‘Carmine Lullabies’

In conversation with one of the island’s most promising young poets, Marilena Zackheos reveals the inspiration behind her poetry book to be launched in Nicosia.

Q: Give me one word about the book.
A: Moody! There are bouts of humour, distress, sedation, cynicism, rage, wit, shame, guilt, desperation, and loneliness. Overall though, the book moves primarily in “melancholy”, (that is, the reaction to a loved object or subject lost, a type of, oftentimes, excruciating acting out or holding on to this loss). Connected to this idea of “melancholy” is also “mourning”; in other words, the process of working through loss, reasserting reality and moving on. We also see a calm after the storm; there is a peace that comes from greater acceptance of situations that one cannot control.

Q: From pieces I have heard you recite, you evoke a bare intimacy of your personal emotions which are at times intimidating to accept, yet fundamentally universal. What is the ultimate drive behind laying out notions of a (personal) trajectory you name as a coming-of-age?
A: The poems in the first four sections of the collection are without question more raw – or “bare”, like you mentioned. We get a more sober temperament in the last two sections. The final section especially is more strictly autobiographical. In fact, I ended up going back and forth a lot, second-guessing myself as I was putting the poems together in sequence.

Some trusted friends and family members advised me to omit the poems of the last two sections altogether. This would result in a “neater” collection for sure. But the subject matter in the book is neither neat nor elegant. Also, I did not want to end the book with a never-ending and inescapable sense of melancholy, although the last word certainly is “melancholy”!

It was important to me from the start to present this work as a type of “coming-of-age” in which each piece is part of a process, albeit an imperfect process and an ongoing one. The trajectory I aim to show is one that moves from melancholy to mourning. This is an emotional maturing, a move toward greater resilience when it comes to coping with loss. It’s about signalling a move away from narcissistic identifications and towards social reconnection instead with family and the community.

Q: There are core feelings about the feminine being in your work. Whom do you address when you write?
A: First and foremost, like all crazy writers, I speak to my other self! Seriously, though, in the process of writing, if I manage to stir something in me, I feel that I have got something worthwhile to share with others. All poems in this collection are written from the perspective of women. They voice emotions and circumstances often left silenced or unsaid.

Their words can be most uncomfortable for anyone to hear because we have not been exposed to speaking openly about issues like sex, suicide, rape, or non-heteronormative intimacy – especially in places as traditional and small as Cyprus.
I want these poems to be empowering, in a sense, to “take back the night” for girls and women not only in terms of bringing awareness of abuse but also more generally, in terms of highlighting interpersonal conflict and reconcilement. Judith Butler has noted that although “We’re undone by each other”, by identifying with a common vulnerability, we could break the cycle of suffering.

Q: If I understand correctly, the work included in ‘Carmine Lullabies’ is work that has been collected and brought together even though written over a certain period of time. Would you say your ruminations, as you call them, are timeless?
A: I began writing a few of these pieces when I was still in high school. At college, I ended up with a double major in Philosophy and English with a specialisation in Poetry Writing, although the plan was initially to go to Med School.

If it weren’t for an International Admissions officer at the University of Virginia, Parke Muth, who had seen a sample of creative work I had submitted along with my application, I probably wouldn’t be writing today. A big chunk of the poems from ‘Carmine Lullabies’ come from this very creative time I spent in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was lucky to experience a supportive cohort there and meet mentors like Debra Nystrom, Rita Dove, Greg Orr and Lisa Russ Spaar.

One of the epigraphs in the book is by Greg, whose work I greatly admire.
As for the question of timelessness, perhaps some of the more lyrical pieces will stay unaffected by the passage of time, but in the sense that there is a removal from linear time within these poems, in that an emotion or occurrence is crystallised almost in memoriam. Otherwise, the poems are very much of this time with references to Nespresso machines, blue-black hair-dye, Amanda Palmer, or Ampallang piercings! The poems certainly tackle the past but try to do so anew. Ancient myths and fairy tales, for instance, feature, following modern makeovers: the Hindu goddess Kali drinks Belgian beer at the rock bar; you’ll find Medusa by your bedside. I want to make these stories strange but relevant today, breathing new life into stories of the past.

Q: Is your ‘dark’, velvety and multifaceted voice one that embraces most of your female personas?
A: On the whole, I would say that the collection strives to do just that: be dark, velvety and multifaceted! The individual personas often do come off as very primal or one-dimensional, especially in the sense that they may not themselves recognise their own complexity. The voice of ‘Medea’, for instance, says “I’m almost hollow/ so when I take you inside/ it’ll only hurt you”. What is in essence a defence mechanism or a shield from more hurt, sounds as words coming from a one-dimensional, angry chick on the attack. But this is also empowering.

What reads as a direct address to a male lover is, however, also a self-reproach connected to a miscarriage or abortion the reader is introduced to in the first two stanzas of the poem.

In bringing the various personae together, I hope that the assemblage itself shows recognition of the gloomy, rough, yet multifaceted nature of these voices’ emotions. I hope it draws readers in to explore the complexity of human reactions and to stir more empathy for the personal battles each of us may be fighting.

Ultimately, the overarching voice in ‘Carmine Lullabies’ asks from its reader to consider that nothing may be simply as it seems. Annie Damianou’s book cover design of a carmine leather shield truly captures this disorienting experience of realising that something is not as it seems, once your hand touches the book’s smooth paper surface.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London