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2 posts categorized "Cyprus"

12 May 2023

Anthony Anaxagorou: An out-spoken poet, writer, publisher and educator

Anthony Anaxagorou

Anthony Anaxagorou. © Photo by Alessandro Furchino Capria

The European Writers’ Festival, taking place at the British Library on Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 May 2023, sees many of Europe’s greatest storytellers gather together for one remarkable weekend. In this blog post, we have the opportunity to speak with one of them: the 2023 RSL Ondaatje Prize winner, acclaimed poet, writer, publisher and educator Anthony Anaxagorou. The multifaceted creator talks to us about his poetic journey, the inspiration he finds in the uncertainties of his Cypriot identity and the exploration, through his work, of conflicting forces that define nations today.

What motivated you to start writing poetry and how would you describe your poetic journey so far?

I was very much drawn to language from an early age. Being bilingual, speaking both English and Cypriot Greek at home, meant that I developed a sense of how malleable language was; what words and phrases could mean if you shifted their context and how everything was aiming for some kind of communicable outlet, including the language of poetry. My gateway into writing was through music and stories. Hearing words being said before reading them was a big part of my education. I wasn’t a high achiever at school; my exam grades were low, but I always felt I was nurturing a private relationship with language through it all. My journey so far has been led by pushing what I believe poetry to be, both as a spiritual instrument and a technical one.

How influential is other poetry, old and new, on your own work? Do you have any favourite poets and/or poems?

I read poetry all year long. I don’t really follow any pattern or trend and find myself gravitating to where I feel language is being stretched and put under sufficient pressure. I get sent lots of books from UK publishers to read, which I love, but I think the real delight is in going to a second-hand bookstore to discover something rare – a first edition of a classic collection or one which has notes scribbled all down the margins. I get a kick from books which people have taken into their lives, ones which feel like they’ve been in conversation with their reader. Beaten up, dogeared, with a private message from the past to the present. Those are the real joys.

I read mainly for surprise, to get to the end of a poem and think ‘wow, how did they do that?’, and how I can apply those bits I notice to my own practice. Poems are very much asking for our attention to detail, poets are often obsessed with material, and I love considering how material objects relate to the spiritual realm. My mind is noisy and chaotic, I want poems to slow down my thoughts, I want them to invoke a sense of uncertainty through strangeness and mystery. Poems which lean into puzzle and riddle, or the cinematic, the absurd and the philosophical. I keep close to me poems I think about for their ingenuity, poems for their heart and spirt, poems for their unusualness and poems for their poetry. Everything we read influences our work, even the stuff we might not like, or think is necessary for us. It’s all logged somewhere for the taking.

How catalytic was your Cypriot background and identity in your poetry?

I often try to write about things I don’t understand. I spend the majority of my days teaching and working with students on their poetry, so I find myself speaking in certainties and absolutes a lot. When it comes to my own work I like the idea of not knowing and for me the Cypriot identity is fecund ground for exploring uncertainty. The questions surrounding what it means to be Cypriot coupled with the diasporic experience have always fascinated me, as well as pained me. My work over the last 6 years at least has been invested in tackling some of those discomforts and confusions.

Anthony receiving the 2023 Ondaatje Prize

Anthony receiving the 2023 Ondaatje Prize for his latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics. Source: Twitter 

How does it feel to be the most recent winner of the prestigious RSL Ondaatje Prize for your latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics?

It’s an incredible feeling to feel a book has been seen and recognised in this way. Especially a book that straddles both Cyprus and life in the UK. Cyprus, despite its proximity to Britain and British tourism is still very much overlooked when it comes to postcolonial discourse, and how the corollary of empire still impacts so many of the ways Cypriots see themselves. I hope that maybe through winning a prize like the Ondaatje, the book and the conversations it’s engaged with will find a way into more people’s lives.

Cover of Heritage Aesthetics

Heritage Aesthetics published with Granta Poetry in 2022, won the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2023 and was shortlisted for the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award. It was listed as one of New Statesman’s top books of 2022. Awaiting shelfmark.

Heritage Aesthetics communicates a self-aware and intensely honest British Cypriot self, while interrogating patriarchy, xenophobia and national divides. Guide us through this complex work.

There are lots of overlapping elements to the way we think about each other and ourselves in relation to our countries of origin and our birth nations. The main argument I’m putting forward in the book is how two things which aren’t supposed to coexist can, albeit tumultuously and with discord. The book orbits the idea of a family (a nation is a family as is an immediate family) and from within that nucleus we inherit certain modes of behaviour, traumas, anxieties etc that the book wants to somehow engage with. I don’t believe the job of the poem is to offer resolve anymore than a painting or piece of music should or even can. I’m into creating atmospheres – something perhaps more amorphous and open for readers to inhabit. These subjects, when approach morally, have little scope because we know them to signify right and wrong. Readers know white supremacy has been the cause of millions of deaths around the world and still today, we see whiteness permeating institutions at a structural level, which impacts so many people of colour in white countries. If we know all this -my assumption is the reader and I are politically aligned- then where else can I take these dilemmas? How can these nuggets of text serve to spur thinking on? That really is what I’m doing with Heritage Aesthetics.

Cover of After the Formalities

After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins in 2019, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize along with the 2021 Ledbury Munthe Poetry Prize for Second Collections. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year. YKL.2021.a.974

How does Heritage Aesthetics compare to your breakthrough collection After the Formalities?

I think After the Formalities casts its net more broadly in terms of subjects, the lens felt broader and perhaps less focused on past, present and future, whereas Heritage Aesthetics is drilling down into the specifics of place, family, trauma, violence and the psychological bearings of those elements. After the Formalities was also more autobiographical and less concerned with intertextual motifs between past and present. Heritage Aesthetics feels more engaged with theory and riffs off and around 20th century theorists – Fanon, Barthes, Said, CLR James etc, while taking on colonial writing in both fiction and reportage from the 19th and 20th century too. The idea was I wanted to draw parallels between two islands, to show how the Cypriots were once considered by their oppressors, which isn’t the same history as Greece or Turkey. I wanted a book which felt like it was pivoting between two dangerous worlds. Britain and Cyprus, two divided states, be that existentially or physically.

Anthony performing on stage

Anthony performing on stage. © Photo by Joe Hart

Not only an out-spoken writer, but also the Out-Spoken Press publisher, the Out-Spoken artistic director and a poetry educator for over a decade. Talk to us about these projects.

Most of the things I’ve set up over the years have emerged out of frustration. The projects you’ve listed came out of noticing what seemed to me to be lacking. Poets from certain backgrounds weren’t being shown or given the same opportunities as their white and middle-class counterparts. Things have shifted significantly since then and the landscape seems far more interested in accommodating as many different voices as possible, which is great. For me it’s very much about continuing the conversation and I think art is an incredibly democratic way of complicating what is often reduced and minimalised in cultural discussions.

What are you currently working on and what initiatives do you have in mind for the future?

At the moment I’m not really working on anything I’m consciously aware of, which is to say I’m probably working on whatever the next thing is. I try not to plan things too far in advance. I always like the idea of meeting myself where I’m at in my life and working from there. The future is a big place and I’m the kind of person who can quickly feel overwhelmed if I try to outline too much. I manage my life through bitesize, digestible chunks.

What can we expect from you at the British Library’s European Writers’ Festival?

I’m looking forward to reading from my new book, to discussing what being European or non-European means, as I think Cyprus is both. I’m also keen to hear what other writers have to say on the subject of Europe, its vast array of cultures, traditions, foods and politics.

Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections

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28 April 2023

EOKA pamphlets at the British Library

1 April 2023 marked 68 years since the beginning of the E[thniki] O[rganosis] K[yprion] A[goniston] (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) struggle to end British colonial rule in Cyprus with the ultimate goal of achieving Enosis (union) of Cyprus with Greece.

Britain’s concession of the Ionian Islands to the newly formed Greek state in 1864, filled the Greek Orthodox Cypriots with optimism that the great power, protector of Greece, would reconfirm its support with the concession of Cyprus, as they took over the administration of the island from the Ottomans in 1878. Greek Cypriots would soon become increasingly disillusioned by the new government, realising that initial declarations in favour of Cyprus’s right to self-determination would remain empty promises.

Various internal forces disagreed as to the form the anti-colonial struggle should take, with the nationalist right opting for military action and the communist left advocating social unrest through workers’ strikes and civil demonstrations. Despite the different voices, on the night of 31 March-1 April 1955, EOKA began its first bombing attacks on various government, police and military facilities in the island’s major cities.

The EOKA struggle was officially launched with its leader Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation that circulated widely throughout the island on 1 April. Drawing from the examples of the ancient Greeks, as well as those of the 1821 Greek Revolution and the 1940 resistance to the Axis, Grivas called upon the Cypriot people to join the fight for liberation to the final victory or death.

Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation declaring the start of the EOKA liberation struggle.

Georgios Grivas’s first proclamation declaring the start of the EOKA liberation struggle. J/8030.d.4

The British Library holds an important collection of leaflets and pamphlets from the years 1955-1959, used by EOKA to propagate its views among its members as well as potential new recruits among the Cypriot people. This material provides valuable insight into the organisation’s operations, regularly reporting on its successes and paying tribute to those who lost their lives for the cause. On the other hand, it documents the organisation’s stance on contemporary political and socio-economic affairs both in the internal of Cyprus, as well as on the international scene.

A leaflet reporting on operations between 1-10 October 1958.

A leaflet reporting on operations between 1-10 October 1958. J/8030.d4

A leaflet paying tribute to Kyriakos Matsis, who fell in Dikomo on 19 November 1958.

A leaflet paying tribute to Kyriakos Matsis, who fell in Dikomo on 19 November 1958. J. 8030.d4

EOKA rejecting the “abomination” plan of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the last colonial Governor of Cyprus Hugh Foot for a solution to the Cyprus issue.

EOKA rejecting the “abomination” plan of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the last colonial Governor of Cyprus Hugh Foot for a solution to the Cyprus issue. J/8030.d6

Through its leaflets EOKA often called for discretion, warning that even the most insignificant information could reach the British through their lurking agents and traitors, causing serious blows to the struggle.

A leaflet found in Kalo Chorio on 26 October 1958 recommending people to avoid chatter and gossip.

A leaflet found in Kalo Chorio on 26 October 1958 recommending people to avoid chatter and gossip. J/8030.d4

A drawing of a killed fighter with the caption “A chatty person killed him! by saying that he was a member of EOKA”

A drawing of a killed fighter with the caption “A chatty person killed him! by saying that he was a member of EOKA”. J/8030.d.4

The leaflets also reveal a more extremist side to EOKA, issuing threats against dissidents and proceeding to punishments such as beating or execution of those considered as traitors.

EOKA‘s last warning against five Cypriots to discontinue their “anti-national and provocative behaviour”

EOKA‘s last warning against five Cypriots to discontinue their “anti-national and provocative behaviour”. J/8030.d.4

EOKA justifying the executions of Andreas Sakkas, Savvas Menoikou and Georgios Yiasoumis, who were “used as a pretext for communist P[agkypria] E[rgatiki] O[mospondia] (Pancyprian Labour Federation) to develop its anti-national activity, incited and protected by the British”

EOKA justifying the executions of Andreas Sakkas, Savvas Menoikou and Georgios Yiasoumis, who were “used as a pretext for communist P[agkypria] E[rgatiki] O[mospondia] (Pancyprian Labour Federation) to develop its anti-national activity, incited and protected by the British”. J/8030.d.4

Responsible for co-ordinating the military and political efforts was P[olitiki] E[pitropi] K[ypriakou] A[gonos] (Political Committee of the Cypriot Struggle), formed in July 1956. PEKA demanded the release of Archbishop Makarios from exile (March 1956 - April 1957) as the designated representative of the Cypriot people and the sole person authorised to negotiate the Cyprus issue.

A PEKA leaflet rejecting the Radcliffe constitutional proposals and demanding Makarios’s return to resume negotiations on the basis of self-determination.

A PEKA leaflet rejecting the Radcliffe constitutional proposals and demanding Makarios’s return to resume negotiations on the basis of self-determination. J/8030.d.2

PEKA called for passive resistance in the form of boycotting British goods, such as chocolates, alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco, soap, washing powder, fabrics, shoes and agricultural tools. Anything that could be a source of income for the British, such as the government lottery or football bets, were to be eradicated, while transactions with Greek banks, advertisements in Cypriot newspapers and exclusive use of the Greek language on signs, posters and products were strongly encouraged.

EOKA, represented here by Hercules, cuts off the multiple heads of the capitalistic British Hydra to offer prosperity to the Cypriot people, represented by Iolaus.

EOKA, represented here by Hercules, cuts off the multiple heads of the capitalistic British Hydra to offer prosperity to the Cypriot people, represented by Iolaus. J/8030.d.2

PEKA campaigned systematically against the attendance of British technical schools by Cypriot students, criticising the creation of technical schools in Cyprus as an attack against the institution of Greek school and a mere trick to create janissaries and servants for the British. Parents who chose to send their children to the British technical schools were characterised as ‘unworthy to be called Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots who taught there were shamed as ‘mercenaries’.

PEKA declares that “We will not sell the fate of our children to the British”

PEKA declares that “We will not sell the fate of our children to the British”. J/8030.d.2

From mid-1957, the youth of EOKA was organised in A[lkimos] N[eolaia] E[OKA] (Strong Youth of EOKA) who distributed the organisation’s leaflets, demanded Enosis through slogans on walls and student demonstrations, informed EOKA on the movements of the British forces, intercepted military equipment etc. ANE published its own monthly pamphlet Egertirion Salpisma (Reveille).

The cover of the fourth issue of ANE’s Egertirion Salpisma that circulated in March 1958.

The cover of the fourth issue of ANE’s Egertirion Salpisma that circulated in March 1958. J/8030.d.2

Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections

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