After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on John Sakkis’ book, The Islands, and was recorded March 8, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: The Islands’ first lineated lines (“you can’t skip a rock through / the house without starting fires // you can’t set fire to the beach / in the afternoon without boats”) quickly invoke, maybe just for me, perhaps as pastiche, parody and/or sincere point of reference, a whole poetry or poetics of the island or the archipelago. I hear echoes of stone-skipping openings by Kamau Brathwaite or Derek Walcott, let’s say. On the most obvious, thematics-based level, does any real or imagined poetics of the island have significance for you?
John Sakkis: Not specifically with those you just mentioned, but it does as a conceit for sure. When the question comes up “What is an island?” you might obviously go to “Every man is an island,” that cliché. But this book came directly out of traveling around the Cyclades with Brandon Brown back in 2005. We were invited to participate in the Paros Translator’s Symposium, put on by Susan Gevirtz and Siarita Kouka on the island of Paros. We planned our travels in such a way that the symposium would be the last leg of our trip, so we first had a month ferrying from island to island slowly soaking it all in. The book has its origins in thinking about “the island” as a psychological concept I guess, what it means to be a traveler/tourist, and in my case what it means to exist in my ancestral homeland feeling both at home and alien. I’m attempting to confront all of that. The poem you reference about skipping rocks sets the stage, the setting out of, or as Norma Cole says in her blurb “the once-upon-a-time of ‘one night, after the happily of dinner.’”
AF: Islands also call to mind isolated bits or interchangeable fragments, perhaps under the sign of Tangrams here, which appear multiple times. You just used the term “happily,” which I first connect to Lyn Hejinian. I picture modular units one can mold to form some composite project. And some of these poems emphasize the poetic line it seems, as in “such moths without sleeping / and days of one eminent / by means of / with scenes / of the box too mistaken.” Some pieces provide greater focus on individual words or phrases: “whistling, charging, calling, eraser, musical, horns, rampage.” What about these elemental, atomic units, these crystalline divisions and/or accumulations, draws you to them and to rearranging them?
JS: You mentioned the archipelago earlier. I was reading a lot of Edmond Jabès back then, The Book of Questions. That book was a model for me in the way he wove scraps, moments, thoughts, poetry and politics into this amazingly profound text—not an easy thing. That polyphonic way of composing was very attractive to me. You get that sense of accretive build-up, one thing leading to the next, kind of intuitive rather than explicit. So I was thinking about how one fits these kinds of disparate moments together to create the Book, the Book with a capital “B.” One way you do that is prosody, so the prosody in my book becomes almost paramount. Another way you do this is at that vernacular level. Being born and raised in the East Bay Area, my way of speaking tends to be hyper-regional, with a lot of slang, a lot of jargon. This naturally creeps into my writing in sometimes unexpected ways. It’s pleasurable to travel to New York or Los Angeles or wherever, to use this language that’s very rooted in my upbringing in the East Bay, and to sometimes see how that comes off as alien-speak, like speaking a foreign language. These lists, what you call “atomic units,” point toward my own thinking about how the language I use, choose to use, my “indigenous” language, can single me out as either an insider or foreigner, depending on the context, county or country.
AF: I guess people sometimes refer to the Bay Area itself as an archipelago, in terms of various overlapping/divergent poetic communities. But I hadn’t thought about Bay Area identity as islanded in relation to the rest of the country.
JS: Yeah, I have so many weird experiences of being someplace and having someone say, “Wait, hold on. What did you just say? Can you repeat that?” And I’ll repeat it and they’re like, “I’ve never heard that before.” And it’s just the slang I grew up with, right? We all have that kind of language, I don’t mean to privilege my own experience as exceptional. But that’s a really interesting moment when you have to realize that you are from somewhere, that your experience of the world is somehow rooted in an indigenous vocabulary. You’ve never realized it before, because why would you. It seems so natural. When I first moved to San Francisco from the East Bay back in the early 2000s I started hanging around a lot of dudes from Kansas City, Missouri. This is when I first started taking note of all of this language stuff. We’d be walking down the street. I’d say something and they’d be like, “Hold on, what?” It tripped me out; I was speaking English, but not their English.
AF: Bhanu Kapil’s new book considers the argot of port towns—how it always changes. This great heterodoxy of languages forms some never-static, composite, medley language. So when newcomers arrive, maybe the Bay Area idiom remakes itself too.
JS: I think so. Those guys definitely brought some of their KCMO-speak to the Bay, and yeah some of it rubbed off on me, so then you get this groupspeak which becomes this whole new lexical bonding thing. It may not be great to admit it but a lot of my day-to-day vocabulary comes from my teenage years, from when I was deeply involved in hip-hop, rave and skateboard culture. That stuff stuck with me. I’m 35 and I still use that language not even realizing it. It just comes out.
AF: I know the feeling. And here the seamless, elided, omnivorous, accumulative prose-poem passages delight me as well: “the two boys like a scrim of giant wings backing away from that serrated phrase ‘happily’ in the field the boys play with barbed wire on top of the table small fish fried with bread and oil out of the movies setting the long table with their own juices and bones to choke down before the boys find their seats,” and so on. Hearing this in my head, I’ll think of cinematic syntax in experimental film, like a Jonas Mekas film with one collage-based scene after another, or strange semantic substitutions in Hollis Frampton. One reference to “dog-star day” first started me thinking about Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. But at other times, I’ll just defer to your lovely phrase “a chewed up tart / of prose.”
JS: With those poems, the primary sense is the ear, absolutely. That comes from early conversations I’d had with people like Benjamin Hollander, who wrote this book called Levinas and the Police that’s very, very strange. It has a very staccato sound, a skeletal way of creeping down the page. When I first heard him read it it freaked me out. I had no idea poetry could do that.
So of course I aped that style for a year or so while studying poetry at San Francisco State. From there, I set out to figure out my own ear, my own music. My own ear happened to be this sort of longer, prosey, accretive ear. One sound definitely leads to the next sound which leads to the next sound; I’ve described it as “vowely.” I usually don’t know where it’s going as it’s happening, I just hold on for the duration. But you’re right. I think a lot of this book can be contextualized cinematically—or alongside experimental cinema. Like a Stan Brakhage short, with one image leading to the next creating its own kind of internal logic. That’s how these poems proceed. They flow. They’re a lot different (the way I compose them) than, say, the lineated poems. They’re really fun to do. I love when they come out and they work. But it’s kind of mystical to me too.
AF: Yeah in “The Cousins Sang an Insect Pastoral” (“In the summer as slick as snow melting / The summerhouse naps and snails / Still stewing”) we get insistent alliteration, rhythmic repetition, sound play still happening. But the compositional process seems quite different.
JS: You can almost scan that poem, right? Honestly, I don’t know where that poem came from. It’s not quite like the prosey poems but it definitely sings, right? I think it might be one of the only poems in the book that has that very hard metrical logic (but I think I have a sonnet later on, a loose interpretation at least). That poem gave me some trepidation: do I include it? Does it fit? If I’m telling a “story” with prosody, how does this strict meter add to that story? But in the end it didn’t really matter. I included it because of that Edmond Jabèsian way of composing, with anxieties something to be embraced—to embrace that kind of indeterminacy.
AF: Some lines or sonic plays seem more digitally inflected, such as “who introduced MAC-better Ling-Spam / ‘a publicly cost-sensitive collection of MAC- / better and legitimate from a mailing list on MAC- / better’ upon a salt of water / a slick,” or “BOTH BOTH says SYRACUSE in Benchmark corpus though we shouldn’t compete, less topic-specific than one might expect, such as the Reuters corpora we could find my family in the MANGAS Port though of course Ling-Spam was never actually called this.” And specifically in terms of the BOTH BOTH (your blog’s name) reference, I read an SF Weekly interview in which you mention hating the Internet. So could you parse a bit your peculiar, perhaps conflicted engagement with a poetics of the digital?
JS: A lot of those poems come from Internet research I was doing into my last name. There’s not many of us (but more than I had assumed) Sakkis out there. I’m related to most of them, and the ones I’m not I’m pretty sure I am somehow. It’s an odd Greek surname, distinct in that it has the double-letter kappa with the accent on the “eta” rather than the “alpha.” Most Greeks don’t know what to do with that. They ask where the hell my family comes from. So I was researching these Internet-Sakkis, this idea of a family history real and imagined right? The lines you quoted come from a guy named Georgios Sakkis, a programmer/coder from Greece. A lot of this is his language, from his dissertation I found online about spam blockers. I was also reading a lot of Theater of the Absurd at the time, Jean Genet’s The Balcony and The Blacks in particular, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, that language play, that breakdown in communication that’s kind of tragicomic. The act of communicating becomes something like a spectacle, a performance. So Georgios’s techspeak, which is so beyond my purview, then becomes a way for these two characters (OMG! and BOTH BOTH) to become a Greek chorus. They comment and talk to each other, but mostly talk over each other.
AF: Similarly, certain terms recur throughout The Islands, lacing together disparate elements, so that I can track immediacies of a single poem, but also feel placed back into the durational experience of the book as a whole. Could we address some of these terms individually or collectively, terms like “marble,” “fish,” “janky,” “sea salt,” “C-Town,” “antique”? Do they sometimes serve as loosely structuring principle, providing ambience, hinting at thematic content? Do you see them as sonic or formal ciphers, just kind of filling an opaque function within the work (I particularly like when such functions seem to overlap, pleasantly)?
JS: Yeah, there’s the book’s last line: “… all I’ve got to protect me is the marble …” Sonic cipher is a good way to put it. I think this is a kind of Michael Palmer move—to have those repeating moments, those repeating lines that happen throughout the book, that contextualize the poem. It kind of fucks with your brain a bit to be constantly returning to these words. They become charged words, anchor-words.
Also, the poems mostly don’t have titles (sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t). I’m usually not very interested in titles, even when writing a singular poem. And this definitely makes the book feel more like one continuous poem. It gives that accretive effect.
AF: Without titles sometimes I won’t know where one poem stops or begins. But I will encounter a concentrated idiom that clusters for a while and saturates parts of the book, or forms its own Book. Do you want to speak to those five basic parts (or Books) here? We could consider them standalone projects. We could consider them coordinated symphonic movements. We could call them sequential or tangential atmospheres or installations. But how do you think of those basic units?
JS: Those basic units work in kind of…it’s a narrative right? There is a beginning, sort of a three-part middle, and the end called “The Moveable Ones.” The way I’m looking at the beginning of it (Norma Cole got this right in her blurb) is that it’s kind of the origin story, the arrival. It’s the landing in a new country, a new territory, a new topos. How disorienting and how weird that can be. It’s the beginning of that fairy tale and what’s going to happen next. Then when we get to Leon Sakkis, which is another appropriated history, I’m starting to think about origins very explicitly. Then the same thing with Ioannes and the Archimedes experiment: who are these people? Can I appropriate this history for myself? What does it mean to write about/from this imagined history?
For Part Three, “Tangrams The New Collective,” well it’s literally about a friend of mine who passed away. It’s a dirge, in memoriam: “‘Farewell, cousin, here we’re frozen.” In Part Four we’re still in the middle area, but Part Four is “The Islands.” We actually get to them. That’s the travel. That’s the “every man is an island” we were talking about earlier, “The Moveable Ones” comes out of, among other things, war. It’s about homecoming. It’s about thinking about where I’m from, and how that made traveling in 2005 pretty intense. I mean this was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’m an American abroad and you have every Greek (and non-American tourist) asking you, “What the fuck is going on? Who are you guys? Where do you stand? Can we vouch for you?” It could be a very adversarial way of interacting with people. I’ve heard stories since then of Americans sporting Canadian flag patches on their backpacks just to avoid these kinds of confrontations.
AF: I remember it in France quite well.
JS: So you know what it was. Also in a way defending my country, defending not the government, but defending who we are as a people, like “What the fuck do you know about Americans?” It was a very interesting moment to try and navigate.
AF: Since you’ve mentioned Ioannes and Leon Sakkis, I guess “cousin” recurs as well. Emergent questions of family interest me here. You dedicate The Islands to your mother. Family references keep popping up. In relation to a poetics of the island or archipelago, where would you place either a poetics of the family or of friendship?
JS: Paramount. I think all my books are about friendship in a way. Thinking about friendship almost as an aesthetic interests me a lot. The scenes I’ve participated in throughout my life become the source for my writing. Not to get too corny or cute, but they are kind of like islands. I mean skateboarding is an island. Hip-hop is an island. Rave is an island. Poetry is an island, really. These are all subcultural blips in an ocean of interests, and that’s all of us. This is a human experience. But for me, none of these interests ever seem to bleed into each other, at least on a social level. My poetry friends were one thing, skateboard another, music another. There are partitions there, separate on purpose. I’d have trouble navigating if folks came together. But with writing I get to see a dovetailing, a commingling of all these disparate experiences. Those partitions come down for sure. Memory and language, pulled from thinking about the friendships I’ve had, are all fodder for the writing.
I think the family thing comes from … well one facet is that I’m the son of an immigrant father who came over here in the late 60s, 1969, in reaction to the political turmoil (junta) that was happening in Greece. So family, friendship, these are the most important things to me. I hold those relationships very close.
AF: You brought up the “Man is an island” cliché. It seems we’ve reached more of a “John is an archipelago” formulation.
JS: I never thought about it that literally, but I think that metaphor might make more sense. That’s also what you’re seeing in the book—these contrasts. Even in the photos, this Greek graffiti kind of becomes a phenomenology after awhile, like the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” thing from back in the 90s. You see one and then suddenly you see it everywhere. Once you see one GATE 7 spray-painted in red on the side of a wall, you’re going to see GATE 7 everywhere you go. It becomes this pathological thing you can’t avoid. And not knowing the context, the “what who why,” really makes it strange, fascinating and sort of alienating.
AF: It presents all graffiti as this elemental sign—which has to accrue meaning as it recurs for you as an individual within some given environment. I love this book’s photo sequences because they feel somewhat intrusive at first, but soon establish their basic binary logic. The pattern repeats several times: sculpted rock next to graffiti. Then that pattern gets broken a bit by apartment complexes (which look Tangram-like). These complexes sort of evoke the sculpted rock from before. So maybe you already have answered this, but could you say more about compositional strategies in which you first familiarize the reader with a certain rhythm we come to expect, then offer variations? Does the orchestral arrangement of images in The Islands indicate more broadly what happens with lyrics and with language in the book?
JS: It does. I think there’s a basic logic of juxtaposition going on. Also this leads to asking: how do you construct a Book versus how do you construct a book of poems? I think a lot of it has to do with realizing what that internal logic is. I think those photos definitely do anchor these sections in a way that can be helpful to the reader. It’s a big breath or something to kind of go with that litany of words or those very prosey accretive lines—this stopping point, this bookmark that suggests, OK now it’s time to move onto the next section.
Again, this book is composed with poets and writers on the mind, very much coming out of a West Coast poetics (the book as Book) that I was keen on at the time. I’d call it a Pacific Ocean poetics, if I can say that. It’s very Susan Gevirtz. It’s very Michael Palmer, Norma Cole. It’s very Benjamin Hollander. There’s this phrase the “analytic lyric” that I was very interested in at the time as well.
Michael Palmer gave a talk “Lyric Practice (Analytic Lyric?)” that was later published in a magazine called Pavement 7. Steve Dickison gave me a copy at the SFSU Poetry Center back in 2001-2002, though the magazine is older. Basically, Michael Palmer has this line where he describes “the taking over of the lyric concentration on the code itself, on the texture of language which is something that’s always been an intense focus in lyric poetry … taking over the condensation of lyric emotion and focusing it then on the mechanics of language.” So my response to that is: how to unfold the lyric? How to write a polysemic lyric, a polyphonic lyric? How do you still write through this “I,” the scrim of the “I” or whatever, but blow it out into…again this word “polysemy,” a polysemic way of reading and writing, an opening up and unfolding of what a lyric-based poetics signifies.
AF: Lyn Hejinian again might come into play.
JS: Sure, and part of what’s interesting about Lyn here is that these poets interested in the analytic lyric were coming out of the New College tradition, which, as far as I understand, was pretty…“anti-Language school” is too strong of a phrase, but there was definitely a contentiousness. I think that the analytic lyric (for a certain set of poets) was in a way a reaction to this getting rid of the “I,” to ditching that subjectivity. Mythology was important to these folks, history, as was the politics of the subject in the world. Paul Celan is pretty central to this line of thinking.
AF: Within the Bay Area, New Narrative definitely seems related if slightly different.
JS: But similar in relation to community. Especially because, from this far away, it seems like all of these groups hated each other, but they were all participating in the same community. The Bay Area is small. They were publishing in the same magazines (ACTS, Soup, Temblor to name just three examples). Sure there was vitriol, but folks were coexisting. I mean, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself—I wasn’t there, and I could be completely off, but reading the magazines now (I used to be a pretty big collector of mags from the era), you get the sense that though there was a lot of contentiousness, people were still reading and writing and listening to each other. It was just a really interesting time of poetics in the Bay Area.
AF: Well in terms of concentrated localities, we haven’t yet touched on Greece as concept or topic. Greece of course stands out as a heavily mythologized country, both for the grit of its present and the grandeur of its past. You’ve done extensive translation work, so maybe you already feel overtaxed in the role of American poetic ambassador to Greece. But do various iterations of Greece as idea still hold poetic potential for you?
JS: Yeah I think so. I think that comes from me not actually knowing the language. The way that I translate is with my co-translator Angelos Sakkis, who is my dad’s younger brother. I grew up with what you could call “restaurant Greek.” I grew up hearing it. I grew up with it around the house. I grew up seeing that alphabet my whole life. I grew up in the Greek church, with the prosody of divine liturgy that’s very natural and organic to me. But at the same time, the divine liturgy is in Greek. I can’t understand it on a literal level. So that’s a weird way to approach language and to hear language.
When I go to Greece I have a pretty good accent. People think I’m Greek until they start actually speaking to me conversationally. Then they realize I’m an American and I know like two words. I can ask for directions, maneuver in and out of certain basic situations (again “restaurant Greek”), but I’ve never felt like I belonged, or felt totally comfortable in Greece the way some children of immigrants might when they return to their parents’ homeland. I have lots of family in Greece. I understand the landscape of Athens and Piraeus to a certain extent—though they almost feel like dreamscapes to me, vague and distinct at the same time, totally foreign but familiar. My family lives on Vironos Street (Lord Byron is a great hero in Greece) in Piraeus. I know Vironos Street. But I’m definitely an outsider, and my lack of language has always bothered me. So with translation I get to feel that I’m accessing some kind of innate Greekness that’s buried maybe not too deep down. It’s pleasurable. Angelos is very patient with me. It’s a symbiotic relationship, our translation process.
AF: Here, if we want to think about how meaning gets shaped over time for you: what did the manuscript look like when you first turned it over to Nightboat, to Stephen? For your intricate arrangement of the five sections, how and when did that appear?
JS: This was a pretty different looking book in the beginning. I started this book, or a draft of it at least, while I was at Naropa, maybe around 2006. And then I moved back to the Bay Area and let it sit for a while. After I started working at SPD I began work on the book in earnest, lots of lunch breaks in my car on Seventh Street, working on draft after draft until that five-section structure emerged and made musical sense to me. I realized I had to have some kind of organizing principle to make this thing read the way I wanted it to read. So that came about maybe around the forth or fifth draft.
My previous book Rude Girl was a three-part structure, with a basic beginning, middle and end. But I realized this new book was too big, and trying to do too much, to have that three-part structure work. It was also helpful that Transmission Press, run by Logan Ryan Smith, published a piece called “The Moveable Ones,” which was basically the last section of The Islands now. That helped me think about how this book might work structurally—that it could work in separate parts as chapbooks while maintaining the integrity of the whole. Before I gave it to Stephen, it looked as it does today. It hasn’t changed since that first email where I said, “Hey Stephen, I don’t know if you’re looking at manuscripts right now but here’s this book I wrote …”.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling soon will release his ebook Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
John Sakkis is the author of The Islands (Nightboat Books, 2015) and Rude Girl (BlazeVOX Books 2009). With Angelos Sakkis, he has translated four books by Athenian poet Demosthenes Agrafiotis: most recently Y’es and Diaeresis (forthcoming 2015 from Dusie Press); their translation of Agrafiotis’s Maribor (The Post-Apollo Press, 2011), was awarded the 2011 Northern California Book Award for Poetry in Translation. He Lives in Oakland.