profiles in poetics: Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos


It is about the experiment: perspective, noise, color, architecture. Our perceptive cultural and personal constructs of these ubiquitous forms are assembled in the manners we use to interact with the world. Our minds receptively ingest messages of language and sound and image; of past translations and present ones. How does image interact with the mind when it juxtaposes language, informs it, builds it, sounds it? How does the participation of language and image shift to communicate beauty, intimacy, colonization, and or rape?

Eleni Sikelianos is a poet who dynamically composes the flexibly potent philosophical nuance of the experiment. It is here that sound and image and idea work at the level of a grain of silica, or cell. She tells us “It’s important to keep the borders permeable, [between genres] so that poetry remains in conversation with a world.” One that, at times is a “pointing up of that equivocal space between sensuality and aggression,” at times is, “holding a different kind of information, another way for the mind to pool.” A way, “to save the planet from human greed and folly.”

Eleni Sikelianos spent nearly two years traveling (often by thumb) through Europe and Africa (from London to Ankara, and from Haifa to Dar-es-Salaam). She has lived in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Athens, and now, Boulder. Her most recent books are Body Clock (Coffee House, 2008); a long poem in and around the history and sites of her home state, The California Poem (Coffee House, 2004); and a hybridized memoir about her father, heroin, and homelessness, The Book of Jon (Nonfiction; City Lights, 2004). Earlier books include The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls (Green Integer, National Poetry Series prize, 2003),Earliest Worlds (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, MN: April 2001), The Book of Tendons (Post-Apollo) and To Speak While Dreaming (Selva Editions). She currently teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Denver, and spends her days with her husband, the novelist Laird Hunt and their daughter, Eva Grace.

1.        Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Many.  Niedecker was important early on. Vallejo, Celan, H.D.  Of the living, Anne Waldman has been an incredible force in my life, poetically and personally.  Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Susan Howe, Barbara Guest, Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, are all women I studied with or came into contact with who shaped how I think about poetry and its worlds.  Early on, I had classes with Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger, so I’m sure they also had an impact.

2.        How has your own work changed over time and why?

It would be alarming if it hadn’t.  I’m currently less sound-driven and more concerned with logopoeia, or the ideas in the work.  I’m sure it will change again — maybe loop back, even.  I think I’m less afraid to convey something, but also have more world-dust in my head.

3.        Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I’ve been deeply influenced by prose (novels, in particular), music, visual arts and science.  The tonal or spatial arrangements in music and visual work, the accrual or deferral of narrative in Proust, ecosystems or cell function have inspired me as much as anything.  Poetry is my home site, though, so it always regroups in that house.  It’s important to keep the borders permeable, so that poetry remains in conversation with a world.

4.        What are your plans for the future?

To save the planet from human greed and folly.

5.        What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

The past twenty years… since about 1992, then.  I think it’s really different depending on where you’re looking — in what genre, in what country, in what publishing houses (and therefore, to some degree, in what economic structure).  In the gift economy of American poetry, the early 90s saw (to my mind’s eye) a generational dominance of awesome women poets — I’m talking about the women of my generation, born for the most part in the 60s — Lisa Jarnot, Claudia Rankine, Liz Willis, Hoa Nguyen, Juliana Spahr, Jennifer Moxley, Brenda Coultas, Marcella Durand, Jo Ann Wasserman, many others.  We’re kind of the ass-kickers of the so-called innovative scene in our generation.  (Not that some of the boys aren’t any good.)  There were a few generations of ass-kickers before us, laying the ground work, with different concerns — the Modernist women, the women born in the 40s (Anne, Mei-mei, Alice, Bernadette, Rosmarie Waldrop, etc.), who, as they were establishing themselves as poets, wrote from their specific set of social concerns.  In the culture at large, now, there’s such a disheartening backlash against feminism, and so little opportunity for women to take positions of real power.  Some lady poets need to kick in some political doors.

6.        Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Hmm, I don’t like to make taste-making gestures.  Of course, I think my former and current students are really good!

I’m completely enamored of a French novelist, Marie Ndiaye, who hasn’t yet been translated into English.  Her work unfurls in a very classic French, in the most dreary suburbs and outer towns, where completely bizarre things happen — a young woman goes home for her ancestor’s birthday, but nobody recognizes her, not even the dogs; a couple stays one day longer than usual on their summer vacation, and that is the moment when all the villagers turn surly and it storms nonstop.    European and African forms cohabit a new kind of atmosphere, one that seems raceless and terrifying, completely banal and piercingly specific.

7.        If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A writer.

8.        In your most recent book, The Body Clock, the poem “Cherry Tree/(The Rape),” examines the design of rape as it opens “a blossom unfolded its serrated kill”. Here, the bloom in the horror of quiet elegance seems to focus on the origin of body ripped open in blossom. In this juxtaposition we face the “sting of the flower, not / the bee”. And at the end of the poem, it is not time that is “misplaced,” but a “tiny, smog-dusted microscope”. How does this poem reflect on the perspectives of the origin of violence directed towards the body? Are you suggesting we access this topic alternatively?

Hmm, what am I suggesting?

Ravishment, for one.  Rapture.  The micro-sensual details of the outside world exploding in the individual sensing body.  (The “sting of the flower, not / the bee” echoes Sappho, who was [from what we have of her] frequently in a state of painful ecstasy.)  Perhaps a pointing up of that equivocal space between sensuality and aggression.

Maybe not in that particular poem, but elsewhere in the book, language as a kind of colonization, a kind of rape.

9.        Your work contains varying visual hybrid elements. In your book California Poem we encounter the form of page and language as it interacts with the art. For example, a palm tree landscape illustrated in chunky brush strokes is juxtaposed and in conversation with a quote about consciousness and the sea. We encounter diagrams, tables, and erasures including ripped photographs of the beach paired with a similar collage of images: “Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler, Heermann’s & Western Gull”. When you work with images, what is your process? Is the art its own poem response, does it come before or after? How does the visual image in your opinion affect the poem/book as if functions as an overall piece?

I have spoken in an interview with Jesse Morse about my sense of the visual elements as non-languaged parts of the poem, as holding a different kind of information, another way for the mind to pool.  But I think the images act a bit differently in each book, and that description is probably most true of The California Poem (in which the images are mostly by others).  In Body Clock, the images (which I made myself) are an enactment, and in The Book of Jon they might be a kind of evidence (not quite illustration).  The process for each is very different.  In The California Poem, I was writing with visual aids that I later realized were a part of the poem (an example of that would be the plank road in Death Valley), then I collected archival photographs, and asked artists to make work in response to the poem, which then changed the poem.  In Body Clock, the images are the poems — the ones that inscribe hours; I think of them as the nucleus, the engendering point of the book, even if I wrote some of the other poems first.

I have a book coming out in the spring [2013] that contains only one image (a cropped view of Proust’s dead eye).  Yet another book, almost done, is stuffed with images, mostly from my grandmother’s scrapbook from her burlesque circuit.

10.    In The Book of Jon, a hybrid memoir about your father, heroin, and homelessness, one of the first poems we meet is “Notes Towards a Film About my Father”. We are asked to read the poem “WORDS (WHITE) ARE FLASHED QUICKLY ON A BLACK SCREEN IN RHYTHMIC SEGMENTS:” The poem continues, “My father taught me / how to drive / but I slammed on the brakes / too hard / and almost broke / my brother’s nose. / I saw my father / approximately once a year / after that. / Maybe you know this / story.” The lines are bricked in a black background with white text. The line breaks that I quote here are overlaid with additional line breaks functioning as the flashing “rhythmic segments”. Can you discuss the form of this poem and the necessity of layering, density, and motion? I am also interested in the familiarity of the concept of story and how form addresses the universals and particulars of our relationships to intimate stories.

This could not have existed in any other form.  I’m not sure I think of it as a poem.  Maybe a visual poem, but really more as a paper film.  Its discovery as such comes of my search to embody the words in substantially felt ways.  It also comes of allowing notes towards another medium (I really did imagine this as a film, but once I realized I probably wouldn’t make said film, I settled for this) into the book.

Form allows us to re-enliven language and what it carries — story, emotion, bewilderment, flux, etc.  It is the psychic shape to the medium (language) that might otherwise carry any old thing along.  I mean one might at times want language or a poem to carry any old thing along, but one of the roles form performs is to sharpen the psychic intention and reception.  By “intention” I don’t mean to say that the writer will know what she “wants to say,” but that she will find a way to carry something across, just as a blue rectangle on a page is carried into the mind more readily than a blank page.  (Mallarmé’s blank spaces are like the blue rectangle, also something carved out, that carry intention and cognitive/precognitive rhythms to the reader.)  It could be interesting to think about color studies in this context — for example Chevreuil’s discovery that a grey square inside a green ground will make the grey go pink.  When we juxtapose “forms” there is a kind of third (or better: other) place for the mind to float — a further possibility of meaning or perception.

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