Greek poet, writer and translator Christos Angelakopoulos talks about the Beat Movement, poetry and music

"I learned to be open to the chance, it made me want to “follow my inner moonlight”, express my feelings without being afraid and live my life to the fullest. Of course, “On the Road” brought in the forefront the technique of Bob prosody… More importantly, it taught me the meaning of friendship and it instructed me to try to listen to the music of the words, always underlying though seemingly latent, just like the music of the spheres."

Christos Angelakopoulos:

Beat Rhymes & Rock Rhythms

Christos Angelakopoulos, born in 1986, is a Greek poet, writer and translator. He has translated and published in Greek many books of American Beat poets and writers like: William S. Burroughs, The Retreat Diaries, Bibliothèque 2018; Jazz Poems, Bibliothèque 2018; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, What is Poetry?, Bibliothèque 2018; Gregory Corso, Some of my Beginnings and What I Feel Right Now, Bibliothèque 2019; Jack Hirschman, Path: Selected Poems 1952 – 2001, Apopira 2019; Lenore Kandel, The Love Book, Kazanaki 2019; William S. Burroughs: In the Labyrinths of the Mind: Selected Interviews 1961 – 1996, Bibliothèque 2020; Timothy Leary, Starseed, Bibliothèque 2020.

Christos Angelakopoulos, says: "The hardest part is the necessity to translate the poem without it losing its rhythm and, of course, without betraying its, sometimes ambiguous, meaning. The majority of the Beat poems are inextricably connected with the time, the place and the social conventions that they struggled to overcome. As a translator, my main concern is to be accurate to the meaning and faithful to the poem’s spirit and atmosphere."

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Beat Movement and counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you have taken?

It has influenced me tremendously. The Beat Generation (as well as other so called street poets or groups of poets like, say, the Babar ones) has asserted us that poetry is not limited to the academies and the universities, the real poetry can be found everywhere and its main aim is to express the people’s sincere feelings about the world and all those who surround them, without concealing, distorting or beautifying anything. The Beat poets were if not the first they were surely the most provocative ones, to confess their inner thoughts, fears and madness, they expanded our consciousness and made us realize that every part of our life is precious, every experience constitutes the raw material of poetry and, what is more, that we must first live and then write our impressions from the world, in our struggle to catch a glimpse of the truth― if such a thing exists.

What is the hardest part of translations? Why "The Beats" matter important today? How do you want it to affect people?

The hardest part is the necessity to translate the poem without it losing its rhythm and, of course, without betraying its, sometimes ambiguous, meaning. The majority of the Beat poems are inextricably connected with the time, the place and the social conventions that they struggled to overcome. As a translator, my main concern is to be accurate to the meaning and faithful to the poem’s spirit and atmosphere. Each work of art carries a cosmogony, its creator’s cosmogony, you must render his world, his universe, without any black holes which are created the time when you translate it in your own language, or else it will be swallowed and ruined― a cosmos without harmony and scheme. It is like transcribing music. You may have the words or even the notes, but you will miss its aura and flow if you are not careful enough.

The Beat Generation matters important today because the demand to expand our consciousness is more imperative than ever. Today, with the economic crisis and the conclusion that our society has no place for poetry or poets, we should follow their example, and try to find our own voice despite the difficulties and the fact that there is nobody there to listen to it. We must make poetry important again and make clear that if we distill our experiences and our lives themselves into poetry, we can discover its essence― ours as well; we can transmute our being into a shout declaring our very existence and face death by having earlier deciphered what makes us laugh and still live despite any adversity.

What has been the relationship between music and literature in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?              (Photo: Jazz Poems, Bibliothèque 2018)

Well, I cannot imagine my life without books and music. Since when I were very young, I started reading everything I could find. As far as I can remember, the first book I read was the poems of C.P. Cavafy and an anthology by Yannis Ritsos. Then, I read Greek poetry, lots of books of Greek poetry, for years, and fiction or philosophy too. The crucial point was when I came across the books of Samuel Beckett ―I regard him as the greatest writer who lived on Earth the last two hundred years― and Maurice Blanchot. Georges Bataille is a great influence as well. The same is for Emil Cioran or Giles Deleuze. The revelation came when I discovered the Beat Generation, writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Ray Bremser, Wanda Coleman etc. And, of course, William Blake or Walt Whitman, the fathers of them all. As for the music, I cannot forget the feeling when I first listened to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Joelle Leandre or, maybe, Black Sabbath (!) Their music follows me and accompanies many happy or sad moments of my life, especially when I write my own books or translate.

What do you think was the relationship of Jazz to the Beat poetry? What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

Their relationship could not be more clear and definite. Many poets were inspired by the masters of Jazz, their riffs, their spontaneity, their impromptu melodies or even the blues, and wrote many poems praising the great musicians and their technique, by following their way of creation, thus letting their mind free and dependent on no one when they had to face a blank page. Let us remember here the old ancient Greek rhapsodists who were reciting their poems by heart and were even improvising, or the modern American poets like Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans or Jayne Cortez. Their poems are so much affected by Jazz that they cannot almost be read without the accompaniment of music or in regard to their ability to improvise, abandoned to the rhythm and the stream of consciousness while they were listening to the music that inspired them or during a performance. I tried to show this connection in the book I translated two years ago, the “Jazz Poems”, by presenting thirty poems which praise the Jazz musicians and demonstrate a particular way of thinking and living in its air as it comes. I am now translating the second volume, “Jazz Poems II”; it will contain over than two hundred Jazz poems by many unknown poets, who have written or do still write pioneering poetry resonating the rhythms of the old, good Jazz. All these cats are too hard to die no matter how much time has passed. Besides, “you can’t stop the beat”!

"It has influenced me tremendously. The Beat Generation (as well as other so called street poets or groups of poets like, say, the Babar ones) has asserted us that poetry is not limited to the academies and the universities, the real poetry can be found everywhere and its main aim is to express the people’s sincere feelings about the world and all those who surround them, without concealing, distorting or beautifying anything." (Photo: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Paul Bowles books)

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The Beat Generation was an artistic movement which began in the mid-fifties and, as it seems, finished with Jack Kerouac’s death, in 1969. All of their major books where written in those years. However, its influence was huge and it has survived until nowadays. The Beat poets wrote, of course, some great poems all the following years after 1969. However, it is more than clear that something had changed, their ambitions made the majority of them to teach to universities or follow a somehow more conservative way of living, their impetus appeared diminished and by no means did they manage to create something so spontaneous or “living” like in their earlier works.  Nowadays, there are still poets who remain faithful to their spirit and keep creating their poems under, more or less, the influence of them, for example Andy Clausen, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ron Whitehead, Gerald Locklin, Alan Kaufman, Paul Richmond etc. And don’t forget that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder or Neeli Cherkovski are still alive and active! It is true that the Beat poets gave voice to many other poets who at the time did not know how to express themselves and there was no publisher available to accept their manuscripts. Each poet took what he needed from the Beats and thereafter he made his own poetry, always rejecting every convention and following his instinct. In many cases, they injected new elements in their poetry, for example the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia or Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman, who wrote about their experiences as women.

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I have never thought about that. It is what it is, this is our world. Well, I do not know. Every day we struggle to change something, but how do change it or, can it really be changed? And what comes after the change? Of course, we fight for freedom, equality, love, we try to stop the wars or the social injustices, but we are always in the lap of gods, we cannot overcome our primordial instincts and nature. I am sorry, but I cannot find a proper answer for this question.

"1) Be yourself, even in poetry. 2) First live and after write. 3) “Don’t hide the madness”. 4) Learn to listen to the music around you. 5) Be on the watch. 6) As di Prima would say: «The only war that matters is the war against imagination”." (Photo: Books translated in Greek by Christos Angelakopoulos)

How does the underlying philosophy of On the Road impact you? What touched (emotionally) you from Gregory Corso?

In many ways. I learned to be open to the chance, it made me want to “follow my inner moonlight”, express my feelings without being afraid and live my life to the fullest. Of course, “On the Road” brought in the forefront the technique of Bob prosody… More importantly, it taught me the meaning of friendship and it instructed me to try to listen to the music of the words, always underlying though seemingly latent, just like the music of the spheres. As for Gregory Corso, he taught us that in world full of chaos and torture, we must always be happy, we must laugh at the gods and everything here, he showed us how to cry smiling and fling ourselves to the extreme ends of every experience, no matter how odd it seems to the eyes of the other people. He announced us what it means to be a poet. Gregory illuminated the tenderness in our hearts and talked about the beatitude of life even in the times of the deep despair and death which, though always present, represents a step into the adventurous unknown.

What is the impact of music and Beat culture to the racial, spiritual, political, and socio-cultural implications?

The impact is deep. For example, let us remember the anthology “Black Fire” which gave voice to many Black (not only so called Beat) artists who talked about their race and rights, or the poems of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman or Ted Joans; all of them contributed to the Black people’s freedom of speech and simply being able to live their lives without being afraid, those difficult times when the racial discriminations had still left their remnants. The same applies to the women of the Beat Generation, who wrote about their own problems and needs and expressed themselves though at first marginalized; their backstairs influence, however, was huge and helped many other female writers to dare and write about their own experiences, even if the price was heavy― like in the case of Elise Cowen. After that, the Beats, deeply influenced by the Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, embodied in their writings many elements which expanded their poetry and made a body of something like “sutras”, a guide to expand our consciousness and meditate, coming thus to a realization of ourselves and mentality. For example, the haikus of Jack Kerouac or the “Sutras of the Golden Eternity”, the poems of Lenore Kandel and their “holy eroticism”, Gary Snyder’s and, of course, Allen Ginsberg’s from the early seventies and on or Giorno’s later poems. The Beat poets were always criticizing society and its conventions; they were against every war and fought for freedom, without compromises or any back-downs. Allen Ginsberg’s poems are a good example of this, or the poems of Jack Hirschman, even Julia Vinograd’s and others’. They called us to turn to our roots; they wrote about the environment (Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger), they experimented with everything in order to expand their consciousness (William S. Burroughs), not to mention their references to their sexuality or the use of drugs. All in all, they simply sang praises of life, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Marty Matz and others. They tried to talk about everything and change everything. It is a struggle that goes on until today.

"Their relationship could not be more clear and definite. Many poets were inspired by the masters of Jazz, their riffs, their spontaneity, their impromptu melodies or even the blues, and wrote many poems praising the great musicians and their technique, by following their way of creation, thus letting their mind free and dependent on no one when they had to face a blank page." (Photo: Lenore Kandel, The Love Book, Kazanaki 2019; William S. Burroughs: In the Labyrinths of the Mind: Selected Interviews 1961 – 1996, Bibliothèque 2020)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your studies to Beat movement?

1) Be yourself, even in poetry. 2) First live and after write. 3) “Don’t hide the madness”. 4) Learn to listen to the music around you. 5) Be on the watch. 6) As di Prima would say: «The only war that matters is the war against imagination”.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, albums) would you put in?

I would like to travel back in 1953 and watch the French premiere of “Waiting for Godot” by Roger Blin. In 1956, when the “Howl and Other Poems” was published in America. I would like to travel in ancient China and have a tea with Li Po or Kobayashi Issa in Japan. I would like to be there when Steve Richmond met for the first time Charles Bukowski, or when Julia Vinograd demonstrated in the streets of San Francisco with her bubbles. I would like to travel back and meet Bob Kaufman the years before his silence vow. But, above all, I would like to travel back in 2016, and live again those evenings with my brother, Bes, though I know that this can never happen again― he is too far now to listen to my cries in the night. Well, it is what it is, I cannot change that. As for the books, I would always carry with me the “Collected Shorter Prose” by Samuel Beckett, the “Collected Poems” of Bob Kaufman”, the “Nothing/Doing” by Cid Corman and George Bataille’s “Guilty”. Albums? One would be enough. I would take with me the album “Winter in New York” by Joelle Leandre and Kevin Norton, which was a gift by a now lost friend. I remember listening to it while returning to Athens with him― a dim memory. I would also take with me the album “Handful of Rain” by Savatage.

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