An Interview with Eleni Sikelianos

By Elshtain, Eric P. | Chicago Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Eleni Sikelianos


Elshtain, Eric P., Chicago Review


      "The extrication of self is the politic of perception"
      --Christopher Dewdney

      "[C]osmic rhythm ... since the beginning of the human race, has
      imbued mankind with the unconscious belief that to move with the
      sun is positive, and to move against it is negative, one direction
      expressing order, the other disorder. We gave up sun worship a
      long time ago and we have lost the habit of associating the points
      of the compass with magic qualities, colors and virtues."
      --Claude Levi-Strauss

This conversation took place over several months, clearly in the midst of the author writing some poems she describes and not-so-clearly in the midst of some serious geo-political matters. The emphases here on self and memory, on finding the right words, and on social forces, make it clear that on a certain level Sikelianos is a political poet engaged in an examination of those forces that attempt to socialize everything and in a celebration of those things that resist those forces: animals, plants, the cosmos, some aspects of the physical and mental self. This conversation can be read as a continuation of the poet's bookwork: perhaps this thing itself is a poem titled "An Interview with Eleni Sikelianos."

Sikelianos was raised in California and received her MFA in Poetry from the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado, where she currently teaches. She has also been a guest poet at the University of Denver since 2001. She is the author of several books and chapbooks, including The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls (Green Integer 2003), Earliest Worlds (Coffee House 2001, which includes two books, Blue Guide and Of Sun, Of Seeing, Of History), The Book of Tendons (Post-Apollo Press 1997), and To Speak While Dreaming (Selva Editions 1993). Two more books, The California Poem (Coffee House Press) and The Book of Jon (City Lights) are due out in 2004.

Why suspend the grammatical subject?

Perhaps akin to my feelings of suspension in this strange world, or the inability to put a finger on a "self" or anything else for that matter. An expression of my shifting world? Even objects seem to have mobile identities. But also perhaps this allows everything to link up, without being caught in category, constraints. I suppose it allows me to shift perspectives, allegiances (since I can never make up my mind, and once I do, often cannot remember which way I made it).

How then do you regard roots (familial and artistic) and the self (familial and artistic)? I'm thinking here of "Summer at St.-Nazaire" (A*Bacus #151), especially this stanza:

   They have built me
   the salt houses of Britanny, salt has made me
   a country, Celtic and white. Dame Madame of the room and the moon,
   creamer and inheritor
   of Breton spit in the sea. The way to show someone you love him is

   to burn time.
   I can't stop to not think
   of the necessity
   of making plans

   right down in the water where the
   power is

Specific to "Summer at St.-Nazaire"--there's a definite mask, a character who is me/not-me being created for the poem, triggered, in this case by being in a foreign land, in a foreign language, foreign culture, where I can lose (or at least shift) what little sense of self I might have. What went into the "I" of the poem includes a recurring dream I had as a child of an abandoned pale seaside town littered with broken shells, and an eerie deja-vu that the very average city of St.-Nazaire evoked; the ghostly presence of the man who had stayed in the apartment before me (hairs in the soap, wind-banged doors); bizarre luncheons with the mayor replete with cigars; long, silence-filled days; and an opportunity to inhabit all the characters any of those might evoke.

In a number of works, I am not so interested in memory/specific self. Many of the poems in Earliest Worlds (2001), say, have little business with particular self/memory.

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