Irena Ioannou’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Wild Word, S/tick, Literary Mama, Eyedrum Periodically and Shipwrights. She writes from Crete, Greece where she lives with her husband and four children.
In this interview, Irena Ioannou talks about her writing, translation and poetry.
When did you start writing?
My first efforts were in Greek and were meant for my eyes only, too many years ago to be able to pin it down. Then I stumbled upon some creating writing courses at Malmo University, or they stumbled upon me, I can’t tell for sure.
My first poems were published online in 2013 and ever since I’ve been taking my writing one step forward, the past months more steadily and decisively so.
How would you describe the writing you are doing?
I write narrative, confessional poetry, more often than not with a feminist-political bent. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with the flash fiction and the short story form. Writing constantly offers new opportunities to learn and evolve, or sometimes you find that a medium cannot deliver the intended meaning adequately. But poetry is the guide to everything else: it taught me to pay attention to every single word, which is a big step into writing.
Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?
I am Greek and I have attended Greek school which means that I’ve studied the Classics. Having also studied English Literature though, a new window opened when I came across contemporary female poets.
I chose to do my Bachelor Thesis on Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, and, well, nobody can remain unaffected by that. Questions about the truth of representation and the reinvention of history still haunt my writing.
In general, I am drawn to poems with a strong voice. Poets like Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich — and others less known who use poetry to bare their soul — are my soft spot.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
Your experiences make you who you are, and your writing reflects it. I’ve been influenced by two countries: Sweden, where I was born, and Greece, where I’ve grown up.
Studies have also the habit of messing with your head, and at times I enroll in foreign language courses trying to decode the way of thinking behind them. And of course, my job in the Greek Fire Brigade offers new angles of interpreting the human condition.
What has been your most significant achievement as a writer so far?
I consider my best achievement that I continue writing while working and being a mother of four.
I cannot single any of my pieces out as they all carry a piece of me in their words. But of course I value the magazines that treat my work with respect, like The Wild Word did with my poem "It’s Only Human Nature" and my personal essay "On Country And Shared Blood", and the Mortar Magazine did with my short story "St. George".
The publishing world is still a puzzle to me, though every time a total stranger chooses my work among hundreds I call it a small miracle, and marvel at the way poetry unites us all.
How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?
I answered to an open call for volunteer translators posted in my university’s online writing community.
I have translated eight of the poems into Greek, and I am working on the rest. So far, it’s been a very rewarding experience. I can’t help but admire such initiatives; we’re all so caught up in our lives that we don’t even allow sidelong glances to anything that doesn't directly concern us.
Which were the easiest aspects of the work you put into the project?
It’s natural to identify more with certain poems than with others, which make their reading and translation an easier task. It’s like reading a poem and thinking, "Yeah, I've been there." I could refer here to Kathleen Bell’s "Waiting". That peeking out through the window felt quite intimate.
Which were the most challenging?
Words come in different hues and there is always the fear that, as a translator, you’ll assign a meaning to a word not intended by its first creator. I treated some of the poets as witnesses, as though offering them a medium to share their experiences and I would hate to alter these experiences in any way, as in assigning to emotionally charged words lesser meaning. But in the end, poetry is deeply felt and you just put on the paper what your heart dictates.
What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?
The value of such an initiative is that it is not another product of MFA graduates, neatly arranged words in projected structures — at least that’s not the way I viewed it. I felt some of the poems literally singing to me, I could see the rhythm of escaping behind them, this sense of people caught in midair. I don’t know what else can touch us anymore, but poetry — our eyes have long been trained to stop seeing.
Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.
The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land: Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.
So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.
In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.
Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.
Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).
More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.