1. Angela, can you tell us about yourself? Where were you brought up and educated? What did you get up to?
My parents are from Cyprus. Separately, they came to Australia, in the late 1950s, to escape poverty, civil unrest and imminent war. They met in Australia through a proxenia (an arranged marriage). My mother was barely 16 years old when she laid eyes on my father. She had already said ‘No’ to several earlier potentials. She liked my father’s thick hair, styled like Elvis, she thought, ‘that will do’.
My childhood years, in the early 70s, were spent in the suburbs of Riverwood, Punchbowl, Bankstown, the suburbs where many refugees and migrants located. Then my parents moved to Melbourne as my mother wanted to be closer to her large family who resided in Lalor, Reservoir and Campbellfield (Northern working-class suburbs). I went to Lalor High School. In recent years, through my poems, I’ve returned to the various experiences of being a student at this hard-luck school. The current issue of Meniscus Literary Journal, Vol.9 Issue 2, 2021, contains two of my poems drawn from those years.
My teenage years were pivotal. These were the years of standing at cross-roads, inhabiting the liminal spaces, testing pathways that I was cautioned to avoid. If I were an Ancient Greek, I would’ve supplicated before Goddess Hecate to shine her torches on which road to take. Instead, I borrowed stack upon stack of books across a vast spectrum, reading Patrick White, Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Evelyn Waugh, Margaret Drabble, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Judith Wright, Anne Sexton, Yiannis Ritsos… instead of watching TV or going out with my cousins. These various thinkers, poets and authors guided me to take the third of three pathways offered by Hecate. It was the path of hybrid existence that excited me, where I could take my traditional, cultural upbringing and my new-found philosophy and values and evolve into a new kind of person. I didn’t turn my back completely on Cypriot social customs, I reinvented these, as I walked away. Similarly, I didn’t run down the road of Australia’s dominant culture, the one beamed through Neighbours and Puberty Blues. As I continued on the third path, I found myself walking away from Greek Orthodoxy and marriage, embarking on years of tertiary study and travelling to India and Nepal, to learn about other levels of existence and spirituality.
2. When did you realise you were a writer?
Writing sustained me in high school, like many writers, my journal was flooded with entries. I wrote an article for the school’s newsletter. I remember keeping that article and being so happy it got published. But then it wasn’t until I graduated from Melbourne Uni that I started writing to be published, my first poem was published in 1994.
This thirst to write continued in my 20s, when I was ravenous for literature that entered into the spaces of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culture, for example, David Malouf’s short stories and poems introducing his Lebanese heritage. From the late 80s, I started collecting as much fiction and poetry as I could written by authors about the nuances of cultural inheritance, with a particular focus on migrant experiences. From Zeny Gile’s evocative short story collection Miracle of the Waters (Penguin, 1989) to the lyrical images of Fotini Epanomitis’ The Mule’s Foal (Allen & Unwin, 1993). These narratives sang to mine and sparked a need to creatively document my oral inheritance.
Also, on a practical level, as my parents and both sets of grandparents were illiterate, I was their advocate assisting them to navigate the Australian system. Concurrently, I began to creatively document their oral stories. In my mid-20s this overtook my life and I resigned from being an in-house lawyer at City of Melbourne. I returned to study poetry and playwrighting at RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing Course with renowned teachers Ania Walwicz, Peta Murray, Judy Womersley, Alan Wearne, Antoni Jach and Christine McKenzie. At about the same, the mid-90s, I received a travel award from the National Languages and Literacy Board, which enabled me to study Ancient Greek Drama in Greece and to travel to Cyprus, collecting oral stories from kin.
3. Was that seen as a thing that women do?
The Cypriot diaspora that arose from poverty and war was strict about women roles. Many of my female cousins were married through a proxenia ‘with a boy from a respectable family’. However, my mother was strict in another way: she expected me to pursue my education as a priority above marriage. However, when I graduated, she joined in the communal nagging about me getting married. Although, when I reinvented myself as a writer, she urged me to write her story, as she couldn’t. My father, on the other hand, was constantly disappointed with my creative pursuits. He was heavily invested in his daughter being a triple-M: a married mother and money-maker (and not a ‘high-flying’ job, something like a ‘secretary’ or ‘bank teller’). So, there were contradictions in my upbringing, resulting in dramatic clashes between my father and mother.
High school was the place where I needed affirmation. But this was a school with lowered expectations for the bulk of its students. I recall visiting my Year 10 Politics teacher in her other role, as the career counsellor, and being told by her to consider certificate courses at TAFE. This was an uninspiring conversation and only served to delete ‘teacher’ from my list of potential careers.
Despite my father’s remonstrations for me to stop studying and issues with some of my teachers, I found solace with literature and legal studies in Year 12, which I continued to pursue into tertiary education.
4. What are some experiences or influences that informed your life as a poet?
An early influence was the kind, popular, renegade Cypriot-Greek Priest of the Reservoir parish. He ran a Greek language and bible school. I was introduced to the musical language of scripture and children’s poetry. I was in primary school but recall reciting poetry before the congregation. My mother was streaming tears of pride when I recited one of her favourite Greek poems at the annual graduation.
Another student experience is being taught the poetry of Kahlil Gibran by my English teacher at high school. I was fascinated with the philosophy underpinning The Prophet, in particular the passage:
‘Give your hearts, but not into each other’s
For only the hand of Life can contain your
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in
each other’s shadow.’
This gave me comfort at a time when my existence felt compromised by orthodox expectations of marriage. (Later, I read how Gibran had never married despite his benefactor, Mary Haskwell, devoting her much earned money and editorial expertise to his writing career. Perhaps, a fear of being somebody’s shadow haunted him too.)
A decade that stands out as being seminal in advancing my poetic practice was the 90s. This was when I studied poetry at RMIT involving analysis and discussion across a wide breadth of poets, not only poets writing in English. I recall accessing international poetry in Greek, even poetry with Cypriot dialect, including George Themelis, Zoe Karelli, Melissanthi, Vassilis Michaelides and Myrto Azina-Chronides.
It was also the decade where I was immersed in the active poetry and spoken word scene of Melbourne, where I met/befriended legendary poets such as ‘Warrior Woman’*, Eric Beach, Kevin Brophy, Myron Lysenko, π.ο., jeltje, Mammad Aidani, Jordie Albiston, Dorothy Porter, Susan Hawthorne, Kris Hemensley, Homer Reith, Ian McBryde, Peter Bakowski, Gig Ryan, Alicia Sometimes, John Ashton, Shelton Lea, Ouyang Yu, Jennifer Harrison, Luis Gonzalez Serrano, Ali Alizadeh, Joe de Iacovo, berni m janssen, Alex Skovron, Dan Disney, Andy Jackson, Matt Hetherington (and so many others)**. I read their poems in various anthologies, journals or their own collections and then was able to hear them read those poems at various events.
Another influential experience was attending the Poetry Workshop run by Ron Pretty (of Five Islands Press) at Wollongong University in 2007. This was an incredibly intense and exciting experience as I was simultaneously being fed incisive lectures by established poets Brook Emery, Susan Hampton, Jan Owen, Lauren Williams, Grant Caldwell and Michael Sharkey while Ron Pretty was editing my poetry manuscript Honey & Salt. I still refer to the notes I took at these workshops. A quote attributed to Emery, which has helped me is: “Beware of the beginning and the end of the poem as that’s where you tend to lie the most.”
5. How do ideas for poems occur to you?
There’s such a vast array of sparks and triggers that lead to an idea for a poem. Like so many writers, I keep a notebook next to my sleepy head. My subconscious can be generous. Dreams offer images that I can work with. Articles, studies, daily news, my life experiences scour my brain… and then there’s the oral stories told to me by my kin that I have filtered through a creative lens, becoming a poem. I’ve kept some diaries and journals that enable me to recall a moment that I can distil or dissect. I get obsessed with an historical moment and its legacy (for example, the volcanic disaster that befell Pompeii, or the women’s liberation movement with iconic moments where certain heroic women chained themselves to bar stools at a pub or to the Commonwealth building). Objects are another source of stimuli, including the white marzipan-almonds given at Christenings, a sepia photo of the ship that my father was assigned to travel from Cyprus to Australia, a frayed novel kept from teenage years. The experiential involving touch, smell, aural tends to awaken a thought or a line for a poem.
6. What are the biggest challenges you encounter when you set out to write, and how do you deal with them?
I could point the finger at my senior high school teenagers or my elderly parents with their debilitating diseases – both sets of dependents needing daily care and attention – but I don’t think they’re the ‘biggest challenges’. I think my tendency to stray onto other tasks or to allow myself to be interrupted without setting clear, reasonable boundaries around my writing time, is a serious challenge.
Also, this question reminds me of the practice of meditating. How it’s important to allow the pesky thoughts to enter then sweep them away as you continue the focused release. Writing feels like a ‘focused release’ that can be easily disrupted. My wandering mind is mostly to blame (for example, it may be thinking of bills that need to be paid now, rather than later or an email that I received that I should reply to now, rather than later). I keep bringing myself back to the task of writing, even if it’s not flowing, I make notes of how I could finish it, what further research is required, or I move onto another associated poem/text and see what it needs. Sometimes breaking the writing practice into a sequence of smaller actions makes it less daunting, and provides the momentum required for it to become a welcomed habit.
7.You’ve recently published a poetry collection, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New, with Spinifex Press. Can you tell us something about the poems in the collection and what inspired you to write them.
There are fifty poems in the collection that span a sixty-year period, 1960-2020, in terms of their historical timeline. The first poem begins with my paternal Cypriot grandmother watching for the first time the violent waves at Bondi Beach – this experiential poem takes place circa 1960. The last set of poems deal with the year 2020 with its advent of global crises and a new way of travelling, ancestral and empirical, including mapping moments from Minnesota to Australia, the streets of Coburg, the warped cityscape and haunting ocean view. In between the first and final poems, there are poems that travel by train from the northern regions of Victoria to Melbourne University, others that chart points on mountains in Nepal and moments in India. These poems focus on the cross-roads and T-junctions to unpack multicultural, cross-cultural and intercultural meaning.
However, the inspiration for the collection was my inheritance from my maternal Cypriot grandmother, which was her intricate, uniquely designed embroidery known as Lefkaritika (or Lefkarathika, as she would refer to them). She was left on her own for many years in a small, poverty-stricken village while my grandfather was working various casual jobs in Australia, saving to bring her and their five children over. Through her kinaesthetic skills, she found a way to make ends meet. At one stage, Cypriot ‘lace makers’ were in high demand as their lace/embroidery became a global commodity. This was thanks to Leonardo da Vinci who visited Cyprus in the 15th century and took a Lefkaritika back with him to Italy, which was placed in the Duomo Cathedral, Milan. These intertwined stories of Venetian control and influence of Cypriot craft, creating an industry, informed the poem, Making Lace, which is the central thread of the collection. Indeed, inheritance and labour are entwined motifs throughout the collection.
On a metaphoric level, the death of hand-made, intricate, needlepoint designs and patterns are resurrected through my poetry-making, with its weave of words and thought-threads. The embroidery informed not only the narrative arc and images but found its way into the form and structure of the poems. For example, there are long threadlike lines in Making Lace; in other poems, I developed shorter with longer line patterning, wove in Cypriot dialect or Greek language, or used space and stanzas in a diagonal, designed sequence.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a collection that again is inspired by an ‘object’: a legal how-to book titled The Art of the Advocate by Richard Du Cann (Penguin, 1964). In 1991, this book was handed to me by my assigned mentor (who was a practising solicitor). I was his assigned article clerk (like an apprentice). Although he believed that the advocate is shaped in the womb, he also believed that they needed to be trained in accordance with legal etiquette and rules. I barely lasted five years in legal practice, still this period made an indelible mark on my psyche. Poetry as a form of advocacy interests me, as well as the type of advocacy that requires empathy, rather than a law degree.
So far, the poems dissect the book and provide a counterpoint as they delve into how an advocate is shaped from upbringing to student, and from lawyer to survivor, within a flawed justice system. Below is an interesting quote from the book that has informed a series of poems I’ve written beginning from my childhood to my years of study:
“it is tempting to begin by asking why men become advocates at all. What is it that attracts them to meddle with bits and pieces of other men’s lives? It would be pleasant to think that most advocates come into practice because they wish to serve their fellow men, but the likelihood is that such social zeal influences as many grave diggers as it does advocates.”
Richard Du Cann, The Art of the Advocate, Penguin, 1964, p 7.
* As this inspiring Aboriginal and South Sea Islander poet passed away, I will refrain from naming her out of respect for her family and close friends and given that there’s no caution regarding grief or distress.
** This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of poets who I met or befriended during the 90s, but I do apologise to any poets who should be included – it was a long time ago and my memory falters.
An Embroidery of Old Maps and New by Angela Costi, Spinifex Press 2021 https://www.spinifexpress.com.au/