"We write to exist."
That was the statement on Amalia Melis' placard when she joined another 500 poets and writers in central Athens on March 21st to commemorate International Poetry Day. The gathering, which did not disrupt traffic or bring out the riot squad, walked to Constitution Square, stopping at street corners to listen to readings from Homer, Seferis, Cavafy, and Elytis. The event did not even merit a squib in the daily press.
But Amalia is used to having to struggle for the sake of literature, and she refuses to give up.
This year, this dynamic Greek-American woman is celebrating the tenth anniversary of her Aegean Arts Circle creative writing workshops on the Cycladic island of Andros.
Andros, where her parents were born and lived before they emigrated to the U.S., makes headlines every summer as the only Greek island with a world-class modern art museum. Founded by shipowners, Basil and Elise Goulandris, it has hosted exhibitions by a roster of painters and sculptors you'd never expect to find there, such as: Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Giacometti, Moore, Klee, Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as noted Greeks like Tsarouchis, Ghikas, Tetsis. This summer's show is dedicated to the Surrealists.
And this July, on the other side of the island, participants in the Aegean Arts Circle will be honing their writing skills under the leadership of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler. Butler, who has written 12 novels, dozens of short stories, screenplays and essays, won the Pulitzer in 1993 for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
"I'm really, really proud to have Butler," said Amalia when we met at her home in an Athens suburb for tea last week. "He's a wonderful writer and an inspiring teacher. I foresee a great collaboration. In 2008, I attended a seminar of his. He uses the technique of 'flash fiction' -- writing 500 words of new material based on an idea he presents each morning -- and it certainly fires up your imagination. I've been working to get him to Greece ever since."
Since its inception in 2003, the Aegean Arts Circle has boasted such writers as Dorothy Allison, Connie May Fowler, Nick Papandreou, Stratis Haviaras, June Gould and Natalie Bakopoulos. Amalia continued,
Our leaders, all established professionals, are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. Each workshop creates special bonds and we become friends, sharing our work afterwards through emails. Several participants keep coming back, which tells me we must be doing something right. Take Natalie Bakopoulos, for example. She teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan and has just published her first novel, The Green Shore. She's led the workshop three times, but she got to know it as a participant herself.
Dorothy Allison, on the other hand, is the person who gave me my start in fiction. I'd come back to Greece for the second time in 1992. I continued working as a hard-news journalist, feature writer and speech writer, but I was burning to turn the story of my grandmother, who left Andros for Astoria, into fiction. Through her, I wanted to explore the position of immigrant women -- belonging, homeland, yearning for something that is no longer real -- without having to stick to personal facts.
It took a long time, but in 1999 I dove off the deep end, left my toddler daughter with my husband, and signed up for a writers' workshop in Assisi. I'd never dared to attempt fiction before and I was lucky. Dorothy Allison was the leader. She was so tough, disciplined, and encouraging about the writing process, and I was so inspired by her gutsy subject matter in Bastard out of Carolina, that I produced a story which went on to win an award in Glimmer Train, a prestigious U.S. literary magazine.
That workshop changed my life. I realized, I too, could set up a workshop myself on the island I love. It would have two aims: to create a community of writers and promote Andros at the same time. Since then I've gotten to know so many fascinating people, from places as diverse as Bangladesh, Canada, Mexico, and Italy, besides Greece and the U.S. Although the workshops are open to men and women, more women come. Often they are professionals -- psychologists, lawyers, academics, executives -- who want to shift gears and find their own voice as writers.
For every workshop, I try to get participants who'd be good for the AAC, not people who just want to do tourism. Sometimes, this means I shoot myself in the foot, business-wise, and end up having a smaller group, but one that is truly interested in writing.
Nothing is hidden in what I offer. It's simple; the hotel where we meet near the main port of Gavrio has an exquisite location, right on the sea. It's just a short walk to town but very quiet, with few distractions. Unless you count the food, which is abundant and delicious. The Andros Holiday Hotel is not the Hilton. Tassos and his staff really take care of us and are always plying us with extras and wine.
What I like, too, is how the landscape finds a way to filter into the writing. Another of our participants, Ruth Steinberg, published a book of poems -- A Step in Time -- after a workshop, with a whole section devoted to Andros, and a photo of the island on the cover.
Even though Andros is a short boat ride from Mykonos, it couldn't be more different. It's not commercial, not developed, it doesn't fit the stereotype of a Greek island. We usually dedicate a day to going to the main town to see the Goulandris Museum exhibition. Sometimes there's a festival with traditional music and dancing, or we'll visit my parents' village, where we get to taste my father's horrifying wine and listen to his sailor stories in broken English.
I'm just a small dot in the whole picture of what's happening in Greece now. But there are so many positive, creative things going on here, and we have to keep our chin up and persevere, despite the bad publicity, some deserved and some not. Good things are being pushed aside, buried, amidst all the doom and gloom.
But here I am celebrating ten years of the Aegean Arts Circle, against all odds. And my hope and aim in the next ten years is to expand it to include other forms of art -- painting, music, script writing. My dream is to convert an old silk factory in my parents' village into an artists' retreat. But in the meantime, when July comes, I'll be just another writer learning from Robert Olen Butler.
Amalis Melis has 25 years of experience in all types of writing in Greece and the U.S. She leads writing workshops herself at the Institute of Innovation & Creativity and at the American Community School in Athens. And when confronted by a stubbornly blank page, she turns to making wire/metal sculptures out of found objects. Two of them were chosen for a SWAN Day group show of women artists in Berlin in 2010. "I believe all art forms are connected and I love it that this runs parallel to my writing. I do believe that we have to create to exist, be it writing or other forms of art.
There are still a few places open for the Robert Olen Butler workshop, to be held in Andros from July 6th to 13th. For further information, please visit www.aegeanartscircle.com