The Bookshelf: A Poet Reflects on the Migrant Crisis in Greece

Jan 18, 2019

Poet Becky Dennison Sakellariou is the author of the new collection of poetry, "Undressing the Earth."
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Poet Becky Dennison Sakellariou of Peterborough is no stranger to writing about Greece where she spent four decades. In her last collection, she wrote about feeling the pull of that country while living here in New Hampshire. In her new collection, she writes of a different Greece -- one that recently has been grappling with an influx of migrants. The book is called Undressing the Earth and she spoke about it with NHPR's Peter Biello.

 

Read Becky Dennison Sakellariou's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. "A poignant and understated story of a retired German professor who gets involved in the lives of a group of African immigrants in Berlin who have gone on strike.  A beautifully written, meditative and very credible portrait of the immigrant mind and spirit that resonates with my own experiences of the migrants, and puts a very human face on the issues they face.

2.   A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier  by Ismail Beah. "I have loved this book since I first picked it up.  A harrowing, horrifying, yet uplifting and hopeful story of one young man who was forced into an awful, brutal war as a 13-year old, this book has remained alive in my heart and mind; Beah is a gifted story-teller who has compelled me to listen, confront and grow."

3.   When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsaka. "Again this novel puts very faces on a shameful part of our contemporary history, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Otsaka is a skillful and precise writer with no extra fluff or fuss when writing about this almost impossible event.  I love a book that holds me and pulls me into it, just as this one did."

4.   What is the What? by Dave Eggers.  "A 'work of witness and of art' by one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who traveled thousands of miles to find a home in the USA. Because I love language, I was taken by the title which refers to the fact that there is no word for 'what' in Eggers' mother tongue, so when he began to learn English, he had to navigate that word and its multiple meanings and uses, all along, navigating US culture and society. Great immigrant story."

5.   Anything by the New England poet Mary Oliver, "bless her ever-enduring spirit: (from White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field) 'maybe death isn't darkness, after all,/ but so much light wrapping itself around us/...[that we] let ourselves by carried,/as through the translucence of mica,/to that river that is without the least dapple or shadow/' ... Mary Oliver has walked beside me for many years, carried me through doubt, trouble and joy, and been a deep voice resonating in my writing."

So the first part of your book has to do with the refugee crisis in Greece as it was a couple of years ago and you spent some time with immigrants who made that rough journey. Tell us about the circumstances that brought you and those immigrants together. What were they? 

In 2015, I was in Greece, because I lived there most of my life and I go back every four months every year. I was watching the migration across the water from Turkey and I thought. "I can't sit here and look at this. I have to do something."

I have a friend who's a midwife and she and another lactation specialist and a translator and I went aound to different camps, all of which were transient camps at that point--people just coming through Greece and going on into quote unquote "Europe." That was within 20 minutes of where I lived in Athens. Then we went to Lesvos to visit the more transient camps and go onto the beaches. And we were looking for particularly women who were pregnant, who were breastfeeding, and women who had really little ones, just to see if we could give them some kind of help and support.

Your poems made me think about the famous quote: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." In many news reports, there are just these huge numbers of people migrating to Europe and the human face is missing. But in your poems it seems like the human face is front and center the bodies the physicality of it is front and center and that's, for me as a reader, what really drove it home. Is that your intent? 

I don't think it was my intent, but I think it's what happens. I interviewed four women and that I love to because it brought again as you say faces, families, names, stories about how they were brought up in their villages. And I love those. 

When you're not writing about the migrant crisis, where do you normally get your inspiration? 

Everywhere, you know. Sometimes I'm driving and somebody is reading something on the radio and there's a phrase that I love, I will write it down or record it. I go to church, I hear something read from the Bible, and you know I can see where that it has a poem coming from it. I will go for a walk and see the shape of a branch and think about it, and take it back home, and write about it. Cardinals always drive me right back to the computer to write a poem about a cardinal in the winter. Sometimes somebody will say something to me that's really moving and I would use it in the poem -- either the center of the poem, or how to begin the poem, or the title of the poem, and then move from there, and build it. And it can either be fantasy or reality.