Twenty years ago, poet Dean Kostos, the new editor of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, founded the Greek American Writers Association, and in 2008,as editor of the acclaimed poetry collection, Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry ,he provided a forum for Greek-American poets, all landmark contributions to the Greek-American community, the general public, and the furthering of the arts.
Kostos, the author of three poetry collections: Celestial Rust, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and Last Supper of the Senses, took questions from the Greek News on his contributions to the literary world, his views on poetry, and what he has encountered as a teacher.
GN: What is your goal as editor of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora?
DK: To make sure that worthy books get reviewed by people who will make potential readers want to read them.
GN: What inspired you to start the Greek American Writers Association? What do you hope the organization will accomplish?
DK: I briefly belonged to the Greek-American Writers’ Guild in Astoria. They’re a group of Greeks and Cypriots who publish and read in Greek. Because I’m not fluent in Greek, I felt like something of an outsider. So I wanted to establish something that I thought would speak to the needs of Americans of Greek descent…. the hyphenated identity.
I also wanted to see Greeks and Greek-Americans have more visibility. Inasmuch as the series is open to writers of all genres and from all backgrounds, our audience is diverse. As a result, the Greek writers are more visible, and hopefully they feel like they’re part of a larger community of writers.
(By the way, a Greek-Orthodox church in New Jersey, one that I attended as a child, and one that my father donated stained-glass windows to, would not sell Pomegranate Seeds at the church’s book fair because of the theme of the poem, Mama’s Boy.)
GN: Please talk about the Cornelia Street Cafe’s role in the Association.
DK: They have generously provided the space for the past 20 years. I cannot speak highly enough about their support of the arts in general, which is so crucial in our increasingly corporate city. On only two occasions have we held events elsewhere, and that was at NYU. One was a translation panel with Greece-in-Print; the other was a commemorative reading for Elytis.
GN: Like the Greek American Writers Association, Pomegranate Seeds is a landmark effort.
DK: I’m very pleased by the way this anthology has been received. It’s received seven glowing reviews, one of which appears on the Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
I cannot fully express how delighted I was when I received submissions for Pomegranate Seeds; the work was of consistently high caliber. I knew that I had heard a lot of inspiring work over the years at the Cafe, but I was stunned by the power and breadth of the poetry I was seeing in printed form.
GN: Where did you study poetry and writing? What teachers influenced you?
DK: In addition to my graduate degree, I attended 14 years’ worth of poetry workshops. The list of poets I studied with is rather long, but I would have to include Molly Peacock, Richard Howard, and John Yau as primary influences. The best way to learn this art is to read widely: from past to the present, and from poets of all traditions. The poets I studied with taught me to respect precision, specificity, structure, and experimentation. Helen Vendler’s book-length essay on Wallace Stevens, Words Chosen Out of Desire, influenced me, too.
GN: Please talk about all your favorite modern poets.
DK: I’m very fond of Latin-American poets, such as Nicanor Parra, Cesar Vallejo, and even the novelist Juan Rulfo. In American poetry, the poets I can never stay away from are Plath, Crane, and Roethke. I feel like I experience language anew every time I read their poems.
As for Modern Greek poetry, of course I like the famous poets, but I also find great beauty in the work of poets like Embirikos and Engonopoulos. The latter was also a gifted visual artist.
GN: And ancient Greek poetry?
DK: Let’s not forget the playwrights…. they were poets, too. I never tire of Sophocles.
Of course, the ancients, such as Pindar, will always matter. I was hoping that the Greek Olympics of 2004 would have revived the Pindaric Ode, which had been a part of the ancient Olympic games…. just think–a culture where poetry mattered as much as sports!
And many readers of poetry tend to ignore the religious poetry of the Byzantine era. I see it as a continuation from antiquity. After all, the Dithyrambic festivals, which produced great plays, were religious. And think about the hymns to Pallas Athena and Aphrodite. Similarly, I find some of the Byzantine hymns to the Virgin Mary luminous.
GN: Were you interested in poetry as a child?
DK: I was something of a child prodigy in painting; my undergraduate studies were in painting and art history. Although my love of visual art has remained a constant, I no longer paint…. I don’t really know why. I suppose it has metamorphosed into words.
I also wrote poems as a boy. I loved “magical poems,” which were influenced by my hearing the Orthodox service in New Testament Greek and not understanding it. It became all about sounds, the way Sanskrit mantras are. When I was a kid, I didn’t care if my poems made intellectual sense, as long as I felt that magical “otherness.”
Then when I was in 9th grade, our English teacher introduced me to the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work was all about the incantatory qualities of language…. I also fell in love with the lyrics of the Beatles, an obsession that I’ve never lost. Lastly, the French Symbolists and Surrealists gave me the freedom to explore a nonlinear sense in my poems. For me, a poem uses words to say what words can’t say. To do so, it must embody urgency and mystery.
GN: Where else have you been published, in addition to your own books?
DK: My poems have appeared in over 200 journals. I also have had translations and reviews published. One of my reviews appears on the Harvard University Press Web site. I was the coeditor of Mama’s Boy: Gay Men Write about Their Mothers, and I edited Pomegranate Seeds. (By the way, a Greek-Orthodox church in New Jersey, one that I attended as a child, and one that my father donated stained-glass windows to, would not sell Pomegranate Seeds at the church’s book fair because of the theme of the poem, Mama’s Boy.)
GN: Why is poetry important?
DK: For me, poetry is largely about figurative language. I believe that religious texts should be read as poems. When read figuratively, they become infinitely richer. When taken literally, they can breed fundamentalism, which doesn’t interest me.
Whitman said that great poetry requires great audiences. That’s because it requires active reading; it’s participatory. So much of our culture is increasingly geared toward passive activities that numb the mind. Juvenal, in Ancient Roman times, wrote of Bread and Circuses. In other words, if our bellies are full and we’re distracted, then we become complacent. I think poetry, and all the arts, make us better human beings and (to Juvenal’s point) better citizens.
GN: Does poetry, or do the arts in general, speak to today’s youth?
I am saddened by the fact that my undergraduate students, many of whom grew up in New York, have never stepped foot in a museum or attended a poetry reading. Our culture undervalues these things, and that’s the message many of my students have received. When I show them a great film like Roshomon, for example, they’re annoyed that there are no cars exploding and the fight scenes are “boring.” And when I tell the students about my involvement in the poetry world–hosting the reading series for 20 years, spending entire days at my computer writing, and sending work to literary journals–they’re stunned. At first they may just think I’m pathetic. but at least some of them are inspired to pursue art. I explain that although the world may not reward me financially, the intangible wealth I receive can never be taken away, despite the vicissitudes of Wall Street.
(In tribute to Kostos, we have hyphenated “Greek-American” throughout much of this interview; Kostos favors the use of the hyphen in Greek-American because of its value as a metaphor, “a little bridge between two worlds, two identities”.)
* New York University: Gallatin School, New York (Fall Term, 2005): Adjunct Professor—Freud & Surrealism
* Columbia Scholastic Press Association, New York (2003–Present): Presenter / Lecturer—Fall and Spring Conferences
* Gotham Writers’ Workshop, New York (2001 to Present): Poetry Instructor
* Teachers & Writers Collaborative, New York (2000 to Present): Poet-in-Residence / Teaching Artist
* Great Lakes Colleges Association (2000 to Present): Adjunct Professor
* Pomegranate Seeds, edited by Dean Kostos (Somerset Hall Press, 2007)
* Last Supper of the Senses (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2005)
* Mama’s Boy, co-edited by Dean Kostos (Painted Leaf Press, 2000)
* The Sentence That Ends with a Comma (Painted Leaf Press, 1999)
* Celestial Rust (Red Dust Press, 1994)
Selected Journals and Anthologies (from more than 80 publications):
* “On the Difficulty of Reading Paul Celan,” Porcupine (forthcoming)
* “Dusk over Hartford,” The Wallace Stevens Journal (2006)
* “Introducing John L. Sullivan,” Western Humanities Review (2004)
* “Nostalgia for Now,” Cimarron Review (2004)
* “The Heart of the Dauphin,” Big City Lit (2004)
* “Corot’s Red Fleck” & “Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn,” Chelsea (2003)
* “Golden Mouth,” Rattapallax (2002)
* “The Kaisariani Cemetery in October,” Southwest Review (1999)
* “Talis(manic),” Oxygen.com (1999)
* “Twilight in Zappio Park,” Boulevard (1998)
* “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Robert Duncan,” Barrow Street (1998)
* Commissioned to write Dialogue: Angel of Peace, Angel of War, set to music by James Bassi, Voices of Ascension, Church of the Ascension, New York, NY (2005)
* Wrote & directed the choreo-poem Box Triptych, La MaMa, New York, NY (1991)
* Served as judge for the CSPA Gold Circle Awards, Columbia University (2006)
* Served as judge for the CSPA Gold Crown Awards, Columbia University (2005)
* Lyric Recovery Contest Finalist at Carnegie Hall (2004)
* Yaddo Fellowship Recipient (2001)
* Sensations magazine’s Sestina Competition Winner (1995)
* In Our Own Write Poetry Competition Winner (1994)
Part II of Dean Kostos’s poem, Rivers of Hades
II. Phlegethon—River of Fire
Who decreed fire and water opposites?
And did he walk the turquoise-tiled
paths, labyrinths leading to the Mysteries,
to the wall of oily flames
inhabited by being? Addressed
me in a fiery glossolalia,
within myself to be renewed, dissolved
in the blaze of my own knowledge. I saw
the fire-flowers lose
their transparency, melt
into a blood-boil, ancient
as the world’s body, liquefying
in red magma. I heard the naked
hum of the laburnum.
Where do my currents lead?
What is my destination?
Ranks of hissing waves:
fangs scald and gnash—
I the offering, I the flame.