Monday, March 20, 2023

Q&A with Joy Manesiotis





Joy Manesiotis is the author of A Short History of Anger, a new work of poetry that focuses on the destruction of the city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, in 1922. Her other books include They Sing to Her Bones. She is the Edith R. White Distinguished Professor Emerita in Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, California.


Q: What inspired you to write A Short History of Anger, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: My mother’s family came from Smyrna. Many members of my family were lost in that massacre: my great uncle buried alive, another cousin dismembered; and those in my maternal grandparents' families who did survive were forcibly exiled from their native Smyrna.


My grandmother, in particular, was rooted in Smyrna, although she lived in the United States after The Destruction, and she went back to Constantinople every year, just to get close to that culture again. So, Smyrna was also a part of my upbringing.


I wanted to explore the notion of epigenetics and generational trauma that gets coded genetically, because I felt a part of that story, even though I hadn’t lived through it. And my mother, before she died, told me she thought I should write about Smyrna. The Destruction and the family exile were defining events.


The title occurred to me early in the many years I worked on the piece and helped define the enterprise, in some ways. The subject seemed huge, overwhelming at times, and managing all of its parts took a great amount of attention. But the title, which began as a working title, stayed constant throughout the process, and somehow created the frame for the work.


Q: What do you see as the role of the Greek chorus in this work?


A: I worked on this piece for eight years and during that time, I took it apart three times and rebuilt it, in a search for its form. It is meant to be deeply affective, rather than narrative, and move in the way historical occurrences pass into the present and live through subsequent generations.


I had many layers of material: documentary; scientific; personal; imagistic, and I knew I was trying to create a hybrid, but one I hadn’t seen before. Still, there was the narrative burden of such a big historical story, largely unknown in this country.


When the Chorus showed up, I found the form. Traditionally, in Greek drama, the Chorus has insight that the characters don’t have and the Chorus gets to say things the characters don’t see or know, often speaking directly with the audience, in collusion with the audience.


I was working with fragments and fractures and the Chorus allowed me a way to provide some context, some grounding. So, the Chorus carries that information, gives a sense of the culture of Smyrna, speaks to (and at times, admonishes) the speaker, tells the audience things the speaker can’t or won’t say, and helps create the tone of the piece.


There are also many voices in the piece, and in performance, the Chorus takes them all, as ancestors, as the force through time that holds the space for everyone else.

Q: The poet Patrick Donnelly said of the book, “When no remedy is coming, poets at least make it possible to sit in the dirt and weep. Sit here with me. I would count it a privilege to hold your hand and keen these poems together.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love Patrick’s description—it took my breath away when I first read it. The line before the one you quote refers to the fact that even though A Short History of Anger is located in a specific time and place, the same kind of experiences are going on all over the world right now, and as Patrick says, “our landscape is on fire.”


And while the book is rooted in lament and in the tradition of lament in Greek culture, there is also the sense of community, of holding hands as we go through this particular trauma, as senseless and incomprehensible as it may be.


I think Patrick is also referring to the power of poetry across time and culture—and the purpose of ancient Greek drama—to help heal the community, to express what can’t be expressed otherwise, to speak the unspeakable, and to create a container for shared grief.


Q: You write that the events of 1922 in Smyrna “became a blueprint for state-sponsored genocide and ethnic cleansing in Europe.” Can you say more about the legacy of the destruction of Smyrna?


A: The Destruction of Smyrna was state-sponsored, carried out by a government that was coming into being on the wave of that ethnic cleansing. And the population exchange was agreed to, and brokered by, powerful international forces, the Allies, after WWI.


As the piece quotes, everyone—all the representatives of the governments present at the Treaty of Lausanne—knew that the idea of a population exchange was shameful, but they all wanted it to happen anyway, as long as they were not held responsible for it. Sound familiar?


In some ways, the acceptance of those decisions: to displace whole populations with the sanction of the international powers paved the way for other governments, especially in Europe and the Middle East, to follow suit.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At the moment, much of my attention is devoted to helping A Short History of Anger find its audience in the world. And I have another collection of poetry, Revoke, coming out in the fall. When I can muster the time and mental space to actually write a poem, I have been working on a series of poems that uses medieval illuminated manuscripts as fulcrum and I have several of those in play.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Given its hybrid form, the book lends itself to adaptation in dramatic form, spoken aloud by many voices. In collaboration with a theatre director, we have adapted the text into A Short History of Anger: A Hybrid Work of Poetry and Theatre, composed of a Speaker and five- or seven-member Greek Chorus, which has been performed at various international festivals and universities in Europe and the U.S.


The live performance, like the manuscript, is hybrid: a stylized poetic reading with some basic theatrical elements and simple stage movement. The readers, drawn from the local community, perform at music stands, scripts in hand. The performances have opened a dialogue about our current cultural moment and generated engaged, dynamic post-show conversations and responses.


This year, we have upcoming performances—or we are in conversation about performances—at University of Redlands, in California, in March; at The Shrine of St Nicholas at Ground Zero, in NYC in September on the anniversary of The Destruction; and following that, in Columbus, Ohio, at Oregon State University/Cascades, and in Portland, Oregon.


You can find more information on my website:


I am struck by how many people—from all over the world—helped realize this work: poet friends, the director, performers, all the folks at Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, and I am deeply grateful for all of their support.


Thanks so much for this conversation!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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