and by other great modern playwrights (Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Arrabal and others) who had a decisive impact on my development as a theatrical writer as well.
As for the second and more difficult part of your question, about the Platonic influences, the answer is not an easy one. Having graduated from a good School of Letters, which the one at the University of Thessalonica used to be at the time I studied there (1972–1978), I have certainly acquired some familiarity with Plato’s works. I remember that at the stage when we were expected to choose a major, I had even contemplated the idea of studying philosophy. However, the then professors at the School of Philosophy did not inspire me enough, while the Modern Greek scholars at the University (G. P. Savvidis in particular but also D. N. Maronitis who at that time taught Modern Greek poetry) really fascinated me. So I chose to major in Modern Greek Literature, complementing it with theatrical studies, and I must say that I never regretted it. Since then Plato’s ideas have occupied me on various occasions, in the framework of my own poetic writing but mostly as part of my research into the oeuvre of other poets who elaborate on Platonic themes, such as Cavafy for example. Hence, it is quite possible that my knowledge of Plato’s works seeped into the architecture of my play and into some of the ideas therein as an inconspicuous reference.
In addition to your work as a university professor, you are also the director of the Theatrical Workshop of the University of Cyprus, which has given dozens of professionally staged and produced performances in Cyprus and abroad, promoting folklore and traditional culture in a modern creative form. Could you please tell us a bit more about this commitment of yours, as well as about the Cultural Festival of the University of Cyprus, which you have been organising at the Axiothea Mansion in Nicosia?
The Theatrical Workshop of the University of Cyprus (THEPAK) was established 15 years ago and strives to fill in an important niche in theatrical production in Cyprus, namely to explore areas that have been left uncharted by the professional theatre companies, such as the medieval and renaissance literature of peripheral Hellenism, which is written in an idiomatic language. Our exploration of some of the best examples of this literature is a work in progress, which we carry on with much persistence and from many different perspectives. We are trying to make the best use of folkloric elements and aspects of popular rituals, which, as you probably know, have a long and rich tradition in the artistic expression of Mediterranean cultures. In this sense, our productions are not intended to have a certain number of performances and be done with it. As long as we feel that there are areas to be delved further into, our work on the plays continues. For the last 15 years we have staged only seven plays, which we keep on polishing, making changes and improvements. On the other hand, we often need to replace one actor with another because some of the members of the company leave and others join in. What we actually do is explore the same works over and over again, which gives us the pleasure of deepening our knowledge of this specific literary area, and this is a unique and rewarding experience because literature is being perceived as a quarry from which we continually carve out new diamonds, new precious exhibits of the art of literature. And the most important thing is that our audience, the one we have created with the quality of our work, follows us in this knowledge-deepening adventure and encourages us by coming to see each new approach to the same work. Some spectators have seen some of our performances more than five times in the 15 years since the establishment of THEPAK.
As for the Cultural Festival, it is being held every year at the Axiothea Mansion, which is also THEPAK’s home stage. The Festival began as a broader artistic supplement to THEPAK’s efforts in the area of drama, but gradually evolved and expanded to include mainly concerts of selected off-the-mainstream musicians who provide a certain quality. It is a Festival that has some peculiarities. On one hand, it is not interested to present artists who have reached commercial success and appeal to a large audience or to the commercial music industry, to put it differently, but to promote artists who serve their art and remain committed to it even when this often keeps them on the margins.
On the other hand, our Festival has a thematic focus. We take great interest in Mediterranean culture and the cultures of the periphery in particular, in that multicultural fusion which happens at the outskirts and the outposts. We are especially fascinated by those cultures whose medium are the idioms and dialects because they represent something that has not been assimilated by the majority culture of a country, something special, which still lives in the regions that remain off the mainstream. Thus, we tend to choose small ensembles or solo artists who create an intimate atmosphere and blend beautifully in the home-like surroundings of the Festival’s venue, which is the open-air courtyard of a traditional mansion at Axiothea Street, in the old city of Nicosia.
Two of the performances that you have staged and directed are “The Ballad of the Dead Brother” and “The Ballad of the Bridge”, two themes that can be found in the verbal folklore of all Balkan nations. The former was actually chosen by the editor of the Anthology of Balkan Poetry (Filoi tou Anti Publishers), Christos Papoutsakis as a motto of sorts that symbolises the common expression of the Balkan soul. To what extent do you feel that Cyprus belongs to the Balkans?
First of all, let me clarify that I have indeed been concerned with the systematic study of demotic songs (mainly those that are known as “paraloges”), both as part of my teaching at the University of Cyprus and as part of my creative work with THEPAK. However, so far only “The Ballad of the Bridge” has reached to the point of being presented on stage. Many other “paraloges” (“The Dead Brother”, “Heliogenniti, the sun-born girl”, “The merchant”, “The Bad Mother”, etc.) have been studied both from a philological and a dramaturgical perspective but have not yet been staged. The research, however, showed that Cyprus, though geographically remote from the Balkan peninsula, spiritually and culturally belongs to it as much as it belongs to the Middle East. I believe that Cyprus’ strong connection with the Balkan culture stems from its undeniable organic relationship with Greek culture. So inasmuch as Greece is part of the Balkans, so are Crete, Cyprus and Rhodes.
You have also studied the relations between Cyprus and Spain from a literary perspective. These relations are known to have a long history that goes beyond the sphere of trade and commerce. In the 14th century close ties were established between the royal families of Cyprus and of Aragon, one of the then influential Spanish kingdoms. The most important dynastic marriage of that time was concluded between the son of King Hughues IV of Cyprus, Pierre, and Eleonora, the daughter of the crown prince of Aragon. The marriage took place in 1353, while six years later Pierre was crowned King of Cyprus. Eleonora of Aragon, Queen of Cyprus, played a leading role in the political developments on the island after King Pierre’s death (1369) and remained in power until 1380 when she returned to her homeland. How did the audience respond to the play about Pierre and Eleonora, which you staged with the Theatrical Workshop? Have you had the chance to perform it in Spain?
Our production based on the medieval Chronicle of Cyprus, in which Pierre I and Eleonora of Aragon play a leading role, was performed with great success in Cyprus and in many other European countries (Greece, Germany, France, England). So far, however, we have not performed it in Spain although performances were planned on two occasions: the first time upon invitation by the late Catalan scholar of Byzantine and Modern Greek and my dear friend Alexis-Eudald Sola and the second time upon the initiative of Professor Moschos Morfakidis who had invited us to present the play at a high-profile congress of Modern Greek Studies in Granada. This year the idea will finally come to fruition, as Modern Greek scholar Clairie Fotini Skandami has invited us to perform a significant part of the play (the scenes that refer to Eleonora) in Barcelona. I must admit that I have great expectations about this performance with which the controversial personality of Eleonora will return to her birthplace through a Cypriot literary and dramatic work. Our friends in Barcelona also look forward to the performance for which they have made all the necessary preparations (for example, translating the text into Catalan), so that our Catalan audience may have the chance to follow the play and get to know this remarkable Queen of Cyprus.
You often give public lectures on Cavafy and his poetry. Recently together with two other distinguished Cavafy scholars, Diana Haas and Renata Lavagnini, you discussed the use of history in Cavafy’s poetry at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens. Because future prospects remain inextricably bound to the past on both individual and collective level, a look into the past always helps us to address topical or pressing issues of the present. According to the announcement about this lecture “a number of commentators have attributed the enormous popularity enjoyed by Constantine Cavafy’s poetry today to the fact that we are living in an era of decline, which fits within the poetic world of the Alexandrian poet”. Is this really the case? Why was Cavafy so impassioned with history and what drove him to incorporate it in his poetry?
The answer to this question can begin with a well-known statement by Cavafy who is reported to have said: “I am a historical poet; I would never be able to write a novel or a play but I feel 125 voices inside me telling me I could write history”. We also know that Cavafy had rightfully earned a mythical stature as a great connoisseur of history as a result of the profound analyses of historical events, which he indulged into during the philological meetings he organised at his home with young intellectuals or friends from the broader literary and artistic circles. There is also evidence that he had been invited to teach history as a visiting lecturer at the University of Oxford. If we combine all this circumstantial evidence with the historical method, which Cavafy applied to a large group of his poems, we would see that his passion for history was anything but occasional. It is from history that Cavafy drew the knowledge, the experience and the moral lessons that helped him to understand his present and envision the reality of the future. He was deeply concerned about the future of humanity, he was interested to learn how the economic and social conditions in which people lived could improve, and followed with much attention the theories that proposed a reform of social and economic organisation (such as the theories of George Skliros, for instance). He also believed that a “more perfect society” with a different wealth management system, better education and a new morality, would be a society less hypocritical, more fair and hence, more capable of recognising the significance of his poetic legacy.
Why did Cavafy show preference for the Hellenistic or the Greco-Roman and the Byzantine periods over his contemporary time?
Because Cavafy never saw things directly but from a distance. He preferred to work with the essence of memory, rather than the emotional porridge of immediate expression. “I am a poet of old age”, he once said but in fact all his poems written in his older years describe experiences of young people (between 20 and 29 years of age), powerful experiences, which were not immediately transformed into poetry but were filtered through the refinery of memory. Experiences that “took twenty years to come and find their place into this poetry”. Therefore, by studying the Hellenistic or the Byzantine periods, Cavafy in fact explored and tried to understand his own time.
In 2011 the Cultural Centre of the Embassy of Cyprus in Athens, known as the House of Cyprus, hosted a presentation of a retrospective collection of your poems written in 1978–2009 and entitled “Metamorphoses of Cities”. At this event, your poetry was introduced by your fellow poets Yannis Varveris and Michalis Ganas, while actress Stela Fyrogeni read some of your poems. One of them, “At the town’s coffee shop”, creates a recognisable Cavafian atmosphere… Are there other poems of yours that bear a reference to the great Alexandrian?
The fact that the poem “At the Town’s Coffee Shop” bears a reference to Cavafy’s poetry and more specifically to his poem “An Old Man”, has been noted before by Paola Minucci, Professor of Modern Greek at La Sapienza University of Rome. Beyond that my poetry certainly enters into a dialogue with the poetry of Cavafy whose oeuvre I have not only studied with great attention (my doctoral degree thesis explored the organisation of Space, Light and Logos in Cavafy’s poetry) but I also admire very much, probably because I am a Cypriot. And as arbitrary as it may seem, I believe that today someone from Cyprus can feel Cavafy’s poetry better than someone from Greece. There are certain elements in Cavafy’s poetics and ideology that speak strongly to a Cypriot and the reasons for this are various. First of all, it is the anthropo-georgraphic kinship. May I remind you the verses “waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt, / the beloved waters of our home countries”. Then it is the “Centre versus Periphery” issue and especially our eastern perspective, our eastern mark: “We must not be ashamed / of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins; / we should really honour it, take pride in it”. There are also other reasons, less obvious, that connect my poetry to the poetry of Cavafy. For example, our profound relationship with demotic songs and the vernacular, as well as our sense of the rhythm of everyday human speech. And above all, the fact that I learned from this great poet the clarity of the attained simple language that is capable of expressing with modesty and reverence even the most complicated issues of human existence. I also believe that we share the same moral values when it comes to the relationship between Love and Power (any power, political, economic, religious, etc.). It matters not that Cavafy’s poetry has a homosexual theme, while mine has a heterosexual one. In their essence, our poems are driven by the same agony for the freedom to enjoy love and sensual passion without the various restrictions imposed by a reactionary ideology or a prudish morality.