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What happened in the end

Being able to write something is something you are born with says a local poet who has just launched a new collection. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

 

I open the book to page 39, and read the following:

My mother cried
I heard her and cried too.

Those are the opening lines of ‘What Happened in the End’, the first poem ever penned by Andriana Ierodiaconou – or at least the first “publishable” poem, after years of what she variously refers to as scribbles and juvenilia. That was in 1977 and she was at Oxford, towards the end of a three-year research fellowship. One year later she’d be in California, newly married and trying (unsuccessfully) to adjust to her new life in Berkeley. Three years later she’d be in Athens, working as a journalist and – eventually – a foreign correspondent for prestigious outlets like the Washington Post and Financial Times. 17 years later she’d be in France with her second husband Alan, having bought a farmhouse in the fiercely rural Bourbonnais area. 39 years later she’s in her parents’ home in Nicosia, a few days from the launch of a collection called The Trawler: Poems 1977-2015 (published by Moufflon Publications), telling me her life story in a brisk, assured manner which isn’t really how I imagine poets.

profile2She’s not just a poet, of course, having also written two novels – Margarita’s Husband (2007) and The Women’s Coffee Shop (2012) – but in fact that’s irrelevant. For one thing, poetry is her main concern, her vocation, the enterprise where she feels most fulfilled. For another, even if she were ‘just a poet’, it wouldn’t necessarily translate to a shrinking violet. All that poets really have in common is “a private self, which is where the poetry comes from”; that aside, they come in all shapes and sizes, and the stereotype of the fumbling, dreamy poet is just a stereotype. Nobel Prize-winning poets like Seferis and Neruda actually worked as diplomats, gliding confidently on the world stage – and even Andriana herself spent a year in the jungle of politics, as communications advisor to President George Vassiliou. Her job title was a first for Cyprus – but also ill-defined, overlapping with the duties of the government spokesman, so “what I found myself involved in was basically a turf war”. She resigned, amicably, in 1990.

The guest
who came to our house
was uninvited;
but we knew
he would turn up some day
that he takes his coffee black
that he is not joking
and that he is here to stay.

That’s from a poem called ‘The Guest’, written in memory of her father who died in 2009. Michael Ierodiaconou was a maths teacher at the English School – though also a big reader of books and espouser of left-wing-liberal, anti-nationalist political ideas, both of which rubbed off on his daughter; her parents were “multicultural before the term was invented”, says Andriana, and their retirement flat (located, not coincidentally perhaps, down the road from the school where her dad worked his whole life) is awash in books, paintings and assorted objets d’art. She seems to have had an excellent relationship with Michael (her son, now 23, is named after his grandfather) – though it might’ve been better, oddly enough, if their relationship had been strained, at least during childhood. It might’ve saved her from the wrong turn that delayed both her poetic burgeoning and adult fulfilment, and turned her late teens and early 20s into something of a lost decade.

Andriana was bright – a bright, quiet girl, probably with the same elfin face, slightly businesslike manner and brief flash of smile (it glows, but fades quickly) she displays in middle age. She was born in 1952, and bright kids in the 60s were expected to go into the science stream: “The arts stream was considered for the stupid kids, there was really a very strong prejudice” (after all, she recalls being told, “you can always write on the side, as a hobby”). A rebellious or unhappy girl might’ve chafed at being told what to study, but teenage Andriana was no rebel: “I was a conformist, a terrible conformist. I couldn’t rebel. My sister was much more of a rebel – but no, I wanted to be the good girl, to please my mummy and daddy and the teachers… and so I found myself studying Biochemistry”. She was bright enough to go to Oxford, bright enough to finish the course and bright enough to get a 2:1 – but she never warmed to science, or developed any interest in becoming a scientist. All that Biochemistry really accomplished was to shunt aside her literary leanings for a few years, so that it took her till the age of 25 (1977, as already mentioned) to produce her first publishable poem.

She hadn’t always known that she wanted to be a poet. As a kid, she thought she might become a novelist or short-story writer; the novels she cites from that time – the first books that really evoked grown-up feelings – are political rather than poetic, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World and Ellison’s Invisible Man. (Clearly, her decade as a journalist wasn’t just an accident.) But she’d always known that “I liked words” – first in Greek, the language of her poems even now, then later in English, learning to read from the age of four so that school seemed boring and superfluous. “I remember liking words, and just stringing words together at random, words that I liked – just combining them, to myself, you know, in a sing-song, that kind of thing. And I think that was probably the first clue that I was going to be a poet. But I didn’t realise it until much, much later, because there was this huge detour through science.”

Rain.
A woman scattering hairpins on the floor.

Those are the opening lines of ‘The Trawler’, the title-poem of the new collection (only her second collection, a slim previous volume having been published by the late Niki Marangou in the early 80s) – and it’s a poem she’s particularly proud of, because it typifies the idea of ‘leaping poetry’, the kind where every line and stanza finds you “leaping from one image to another to another. And the poem starts out here and ends up there, somehow, through leaps in imagery”. Thus we go from the image of rain to an image of the woman scattering hairpins (which fall to the floor like drops of rain), and so on throughout the short poem – which is ultimately ‘about’ the Turkish invasion, like a lot of her work, the events of 1974 having been what made her political “almost overnight,” recalls Andriana. “It was like someone had hit me with a brick, and I suddenly understood a lot of things”.

Latin American poets are often political: of the three poets she names as favourites (Vallejo, Lorca and Neruda), the second and possibly the third were murdered for their politics. Latin American poetry also tends to be image-based, like her own – and in fact it was only once she started reading poets beyond the Anglo-Saxon canon, during her time in California, that it all came together: “Suddenly I thought ‘Yes, this is it! And I can do this, and I have a theme and a subject’ – you know, Cyprus, and all the rest of it”. The 80s were her most prolific time as a poet, indeed that whole decade in Athens was transformative – coming out of her shell, doing interviews, going to New York in ’85 to cover the Kyprianou-Denktash talks for the Herald Tribune – yet in fact she’s never been terribly prolific. The Trawler contains 114 poems, not a massive haul over 38 years, even bearing in mind that it’s a selection.

In fact, what seems to happen is that now and then – maybe half-a-dozen or a dozen times a year; not very often, really – a poem will come to Andriana, almost by magic. It’s often at night, when she’s halfway between sleep and waking and ideas float up from the subconscious; sometimes it’s the germ of an idea, sometimes the whole poem. “The better poems that I’ve written,” she muses, “I feel it’s almost like taking dictation from something. This sounds a bit pretentious, but the lines will sort of come to me spontaneously, in their entirety”. She does revise (almost always to condense rather than add), and of course some poems demand to be toiled over – but it’s never for long: “I don’t work on a poem for months. Two or three days, and it’s there”.

So then – since she doesn’t, after all, make money from poetry – couldn’t we just call it a hobby, rather than a vocation?

She pauses, thinking about it. The pixie-ish face is deceptive; there’s often a touch of steel in her voice, and it’s there now. “I think it depends on how seriously one takes oneself as a poet,” she replies carefully. “All I can say is that, when I first started writing poetry and getting it published – poetry which satisfied me, which felt good enough to be publishable – I just had this very strong feeling that I had discovered what it was I had been put on this earth to do.”

In the night
my country stirs.

I feel like Andriana Ierodiaconou is almost a secret poet – or maybe we should say a private poet, echoing her own allusion to a “private self” which produces the poetry. Ideas float up at night, as if having to escape from her subconscious. Poetry itself came late to her, having to escape the Biochemistry. Her surface persona isn’t terribly lyrical (I’m sorry, I’m dealing in stereotypes again): “My big breakthrough was landing the Financial Times in 1983 – and this was a breakthrough because the Financial Times paid a retainer fee, and also expenses!” she tells me, sounding much more journalistic than poetic. She’s also, by her own account, restless and easily bored, already growing slightly bored in Bordeaux (where she and Alan have lived since 2003, having moved from the farmhouse for their son’s education), citing weekend breaks to London and Brussels when I ask about hobbies. “We’ve never really put down roots in France,” she says. She seems, in a word, unsentimental.

Yet this brisk exterior is apparently a façade – a way of disguising the private, poetic self which is over-sentimental, if anything. “This also sounds a bit pretentious, but I think poets are hyper-sensitive to stuff,” she says earnestly. “That’s why I find [that] crowd events or too much activity overwhelms me – because I feel totally permeable to it”. She’s dreading the book launch in a few days, she admits with a rueful chuckle. There’s no barrier, when it comes to the outside world; it all just floods into her. “And I think that same, kind of, permeability is what gives rise to the poetry. Because all these things get in and ferment around, and you have to write a poem to release the energy”.

Her own energy is deceptive, she insists: behind the fluent, communicative surface – she was communications advisor to the President, for crying out loud! – lies a congenital shyness. She’s still the quiet, industrious girl she was in childhood, sighs Andriana: “I’m not an extrovert, at all. I’m a bit of a loner and an introvert”. Journalism brought her out of herself (as it does for a lot of people), able to crouch behind the professional persona – “but left to my own devices, I tend to be a bit shy. And sometimes people mistake it for coldness or arrogance, but really it’s shyness.”

Shy people like to keep a distance, having gotten used to their inner life and learned to embrace it. I’m a bit surprised that Andriana is vehemently against all creative-writing courses, dismissing the notion that writing can be taught as mere “happy talk” – but in fact I’m not surprised, because it makes sense for her to view writing talent as innate, “something you’re born with”. Her own poetic talent has survived all those years of repression and neglect, stubbornly refusing to die off in the name of Biochemistry. Her own poems come to her almost unbidden, as if birthed by something that’s outside her control. It’s no wonder that she feels the “private self” almost as a separate entity, like a pump set up to drain all those accumulated floodwaters while the rest of her gets on with weekend trips and living the retired-expat life in Bordeaux.

And there’s something else as well. ‘How did you feel about motherhood?’ I ask – knowing that she came to it late, at 41 – and suddenly the unsentimental veneer melts away. “I loved being a mother,” she replies with great feeling. “I had grave doubts about whether I wanted to be a mother, I was afraid I’d be a very bad one – all kinds of phobias and things – but then once I did it…”

Andriana’s eyes glisten; she seems literally on the verge of tears. “I mean, the day my son was born was the happiest day of my life, and I’ve never looked back. I just love being a mum – to this day, I love being a mum. He’s only 23, so I’m still a mum!” All mothers might say something similar, of course – but I also suspect, as she sees me to the door politely but briskly (there’s no lingering or small talk; maybe it’s the underlying shyness taking over), that it holds a bigger meaning for this particular mum. Motherhood, after all, is transcendent, instinctive, essentially irrational. It’s not defined by the conscious self, not an actual response to the child’s personality or behaviour; it just floats up, as if by magic. The stuff of poetry.

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