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Poems from the Paris Lockdown: Writing Quarantena by Nina Karacosta

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Poets

By Nina Karacosta

This collection, Quarantena, was inspired by the most intense recent experience – living in an apartment in Paris during the first wave of the COVID 19 crisis and the first fifty days of the Paris lockdown.

The theory and practice underpinning my poetry has been deeply influenced by my native roots, and also by the many strands of travel and learning I have experienced. My artistic calling includes acting and the visual arts.  I am Greek, Greek is my mother tongue but English and French are also languages I speak,  as I have lived two years in London where I studied Acting, fourteen years in New York City and am now living in Paris for the last eleven years.

I first wrote poetry when I was fourteen years of age, feeling quite lonely, a bit lost, hopeless and full of some type of strong emotion that I couldn’t channel in any other direction. I wrote in Greek, my native language and continued writing throughout my time at college, where I studied Physics. I wrote and read poets such as: Cavafis, Seferis, Ritsos, the French surrealists, Rimbaud, Yeats, Paul Célan, to name some. During that time, I wrote and wrote, but never published my Greek poems.

Moving to New York some years later was decisive for my development as a writer in English. There was something about living in New York City, about landing at the Poetry Project, that altered my path. The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village of Manhattan was founded in 1966 and has always been staffed completely by poets. It has been a crucial venue for new and experimental poetry for more than five decades, offering reading series, writing workshops, a quarterly newsletter, audio and document archives and the famous New Year Poetry Marathon.

It was the year 2002 and I had been living already for seven years in New York City. I met Ann Waldman in a workshop, where I tried my hand at writing poetry for the first time in English. What made that possible was that I had acted in English for quite a few years already in New York and in my Drama school in England prior to that. I think that because of my acting experience, language was “lived” and in some way, it was becoming vibrant inside of me.

In the Poetry Project I took classes, went to readings, met a lot of poets that were teaching and classmates who were often fascinating poets as well. Some of my teachers were: Edwin Torres, Marcella Durang, Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley. I read a lot of “New York poets” at that period such as John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, as well some “language poets” like Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Carla Harryman, Clark Coolidge and the “ black mountain poets “ Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. What was fascinating was that for the first time, I was in the middle of a community, and that poetry wasn’t anymore just a self-reflective, introspective activity for me, but it had met the world: I had connected with the current moment, its ideas, the contemporary poetry and the poets themselves. In one of these workshops the very generous poet Bill Kushner, after reading one of my poems, shouted at me “You are a poet!”  I walked out in the cold New York winter weather and felt a bit drunk. I was a poet. To celebrate, I bought a Russian hat.

And here we are, navigating the strange year of 2020, all countries hand in hand. In March 2020, when I found myself in a Paris apartment during the lockdown, I connected with Pat Dougherty, an old poet friend from New York, and I decided to write a poem every day. It was the beginning of the lockdown, fear and uncertainty were circulating and poetry seemed the obvious way to resist, since in some ways, poetryhas always been there, and it seems to me, has always given us a way to look beyond things, beyond the moment and into the essence. I wrote and wrote and wrote for fifty days. In the process of writing, the ‘me’ became ‘we’ as in some way, writing led me out of myself towards a sense of shared experience and that happened naturally. I found no answers – I just sought to create larger spaces to rest the spirit.

Reading through on the whole collection, I see that the variety of content and different thematic strands of Quarantena are reflecting the different pre-occupations that were foregrounded for me, at different times and on different days: now shopping, cooking, navigating practical life in the apartment; now the state of mind pressing in on you as a result of being within the four walls, where objects become almost animate; now the awareness of the common plight we are all experiencing, and its roots in unjust systems of society.

A month after I finished the fifty poems, I sent them as a collection entitled as Quarantena to Liz McSkeane in Turas Press. It feels to me that the creative process and the remote meeting with Liz was part of the same journey. She publishes as an art form. Tender and steady hand, clear mind and every detail is taken care of. Renée Baker’s abstract painting is also a beautiful addition to this publication.

As I write these lines. another lockdown is announced in Paris and so much of Europe and the rest of the world right now is living under severe restrictions in daily life. My theatre show is just cancelled. The future seems uncertain and I don’t know in what way this new stage of isolation will change us.  But I do hope that these fifty Quarantena poems speak to the essence of our shared experience and can hold the space for what is free inside of us.

To finish these reflections on Quarantena, I quote Thucydides: 

            “Happiness depends on being free, and being free depends on being courageous.”

I believe that poetry gives us the space to exercise such courage.

(c) Nina Karacosta

About Quarantena by Nina Karacosta

Quarantena is an intriguing meditation on the 50 days of the Paris lockdown, from March – May 2020. The collection is composed of 50 poems, one for every day, and reflect the practical, emotional and psychological journey of the writer through that strange time, as well as the wider social roots and impact of the experience. It is a profound reflection on a time which is perhaps one of the strangest we have lived through.

“Nina Karacosta beautifully records the eeriness of lockdown as experienced in a densely populated district of Paris – the bottomless dive into oneself and the weirder depths of the imagination even as you try to keep your sanity, the importance of the prosaic details that structure and prove the indispensable to survival, the sense of yourself expanding to fill the emptiness of a whole lost world of human activity.”
Anne Ortiz Talvaz

“In Quarantena, Nina Karacosta’s verse journal of fifty days of lockdown in a ‘city of masks’, the poet’s fine perception is directed onto those things we generally take for granted. Under such close scrutiny the everyday acquires a hallucinatory quality, so that ‘the lamp stalks me in the house’. In the disturbing reality of a city under quarantine, identify itself comes under threat, until we all might ask, with Karacosta, ‘is a clown the face seen or the face hidden?’ ”
David Butler

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About the author

Nina Karacosta is a Greek actor and poet who was born in Athens, and has lived in London, New York and Paris.

She originally studied physics, and later went on to study theatre and poetry at the Poetry Project in New York. She has acted in New York city and now performs solo theatre pieces in Paris, where she now lives, and around France .

Her work has appeared in many international publications, including: Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry, Ditch, Upstairs at Duroc, UpStart, Tears in the Fence, Core, can can, Shearsman.

Her books Previous Vertigos, Vertiges Précédents, its French translation, and Kaleidograph (a collaborative collection with Anamaria Crowe Serrano) were published by Corrupt press.

Nina has been a poetry editor at Upstairs at Duroc, an anglophone literary magazine based in Paris.

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