Sunday, August 11, 2019

Vasiliki Katsarou: My Writing Day

I wake up at 6 or 6:30am. I live and work in the exurbs, halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, in an old farmhouse, progressively renovated over the last 170 years, and most recently by us.  My partner commutes into New York City, and leaves quite early.  My son is away at college in Boston. We recently adopted a little black and tan dachshund named Sampson. He’s an anxious guy, and his yips and yelps keep me from getting too comfortable. I head straight for a mug of coffee, and my mind usually feels very clear for the next few morning hours, before the obligations of the day set in.

Although I recently had my own long commute to Princeton, I’m now back working from home, organizing my own time. I occasionally take on various editing jobs.  My writing day is a series of starts, false starts, re-starts, and the occasional sense that some slight progress has been made on a poem.  My study is a large room on the first floor of my house, with plenty of windows. My desk is located halfway between two bookcases—one which holds my most beloved French and Greek-language poetry, and dictionaries—with Proust, George Seferis, Kiki Dimoulas, Philippe Jaccottet, along with translations of Paul Celan, Holderlin, Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova, and writings by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and favorite collections of haiku… The facing bookcase holds the writing of American and Anglo-American eccentrics—Sir Thomas Browne, Mina Loy, Thoreau, Ezra Pound, Henry James, William Bronk, Cid Corman, Rachel Cusk.  (All touchstones that I mention because each one has affected me in some essential way, by helping me translate my life to myself. These writers have spoken to me from across the world and through time, and in doing so they call on me to do the same for someone else.)

I have many secondhand art books from when I lived in Paris for five years, and also notes and journals from a film I made in graduate school about the Fruitlands utopian community in Massachusetts, founded by Bronson Alcott, who was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau. The two 35mm film prints are upstairs, stored in one of my closets.

In an adjoining room there is a glass cabinet containing, among other mementos, poetry and essay collections by Gustaf Sobin, inscribed to me and to my partner, along with notes and photographs and manuscripts, all in research for a documentary I was planning about him with his cooperation, many years ago, when I was in France and worked in film. This was the pre-digital, pre-internet era, and I was never able to raise sufficient production funds, but along the way, Gustaf Sobin encouraged my nascent poetry practice, and even defined some of its terms. He was a significant influence.

Besides writing from those decades ago, I hold onto notes and fragments and ephemera from more recent journeys.  I prefer to write in blank, unlined notebooks, and find that I always seem to write in that other notebook- the smaller one, the more awkward one, the forgotten one, or even the envelope, the receipt, the scrap, the stub, etc.

The rest of my ‘method’ seems to involve moving piles of drafts and piles of books around, hoping to ‘declutter.’ On my worktable is a full-length poetry manuscript that I’ve been sending around. A serious health crisis caused me to press pause for a year or so, but I’ve started again recently.

Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday, after a whole week of fretting, I feel a strange and unexpected breeze loosen my usual way of thinking, and then I know for sure a poem is knocking at the door.

This summer morning, the monthly poetry workshop I facilitate at a local museum is at the margins of my thought. I need to circulate the actual fall dates, now that it’s after the 4th of July. Given the relative solitude at home, I’m grateful for the number of very close friends who are artists, writers, art therapists, and teachers of all sorts, with whom I engage in a number of projects throughout the year. I recently organized the third iteration of an art show with a poetry reading by seven poets, and in the past I’ve edited poetry anthologies, and run a years-long poetry reading series at a local bookshop.  All of these projects originated right here as I was daydreaming at my desk, in a pas-de-deux (or trois!) with idleness and anxiety. Working with others to support their own creative processes, and learning from them as well, is a great joy for me. I feel connected to my local community and through it, the rest of the world. It also relieves me of the heaviness I feel when my own work is not going the way I expect.

There are Eastern Orthodox icons in my study, since I was raised in this faith, and I try to be worthy of it. I try to write poems that might serve as portals to some glimpsed beauty and wholeness.  Smooth round pastel sea stones sit on window sills in pottery bowls I’ve thrown in pottery classes taken over the years. It’s been a pleasure and a compulsion to collect these stones in Greece on various islands. As a first-generation daughter, I can’t help but think about this literal reaching out toward my parents’ and ancestors’ earth. Each of these stones is perfect in some way to me.  I feel that I can build with them, just as I try to build poems out of well-chosen round words.

Since I have an almost automatic verbal response to visual art, I have many poems prompted by a painting, or a glimpsed landscape. Between French and English, and also between poetry and visual art, I often feel I’m on some sort of pivot point. Slipping off in one direction or the other… Getting up and trying to find balance again.

Toward this end, I’ve lately started to rev up my writing engine. This blog post is helping me do that, so I thank you, Rob, and also You who happen to be reading this right now. I’m also finding some ease and purpose in writing about contemporary film by women filmmakers.  Our political landscape feels so bleak at the moment- I believe it’s important to turn and point to some sort of beautiful recovery that’s hovering and always on the verge of being created.

Vasiliki Katsarou’s poems have been published widely and internationally, including in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem (Japan), Corbel Stone Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series (U.K.), Regime Journal (Australia), Mediterranean Poetry (Denmark) as well as in OtolithsPoetry DailyTiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Wild River Review, wicked aliceLiterary MamaLa Vague Journal, and Contemporary American Voices. She is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Memento Tsunami, and co-editor of two contemporary poetry anthologies: Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems and Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems. She read her poetry at the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and is affiliated with New Jersey's Hunterdon Art Museum and the multimedia art center ArtYard..  Her website is    

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