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CRETAN SOJOURNSA writer's 15-year odyssey
Publisher Nikos Kalendis and JD in Athens 1996
Here is a short story of a long road to publication that might offer hope to fellow writers—and a tribute to the people and the man who made everything possible for this one.
I moved to New York City to become a writer, but it was meeting and losing Eve Helene Wilkowitz there that completely transformed my spiritual and writer's relationship to tradition. So began many sojourns and incredible relationships in Crete---because if archaeology means anything to history, that was where The West began. From 1980 to the early 1990s, Ariadne’s Brother became a 2,000-page manuscript. Thanks to a native Athenian friend, Ms. Despina Kakoudakis (today a brilliant professor at American University in Washington D.C.), I secured a publishing contract with Efstathiadis Group, an Athens publisher of many Minoan-related books. And I signed it, although it handed “all rights, world-wide,” to Efstathiadis, and promised me “5% of the net” of sales-proceeds—meaning, the publisher took 95% of everything, and the “net” would be what was left when the lawyers and accountants had finished with the figures. Well—This seemed to be the book’s only chance, and this was the first time I’d been taken (pun intended) seriously as a writer.
From that uneasy Athens signing, I went back to Crete to finish the book, living happily in the garage of a wonderful family’s home beneath a huge fig tree, across the street from the beach of Amnisos and the old Minoan port. But the more hope grew about the book, the more this foolish contract gnawed at me. Enter my friend Despina’s Cretan uncle, Mr. Tony Kakoudakis—who, in the most brotherly and protective ways, hammered me every day that I would be sorry if I went through with Efstathiadis’ terms.
Late at night, after closing-time at Tony’s small but spectacular seaside taverna, we’d drink Cretan wine and talk through the mind-bending passages that Tony read in Greek from a cherished little book on philosophy by Nikos Kazantzakis, who had written books in a shack himself along this beach. Galleys began to arrive. And, day after night in the midst of these intoxications, Tony hammered on. Iakobos! Iako-vay! You cannot give away 15 years of work and at the same time honor yourself, and this thing you have accomplished!
Efstathiadis’ books were in every single kiosk and bookstore in Greece, in every language. Yet, Tony was right. I needed a lawyer. So I took the contract to Mr. Smbokos in Heraklion—a wiry-haired slim mountain-man from Anogia, one of Crete’s toughest towns, with a curled-up handlebar moustache that rivaled Wyatt Earp’s. First we tried some re-negotiation: then he threatened to expose the “hidden in the Greek fine print” approach to the contract. “You can pick up your manuscript in Athens,” Efstathiadis replied at last. “And if we never see you again, it will be too soon for us.”
So began my second rescue, shared by so many loving friends of Greece and Crete.
The dapper Mr. Stellios Sapounzis ran a bookstore called To Fos (The Lamp) in Heraklion. Stellios’ intellectual life and generosity eventually linked me to an old colleague and publisher in Athens: Mr. Nikos Kalendis, who with his nephew Dr. Alexandros Kalendis, ran that publishing house for scholarly and “serious” new books.
Nikos & Alexandros Kalendis with JD, 1996
Kalendis’ reader, Mr. Paris Boulakis of Athens, gave Nikos a strong recommendation to publish—and although Ariadne’s Brother took more years yet to finish and produce, it never would have happened unless both Nikos and Alexandros had believed in and carried it all the way. Every time I came to Greece, these gentlemen and the people around them found 12 ways to show me friendship and professional dedication. Nikos was a deeply learned, warm, easygoing and lively man who cherished his family and great books (however “minor” their successes might seem in commercial terms). Nikos liked to cook and serve Cretan snacks in his Athens office, and to share his expertise on Classical Greece from the Acropolis and the fresh springs of Mount Hymettos to the glories of Sounion Head.
The more Nikos found in the book, the more he laid out plans, including money to have Ariadne’s Brother appear in Greek at the same time. He secured one of Greece’s most renowned translators for the job—who, in a phrase, quickly and quietly drank himself to death with Nikos’ advance. Still, Nikos and Alexandros did not give up. In 1996 they sent me on a Cretan book-tour that still glows as the experience of a lifetime. And soon, Nikos arranged for another distinguished Cretan scholar (my dearest Vasiliki, Ms. Vicky Chatzopoulou of Sitia) to translate the book, while others added everything from footnotes to a Forward that declared, “There is not a line that is not poetry.”
There are simply
no words for the love, respect, friendship, help and generosity I have received
from innumerable Greek and Cretan friends. A long list of them is the final
page of Ariadne’s Brother and here I can only repeat endless thanks. To
have shared their ways of life is to be homesick for the rest of yours.
Ceremonial Walking: Dikte Cave 2012
The mountains of Crete and their great caves have drawn every kind of pilgrim since Minoan times. This short film (shot in May 2012) takes you down into Dikte Cave, which by tradition is where Minoan human beings first emerged into the world and, as Karl Kerenyi notes, was the place where, with new-lit fires, music, chant, dance and ceremony, they rekindled their cosmos each New Year’s Day with the rebirth of the sun on winter solstice.
Wait, if you have to, until the latest loud and laughing horde of bus-borne tourists have had their turn and gone: still your mind and heart, and Dikte Cave will take you back in time. Short flights of slick stairs zig-zag down into the dark. Overhead, mountain-swallows and fork-tails shriek and dart for perches among massive limestone crags: you smell the mossy beards of lichen that hang down into caverns of green stone, and feel the chill of icy pools of water in the galleries below. When you can no longer see the entrance, you’re less than half-way to the bottom.
Afterward, when you’ve spent time in those depths, you climb back out and take a first green breath of the great plateau of Lasithi, ringed with its mountains far below the mountainside’s mouth of the cave---the living opposite of the dark, wet, cold and oozing walls that just surrounded you. The Minoans felt the powers of these deep and high places to the point that they gave their best architecture features of caves and mountains. But Dikte Cave bestows a gift that every person can take home and remember like medicine: the memory of a sacred silence at the still turning center of the world.
As the cave’s absolutes strip away your senses, the imagination fills in. You can stand still down inside there for awhile, and then turn around to be startled by some figure in molten stone that seems to have crept right up next to you. I wonder if that’s why I see a profoundly strange winged figure in the photo at right below, looming out of the back wall of this great cave’s deepest gallery. If you can make out a face just above-center in the photo, the outspread arms and belly and the figure’s great stony crown seem visible too. Actually standing there, you wonder if it’s going to turn its gaze your way and start to move.
This is a passage from People of the Sea (Chapter 2) that takes a Minoan man, Deucalion, into Dikte’s depths:
Down, and torchlight showed the ceilings growing fangs of every color, livid like the things inside a body. Down, and in the first grotto, pillars big as oaks, man-shapes, pregnant crones oozing water, mock-faced hunchbacks, guardians to pass: your own sounds loud and louder the deeper you sank in underground. I went past some monstrous multicolor thing growing off the wall like liquid rock, with a thousand labial grooves across its jaw; and tucked in almost every groove, some rusting prayer, a tiny Labrys of green bronze, little animals in votive clay or people’s limbs that needed healing. Sealstones cut with signs of their visions. I turned, and found a being at my side...
The thing was to breathe as the caverns took you down, one upon the other, and closed dark silence round your crackling torch. There was icy water to wade now, but dittany-incense rising past me for the world. Where the floor rose up again, the walls turned, and beyond was a massive crevice leaking light...
She was seated at the cross-legged feet of a shape five times her size coming out of the wall: wings outspread but ragged, older than time, and a face of molten rock half-crone, half-insect like a mantis. I froze, like prey...
The Minoans’ caves and their high peak-sanctuaries were places of complementary meanings and powers: their family ancestors were below them in the mountain and above them in the cycles of the sun, moon and stars. In between was their living world and ours. I think they loved these places as threshold-points between the worlds, where their forebears felt closer and more alive. These were families who lovingly tended their ancestral tombs for centuries. It seems they were making the most of our little human time in the sun, between where we came from and where we are going...
All I know is that every trip to Crete is a rebirth—a new measure of gratitude and value in the place and time where you are.
Meanwhile, the files that became Ariadne’s Brother never really closed, because there was still so much story to tell about Minoans down the generations that followed Crete’s occupation by mainland Mycenaeans—especially by the time they’d become Philistines, living in Canaan in the time of ancient Israel’s emergence.
So I have been trying to write a sequel (People of the Sea) which has already demanded nearly the same 15-year period needed for the first book. In fact, I have launched lengthily into this sequel three different times already and have never been satisfied—a quandary that goes on to this day (“I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me”). Not least because I can find no agent or publisher on the planet who will so much as receive it. Perhaps it suffers from the same flaw in my other works: you actually have to read it. I keep remembering what New York said about Ariadne’s Brother (although it made money): “We don’t even want to look at it, because of what it’s about.” Quote-Unquote.
So, if I may offer any advice to young and fellow writers, it might be two-fold.
First, meaning and method. Find the subject that pulls you early out of bed every morning because you cannot live without discovering and communicating “the answers.” Sacrifice everything to getting the work done. Launch yourself on the subject and the world—Connect, Connect, Connect. Ruthlessly steal and relish every possible minute you can wrest, with your soul, from the machine that works to grind it to a powder for somebody else’s buck. The instant and long-term glorious rewards that nobody can take from you will be in the living and the writing.
Second, as William Blake said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Expect poison from standing water.” In a phrase, Go Around The Profit-Machine that actually blocks you from reaching people and moving your audience, changing the world. The planet is filled with people starving for strong works. Produce your own, be part of and/or create events that speak your poetry—and you will find those people. Believe in them, even if agents, publishers, hackademics and media morons don’t.
On that note, I make bold to invite your critical feedback on what I can presently bear to share from People of the Sea—a work in progress.
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