Special Issue on Diasporic Poetry

When ERGON began publishing poetry in 2017, we declared it our mission to feature poems which recorded a fruitful overlapping of Greek and American consciousness: what happened, we asked, when poems are marked by two countries, by two languages, by two ways of understanding and being? What is at stake in such moments of border dwelling or boundary crossing, in imaginative movement, if not the conditions of real migration? How might Greek/American poetry convey a diasporic imagination?

Our lines of inquiry have deepened at ERGON in subsequent years, and the journal has now expanded its scope, not only to view Greek/American arts and letters in the larger context of diasporic expression, but also (as our updated poetry submission guidelines reflect) to welcome artists and thinkers working across other national and social boundaries. The four poetry folios featured in this special issue reflect our journal’s new, expanded title—ERGON: Greek/American & Diaspora Arts & Letters—and also this purposeful broadening of vision.

Aaron Coleman’s sequence “Stained Glass Speaks” is an homage to the poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980), whose work examined the American mythos through the lens of African/American history. Coleman’s poem displays a similar historical imagination, as it works to collect and compose fragments that might reveal “the deep work of what I am,” and as it asks what variegated light shines through him. The poem does not propose answers so much as it wonders how a communal identity (“the harsh blued angle/of each america in us”) might sing inside an individual consciousness. For Coleman, the diasporic self is “never certain, always plural,” and that expands one’s burdens and one’s responsibilities: “Each mind inside mine a wide-eyed scale/ on the sleek dark flank of history.”

Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s poems are marked by a similar desire to excavate the past in order to define the contours of the present self, in spite of the fluctuations of belonging. The poet, who has divided her life between the U.S. and Greece, now peers back at her life and her father’s life from yet another unlikely geography, thanks to her current residence in the United Arab Emirates. The poems in her folio are all marked by movement and migration; language might temporarily recall us to ourselves, as it did for her father, or it might underscore what remains missing: “I am best,” the poet confesses, “when tending to the lost.”

Philip Metres’ folio combines original poems as well as translations from the Russian of Dimitri Psurtsev. “Like many Americans,” Metres asserts in his artist’s statement, “I am the meeting of migrations.” The history of his family has been defined by displacement from Lebanon (on his father’s side) and Ireland (on his mother’s side), while the poet’s own complicated relationship to the United States led him to Russia to study and translate poetry, serving as “a penitent from American empire.” The poems and translations in Metres’ folio all weigh a poet’s sense of ambivalence: “For my empire,” he asks, “should I/object or volunteer?” If poets are, as Percy Shelley suggested, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Metres’ folio demonstrates how such legislating happens both inside and between languages, and he reminds us that translation is another form of witness.

Adrienne Su’s folio consists of five poems that all carry the same provocative title: “East Asian Studies.” As the poet asserts in the first of those poems,

I had followed a feeling,
a penchant for being—or believing

in being—in two places at once.
Always, I had been in only one.

The course of study being undertaken in these playful poems is not merely academic, but also historical, personal, and urgently imaginary: how do we begin to educate ourselves on the subject of ourselves? Su, who was raised by Chinese immigrants but grew up speaking English exclusively, nevertheless comes to understand that as we study language and allow it to shape us, “The self disappears./ Provinces unmappable/ become legible.”

As Adrienne Su puts it in her artist’s statement, “Exactly why something is gnawing at you is not important. That you respond to its nudges is.” In various ways, these four poets’ responses suggest that what drives the ergon of a diasporic imagination are those parts of the self and language that remain unfixed and unbound, that are found in between and in movement, that aim to make song out of the mysteries of identity much more than its certainties.

Christopher Bakken

Poetry Editor