Talking about C.P. Cavafy

At the second Antipodes Writers Festival

The two-day celebratory event on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth and the 80th anniversary of the death of the world poet Constantine P. Cavafy, was successfully completed last Sunday night at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. The event, conducted under the guise of the Antipodes Festival, appears to have cemented the Writers Festival as a permanent feature of the Greek Australian Community’s annual cultural agenda.
Distinguished scholars of Cavafy’s work, from the Universities of Oxford, Yale, Ohio, Oregon, Leiden and Victoria (Melbourne) enabled a significant number of participants from the Greek Australian community and from the wider community as well to familiarize themselves thoroughly with various aspects of the work and life of the Alexandria-born Greek poet.
Part of the celebratory events were the screening of a documentary on the life and work of Cavafy, and an opera by the Greek Australian Constantine Koukias, inspired by the poem Waiting for the Barbarians.
An important moment of the festival was an open microphone event where scholars and members of the general public read their favourite Cavafy poems.
Of course, the highlight of the celebration were the contributions of all the Cavafy scholars.
Professor Gregory Jusdanis, from the University of Ohio, explained why C.P. Cavafy is so well known throughout the world. Cavafy, along with Nikos Kazantzakis he said, was addressing an international audience with his poetry. The great amount of his translated body of work in English also helped his status. However, we must not forget, he added, that he was a genius. He constantly pushed the boundaries between the real and the imagined world, he talked about the Hellenistic period decades before the historians did at any great length, he made us see and feel the world through his poetry and by enabling us to put ourselves, our feelings, and our imagination in the shoes of others, in a way that only literature and friendship can.
Dr George Syrimis from Yale University spoke about the historical poems of the poet based on the life of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who lived in the fourth century A.D. and referred to the religious, the poetic and the ethical issues raised in these 12 poems.
Associate Professor Karen Emmerich from the University of Oregon focused her speech on how the Greek academic and Cavafy scholar G.P. Savvides, the sole owner of the poets archives for decades, as well as other scholars later on, created the readers’ perceptions of the poet and his work.
Dr Dimitris Papanikolaou from Oxford University, talked about the poems 27 June 1906 2pm and Since nine o’clock by using the queer theory and the recent discussions on queer time and queer ethics. Amongst others he stressed how the past is constantly visited by the body as now, how the present becomes aesthetics and includes the past, how the future is almost absent in Cavafy’s poetry and how a radical desire can be a driving force for radical poetics and polity.
Dr Maria Boletsi from the University of Leiden gave a talk on ways Cavafy’s poetry is haunting our present with reference to the poem Waiting for the Barbarians. Barbarism and civilization form one of the oldest and most rigid oppositions in Western history. In this dichotomy, barbarism functions as the negative standard through which ‘civilization’ fosters its self-definition and superiority by labelling others ‘barbarians’. Boletsi overturned this convention and recast barbarism as a productive concept, arguing that it can have a disruptive insurgent potential as seen through works of art and literature.
Dr Thea Bellou from Victoria University, a late addition to the schedule, explored the notion of time in Cavafy’s poetry. She focused on a number of poems in order to elucidate the intricacies of his and our relation to time.
It is worth mentioning that the academic ‘weight’ and the relatively young age of the speakers of the C.P. Cavafy weekend is something that could ensure the continuity and the longevity of Modern Greek Studies, at least in the institutions where they teach. All the scholars were duly impressed by the enthusiasm and number of people that attended the event, as they would struggle to attain such audiences in their home cities.