Interview with George Economou
by Anastasia Stefanidou
Context and Commentary: George Economou invited me to attend his Kimon Friar lecture at the American College of Greece, Athens, on November 14, 2000. That day I not only attended a fascinating lecture but I also conducted an interview with Economou, who answered questions regarding his upbringing, his views on Orthodoxy, and his perception of ethnic identity and diasporic experience in America. In the talk, which was subsequently published with the title Janus Witness: Testament of a Greek-American Poet, I found his term “ambivision” a fresh and apt way for conceptualizing Greek America. For Economou, ambivison is a way of “looking at one’s Greek Americanness without questioning one’s authenticity as an American, that is, as one who is comfortable and confident within one’s identity as one of the ingredients in the mixture of ethnicities that serves as the foundation of the edifice of American culture” (15–16).
Editor’s Note: For further discussion of Economou’s “ambivision” see Matthew Jennett, “Double Vision,” Odyssey July/August (2007): 40–42.
Interviewer’s Note: I rediscovered the cassette with the interview only recently, in the context of this tribute. There is a great deal of background noise in the tape, making the transcription particularly difficult. In the interview text below, the sign […] indicates an unintelligible word or phrase. We are in the process of clearing the noise from the tape, and, following the recommendation of Rochelle Owens, we plan to deposit it to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Butler Library at Columbia University.
AS: Could you tell me a few things about your upbringing, especially if it was according to Greek traditions and values […] what your parents did to instill [ …] unique experiences […].
GE: […]. My parents were both very interested in maintaining the contact with Greece and all the Greeks that were part of the identity […], but in the small city in Montana […] we had a church […] [thirty?] families and a lot of gerontopalikara, you know the bachelors [...]. So as a little boy, I remember, the first memories I have [were] the church. […]. When I was little, I thought there was the Agia Triada [Holy Trinity], Panagia [Virgin Mary], and President Roosevelt [laughter]. A strange kind of mixture. So I grew up bilingually, Greek at home, English at school. […]
So we went to church regularly, the church was the community center, we had special holidays […]. There was a very strong sense of community, and we lived in both worlds, and as a kid, you know, there was really no problem.
AS: Did you feel you have had an advantage because of your richer ethnic background ?
GE: I always thought so, I mean I always thought we were, as I said at the talk last night, I thought all these Northern European types were blunt compared to us, and we were in a way the exotics because we were the biggest single ethnic group there, in the sense of being identified particularly, you know, through the Greek church. Yeah, I always felt we had all kinds of [ethnic?] food no matter what it was, whether it was Scandinavian cuisine or German standard or […]; about American, we thought that’s American food […].
AS: When you started writing poetry […], were you interested in cooperating with Greek cultural elements, or was it unconsciously that this happened ?
GE: No, I think it just happened naturally, before I wrote poetry I was a […]. When I was a child I was drawing all the time, and my parents took me to a teacher when I was about eight years old and in a place like Great Falls, Montana, there was no art institute […] and the only art teacher was a Catholic nun from […] and so they turn me over to her and she started teaching, and I studied with her for about ten years. I was painting all kinds of things and if I were born in a big city, very likely I might’ve become an artist, a painter, a graphic artist rather than a poet but she saw […]; this drove out the desire to paint in me […]. When I went away to college I just quit painting. In college I started writing, playing around with […]. When I went to New York in 1956 I got serious. The first poem that I published, the first poem that I published aside from poems in a College magazine and a college newspaper that kind of thing, I don’t even think I have those. I’m glad not to have […], but the first poem I published […] in the Chelsea Review in fact, and it’s in that issue that I gave to Mathew at the Kimon Friar interview, there’s a poem […], and it’s about the transformation of Daphne, it’s a poem […] about the famous metamorphosis.
AS: Was there anybody to encourage you to publish your work, your poetry ?
GE: My friends, young people that you met, we all sort of fell in together, created our own little, you know, koinonia [community]. It was a community, a community of poets, we encouraged each other, then we realized that what we should do is create our own publication venues and that was very important, so we did it. […] was one of the very first of many, many more to come.
AS: So to go back to my original question, the sense of Greek culture was always in the background .
GE: Always there, yeah, so a lot of choices, writing about that Daphne poem, a non-Greek could write that, too, of course but […]. I have got a series of poems called the Georgics, but […] the primary echo of that is Virgil, but still […], georgos is a farmer. Those farms had to do with ranching in Montana. My father was a rancher with two other Greeks. They had a number of businesses, including a big grocery store. But they also had at one time two ranches, one with cattle one with sheep.
AS: That was paradise for children.
GE: Well, we lived in town. We did not live there. My mother would not live out in the country. But there within minutes you are out. You know Montana is called a vast country. It’s a beautiful, beautiful state. So I used to go out with my father. Do you remember that poem in Ameriki, about […] name Jones Lazart. He was a French Indian that worked on my ranch. When I was little I always used to go round with Jones in the pickup truck and that’s where I made, when I was […] this poem, it was just natural that I started to think of him, not when I was a child but later in life through the filter of memory, and that filter is constructed of what you become so you look back to your memories, the memories are transformed by that [lens?], then I thought immediately the connection that you will make with us, not that I thought I am Ulysses, but he was the loyal cowherd rather than swamp pool, so I had that in that poem, I made that kind of comparison […].
AS: What were the pictures of Greece you had in your mind when you were little, before you visited [Greece] for the first time ?
GE: Of course, I had seen photographs, mainly I had seen postcards of Athens and of course Greece, ancient Greece I read about in encyclopedias. I did my first big report that we had to write in school, grade school, maybe fifth grade, everyone had to do a report on their country, and I naturally chose Greece. I read in encyclopedias and I put together something, but my memory of Greece was mainly through photographs of choria [villages] and my parents talking, because my father never lived in Athens but my mother did live there for a while. She went to school there before she came. [That] school at the Zappeion. We have got the girls’ school at the Zappeion. Well, the Zappeion is the park. She went to a certain school, a girls’ school. She had an older brother here. But, anyway, Greece was kind like mysterious […] but it was the patrida [homeland].
AS: Oh Really?
GE: Oh yes, patrida, patrida.
So when I came here [Greece] in 1957, I was the first; well my sister had come to Greece before I had, but I was the first of my family to go back to the choria. In 1957 it was a little rough, there was no electricity or running water […]. When I came I took the train, I was with an uncle from my mother’s side. We took the train we went to Tripolis and we took the bus. Again, my father’s brother, Medis, in a place called Mosaica, that’s Kato Kleitoria, that’s near a place called Kleitor, where my ancient Greek poet comes from. So all these things are connected.
AS: You mention in your poem your uncle, the police chief and the argument about you being a […]. Is this true?
GE: Oh yeah, that’s a true story. That’s a true story.
AS: Do you feel like that now? Do you feel that you are an American?
GE: Well […]. Greek-American. I can’t say I am Greek or I am American. I say Greek-American.
AS: But not American-Greek. Does it matter to you?
GE: No, but you know, the custom in the United States is to say I am an American, or Jewish American, [or] Russian American […]. So the European denotation comes first. But that compound, that’s why I had that Janus witness figure, looking at two directions. That’s it. I mean, I am not split. It’s a totality. But it’s like looking at these two directions. And finally, be comfortable with it.
AS: In my studies [I read] that this hyphen is very questionable. I think we should not stick to it so much, as to the concept of being Greek-American. But they say that this hyphen distinguishes or separates the two entities rather than connects them. So what about you ?
GE: I see it [as] connected. I don’t know, it’s a personal thing. I don’t know if it works with everyone. As I was saying, I have a lot of people in my extended family who do not think of themselves as Greek-American.
AS: How do they think of themselves?
GE: I understand, they think of themselves as American, they just still don’t identify strongly.
AS: But you definitely identify yourself as Greek-American.
GE: Oh, yes.
AS: How would you define this? […] Would you define the term to somebody who doesn’t […]
GE: It’s a normal way. It has integrated two senses of self-identity into one. But there is the legacy of Greece, what you inherit from your parents and the language is important. […] You don’t keep up the language then unless the question of the language goes into the senses.
AS: You think so? Because some people say that you can be devoted to your ethnic culture without using your language, your mother tongue .
GE: I would not say the people should know, more power to them […]. But I don’t think that. Their involvement can be nearly as rich as it is with the language. If I were not a poet, to me language is the core […]. We thought about the Hellenistic world, we said we have made up of all kinds of different nationalities but we have this one, this glorious tongue, you know, this glorious Greek language and is applying to all of us together and makes us all Greeks.
AS: But you do not try to write in Greek at all […].
GE: No, I would not write. I wrote a couple of poems back in 1957, a couple of love poems to girls, childish little things. No, I would not write in Greek.
AS: Yeah, but this way you do not reach out to the Greek audience.
GE: Well, you know, Greece has enough wonderful poets in its own language. I am happy to translate some into English, and I helped some of them translate some of my poetry into Greek. It [has] been a couple of poems translated. In that way, I would love to see more Greeks familiar with it. No, I just do not think I can master Greek enough to write in Greek. You know, when you translate it, is the receptor language that you have to have greater proficiency than the source language. You get all kinds of help with the source language. But when you put it into a norm, then you have got to know how Greek your language is.
AS: Do you like the terms ethnic writer, diaspora writer, etc.? Would you define yourself as one?
GE: I do not really use it that much. I use it when I talk. Because…
AS: Because you used the term diaspora.
GE: Because that is for Greeks. It is a Greek word. The Greeks have a word for everything. But people talk about diaspora in all countries. Hispanic people, people from Mexico, so that whole sense of Americans of where they came from, how they scattered into this new world. But I used the term because I thought it would be familiar with people. I am part of the diaspora […]. But the ancient Greeks, of course, keep their homeland but they also had diaspora. They went and founded Syracuse, Sicily. Every city in Italy, every colony in Italy had a mother city in Greece. That was a kind of diaspora. But not in the sense of people without a homeland, scattered all over.
AS: This sense came up with the Jews.
GE: Yes. I do not think of myself as an ethnic writer. That is kind of a paradox. I am an American. And that guy said he is an American. I like that. Say that again […].
AS: You say you are Greek-American and you are not an ethnic.
GE: That is why I say it is a paradox. That is the paradox […]. The point I am making is that, I am actually following Werner Sollors, all Americans are ethnics. They do not like to say it [this way?]. But English–you know, you are familiar with some words. We are all ethnics but some of us like to stand out or whatever. That is my ethnic […].
AS: But how else could you refer to them? For example, in my dissertation I just do some Greek-American poets, either with a hyphen or not, either major or minor, etc. But how could I work with the question of cultural background? They haven’t heard it, or have left behind or brought it in their poetry. I have to use that word, right ?
GE: You use Greek-American or you use ethnicity. I think in a dissertation [in contrast to real life]–– I wrote a dissertation when I have written a scholarly book, then I realized that you have to use the term ethnicity in a dissertation.
AS: But you do not like it in real life?
GE: In real life, I do not think it is really that important who I am. It is a curious thing that in the United States and in other places you seek out Greeks. You go some strange place…
AS: Do you do this?
GE: Well, in the sense that either you seek them or not, you always encounter them. You drive across the country.
AS: Do you feel better when you do that?
GE: Oh, yeah, sure, there is always that contact.
AS: There is a bond.
GE: Yes, there is a bond. People talk [to you?] right away. So when I first came here, even now when I first came here, I went to a city and it was full of Greeks and some of them are rude and so on. They say “oi Ellines” [the Greeks] they happily behave that way. It is a whole different thing. It is a kind of naïve concept, but I get over with it. But you know, when you are an ethnic group in that sense there is a kind of dependency, some kind of comfort, some kind of pleasure in encountering Greeks.
AS: Have you ever felt any struggling between countries, America and Greece? Have you ever felt a conflict ?
GE: Yes, I suppose in a way, there is a struggle.
AS: Have you ever felt in-between?
AS: Because there is no sense of, in many Greek-American writers there is a sense of where is home, my home is left behind. You do not deal with it at all .
GE: I think that this is the home of my forefathers […]. I was born in the United States and that is my birth place, that is in a way that thing with the police chief, [how he] feels about it. I do not feel like […] I know some people feel […].
AS: A lot of them.
GE: Well, for example, with marriage. A Greek marrying a non-Greek […]. My parents did not give me a difficult time over that. Other families, you know, accepted […]. Then I can see that that can really precipitate a crisis. You know, psychological crisis. I have known some cases where a young man marries a non-Greek girl and they start leaving the family, but they gradually start coming back again because there is an alienation that happens. That can have a psychological effect. I did not have that. I did not have that.
AS: You say you never felt in-between, like a completely third.
GE: No. I think […]. It is wonderful and I go with it. Instead of saying “Oh, I am caught in between.” No. I make the most of this. This is what I was given.
AS: Actually, the question if you consider yourself a diaspora or an ethnic writer was given to me by my professor to give it to you, to ask you. Anyway. You mentioned Ameriki: Book One, which I do not have here, the story of Ameriki. What is the story of Ameriki for you ?
GE: Well, it is a work in progress I have not done anything about it for a long time. The first part was like poems, having to do with fathers, my father but also founding fathers and their fathers. And part two is mothers, and my mother and there is also Indian mothers. There is a story about SOME Indian women, American Indian women. So it is father and mother. Part three may be the son, you know, I do not know if I ever get to it or what form it will be in. But maybe it will always remain just those two, those two little books.
AS: There is also a touch of irony in you when you write a story, right ?
GE: Yes, oh yes!
AS: What is your personal philosophy over this story of Ameriki?
GE: You have to be ironic to keep your balance. America has its history, it has its good and bad moments in history. Right now, it is in a crisis. For me, how half the people would vote and half of those who did vote would think that George Bush would be a suitable individual to be president. This astonishes me. But, I can be ironic about America. I can be ironic about anything. Maybe that is the Greek in me. Although irony is a major attribute of many writers. I think the world, life, human nature you have to be ironic about it. But irony gives us additional insights. I mean if you take the ironic stance it leads you to certain kinds of understandings.
AS: Yeah, this is the other question. When you talk about the first immigrants’ experience in America you are ironic but obviously this information comes to you from your parents, right ?
AS: So this was the message they passed on to you. And you are against the way America treated the first immigrants, right ?
GE: Yeah. Well, are you talking specifically about…?
AS: The Greeks.
GE: Oh, the Greeks. Yeah, sure. They persecuted them [in Roosevelt, Montana], the [locals] thought [of themselves as] pure Americans. It’s like that guy in [the poem] “An Evening in Kingfisher.” But that kind of prejudice is not complying just to America finally. [It is] everywhere.
AS: Everywhere, you find it everywhere.
GE: But, sure, they treated the Greeks bad, but not as badly as they treated some other people, not as bad as they treated native Americans, or the black African American slaves. The Greeks used to say as a joke, what they told their black friends [was], “I do not know. We did not come over until after the Civil War, so…” But you can’t say that, you really can’t say that, [that] we have nothing to do with that. People say it [benefited?] [… ]; still, a racist society.
AS: Do you think America is still racist?
GE: Oh, it is much, much better. But still there is racism. There is still even unconscious racism, if you are honest about it. On the internet I was invited to write some little poems about this “I remember.” This sentence, “I remember.” It was supposed to be one sentence and how you break it up. To remember something, and I had to be absolutely honest about it. And I did several things. One of them was, I remembered this episode, very minor, very small, but I wrote it down honestly: I was walking down the street one day as a young man–this is maybe thirty years ago–in New York and a small older black man started coming up towards me, and I just said, “No, I haven’t got any,” and he said, “I was going to ask you where Clermont Avenue is.” He was just asking for directions, and I got all red, I remember. And I told him where it was. And I never forgot that. I always thought I am not a racist, but at that moment unfortunately I thought, at least I understood, you know, I was embarrassed. But that’s minimum, but if you think there are a lot of people have to be honest and try to be. But it is changing. It is changing. But the racism is coming from the other side, too. There is a lot of anti-white racism from black people. I guess it will work out eventually. Some people say in fifty years or a hundred years in Americas it will all be one color, it will all be one sort of cream chocolate color [laughter].
AS: Also, from reading your Ameriki: Book One, […], to me you sound ironic about religion, [about] Greek Orthodoxy. How do you feel about it ?
GE: Well, the importance of it, as I have said, the Greek church was the anchor for those people. It was what gave them that sense of community to pull together.
AS: But you sound ironic about it, like you are questioning the authority, you are questioning the faith .
GE: In book One?
AS: Ameriki: Book One […] but I don’t have it [with me]. Do you have it?
AS: Page 51.
GE: Oh, this one.
AS: And also page 53.
GE: Oh, 51 and 53. Saint George, yeah… I do not know how good a poem this is.
AS: I never examine this. I always […].
GE: You know, what I thought I was doing, I was trying to take Saint George out of the […], and make him a kind of a flesh and blood man.
AS: This is a very strong statement.
GE: I wouldn’t think […] about that. […] if we still venerate this saint, he’s got to, we have got to remember [his?] humanity. I make up some of this humanity.
AS:So you humanize, you make more real what is more ethereal, [more… ]
AS: Yeah, abstract. So in a way you bring the Saint down to earth.
GE: And it is a kind of irony. In a sense there is a gap between the ideal and the real.
AS: Do you want to do away with the strict traditions of the church. What it does to people .
GE: I do not go much to church, but I still say my prayers every day in Greek, every time I get in the car but I am kind like my father. My father was anti-clerical. […] My mother was pro-clerical. […] But I think the Greek church, as I’ve said, was essential. It was very important. But I am a little ironic about the whole religion.
AS: Yeah, like here. Yeah, Yeah.
GE: This was like “yeah, yeah.” You remember the Beatles […] “She loves them, yeah, yeah.”
AS: Yes, but to juxtapose it with her [Virgin Mary?]. This is […].
GE: I thought of bringing it down, bringing it down to the immediate and then here too. You see that the angel looks at her, at her face and what does Christ look like? He looks like her. This is actually, this little idea is what I saw somewhere in a Greek church in Athens. When angel Gabriel looked at Mary, he was stunned, he was shocked because he realized that’s what […]. That’s what HE will look like. God looked like his father. HE is going to [be] like his mother. HE is going to look like a human.
AS: Human nature …
[The end of the interview is missing]
Anastasia Stefanidou teaches American literature at the English B.A. (Honors), University of Northampton international programs (DEI College, Thessaloniki).
Acknowledgments: We thank Rochelle Owens for her kind permission to print the transcription of this interview.
Ergon thanks the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) for contributing funds for the transcription of this interview.