An introduction to my work by Theodoros Chiotis

‘The construction, or if we want to be more accurate, the excavation of the multitude of realities lurking underneath the practice of everyday life has come to be seen as a basic writing tool of writers and poets dealing with urban life. The mechanical nature of urban time and usability as urban life’s ultimate precondition change drastically the imagination of the urban dweller. The ability to read maps and construct alternate routes to navigate oneself within the city; the ability to collect and catalogue information regarding the cultural, fiscal and real estate value of the urban space – all of these are but a brief selection from the basic survival tool kit for the urban dweller. The urban dweller has access to a nexus of mulitple realities and it is this nexus that allows for an ambulatory, phantasmagorical reading of urban space.

Tom Chivers in his poetry does not simply map the experience of urban life. The poem ‘How to Build a City’ is not simply an alternate geography or a psychogeographical impression of London; it is an occluded autobio(geo)graphy of the city as impressed upon a native of the city. Antigone Vlavianou, when writing about another writer dealing with urban space, Yorgos Ioannou, notes that the ‘alternation of narrative masks culminates in a functional intertwining of all pronouns; said alternation is made manifest in a sprawling narrative identifying the body of the city with the narrator’s body. The narrator’s body bearing the marks of the city on it goes on an act of auto-bio-geography’.

Chivers as a poet writing about the city and the marks it leaves on the poet’s very body approaches city life in a markedly different manner; the body of the city and the narrator’s body do not come to be identified in Chivers’ poetry. In Chivers’ work, the narrative feeds in the way a parasite does on the fauna of fantasies that make up the body of the city. The narrator in these poems is a paradoxical, malleable entity: the narrator transforms ceaselessly in his wanderings with no hope of ever escaping the city. The narrator of ‘How To Build A City’ (and The Terrors, to a lesser extent) is folded inside the very body of the city; a body made up of badly lit alleyways,  exposed brick walls, an ever changing skyline, electrical wiring and ruins. The terrae incognitae of the flaneurs become the hipsters’ terrae nullorum in Chivers’ poems: spaces without any permanent identity (and affiliation) despite the attempts to map them thoroughly. The minute details as inscribed in these poems construct the portrait of a city made up of disparate elements; this particular city portrait is structured more like the factory that is the unconscious rather than a ‘real’ city (whatever that might mean).

If one wanted to, one could make a pretty accurate map of (East) London based on Chivers’ poems but in reality this particular map would only make even more apparent the reality of an urban space consisting of sedimentary accumulations: sounds, images, ideas and temporalities. The city one would construct based on Chivers’ poetry would be the city in which decay and ultimately catastrophe reveal the vertiginous collapse of inner into outer, past into future, urban space into whatever might potentially exist outside its boundaries.’

Theodoros Chiotis
polleslexeis.wordpress.com
@polleslexeis

First published in Greek in Poiitiki

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It’s all Greek

A parcel arrived this morning from Athens. The envelope was covered in exactly forty stamps (in very small denominations).

Inside was a copy of Poiitiki (‘Poetics’), the foremost Greek literary journal.

I am honoured to have had a batch of my poems translated for this issue by my friend the writer and critic Theodoros Chiotis. Theo and I met in 2010 when I’d travelled to Athens to be part of the Dasein Poetry Festival, and as well as being a very warm and interesting host, he agreed to read my poems in Greek alongside my English reading. It worked really well. Since then, he’s revisited the work, and come up with what I’m sure are fantastic translations. Sadly I don’t speak Greek so cannot judge them directly, but the quality (and sometimes absurdity!) of his questions during the process make me feel very comfortable about his renderings. It’s quite surreal seeing these poems not only in a foreign language but in an unfamiliar alphabet, with just a few place-names (‘Bishopsgate’… ‘Whitechapel’…) and untranslateables (‘flaneurs’… ‘hipsters’…) sticking out amongst the gammas and epsilons.

The poems included are: ‘How To Build A City’ (excerpts), ‘The Terrors’ (excerpts) and ‘This is Yogic’. On top of that, Theo has also written a short introductory essay to my work, which I hope I may be able to republish in English, with his permission, at a later date.

Thank you, Theo.

Athens: Day Nine

On Sunday I performed a new piece written especially for Dasein Festival. Athens Burns (which I may post up here in full at some point) was performed with a soundtrack – I had been recording snippets of audio during the week, at the protests, on the train, in the street, etc.

Oh, and this was the previous night – reading with translator Theodoros Chiotis.

Earlier in the day (Sunday) I went to a museum called Man & Tool. Cool name. I like bijou museums. Find out more here.

Here are some tools.

I also had a lovely wander around the picturesque and in parts quite dilapidated Plaka area, and then a huge lunch with Katerina, Yiannis, Ivan, Adela, Phoebe Giannisi and others. I ate some intestines. Nice.

I’d like to thank Dasein Festival organiser Christos Chryssopoulos for his energy and skills in bringing everyone together and giving us foreigners a warm Athenian welcome.

Next up, first impressions of Thessaloniki, where I am giving a workshop and reading.

Athens: Days Six, Seven, Eight

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s troubles, the organiser of Dasein Festival hastily assembled a press release to announce an event with Netalie Braun exploring the themes of Violence and Silence. The event comprised the screenings of two films, followed by a Q&A.

I would like to draw your attention especially to Netalie’s hour-long film Metamorphosis (2006), which employs Ovid’s myths in conjunction with contemporary testimony from victims of rape in Israel.

This conceit is realised with formidable skill; the familiar mythological exemplars off-set and illuminated by the modern stories. The latter are shot in super close-up, with bright white backgrounds. The effect is one of intimacy, complicity and cleansing. I’ve not been as moved by a film of this kind – at its heart a documentary, though it makes use of techniques from fiction – for some time.

You can see a trailer here.

After the screening, Netalie revealed that the film is quite controversial in Israel – its release leading to the identification (and in one case, I think, the prosecution) of perpetrators. Bleak, but inspiring.

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I visited a great little gallery / arts venue called Aboutt. It was darned hard to locate, being situated on the second floor of a relatively anonymous block of shops and offices in the Monasteraki area of town, with minimal signage. There is a buzzer to get in. It was closed. But luckily the gallery owners – Marie Alouopi and Andreas Diktyopoulos – are very nice and let me in anyway. They are the pair behind the Centre for Music Composition and Performance, and gave me a well-designed book documenting their events and projects to date. Today they were showing their first exhibition in the new venue –  Space is the Place, curated by Lo and Behold. Some excellent reimaginings of urban landscapes in photography, architectural drawings, video, installation art and even embroidery. I wish I could find an image of two drawings by ? which depict the Parthenon in traditional form, but with its columns first geometrically skewed and then folded into intricate, intestine-like tubes. Instead, here’s a screengrab from a piece of video art by Rui Toscano.

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Some other stuff I’ve done / seen.

Eaten the most amazing sweet red peppers stuffed with feta.

Visited Gazi, the old gasworks of Athens which are used for events and art exhibitions. Think East London warehouse space, but with all the equipment still intact.

Visited the beautiful and interesting Acropolis Museum with two new poet-friends, Ivan Hristov and Adela Greceanu.

Enjoyed an overpriced meal and walked around Plaka with Netalie, Ivan, Turkish poet (and engineer!) Gokcenur C and head of Literature Across Frontiers Alexandra Buchler.

Factoid: Gokcenur has met Uri Geller, when Geller was representing a Nigerian Prince in a business meeting. Why? Because he can. My friend Nathan was pleased to hear it.

Last night I drank way too much Ouzo with Ivan.

Tonight I gave my first reading (of two) – in collaboration with Theodoros Chiotis, my translator (!). The venue was full, and the poems seemed to go down well. They even laughed at some of the jokes, which is always a bonus.

Here’s a fuzzy shot of the venue, during a stand-out performance by Lina Theodorou.

Finally, let me leave you with a photograph of something I found amusing.

Over. And. Out.

Athens: Day Five

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Exarchia district of Athens, where very recently a number of anarchist strongholds have been raided by police, as well as cafes and bars. I witnessed one raid myself – in the next street. An enormous number of police on motorbikes stormed a house. There were several loud explosions – tear gas, stun grenades, firecrackers. Crowds of people from the area, some in the regulation all-black of the anarchist movement, rushed to the scene, or looked on anxiously.

This comes towards the end of a day of violent protests in Athens, in which three people (including, allegedly, a pregnant woman) have tragically lost their lives.

I joined the mayhem at around lunchtime, following one of several large demonstrations as it wound its way from Omonoia down the long avenues towards Syntagma Square. I was with the filmmaker Netalie Braun who, as an Israeli, has more experience of political demonstrations than me.

Whilst this march had an upbeat, almost Carnival atmosphere, with protestors drumming and chanting, the signs of violence were everywhere: in the smashed windows of shops, traffic lights torn open; the stone and marble frontages of buildings ripped up and chipped away for missiles. Fires raged in melting dustbins.

The steps of the National Bank of Greece were covered in red paint. The metaphor is clear enough.

Netalie and I took a short cut to meet our friend Yiannis, and found ourselves on a less busy road into the centre. Bizarrely, everyone seemed to be walking the wrong way – back towards us.

At one corner, a group was forming, many holding scarves of handkerchiefs to their faces from the tear gas and pepper spray. A line of geared-up riot police blocked a side road linking the two parallel avenues into Syntagma. A stand-off ensued. The crowd grew in number and noise, chanting and berating the police.

The police in turn threatened with tear gas. The crowd booed as a fleet of cops on motorbikes rushed in. An elderly man walked through the lines, calm as you like, distributing flyers and muttering to himself. Then, at the sound of a whistle, the police charged. Netalie and I ran in the opposite direction. At a safe distance, I called Yiannis. Breathlessly, he told me to leave immediately.

This was just one minor skirmish in a day in which protestors attempted to storm parliament to prevent the politicians voting through the austerity cuts.

Outside the national library, a group of young anarchists were breaking off chunks of marble from a ledge with a hammer or small pickaxe. When one of them saw Netalie filming and me taking photos on my phone, he gave us a very sinister look and shook his head threateningly.

One of the interesting things about the protests here is how contained they often are to certain places, and also how they seem to co-exist with the ordinary activities of the city. One minute, you’re being chased by riot police; the next, you’re strolling down a quiet side road where old men are playing backgammon in cafes, and mothers are pushing their babies in prams.

Sick from tear gas and the acrid smoke, we found a cheap local restaurant and had a lunch of superbly grilled chicken.

Back on the streets, Syntagma Square was now deserted – just a handful of stragglers, photographers, bemused tourists etc. picking through the remains of the main protest.

The wooden benches I’d sat on only two nights previously with Theo and Iliana had been ripped out and burnt.

Gas was once again on the wind, and on leaving Syntagma Square my eyes began to weep and then sting terribly, my nose to run, my throat to burn. You can understand why it’s such an effective tool in the police armoury. When you know it’s coming you want to get away immediately…

After finally getting back to the hotel – and some rest – we had dinner off Exarchia Square, which was unusually, eerily quiet.

I wonder what the next few days will bring…

Athens: Days Two, Three, Four

Yeah, so, surprise surprise I haven’t blogged every day from Athens. Hey ho… I have better things to do, such as visiting the Acropolis

snapping more Athenian graffiti (oooh they do love their graffiti….)

and hanging out with the artists participating in the festival.

A few notes.

I climbed the Acropolis with Netalie Braun, a filmmaker and writer from Tel Aviv. Tomorrow night she is presenting an excerpt from her documentary Metamorphosis, which you can read about here. I’m really looking forward to that. She’s a very inspiring artist and thinker.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Theodoros Chiotis, who coincidentally – or not – writes for Hand + Star. He has translated loads of my work into Greek and will be presenting that with me on Saturday night. Lots of weird connections actually. We were both at Oxford University at the same time (I was an undergraduate; he was doing a doctorate) and for about a year were actually neighbours. We also have similar tastes in poetry (esp. Sinclair), music (Bat for Lashes, the XX!) and clothes. I had a lovely dinner of rabbit with him and his lovely partner on Saturday, followed by an ice cream in Syntagma Square. Fantastic. Theo is also a very interesting poet. I will point you towards Codeswitching which you can download as a PDF.

Hmmm. What else? The protests continue, sporadically. On Sunday the Greek government announced a programme of huge cuts in public spending, a prerequisite of the EU/IMF bailout. There is a General Strike tomorrow, and I intend to go along – I’ve been invited to join the protests by the filmmaker Yiannis Isidorou.

Factoid: Yiannis lived in Brixton for 3 months. South London la la la!

Tonight I attended the presentation of two films by into the pill, an artists’ collective of which Yiannis is a member – along with Lina Theodorou (another of the festival participants). The first piece was a short film that sensitively captured the sounds of a city. Lots of still camera shots, very beautifully textured, and thoughtful. The second film was simply brilliant: a kind of spoof documentary about three office buildings in Athens, which drew on politics, numerology, genetics and downright craziness to construct fictional conspiracy theories. It was both very funny and, in the current climate, thought-provoking; faintly reminiscent of the films of Adam Curtis as well as the psychogeography-inflected work of Mythogeography and Align (which I’ve mentioned before). Also, the tone was similar in parts to Found in Translation. Below, Curtis then FIT.

Both films were followed by short but passionate debates in Greek. It was held in Dasein, the festival venue. Friendly and hippish bar with dark wood everywhere, Heineken on tap and a dartboard. Tonight was also the launch of an brilliant exhibition of photography by Efthymis Kosemund Sanidis. I bumped into him later, when I was sneaking in a post-midnight espresso and chocolate crepe in Exarchia Square.

In other news, I have started a new piece of poetry (that’s what I’m here for, I guess…).

At the current time of writing, it’s called:

Athens: Day One

There’s a first time for everything. Today was the first time I’d experienced the effects, albeit mildly, of tear gas. A sudden burning in the eyes, throat and lungs. At least I think it was tear gas – it could just as easily have been the acrid smoke rising from the smouldering remains of upturned municipal dustbins.

I am in Athens for the international poetry festival Dasein. This is my first full day, and my first time in Greece since… well, before I can remember. We took a few family holidays here back in the 80s, that’s all. My hotel – which is in fact lovely and where I’m writing this from – seems to be bang in the middle of the ‘troubles’ you may be aware of due to the precarious economic and social situation here. I’d just returned from an afternoon walking around the city, and something’s clearly happened in the area.

The signs of disturbance are everywhere. Riot police in heavy, dark blue jumpsuits and shades ride in flottilas of motorbikes. Soldiers – younger, conscripts I guess, in khaki, stand in groups of three or four on street corners. Young Greeks in black t-shirts and back-packs displaying an air of latent discontent. Graffiti ever-present like a sinister voice in the back of your head. This morning I woke to the call of raised voices and loudhailers. Across the square my balcony overlooks, a political demonstration – red and black flags contrasting with the clear blue day.

I followed the demo as it moved slowly down one of the main streets towards Syntagma Square, the public centre of Athens. It was good-natured and noisy – a carnival atmosphere contrasting with the serious messages of the demonstrators. Amongst them, groups of Sri Lankan and African immigrants, protesting for greater rights.

People wear a lot of black here. I stood out with my Northern European face and crazy bright white plimsolls (you can take the boy out of Shoreditch, etc…), strolling parallel to the march and regularly stopping to take photos with my phone. I also made an audio recording of the demonstrators’ chants. I may use these recordings in a new piece I’m set to create for the Festival.

This afternoon I took the funicular railway up Lycabettus Hill, which looms over Athens, a rocky outcrop said to have been created when Athena dropped a large stone she was carrying by mistake. The views from the top are breathtaking, and there is a small and pretty chapel, Agia Georgios.

My lunch consisted of a slice of delicious Spinach pie and a frappa coffee thing. Last night I had veal in pasta at a great little canteen-style restaurant my host here, the writer Christos Chrissopoulos, had taken me to.

I’m off to meet another writer, Theodoros Chiotis, now. He writes for Hand + Star, so it’ll be good to finally put a face to the name.

I hope to avoid any more tear gas. It’s nasty stuff.