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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Remembering George Economou (1934-2019): The Magic in the Gaps between the Words and Worlds

Today, we take a moment to remember George Economou, poet, literary scholar, and translator, who passed away in early May at the age of 84.  George, who was quite unusual in his broad range of scholarly endeavors (poetry, translation, medieval literature, modernism, and classical Greek), produced a fascinating work, Ananios of Kleitor, which we contemplate here, along with his life.

George Economou
A conversation about Sappho
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with George Economou one evening when I was visiting his wife,  Rochelle Owens, and him in Philadelphia.  I had taken the train that winds its way down the Hudson River from Albany, New York, where I was living and working at Excelsior College. I had just completed a study of Classical Greek and Latin literature and had been immersing myself in Sappho.  It always surprised me that the classicists could fawn over Sappho when all that remained of her manuscripts were very small fragments and scraps.

“How can anyone possible assess the merit of the poetry of disconnected scraps, fragments, partial phrases and words?  And, how do you know which goes with which?  Do any of them actually go together?  Are they from separate pieces of parchment or papyrus?”
George went into a long discussion of how it was possible assess the poetic merit of a work even if all you had were disconnected, disjointed bits of distressed papyrus.

Scraps of papyrus and a rediscovered minor Greek poet
This conversation took place a few years before Ananios of Kleitor was published. He was, I believe, working on it… Ananios of Kleitor was (in theory) an extremely scholarly investigation of long-lost papyri, found by German investigators working in Egypt in the 1930s. The fragments were assembled on the page of the book to represent how the scholar had pieced them back together. In doing so, Economou discusses the life, times, contexts, and accomplishments of an ancient Greek poet, Ananios of Kleitor, with bawdy details as well as technical preoccupations. The poem fragments, when rendered as a full poem, turn out in some cases to be erotic (even pornographic), you would never guess it by looking at the minimalist layout of seemingly random words and letters.  The overall impression reminded on of the early 20th century DaDa and concrete poetry. 

But, back to the question, which George had clearly been considering in-depth for some time: “How do you know what goes in the gaps?  And, how do you know if it’s any good?”

The introduction to Ananios of Kleitor explains just how the gaps (and even intellectual lacunae) are filled; he describes the way that people attach well-known narratives or quotes from anecdotes in the cultural consciousness to a quote. The extreme exigesis reminds one of Borges and Nabokov.

Supposedly, the provenance of the papyri was a German library’s special collection, and one immediately thought of the Vermeers and other classics collected by the Nazis (along with a number of brazen forgeries). The layer upon layer of ontological uncertainty is intriguing for many reasons. I was reminded of the prolific schizophrenic forger of renowned artists’ minor works, and when finally exposed (he made the mistake of forging the same work five or six times, and then gifting them to different museums, not thinking about how they might issue press releases that would make some recognize they had the same gift), he had duped more than 40 museums in the United States. 

George did not go as far as to fabricate papyri or have extensive photographic plates in his book (or on the publisher’s website), but I suppose he could have done so.

Classical Greek, Medieval, and Modernist / Postmodernist mergings
In doing so, Economou gives a living example of the rhizome-type quality of texts (those which appear in on the page and those which remain in what Derrida might call the “trace” of signification).  But, instead of being incredibly obscure, Economou made the abstract deconstructivist notion a living, organic example.

The rhizome has interconnected roots beneath the surface, just as the fragmentary piece of a well-known quote or extract from song, literary work, folklore, or even quotes from drama or film, will trigger what is in the mind(s) of the audience. It is the mechanism behind the dialogical imagination as described by Bakhtin.

And, even as you erase the words between those in a well-known phrase, you leave the “trace” and full erasure is never possible.

Economou, who loved the intertextualities between periods of literature (even when the relationships were antagonistic or appropriative), was extremely rigorous in pointing out all the references and inter-textualities in Dante and Piers Plowman, not just to other works of literature or antecedents, but also to religious and philosophical belief systems. The tension between appropriation and appreciation were always a matter of the political realities of the day. Dante, Boethius, and Rabelais were just a few of those who spent some uncomfortable moments in prison for the various ways they subverted authority. It was interesting to see in Dante, in particularly, how the blend of Greek and Christian personae led to layer after layer of interpretative possibilities (and their subversions and reversals).

Lifework: Translating Piers Plowman
In addition to working with medieval and 20th century texts (which often resituated themselves in the medieval), George was a prolific translator.  In one course I took from him, we examined theories of translation and took “translation” to anything that is transported from one side to another. In doing so, we looked at Lawrence Venuti’s ideas about translation, which could be considered “interpretation” and thus a work of art as viable as the original.  Such was obviously the case in many of the translations of Dante.

Now we live in a world of Google Translate, and I believe there is a privileging of the literal, rather than the artistic or interpretive version. Economou, who was a friend of Louis Zukofsky, pointed to Zukofsky’s homophonic translations of Catullus, which focused only on the sound of the words, and rejected altogether any sense of denotative meaning.

In doing so, Zukofsky forced a return to the actual sound of poetry; the meanings we spontaneously weave from the sounds when they hit our verdant minds.

And, in the gaps in the texts from Ananios of Kleitor, we have a chance to return to what our own minds contribute to the meaning-making process. Those gaps are filled in with projections from our own mental libraries and emotional repositories.

What is fascinating about Ananios of Kleitor is that we see the process of gap-filling, as Economou creates ruptures in the text itself, opens up gaps, lets the reader mull the gaps, filling in from his or her own repositories. Then, the reader is able to see the filling-in process of the author himself, in his notes, findings, inter-textual discoveries, and scholarly detective work. All is a construction, and the suggestion is that both construction and the disruption of meaning are intentional – until they’re not.

I’m very sad that Dr. George Economou passed away. He touched my life in many ways, first as a refugee from the earth sciences who for some odd reason wanted to follow my Bachelor of Science degree with a Master of Arts in English.  Dr. Economou was the chair of my thesis committee, and then when I followed with my Ph.D., he was the chair of my dissertation committee.  More than that, he and Rochelle were deep friends, guides, and inspirations. Dr. Economou placed in my hand the keys to a locked door that, once unlocked, changed my life with an infinitude of tools and texts.

And, deep abiding admiration and friendship. 

Susan Smith Nash
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Interview with Raven Howell: Children's Book Writer and Artist

Inspiring children to feel good about themselves, to express their creativity, and to embrace nature are some of the goals of Raven Howell, a children's author who lives and works in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York.

1.   What is your name and your background? 
My name is Raven Howell and I live and work in the Hudson Valley, NY. Writing for children has always come naturally to me. I’m also the daughter of a poet. Creativity, writing and all the arts were encouraged in our household during my childhood. As a full time author, a lot of my time is spent in classrooms, working along students with learning disabilities, and presenting workshops in libraries.

For the past 25 years I’ve been specifically focused on children’s stories and poetry, releasing picture and poetry books, and writing regularly for many kids’ magazines such as Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill, High Five, and Humpty Dumpty. Before that, my work also involved writing verse for greeting cards, and I enjoyed being a songwriter and working in publishing at Atlantic Records in NYC.

2.  What is the name of your book and what is it about? Greetings is the title of my latest release, a picture book for preschool through K. Written in lyrical rhyme with bright, colorful illustrations, it melds the seasonal joys that occur between nature and children.

3.  What inspired you to write it?
Two things inspired my writing Greetings. I credit my mother for instilling me with my love of nature and the seasons. She was the first to teach me tenderness and awe with the new sprung sprout, an unexpected rain shower, or the magic of patting and rolling snowballs for snowmen. I learned appreciation for the slinky green inchworm or sneaky fox in the woods. I wanted to share that joy with the preschooler! Also, my publisher was in the midst of expanding their children’s book division, and a concept book was the perfect fit.

4.   What is special about it?
Greetings is a special combination of being a concept teaching book as well as poetry! The reader is not only taught the four seasons, but taken on a journey through the year exploring sights, sounds, smells, touch and even taste.

5.   Can you give a few examples of people who have successfully used the approach?
Preschool and K class teachers have used the seasons to help students understand cycles. It can be an “Ah-ha” moment when a child starts experiencing the world as it runs on cycles of time, day and night, and the seasons.

As far as parenting is concerned, what’s a better way to inspire your child to physically go outdoors and explore nature and get exercise than to encourage them with the gifts of the seasons? A teacher who had been given a pre-release copy of my book mentioned how it helped her students relate to nature better and in turn relate to the environment in their own lives.

6.   What are your plans?
I have many book events during this school year until the end of June, and am scheduling presentations for the fall already. Some of the events coming up: I will be at the Blodgett Library in Fishkill, NY on May 11th, The Millbrook Literary festival on May 18th, Hellertown Library in Pennsylvania on June 21stand sharing my books with underprivileged children at the Beacon Book-reading Blast-off June 26th in NY. My book events are coupled with fun children's activities including a simple magic marker/water dropper craft the kids create into weather clouds and seasonal suns!

I also have another book release in June, a picture poetry book for readers ages 5 and up. It’s titled Glimmer, Sing of Sun, and is a companion book to Shimmer, Songs of Night. Presently I'm writing six fractured fairytales for a publisher's new imprint. My website is a good go-to for updates, information on all my available work, and teaching tips. I hope you’ll check it out!

A big thank you for the opportunity to share and participate!

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