Neighboring, Yet Alien: An Interview with Dimitris Lyacos

September 2, 2019   •   By Toti O’Brien

DIMITRIS LYACOS’S TRILOGY, Poena Damni, is a complex and labyrinthine creation spread over three decades. During the course of this long gestation, the book was translated into 13 languages. It inspired as well a number of musical compositions, choreographies, art, and performance work.

In the fall of 2018, Shoestring Press finally released Shorsha Sullivan’s English translation of the complete trilogy. This past spring, Lyacos went on a US signing tour, culminating with a reading in Los Angeles at Beyond Baroque on May 30. That is where I had the pleasure of meeting him. As we sat on a staircase waiting for the event to begin, an interesting conversation was sparked. The interview that follows was born of that informal exchange, which continued via email.


TOTI O’BRIEN: On the occasion of your reading at Beyond Baroque, you had the chance to spend a couple of days in Los Angeles. This town has a special link to your work. With the People from the Bridge (2014) — the second volume of the trilogy — closes with a report by the LAPD, and it is inspired by an event that happened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Plus, the human landscape of the book has been compared more than once to L.A.’s Skid Row population. At the reading, you mentioned visiting Skid Row in your poignant opening remarks. “When you come to Los Angeles,” you said, “you are told: ‘Go there, there, and there, but don’t go to Skid Row.’” So you went.

DIMITRIS LYACOS: So I did. And yes, one feels the embarrassment of “travel advisors” who, while informing you about Los Angeles, are too eager to keep you away from the area. They want you to enjoy the “unblemished” side of the city so much that, perhaps, they would go as far as to erase Skid Row from the map (and not only from the map). It obviously has been a hot potato for so many years, with the nervous embarrassment occasionally leading up to “let us arrest them and give them a place to stay in prison” — which, for some people, could be a solution to the crime of others having no home.

Here, I think it is worth observing that our kind, since our advent in this world and up to the Neolithic revolution — for which the “domus,” the residence, played a pivotal role — was not sedentary. Now, it appears it is no longer acceptable not to have a fixed residence, to sleep under your tent’s roof, or the sky. The paradigm has changed, and people leading such lives today are unavoidably those on the margins. They are met with fear, and skid rows are seen as rifts that could expand and tear society apart. Such areas are envisaged from the outside as foreboding and dangerous. And yet, when one walks in there, the feeling is completely different. People are going about their lives the best way they can. It is true they do not have the luxury of a securely private space, between walls, with facilities for basic needs. They take care of everything on their own.

In With the People from the Bridge, this is exactly what happens in the opening scene: there is a makeshift performance space, under a bridge, and a play is performed by people on the margins, who use just the means that come handy to them. No producer to give a hand, no outside assistance — they are insular and independent. So, yes, it is a long way to the other pole, to Hollywood, longer than the seven miles that separate Skid Row from the beautiful homes and from Hollywood Forever Cemetery (symbolically adjacent to Paramount Pictures), with its summer film screenings, concerts, and souls at rest. Skid Row is a busy, dirty, vibrant place. The cemetery is empty, quiet, and clean. It can almost make you feel more optimistic about life than life itself. And since With the People from the Bridge ends with a newspaper clipping referring to a man arrested by the LAPD outside this cemetery, I thought it would be a good idea to follow the course of the book, life to death, pole to pole. So, after visiting Skid Row, I went to Hollywood Forever.

When you visited Skid Row, you noticed the wheelchairs its dwellers employ as functional, multipurpose items of furniture/transportation — yet another, perhaps unexpected coincidence between reality and your book, since the trilogy closes on the image of a wheelchair used as a space vessel. 

Yes, this was another strong impression that day. The last line of The First Death (2017) “sits on” a wheelchair. From the perspective of the translation, it could convey the idea that what we have here is the suffering body of the poem’s tormented persona, in its handicapped state, traveling on a wheelchair through some kind of infinite space — and this image of disability can be highlighted as “the last word” of the whole work. This is only true, however, from the “perspective of the translated text,” as things are a little different in the Greek. The word καροτσάκι is semantically more ambiguous. It means wheelchair, pram, or shopping cart according to context, and reading that line in the original can suggest any of those things, depending on the reader’s “horizon of interpretation.” So, yes, when I saw wheelchairs being inventively and casually used in Skid Row as mobile armchairs by people who moved around, stopping occasionally to chat with others, I became aware of the analogy: the object’s practical adaptation hand in hand with the word’s literary adaptation. To go back to homelessness and non-sedentary living, the object and the (Greek) word for it seemed to be a humorous allusion to mobility as a response to practical and linguistic needs.

It’s interesting that you would sense an element of “mobility” (albeit tenuous or humorous) in a setting usually evoked as confining even in the open air. If I recall correctly, the last readings you did before coming to Los Angeles took place in detention centers — two of them, of very different kinds — where confinement is indeed complete. Of course, prisons have a thematic connection with your work. Poena Damni begins with a flight from a horrible detention camp or penitentiary. The entire first book is this endless fugue, the whole trilogy its reverberation. Were you already familiar with prison readings, or were those new experiences? Could you say something about them? Did the juxtaposition of Skid Row’s “wheel-chaired” world with those carceral universes spark any further reflections?

I think it is not difficult to see Skid Row as a place of confinement. Beyond conceptual similarities, the real-life connection makes this clear. Skid Row is, for many people, their next abode when they come out of prison, and we also know of hospitals dumping mental patients there over the years. Former inmates and patients end up in it, so Skid Row becomes a free environment of a peculiar kind — an insular kind — for them. On the other hand, this insularity gives it the characteristics of another kind of confinement, and it is said that, if you enter Skid Row, you have three days to get out or you will be settled there for good.

But we shouldn’t forget, since we are speaking about Los Angeles, that there are a lot of homeless people living outside the area, in cars, under bridges, et cetera. In fact, a worrying rise in the city’s homeless population was reported just in June. These people are city residents, but their life experience is of a different kind, and however we may see it, concepts of freedom and confinement are too sketchy to adequately describe forms of living that may be alien to us. There is a lot that I feel ignorant about when confronted with such realities.

One might think that my recent prison readings in Tucson gave me an insider’s view of “what it is like to be in prison,” but it is obviously not so. Of course, this is a very strong experience for an outsider: the Rincon and Whetstone units of the Arizona State Prison Complex were my most memorable readings during this reading tour, and it was great that the University of Arizona made that possible. And, like you said, they were quite different from each other. In Rincon, a high-security unit, we had a massive turnout, and I was impressed by the interest of the inmates. The whole thing evolved into a debate about poetry, during the course of which the prison setting seemed to disappear. Our peculiar freedom of the intellect, I suppose. In Whetstone, the reading was smaller and the conversation more intimate, but, again, the fact that the inmates were coming up with subjects like Robert Frost felt liberating.

Both readings happened on the same day, and after I returned to town, I went out to dinner with my wife. She was hungry to know about “the experience,” but a factual account would not cover it, and it got even clumsier as I became conscious of the fact that the inmates were by now back in their cells, and I was out at a restaurant. In such cases, I feel that — as in the ancient Athenian pharmakos — there is something sacred to the world of those living on the margins, and I have no words, only respect for it. No information is enough. To participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries is quite another thing than to be given a detailed account of the ritual. You cannot become a μύστης if you are not in it yourself. This is experiential knowledge for insiders only, and the rest of us should satisfy ourselves with “studying the perceptual system of the bat” — to get into its shoes, so to speak, is quite another thing.

A debate about poetry in Rincon, discussing Robert Frost in Whetstone — I can feel by your answer what those moments must have meant to you. I’ve witnessed the ease and simplicity of your approach when you read in public — that must have surely helped to create trust, spark the conversation, free the exchange. I recall you mentioning in previous interviews that you especially enjoy the Q-and-A part of readings. I wonder if you remember a comment or question that particularly struck you while you were in Rincon or Whetstone.

Here is what springs to mind, from Rincon. In the course of our discussion, I had brought up the subject of different, self-contained worlds existing next to each other, like the prison community and the city of Tucson. To give an example of how neighboring, yet alien worlds connect yet stay apart, separated by an invisible sieve that withholds some things while allowing others to pass through — and how these worlds are mutually misunderstood — I mentioned the story of a visitor at the Grand Canyon who had thrown a dime over the edge to make a wish. The dime was later recovered from the stomach of a dead condor that had eaten it and died of the ensuing infection. I commented that these worlds — the condor’s and ours — had fatally connected through the good-natured intention of the person who made the wish. Some minutes later — at the end of the reading, while we were exiting the room — an inmate, among the few who had stayed silent during the whole conversation, came up to me. A white man, in his 60s, short, bald, with a long mustache and a vivid, clever glance. He took a long, inquisitive look at me, from top to bottom, and said: “Well, about this dime-condor story, how do you know it?” I answered that I had read it on the information panel on the south side of the canyon. “See, that is exactly the problem with you,” he said. “You believe what they tell you.”


Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Ragazine, Colorado Boulevard, Abstract Contemporary Expression, and The Moth.


Banner image: “Tenting in Los Angeles Skid Row” by Russ Allison Loar is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.