Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatous, a voice from the land of Sappho. And where better to interview her than in Athens, the birthplace of the Greek spirit and the site of its latest modern renewal, the Olympics of 2004. Athens, which in August of that year was abuzz with the noise of construction and the rumor of terrorism, and where the heat, the dust, and the sweat that ran down the bodies of a myriad of foreign and domestic workers combined in a single odor of chaos and fertility. Athens, where the intensity of human life runs strongly in any aspect of experience and under any circumstance.
Phaedra came to our meeting, always charming and self-possessed, always dressed with a rare combination of taste and inspiration. I have followed her career from the publication of her first book to her latest, Bitter Honey, which has just appeared. Right now the waiter is asking us what we’d like to drink. We smile and laugh with the ease of two people who are servants of the same goddess.
“Ouzo on the rocks,” Phaedra says.
She lifts her glass.
“To more poetry,” I reply.
Our glasses touch.
“Stin i yia sou,” we say, as always. To your health.
Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou was born in Athens, the daughter of the prominent writer Koulis Zambathou. She began to write at an early age, and her first book of verse, Drops of Light, was published in 1962. In all she has published 23 works of poetry, fiction, essays, and translation. Recently she published a unique album of photographs of the campaign in Albania that followed Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in 1940, gathered by her father during his work at the presidential ministry.
Can you tell me something about your new book, Bitter Honey?
It’s a book of love poems. I believe that love, or as we Greeks call it Eros, is the most important thing in our lives. This magic element empowers us to create our personal reality. We all need dreams in this harsh life. On the other hand, love itself is often bitter. Hence the title of my book.
What other themes have been important in your work?
First and foremost, I am an erotic poet. I’m also deeply concerned about the struggle of women, and about the prevalence of repression, violence, and war in our society. I believe that literature and the arts are crucial to transforming our civilization and bringing peace to the world.
What is the situation of women’s poetry in Greece?
Women’s poetry flowered in ancient Greece with Sappho. It’s a very strong tradition that continues to develop today. There are many fine women poets in the present generation.
What are your future plans?
I’ve already given my publisher a new book of stories called Wager of Life. The title really tells you about my present, and my future. Writing is always a gamble about life. I intend to go on playing.
Greek-born Lili Bita is one of the few classically trained actresses now resident in America. A native of the island of Zante, she graduated both from the Greek Conservatory of Music and the Athens School of Drama, and holds an M.A. in Drama from the University of Miami. After a notable career in Greece performing classical and contemporary roles for leading directors, she settled in the United States.
In this country she has appeared widely on stage, television and radio, and held appointments at several universities. She tours extensively with her one woman shows,”The Greek Woman Through the Ages”,” Body Light” and “Freedom or Death.”
Lili Bita has published ten books and chapbooks of poetry, two books of short fiction, a novella, two volumes of translation, and several plays. Her work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, German, and Bengali. In November, 2014, she was inducted into the Hellenic Authors Society, one of the few writers of the Greek Diaspora to be so honored. Bita’s memoirs Sister of Darkness and The Storm Rider are published by Somerset Hall Press.