The poet, as a hunter: Anthony Dracopoulos launches Divertente and other poems by Yannis Rentzos
Shortly after I first met Yannis about 10 years ago, he gave me a copy of a magazine that contained some of his poetry. It was in Greek, so I could’t read it. I gave it to Antigone Kefala and asked her what she thought. She gave one of her usual waves and signified that it was serious stuff but that’s about all. Around that time, Yannis and I had a conversation about literature and poetry. It was exciting to talk with someone who was interested in poetry but totally outside the Australian scene. He told me that he liked the work of the Australian poet, Les Murray. Naturally I told him that this was akin to approving of the Greek Junta. He didn’t believe me of course but it seemed that we weren’t on the same literary page.
Then a few years ago, years later, we connected unexpectedly. I wrote an essay about Glebe where I’ve lived for 50 years and that was published in The Sydney Review of Books. Yannis, who’d become a resident and fan of Glebe, read it, liked it, translated it into Greek and published it in O Kosmos newspaper. As well as that, he arranged for my serial novel called The Western Horizon, originally published in Heat magazine, to be translated into Greek in Greece. Around the same time, Kit Kelen told me he thought Flying Islands Books should include more women writers and non-Anglo writers, so I passed the word on to Sarah St Vincent Welch and Jane Skelton and they were published in Flying Islands books in 2021. I also introduced Yannis to Kit Kelen during Kit’s show at our gallery and suggested that Yannis might be a potential Flying Island poet. Kit liked the idea and suggested that Yannis and I might work together on a translation of Yanni’s work in Greek. That suggestion was a bit of a shock because it wasn’t something I’d thought of doing. But I had worked a lot in the past with my ESL school students on their creative writing. So the idea of working with Yannis was appealing once I’d thought about it. It was also daunting, I wondered if it could be possible. My knowledge of Greek is minimal, even though my father was a Greek speaker and I’d studied first year Greek at Sydney University for a while in 1975. I also lived on Kalymnos for a month in 1978 and wrote a novella there under the guidance of the minimalist American ex-pat poet, Robert Lax who was living on the island. But my knowledge of Greek and literature in Greek is sparse.
Kit had a perspective about translation and collaborative work that was different from what I had previously thought. With his encouragement, I realised that what I could bring to the table was an understanding of poetry in English and of the impossibility of making direct translations of culturally bound language and connotations. Translating poetry throws open a whole Pandora’s box of problems and direct collaboration is one way to deal with that. What I did mostly in collaboration with Yannis was to translate rough English translations into ‘poetry’. Poetry with a tone that matched a contemporary Anglophone consciousness. It wasn’t so hard – Yannis’ work is Modernist and akin to the creative work I write myself.
In 2021 the lockdowns were a boon to many of us who craved time to focus on our own work. Yannis and I were both freed up from our usual work obligations and were able to study his Divertente poems on Zoom as well as face to face. I think that the resulting texts in the book are reasonable approximations of Yanni’s intentions – and I think the book is a little gem. But the collaborative process itself was very engaging and isn’t exactly reflected in the book. The title Divertente doesn’t quite suggest contents of the book. It’s a lot more serious than that suggests. Most of the poems were written when Yannis was still in Europe and there is a sense of the weight of European history and certain European concerns that are not in the foreground in our environment. Fascism and religion don’t occupy quite the same place in Australia as they do in European countries. Also the writer persona isn’t quite the live Yannis that we’re all familiar with in Sydney, the ubiquitous photographer and mercurial presence. The poems in Divertente are dramatic and emotional, full of angst. And socially responsible. They’re full of connotations and references which made it difficult to find equivalents for in English, particularly Australian English.
And this process of translation, this collaboration, was reciprocal and actually began earlier when Yannis was questioning me about various meanings and connotations of details in my essay about Glebe. That essay referenced my memories of Glebe over the last 50 years of living here and in his translation process, connected Yannis to the Glebe of the present, and the home he has here with his family. We’ve talked about so many things that were not only to do with my essay or novella or with Yannis’ poetry and yet somehow our discussion points informed all of them.
It’s been amazing to work with Yannis on the poetry in this book and on the reciprocal translations we’ve done. It not only connected me back to the teaching work that I loved but also to Greek culture that I’ve only ever had a toe in, always standing on the outside looking in. I think our work has also connected Yannis a bit more with Australian culture and literature, with writing and writers that he was previously not connected with. The Flying Islands community of writers is a welcoming and varied one, a relevant collection of contemporaries, not a bad thing to be a part of. So many of the Flying Islands writers have other wider literary lives, like Yannis himself, working with so many Greek Australian writers and artists in his work on O Kosmos, the Greek language newspaper. He has published and promoted people like the photographers Effy Alexakis and Tom Tsomotragos, and writers like Yota Krili, George Michelakakis and Dimitris Tzoumakas. In addition, he has started a YouTube channel called Kosmos Insight that showcases Greek Australian practitioners.
– Anna Couani
Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and visual artist who runs The Shop Gallery in Glebe with her husband, sculptor Hilik Mirankar. Her out of print writing can be found at
annacouani.com. Some of her visual art is here: sesquitria.blogspot.com and music she’s written/recorded is here: annacouani1.bandcamp.com
Divertente and other poems is available from https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/divertente-and-other-poems-by-yannis-rentzos/