Three years ago my attention was drawn to a book by the American writer and poet, John Taylor, entitled “Harsh out of Tenderness – The Greek Poet and Urban Folklorist Elias Petropoulos”.

John Taylor has been living and working for decades in Paris, where he developed a long-standing friendship with Elias Petropoulos.

Given that the name of Elias Petropoulos means nothing to the vast majority of the so-called paroikia, apart from those involved in the rebetiko music scene and a tragically small number of Greek-Australian academics, I wondered what a book about Elias Petropoulos, which had already begun to sail the waters of the Australian bibliography, could do.

Another thing that also struck me was that this book had been published by a hitherto unknown to me publishing house called Cycladic Press.

Full of curiosity, I ordered the book. Needless to say, it is a very thorough and professional work, with photographs and bibliography by Elias Petropoulos.

I saw that the editor’s name was Michael Alexandratos and assumed that he would be an academic or, at the very least, a writer or researcher, so I decided to get in touch, realising that we shared the same interests.

I was very surprised to discover that the person behind Cycladic Press was a young man who was not quite 25 years old.

A surprise that grew with time as he asked me if I knew anything or had books by Yiorgis Zarkos, a left-wing writer of the inter-war period in Greece who wrote in phonetic script and criticised the publishing and non-publishing establishment of the time.

Michael Alexandratos. Photo: Supplied

My interest was further piqued when I discovered that Alexandratos had published a book in which he deals with sexual issues emerging from rebetiko, Queerbetika. Also that he had published another book of urban chronicles from 19th century Istanbul by Panos N. Tzelepis entitled “In the time of the Sultans – Urban Chronicles from 19th century Istanbul.”

These surprises continued in the immediate aftermath, touching on literary, and not only, issues of the so-called margin, something that tragically few of Alexandratos’ generation are concerned with.

The culmination of Alexandratos’s publishing activities to date, is a collected edition of Elias Petropoulos’ poems, translated and edited by John Taylor, entitled “Elias Petropoulos – Mirror for you – Collected Poems (1967-1999).”

It was inevitable that my contact with Alexandratos grew stronger in recent months, so I thought I would have a conversation with him and share it with the readers of Neos Kosmos.

I pointed out to Alexandratos that his preoccupation with certain aspects of Greek folk, so to speak, literature, music and folklore shows a person who has a certain knowledge of the history and the whole texture of what you are dealing with. ‘How have you managed to do that at such a young age?’, I asked.

“I have always been by nature an autodidact,” he says to me.

“In my late childhood years I immersed myself in readings of literature, philosophy and poetry. It didn’t really matter if I could understand everything I was reading, only that it captivated me and it exposed me to new words and new worlds. I followed my curiosity even at that young age. One of the writers that I become hooked on then was William S. Burroughs. I read Naked Lunch and Junky when I was twelve,” he goes on.

“Around the period when I transitioned into my teenage years, I discovered rebetiko and was initiated into that world through the reissue albums of Charles Howard and Ian Nagoski. The internet was also a great resource that I used to explore my interests.

Over time my obsession with Greek music and literature grew and my Greek language skills continued to improve. Although I had previously felt embarrassed by my Greek identity, when I started delving into the more subversive aspects of Greek culture that I didn’t learn through Greek school or the church, I felt that I had discovered a new world that was also somehow familiar.”

What did a young, third-generation Greek-Australian found in the works of a “recalcitrant” researcher and demanding writer like Elias Petropoulos? What elements of the work of this multi-faceted personality can move a young man of the 21st century? I kept asking him.

“The writings of Elias Petropoulos are as complex and complicated as the man himself. As a writer and researcher, I am drawn to his stubbornness and daring in writing about topics that were marginalised in popular and academic discourses. He remains a polarising figure in Greece today, even in fields that he himself pioneered,” says Alexandratos.

“I suspect that part of the reason why people despise him is due to their own personal prejudices about the subjects of his research, which included queer people, prisoners and sex workers. Researchers in the field of rebetiko also love to slander his work, even though most ‘rebetologists’ of his generation – including Tasos Schorelis and Kostas Hatzidoulis – were equally as sloppy and dubious in their methods. In this sense, the conservatism, narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy that Petropoulos railed against are still very much present in Greek society today.”

Although many aspects of Petropoulos’s work can be considered problematic, the reality is that if not for his pioneering efforts we would know much less about the people and topics he wrote about. “For me, Petropoulos is an inspirational figure and a writer whose work motivates me with my own projects. In the 21st century there is much we can learn from and admire in the work of Elias Petropoulos”, he tells me confidently.

Diachronically, the question of the sexuality and gender sexual issues in rebetiko has not been sufficiently explored as much as it should have been. What was it that inspired you to get involved with what we call queer in this particular genre of song? I insist.

“I was inspired by the topic of queerness in rebetiko because it was largely unexplored in the literature on this genre. I also think that it was the right time to launch a ‘queer’ intervention in the study of rebetiko, which has become so entangled in the nationalist and normative discourses of the Greek state.

“It was important to draw attention to these queer elements because they have so often been ignored by commentators. Even though these aspects of rebetiko are well-known, there was nothing available in English or Greek that attempted to survey this phenomenon in all its facets. In my book ‘Queerbetika’ I wanted to explore these themes as explicitly and directly as possible,” he tells me.

Alexandratos has also been preoccupied with forgotten figures of Greek literature, studying or even translating their works into English, for example Michael Mitsakis, who appeared in Greek writing from the 19th century, or Yiorgis Zarkos, who in fact no one remembers today, and who is ignored by most people.

What do you think today’s writers have to take from these personalities? I ask him.

“I think that resuscitating the legacy of these writers is an antidote to the contemporary literary scene. In an age where the career of writing is so tied up in status, prestigious awards and the masturbatory ‘in-crowd’, these writers offer an alternative and an affirmation for artists on the margins of that culture,” he tells me.

“Not many writers are willing to risk their careers, livelihoods and freedoms to produce the kind of work that makes Zarkos and Mitsakis so compelling. In Mitsakis’s case, his experimental and surrealistic writing appeared around the onset of his madness which resulted in years of homelessness and institutionalisation. For Zarkos, his vitriolic attacks on the state, the justice system, psychiatry, politics and prominent literary figures cost him years of exile and imprisonment. These figures remind us that the act of writing is dangerous and that there is a lot at stake when a writer challenges the status quo. Most writers active today are not as uncompromising,” he concludes.

In the Time of the Sultans book cover. Photo: Supplied

Alexandratos has published an English language collection of poetic prose by the ancient Greek title “Ύβρις” (hubris).

“I don’t claim the identity of a ‘poet'”, he says to me, “as poetry is not my main practice”.

“‘Ύβρις’ was a collection of texts from the past ten years that I am grateful were finally published. Although it had a Greek title, ‘Ύβρις’ was not preoccupied so much with my Greek identity (which was intentionally obfuscated in the book) but rather my encounters with psychosis. It was important for me to emphasise the experience of psychosis as something beyond culture and beyond language, but not reality. I don’t believe that psychosis is a ‘loss of touch with reality’ because the psychotic still inhabits reality, it’s only that their relationship to it has changed.

“I don’t have a creative writing practice at the moment other than editing and compiling my dreams. However, when I return to creative writing it will probably be a novelistic extension of the ‘Ύβρις’ book or perhaps a series of essays,” he continues.

And what about the Cycladic Press? I asked him to tell us a little about these ventures and what we can expect from him in the near future.

“As for Cycladic Press, I intend to keep expanding its body of publications to include more non-canonical works from Modern Greek literature. I established the press in order to make available in English writings that deserve better attention in the Anglophone world. I aim to publish more queer Greek literature and works of an ‘underground’ nature. There are also tentative plans to start a record label that extends my aims and preoccupations with Cycladic Press into the realm of sound recordings.

In contrast to independent publishing houses like Aiora Press and Denise Harvey, I am not interested in publishing the ‘classics’ and the ‘big names’ – which those presses do so well – but am instead focused on more marginal writers and themes. There is nothing wrong with the canon, but it’s also important to broaden our tastes, politics and aesthetics when it comes to Greek literature in translation.”

The main project Alexandratos is currently working on is an anthology of Greek outsider writing from 1842 to the present. The Greek edition will be published in Athens, and he is also preparing an English edition. He concludes the conversation with the promise that future projects will continue to probe the margins of Modern Greek literature and culture.