Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Eleni Sikelianos about You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek), which conjures in book-length essay the hard-edged life of her burlesque-dancing maternal grandmother.
You come from a line of poets on your father’s side, yes? How does your maternal lineage feed your poetry and prose, not just You Animal Machine but other work as well?
Well, I also come from a line of madwomen and eccentrics (on both sides), as well as many musicians and people involved in performance and costumery (also on both sides). On my mother’s side, it’s a very female lineage — single mothers with girls for the most part. My mother’s mother, the main subject in You Animal Machine, was a single mother working the 1940s and 50s burlesque circuit with three girls in tow. I think part of what feeds my work on that side is that no one in my direct line made ordinary, middlemind choices in how they lived their lives. Sometimes they didn’t have or didn’t see choices, but no one was leading a domesticated existence. That was just the ground I grew up on — no one (except me) was trying to fit in. I don’t think they even knew/know how to.
Along with that, my grandmother and mother were both big readers, and had an eccentric sense of language play. My grandmother, I imagine, from living with a jazz musician and a preacher, and from working vaudeville, of which burlesque was a part.
How did the book’s form develop?
This hybrid form seems to come naturally to my family stories. The shifting forms fit the shifting textures and events in a life lived outside the common structures, and maybe any life. I wrote a book about my father, The Book of Jon, which also moves between forms, trying to get an angle — angles — on the many ways to see a person. I was and am very conscious of the way our vision is blocked. Dante talks about that. Robert Smithson talks about being more interested in the ways we don’t see, in blindness, rather than in what we do. For me, the shifting forms are a way to see around corners.
My grandmother’s scrapbook, with all her old showgirl gigs and newspaper clippings, was the first way I knew her history, and was a central form from which the book arose. I also like to include others in making these family histories, so the interview format (both real and imagined) has been crucial. In The Book of Jon, I include a paper film (with blacked out blocks around words, as if the words are flickering across a black screen); in this one, there is a nekyia, or a conversation with the dead, which required the shimmer of dashes around the ghost’s speech.
Each form in the book is a way of trying to get at seeing, or at blindness.
What’s your definition of Americana? How do you and your story fit into that definition? How do you defy it?
There is a strange cleaving where individualism, eccentricity, making one’s own way and days meet the rightwing in America. I am interested in the Americana that has to do with the handmade, the original, the weird. I’m not interested in the Americana that has to do with nationalism and the NRA. Or, I’m interested in it in a kind of revolt and fury. My grandmother was part of the weird old America in which people made their own choices without imposing them on others. There is the other weird America that posits freedom, but everyone is expected to make the same choices within that freedom. The Mojave desert holds both these Americanas, it seems to me.
It may be considered nostalgic to be interested in the handmade or the original these days, far into and past the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, but
a poem is a handmade (mindmade) thing; even conceptual poetry is. I’d like to read Americana as cultural production that arises from a sense of place and shows the traces of that place, as well as the body’s and mind’s imprint on material. When it veers toward dog-headed patriotism, no thank yee (as my husband likes to say).
So — to actually answer your question — the book and its stories fit into that American history of eccentricity and individualism, and refuses accepting social norms (of lifestyle, of form).
Now that so much of the world around us is human made it seems more important than ever to trace the human to the hand that makes. That’s a moral stance, too — holding BP responsible, for example, for their “hand” on the environment. Environmental disasters are handmade, too.
I live close to your maternal grandmother’s former desert ‘hood and am familiar with the communities you mention, particularly Inyokern and Randsburg. I make treks to Randsburg at Christmastime specifically to buy glass shard ornaments and gifts. Do you suppose my ornaments are Annie’s legacy? What do you consider the highlights of the Melena tours you’ve made?
Oh, I bet your ornaments are by the same woman I name Annie in my book, or by her son!
I have great childhood memories of taking the Greyhound to see my grandmother out in the desert, and being stuck in some one-wooden-store-front town with a broken soda machine in the middle of the night, with the sand and tumble weeds whistling by. There is nothing as full and succinct as that loneliness. Of mirages on the long stretches of highway, and those washed colors of tawny sand, blue sky, and a low mountain hunkering in the distance. A lot of this is in the book. The salty ladies in bouffants at greasy spoons. The kids riding bicycles through goat weed and dust near chain link studded with tumbleweed. Many of those things are still there. Visiting as an adult, the metallic, dark and weighty threat of the military bases was more obvious, as was the ridiculousness of shining green lawns stitched up next to sand. I hope they’re not watering those things in this drought!
On that more recent research trip, I traveled with my husband and very young (18-month-old) daughter, and another highlight was one of her first sentences, from the back seat: Mo’ nack! which translates as “More snack!”
What did you call your grandmother? (I may have missed this, forgive me.)
Grandma, of all things. I called my father’s parents by their first names, Marian and Glafkos, and wouldn’t have imagined calling them by a generic title.
What does it mean for you, Eleni Sikelianos, to be on the right side of your magic?
I think it is part luck and will that gets us there. But also an ethical care for others and the world around us. That is a kind of basic magic. Having an art that swept me along on its path, that called me and culled me kept me on the right side (more or less) of my magic.
My grandmother tried to practice black magic, an outward emblem of the ways she wasn’t on the right side of her magic. She must have felt little control over her life, I would say…
But magic, ordinary or not, black or benevolent, is a little scary, just as inspiration is. Daily social structures can keep us away from being on the right side of our magic. It has to be cultivated and cared for, and comes from our attention to the world.
If you could give this book a soundtrack, what would it be?
A lot of Rembetika, the Greek Blues. These are songs about hash house denizens, immigrants, jailhouses, star-crossed lovers and lowlifes. They are songs my grandmother started her performing career on, as a young child in Greek coffeehouses. They have something called kefi, which is maybe most closely translated as soul. Check out the song mentioned in the book, “Gazeli Neva Sabah,” by Rita Abadzi. That song makes my hair stand on end.
Songs by the contemporary Greek singer Xaris Alexiou. Angelique Ionatos singing Odysseas Elytis’ contemporary Greek translations of Sappho (these are gorgeous), P.J. Harvey’s badass songs, Diamanda Galas curses, and the Gilgamesh cycle by the Franco-Syrian composer Abed Azrié.
Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what is it? If not, do you have music that inspires you?
I used to more than I do now. I did listen to quite a bit of what’s listed above while writing this book. Arvo Pärt, the Canadian songwriter and singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, Beck, Ali Farka Touré, Mazzy Star, Palace, Django Reinhardt, Franco (from the former Zaire), Hank Williams, John Zorn, the Kronos Quartet, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, Peggy and Mike Seeger all come to mind as musicians who have helped me write, along with many more. In recent years, I’ve found music somewhat distracting. I’m sure that will change again, though.
Which writers influence your writing?
I don’t know that anyone directly influences it now, but in the past Proust, Ondaatje (Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter), the second generation New York School Women (Notley, Mayer, Waldman), César Vallejo, Aimé Césaire, the Howe sisters, Allen Ginsberg (who was my teacher, and who my daughter calls Alien Ginsberg), a text book on zoology, C.D. Wright, Barbara Guest, Mark McMorris’s The Café at Night, Michael Palmer, Philip Whalen… about 100 others… are all rattling around in my inner chambers somewhere. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! gave me thought and succor in recent years. My friends’ work has been important to me: Brenda Coultas, Marcella Durand, Laird Hunt (I live with him, so we’re constantly influencing one another). Recent books by younger poets I’ve loved are dg okpik’s Corpse Whale, Simone White’s Ugly Duckling chapbook, and Lynn Xu’s Debts & Lessons. I’m reading the first volume of Knausgard’s My Struggle now, and loving it.
Do you have other projects in the works?
I’m finishing up a trilogy called Make Yourself Happy, in which I’m working out questions of how to live, and the various trajectories of what that means — survival and extinction, for example. I’m in the throes of a long poem called Now I Tell What I Knew, where I am providing another exposure of the most available information alongside shelters for knowledge that cannot be searched by any engine.
The next family history is simmering, too, this one about my lesbian theater director great grandmother and her husband, the Greek poet.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead, and The California Poem; and the hybrid memoir, The Book of Jon. Sikelianos’s work has been widely anthologized, in two Norton anthologies (Postmodern American Poetry and American Hybrid) as well as Tin House’s Satellite Convulsions, A Best of Fence, and The Arcadia Project. She has collaborated with filmmakers, visual artists, composers, and musicians, including Philip Glass and Ed Bowes. At present, she teaches in and directs the Creative Writing Program at The University of Denver and teaches for Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. She shares her days with the novelist Laird Hunt and their daughter Eva Grace. You Animal Machine received a starred Kirkus Review, and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. (Photo by Laird Hunt)