Cover of Jeffrey Carson’s book about the work of the Greek Nobel award poet Odysseus Elytis.
Jeffrey Carson and Jim Clark, exploring Paros in the seventies.
An American in Paros
Text: Avgi Kalogianni | Photos: Nikos Zappas
In 2015, we introduced to you Jeffrey Carson, the American teacher, translator, musician, writer and poet, who lives here with his wife, photographer Elizabeth Carson, as somebody who saw Paros passing from the years of innocence to today.
We decided to republish that interview, more relevant now than ever, and on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution asked him for a comment:
“When my wife and I moved from New York to Paros in 1970, we could never have imagined that we would spend our whole adult life here. Since Hellas is two-hundred years old, that means we have resided here, much of the time as full citizens, for one quarter of its existence.
We have witnessed its development, approved and disapproved, been astounded and dispirited, delighted and disappointed, and never out of love, as my wife’s photographs and my translations of Greek poetry have demonstrated. Odysseus Elytis wrote to me that my true university was the Aegean archipelago; I didn’t understand him then, but I do now. So, I celebrate Greece, ancient and modern, and look to its future: my future”.
What makes two twenty-year old students from America come to Paros in the sixties?
I think the sixties were the alternative years. There were very few Americans here; there were only five foreigners in Paros when we arrived. We fell in love with the idea of the Greek islands, we didn’t know anything. We loved classical Greece – which was mostly Athens – and this idea of the island, and when we came here we fell in love with Paros.
What was Paros like in the seventies?
When we first came here in the sixties, we stayed for six months, and then we went back so that both of us could finish our university education. We decided to come back to Paros in the early seventies because I wanted to try writing and my wife wanted to bring her cameras and become a real photographer. We both did that and until now we are still doing it. When we remembered Paros and our six months here, the photos were beautiful, it was quiet… It was nothing like the modern world, nothing like New York… We are both New Yorkers. There were almost no cars. They had just started the ferry boat.
We lived in an old house, a «katoikia», we had a donkey and we had a well. There were no people in the countryside, our light was from oil lamps and we thought this was very poetic. And although it was difficult, it was poetic.
What made you publish a guide book about the island?
Because I was spending a lot of time exploring it with my friend Jim Clark. We were walking a lot, taking hikes together. There was no new good guide book on Paros so we thought: «We are doing all the work anyway, so let’s make one! ». We published it with a friend in Athens, John Chapel of Lycabettus Press. We made the first map of Parikia, which everybody copied illegally and incorrectly. We made maps of all the big dirt roads and paved roads of Paros which nobody had at that time. And when it was published the book sold very well.
You brought the first piano in Paros after many years. How many pianos are there in Paros now?
Oh, many! The children who studied at the Music School have them. They bought them in the eighties and the nineties. Now they don’t buy them anymore, they buy electric keyboards. But I did bring the first one. The piano was made in 1888. I bought it in Athens at Nakas’ and six of us guys had to carry it across the field up to my house. Within two years children started knocking at my door. «Give me lessons! Give me lessons! » for all kinds of instruments because they knew I had been a high school music teacher in New York. So, I taught violin, clarinet, flute and accordion. Then Nikos Sarris and I ran a music school for many years until we got tired. So, all the kids who knew how to read music in Paros learned from me.
What about your history with the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts?
Well, in 1966 I was twenty-one and I was here trying to write poetry, and a fellow came along who had just graduated art school, he had a Master’s degree and he wanted to start an alternative art school. Alternative doesn’t exist anymore now, but those were the sixties. I said he should do it here. So, he started it. Then we left for America and when we returned here, we both started working there. It’s been a great pleasure for me. The town likes these kids because they come for four months, they learn a lot about Greece and they are polite. I like it too because I am teaching them about things I love.
You have been a teacher practically all your life. What have you gained from teaching?
In terms of money, very little. In terms of pleasure, a great deal. I am still doing it, even though I am at the age of retirement now and I will miss it terribly. Also, by being here on Paros all the year, I am in touch with the youth of America and I hear my own language spoken normally – not like with Greek people who speak it perfectly but do not speak it idiomatically. So, I kept in touch with it that way.
I should mention that I am a citizen of Greece and of America. I vote in both places.
You have translated Elytis’ poems. Why Elytis?
When I was 22 years old, I bought a book called «Four Modern Poets of Greece»– Seferis, Kavafis, Sikelianos and Elytis. And when I got to Elytis’ poems about the Aegean, I said «This is what I am trying to do. He does it better! ». So, I started, as I learned Greek, teaching myself from school books, doing little translations to understand the poems better, and after I’d been doing this for four years – but not seriously – I met Nikos Sarris and he was in love with Elytis. So, we talked and talked and talked and then we made a few translations together. We sent them to Elytis and he wrote back saying «These are the best translations of my work I have ever read». And that’s how we started. And then he said «Do you want to do more?». So, we did. We translated everything.
So, did you get to know Elytis personally or only through his poetry?
First through his poetry, later we went to see him several times in Athens and I had a long correspondence with him in his unintelligible handwriting. Nobody can read it, not even the girl I hired for that purpose!
You have given poetry readings in Harvard and New York University. How does the American student perceive Elytis’s poetry?
To appreciate it they need to be open to things that are Greek – but by that I mean truly Greek, not like Kavafis who is not Greek. He is international, he didn’t live here. Elytis is here. So, if they are open to that, the poetry is beautiful and some kids who like poetry can start to hear this. Then they will put out a little money to buy the book, although the book is very expensive.
Who would you consider to be an important contemporary Greek poet?
I met Kiki Dimoula one time. I think she is important. We were both reading pieces about Elytis in a conference in Athens all in Greek. I felt very nervous reading a paper in Greek.
But let’s make an analogy. At the beginning of the 1500s in Italy, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and many others, they were all painters. What do the painters do next? They can’t equal it. Nobody has ever equaled it. So, they try this, they try that. I think that’s what happened in Greece. They sit down and try to write a poem about the Aegean and a big foot comes into their face and it’s Elytis’s foot. And they can’t do anything. So, they start writing city poems, mostly imitating American poetry, which is OK; they need to find their masters. So that freshness, where the Greek poets had started with Solomos, built up to a tremendous thing; great talents emerged and took advantage of it, but then it was gone. The same thing happened with Greek songs. How many good songwriters were there in the sixties? Not just Theodorakis and Chatzidakis, there were many. Pop songs, peasant songs, simple songs and they are beautiful. Nobody can do it anymore. There are many talented songwriters, but they just can’t do it anymore. Times are changing. I also think that to have really great art you have to have a certain optimism about the world even if there are bad things going on. All the great poets – Elytis, Sikelianos, Ritsos – they all have that. And it’s gone. The junta killed it.
What about Archilochos?
The poet? First of all, Nikos Sarris and I translated every word of Archilochos from the original. At that time, he was a little less famous than now and the Parians didn’t know so much about him either. I couldn’t find the Greek text. I wrote to Oxford University Press, and I received by mail two volumes, very expensive volumes, and Nikos and I worked from that. By that time Archilochos was getting more popular because the fragments are very easy to understand although nobody understands them, if you know what I mean. So Archilochos was a great pleasure and then Nikos set many of them to music. He made a CD which is very popular at least here. I have given readings of these poems and people always love them.
Now about the Archilochos Club here. This is a little off the subject but I think it’s important. I think the two ends of culture are the best. The peasant end and the high culture. Peasants care very – very much where you put a niche in the wall and they discuss it. They care very much about the flavour of the water from the well and they discuss it. They will discuss flavours of meat, whether it’s a female or a male, how old it is. They care very much about what kind of leaves they put over a basket of figs when they sell it. It should look right. They know many – many songs and dances all by heart. Now this is a small but beautiful closed culture. Once you open it a little bit everything runs out and what you get is low class commercial culture, which is what the Greeks have now and so does everybody else in the world. The only way out is to go to high culture but that takes work. You don’t inherit it. So, you have to do it. So here were the Parians who were getting curious about the world. Television was just coming in, they weren’t peasants any more, and they wanted to go to university, see the world. Many of us that thought we needed to do something, to organize culture. So, there were seven or eight people including Georgoussis, Ghikas, Sarris, who started the club. About a month later I joined in, so I am one of the original members. We did try to do some high culture, Greek high culture of course which is Theodorakis and things like that. We attracted a great many people, a lot of support. It’s not so strong right now as it used to be. But for many-many years we all worked very hard volunteer work. We ran concerts and readings, exhibitions. I think we did give the youth then and their parents some idea that there was something more than radio culture and television culture. And it worked. And then kids wanted to take piano lessons and they wanted to travel a bit. And it’s those kids now that run Archilochos because that generation is old. So, it was successful and it goes on. In the early eighties we performed the complete «Axion Esti» with children playing the notes, classical music. There were three bouzouki players and clarinet players; little kids with flutes, a full orchestra and a chorus of thirty-five or forty. We did it here and nobody could believe it. It wasn’t being done in Athens then. It is now but it wasn’t then. Elisabeth Papazoi, the governor of the Cyclades, came to one of our concerts, and Theodorakis came. Theodorakis really likes applause. There were about 700 people all screaming. And we did another piece on Mykonos. It was amazing! We rehearsed it for nearly a year before we performed it. We did a lot of things that were close to impossible!
1970-2015: what changes have occurred in Paros in these forty-five years?
I can say the basic things. If you did not live in Naoussa or Parikia or Lefkes, you had no electricity in 1970, you had no running water. Everybody lived that way. That’s the way we lived too. Very few people had cars; most people had donkeys, including us. Most of the changes I approve because you don’t want people to live in a museum just because it’s pleasing to tourists. That’s bad. I know Greeks think they are poor but they’re not poor like their grandparents were. So, when they get more money they buy the same things everybody buys. They get fancier houses which they say are traditional but are not. They take trips abroad, they drive cars. Their kids have computers, just as I do. That’s a big change because it opens up everything. The biggest change came when the cafes first got television. It was terrible because people sat in the cafes with their eyes on the screen. They didn’t talk; no politics, it was over. That killed the “kafeneio” and turned it into a place for old men to wait for dinner. It killed a lot of Greek culture. When you went out to your fields on a donkey, say from Parikia to – well, everybody has fields everywhere! – when you passed people you knew on a donkey, you stopped to say «hello, how is your family? ». But when you pass them in a truck, you don’t. So, all these people who used to know everything about each other, now they don’t know anything about each other and they are much more distant. On Sunday mornings, all the farmers used to go to town. That’s when they did their business, no contracts. Their wives went to church with the children, to protect the family, and the men really did business. That’s all finished. People do not really talk to each other. The Parians are perfectly aware of this but what can you do about it? The feeling was different. If you go to a “panigyri” now, there is nobody there. People drive up quickly in a car, they have a souma and they leave. The first “panigyri” that we went to, there was live music, people sat on the grass and picnicked for hours. It’s all finished, it’s all gone. It’s kind of sad. Everybody says, «I’m traditional. I am paradossiakos». But they’re not.
The new thing now is that the Greeks are very upset with the big mess, with their politicians. They are quite right. Their politicians have been incompetent. Everybody saw this coming and the leaders were supposed to do something and they didn’t. This is the first time I have ever heard the Greeks say, «We are to blame». They always said, «America is to blame! Britain is to blame! ». Now they say, «We are to blame». So, they are becoming more modern in this way. Economically it would be better to go back to the drachma. This would be wrong though, because it’s not only about economics. The Greeks now know that they are Europeans. None of their kids ever had a drachma. They are part of Europe. They think of the European youth as being similar to them. They are one group. And so, I think Greeks are becoming Europeans, and I basically think this is a good idea. As I say, once you lose the beautiful peasant culture, you have to go out and develop. You cannot stay in the middle with American plastic furniture forever.