Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Greek Adventure

It has been a couple of weeks now since I returned from my trip to Greece as a guest of Harvard University's Centre for Hellenic Studies (CHS), kindly sponsored by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust. This was the other element of my prize for the Michael Marks Award, which I won for my pamphlet Gaud in November 2013. At the time, going to Greece seemed like something of a footnote to winning the prize itself, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of it. Well, now I can only say that my two weeks on the Pelopennese and in Athens were by far the most valuable aspect of winning the Michael Marks Award, far beyond the monetary value of the generous cheque that came with it.
Flying into Greece
I was accompanied on my journey by Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust, which administers the Michael Marks Award. We visited some beautiful places, including Napflio, Epidaurus, Mycenae, Messolonghi, Sounio, Athens and Olympia. These experiences were considerably enhanced by our having the best possible guides at every turn, whether they were archaeologists, classical scholars or poets, and the generosity of everyone we met, from the brilliant staff of the CHS to museum workers or the owners of the smallest tavernas, was simply breathtaking. This felt even more remarkable given the obvious signs of the continuing economic crisis and civil unrest which we encountered in the capital. Despite the obvious pain of the Greek people at their country's situation, their determination to overcome and their openness to others remains undaunted.

View of Napflio from the CHS offices
During our stay in Olympia, Andrew and I were also able to attend lectures offered as part of the CHS summer school. It was a privilege to hear scholars such as Professor Greg Nagy and Dr Paul Kosmin sharing their knowledge with a remarkably attentive and enthusiastic group of students from the US, Greece and the UK. Andrew and I also organised a poetry workshop for the students and shared some of our own work with them.
The 'grave of Clytemnestra' at Mycenae
Poets in Napflio
Apart from learning so much about the history of Greece, both ancient and modern, the trip was also an opportunity to meet Greek poets and compare notes on the situation of writers of poetry in Greece and the UK. Here again, the constraints imposed by the current financial situation soon became clear. However much poets in the UK may complain about a lack of resources, we should be grateful for the many opportunities which Greek poets are denied. There is no lack of enthusiasm and engagement, however, as became clear when Andrew and I participated in this year's Paros Symposium in Athens, which has been bringing together Greek and anglophone poets and translators every summer for the last decade. Organisers Siarita Kouka and Helen Dimos managed a free-flowing, yet good natured and productive event over several days, culminating in a public reading and celebration on a warm evening in central Athens.
Siarita Kouka and Helen Dimos reading on the last night
of the Paros Symposium

Despite these many activities, there was also time for reading by the pool, and I was lucky in Olympia to stumble across a little bookseller, Galerie Orphee, carrying English language editions of 20th century Greek poets and a lot more besides. I was also able to draft a few poems of my own in response to the many wonderful experiences and encounters. I'm hoping that some of them will find their way into my first collection.

From time to time, we crossed Byron's path. He reminded us of the UK's strong cultural and historical links with Greece. In Messolonghi, for example, we saw no less than three statues of him, plus an impressive museum run by volunteers and dedicated to his short time in Greece and the phenomenon of Philhellenism in the 1820s. It is worth remarking on the fact that, nearly two hundred years later, fellow Europeans have not found it in themselves to express solidarity with Greece at a time of crisis. A little of that Byronic spirit would seem in order for us today.
One of the Byron statues at Messolonghi

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