I sat down with Kostya Tsolákis, whom I've known of since my Boombox and Ghetto club days at university, where he was more than likely in a shorts and sailor hat combo and I'd be in circulation-stopping skinny jeans with shoulder length bleached blonde hair, both dancing for hours.
We talked about his well-travelled childhood, what lead him into a career in writing and how he uses poetry to record, process and question his environment. Full transcript of the Q&A at the bottom of this journal post.
Photography by Matt Butts.
He is the editor of an energy industry magazine in the City of London, but also has a serious passion and talent for poetry which he currently pursues as an extracurricular activity.
His background studying history at university, and later an MA in creative writing, have led to an eclectic mix of influences including Cavafy, Greek mythology, fantasy and more contemporary poets. Kostya’s poems are often biographical and touching, opening a dialogue on the moments in life that have made an impact on him, whether they be minor or profound.
As well as his writing, he has a great eye for photography with an Instagram feed of refined, edited and well composed images that show spaces in a different light, picking out their little details and textures that he finds most interesting.
He has kindly provided the poem below for your enjoyment.
I light a candle
for the men who crossed my threshold,
asked to use my bathroom, said they liked
the chequered thirties’ tiles. I light a candle
for the names that float in limbo in the ceiling
of my skull, although I kissed the lips that offered
them. I light a candle in memory of arms, chests,
eyes I desired, of hair I tugged or ran my fingers
through, of bodies that perhaps by now are gone.
A candle to shed light in naked roomfuls I’ve been
in, Friday nights melting sleepless into Sunday
mornings. And I say: Look after one another.
Kostya Tsolákis Q&A 24/03/18
DH: Tell me about your upbringing. I remember you telling me about your parents not being ‘typically’ Greek and that your dad was a pilot, your mum an air hostess.
KT: Yes, they met on an Olympic Airways flight to Cairo! People always find this romantic but Mum says she didn’t like Dad at first… She retired from Olympic shortly after I was born but Dad carried on flying until I was ten. He’s half German, which I think shows a bit in his character. We travelled a lot with him when I was little, which made me feel we always had one foot in Greece, the other abroad. We never had any Greek music on at home, which I feel tops the list when it comes to Greekness! Dad liked listening to Cat Stevens. And ABBA.
DH: Greek food?
KT: My grandmother, my mum’s mum, did most of the cooking. She lived two floors down from our flat and I remember Dad always asking her for okra in tomato sauce, which is his favourite dish. My favourite was spanakopita – the extra dill my grandmother would put in the mix made all the difference! Overall I’d like to think I had a happy childhood. My parents had me late, which made me feel a little different from the other kids. Dad was 50 when I was born, Mum in her late thirties, and I was their only child, so I’d say they were somewhat over-protective. But I got to travel a lot with them and they encouraged me to read books from an early age.
DH: What did you enjoy reading?
KT: History, geography, mythology, travel books…
DH: Favourite place when you were little?
KT: Singapore! We’d stay there over the summer while Dad did the Athens-Singapore-Sydney route with Olympic. My fondest memory is having non-alcoholic Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel. It made me feel like a grown up because they looked exactly like the alcoholic ones my parents had.
DH: So what lead you to pursue a career in writing?
KT: I always wrote but also liked to draw. As a teenager I drew illustrated stories, comic books, things like that. I really liked telling a story. Initially they were sort of medieval, Game of Thrones-like fantasies. I was also involved with the newspapers we had at school. I got a kick out of witnessing something and reporting back.
DH: Your school had a paper and you were a reporter on the paper?
KT: Yes, and I started one too, a French language one for French class, which I named La Gazette. I was quite proud of founding my own publication though it was, really, just half a dozen photocopied A4 pages I illustrated and typed out in my dad’s typewriter!
DH: You obviously had an interest in writing when you were young, pursuing things like the newspapers and then, on the back of that, doing your own creative writing at home…
KT: When I got to university in England I tried my hand at short stories, and I began writing a novel, but felt the only career I could pursue after I graduated was journalism. I’ve worked as a journalist for about 15 years and I now edit a publication. It’s business journalism, which is not the most exciting field to write about, it’s a little dry, but being an editor has helped me sharpen my editing skills outside work and make complex ideas more straightforward.
DH: How did you get interested in poetry? You were obviously interested in writing, drawing and literature but how did poetry come about?
KT: I read some poetry in school. We were introduced to major Greek poets such as Seferis and Elytis but I was lucky to have had a teacher when I was 16 who introduced us to Cavafy. The first of his poems I ever read was ‘Caesarion’, which is about Cavafy imagining that Caesarion, Queen Cleopatra’s son, appears in his room one night just as his lamp goes out. Because there’s little mention of Caesarion in history, Cavafy says he can ‘fashion’ him more freely in his mind and imagines him to be ‘weary and pale’ but very beautiful. It was the first time I’d read a poem about same-sex desire and I’ve loved Cavafy ever since. For my creative writing course at uni I read Walt Whitman, whom I also love. I was encouraged to write poetry, and I got positive responses from my tutors, but never thought I could write poetry in the long run.
DH: Did reading Cavafy – whom I know from speaking to David Hockney about him – and Whitman at a young age make you feel you could write like them?
KT: What really got me started writing poetry, about two and a half years ago, was listening to Andrew McMillan read a poem called ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ on Radio 4. It’s from his debut collection, physical, which had just come out at the time, and is about masculinity, the male body and bottled up emotions. The way he read the poem gripped me. I stood still as I listened to him, stopped what I was doing at that moment – I think I was doing the dishes – and I thought: ‘I really want to do this.’ I guess it tied up with the earlier experiences of poetry I’d had, through Cavafy and Whitman, reading about the body, masculinity, being gay, the anxieties of it, the joys of it. I knew that was what I wanted to write about and by then I was 34 and had material to draw from my own experiences.
DH: Going back to when you were first gaining an interest in writing poetry, can you remember when you wrote your first piece? What was it about? Was it for someone?
KT: I wrote a poem that mimicked Cavafy for school. If I remember well, it was about a teenage Byzantine emperor that gets murdered by his uncle. I wish I’d kept it!
DH: What about when you were older?
KT: In class at university we were asked to pick a poem in a foreign language. If we knew that language, we were asked to translate it and write a response poem. I wrote one responding to Sappho, the ancient poet from Lesbos, a poem she composed about seeing a man next to a woman that she loves and feels excited about. That man must be a god, Sappho says, because how can he be so cool, so relaxed in her presence? Because the woman he’s with makes Sappho lose her breath. My response poem was about a guy in Heaven. The gay club.
DH: Who did it feature?
KT: A very handsome guy I fancied at the bar and his friend. Like, how could his friend stand next to this beautiful man and not be pale with agony?
DH: I can imagine that your poems are often quite personal and about your life experiences, so do you find writing a cathartic process? What do you get out of it?
KT: I wouldn’t say cathartic. I don’t think of it as therapy. I will write something and often feel worse about it afterwards! I think it goes back to my love for narrative. I like to communicate my emotions, my responses to events, and to share a story through poetry.
DH: Okay, so maybe not cathartic but it’s definitely a personal outlet.
KT: For sure. It’s also a way for me to question my environment, politics, family. Sometimes they are laments. Other times I want to celebrate something or someone through a poem.
DH: You write a poem about things that have made an impact on you, whether positive or negative, that have touched you in some way for you to want to write.
KT: Often it may be a long time between something happening and my writing about it. Mostly I write about my experiences as a gay man, my anxieties and hopes. I wrote a poem last year about an imaginary pogrom. I didn’t feel the need to specify where it takes place, or which community is being targeted, but I had the LGBTQ community in mind. I wrote it in response to a trip I made to Latvia where I learned that, during the Holocaust, the Jews of Riga and other towns were driven by the Nazis to the Baltic coast where they were murdered and buried in pits among the sand dunes. It’s a horrific moment in recent history and I thought about it a lot, as I have this persistent fear that it could happen anywhere, anytime, to any persecuted group, and is happening in many places as we speak. It stayed with me after Latvia. Having reflected on it, I only felt ready to write about it nine or so months later.
KT: So it’s a process for you to digest and reflect on things.
KT: Yes, and as a gay man I may not have been able to publish what I’m writing about 50 or 60 years ago. The fact that I can do this now and share my poems, go to a pub and read my poems at an open mic, is very important to me. I get possessed by this urge to create something and what fits me is poetry. It’s hard to explain the creative urge.
DH: Wanting to leave a mark?
KT: Well, what I enjoy is sharing my poems with people in the same way that I love hearing someone else read, recite, perform their poetry. You get something wonderful out of that. Very often I’ll listen to a poem or see a poet I admire perform and will be thinking about it for days. I think you often need to hear a poet read their work. It adds another layer to your experience of their poetry. It’s a unique feeling.
DH: What other poets do you like? Favourites?
KT: Andreas Aggelákis is another Greek gay poet I can’t get enough of, though I only first came across him last year. He died of AIDS, aged just 50, in 1991. He wrote about cruising and hooking up, and about his fear of solitude and dying, often in the hands of someone else, an imaginary murderer that appears a lot in his poems. His poetry is dark, very daring for Greece at the time and funny too. I’ve been translating some of his poems as I think he deserves to be more widely known.
DH: You are also very visual and have a keen interest in photography. You take lots of photos – you have a good eye. Tell me some more about that.
KT: That’s one of the hobbies I’ve had since I was a kid. There’s always been a camera around in my family. My grandad was a keen photographer and we have lots of pictures in countless family albums. I remember I went to a sixth birthday party and had a disposable camera with me. They were probably the first pictures I ever took. Missing heads and missing bodies, focus all over the place!
DH: You were six, don’t be too hard on yourself!
KT: I then started taking photos with black and white film. As a teenager I found it a lot easier to take photos of people, which is what interested me. No one ever seemed to have an issue with a kid taking a picture of them. There was some freedom in that. As an adult I feel awkward taking photographs of people in the streets. What I now like to photograph is city details, little corners, shapes and textures. I like small details of things that you may actually think are not worth taking a photo of. I find them very attractive.
DH: Beauty in the everyday.