BY GUEST WRITER DIANA FARR LOUIS
For the past 13 years the Aegean Arts Circle has been a constant fixture on the island of Andros. Undaunted by Greece’s ups and downs, Amalia Melis, Greek-American writer and artist from New York, keeps bringing award-winning authors there to help less experienced writers polish their skills and find their voice. Every summer a select group generates a unique environment of trust, dedication and focus that produces fine, publishable prose and lasting inspiration.
As a measure of the success of these workshops, some people return again and again for that buzz of intense excitement that occurs when creative juices start flowing and words spill out onto page or screen with a force and confidence you had only dreamed of.
Amalia’s recipe of morning meetings with exercises and critiques of a single participant’s chosen text, a poolside lunch or swim, free afternoons, and a delicious dinner under the stars rarely fails to elicit your best writing while fostering friendships in the process.
I know. I’ve attended three Aegean Arts Circle workshops and guarantee joining will loosen even the most stubborn writer’s block.
As if that were not enough, there’s the added benefit of getting advice on what to do with your story, poem or creative nonfiction once you’ve polished it. Instructors can open doors in terms of publishing, introductions to editors and advice on where to send material. Last year, for example, Tom Kennedy told us about an online magazine called KYSO Flash, and one of our group’s submissions earned a Pushcart nomination. Sometimes all you need is a push in the right direction, and such networking is invaluable when you’re so far removed from the great literary centers of New York and London.
This summer’s circle’s leader is David Lazar, who has just won a Guggenheim fellowship for his essays and prose poems, with guest Adrianne Kalfopoulou, poet/essayist and creative writing professor at the Hellenic American Union in Athens. Beside Tom Kennedy, past authors include Pulitzer-Prize holder Robert Olin Butler, Natalie Bakopoulos, poet-novelist Stratis Haviaras, Connie May Fowler, Dorothy Allison, June Gould and Nick Papandreou.
To find out more about what moved Amalia Melis to start these workshops and what keeps her going, I met her for tea at her home in an Athens suburb. As you’d expect there are plenty of books on shelves and tables, but also paintings of Andros, her parents’ birthplace, and the wire assemblages she crafts when words falter.
“I’m so excited about having David Lazar as this year’s instructor. He’s a brilliant essayist and a wonderful teacher. He started the magazine Hotel Amerika in 2002, which as his website says specializes in both traditional and experimental, ‘quirky’ provocative writing, and just last month he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, which is a tremendous affirmation of his talent. They only give about 220 each year, chosen from up to 4000 applications.
“I work hard to get not only the best writers, but the ones who will be the best at inspiring and guiding others, whether they’re novices or already published. And I’ve gotten some pretty reputable writers to work with me without knowing me or Andros, which makes me proud. I think my secret is that they take me seriously because I take the set up and the writers seriously. It doesn’t always happen over night. I attended a seminar of Robert Butler’s in 2008, and told him then about the workshops I organize. It took four years before he said yes. But his presence made the Aegean Arts Circle’s tenth anniversary in 2012 a real celebration.
“All our leaders, 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 her first novel, The Green Shore, was very well received. 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 to live 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 Italy. 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 approach and subject matter in Bastard out of Carolina, that I produced a story which went on to win an award in Glimmer Train, a prestigious US literary magazine I’d never heard of until she steered me towards it.
“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, Israel, and Italy, besides Greece and the US. 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. Towards the end of our time together, we do have one day off to visit the Hora and the famous Goulandris Museum of Modern Art. 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 don’t offer anything else that will tempt us from our main purpose.
“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, with its own little beach. 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, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Tassos the manager 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 former participant, 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.
“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 13 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 David Lazar.”
Amalia Melis has almost 30 years of experience in all types of writing in Greece and the US. 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, and since then she has participated in group shows in Athens and Vermont. “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 David Lazar-Adrianne Kalfopoulou workshop, to be held in Andros from June 23rd to July 3rd. For further information, please visit Aegean Arts Circle.
Diana Farr Louis is an American food/travel writer and long-time resident of Greece. She is the author of two books on Greek cooking, Prospero’s Kitchen, on the cuisine of the Ionian Islands, and Feasting and Fasting in Crete as well as several guidebooks. She was travel correspondent for the Athens News from 1997 to 2007. She writes a monthly column for http://www.weeklyhubris.com called “Eating Well Is The Best Revenge” and is a contributor to http://www.culinarybackstreets.com/athens