In this interview from February 13, 2015, Jane Satterfield and Adrianne Kalfopoulou discuss interfaces of genre, biculturalism, motherhood, the plasticities of writing, eros, Sylvia Plath, and appetite.
Jane Satterfield: Let me first say that I adore the vertiginous ride that is Ruin. All those border-crossings—literal and literary—through rough terrain.
There’s a life that’s ruined by a country’s shuttered economy and the life that’s ruined and remade after a marriage has collapsed. But what seems to capture your interest most is the everyday collision of private and public life. Your title immediately brings to mind images of fractured antiquity; it also brought to mind Don DeLillo’s extended essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” which first appeared in Harper’s in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Would it be impertinent to see some kinship there in your questioning of narratives and your understanding of time as represented in history and art? Time as it’s fractured by travel and technology? Your book radiates through themes—evading, or gracefully side-stepping—the predictable, epiphanic narrative structure that seems to be the unavoidable hallmark of popular memoir. I’d love to hear a bit about the book’s backstory and birth pangs, how it found its final shape.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Jane, I feel very lucky to have this opportunity for a more public conversation with you, as your memoir Daughters of Empire, and your poetry too, have been important to me. Your question resonates with some of what I see in your handling of history in Daughters of Empire, that your approach was alinear, experiential, and through the body – the body in time – which as a woman has its own specificities of eros and the maternal. Time does become palimpsestic (is there such a word?) in Ruin. So much of it was written in medias res, and the act of writing through situations that felt overwhelming was a way to understand them in that “vertiginous” terrain –I love that you use the word to describe Ruin! I also wanted to interrogate hierarchies of meaning and see contexts of ruin as a dynamic; “ruin” as verb as much as noun, rather than “ruins” that suggests a done deal.
I found your title Daughters of Empire to be quite bold. And would like to ask about how it calls attention to daughters in the construct of empire as “fatherland” that’s also a space of silencings and erasure.
JS: That’s a great phrase—the body in time. I’m glad to have the chance to talk more about all this across our time zones, Adrianne. That was something I recall that was nearly impossible in the long-ago days of the mid-nineties in “Cool Britannia” where I lived with my newborn daughter!
You know, in many ways, I think the history of women writers is a history of writing against silence and erasure. I’m deeply conscious of the voices that have made the boldness of honest writing possible. Several things came together to inspire the collection’s title. When I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time,” I was struck by the vivid descriptions of colonialism’s imprint in her native Antigua—from the names of streets to revered literary descriptions of sunset that bore no resemblance to tropical reality, to the packaged goods (porridge oats, tins of Tate and Lyle) that were stamped with the seal “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” It was odd to think this was the very real stuff of my childhood in America, a troubling inheritance handed down by my mother whose sense of exile was, I think, profound.
Now let me ask you another question about structure… many of the essays reference the notes you take, the notebooks you keep. I’m thinking especially of “Travel Notes” but also “With My Daughter, Hannah Arendt, and the City of Futures,” where your daughter asserts, “This is my test, mom, not your essay.”
AK: Yes, the intrusion or interruption of the authorial voice struck me as odd, but as I wrote, it also helped bring attention to the act of shaping the text. I realize that risks overt self-consciousness but paradoxically it also allowed me to move beyond the self and consider it as another persona in the gallery, which was liberating.
JS: The daughter’s voice is the perfect intrusion. There’s an implied backward glance at the daughters we were (and are).
Two of your essays, “Gift-Giving as Exilic Baggage,” and “Spaces Stormed: Skype, Garbage, and Occupation” examine the cultural baggage we carry and the refuse jettisoned from our lives—the literal garbage that piles up in the streets of Athens. How does being bicultural shape your views on sustainability, whether away or at home?
AK: Oh, this makes me think of something else I’ve wanted to ask you about moments of liminality in your work, interfaces between places, states of mind, historical moments that create a border-sensation of their own. I’m thinking of “Letter from Exile: On the Origins of Souls” from your book Assignation at Vanishing Point, where I used the last lines of the poem as an epigram for “Spaces Stormed…” You often use ellipsis and dashes, they seem to speak for what is absent, or “jettisoned” to use your word. Could you say more about these lines – “Let others ascribe their peace to what they will…/Violent seas have swept me elsewhere./Which must be, for the moment, my reply.//” – the question about “elsewhere” is left open – is it “a text I can’t read”? as you say in “The Crooked Track” in Daughters of Empire.…
JS: Here’s why the line must have had such immediate resonance: I was inspired by letters from exile, particularly those written by Seneca, Plutarch, and Petrarch. I’ve always loved the way that letters collapse the distance between public and private discourse; these were no exception. I think I was paraphrasing or channelling that sense of catastrophic longing and desire to return to a place of rootedness, literally and figuratively. My poem was a farewell to a place and time, also a coded love note. Your “Spaces Stormed” is the same!
AK: I wonder if those of us who live in multiple cultural spaces aren’t occupying another sense of time altogether, something closer to dreamscapes, which are also open-ended and force us to experience reality in less fixed ways. Mary Cappello says that when she goes to Italy even the garbage there is beautiful to her… that resonated for me with a line in an 1848 letter of Margaret Fuller’s where she says “the Italian sun has wakened a luxuriant growth that covers my mind: this green may be all of weed; I hardly care, — weeds are beautiful in Italy.”
JS: It’s true. Weeds are beautiful in Italy. It’s the lush backdrop of landscape as much as it is the unfamiliarity, and the joy’s in learning to read a new text. The same might be said of dreamscapes.
I’m brought back to your question about my title… Sean O’Brien uses the term “inner émigré” in his writing about Carol Ann Duffy’s work to describe the experience of those who move from country to country within the U.K. (less a choice than an economic necessity) and whose sense of belonging is fraught. This was my mother’s family’s experience. England was her motherland, the place she abandoned when she moved with her American husband and daughter to the United States. When I heard about a charitable organization for women of Commonwealth birth—the Order of the Daughters of the British Empire—it also struck a chord that was unsettling.
Another thought about being bicultural. The person who shuttles between alliances and countries can often be viewed as a trespasser and critiqued for daring to comment on what doesn’t belong to her. Has this been your experience?
AK: Well that opens up the whole Pandora’s box on cultural belonging and entitlements. “Stolen Culture” tries to address some of that, but on a visceral level it makes me sometimes overly sensitive to discourses of appropriation and how one “sells” and buys into constructions of “otherness.” Right now we’re living the tragic consequence of not being able to speak across cultural lines, sometimes as inflexible as party lines. Very crudely, Germany sees Greece as negligent of its fiscal responsibilities, and Greece sees Germany as the sadistic task master.. of course it goes deeper than that, it’s about how aspects of the other are always incorporated into one’s psyche and how our projections implicate our traumas as much as our desires.
JS: Part of the beauty of Ruin is your willingness to invite readers into your readings of writers who interrogate our constructs of language, identity, and nationality. Are there other voices that have shaped you as an essayist?
AK: Yes, I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby and Men Explain Things to Me. I’ve come late to her work and have to thank David (Lazar) for introducing me to it. I’d also add that he has been a mentor to my work. Hotel Amerika published two of the essays in Ruin, and took the first piece I sent out in 2009.
JS: Solnit’s great. Wanderlust and A Book of Migrations were important to me in thinking about travel, too. Throughout Ruin, but particularly in the essay “Dislocated States,” where you are moving your daughter to an American university, you are attentive to the pieties of citizenship at this particular moment. How do you see the post 9/11 tension between desire for security and the innate American sense of freedom changing the global landscape?
AK: Wow that touches a vein … my biculturalism ends up making me feel pretty existential. I don’t think there’s any sense of ultimate “security” in the ways it is being articulated post 9/11. While I’ve lived in Greece most of my adult life I did live and work in NYC in the 80s, and it feels very changed… expensive, and gated. Homeland Security is all about bordering the borders when I think we should think more generously about what our common grounds are… the world as a porous (maternal?) inheritance & one in real danger because of our abuses to it.
JS: Speaking of finding common ground, one powerful aspect of your public life in Ruin in your persona as teacher. Would you say that displacement—traveling to different places and spaces—influences the way you approach teaching? I sense that you are wary that a teacher risks cultural imperialism. That the classroom is less a space for reinforcing social or political pieties but one in which your students join you in the turbulent work of essaying.
AK: That’s a lovely way of expressing the vocation… to “join in the turbulent work of essaying.” I do like to take risks in the classroom, and things sometimes backfire. I’ve had the gamut of party affiliations in a classroom and there were very tender and important moments of discussion about the history of, for example, Greece’s time under the Nazi occupation. I feel the most important thing I could give my students is a sense of confidence, and responsibility, for claiming voice.
JS: So the chorus resounds . . . While we’re thinking of voice, I have a related question. We’re both deep admirers of Sylvia Plath, and you’ve published a good deal of scholarship on Plath’s poetry. You’ve described the late poem, “The Courage of Shutting Up,” as a “deliberate attempt to articulate a diction that demonstrates the courage of not ‘shutting up.’” And in “Sylvia Plath’s Emersonian I/Eye,” you pay particular attention to Plath’s construction of personas that are “collapsing both grammatical and connotative distances between the speaking “I” and its surrounding.” Can you talk about other things you’ve learned from Plath—what makes her, in your view, an essential foremother?
AK: I think the ways she upends political and historical events, and puts them at the service of her subjective moments, is radical. Consciously or not women writers after her have inherited that permission. It probably began with Woolf (who was a major influence on Plath). But what Woolf does in To The Lighthouse, using the parenthetical moments in “Time Passes” to suggest ways history and circumstance can diminish the subjective narratives of our lives, also enlarges those subjectivities. Plath does that in “The Swarm”, and of course “Daddy.” And I think you’re doing that too in Daughters of Empire, and your fabulous poem “The War Years” and “Fugue.”
I really love how history finds itself in your work, how it braids into present moments –both in your poems, and of course Daughters of Empire, how even whimsically it impinges on consciousness. In part III of Daughters, there’s this sentence: “I’m charmed for a time by anecdotes of a group of intense Civil War re-enactors whose less intense peers have dubbed them “hardcores.”… —so while walking dusty trails toward Shiloh or Gettysburg, they replicate the gaunt and hungry look of the near-starved Confederate soldiers…” the speaker then goes on to change the water in a flower vase.
JS: I’m laughing a bit here because I feel that’s a prototypical scene from a novel, a kind of Downton Abbey moment that’s no less real for its artifice—the pageant of history set against the practical matters of a given moment! But I think you’re right. History’s always braiding itself into our present. Here I was thinking about admiration and worry about those who join a cause, the romanticizing of causes in life and literature, the damage that results, and the more banal facts of the lover’s annoyance at being left alone in the ruins of the moment…
AK: Speaking of being left alone in the ruins of the moment… living in Athens through these austerity years challenged a lot of us trying to speak out of the struggle not to feel silenced or completely weighed down by all the factuality… strangely (or maybe not so strangely) eros was sometimes the antidote – it surprised me, but then again it plays crucial roles in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and in Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, where the “lightness of being” seems in direct opposition to the weight of historical consequence. As a woman (and Plath again comes to mind) eros has a somewhat trickier role in trauma and/or political upheaval. I think Plath’s interweaving of eros and politics in “Stopped Dead” and “The Swarm” mines this interface. While you talk about rock music and punk in “When the Bad Boys Ruled Britannia” I kept thinking you were expressing some of these tensions: motherhood, eros, writing; I love this line of yours as you’re talking about the lasting effect of rock music, “There’s a powerful link to eros, of course… and also chaos.”
JS: Well, blasting loud music is a time-honored tradition! It’s such a visceral way of breaking silence and gathering kin. Maybe what we were both getting at here is the way that austerity makes pleasure more profound. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was an important book to me, along with The English Patient—they both mine the political topos of place and history you’re talking about. Characters negotiate eros and chaos; ideas of nationality or ways of belonging are destabilized and re-established. I like what you’re saying about “The Swarm” (Napolean gets his Europe, his “ton of honey”). And I’d add “Berck-Plage” to the list. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the post-war landscape; I also think of it in terms of Plath’s transnationality and desire to nudge a space for herself within the elegiac tradition.
Should we talk a bit more about motherhood? You’ve written deeply and honestly about this complicated state in both poetry and prose. Your poem, “My Daughter’s Eyes,” in Wild Greens ends with the dark observation that a divorced mother can “only translate so much” and elsewhere you describe it as “this sudden test.” There’s a clear connection between the maternal body and the body politic that’s explored more deeply in both genres. In Ruin, you’re particularly attentive to the divisions that grow between mothers and daughters—the archetypal bonds and fractures embodied in the Demeter/Persephone myth. Would you say that, early on, motherhood’s about being present and that later on it’s about letting go? Has this shift affected your approach to one or both genres?
AK: Yes, and how astute… I do think one of motherhood’s archetypes is that of being continuously bereft… I haven’t seen that explored as something that’s also very physical, traumatic in its physicality. We have a lot of literature about overbearing mothers (particularly from men), and Plath’s “Medusa” has its “eely tentacle!”… maybe the essay lends itself to this plasticity of the border –a point of identification and separation?
JS: Yes—when you say this, I think immediately of Woolf—novels as well as essays—that have mothered so many writers. And this reminds me of something else I’ve wondered. In Ruin, you take your readers into the marketplaces and back into your domestic space. Food—enjoying it with colleagues and loved ones, providing it for your daughter and her roommates in their spare Brooklyn apartment—holds deep resonance for you. I don’t mean in some fetishizing foodie way. But that the desire to nourish or be nourished is also accompanied by some anxieties. Would you say that it’s not so much the dangers of food in an anorexic sense, but the literal dangers of not having food that resonate deeply when you come from people for whom its very availability has been historically precarious?
AK: That’s interesting, the notion of never, or not always, knowing what will fulfill one, as a group, as a people. An essential part of parenting is to provide nurture, yet one of the failures of it is that inevitably your child will want something you can’t or won’t or didn’t know how to provide. I think that’s the fundamental anxiety. But what complicates the archetype of the provider for women is that it can reveal a deeper hunger of not having been adequately nurtured oneself. One of the hard challenges for me was to admit that and work it out in my writing. Capitalism in our day and the patriarchal constructs that feed it (I guess the pun is intended) have left us more hungry than sated.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou is the author of two poetry collections and a recent collection of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living (Red Hen Press 2014). She has been awarded Room magazine’s award in nonfiction, and a Notable Essay of the Year from Best of American Essays 2013. Currently she lives in Athens, Greece where she teaches at Hellenic American University/HAEC.
Jane Satterfield’s most recent book is Her Familiars (Elixir, 2013). She is the author of two previous poetry collections: Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic, as well as Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the William Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for the Essay, the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, the Mslexia women’s poetry prize, and the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from The Bellingham Review. She currently lives in Baltimore.