By Theo Panayides
Michael Mavrotheris likes cats and dislikes dogs. Actually, “I don’t hate dogs, they just bore me. Dogs reflect people as they are, whereas cats are what people should be”, i.e. independent and a bit anarchic. Michael likes drinking – even to excess – and dislikes smoking pot, the “walking zombie” look he associates with the “hipster-ism” he hates so much. Oh, and he also dislikes the name ‘Michael’ – preferring ‘Mikhail’ which is the name on the cover of Blood on the Rocks, his second collection of poetry and the first in English.
Mikhail is refreshingly blunt about his likes and dislikes. Maybe as he grows older (he’s now 25) he’ll start to temper his opinions, maybe he won’t – but right now he sits in a flat in the unglamorous back-roads of Pallouriotissa looking distinctly piratical with his black beard, black hair and black top. His teeth are distractingly white, his voice incongruously reedy. He lights up as we talk; the ashtray in front of him is piled high with cigarette butts, the desk strewn with loose change and Rizla wrappers. A scrawny black kitten (he likes cats) totters about unsteadily – at least till it starts getting interested in my tape recorder and he picks it up gently by the scruff of the neck and deposits it in the bedroom, where it mewls pitifully for a while then subsides.
He’s wearing shorts, making it easy to note that his legs are heavily tattooed. His left thigh is adorned with a galleon on the front, a giant seahorse on the back; his right leg features a tattoo of mountains, plus a smaller tattoo of a cat (he likes cats). One leg is Water, the other Earth, he explains. The sea is important to him – a form of escape (“I have escapist tendencies”), tying in perhaps with the fact that we live on an island, and an island where he’s seldom found much inspiration. “Coming back to Cyprus, I really got bored to death,” he wrote in the author’s bio for a recent presentation of the book at ARTos Foundation. “I soon got tired with how predictable life was”. Like I said, pretty blunt.
It was in the US that he blossomed as a writer and poet, and amid the clutter of the flat – a banjo; a copy of The Story of O; posters of The Doors and Casablanca (his favourite film) on the walls – there’s a pile of books in envelopes with US addresses. These are copies of Blood on the Rocks which he’s sending to his mentors in America, specifically the University of Pittsburgh where he went to study Psychology but soon segued into Literature.
It was actually by chance that he started writing poems, because the professor at English 101 (all students were required to take a basic language course) was preparing a book on poetry written in English by people who speak English as a second language. His students were encouraged – or compelled – to contribute, which was how Mikhail discovered his flair for vivid images and turns of phrase. The poems in Blood on the Rocks (I forget to ask if the title is a Bob Dylan reference) are stark, laconic, often profane – the kinds of poems designed to be read in a growly Tom Waits voice, with the melancholy empty aftertaste of a Raymond Carver story (both Waits and Carver crop up in our conversation). For instance:
“I’d like to fuck you”
finished my drink,
lit a smoke & stood up,
“fine ashtray” I said and
it was a good bar
Is that a ‘good’ poem? Maybe not, if we’re talking use of English. Grammatical errors creep in here and there in Blood on the Rocks, and it’s no doubt significant that our interview takes place in Greek – yet there’s a certain ambience in that poem (and most of the others), savage and tender at the same time, and working in his second language seems to have liberated Mikhail. His first book of poems (Thanatografia, loosely translated as ‘On Death’) was in Greek and, he says, very “technical”, playing with language in self-conscious ways – but, he adds, “my most authentic voice came out in the second book”, not a taught academic voice but “the voice you have in a bar or a coffee shop”.
There’s another reason why poetry – especially this kind of loose-limbed, foul-mouthed poetry – spoke so strongly to Mikhail Mavrotheris: because he went to Pittsburgh with a lot of pent-up anger, having had a torrid time in his two years of National Service. He’s now 25, but still not officially demobbed after five years. Soldiers are punished with extra days added to the end of their service – and he got so many additional days, most of them deferred to allow for his college studies, that he still hasn’t served them all after five years (and now flatly refuses to go back in any case).
Why did he get in so much trouble? “Mostly because I wouldn’t tolerate certain kinds of behaviour,” he replies. “I felt that when there was injustice I had to speak up, and I spoke very openly at Assembly and anywhere else”. A single story will suffice to illustrate his problems. One night, Mikhail and one of his friends were on guard duty in adjoining sentry posts – but the friend decided not to go. Next morning, the officer in charge reported him ‘on suspicion’, meaning he had no proof that the sentry post was unmanned but had reason to believe an offence had been committed (“maybe someone snitched,” shrugs Mikhail now). Mikhail was the only witness, but refused to inform on his friend – so the CO announced that all furlough was suspended “till Mavrotheris decides to talk”.
Mikhail stubbornly held his ground (and tongue); after about 10 days, the CO’s personal chauffeur confronted him in the mess hall, berating him for refusing to talk and keeping them all cooped up. There was a fight, and Mikhail threw his helmet at the other soldier, after which both parties were summoned to the CO’s office. “Why did you hit my driver?” demanded the CO. “So I said to him ‘Aren’t you ashamed, a man of your age?’,” recalls Mikhail. “‘Why did I hit your driver?’ – why, is your driver some kind of special case? Why not simply ask me why I hit another soldier?”. He stormed out, slamming the door; the CO called him back. “You know what?” yelled our hero, livid with anger. “Without those stars on your shoulders, you’re just a prick. And if there’s a war, bear in mind that the first thing I’m going to do is wipe out all you officers, and only then will I even think about killing any Turks!” He stormed out again. A few hours later he was arrested by the military police, charged with threatening an officer, and spent seven days in prison.
One might see a lot of Mikhail in that story. The stubbornness, for one thing, the rigid refusal to talk – the same uncompromising worldview, I suspect, that separates the world into cats and dogs, things we like and things we don’t. The reckless streak, impulsively saying more than he should – the same streak that draws him to people who are open and uncensored, “not afraid to do what they like. I don’t like repressed people at all… Anything you want to do, do it because you feel it. Like for instance, if you read a book, read it because you want to read it – not because you ‘have’ to read it, because it changed someone else’s life so it’ll change yours too”. The recent presentation at ARTos sounds fairly typical: he drank more than he should’ve, read more poems than he’d planned to, and seems to have surprised the audience by having fun instead of coming across as a tortured artist.
Above all, perhaps, his army story illustrates his loathing of hypocrisy, the CO sanctimoniously protecting ‘my driver’ akin to the hated “hipsters” he sees among people of his own generation. Meaning what, exactly? Well, he says, for instance when he worked in a coffee shop “I saw people who I know come from very well-off families, and have no trouble buying cigarettes or a coffee for three euros – and they come and pay with little bits of loose change. To prove what? Or else, they wear simple clothes, but those clothes are also expensive. This is what my generation’s come to, buying the torn trousers of a dock worker for instance. Why, to start a fashion? To show what? – that ‘I’m living the crisis’? But the crisis isn’t a fashion, there are people suffering because of it. It’s not a fashion.
“And unfortunately these are the same people who have circles and make things happen in the world of the arts. I lived around such people, I saw that circle. I went in, [but] I didn’t fit, nor was I really very accepted”. He’s been back in Cyprus for a year, working as a salesman for his dad’s company to make ends meet – and it’s no surprise that he didn’t fit with the hip, arty crowd, not just because his poems are raw and abrasive but also because his own temperament tends to shun the mainstream, and crowds in general. “What most people want,” he claims at one point, “is a place where we can isolate ourselves… Deep inside, what most of us really need is some kind of isolation.”
There’s an element of outsider-dom in Mikhail Mavrotheris; maybe that’s why he found his poetic muse as an outsider in Pittsburgh (he was the only Cypriot there, he says proudly). No wonder he likes Casablanca, the tale of an outsider who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody’ but finally does the right thing. At one point I ask about his plans, and he names the three countries where he’d like to spend as much time as possible: Cuba, Japan and Ireland. All three are places where he’s fallen in love with the culture, including literary culture (Pedro Juan Gutierrez for Cuba, Haruki Murakami for Japan, any number of writers including Beckett, Wilde and Joyce for Ireland) – but they’re also outliers, islands on the edge of bigger countries and continents, places that “have their own world, and aren’t easily influenced by the outside”. Individualistic, like Mikhail himself.
In his teens, Mikhail Mavrotheftis briefly joined EDON, the youth wing of AKEL (he comes from a Leftist family), only to be repelled by its sunny, simplistic propaganda; nowadays he names Che Guevara as one of two great personalities he admires – the other is Jesus, and he says that as an atheist – whose ideas were exploited by others for their own gain. Institutions, whether Church, Army or Party, don’t sit well with Mikhail; he sees their basic dishonesty, and can’t help reacting violently. His sympathies lie with the bold few who went their own way, and didn’t have a hipster bone in their body.
As he gets older, it’s easier to “distance myself from the lies around me. I find the people I want to be with, and I distance myself from a pseudo-socialisation – the Facebook generation let’s say, knowing people for the sake of knowing them”. Books help, as they’ve always helped; he recalls reading every night as a child, sitting up in bed for two or three hours (he didn’t get a computer till his late teens), slowly progressing from Little House on the Prairie to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And now he’s a writer himself, a poet, heading off to Glasgow for an MLitt in September, meanwhile sitting at his desk and trying to perform the magic trick which others (though not many others) have performed before him: “To give that invisible thing a visible form, through words. That invisible thing that I feel…”