The Architecture of Chance: in conversation with Christodoulos Makris
Christodoulos Makris is a poet, editor, and curator. He was born in Nicosia (Cyprus) and has lived in Manchester, London and, since 2001, Dublin. His books include Spitting Out the Mother Tongue (Wurm Press, 2011) and the artist’s book Muses Walk (2012). His latest book, The Architecture of Chance, was released by Wurm Press in 2015. His poems have been included in several anthologies, and translated into Greek, Russian, Spanish, and Croatian. He is co-editor of Centrifugal: Contemporary Poetry from Dublin and Guadalajara and co-curator with SJ Fowler of Yes But Are We Enemies, a project and tour focusing on poetry in collaboration between poets in England and Ireland. He is the poetry editor of gorse journal.
Interview by Martin Šinal
The Literateur: Christodoulos, tell us something about your latest book, The Architecture of Chance. How do you perceive this collection of poetry in relation to your three older collections? In what ways does the latest book reflect the progress of your writing as a poet?
Christodoulos Makris: In terms of content there’s a definite leap between the previous books and The Architecture of Chance, while in approach there has been a steady development through the years towards experimenting with process. The previous two books considered, through a geographical and temporal distance, the conditions I grew up with. Muses Walk operated like a coda to the previous year’s Spitting Out the Mother Tongue in that it was composed by “exploding” the poem ‘Muses Walk’ from the earlier book through opening up each of its 16 lines into an entirely new piece. The Architecture of Chance explores the possibilities of process further. At its core lies a deliberate espousal of a wide variety of methodologies. Its concerns are social, political and philosophical in a more global – or perhaps a multi-local – sense, from a wider European perspective. And among other things there’s a focus on diversity and pluralism, and a tension between structure and chaos.
TL: A frequent theme recurring in your poetry is Cyprus, and Nicosia in particular, especially in your book Muses Walk. In what way has your home country been an inspiration to you and to what extent it still is in your current writing?
CM: I spent the first 20 years of my life in Cyprus and first perceived the world in terms of it, so my worldview cannot exist without its influence. But I have been lucky enough to be able to re-perceive it and to question the singular way things may appear to a person growing up in a confined geographical space and through a specific reading of history, and many of the assumptions leading to this. So its effect has in a sense turned back on itself and become multifold. As my work has moved into an engagement with early 21st century life and the implications of its wider spaces, and though it naturally links to my own knowledge and interests, the Cypriot experience and landscape as specific subjects for my work are drifting away. I cannot rule out the possibility of them returning.
TL: You moved to Dublin in 2001 and you have been writing reviews and essays on Irish poetry ever since. Has the Irish literary history including writers such as W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett or Seamus Heaney influenced your writing in any way?
[pullquote]The concerns [of The Architecture of Chance] are social, political and philosophical in a more global – or perhaps a multi-local – sense, from a wider European perspective.[/pullquote]
CM: These are of course three writers whose influence might shape poetry in very different ways. One can hardly avoid Yeatsian or Heaneyesque poetry here; but it became clear to me a while back that there are other ways of writing. I’m interested in Beckett as a multi-local and multi-lingual writer, in the mathematical dimension of his work, and as a poet of allusions and hyperlinks. His influence generally on poetry from Ireland has so far been limited, and is confined to a thin – though widening – strand of experimental writers who are systemically marginalised while also seeming in some cases happy to remain marginalised. The irony [I initially wrote “paradox”, but there’s nothing paradoxical about cutting-edge writing being in concert with its contemporary conditions: it is so by definition] is that writing using current modes of communication and tools is better positioned to incite interest in readers, now and in the future, than the tried and tested poem – especially since there has been a revolutionary shift in how we encounter language in our daily lives over the past couple of decades. This is also conditional on an understanding as such by the enablers of literature – by which I mean editors and curators, but also those in charge of the purse strings.
TL: In your poetry you mostly use free verse that tends to be arranged differently in almost every poem. How do you choose the particular form of the poem you are working on? Is it a spontaneous by-product of putting ideas on the paper or is it a more prearranged process of choosing a form and fitting the text in it?
CM: I’m afraid the process also varies widely. There’s no set methodology. I have generally responded to external stimuli – a chance encounter or event, the consideration of a subject or an idea for a period of time, a pre-ordained process as in the ‘Genius or Not’ poems, a clash with an outside sensibility and hitherto alien ways of doing things as in the cases of collaborations – in the way that seemed most appropriate for each occasion. Increasingly, found text and conceptual writing strategies, as tools for interrogating our highly technological and political times, are becoming something like a modus operandi. Though this is liable to change at any time.
TL: In May, you will be attending the Prague Microfestival, which is a festival of experimental and innovative poetry. The event includes authors who have been described as “translocal.” You have lived and worked in Cyprus, England and Ireland. Do you consider yourself a translocal writer? If so, does that affect the character of your target audience? Would that be, in your case, general international audience or rather audience with particular national background?
CM: I don’t think in terms of a target audience. It’s probably the case that an internationally-minded reader will be better disposed to my work than somebody whose view is confined to national or any other kind of bordered worlds, including the strictly literary. And a person who has experience of living in the places that I lived in may read some of my work in a way that resonates with my own reading of it. But I’m more interested in spaces where the reader’s or an audience’s expectations or pre-conceived ideas are disturbed by what they encounter. I’m more concerned with how the work may provoke its audience into patterns of thought or feeling that may be outside their norm, rather than specific or “correct” interpretations of it. Getting back to the notion of the translocal: more and more of us live in places we did not grow up in, whether by choice or force – but the result is that it arms us with a capacity to hold a multiple view of the world. I’m interested in writing that acknowledges this capacity of the modern reader to apprehend different cultures and modes of living simultaneously, and with a multidimensional intelligence.
[pullquote][Beckett’s] influence generally on poetry from Ireland has so far been limited, and is confined to a thin – though widening – strand of experimental writers who are systemically marginalised while also seeming in some cases happy to remain marginalised.[/pullquote]
TL: You mainly write experimental poetry in which you apply a variety of literary and non-literary writing techniques and dictions. Do you think that, in general, it is more difficult to find a regular audience for experimental writing rather than perhaps more traditional? If so, would you see that as a disadvantage?
CM: Though the perception that traditional writing has a readier audience is true, it is something that can be destabilised. In my various curatorial activities I have witnessed audiences being invigorated by experimental approaches of composition and presentation, and displaying a thirst for more; yet the delivery of this is presented as, and remains, an exception rather than the rule. Maybe rarity and excitement are inextricably linked. Regular audiences are developed through a long-term process of creating a framework through which to perceive an art form – and in my experience poetry is understood primarily in romantic and national-cultural terms. There’s something deeply conservative and chillingly exclusive and even imperial in this – which translation among other processes helps alleviate. The various possibilities for connection currently available to us offer an additional opportunity to challenge this persistent understanding.
TL: Prague Microfestival is one of the events in which artists read their work aloud. Many of your poems, such as the playful 16 X 16, seem to have been designed exactly for reciting. To what extent do you see the two media, reading and reciting aloud, as interconnected? How much is the idea of reading poetry aloud an influential factor in your own writing?
CM: Prague Microfestival is an intermedia festival, which to my mind encourages the view that the perception of a piece of work depends on and feeds off multiple ways of presentation. ‘16 X 16’ requires a confluence of aural, visual and intellectual apprehensions. On a couple of occasions subsequent to readings of it I received notes from members of the audience surprised to have then encountered it on screen and realised its visual dimension. Other pieces, like the poly-lingual ‘From Something To Nothing’, I cannot read aloud because of my own limitations (on the single occasion when I delivered this piece on stage I integrated a solution to this problem into the performance by live-sampling Google Translate’s speech function and using pre-recorded sections in languages not supported by the platform). The author’s voice or body is not the only way through which a piece of writing can be read. One of the things that interest me in my curatorial work is to experiment with physical interpretations of poetry, in the process encouraging writers to cede control of the delivery of their work.
[pullquote]In my experience poetry is understood primarily in romantic and national-cultural terms. There’s something deeply conservative and chillingly exclusive and even imperial in this – which translation among other processes helps alleviate.[/pullquote]
TL: I would like to ask about your relationship with Prague. Besides taking part in the upcoming Microfestival, you also have published in the Prague literary magazine VLAK. What is your relationship with the local artistic community? Are you looking forward to coming to the Czech capital?
CM: I can’t wait to visit Prague again! I was in the city once before, for five or six days in the summer of 1997, while travelling around Europe on buses. My only aim then was to have a good time, which I generally achieved…Coincidentally, that trip was the gateway to my serious interest in writing since, having no access to a camera or other recording device, I filled notebooks with observations that became my first large-scale piece (now safely locked away). It was of course a time of rapid change in the Czech Republic, and I remember talking to people from the city who expressed apprehension about what the future might hold. For me as a traveller it was a cheap and lively place to be, but I was only passing through. In literary and artistic terms, I’ve been aware of Charles University’s Department of Anglophone Literatures for some time through the presence of the Dublin-born poet Justin Quinn there (I admired the magazine METRE which he co-edited). But as you rightly allude to I’ve become more interested in the experimental scene in the city through VLAK and the work of people like Louis Armand, Olga Pekova and others, all of whom I look forward to meeting again in May.
TL: You seem to be interested in exploring the possibilities of new media and introducing their literary potential to your writing. For instance, you have filtered the word ´´chance´´ from several Twitter posts and are planning to incorporate them into your performance during the Prague Microfestival. What is your relationship with the new media such as Facebook or Twitter and what literary potential do you see in them?
CM: If my answers seem repetitive it’s because running through them is a pattern of thought about the nature and purpose of poetry that I’ve developed over years and is now – alarmingly! – reaching a kind of maturity. Namely that it’s an investigation of current uses of language, and the way these can become poetry. Embedded into platforms like Twitter and Facebook (though you won’t find me on the latter…) are means of communication and interconnection that provide new forms of poetry-generation. Beyond social media, there’s no getting away from the vastness of information available online, and what the implications of this are on composition and originality. At the same time, it’s also interesting to note how with the relentless upgrading of technologies and with instabilities or incompatibilities between systems of documentation whole swathes of recorded information are liable to get lost – so I wouldn’t write off print and other analogue technologies as publishing or recording mediums just yet. What the central presence of the internet and other digital communication platforms has given us is a new environment through which writing can be understood and made.
TL: The technique that you use in terms of introducing non-literary material to a literary and artistic context resembles the approach of conceptual art. Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? What is your relation to the global conceptual art community?
CM: I borrow ideas from conceptual art and attempt to integrate them into a literary practice because I find its interrogative possibilities both fascinating and timely. But I wouldn’t attach the label of ‘conceptual artist’ on myself – simply because I don’t like to place any kind of labels on my work. While following, admiring and studying the work of many artists and writers using conceptual compositional strategies, I like to place myself at a tangent to specific art or literary movements. My work is probably too various to be pinned down to a single aspect anyway. Conceptual writing, as a branching out of conceptual art, is of great interest to me, but it’s also important to be mindful of the differences. Conceptual art often makes use of language as an external element, so the question of how this translates to conceptual writing (which came nearly fifty years after conceptual art – as per Gysin – and is of course already steeped in the use of language) is crucial.
TL: Are you currently writing anything? What are your plans for the future?
CM: I’m working on a large-scale piece for which I perform interventions on found material of a specific kind. It engages with and explores many of the concerns I have outlined in this interview and their implications, such as unstable identities, ideological tribalism, authority and (mis)information, intellectual property and originality etc. I’m also writing collaboratively with a couple of other poets, while there are various curatorial and editorial activities in the pipeline, both collaborative and solo, which I see as crucial to, and interdependent with, my writing.