Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reading the Hyphen in [Greek American] Poetry (excerpts from a book review essay)

Review of Dean Kostos, editor. Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry. Boston: Somerset Hall Press. 2008. Pp. 299. Softcover $19.95.

Greek-American poetry circulates in and across numerous venues, at times in quiet undercurrents, often in splashing waves that leave a mark on the U.S. literary landscape. Commonly discussed under the national rubric American, this poetry enjoys astounding recognition. Highbrow magazines host it. Committees award its merits. Anthologies include it. Reading and performing spaces make room for it. Translators toil between its stanzas, between its languages. Still, incredibly, the category Greek-American poetry is not as visible as the expectations set by its towering presence in the national literary scene would promise. Just imagine, Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry (Kostos 2008), the collection that concerns me in this essay, is the first anthology of its kind. Why is this the case? And what is Greek-American poetry anyway?
Pomegranate Seeds brings a thriving poetic production into focus. It compiles a total of 164 poems representing 49 authors. The majority of the corpus consists of compositions in English while selective pieces were originally written in Greek and presented in translation. A great many poems have been anthologized in collections of American poetry (The Best American Poetry 1997, The Now Voices, Best American Poetry); appeared in prestigious literary venues (New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Iowa Review, The Harvard Review, Paris Review); and won coveted accolades (The National Poetry Series, Rockefeller Fellow, NEA Fellow in Poetry, Open Voice Poetry Award). Several appear in print for the first time, making for an anthology that accommodates both accomplished and new poetic voices.
The editorial decision to classify poets who are already canonized as national under the category ethnic merits reflection. What is the significance of coding an "American" poet as a "Greek-American" one? What is at stake in hyphenating national poetry? This is not an innocent redefinition, as "ethnic writing" is often devalued by mainstream criticism. In literary hierarchies, hyphenated literature is valued, more often than not, for its ethnographic "authenticity"—the "ethnic experience" it records—rather than its literary qualities. As a result, the canon may exclude or marginalize writers exploring ethnic particularities. Or, it may not recognize alternative poetic attributes, given that the canon operates with aesthetic and ideological criteria reflecting the tastes and values of the dominant society. In this respect, it may altogether miss the operation of "difference" encoded within a poem.1 This is why authors with marked ethnic ancestry commonly shun the [End Page 279] label "ethnic writer." Because hyphenated writing connotes lesser literary value, dropping the hyphen is one strategy to compete for recognition in the nation's literary market place. Consequently, a poet who is biographically affiliated with ethnicity may textually suppress or even ostracize this affiliation from his work.2
Thus the renaming of American poetry as "Greek-American" undertakes a number of critical interventions. Pomegranate Seedscertainly aligns itself with recent cultural trends where certain hyphenated poetic traditions—African-American and Asian-American for instance—enjoy increasing legitimacy. It faces, however, the relatively scant visibility of Greek-American poetry. The various sites—scholarship, academic journals, magazines, internet sites, and books—where poetry is produced and discussed as Greek American are not as numerous as one would anticipate, given the multiplicity and vibrancy of poetic voices engaging, in one way or another, with Greek. In this respect, attaching a hyphen to these American poets strategically compensates for this imbalance, endowing "Greek-American poetry" with greater visibility.
Significantly, the hyphenation of national poetry shapes critical practice. It encourages analysis that is primarily set to explore the operation of the hyphen, that is the presence of cultural difference, in a text. Tellingly, Dean Kostos, the anthology's editor, connects poetry with the question of identity. His endeavor seeks "to map out a new terrain—a broader, more complex definition of what it means to be Greek-American" (18). Having "assiduously avoided embracing any style over another" (21) in the selection, he posits the hyphen as a navigation tool in the charting of the anthology: "Although it may no longer be fashionable to use it, I am interested in the hyphen that traditionally linked Greek and American because of its value as a metaphor—a little bridge between two worlds, two identities" (17). Elevating cultural connections as the overarching criterion for inclusion, the anthology undermines traditional definitions of ethnic or national poetry. We are far away here from the ideology of poetry as a culturally pure category defined by criteria such as language or nationality. Greek-American poetry, the editor proposes, consists of a textual corpus that raises questions of interconnections, of crossings across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Thus the anthology offers an expansive terrain, which is hospitable to poetry written in a plentitude of languages (Greek, English, or both), and to poems charting cultural interrelations, irrespective of a writer's ethnic affiliation or national identity.
If anthologies undertake their own canonizing of complex literary realities, reviews of anthologies carry out similarly containing practices. How to do justice to an anthology, and particularly a collection as inclusive as this one, in the space of a couple of pages? Previous reviews of Pomegranate Seeds have noted its plurality, identified recurrent themes in its selections—mythology, memory, home—and commented on its internal contradictions.3 For my purposes here I opt for an alternative practice, namely a close reading of two specific poems, George Economou's "An Evening in Kingfisher," and Hilary Sideris's "Geometry." My aim is to examine how these poems bring cultural worlds into conversation or tension with each other, how they forge links between or measure distances from the two components of the sign "Greek American." This investigation eventually guides my outline of a particular reading strategy that engages with [End Page 280] both the hyphen in poetry and the poetics of a text. I find it productive, therefore, to work with the editor's overarching conceptual framework, the hyphen.
I maintain, however, that it is necessary to move beyond the exclusive understanding of the hyphen as a link. The hyphen cannot always function as a bridge of uninterrupted ties. Cultural crossings, after all, encompass boundaries of difference. As Wendell Ayock poignantly emphasizes, the hyphen makes visible all kinds of incompatible differences, unbridgeable disparities that are impossible to combine in certain contexts. Moreover, difference is a function of power. Boundaries are policed, and powerful gatekeepers may determine which part of the hyphen is allowed expression: "Existing between two cultures, it [the hyphen] is an eternal bridge with barriers and guards at both ends" (cited in Tamburri 1991:43). We should therefore ask: what conditions enable the hyphen as a link in one instance and a barrier in another? And who negotiates the hyphen, and how?
I propose that charting the various contours of the hyphen requires a specific interpretive strategy, one that is attentive to both poetry itself and the operation of ethnicity in the text. This is because poetry and ethnicity, each in its own right, create something anew, producing novel arrangements. Poetry, in Plato's formulation, entails the art of making and remaking, forming and transforming. And ethnicity, it is now well established, involves a dynamic process of reinvention and reinterpretation, a production of new meanings. Critical entangling with the hyphen in poetry then calls for readings that investigate how poetic devices (form and tropes for example) shape ethnic identity, and how in turn ethnicity builds on poetic language to remake itself.4
A great deal is at stake in examining how poetry and ethnicity intersect. This kind of interpretive strategy holds the promise of contributing to our understanding of new ways of conceptualizing ethnicity and their social and political implications. In a world where the question of identity has assumed central stage, this production of new meanings helps us envision alternative ways of situating the self in relation to the hyphen, novel ways of experiencing and acting upon this world. Thus the category "Greek-American poetry" should be seen not as immutable, but as a strategic translation invested in producing new subject positions and in deepening our understanding of how American and Greek worlds interact with and shape each other.5
I begin the analysis by reflecting on the poem "An Evening in Kingfisher," a thinly disguised autobiographical piece by noted scholar and poet George Economou. Structuring the poem in dialogic form, the poet recalls an ordinary conversation between two strangers of different class and, as it turns out, cultural backgrounds. 
In conclusion, Pomegranate Seeds performs a particular function, namely the creation of a context to explore the operation of the hyphen in its textual corpus. This is to say that the anthology determines a particular kind of reading, a reading that seeks to identify intercultural connections. For instance, the question I asked regarding the speaker's feelings towards Greek in English in "Geometry" was raised only because the anthology elevates the hyphen as its conceptual center. This question could have been neglected were this poem featured in an anthology of American poetry. The hyphenation of poetry drives the criticism's focus in excavating the hyphen.
This turn toward the hyphen in poetry opens new cultural frontiers. As a sign producing novel combinations, the hyphen offers itself as a fertile domain for exploring the production of fresh meanings at the intersection of poetry and ethnicity. In turn, this emphasis in creating newness encourages analysis that is open to new configurations, attuned to the unexpected twists, turns, and mouthfuls through which the hyphen makes its way into the text of poetry, and the ways in which the text of poetry constructs the hyphen. It is important therefore to cultivate criticism that is carefully attuned to language and also ethnicity, poetics and culture. This is a critical route that promises to do justice to the hyphen lurking in what may appear, at first sight, as (almost) national poetry.


I thank Gregory Jusdanis and Martha Klironomos for valuable comments, and Artemis Leontis for generous insights.


1. For a discussion of the containing function of American mainstream criticism and its treatment of specific Greek-American examples, see Kalogeras (1991).
2. Lamenting the lack of systematic critical attention for Italian-American poetry, Dana Gioia (1997) associates the turning away from the hyphen with a desire for greater professional and artistic recognition: "The brightest young Italian American writers and critics gravitate to mainstream academy and intellectual culture. That is where reputations are made and the greatest rewards are found. The new generation of Italian American intellectuals knows as well as their immigrant parents did that assimilation is the easiest road to success" (174).
3. I briefly note here the editor's unfortunate reference to "racial memory," to which he resorts in order to explain the regular appearance of mythological themes in the [End Page 288] poems. This is a discredited notion, and we must immediately abandon it. A more fruitful approach would ask for a historical explanation, tracing the ideological uses of mythology in Greek-American poetry at any specific time (how, for example, the rewriting of mythology has served feminist interests).
4. Appropriately, see the recent work of George Economou, whose invented poetic universe of an (non-existent) ancient Greek poet intersects with an ethnic poetics of creating links with the hyphen. Specifically, the fragment in this work serves as a trope to both produce poetry about the reconstruction of the ancient poet's past as well as narrate the writer's quest to recuperate his own family's fragmentary past, and claim a diaspora connection (Leontis 2010).
5. The notion of Greek-American poetry as translation undermines the approach of this category as a self-contained entity, independent from Greek, American, and other poetic traditions. This is the crucial point that Karen Van Dyck (2000) makes, working with the categories of immigration and translation to foster examination of "the interrelatedness of Greek, Greek American, and American literatures, and to expand what might count for Greek or Greek American or American literature." Along these lines, George Kalamaras's "Looking for My Grandfather with Odysseas Elytis," a narrative poem inPomegranate Seeds which implicates a quest for ethnic roots with surrealist aesthetics and Odysseas Elytis's rendition of surrealism, offers itself for analyzing the hyphen at the intersection of multiple literary traditions.
6. Note that dialogism, a fundamental aspect in Asian-American poetry, "is closely related to the reconstruction of [ethnic] memory and history" (Piñero-Gil 2002:97).
7. A caveat is in order here. One must resist confusing the poet, one with a Greek surname, and the poetic persona, and assume that the latter, the speaker, is Greek. As contemporary literary criticism instructs, the operation of the hyphen must come into play within the text itself, not outside of it.
8. This situation presents of course an imperfect equivalence, as the sound of isosceles in Greek and English is not identical. Once again, inhabiting two languages at once brings about the issue of translation (see Van Dyck 2000).
9. On the notion of "doubleness" see Hall (1996).
10. Pioneer Cretan immigrants in Utah and Colorado, for instance, likened the regional mountain ranges with those in the ancestral island, producing affinity with the new place and thus alleviating the shock of their migration displacement. The meaning of place is denaturalized in the process of turning an American landscape into a point of reference for diaspora Cretan identity.

References Cited

Aaron, Daniel
1964 "The Hyphenated Writer and American Letters." Smith Alumnae Quarterly (July):213-217.
Gioia, Dana
1997 "What is Italian American Poetry?" In Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience, edited by A. Kenneth Giongoli and Jay Parini, 167-174. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. [End Page 289]
Hall, Stuart
1996 "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." In Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, 210-222. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Kalogeras, Yiorgos D.
1991 "Greek American Literature: Who Needs It? Some Canonical Issues Concerning the Fate of an Ethnic Literature." In New Directions in Greek American Studies, edited by Georgakas, Dan and Charles C. Moskos, 129-141. New York: Pella Publishing Company.
Kostos, Dean, editor
2008 Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry. Boston: Somerset Hall Press.
Leontis, Artemis 2010 "Ο Ανάνιος του Κλείτορα ζει πια στο Google" ("Ananios of Kleitor now lives in Google"). Review of George Economou's Ananios of Kleitor: Poems & Fragments and their Reception from Antiquity to the Present (Shearsman Books 2009). The Athens Review of Books 9 (July-August): 24-25.
Piñero-Gil, Eulalia C.
2002 "Ceremonies of Dialogism in Asian American Poetry." In Asian American Literature in the International Context: Readings on Fiction, Poetry, and Performance, edited by Rocio G. Davis and Sami Ludwig, 97-107. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
Tamburri, Anthony Julian 1991 To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate: The Italian/American Writer: An "Other" American. Montreal: Guernica.
Van Dyck, Karen
2000 "Greek Poetry Elsewhere." Gramma: Journal of Theory and Criticism. Special Issue on Contemporary Greek Poetry, edited by Michalis Chryssanthopoulos, Ekaterini Douka-Kabitoglou, Lizy Tsirimokou. 8:81-98. [End Page 290]

Yiorgos Anagnostou, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 2011

The Ohio State University

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