“What I Knew”: An Interview With Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos, prolific poet, professor, and author of the new antigrowth epic, What I Knew, was gracious enough to talk with me about the latter’s themes, her travels, the uncapturable, and of course (sorry, not sorry) astrology. This week, I’m sitting with and stirred by Eleni’s assertion, “Poetry holds the place of ferality in language,” a notion that saturates the poetics in What I KnewHer prose here proves that potency can carry over in the right hands.   

June Shanahan


June Shanahan: What I Knew is so very located, in that so many of the poem’s sentiments are rooted in, or at least paired with real world, physical locales. However, that location is never quite the same from line to line as the poem grows outwardly. I understand you spent a period of your life kind of peripatetic, traveling from place to place, and was curious if you felt that time had any influence on your interest in the long form, global poem that this book embodies? How did that interest come to be, especially having worked so often in prose forms?

Eleni Sikelianos: I love how you link the kind of travel I did to the long form of the book.

I spent about a year and a half, mostly hitchhiking and sleeping outdoors, moving from place to place in Europe, Turkey, and Central and East Africa. I left the U.S. in 1985 with a friend and we vagabonded in various knots of travelers we met along the way, hitching rides with truck drivers, sleeping in caves and on beaches in Greece and Turkey. After five or six months, my friend (Kichan) went home, and I took a boat to Haifa. After hitching around Israel/Palestine by myself for a while, I met another friend (Tom) in Tel Aviv; we spent the next eight or nine months traveling to Cairo, through the Sudan, what was then Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania, onto Kenya. (From Nairobi, we took an Aeroflot flight through Moscow to Athens, and hitchhiked up to Paris, which took another three months.) In Egypt, there was the occasional Australian who had been on the road for years, but in countries like Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) we often did not see other western travelers for months at a time. We were sometimes scary to children who’d never seen a white person before. I have a vivid memory of being on the train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum with scarves and bandanas over our noses and mouths to keep out the Saharan sand (the windows didn’t shut all the way).

I prided myself, at the end of 18 months or so, for not having stayed in any place for longer than a week. Why this restless travel? To escape the narrow “where you’re from”? (Wherever that is.) To learn something about yourself and the world? I can’t say exactly, but that was the first and longest of a series of journeys.

The poem is also (for me) a place of restlessness, of setting out, trying out, trying on. A place of questioning and of transformation. That transformation can be small on a phonic level and large on a personal level (a mister to a sister, as Stein famously has it). At its most resonant, it transforms on a cultural level too. The line break itself embodies movement. Moving between forms (prose to poetry to image) is another way that restlessness and motion manifest in my work. I keep coming back to Aristotle’s definition of life, which is, basically, motion. (I don’t know what his encounters with lichen were like.)

Almost every epic poem involves travel. Think of Gilgamesh and his and his friend Enkidu’s journey to the Cedar Forest, Inanna’s to the underworld, Odysseus’s voyage home. In Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen, the heroine doesn’t travel, but her lover does, and in Helen in Egypt H.D. removes Helen from Troy, but it is still only the male lover who get to travel. Except for Inanna, we begin to trace a history of female immobility. By the 1990s, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette is able to move beneath the subway, and then travel up for air.

When I was working on this poem, I was thinking about all the experiences a body has that belong only to that body; my travels are part of what I knew in my body, things I experienced that could not be excised or extracted by search engines. There is also the way place names incite us toward dream. Places we haven’t been gather packets of possible knowing (and unknowing) around them like lustrous or horrible clouds of potentiality. There is a form of globalization possible in the poem that is not about resource extraction or exploitation, but about private experience and dreaming. (Tourism is also a form of globalization of course, which I didn’t think about as a young person, but I’m now worried about the environmental and cultural damage all this traveling wreaks.) There is something also, about the fixedness or tethered feeling of place names in tension with bodies and minds moving through them.

Yet what could I say I know of all the places I’ve been? Very little. An image, a trace: a family we shared pineapple with on the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, the carriage driver who brought us home for dinner in Luxor.

JS: At one point you write, “…time is the material poetry is and is not / This poem is antigrowth and has no needs”. In the context of a state that insists upon constant growth, how might you frame a poetics of antigrowth, or perhaps of anti-time or anti-knowledge? What is essential about its function? In that light, I wonder what significance there is in calling this poem “What I Knew”?

ES: Almost any poem operates in time and outside it. The simplest way we experience that is in the line break. We’re moving along in language, which occurs in time, then suddenly we’re at the end of the line, dumped out into open space/time. There’s a kind of momentary free-fall or expansion of time. Agamben calls it eternity, I think. Then we zip back and we’re in time again, in language. There are various ways this suspension of time happens within language too — one way is maybe in moments of anacoluthon, or a misordering of syntax, which is a way of jumbling or layering or breaking time.

These are ways the poem offers another possibility to time’s arrow, and a counter to “progress.” I really don’t get our nation’s insistence on growth. How we came to this place. But it has been successfully inscribed in our individual and social consciousnesses. Plants grow, animals grow, yes, but we know in the most basic biological terms that growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. Imagine a human baby that never stopped. Yikes! What if we based our notions of economy (“house-keeping,” etymologically) on circulatory or cyclical structures instead? If we wanted to get real, we could think about any living thing’s need to decay. Physicists will tell you that the equations indicate that time should be able to move backward too, and that’s part of the space art occupies — not necessarily moving only forward and backward but able to inhabit multiple and simultaneous times.

I don’t yet know exactly why this poem’s title is in the past tense. Poems advance their agendas and sometimes we have to catch up later, but it may be in part because in following an urge to use material that can’t be mined for data (dream, memory, etc.), we’re dealing with knowledge that does in fact decay.

JS: There’s a really beautiful section that I keep returning to, that might be too long to quote in full here, but it ends with, “If we own the body or own up to the body / in Praetoria / we’ll congregate in meetspace, ‘a mute / apostrophe flying through time,” where you sneak in a quote from the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Elsewhere, Derrida is found on the face of one just awoken.  What was your relationship with theirs and the work of thinkers like them while crafting this poem?

ES: Well, like many poets I really love Agamben, in large part because he is such a poetic writer and thinker. I first heard about him from Robin Blaser. I have only read these writers on my own, which allows me to misread them to my heart’s content. But I’m also a little suspicious of how we use those philosophers who come into vogue and who suddenly seem to frame every panelist’s statements for swathes of time. There was a joke in our household for a while that went, “Comme disait Derrida…” You didn’t have to finish the sentence; you could just say, “As Derrida says…” Or you could add on: “As Derrida says, you better feed the cat.” I suppose my little resistances to these uses are twofold: 1. The overacademization of poetry, which is a real problem in this country, even when we think it’s not; and 2. The very male, very classist and very white world using these thinkers is sometimes used to circumscribe. These are power structures, and they are frequently used to codify or valorize specific knowledge forms. As a first-gen college grad woman, I feel that acutely. I know some would cry “anti-intellectualism,” but for me it’s really about keeping modes of knowing open. This particular work is less engaged in institutionalized ways of knowing, yet there are moments when these thinkers appear.

“[A] mute apostrophe flying through time” is from a moment in Remnants of Auschwitz (excellent sleuthing!), in which Agamben has just quoted Buchenwald survivor Robert Antelme’s memoir. Antelme describes having witnessed a young Italian being called out by one of the SS, “who was looking for a man, any man, to kill.” The young man’s face flushes pink. Agamben calls this blush, a flush of shame, “a mute apostrophe flying through the air,” which reaches us here, now. It calls Antelme to bear witness, and offers the reader “a new ethical material” — we are awakened to that moment, we carry this witnessing forward.

Calling a blush “an apostrophe” — wow. An apostrophe is of course that bird-like mark that indicates absence or possession (two strangely opposing things) but is also the moment when a speaker turns and begins to address “any entity that can’t respond to reality,” according to grammarist.com — someone or something or some idea that is absent, just as that young man is now disastrously absent from the world, but his blush has flown through time, in memory, in language.

JS: The instructions, “see the lightning / smell the truth / hear the war / touch the earth” are echoed and slyly nodded-to a couple of times with the abbreviated, “lightning  truth war earth.” They ring like substitutes to the four elements, and as they’re placed next to the senses, a kind of world is made manifest, though markedly without the sensation of taste. I wonder, were another “element” to be added to this grouping, what do you think would be paired with the sense of taste?

ES: Hmm. Love this question.

Taste the water.

Could be sweet or could be salt.

We need to be thinking about oceans and rivers and lakes.

Taste the ocean.

Lick the lake.

JS: I’ve been kind of marvelling at the constellation of the sentiment “the arm / is no longer attached to its shoulder nor the word / to its socket … reality which deforms in the speaker’s mouth” and just how aural and oral in nature much of the language is that you weave in this book. I’m interested in whether your writing processes ever happen aloud? Moreover, what kind of bodily modes do you think poetry in/from/at the mouth induce, in both poet-assailant (or perhaps language-assailant) and in witness?

ES: Yes, I experience language as music (or at least rhythm) much of the time (and I even spent some years trying to disrupt that). The poems I love writing most start with a sound in the mouth (could we call it a mouth-feel?). I was just watching Dawn Lundy Martin read last night, and even when the music wasn’t apparent in the language, it was apparent in her body. (She also frequently inhaled at the end of the lines, which was fascinating). Music of course doesn’t just happen at the mouth; it begins much deeper in the body; I’d say at the volcanic core, at the gut, and maybe sometimes at the heart (which of course keeps its own rhythms). It’s central, but limbs are involved in both making it (walking) and sounding it (mouth — I’m claiming the mouth as a limb all of the sudden).

Part of that section is feeling the failure of language to capture us. Maybe we’ve all had that feeling, trying to tell someone something that happened, and watching the words twist away from/resist the experience we hope to convey. So, we are uncapturable in language, which is pretty great. But it’s also feeling/trying to resist the way language is used to control us. Poetry holds the place of ferality in language.

Witnessing. Maybe related to the discussion above? Language as witness.

JS: I wanted to bridle my astrological curiosities but as I find a sparrow open-winged in the lower corner of each page, I can’t help but wonder if we might be kindred air signs? Is that true or am I projecting? Regardless, I’d love to hear about what brought the sparrows to that space.

ES: Ha ha! I am pro-unbridling. The book designer did that — plucked the little bird from Alice Hameau’s cover drawing — but — how did you know? Air. When is your birthday? Mine’s May 31. I very proudly share it with Walt Whitman and Svetlana Alexievich.

Order your copy of What I Knew now!

Eleni Sikelianos was born and grew up in California, and has lived in New York, Paris, Athens, and Colorado. She is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Make Yourself Happy, and two hybrid memoirs (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine). Sikelianos has been the happy recipient of many awards for her poetry, nonfiction, and translations, including two National Endowment for the Arts awards and the National Poetry Series. Her writings have been widely anthologized and translated, with five books in French; ΤοβιβλίοτουΤζον was translated by ΚατερίναΣχινά and published by Patakis in 2014. She has taught poetry in public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons, and collaborated with musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists. Since 1998, she has been on guest faculty for the Naropa Summer Writing Program, and, until this spring, she taught in the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Denver, where she founded and ran the Writers in the Schools program. This fall, she will be joining the Literary Art faculty at Brown University.