Karine Leno Ancellin was born and grew up in New York until she moved to very different countries altogether. She worked on ‘Hybrid identities’ for her Phd at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels. She earned an MA, with Honours, in Literature at the Charles V Institute of Paris VII-JUSSIEU. She is now a professor, writer and translator (English/French) living in Athens, Greece. She has published articles and interviews for the WIP, Kulturissimo, and other media. She is now involved in the promotion of pan-Hellenic Literature. She co-founded a poetry society with Angela Lyras (www.apoetsagora.com). Her poems have been put into music by the Jazz composer Leila Olivesi.
Read Karine’s poem: A Burning Man
Why did you choose this photograph of the leftover coffee grounds in a cup to represent you and your writing? How is this image compelling to you?
First of all thank you for your interest in my work. My fascination for divination started long ago, with my field study in Geomancy in the African desert of the Sahara, in 1988. It was my MA research project in Sociology/Anthropology at Jussieu, Paris VII University with Professor Jean Duvignaud. The Moors’ long divination traditions dated centuries back, mostly unhampered due to the aridity and isolation of the region, nonetheless, in spite of their remoteness, the reference pattern rituals revealed confusing common synchronicity with Chinese or western similar interpretations. My school of thought was heir to the structuralists like Levi Strauss and Lacan, theorizing on the rigorous observation tribal cultures however we worked with the opposing trend from the school of Roland Barthes and Oscar Lewis. We were genuinely meant to be part, to acknowledge and put ourselves in our research process, to experience not only to observe. Therefore, after that research divination culture remained a part of me. When I went on to be a journalist, and a Literature professor, the ‘readings’ lingered as my intimate hobby and when I came to Greece I was immediately drawn to the coffee grinds. It has accompanied my writings with its definite-indefinite probabilities. I find the patterns amazingly intricate and they trigger stories in my imagination, especially that I am provided with a little guidance on the outline, such as, “the present is near the handle, the future lies on the opposite side.” So it’s like weaving stories, when you are given the weft and the warp and have to bring the threads of ideas through these. It guides my imagination to areas of my own growth, in literature and in the world. It’s an unusual sort of philosophical prompting and direction with an enormous leeway for interpretation.
How did Panos Kokkinidis’ story inspire you to write your poem, “A Burning Man?”
As I settled in Athens, 5 years ago, I kept hearing fire stories from my mother and family members as well as from friends back home, all in the Los Angeles, California area. The wild fires had had a devastating effect there. During the summer 2018 it worsened. Entire homes were burnt down with a more and more violent destruction path and a rising death toll every time, so it was close to home. When the fire erupted in Athens, 5 miles or so away, I just felt an urge to do something but I did not know what, so I bundled a few towels, blankets and food, and brought it out there the next day for the many people who had lost everything but had managed to stay alive. I was moved by a pair of teenagers that were slightly injured, but were standing watch outside their half burnt home, explaining they had to hold guard against looters, because yes, some people roamed the night to steal what they could from the gaping homes. The rampant disaster around this vibrant beach was harrowing, yet, the blue sea and sky were nagging at the -still fuming- ashes, and the good memories I had had around there suddenly seemed indecent. I was so unsettled, I went home heavy and nauseous, and I just had to write. But how, the suffering I had witnessed did not fit the white page. Then on social media I saw the video taken by Panos Kokkinidis. I was so affected by this visual that the poem just unleashed itself, and unburdened my queasiness and sense of despair.
You end your poem with the desperate question, “where will the birds land?” Why did you choose this image to convey the fire’s devastation?
This image comes from my walk there, the day after the fire, it was midday and so oddly silent, because birds and their background chirping are an inherent part of the Greek landscape and it felt eerie to walk in the ashes of this vast silence, surrounded with burnt trees like skeletons. The absence of the birds had succeeded in shading the sun, and revealing the real doom. Moreover the symbol of the city of Athens is Athena’s owl, so it dates back from antiquity that birds inhabit this space, it is their ancestral land and the osmosis between them and the locals is wondrous so I found it was the last heart wrenching crime the fire had left behind, and it was there to stay. After the deaths and the destruction of: people, their homes and gardens; it would take ages to rebuild and replant the vegetation, and for life to regain a sense of normality, and at last, the nonappearance of the birds encapsulated that trailing of disruption. Now, what I wish above all is that, even for a split second, every reader gets the measure of what these people went through both in Athens and in California, and somehow I hope it will ripple for us, as societies, to care more about preventing wildfires.
The theme of our recent issue was [Hero]; how would you personally define a hero?
Spontaneously I will answer that Panos Kokkinidis is a model hero, although he did not save any lives, he died with his entire family but he had enough sharp mindedness to share his agony and his visual testimony became iconic for many people here, not viral, but useful for numerous reasons. It alleviated the trauma of others who had survived seeing his conscious struggle attempting to escape death. However to answer your question, I would prefer to speak of heroines, than of heroes, and more precisely ‘unsung heroines’, these amazing women I have met throughout my life who have remained anonymous even though: they have borne joy around them, they have dealt with illnesses and suffering of their loved ones without complaint, they have given birth alone in the middle of the desert, they have stood up to their beliefs against all odds, sometimes at a heavy price. I admire these women who work incessantly at bringing solace to others knowing it is without any form of recognition. I have just read the recent novel about Beryl Markham, Circling The Sun, and yes, I will not say I don’t admire her determination and her open relation with local Kenyans –when it was not done during these colonial times-, and the feat she has accomplished flying over the Atlantic, but as a literary person, I prefer the modest over the celebrated heroines. The more humble heroines like Katherine Johnson for instance, as ‘Hidden Figures’ they always have a complexity that is simplified when the media takes over. I am also thinking back, before the independence, of the women who were called ‘witches’ and were ostracized or who often paid with their lives their acts of dare in narrow-minded communities, women who published their book under male pen names, the likes of Mary Austin forgotten as it were, and so many more impressive women, beyond human interest stories, they are deep profound perseverant anonymous women, and I find that these are the real heroines I look up to and want to emulate.
Are you currently working on any projects, and do you have any work you would like to share with our readers?
Currently I am working on a chapbook to gather my poetry in a more cohesive way than publishing one piece at a time, which has been my life story, with an eclectic self, being both Jewish and protestant and my ex-husband a Muslim man, lived in Africa, and traveled many countries my subjects stretch out far and wide. So with the chapbook I want to narrow down and lay the pieces of the kaleidoscope of my experiences.
Now, I have to say the most extraordinary outcome to my poetry has been to be turned into amazing Jazz compositions, here is one you can hear at this link https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/0a3c70_c2c85c12c42f4a3b97343b3df138f6b2.pdf
(To order the cd go to the website http://www.leilaolivesi.com/)
My most recent publication in the Mark Literary Review, has a more personal tone https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/0a3c70_c2c85c12c42f4a3b97343b3df138f6b2.pdf
this is a new mid life phase, to go into the self, as I was an adventurer, going far to the remotest places before. That said I don’t have one specific area of writing as I am at the confluence of Literary studies (that I still teach) and journalism, so I love to experiment, I’m working on a play, and am always writing articles, interviews, short stories or essays that I will think of gathering on my blog one day, https://karine-ancellin-journeys.blogspot.com/p/mumbai.html . That said, I find the act of writing prior and disconnected from later publication, or at least that is my mantra, I don’t have a specific audience in mind, but in time, and that’s the magic, it always seems to fit in some particular circumstance. My purpose is also to allow other voices I hear get a different space of expression and with my partner, Angela Lyras; I have created a poetry society in Athens www.apoetsagora.com (our identity is bilingual English/Greek, different from the vibrant Greek literary scene). With A Poets Agora I take part in fostering the literary expanse here, especially when the situation was depressing because of the crisis, and it is my joy today not only to write but to hear what other people write and get involved with that.
And finally, if you were an animal, what animal would you be and why?
When I was younger I wanted to be an Albatross, of course I had read Baudelaire and Coleridge and understood the symbols before I actually got to see a real animal, much, much later. The Albatross is both majestic in flight and clumsy on land, often leading to misjudgment of its beauty. I admire their long dances and rituals to choose a partner for life. I relate to their metamorphosis from prince to poor as I have a strange voice/accent, literally, and I suffer being boxed in sterile identity cases. For instance at this time I have owned the Greek culture, I have A Poets’ Agora, I am a full member of the society, acting on its becoming, even if it is on such a microscopic scale, I feel irrevocably part of here, and probably because I am not yet fluent in Greek, this is awkward to some people who want to portray me as an eccentric American, or a turbulent French. Unlike the Albatross I have been seeking roots all my life, and now I know I’m a medley of the different cultures I have been an integral part of, and now I see that all around there are more and more people like me who understand our cultural flexibility. So I guess I have become an ocelot, a wildcat, ‘wild’ because I love the freedom wilderness implies, who adapts everywhere and has taken many different forms and symbols over the centuries, from Felis Lybica in Egyptian antiquity to the Cretan Lynx, here in Greece.