Beginning his Aphorisms, Hippocrates stresses how “life is short, and art is long.” Whenever the saying comes true, whenever, that is, that we have the fortune of art surpassing time, what one is left with is an art that lives on with various foster parents, an art that is sometimes less and other times more fortunate in the hands of distant or closer relatives. There can be no doubt that the work of Nikos Gatsos has passed the test of time. Whereas this poet, who was central to Greek literature, Greek song, and theater, managed to be born twice (two different accounts have him being born either in 1911 or 1914), his work is being reborn constantly. Following his wish, his life partner, Agathi Dimitrouka is the guardian-angel of this work.
A lyricist and translator herself (she has some objections to being called a poet, so I dutifully refrain from the characterization), she has been extraordinarily diligent in safeguarding his work, and recently she also made sure of the survival and historical study of Nikos Gatsos’s archive, finding it a home at Harvard University. This “move” became the basis for a conversation with Dimitrouka and Manolis Mitsias, another great guardian of Gatsos’s work -and rightly so, seeing as how he is the singer with the most original recordings of the poet’s songs. On October 14, the two of them will be at Boston’s historic university to celebrate in concert the installation of Nikos Gatsos’s archive. In the “The Gatsos I Loved” performance, Manolis Mitsias will be joined on stage by actress Karyofyllia Karabeti, who will be interpreting songs and reciting texts by Gatsos.
How did the Gatsos archive end up in America? Were there Greek individuals or entities “competing” for it?
It all started from my sense of responsibility towards Gatsos’s work and legend. Watching the years go by, I addressed several institutions that either did not show an interest, or failed me to convince me of it. I remembered that Nanos Valaoritis had once suggested to Gatsos that he give whatever he wanted to an American university. Gatsos refused, saying that he had no interest in his legacy, and that he kept no manuscripts other than notes for future works. Indeed, when typing, say, the final lyrics to a song, he would proceed to tear up the manuscript. So, initially I turned to Mr. Valaoritis, who pointed me to America, and then I turned to Colombian poet Armando Romero, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, who further emphasized how well such archives are taken care of at American universities. At that time I was listening to the radio shows of Makis Provatas, which regularly featured Panagiotis Roilos, the George Seferis professor at Harvard. I asked Makis, as a friend, to bring me into contact with the professor, who showed an interest and told the head of Harvard’s Hellenic Studies Library, Ms. Rhea K. Lesage, of my intentions. Ms. Lesage responded immediately and enthusiastically, and I began, step by step, to see one of my greatest dreams come true. My other dream in regards to Gatsos is, of course, the restoration of his family home, but that will still take a lot of work and effort to materialize.
Dimitrouka: “Wouldn’t I be committing a crime if I were to let things he himself had not destroyed vanish?”
What is included in the “Gatsos archive” that is being installed at Harvard? Are all of his archives included in the donation? What works or other items remain with you?
Harvard acquiring the “Gatsos archive” means that the largest university in the world will be home to a great ambassador of the Greek language. And I just want to say this was an equally important reason for me to turn abroad. As a writer, I feel for my language. And as Gatsos himself believed and often said, “for us writers, language is our home country.”
I have turned over everything -even the smallest piece of paper with a single word or verse; manuscripts of different versions and corrections; photographs; letters; cards; LP and SP vinyl records; playbills; his City of Athens medal; various documents; and, of course, first editions of his work, and his relatively small, but eclectic library, in its entirety. As for myself, I held on to a well-known photo of him by the window that I took myself, and an inscribed 1987 edition of “Amorgos.”
I also want to talk about the process itself, because things did not just happen overnight. Following the initial expression of interest, I had to describe the archive in detail. For months, I would be measuring paper sizes, counting verses or words and pages, establishing a timeline for the manuscripts and arranging them thematically, and writing down book titles. I got to educate myself on the appropriate terminology, and I ended up a 45-page catalogue. The whole process has been a great education for me. In addition to the psychotherapy which being involved in Gatsos’s work means to me (same applies to any time I deal with Lorca’s works or Don Quixote), I had the joy of discovering new things (imagine what new things the researchers will discover) and the satisfaction that I was living up to American, results-driven way of doing things: it is what it is, we call it like it is, and we do things in the agreed upon time frame.
To what degree will Harvard be making the archive accessible? Will it be digitized? Will it only be available to researchers? And how people outside the States access it?
Well, that’s is the purpose: for the archive to be preserved and digitized so as to make it available to anyone interested. I do not know how; it is not my job, and I do not have the required expertise. I just know it will happen soon.
With Gatsos, and through his devotion to songwriting, poetry in Greece becomes public and popular, in the sense of an appeal which transcends class divisions. But how public can his archive be? And to what degree do you think he would have wanted it to become public?
As public as the archive of a poet whose work still transcends class in the way you note. And this is something that was proven to be the case through the success of the “The Gatsos I Loved” concert. We started out around Christmas 2016 with a plan to only do 3 performances at the Parnassos Literary Society, and the tour has so far expanded to 33 concerts all over Greece, 2 concerts in Cyprus, a 36th concert scheduled to be the one at Harvard, at the Sanders Theater, on October 14, and more to come after that.
You also ask whether I think he would have wanted his archive to become public record. I know well that, outside his work, he did not want to leave behind a single trace of his life on earth, and as I said before, he had no interested in his legacy. But, tell me, wouldn’t I be committing a crime if I were to let things he himself had not destroyed vanish? And so, instead of them vanishing, I fought so they would be presented as brilliantly as possible!
You are one of the most significant and prolific Greek translators, and you are, following his wish, Gatsos’s primary “translator,” as well. How does this second title change with the installation of his archive in Harvard, and how do you feel about it?
I perceive of the second title that you give me as including two properties: it has an outward direction, where the audience of the translation is the world outside; and an inward direction, where the I am the audience. The inward translation never changes, it only gets better. The outward one has been completed, for my part, with the revised edition of the sum of his songs. Now I feel like I am standing on my very own rock, looking at the ships coming in to port.
Dimitrouka: “I feel like the world is ever so small and Gatsos ever so grand”
Speaking of translations, what does Gatsos mean abroad, especially in America? Can the significance that his songs have for the Greek language be translated back into song, and who has taken on this task?
Your questions are extremely complex. Allow me to “break them down” somewhat.
If we are talking about translations, the Spanish publishing house Cátedra will be releasing across all Spanish-speaking countries a volume that includes the poems “Amorgos,” “The Knight and death”, “Eulogy,” “The song of the old times,” “A black bull joined the dance,” “Ode to Federico Garcia Lorca,” and “Recollection of Death,” translated and annotated by Armando Romero and Vicente Fernandez.
Now, in regards to what Gatsos means abroad, and particularly in America? I do not know. I look forward to finding out. However, he did mean a lot to those visiting him from abroad.
Generally, song -especially poetic song- is not easily translated back into song. Gatsos is almost untranslatable, as is his significance for the Greek language. Being his student, I learned that when one is not obligated to follow a melody, confine to a tempo, one translates a song’s lyrics into free verse. When one has to follow the song’s melody, they bring together the feel of the melody, the feel of the verse, and of the story they tell. For Gatsos’s songs, I can see a third way: translate according to each language’s metrics, and be set to music anew by composers who share the native language.
Do you ever feel that you have not said enough about Gatsos’s work and him as a person, or that you have too much?
I always fear I’m saying too much, but I can’t resist answering the questions I’m asked.
After all these years, what’s more difficult to manage: The research object, the lyricist still playing on radios and such, or the personal absence that is Gatsos? For which, if any, did he prepare you?
It’s clearly the management of the personal absence, for which he did prepare me to some degree, but not enough so, as it seems.
The Gatsos archive has a permanent home, and the definitive edition of all his songs has been published by Patakis. Do you feel like you can relax?
Relax? With so many personal problems in such difficult times for Greece? It’s impossible. I just feel like I am in Hell, looking outside some skylight, and making out Heaven’s door.
Jokingly, you made with Panagiotis Roilos a “split” on which I want you to expand. You said that, in your discussions about the archive, you will be talking on emotion, and he will be talking on anything else. In which of the two does Gatsos lie, and which is most reflected in the archive acquired by Harvard?
Yes, this is the same “split” I had also made with Giorgis Giatromanolakis years ago, when Vassilis Vassilikos had us on his show. Since I was a child, I have instinctively respected knowledge and knowledgeable people. However, the greater audience, as well as many journalists, prefer emotion, and should that be accompanied by even minimal “first-hand” knowledge, as is my case with Gatsos, the scientist is pushed aside; research is muted, and the work sustains damage. I would never hurt Gatsos’s work or his legend, his legacy, his name. One does not, after all, take the Lord’s name in vain. So, Rhea K. Lesage, Panagiotis Roilos or some researcher will also answer this question for you when they see fit. For my part, always being emotional in my judgment, Gatsos within the archive lies more in what has come out of his own hand: manuscripts of poems, ideas noted down, letters. I am sorry, but I know not what it all reflects; that is for research to find out. I can only say that all this time reading and meticulously archiving everything felt like engaging in conversation with the poet’s psyche.
If I know correctly, the Gatsos song that most spoke to you before you actually met him was Caged swallow (Χελιδόνι σε κλουβί-Helidoni se klouvi). Does it still hold such a privileged place in your heart -and if not, what has replaced it?
Of course it still does, surrounded by many others.
You often think of yourself as Sancho Panza. Does that mean that Gatsos was Don Quixote?
No. My father was Don Quixote.
What in the Gatsos archive do you think would most surprise his audiences, and what element of his private life do you think would have the same effect? That is to say, what was it in each case, that was best kept secret, or that most contradicted his public image?
A characteristic that was not exactly secret, or at least was to some extent, was his compulsive obsessing about routes: He would alway take the same paths, and made me follow them as well, were I to go somewhere on my own. When I started driving, he would make me take the route that he would set, threatening never to get back in my car if I deviated. It goes without saying that the one time when I had to take a detour, I told him so in advance, because, of course, I could not lie to him. But it caused him such angst that I immediately course-corrected. Which is to say that I took the same route in the opposite direction.
The thing that contradicted his public image was his obsession with the roulette. Monday is a theater holiday, and every Monday up until 1987, when he still had the strength, we used to go with our actor friends Maria Mponellou and Sotiris Moustakas to the casino on mount Parnitha. On other days, he would experiment with various combinations of roulette numbers to find a winning system. Strangely enough, he did come up with one, but it called for a short playing time. He sent me and Maria to test it out, and we were actually winning, but we did not stop in time and we lost.
In people’s perception of Gatsos, do you ever find a stereotype of which you have had enough, or something that bothers you, a mistake even?
I am bothered by some people who falsify true affinity for Greek origins, and who abuse Gatsos’s true love for his country, which is evident in many of his songs. The patriotism of the Greek literary generation of the 1930s is neither nationalism nor chauvinism, as that generation was the most internationalist and cosmopolitan generation of Greek Letters and Arts.
Tell me about the concert. Why name it “The Gatsos I Loved”, and how was the content selected?
Agathi Dimitrouka: Manolis (Mitsias) initially devised a concert exclusively featuring songs by Gatsos and one specific composer, but there was a certain obstacle with it. So, during that first phone call of ours, we ended up with a concert featuring many composers. I came up with the title, and Manolis was enthusiastic, as was, it turned out, every viewer and listener. On our next call, Manolis had the idea to invite Karyofyllia Karabeti to recite the texts and poems that would come between the songs. Karyofyllia accepted, and since she already knew the songs, was fortunately convinced to sing -and she is amazing.
Taking a cue from the book, and though some allowances were ultimately made to accommodate flow, the set was designed according to the songs’ chronological order, so as to depict the evolution of Gatsos’s writing. Mitsias and his musicians know very well and have countless times performed all the songs. They are songs that console, instruct, encourage, and to some extent, make up the modern-day Greek’s battered soul.
Manolis Mitsias: Through his songs, his attitude, and his advice, Gatsos was the one who opened a big door to life for me. He was a father figure for me, and whenever I had a dilemma, or had to make a decision, I always asked, “Mr. Gatsos, what should I do?” You know, putting together a concert made up exclusively of his songs felt not only as a debt I owed him, but also as an inner need of mine. I told Agathi, who was excited about it, and immediately came up with the title. As for content, the only difficulty was deciding which songs to leave out, because I know all of his songs, and have been performing them with my musicians for years. So we opened the book, and together with Agathi chose from the songs that Gatsos himself considered to be most representative of his writing.
Are you expecting anything unusual or different from the Harvard concert audience?
M.M.: It’s a different place, a different space place, and, for many, a different language, but people who attend such concerts have learned to let their emotions free and become one. Alongside them, so do we.
A.D.: I expect the same enthusiasm shown by our hosts, most of all Rhea K. Lesage.
The scope of his songwriting is such that Gatsos’ songs are played in live music night clubs, in literary clubs, in ancient conservatories and in universities. How do you feel about that?
A.D.: It’s magical, like the world is ever so small and Gatsos ever so grand.
M.M.: I feel joy. To be sure, sometimes I get angry -if they are being abused. But can I tell you something? Gatsos runs no risk. His songs are so great and timeless, that they will remain great no matter how badly they might be performed.
Mitsias: “Gatsos was a father figure for me”
Which of Gatsos’s songs that were not originally recorded with your voice are you most “envious” of, and which of the ones you did originally perform do you most identify with?
M.M.: I have been jealous of many, but I’ve been most jealous of A bright day will come for us, too (Θα’ρθει άσπρη μέρα και για μας-Tha’rthei aspri mera kai gia mas).
Of the songs by Gatsos that I first recorded, I surely most identify -the audience also identifies me- with John the killer (O Giannis o fonias); “With sorrow’s thorn (με του καημού τ’αγκάθι-me tou kaimou t’agkathi)/ remembered again (θυμήθηκε ξανά-thimithike ksana)/ distant moons (φεγγάρια μακρινά-feggaria makrina)/ and the dream that perished (και τ’όνειρο που εχάθη-kai t’oneiro pou exathi)”. Then comes Tsamikos (Τσάμικος); “Theirs is a peel of land (Δική τους είναι μια φλούδα γης-Diki tous einai mia flouda gis)/ and yet, my Lord Christ, you bless them (μα Εσύ, Χριστέ μου, τους ευλογείς-ma esy Christe mou tous evlogeis)/ so they can save this peel (για να γλυτώσουν αυτή τη φλούδα-gia na glitosoun afti ti flouda)/ from the jackal and the bear (απ’το τσακάλι και την αρκούδα-ap’to tsakali kai tin arkouda)”.
Did Nikos Gatsos adjust his writing in any way when writing for Manolis Mitsias?
M.M.: I knew the themes, the lyrics he would write for me would be different from what he would write for Mouskouri or Farantouri, which would in turn be different from what he would write for Xylouris or Bithikotsis. This is always in regards to original recordings, because after that all singers perform songs that have been originally performed by someone else.
A.D.: I have said it many times, and I will continue repeating -perhaps because I am the sole “eye” witness: Most of the time, Gatsos would know beforehand who would be singing his lyrics, and, probably because of his knowledge and experience of the theater, would consider the singer’s figure or even their character in addition to their voice, so that his words would sound more natural, and be supported by the performance. You can understand how, with Mitsias, who has made the most original recordings of Gatsos’s songs, this process came to be not only successful, but also instinctive.
The Gatsos I Loved
When: October 14
Where: Sanders Theatre
Joining Manolis Mitsias and Karyofilia Karabeti on stage will be musicians Achilleas Wastor (piano) and Iraklis Zakkas (bouzouki, mandolin).