Steve Pantazis talks to the Manchester based Greek-Canadian poet Evan Jones regarding his poetry book Paralogues (2012). In this collection of poems, Jones explores Greek, Roman and Byzantine mythology and history appreciated from a contemporary outlook and drawn from his travels around the world, while he makes strong references to the visual arts of different periods.
Steve Pantazis: I would like to start with the title of your book. What does it mean and why did you choose it?
Evan Jones: The title is a transliteration of the Greek word, παραλογές, which translates into English as ‘ballads’. It is used in Greek literature to refer to a group of folk poems, some of which date back to the Byzantine era. The etymology of the word fascinates me, because it suggests that the ballad goes beyond [‘παρα-’] the logos, the word of God. Many of these poems concern mysterious, ghostly figures, the return of the dead from the afterlife. Very much like Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. Παραλογαίς is also the title of a 1948 collection by the Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris. In my book, I’ve translated and adapted a number of the παραλογές, particularly in the long poem which closes the book, ‘Constantine and Arete: an autobiography’. It is indebted to, among others, ‘Το Τραγούδι του Νεκρού Αδερφού’ [The Dead Brother’s Song].
SP: In your poems, I find strong connections with the visual arts. Have you been influenced by Greek Surrealism, for instance?
EJ: I think Greek Surrealism was a far bigger influence on my first collection, when I was translating the early work of Andreas Embiricos (1901-1975). Part of my interest in the παραλογές developed while reading two of his compatriots, Odysseas Elytis and Sachtouris (the latter of whom I’ve translated extensively). Both of these men – at one time or another connected to Surrealism – were influenced by the παραλογές and their poetry is full of references to them. The connection has to do with the supernatural elements of the παραλογές, and also their status as pieces of anonymous folk art. They are an alternative to the liturgical poetry of the Byzantine tradition (much of which is underrated and wonderful), an alternate road to modernity.
SP: In your first collection Nothing Fell Today But Rain published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in 2003, we find surrealist references, as we do in Paralogues. For example, in the poem “How I Became one of My Poems,” you start with Max Ernst’s Ubu Imperator (1923) and later you mention Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Does this last collection of poems share aspects of Surrealist poetry?
EJ: Fewer formal aspects of Surrealist poetry in Paralogues. Yet there’s a worldview I can’t ever escape from, because there are Surrealists who are very important to me – Breton, Char, Desnos – whose lines I can’t get out of my head (often in translation, but not always). The Surrealists were very good at questioning the mechanics of tradition, of canon, of culture. In that sense, ‘How I Became One of My Poems’ is surrealist – but it is also a satire. It mocks novelists, literary theory, the mechanisms of post-modernism – including and especially intertextuality.
SP: A number of your poems, such as “Little Notes on Painting”, “Portrait (Artist’s Model, Sleeping Nude)”, have direct connotations to the visual arts. In general in a number of your poems, I imagine you writing your poetry in a museum, gallery or artist’s studio. Have any of your poems been inspired by a specific artwork? Do the visual arts become the starting point of your poetry?
EJ: Yes, the visual arts can be a starting point. I see a lot of similarities between poets and painters, something to the necessity of skill and talent that both require. They are throwbacks to another time, part of traditions which are thousands of years old. And they have developed together over the 20th and now 21st centuries. One of the poems in the book is after Cy Twombly’s painting Death of Actaeon (1962 – 63). But even when a painting is a starting point, I’m conscious that there is no ekphrastic poem that doesn’t make me wish I was in front of the artwork. The poem must go beyond the starting point or else it is just homage.
SP: In “Little Notes on Painting,” you raise questions regarding abstraction. What is the role of ‘abstraction’ in this poem and overall in your work?
EJ: I suppose I’m teasing out a truth. Abstraction in the 1950s was an important reaction to the overwhelming symbolist-figurative tradition that had developed in the late 19th century and continued through the early part of the 20th century. (Poetry developed similarly at the time.) Many of those painters began as figurative-symbolists and moved towards abstraction. Their thinking and understanding of tradition brought them there. But, God, at this point am I ever sick of abstraction. It went from movement to trend, a sign of success but also the downward spiral.
SP: In “Portrait (Artist’s Model, Sleeping Nude),” you become somehow a painter as you describe your intention to unfinished the image of your model and the relationship that flourishes between you/painter and the model. Why do you choose the role of the painter?
EJ: At the time of writing that poem, I was reading Edouard Roditi, Conversations with European Artists at Mid-Century (1990). The poem is a kind of interview. But there are no questions – only the painter’s responses. It’s a sort of satirical dramatic monologue, mocking the painter and his object/objective of desire.
SP: Finally, why have you used Thanassis Bakogiorgos’ painting Thessaloniki (2006) as a cover image? Is this work linked to your poem “For One Whose Name God Knows”?
EJ: There are cities I love in this world, and one of them is Thessaloniki. It is a Byzantine city, and a Roman city, unlike Athens which has bulldozed its other histories to give priority to the ancient Greek sites. I lived in Thessaloniki for six months in 2003, and first came across Bakogiorgos’ paintings at that time. His unpopulated, neo-Byzantine cityscapes are sort of anti-haunted: two ships are sailing, but there are no sailors; the ruined walls of the city are fortified once more but no soldiers patrol them. It’s a painting of a city which no longer exists – painted long after it had ceased to exist. No person can live there. Not even ghosts of people.
I wrote “For One Whose Name God Knows” when I returned to Canada, because I had Thessaloniki in my head and the only English book I could find about the city was a scholarly study of Saint Demetrios, its patron saint. Demetrios is probably an import to the city – there are no relics of his in the church dedicated to him.
Εvan Jones has completed a PhD degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009 and his poetry book Paralogues was published by Manchester-based Carcanet Press in 2012.