GREECE doesn’t make headlines very frequently in the United States, but when it does, we focus on the economic woes it has suffered since 2010. The story runs like this: Greece fudged its budget reports to get into the European Union’s currency zone, overborrowed in the early thousands, and suffered financial collapse in 2009. Germany and the dominant forces in the EU have since imposed harsh austerity measures as a way to get Greece to pay back its debt. Austerity has worsened living conditions and left over a quarter of the Greek adult population unemployed. Amidst rioting and chaos, Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party with a virulently anti-immigrant agenda whose flag resembles a swirly swastika, skyrocketed in popularity; in 2012 they took 21 seats in the Greek parliament.

Their Poet-Nemesis does not make the headlines:

REFRAIN

My name is J-A-Z-R-A
Here I’m illegal, in spite of the Left
I was born in the dusk of the West
And this evening is just splendid
For smashing fascist heads.

Translated by Sarah McCann

Jazra Khaleed is half Chechen Muslim and half Greek, making him part of a minority population. He stands up to fascism by writing and performing Greek-language poetry that is unmatched in technical bravura, emotional depth, and political urgency. He performs his poetry at a lightning clip — so fast the Nazis can barely keep up, let alone talk back — a hip-hop emcee in a fever. His dominion over the Greek language challenges fascists who insist that the Greek heritage is their superior birthright and theirs alone. Jazra churns out poems, essays, and translations of international Leftist allies. Aside from his own work, he has wheeled out the veritable verbal siege engine Teflon, a literary magazine that in six years has become the most widely read free poetry magazine in Greece. Teflon publishes Greek poets and essayists, and translations of historical and contemporary poets from around the world. It has become the soapbox for Greece’s Far Left.

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MAX RITVO: Jazra, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. To start out, I want to ask you about Greece more broadly. Do you think Americans fundamentally misunderstand anything about modern Greece — are there any gaps in our narrative?

JAZRA KHALEED: In the 1990s and 2000s, Greece’s economic boom was to a large extent the result of “illegal” immigrant labor. (To call these immigrants “illegal” is to accept a dehumanizing, fascist discourse. Therefore I put quotes around illegal.) For the first time in its history, Greece became a host country for immigrants, enticed first by the disintegration of Balkan Communism, and then by the instability in the Middle East. Immigrants work in inhumane conditions, without work permits and safety regulations, and for very low wages — 10 Euros for 12 hours of work. It’s about enough to pay for your food for the day. Shifts of 12 hours or longer are the norm. After their work is done, some employers call the police to arrest (and deport) the immigrants in order to avoid paying them. Racial profiling is rampant: police squads check the papers of anyone who looks suspiciously non-Greek. Those rounded up are then thrown into prisonlike pens, where they are held pending deportation. This all assumes that the immigrants even make it to Greece — many are murdered before they can ever set foot in the country.

“Illegal” work means cheap labor. It also means enormous proliferation of organized crime — responsible for getting illegal labor into the country, arranging their living accommodations, and setting them up with employers. It means that the mafias are required to bribe the police, government officials, and the public sector, making corruption essential to the function of the Greek state. It means the illegal workers’ salaries are garnished by the mafias, taking money from “legal” capital and “reinvesting” it in organized crime. It means the redefining of Greece into a mafia state.

Needless to say, all the above would not have taken place without the approval and complicity, or at least the passive acceptance, of the Greek public. On buses, one often hears: “Go back where you came from!”

Those sound like unimaginably difficult conditions to live in for the immigrant community. Can you describe what those pens are like? And something else you said stuck out at me: people who are murdered before they can make it to Greece — what happens to them?

The pens are concentration camps. On the outlying islands there are small camps or just rooms in police stations. There, people are held for a few weeks before being released, or sometimes relocated to central camps around Greece. There, they’ll lock up 500 to 1,000 people in a building. These people haven’t committed any crime other than having an “illegal” status. They’re locked up for being Arabs, for being Pakistani. Sometimes they’re released. Then they get arrested again. It’s sort of a revolving door. People can be kept legally for up to 18 months, but many are kept longer. Beatings are routine. In some camps, the victims get less than an hour of outdoor time a day. There have been plenty of official deaths, and we have no way of even guessing at the number of unofficial deaths.

As for those that don’t make it to Greece; the common route into Greece is through the sea — usually from Turkey via the Aegean. Most of these immigrants now are political refugees from Syria, which should make them eligible for asylum. The Greek government of course ignores that fact. The boats the immigrants take are unsafe — after all — it’s the mafia that’s providing them, and the mobsters receive a huge payoff before the immigrants get onto the boats. The Greek coastguard does its part too. It does its best to drown these people. There have been very clear and well documented cases of the coastguard throwing immigrants — even children — into the sea. They try to turn the boats back to Turkey, and if they can’t … they have no problem letting the boats sink.

Are Greeks aware of this?

Everybody knows, or they want not to know. In 2013 Anastassia Tsoukala, criminologist and associate professor at the University of Paris IX, gave some seminars on racism at the police academy in Amygdaleza (Amygdaleza is the biggest concentration camp in Greece). There she was told, “We are fascists. And we are proud that we are fascists. Is there a problem?”

Why do you think the Greek public approves of this? Can you explain why a party like Golden Dawn receives so much support? And in 2013, Golden Dawn’s leading parliamentarian and six other MPs were arrested and charged with using the party to operate a criminal gang responsible for the murder of an anti-Fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyassas. Has this scandal managed to put a dent in Golden Dawn’s reputation? In fascism’s support in general in Greece?

The majority of Greeks have really benefited from this labor arrangement. Many middle class Greek households have ill-paid immigrants as employees in their houses or fields. And Greece just has a deep nationalistic streak running back into pre-World War II.

Sure, the arrests have been a big deal and Golden Dawn lost supporters, but mostly, the fascism and xenophobic discourse just find different channels. At the height of its popularity in 2012, Golden Dawn got seven percent of the popular Greek vote, but the fascists in Greece are in much greater numbers than that. Most parties — if you read between the lines — use fascist discourse. Sure, Golden Dawn may have leading members that are publicly in the mafia, heil-ing Hitler, but it was the two mainstream parties: New Democracy and PASOK, the social democratic party, that built the concentration camps. They oversaw Greece as it became the monster that it is.

Right now, Syriza is all over the news. It’s a far-Leftist party that’s gained enormous traction in this current Greek election cycle. They’ve just won the Parliament and are one seat short from an outright majority. What do you think about Syriza? Are the tides in Greece finally turning?

I don’t know … for me it’s not a matter of which party is in power. I don’t think Syriza will make any difference. I think of them as a conservative party with some social democratic ideas.

But they’re willing to dismantle the Euro! They’re talking about major financial reform to help Greece’s poor, and have committed to renegotiate Greece’s debt at all costs — even if it comes at the expense of European economic stability. That’s about as Leftist as I can imagine.

The Eurozone crisis is just an extension of something that’s been going on for much longer. All of Greek “wealth” is, was, and has always been, based on exploitation of labor — it was a bubble based on services, and services require cheap labor. Syriza isn’t addressing the labor crisis — the fact that any surpluses created by cheap labor are systematically siphoned to the middle class. They might be currying favor with some poorer voters, but they’re invested in keeping the system intact.

The bottom line is, you can’t hold sway with the majority of the Greek public without some nationalistic rhetoric. A true far-left party in Greece would get no more than six or seven percent of the vote. Syriza hasn’t said a thing about the concentration camps.

[Note: Syriza has since formed a government with a small party called Independent Greeks which is a xenophobic, nationalist party with a firm anti-immigration stance.]

That sheds light on a favorite moment of mine from your big poem “The AGEAN: or THE Anus of Death” — where, on a phantasmagorical version of one of the deportation islands, the Leftists bury their heads in the ground like an ostrich — an ostrich that is then in turn eaten by fascists.

On the island of Let’s-Launch-All-Illegal-Immigrants-into-Outer-Space the port authority buries its head in the ground, the leftists bury their heads in the ground, the ostrich buries its head in the ground, the fascists eat the ostrich, the cops search all our nooks and crannies, the groupers eat the Pakistanis (you cannot accuse a grouper of racism)

Translated by Shon Arieh-Lerer

You started a magazine, Teflon, in direct response to all this political madness, to avoid just sticking your head in the sand. Can you talk a little about the Teflon project?

Well Teflon is now the biggest literature magazine in Greece — with a circulation of about 1,000 copies. Five of us, mostly from Exarcheia — the Athenian inner city — started it in 2009. We just wanted a magazine that would publish poetry and essays that dealt with our political interests.

So where is Teflon now: what can we look forward to in the next issue?

We’re bringing out a feature on the Black Arts Movement.

So there’s interest for African American poetry in Greece? Whom do Greeks like?

We are generating the interest ourselves — most Greeks aren’t aware of recent Greek history, let alone what went on historically in America, but this interest in the Black Arts movement, and radical black poetry more generally, has been really meaningful for us here in our own fight. An activist feminist group we’re allied with recently brought out a translation of Angela Davis’s work. We celebrated the book’s release with a small poetry performance, and an accompanying feature on black female poets in Teflon. A man from Pakistan recently maimed a Greek woman and the Greek media responded with heavy agitprop against immigrants. The myth of the black rapist Angela Davis talks about is really similar to a myth of the immigrant rapist here in Greece, so that was a vital connection point for us.

Amiri Baraka is a big name, obviously. And we love Pat Parker over here — we like funny and we like aggressive. The lesbian and gay movement in Greece is just in the process of coming out and they can see their own experiences in the American queer literature of the ’70s and ’80s. Pat Parker comes out and says I am lesbian, black, proletariat. I’m working class. And she’s part of the fight. She comes out and fights.

What does it mean to be part of the fight?

To fight on the streets — physically and for actual brains — as much as to fight in theory. Poets that fight are clear about who they are and what they are doing from a class perspective.

The plight of immigrants in Greece, who face police brutality with racial overtones, can’t help but make me think about Ferguson, the Eric Garner choke-hold death, everything going on in the United States right now. And it’s a fascinating resonance that Teflon is using the Black Arts poets to illuminate its own social predicaments. Are there any lessons Americans can take away from Teflon’s international mission? Can the arts movements of other cultures wake us up to the world we’re in?

In the States, as in Greece, we are watching a police state enforce itself. The Greek “crisis” boils down to capital attacking labor. African Americans murdered in the United States — like the immigrants murdered in Greece — belong to the lowest social class. Their lives don’t count, which frankly, makes their labor cheaper — it allows capital to be more exploitative. The police are transforming into an army of occupation with the aim of repressing dissent to this system.

Poetry can help us understand that the sexism and racism of the past and the present are on a continuum. Contemporary Greeks and Americans can equally be inspired by the fights of the past. We can be inspired by the Italian laborers in the 1970s described by Nanni Balestrini. We can be inspired by the fights of the black proletariat in the 1960s and ’70s as described by Nikki Giovanni and the Last Poets. We can be inspired by the fights of the Australian Aborigines as described by Lionel Fogarty and Mudrooroo. Aside from being important as an act of memoralization, poetry is a weapon. It gives voice to the oppressed and the invisibles and fights fascist propaganda and discourse.

So it seems unlikely that we will find in the pages of Teflon, shall we say … Plath?

Plath was a good poet, but I can’t identify with her — or connect with her. I’d never translate her. She had great technique, and that’s worth something. But in Greece poetry is something that no one cares about —

Sounds like America …

… It has nothing to do with real life. I feel horribly awkward when I tell people I write poetry. They assume I’m this sensitive guy who writes about love. People assume I’m lonely. I actually had to stop writing love poems.

It’s a shame — those poems were really good, some of my favorites of yours. These gorgeous lines from “Farewell” come to mind:

If I could inhabit your body
I would find the spot where barefoot farewells echo
I would whisper the supine memories from our children’s future

Translated by Sarah McCann

It’s actually dangerous to write love poems here.

Dangerous?

It’s easy for those in power to use you as a love poet. Tassos Leivaditis was our great Communist poet through the ’60s and ’70s. In May 2014, one of Greece’s most conservative daily newspapers, Kathimerini, published an issue in tandem with a small book of Leivaditis’s work — advertising him as “the great love poet.” They tamed him and completely avoided his political work.

Every person writes in a sociopolitical and economic environment. Maybe there are poets who really write for love — I don’t have anything against that — but they’re products of their society, whether they’d like to admit it or not. A love poem enforces a canonical type of a human relationship.

I see myself and what I write as part of discourse — anti-fascist discourse. My poetry connects to posters on the streets, magazines.

All poems are written in a certain language — this language is the language of those in power. Even if one doesn’t admit it, if one doesn’t know it — the stuff we all write is political, since we use a certain kind of language. Words and similes aren’t innocent.

Similes aren’t innocent? I see the obvious political implications with writing in a specific romantic register like monogamy or heterosexuality. But similes themselves seem really inert, even to someone as politically inclined as me. What’s wrong with my heart being red as a rose?

There’s a big section in the next issue of Teflon devoted to the East German avant-garde of the 1970s and ’80s. They hated similes. That’s where power sits. When these authors had the urge to create a simile, that was a signal to them to pull back — to investigate the impulses they were writing from. Similes make things seem natural, they make you relax and accept the mystique of power.

So the problem with “your heart is as red as a rose,” innocent as it seems, is that it perpetuates this notion of “heart” as separate from body. And that’s a notion that stretches back to ancient Greece and into modernity through the West: it’s a myth of the people in power. You think about a heart being so red, and think about how beautiful the image is, and you forget about the way that language about hearts comes from power, which has so many problems if it’s accepted on its own terms. You can see the problem even more easily with the word “soul,” which functions similarly.

So when the mind is simile-making, it’s working with elements of language that are too charged? No figurative language for you? But figuration is everywhere in poetry — even in your most bluntly political stuff. What about this, from your “Greek Democracy”:

My chest is an island of immigrants
dumped by the rotting boats
My back is the no-man’s land of the civil war
The rebels ooze from my ribs

Translated by Max Ritvo and Peter Constantine

Well, I take an idiom and pervert it. Make it my own. This exposes the background that makes the expressions. Makes people think a little bit.

That sounds philosophically aligned with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in the States. Do you think language just can’t communicate anything without falling into power structures? Why don’t we just give up on using language at all as we know it, and just focus on breaking it down?

Well, we can’t escape language. We express ourselves in language. We are taught the language of power since we are born.

You know — it’s not easy to escape contradictions, contradictions are everywhere. So yes, I’m trying to avoid stereotypical expressions and expose them. I’m trying to expose the fact that power resides in language. But I can’t create a new language. No one will understand what I’m talking about.

Whether I like it or not, I still have to say some things. I have to break silence around certain issues — I have to talk about concentration camps. And the only language I have is the language of power. So yes, I’m aware of the limitations of language, and I try to escape them, but I can’t entirely.

So your poetry has to, in some respects, in certain moments, be totally clear, on the nose? I’m thinking of the ending from “Kid/Stoplight” where you have this kind of revenge fantasy as a window washer washing some rich kid’s BMW …

I know you well
But you don’t know
That as I reach out my left hand
Open
In the right hand I hold tight
A knife

Translated by Sarah McCann

Clear and direct doesn’t make poetry any less sophisticated. Hip-hop is one of my main interests, in fact it was all I knew of poetry until about 2009. Ever listen to Aesop Rock or Busdriver? You can have many words shoved into one beat that form a rhyme with just a few syllables drawn out over the same beat — the master of innovative polysyllable is Pharoahe Monch:

Get ate like cannibalism and sliced surgical
In any extremity y’all get infinity vertical
Every line to word of mine will be verbally placed to murder you
The master, flippin convertible flows irreversible
Unobtainable to the brain it’s unexplainable what the verse’ll do

The language is figuratively innovative and uses rich sounds, and it’s still very clear and direct. I am doing the same thing as the hip-hop artists I’ve always listened to — I just make it look nice on paper. I have a written art.

Have you ever thought about rapping, then? When I listen to your recordings, I think you easily could’ve been an emcee — your poetry flow is stupefyingly fast and very smooth.

As Adam Bradley writes in the Book of Rhymes, “Rap is an oral poetry, so it naturally relies more heavily than literary poetry on devices of sound.” The myth says that there are rappers who have never written their lyrics on paper. Mine is a written art. But, like rappers, I try to make the familiar unfamiliar through rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay.

Chuck D says, “Poetry makes the beat come to it, and rap pretty much is subservient to the beat.” Rappers have to follow the beat in some kind of way, which is not the case for the literary poets like me. Going along with Chuck D, the beat has to ride poets.

The stakes of what you’re communicating in your poetry are so high for you, I see why you’d want control over the beat and, by extenion, the content in it. But you mentioned earlier that Greeks don’t really care about poetry so who is reading it?

I found out with Teflon, there are actually many people who like poetry. They just can’t identify with the poems they read. They’re bored. Most of the poetry they encounter is just boring. They can’t see themselves in the poetry that gets published in Greece. When we started editing the magazine, we had friends who read a lot — mainly political writing and literature — now they read poetry as well.

What are you putting in the water, and how can I get some? I want to know what makes Teflon so popular. How’d it built up so quickly?

The international element interests a lot of our readers — we’ve translated more than 70 international poets. Recently we’ve been focusing on Arab women writing in English as we want to confront the anti-Islamic propaganda spreading around in Greece and Europe. We have translated poets like Suheir Hammad, Mohja Kahf, and Lisa Suhair Majaj. Last issue included some wonderful work by the Swedish-Iranian poetess Athena Farrokhzad.

That alludes to something that worried me — is there a bias towards stuff produced by English speakers? I know Black Arts is hardly the hegemon, but it’s still English …

Well it’s certainly easiest to translate from English. We have plenty of English speakers in Greece. Japan has many interesting poets writing on gender issues, but it’s quite difficult to find Japanese to Greek translators. (Though Teflon has done just that a few times!)

Something else special Teflon does is we provide introductory information on all the writers we publish. Research makes Teflon special.

Research? Gee, that sounds fun …

The essays are short — not theory-heavy. But we do lots of research on the sociopolitical background of the writer. Can you imagine if you presented a suite of 10 Audre Lorde poems with no introduction to an unfamiliar audience? They’d get nothing out of it.

What about an example from Teflon specifically? How does background research help a poet speak to the Greek audience in this particular cultural moment?

Remember the rebel East German poets? In 2009, the Greek publishing house Nefeli came out with a poetry anthology by Barbara Köhler, an avant-garde East German poet. Barbara Köhler’s poetry breaks out of the history of oppressed women in her culture. She confronts the language of men. For example, in her poetry book Niemands Frau, that was published in Germany in 2007, she goes back to Homer and rewrites his myths. She makes her heroines (Penelope, Circe, Calypso, etc.) the authors of the stories that men used for their leaping off point over the millennia, and does so very self-consciously.

Her Greek translator was very good on the language level, but she obviously had no clue what East Germany was like in the 1980s when Köhler’s first poems were written. She wasn’t aware of the sociopolitical context and that these poems were trying consciously to undermine and dismantle the language of power. More importantly, she failed to acknowledge the political/feminist strength and implications that Köhler’s work bears. Actually, she depoliticized her work. That’s why she missed out on meanings in the text. The translator dealt with wordplay merely on the level of language while Köhler uses polysemy in order to defy the monolithic discourse of power.

Yeah, I guess if you didn’t realize a poet thought similes were brokers of the evil mystique of power, that would influence your translating style pretty considerably …

When Teflon wanted to release our own translations of Köhler, I spent three years researching the German avant-garde. Along with her poems, we published a 3,500 word essay on Köhler’s work in the 1980s and how it informed the pieces from the ’90s we translated. It also covered Brecht, the Reformists, and the anti-socialist breakaway Radicals that wrote in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s respectively.

Does every author you publish get a 3,500 word monograph backed by three years of research?

No.

Good, because I was about to wonder whether you were employing student laborers in inhumane conditions …

When you present a poet who’s older, the introduction is more important. Especially if they were active in a political movement, or in a turbulent period of history that needs explaining. For a young poet we don’t do that, but everyone in Teflon gets some introductory material attached to them. There is always sociopolitical context — and the context of today, what surrounds art being made now, is a context we have to be aware of too!

Has Teflon sparked any political action?

No: we want to stay a literature magazine. We’re focused on growth right now, even as we work with some local political groups. We’re going to be publishing some books in the near future.

You can afford that?!

If we sell a couple hundred copies then we’ll manage to break even. In the meantime we’ll pay for it out of pocket. Greece has a lot of small publishing houses — in the near future we will work with one of them.

How has Teflon changed lives?

We have no sponsors, no distribution company, and have lots of readers. Every issue is an accomplishment.

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Fuck Armageddon

By Jazra Khaleed

translated by Max Ritvo

Fuck Armageddon. The cops get it on. Writhing and fucking dead on top of the poems, who redden. The poems blush their own blood into Messolonghi Street. The poems: fulsome plankton. Blenderized in the French-kissing maws of the armored Megaladon-shark policemen. Who has his head so far up his asshole the police can’t even fit an arm in there? Pretenteri! The Captain of T.V.! Tarry, Pretenteri, with smile unscary! Come visit Messolonghi! They murder in broad daylight here — (you should be so lucky!)

Junta: army in the streets. Toy boots on every Caligula kiddy’s feet. Mobsters larding the laws to pure pork-fat — no bone, no meat. The labor is sleepily grunting in their pens: doing Miley Mohawks and Masturbating to the QVC T.V. gems. Our youth are milk powder when I fucking asked for cayenne. The rebels are trunchoned by the Megaladon policemen. The leopards are caged like KFC hens. And the poets? The poets are quiet again. Messolonghi Street: silent as Danny Boy’s Glenn.

Fuck off, flower poets. Fragile as your amaryllis. Blinding and bloating yourself with silk: constantly eating and shitting a chrysalis. The doddering leftists toast with milk the stinking rats on the sinking Samina, who flee too fast to let the cheese curdle. My words are Fayadeen: verbal, fatal, fertile — where will you be when the blood begins to burble?

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The AEGEAN or the Anus of Death

By Jazra Khaleed

translated by Shon Arieh-Lerer

the Aegean is a disease bomb
prostitutes with HIV
children with bloated bellies
Muslims with TB
saltwater groupers with gingivitis or lemon sauce

On the Island of International-Foreign-Friend-Processing everyone is out to make a quick buck. The mayor is an entrepreneur, the priest is an entrepreneur, the cop is an entrepreneur, the Neo-Nazi is an entrepreneur, the entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, the grouper is an entrepreneur, (all the mom and pop fascists are entrepreneurs)

                                       in Turkish waters:
28th meridian / on deck you will sprawl
27th meridian / powder monkeys and all
26th meridian / heave ho the black ball
25th meridian / dead and drowned you will be
24th meridian and the 36th parallel angle / at the bottom of the sea

On the Island of Let’s-Drown-All-The-Syrians every villager has immigrant-diarrhea, and every refugee camp is an opportunity to barbecue immigrants, every concentration camp is dubbed a sports hall, freedom is a mistranslation. (The grouper doesn’t know enough Greek to get by)

the boat was carrying 60:
26 children
30 men
the final destination was Britain, but then
something doesn’t add up.

On the island of Let’s-Launch-All-Illegal-Immigrants-into-Outer-Space the port authority buries its head in the ground, the leftists bury their heads in the ground, the ostrich buries its head in the ground, the fascists eat the ostrich, the cops search all our nooks and crannies, the groupers eat the Pakistanis (you cannot accuse a grouper of racism)

barracks are turned into havens of hospitality
warehouses are turned into havens of hospitality
gymnasiums are turned into havens of hospitality
nightclubs are turned into havens of hospitality
hospitality turns into unpaid work

On the island of We’ll-Beat-the-Shit-out-of-You there’s many a slip twixt fascist and lip, local powers that be coordinate the immigrant flow, serve up bloodied grouper with corked Bordeaux, and organize minstrel shows for the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union. Men in balaclavas taste baklavas, their honey syrup the dripping sweat of immigrants.

In the Aegean
Greeks
welcome
are welcoming
repatriate
all the while
raping
selling
torturing
then they kneel before the cross
(hammer a nail into the grouper’s jaws)

In the Aegean fascists and fish stink from the head down

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You can read more of Jazra Khaleed’s poems and translations at lyrikline.

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Max Ritvo is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where he teaches writing.