Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou: Traveling to the Light
Phaedra Pagoulatou-Zambatha was born in Athens to the distinguished writer Koulis Zambathas. She studied French and Italian literature, and made her literary debut in 1962 with Drops of Light. In 1964 she became a member of the Hellenic Authors Society, and later served as its general secretary. The recipient of many honors and awards, she has lectured frequently in Greece and abroad, and her work has been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.
Recently, I had the good fortune to interview the outstanding Greek poet Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou. Phaedra lives in a spacious apartment her native Athens, decorated with the mementoes and awards of a long career in the arts. A lifetime fighter against fascism and all forms of injustice, she is the author of eighteen books of poetry among other volumes, and was the long-time secretary of the Hellenic Authors Society. Her work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, and Russian.
Lili Bita: Thank you for accommodating this interview on such short notice.
Phaedra Zambatha-Pagulatou: No problem at all! We Greeks do everything in a rush.
Bita: Let me ask you first about the present condition in Greece. We know that the Greek unemployment rate has been stuck above 25% for the past several years. How, especially from a woman’s point of view, does one cope?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: The truth is that all aspects of Greek life have been impacted severely. There is a great deal of suffering, both physical and spiritual. There is real hunger. But we Greeks have learned from long experience not to give in to adversity, no matter how difficult the situation. We find ways to cope, and at the same time to resist. Writers, for example, have taken advantage of the newest technology to get their works published at a fraction of the former cost. So no one succeeds in humbling us, and no one succeeds in silencing us.
Bita: What is the general condition of cultural life?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: There are almost 160 theaters operating in Athens alone. Many of them are experimental, and the young actors are wonderfully talented and inventive. Performances are free for the unemployed. Writers, too, stage many readings throughout the city free of charge, and there are also free concerts. We know that as long as culture lives, so does the spirit.
Bita: How do writers respond to the crisis?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: We keep writing. Especially the poets, because poetry is the most necessary thing of all. But every Greek is a poet. And not all poetry is what goes onto a page.
Bita: What role can the Greeks of the Diaspora play—we Greeks who live abroad?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: Greeks abroad have been a great help, materially and spiritually. No matter what they’re doing in their own lives, no matter what problems they face themselves, we know they are with us in our struggle. Above all, they keep us in their minds and hearts, and they keep the Greek sea and sky there, our beautiful Mediterranean. We know we aren’t alone.
Bita: How do you see the future of the country?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: We’re going to survive as we always have. We fight and sing at the same time. That’s really the formula. We Greeks are rebels and poets from way back. Our solidarity is very deep. We share our bread and our laughter. We share our struggle and pain. No one has defeated us, and no one ever will. We are going to prevail.
Bita: Can you tell us a little about your new book of poems, Traveling Towards the Light?
Zambatha-Pagulatou: Like all my books, it’s about the interface between past and present. The first part of the book is inspired by sculpture, ancient and modern. It’s mostly Greek, but there are also poems about Michelangelo and Giacometti. There’s a poem called “Myrtis,” about the recently discovered remains of a young woman from long ago, who appears to have starved to death in a famine. She didn’t have a name, so they decided to give her one, Myrtis. When you name things you bring them alive, make them yours. So Myrtis is now our contemporary too.
The second part of the book is about eros, which is where the English word “erotic” comes from. Eros isn’t just what excites you physically in Greek. It’s the magic power that animates life. I don’t think there is an equivalent to this in English. Eros pervades the cosmos, it’s the principle of life. It’s what is deathless in us.
Welcome to my century,
Young and innocent Myrtis
With the wounded brow
And the white death-shroud
You suffered greatly in that famine
Twenty-four centuries ago.
You come timidly now
To my world.
I thank you.
Do you announce
In the Greece
That breaks my heart?
Do you like the name
They gave you Anno Domini 2010
When I met you
My breath caught
For the life and death
I read in your hurt eyes,
The whole history of our people
Good night Myrtis
Into our uncertain
By Phaedra Pagoulatou-Zambatha
Translated by Lili Bita and Robert Zaller
Greek-born Lili Bita is one of the few classically trained actresses now resident in America. A native of the island of Zante, she graduated both from the Greek Conservatory of Music and the Athens School of Drama, and holds an M.A. in Drama from the University of Miami. After a notable career in Greece performing classical and contemporary roles for leading directors, she settled in the United States.
In this country she has appeared widely on stage, television and radio, and held appointments at several universities. She tours extensively with her one woman shows,”The Greek Woman Through the Ages”,” Body Light” and “Freedom or Death.”
Lili Bita has published ten books and chapbooks of poetry, two books of short fiction, a novella, two volumes of translation, and several plays. Her work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, German, and Bengali. In November, 2014, she was inducted into the Hellenic Authors Society, one of the few writers of the Greek Diaspora to be so honored. Bita’s memoirs Sister of Darkness and The Storm Rider are published by Somerset Hall Press.