The Bookshelf: Poet Becky Dennison Sakellariou

May 26, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features poet Becky Dennison Sakellariou. In her new collection of poetry, the Peterborough resident finds a linguistic middle ground between her two homes: New England and Greece. This middle ground is fertile territory—where figs, olives, and almonds grow. It’s no wonder that the book is called No Foothold In This Geography. It traces landscapes that blend into each other—landscapes rife with love, loss, and human disasters large and small. Find Becky Dennison Sakellariou's top five reading recommendations and the transcript of her conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello below. 

In her new collection of poetry, Peterborough resident Becky Dennison Sakellariou finds a linguistic middle ground between her two homes, New England and Greece. That middle ground is fertile territory where figs, olives, and almonds grow, luring the reader into Sakellariou’s depiction of her homes. The collection, titled No Foothold in this Geography, traces landscapes that blend into each other, landscapes rife with love, loss, and human disasters large and small.

This week on The Bookshelf, Sakellariou spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

You’ve written that your time in Greece inspired your writing. What circumstances brought you to Greece?

I was at Antioch College in the sixties, and Antioch was an experimental college. It was a five-year college, because they did a work-study program. You were studying for three months and then you went out into the world and worked. They also had a wonderful study abroad program, and I went to Italy to study for a year. When I finished in Italy, I hitchhiked around Europe. I hitchhiked to Greece and fell in love with a Greek—and stayed there and married him.

In your poetry, you write so often about food. The almonds, the figs, the mangos. Can you tell us about the role of food in your poetry?

When I write, whatever comes to me comes into the poem, and I allow that to happen. But if I look back at the bulk of my work, I do see that there is a lot of food, a lot of plants, a lot of nature. I never asked myself why, but I assume that’s the way I experience the physical world that I’m in, and that’s what talks to me.

You reference Mary Oliver a few times in your poems. Is she a major influence of yours?

I love Mary Oliver, just love her stuff, always have. She’s right there in the world of the natural—the bugs, the bees, and the herons, and the water. She connects that to her spiritual world and the meaning of living—and I guess that’s why I love it. It’s so simple and accessible.

I hope mine are accessible. I know that there are poems [of mine] out there that are not accessible. I leave them out in the world because I like them, but I do try to have a narrative element so that someone who’s listening or reading can be pulled into what’s happening.

Some more autobiographical poems come at the end of your collection. I’d like to read the first stanza of “Do Not Disturb”:

She said, do not disturb your father.

He said, you’re a loose cannon.

The neighbor said, stop making waves.

They all said, no more back talk, young lady.

Was that the kind of person you were, you always had something to say?

I think that was the kind of environment I grew up in. Young girls were squashed, and told what they should not do, rather than being allowed to be what they were. Looking back, I sabotaged that—we all did, three girls and a boy—sabotaged the directions that came at us, in various ways, even until today.

Would you be willing to read a poem for us? I’m thinking of the poem “January 13, 5:28pm”

Sure.

January 13, 5:28pm

The digital clock on the stove top

suddenly went backwards,

continuing all day until it reached 00.00,

the end of the world, the prophets might say.

I burned the sweet potato and cauliflower curry

I was cooking for my weekly potluck

because every time I looked at the clock

it wasn’t time to take the pot off the burner.

Everyone said the taste was unusual.

I didn’t tell them they were eating

food cooked after the end of time.

Earlier I had watched velvet colors stroke the peaks

of the mountain, the pink of my very first lipstick.

Tomorrow, I will ski alongside Alan,

an autistic 14-year old

who goes straight down the hill yelling hello

and goodbye in Spanish and Greek.

When I drove through Dublin at 20 mph,

I passed words hand-chalked on a blackboard

hanging from the side of the lamp post:

Mary Healy died peacefully in her Sleep last night.

Services will be held this afternoon at 4

in the Congregational Church.

We are still human despite reports to the contrary.

I’m surprised you described it as funny, I didn’t think of it that way.

People laugh at the first part, the clock going backwards and the food from after the end of time.

This is one of a number of poems about time. There’s another about your mother-in-law, who won’t change the clocks back or spring them forward.

She was wonderful, in the way of a harsh, peasant woman—she was Greek—tough, gritty person who really didn’t care about anything else going on in the world except what she had to do. She was like that.

In your reading recommendations, you  included the Constitution of the United States and Declaration of Independence. Why?

I think the Constitution is very relevant today, I think it really helps to read it during political turmoil. It’s very eye-opening in how precise and careful it is.

The Declaration of Independence, if you read it out loud, you can see how hard these men worked to make this country into something that they truly believed in. They had to compromise, they had to re-do it, they had to change the language, and all this time they had the British on their heads, on their shoulders, in their front yards. And finally they just said, we’re going to do this, and we want you to get out. I just love that.

They made this huge decision, and they knew they would go to war, but they wanted them out. 

Becky's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Left-Hand of Darkness by Ursula la Guin. "[It's] a book about a new, more equitable, less organized world, that is good to return to as we fight for our own better world."

2.   The Constitution of the United States and The Declaration of Independence. "Documents essential to our purpose and vision as citizens and as a larger community.  The second one in particular is wonderful in how, in very polite and careful language, basically gives the finger to the British and says get off of our land."

3.   John Adams by David McCullough.  "An amazing portrait of a man in an amazing time of powerful thinking, of agonizing over the definitions of this new nation, and of getting along with the other  men he was working with."

4.   One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey.  "A sweet, uncomplicated, human story of a little girl and her Dad going shopping off island in Maine with illustrations that never leave your memory."

5.   Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian.  "Anything written by Bohjalian is riveting, deeply unusual, beautifully constructed and un-put-downable!"