Unearthing the Greek in the Australian: an Account of Owl Publishing’s History and Foundation

By | 1 May 2020

Through literary studies and publications, Nickas as Owl Publishing, increased the noticeability of Tsaloumas and Kefala during the 90s, as well as others, such as Vassos Kalamaras and Yota Krill. Their poetry filled the gaps between belonging and identity, nostalgia and history, resistance and reconciliation.

This was personally and creatively significant for me as in the 80s and early 90s, I was a student in search of resonance and echo through literature. The impact of my Cypriot-Greek upbringing compelled me to read the fiction and memoirs of Australian women writers who were also impacted by Greek culture and traditions, such as Gillian Bouras, Beverley Farmer and Charmian Clift. Although their writing was evocative, the resonance was shallow and the echo faint – I was Australian born but my formative years were a cocoon of Greek language, Cypriot dialect and Orthodox religion. Then I read The Messenger by Angelo Loukakis1 about a boy with Greek parents navigating competing cultures in Australia – the resonance was deep and the echo was loud. And even deeper and louder with novels and short stories by Zeny Giles, George Papaellinas and Fotini Epanomitis. These Australian authors of Hellenic heritage with their individual voices and stories possess the sub-layer; what I term the mother tongue’s story2. The authenticity of narration (albeit imagined) through lived experience, which I was seeking.

This considerably fueled my poetry and other writing. In 1994, my first poem to be accepted for publication was ‘Visiting Yiayia’, a bilingual poem (using Greek and English). It was published by Australian Multicultural Book Review3, which was a product of Papyrus Publishing and dedicated to ‘Australia’s Voice of Diversity’. From 1993 to 2004, Clarissa Stein spearheaded AMBR, a triannual journal and like Nickas, was compelled to unearth poets and writers who were undiscovered and culturally diverse.

Creating an alternative cultural platform and encouraging the larger Australian literary community to view it, is a continuing expedition for discoverers of diversity. Recent examples are Peril Magazine, with its focus on Asian writers, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, dedicated to poems that fuse languages, and Cordite’s issue 94: Bayt focused on Arabic poets, a portion based in Australia. And seven years ago, Nickas together with Peter Lyssiotis and N N Trakakis, created a platform for poets of Greek heritage to showcase their work.

All three, Nickas, Lyssiotis and Trakakis4, have established themselves as significant contributors to the Australian-Greek literary canon. As a collective, they are storytellers, poets, artists, authors, and exceptional poetry editors. Each known for their collaborative literary ventures giving voice to the migrant experience. In November 2014, they launched the chapbook series with two collections: A Winter Journey by Dimitri Tsaloumas (in Greek and English) and Lost in Mid-Verse by me5.

Lyssiotis, was my assigned poetry editor and what he brought to my proposed manuscript was rigour and creativity. He posited the challenge for me to carve out parts of my collection in order to be true to a strong theme. We sipped bitter coffee made Cypriot-style from a briki, dunked koulourakia, and shared our Cypriot-Greek upbringing using the dialect, as we reviewed and revisited stanzas, lines, enjambments … Lyssiotis also wrote the introduction that accompanied my collection.

It’s a joy to see the tradition of careful pairing of poet with essayist continued with all the chapbooks. The final seven in the series are a showcase of accomplished poetry and continue the work of those earlier academics to introduce and spotlight those deserving of publication.6

In Or by Trakakis, the introduction written by George Vassilacopoulos provides insight into the philosophical breath of the collection and plants Trakakis firmly as: ‘… the poet who grafts his biography in the history of the world. Ultimately the ‘Or’ is his singular being, a being that abandons its name ridding itself of the ‘skin’ of certainty.’7

The collection is tightly themed and decisive in its positioning of the ‘disjunctive conjunction’ as being the residence of existence. From the first line, At the crosswords, to the last line, the residue of nonbelonging, the poems sprint, rage, plummet and soar into the ‘or’ of nightmare/dream, dusk/dawn, soul/spirit – the ‘alternative’ being proffered as the only constant:

There is neither either/ or nor both/ and
All there is is Or and Or, more and more …
Not a get-out-of-jail-free card, nor
A never-ending always-changing jigsaw
Life on a loop, if you tire of it you could
Scrape and bow before throne and altar
Otherwise cast yourself loose like a mastless ship on monstrous seas
And punkroutines beyond the borders:
The shape of words to come, or
Plant a black flag in your sun-shocked skull …
  1. Penguin, 1992
  2. ‘In every corner of the world, young children are learning languages at home that differ from the dominant language used in their broader social world. These children arrive at school with a precious resource: their mother tongue.’ Jessica Ball, Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds: mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual education in the early years, University of Victoria, UNESCO, 2010-11
  3. AMBR, Vol 2 No. 3, 1994, Pp. 23
  4. Edited by N N Trakakis, Southern Sun, Aegean Light – Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians, Arcadia (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2011
  5. Reviews of chapbooks: Dmetri Kakmi, ‘New titles by Angela Costi and Dimitri Tsaloumas’, Australian Poetry Journal, 22 April 2015; Nathanael O’Reilly, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 May 2015, Ali Jane Smith, Mascara Literary Review, 1 Sep 2016
  6. These seven chapbooks were published in 2018 to 2019 by Owl Publishing.
  7. Dr George Vassilacopoulos, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy, La Trobe University
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