Poets Adrianne Kalfopoulou and Alicia Stallings have been friends for nearly twenty years. Stallings’s collections are Archaic Smile, Hapax, Olives, and Like. A translator of Lucretius and Hesiod for Penguin Classics, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. She has lived in Greece since 1999 and is married to the journalist John Psaropoulos. Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s books include the poetry collections Passion Maps, Wild Greens, and A History of Too Much and the essay collection Ruin. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, she heads the department of English and modern languages at Deree College in Athens, where she has lived since 1989. After years of hanging out and giving readings together, their friendship entered a new stage in 2016, when refugees fleeing violence in Syria and the Middle East began flooding across the Aegean to Greece. Kalfopoulou and Stallings found that their relationship to the city, and to each other, underwent a transformation as they became increasingly caught up in volunteering with refugees at a self-regulated squat outside of the organization of official government or NGOs. They converse here about how this has affected their lives, friendship, and writing.
A.E. Stallings: The squat, one of many in Athens, opened in March of 2016 in an old abandoned school building on the edge of Exarcheia (a neighborhood known as a haunt of anarchists). A group of us were there on the day families moved in. Kastro, who helped to found the squat, is a Syrian painter, and immediately encouraged our doing art projects with the kids, as well as English lessons. Karen Emmerich, the translator, was among those who helped set up the squat, preparing the abandoned building to house families. Our own group has had a surprising number of writers and archaeologists and artists and academics. I like that we all feel that the arts are important, that people need more than just practical support, but things to feed the soul, to brighten the gray of limbo and the toxic boredom of being in between one life and the next.
People move in, and people move out, families from Syria and Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, even Somalia and Pakistan. They have all come over on the expensive and dangerous sea crossing from Turkey. Some of the littlest were born here in Greece. The children speak a variety of languages: Arabic, Farsi (Persian), Dari, Urdu, Turkish, French, English, Greek. English and Greek become something of a lingua franca.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Our group of sporadic volunteers at the squat is something of a “conspirator-collaborative” effort. We go to a school, or a building that was once a school. When we first went, there were families sleeping in the hallways. There was an aspect of urgency and desperation that now feels more settled (fewer families, certainly no one sleeping in the halls). Maybe this feeling is a consequence of our ongoing involvement that’s become something of a routine, albeit not always routine, given any number of unpredictables like bus and taxi strikes.
Stallings: There is certainly something that feels a bit conspiratorial about volunteering in a squat, which, while it isn’t illegal by Greek law, is outside the usual order of things. Something conspiratorial can be positive, of course—“conspire” comes from the Latin for “to breathe together,” and to “collaborate” is to work together.
Strangely, there’s a normalcy now to the chaos, which at first was really shocking—especially when you realized that no one was really in charge, and it was also strange to just step in. Becoming involved, however tangentially, with solidarity movements, where the philosophy seems to be, let people do what they want to help, and as long as they are helping, let them just get on with it, without criticizing it or trying to change it—it was such an interesting method, yet in many ways it worked.
People who were good at getting funding did that; people who were good at organizing warehouses did that; people who were good at organizing food delivery (like Stephanie Larson) did that; people who were good at distributing did that. As writers, we ended up naturally gravitating toward art and creation, and, as mothers, toward children and families.
I think for both of us there was an element of witness, too—this was something happening in our town, and as writers we felt compelled to go down to the port and take in what was happening with our own eyes and ears and noses. That time in the spring of 2016 was so intense—I sometimes run into people who were volunteering at the port at the time—and they too speak of it with staring eyes and talk about the adrenaline and exhaustion.
I remember Halina being with a Syrian family overnight as the mother gave birth at the hospital. Or Maureen at the port almost round the clock. I remember taking an urgent phone call from some Greek volunteer I barely knew to come by the house to get clothes for a four- and a six-year-old because the shops were shut and the mother was in hospital, and somehow the volunteer knew I had kids. I think the involvement and commitment were contagious somehow, so it didn’t seem crazy, because other people were doing it. Everyone eventually had to take a step back when we realized this was not just urgent, but was becoming something chronic.
Kalfopoulou: Yes, and also chronic, as in being obsessed with the next news update. In my notes from those early encounters are a series of statements like, the refugee is always becoming their shelter, and they have biblical names and they come from ancient lands, Ishmael, Ilias, Ibrahim… as in the Bible they carry with them what is most precious, including their children. When I went to see Narghes’s and Ibrahim’s family at the Malakassa camp after they’d moved out of the squat, they took me on a picnic. All around the camp of mostly Afghan families, people had spread sheets and blankets and were cooking meals and eating. Children and adults were playing ball and walking. I had such a sense of the community’s ability to take pleasure in the moment; there was nothing that felt deprived or apologetic about being in their particular situation.
We carried the pot of boiled rice and a jar of lassi (a kind of yogurt drink) and plastic plates and cups to the fields. People greeted each other and smiled as we passed, and I was introduced as a guest. I thought, if only this could be a template for how we might inhabit our planet, each in our particular cluster of family and friends who invite and greet one another. There was something that felt very old and very familiar, despite our languages being different. In fact, the language differences didn’t feel like a barrier as we sat and shared food and the day’s good weather.
Stallings: Biblical names are also Quranic—but yes, it was somehow always surprising to run across an Ahab or a Yusef or a Sara or a Miriam.
I think one of the things we have realized is that it is important to the refugees to be able to offer hospitality, to be able to give and not just receive. Human dignity seems to be about what you can offer others. Even if it is just a cup of tea, it is important that it is offered and accepted. There is a wonderful quotation out of Byron about the definition of a kind of happiness (which would certainly hold true for Syrians we have met—or Afghans or Kurds for that matter, who are not Arab):
_____ An infant when it gazes on the light,
_____ A child the moment when it drains the breast,
_____ A devotee when soars the Host in sight,
_____ An Arab with a stranger for a guest…
I am also touched when refugees take photographs or videos with us or of us to post to their Facebook pages or to share back home. So often they are the object of being looked at, and it is nice instead to be seen by people. (“Here we are in Europe, with these zany ladies who are singing songs with the kids!”)
Kalfopoulou: I know you have picked up some Farsi, and along with your love of ancient tongues, it’s brought an added layer to your poetry. Your poem “Refugee Fugue” has a section called “Appendix A: Useful Phrases in Arabic, Farsi/Dari, and Greek” that takes a somewhat wry stance to the kinds of “welcome” encountered in the language of various bodies, parsing down to one-word lines: “Pharmacy / Medicine / Hospital / Doctor / Tent / Sorry, it has run out / We do not have it now”—this seems to be a comment on the shortcomings of institutions and their discourses: categories like “Foreigner” and “Friend” followed by “I am hungry” suggest collapsed hierarchies, and remind me of something the philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle says in conversation with Jacques Derrida on the subject of hospitality. “Beneath our very eyes, the political has disintegrated in the subtle coils of that new economic value, efficiency, with it wiping out traces and imprints.” I love the idea of people leaving their “traces and imprints” in the wake of devastations that would otherwise annihilate them.
I know that as some of the families we’ve come to know move on to northern Europe, their traces and imprints have contributed something to our lives. Their examples have taught me something essential about resilience, a rather old-fashioned sense of gratitude, but also—and this was a little surprising to me—an ability to judge some of the challenges in my own life and to deal with them with more detachment.
Stallings: You are much better on theory than I am. I confess I am fascinated by the languages. Even the names are fascinating to me—Narghes I realized at some point meant Narcissus. I haven’t gotten very far with any of them, but I like being able to say a phrase or two in Persian or Arabic or Kurdish. Mostly, it just amuses people—they are tickled I am making an effort. And as a classicist, it gives me a thrill to see these languages and scripts crossing and recrossing in history.
It has been making me think a lot about the importance of asylum in ancient literature. Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, which might as well be called “The Asylum Seekers,” is about women who have sailed to Greece from Egypt. The chorus talks about the women’s headscarves and appearance, their language, all the same fears and racism that you can hear now. I went to a lecture by Geoff Bakewell (who has also come to the squat with his family), and he translated the Greek word for headscarf as “hijab,” to a kind of gasp of recognition from the audience.
Yes, I too find that seeing their resilience and, somehow, hope, has been very grounding, putting other kinds of concerns in a lot of perspective.
Kalfopoulou: You’ve reminded me of what Narghes explained to me once, that one could tell a Syrian from an Afghan woman by the way her hijab was wrapped. She said that the Afghans had looser scarfs, less tightly wound around their faces. Details like that have made me more attentive to the nuances of difference. Another example is in how the Afghan children immediately took off their shoes before stepping on the blanket or sheet we’d spread on the ground for the activities we were doing. This wasn’t always the case with Kurdish kids. One young boy thought I was being odd by asking him to take off his shoes. From his perspective it was a probably bizarre request, as he was outside in the playground.
Being close to some of these lives has made me reassess how we judge certain things, in a western way. For example, how we define success and what kinds of acknowledgment we give for work done. I think of Kastro and so many of the others who spent weeks and then months trying to unclog the drains of the school building. That there was no formal thanks beyond the satisfaction of finally, almost eight months later, getting the drains working again.
I know you’re a full-time writer and translator and mother and wife, and very disciplined and focused on your projects. You make the time every week to go to the squat and bring things to the families, and I love how we then go with Judi and Eirini or Marie for a coffee afterward, which always seems a part of our work together, the time we make to connect with each other as much as the families at the squat. It seems we would have all been so much less effective without our post-squat chats and coffees to discuss things from the bread delivery to donations for dental work on some of the children’s teeth. I usually have to steal the time away from my own school, where I’m generally overwhelmed with full-time teaching and administrative work, yet if I don’t manage to get to the squat during the week I miss it, the children especially.
Something Derrida says, which Dufourmantelle quotes, seems resonant with our collaborations and what I think of as our rather porous exchanges with each other and with the people at the squat. “‘To offer hospitality,’ [Derrida] wonders, ‘is it necessary to start from the certain existence of a dwelling, or is it rather only starting from the dislocation of the shelterless, the homeless, that the authenticity of hospitality can open up?’ Perhaps only the one who endures the experience of being deprived of a home can offer hospitality.’” I love this idea of shelterlessness being part of what draws us to offer what we can when we can.
It’s interesting to think about spaces and how we live in them, and the differences between the government and NGO-run camps versus the squat. The most obvious is privacy. In the container houses of the camps, every family gets a bathroom and cooking space of their own. Yet when I’ve visited the Malakassa camp, where Narghes and her family were before being relocated to Switzerland, and the Elaionas camp, where Henieh and her family have moved, there were always others in the room, small as it was—a two-room home with a cooker, fridge, and sink in the one room and usually a bed in the other, and a bathroom between them. What was noteworthy to me was when the meals were shared, Henieh and her young girlfriends and women from the neighboring container houses would come in, sit, and chat, bringing their children with them.
Stallings: When I ask myself what keeps us going back, part of it is the casual yet ongoing commitment to show up, and knowing others will show up.
I think one of the things we’ve realized is that although everyone who has reached Greece has done so through great risk and danger and expense, once they get here, the unforeseen danger is boredom. We can’t alleviate much—though there are members of our group who deliver food and so on—but we can try to alleviate some boredom.
In English, I can think of at least two words that have to do with dispelling boredom: “entertainment,” which is about holding the attention, and “recreation,” which is a light word in English but one with a deep resonance. Likewise, you could say there are two words in modern Greek—diaskedasi, which has to do with scattering, distraction, and psychagogia, a word straight out of Plato and Socrates that means “to lead the soul.” Art, including poetry, can distract or hold the attention for a little while, but it is also about recreation and leading the soul.
I’ve been thinking about how, as writers, we are all about communicating, and yet here is a space where we’ve had to communicate largely by getting around language. And how eager the kids are to communicate, and how they work around language too. The desire to create, which obviously we have as writers, has been translated into creation that is instead of language—the tactile creations with playdough or masks or drawings.
Kalfopoulou: I love the collaborative drawings, showing them the beginning of something and then their coming up with their own ideas and colors. We see the care they’ll take. I’ve been so moved by how important it can be to a child to draw and color and craft things. Like Ali, who put together a house of felt scraps I had for another activity. He said “for you” and showed me how he’d made a door and window. They take such pride in what they’re doing. They so love it when we tape them to the walls or banisters in the schoolyard. And some of them have been amazing—houses floating in the middle of nowhere, faces with large tears, bright flowers. And that drawing Ali’s sister did for you of the flowers with their root tendrils showing, uprooted.
Stallings: Photo essays of the same squat have appeared in New York Times and in National Geographic, and I almost don’t recognize the place. Your photos are always saturated with colors and movement, and these were gray and static. I think of us as word people, but you have taken such terrific photos and done such rich, colorful art projects. How has the visual element entered your work? Has it always been there, or is this something that has been affected by the crisis?
Kalfopoulou: It all started very spontaneously. Remember when Henieh took my iPhone and was snapping pictures of us? She ran with it, chasing the pigeons, clicking the phone, which she was incredibly savvy about using, even at five. I have a picture somewhere where she’d taken my sneakers. The photographs started to build their own narrative as we posted them on the Facebook volunteer page you set up.
When I was trying to write the essay “Left Behind for a Square of Space,” I was feeling challenged by how to approach the subject of shelterlessness without sounding melodramatic or gratuitous or like I was stating the obvious. I was certainly a guest in a family’s “square of space” when I was invited in for chai or food or simply to sit. And I was very conscious of the fact that I was being offered the special pillow or the place on the mattress, while everyone else was on the floor. I would say no and then realize that it was the wrong thing to say, as this was an offering. A pillow or mattress was indeed a special thing. I felt newly appreciative of them in a way I might not have if I were just observing it all from the outside, or if we were less frequent visitors. So maybe the color you mention has to do with the experience of a kind of immersion in their world.
Stallings: One of the things that has struck me is the universality of certain kinds of games—cat’s cradle, for instance, or jump rope.
Kalfopoulou: And you’ve introduced baseball and “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” which is now a universal with the kids. I was thinking of how the fact that we repeat these games and songs has established something of a routine. And when people are uprooted or displaced, particularly children, patterns make for a kind of ballast. So when there’s a gesture of gratitude, when the kids offer us their drawings or the parents bring us tea, these overtures house us too in that they express a kind of sheltering of the human.
Stallings: I think we’ve also seen that while the situation is often squalid or depressing, there is still somehow the resilience of joy even in the midst of the waiting. A necessity maybe of being in the moment, as people are caught between the past and the future. Remember that time the kids built an airplane out of chairs and we all flew somewhere? I don’t want to minimize the suffering, which I think we can’t fully understand (maybe thankfully), but it seems a lot of pieces written about refugees are very dire and depressing, and one of the things that has been interesting and revealing to me is how (obviously I guess, but maybe not) these are all individuals, and they want to be seen as people, not as sad cases.
Kalfopoulou: Maybe that begins to answer why it matters that we go the extra length to accommodate particular needs. Azize used Maedeh as her translator (who at that time might have been twelve and was the only Afghani on the first floor who spoke English) to get help for four-year-old Henieh’s teeth. Quiet as she is, Azize really wanted to find a way to fix the teeth. Azize kept saying that Henieh’s mouth smelled badly. She communicated this with a facial expression after showing me Henieh’s top row of blackened teeth. But without someone like our friend the poet Mark Sargeant, her teeth might never have been fixed. His generosity has been unflagging. Now there’s someone whose collaborative conspiracy feels like the work of a saint.
This incident reinforced for me the way that the “irregulars,” which is the name you gave our rather anarchic group, have found ways to pool our various idiosyncratic contributions to make of these grassroots initiatives something of a collective effort. Our proximity to the families and their particular needs, from hair dyes and shoes to baby clothing and blankets and watercolors and glitter and nail polish, have made for an intimacy, even a domesticity. And I do mean domesticity; that is, the ways disaster and trauma are able to domesticate themselves both fascinate and console me.
Stallings: Yes, one of the ways this crisis has become very humanized and personal for us has been in what people have asked us to help them get. Much of it is about feeling presentable, pretty, human. Hair dye was one of those surprises. And I can’t bear seeing kids without proper shoes. But it’s funny, what the kids ask for is just exactly like kids anywhere. Legos (although that was a bit of a disaster—it turns out refugee parents aren’t wild about stepping on Legos in the night either, plus they ended up in the drainage system), fidget spinners, slime!
Kalfopoulou: Isn’t that a metaphor? Legos in the drains. And they found dolls as well when Kastro et al. were trying to unclog it. There they are again, the children, managing to corral us back to the fundamentals. I do love that we’re asked to bring hair dyes and face creams. I remember when I’d just met Maedeh in the playground, she was very explicit about asking for a particular cream for her mother, who had sun spots on her skin. At the pharmacy, the woman told me I couldn’t have it without a prescription. I asked her what it was for, and she said it was an advanced form of skin bleach. I realized this had resulted from their exposure to the sun on the boat and during their travel. It was very moving.
As were the times we spent on the playground just opposite the squat, behind the church. Some evenings when I visited, they wanted to go to the swings. Narghes. Maedeh. Henieh. Sometimes Narghes’s twin Unes as well. Henieh was all of four at that point but already the energy powerhouse she’s always been. We were on one of the playground springboards, and Narghes was jumping on it with all her weight to get as much of a bounce out of it as possible, and Maedeh was saying, “We’re in the sea! We’re in the sea!” And then, so spontaneously, as they were giggling and bouncing, she said, “We want water to drink and they say no water.” It caught me completely by surprise to hear that in the midst of their play.
I know your daughter Atalanta has come to the squat several times and done different activities with the children. And I took Maedeh with me to one of my Korina’s shows when there was a performance at the theater. It’s interesting to me, this desire to include the children in a larger, normalized sense of what we would do with any child of our own.
Stallings: My kids (now fourteen and nine) have been alert to the refugees in Athens since 2014, when there was a small group of maybe twenty Syrians camping out on Syntagma Square and protesting the civil war and their treatment in Greece. Jason noticed the kids and asked a lot of questions about them. Many were his age. They looked and dressed like him (my kids could be Syrian by appearance; it is the Mediterranean genes that have dominated), but they were in tents. I had to explain the war, and that they had had to leave their homes. We agreed that the kids were bored, and maybe we should bring some crayons or a ball. To be honest, at that time I wasn’t sure that wouldn’t be taken the wrong way, as condescendingly charitable. But we never got the chance. The police scooped everyone up overnight and took them into detention. Some people evidently lost their papers in the raid. After that, I thought I wouldn’t let some scruple prevent me from trying to offer what I could.
In 2015, before I was at all involved, John took the kids—and his mother—to the Elaionas camp. He took some pictures of Atalanta coloring with other girls her age and Jason playing soccer with an Afghan boy. The kids have also come to the squat.
I’m impressed with how quickly children can figure out a way to play together. Atalanta loves to go to the squat, because somehow she only sees the positive side (kids her age, activities) and not the squalor and uncertainty. Maybe she also connects with the fact that the kids have foreign mothers who speak something other than Greek. I think it also humanizes us for the families there to see that we are mothers.
I have noticed over time that I tend to bond (if that is the right word and not overstated) with boys my son’s age and girls my daughter’s age, even as those ages change. Right now I am very aware of the teenaged boys who may look tall and grown-up and are rather diffident about participating in activities, but who are missing their moms and are anxious about their future; how people think they are older than they are.
The squat is a very different situation from Melissa Migrant Women’s Network, where I run a poetry workshop with refugee women in what is more of a safe and organized space. There I am again very aware of the girls who are close to Jason’s age, how, on top of the difficulties of being refugees and foreigners in Greece, they are having to negotiate all the difficulties of adolescence. I’m particularly interested in those who have decided that Greece is the place for them, who are aiming to make a life and a future here, how they have embraced some aspects of Greek life and yet struggle with it. This I imagine is something we both recognize in ourselves!
Kalfopoulou: Indeed, and it feeds into our poetry, I think. At a conference on poetry and melancholy at the University of Stirling in Scotland some years ago I heard a young scholar reference your work, citing a certain alienation in being a foreigner in Greece. I thought about that particularly in terms of your love of Cavafy, and the version you’ve done of his poem “The City” in your group of poems called “Exile: Picture Postcards.” This alienation also inspired my poem “This City.”
In some ways I feel like Cavafy’s Alexandria and our Athens share the sense, as you say, of a “Levantine” world. But the reality of living in a city ravaged by austerity makes Cavafy’s line καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις (“you won’t find new lands”) all the more chilling in light of the refugees who have come looking for a new city or “topos.” The suggestion, too, that one’s city, as one’s past, will always follow one—
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί (“the city will follow you”)—is its own clarion call.
Stallings: Besides that translation of “The City,” I also ended up doing a very free version, which basically transposes the words of a young Syrian man we first met at the squat, who had been studying English literature back in Syria. We were talking, and he suddenly said, in English, “I want to go to another land,” which is hard to hear in Greece as anything other than an allusion to Cavafy, even though it was just a flat statement of his longing and desperation.
Kalfopoulou: Your fluency in received forms has challenged me to experiment more, as I don’t generally write in form, but triolets especially became something I grew a bit obsessed with as I started to write them.
Stallings: You actually do a lot with form—including ghazals, which I’ve never managed, although you’d think given the languages we are interacting with now I would try one. One of the women who takes the poetry course at Melissa has a daughter named Ghazal. Her mother wanted to explain the name to me—she translated it into English as “love poem.”
Something that has impressed and challenged me throughout the crisis is how you’ve written directly about it in real time, not only in poems but in lyrical essays and blogs. That has helped me think about how to write about things as they are happening. The impulse towards witness does not need to be at odds with the lyrical impulse.
Kalfopoulou: Since the involvement with the squat I’ve felt as if language itself has come under a new rubric: we gesture and communicate across its borders, or despite them. As you said earlier, we’re trying to communicate by getting around language. And it does make for a more tactile interaction. We might touch more, squeeze hands, gesture; we might make more conscious facial expressions. And then when we speak, I feel that despite the simplicity of the phrases, they become more resonant. Some of them have moved on, and when I’m online talking to Narghes in Switzerland or Maedeh in Sweden, something like “I’m good” or “I miss you” feels a lot more invested.
Stallings: We’ve been asked whether we think of ourselves as writing a “poetry of witness.” I haven’t actually written much poetry about the situation. (I have written some poetry, epigrams on the drowned, for instance, but that is not strictly witness.) I have rather written literary journalism of witness, which right now feels more honest to me, as I am not sure I can process most of what I see as poetry, although maybe that is starting to change.
We have met poets—two poets in particular fleeing from Iran—and I’m interested in what they are writing. What I have felt sometimes is that I am inside a poem, particularly inside Cavafy poems, where exiles from Syria and other places are speaking. I find myself going back to and translating Cavafy poems that talk about this Levantine, Cavafyian world we are inhabiting here.
You said, “I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.
I’ll find another city. One that is better than this.
Here my every effort is sentenced to fruitlessness,
And here my heart’s entombed, as if it were a cadaver.
How long will my mind loiter in this wasteland? For wherever
I turn my eyes here, whatever I look upon,
I see the black wreckage of my life, all the gone
Years I frittered away, destroyed, wasted utterly.”
But you will find no other lands, no other seas discover.
This city will pursue you. The same streets, you will follow.
You will grow old among the neighborhoods that you know now.
Among the same houses, you will turn gray. Forever
You are coming to this city. Do not expect another.
For you there is no ship. There is no road for you
For as you’ve wrecked your life in this small corner, so too
You have wrecked your life the whole world over.
Translated from the Greek by A.E. Stallings
_____ After Cavafy
“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.
I’m afraid to apply for asylum here. I’ll end up in the street,
With no place to go, nowhere to lay my head, nothing to eat.
I was working on a degree in English literature in Damascus.
And now, what’s to become of us? Nobody ever asks us.
No one cares. Europe is dysfunctional disorder.”
But you can’t get to another land, you’re never going on.
This is your future, where so many others are unemployed.
The smugglers will sell you lies, their faux passports are void.
Your Arabic is native-speaker, naturally; you speak
Excellent English. But to these skills, best add demotic Greek.
Here among this urban squalor, maybe, you’ll grow gray,
If they do not deport you back to Turkey, if you stay.
Time waiting is time running out, youth spent’s forever gone.
_____ After Cavafy (& A.E.S.)
The ruins urge you to find a new city,
look for another shore. Even the broken finger
of a still white statue in the park points
westward. You could take that advice,
travel, find your way far from the hungry,
the shut-down stores, hope for another life.
But you are mesmerized by the ignited people
and that priest or bishop in the park,
missing half his finger (who knows what his story is,
a thrown rock aimed for the statue’s face
hit his raised hand instead?)—they won’t leave you—
the gouged marble, the graffiti scrawls,
the statue standing like something outraged
remind you, you who yearned to live beyond this,
that hope marked you, too.
Kalfopoulou: I agree that it’s hard to write poems about something as current—and overwhelming—as the refugees, though I’ve made attempts, and there are two poems in A History of Too Much. Like you I’ve mostly written prose, as well as two photo essays. I’m often confused by the impulse that has me going to visit the families. I know spending time squeezing play dough into flowers and animals or making a collage or drawing doesn’t solve the fact that the children then return to rooms where basic amenities are missing, or where there’s trash in the hallways and so on, but at those moments when they are doing an activity, they become so present in them. I’ve learned to understand a very different sense of time. Maybe this is the result of not having much else but the moment at hand, but it’s a lesson in an appreciation of just that. We tend to be so infinitely preoccupied with our tomorrows that it’s easy to lose sight of what today is giving us. I don’t formally identify with a particular faith, though I have a vague sense of a higher good that might not be more than the hope of such—but my faith in people has been renewed in witnessing how generous and aware of others people can become in very dire circumstances.
Stallings: Regarding faith, I grew up in a quite religious and theologically engaged household. I am Episcopalian; my grandfather was a priest; my children were baptized Orthodox. I am an infrequent churchgoer and probably identify as Epicurean-Episcopalian, if I may make that distinction as a translator of Lucretius.
In the refugee situation, it has been instructive to get to know a little more about other faiths (Islam, Yazidism, etc.), and to see how other people’s faith in God helps get them through terrible situations. Some refugees are Christian and fleeing intolerance. Some are Muslim and fleeing fundamentalism. This area of the world is a tapestry of faiths. We have watched older kids observe their first Ramadan, proud to take on that grown-up observance with all its difficulties. We’ve learned a little about their festivals. And about Kurdish and Persian ones too, such as the Persian new year, which is in the spring and is observed by dyeing eggs pretty colors. Islam requires ritual bathing (after menstruation or childbirth, for instance) before certain prayers can be made or observed, so we have witnessed the dismay of women who did not have proper showering facilities in Piraeus and thus could not pray. Can you imagine the distress? Children are often curious about our own faiths. I have been asked if I am a Christian, and I recall having to think about how to answer that, and what “yes” means.
The idea that faith is inextricable from deeds—that “faith without works is dead”—probably underlies some things. But it is more maybe about doubt. This maybe is something I learned from yoga teachers. If I go every week to the squat, or I go to the poetry workshop, it is not necessarily because I think I am going to help anything. The problem is too huge to think that what little we do has a big impact. If I think about it that way, though, I would not be able to go. Instead, I think of it as a practice. I go whether it will help anyone or not. I suppose that is a kind of faith. I give the time and effort, and I give it up toward whatever good it may or may not do. I can’t worry about how efficacious anything is, or I would stop. I like what you say about how it is making us more aware of the present—we can’t know how our action or inaction will affect tomorrow. That is a kind of faith-doubt or doubt-faith, the negative space (your “square of space”) that we move through and interact with each other in.
Kalfopoulou: Among the refugees, I’ve also been impressed by a certain openness to new or other ways of doing things. The stereotype of Islam as threatening to our apparently more democratic ways is just that, a stereotype. Certainly the waves of nationalism that have spawned racist and fascist movements in Europe (and the US) are the true dangers. I took Maedeh, thirteen at the time, to a play my daughter was in and forgot to ask if there was going to be any nudity. There was a brief scene in which a woman’s top comes off as she becomes a statue and is spray-painted; I was mortified, though it was just for a few seconds. Of course Maedeh mentioned this to me as we walked back to the squat, and I asked if this was okay, if it bothered her, and explained I hadn’t realized this was part of the play. She shrugged and said, “This is Europe,” which made me smile.
Photos by Adrienne Kalfopoulou.