A biography of Katerina Gogou the anarchist poetess of Exarcheia.
This is a biography of greece’s greatest anarchist poetess, Katerina Gogou (1940-1993). Until today Gogou remains the bete-noire of modern poetry in Greece with only one poetic anthology including her groundbreaking heretical work. However, her poems have become an indivisible part of the radical culture of the country and of the public imaginary of Exarcheia. Recently a biography of Katerina Gogou titled “Katerina Gogou: Death’s Love [Erotas Thanatou]” appeared, authored by Agapi Virginia Spyratou (2007, Vivliopelagos, Athens), based on her doctoral thesis. However no study or history of Katerina Gogou’s involvement in the anarchist struggle of the 1980s has ever been published in greek, leaving a great gap in both the history of the movement and in the biography of the poetess. The biography presented below is based on the book of Sryratou as well as on several reviews of her life and work in literary magazines like Odos Panos (Vol. 145, July-September 2009). The only translation of her work in English is an old publication of her first collection of poems “Three Clicks Left”, translated by Jack Hirchmann and published in San Franscisco by Night Horn Books. The book not being available in greece, I have provided my own translations to her poems with asterisks for explanations on notions and places (apologies for my literary sloppiness in advance). The original format of the poems is generally preserved, but no titles are given as her poems had no titles. Links to videos of Gogou reciting them are given where available. The recitations heard are from the vinyl record “On the Street” described below. Weird screeching siren like noises interrupting the recitation at places is no digital mistake but the 1980s not-so-subtle censorship of “inappropriate words” and political comments by the authorities.
Katerina Gogou was born in Athens on the first of June 1940 and spent the first years of her childhood in the harshest conditions of the Nazi occupation when famine due to conscription of all edibles led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Athens. Her memories of the years of the Nazi occupation, the Resistance and the Civil War are reflected in a piece of prose published post-mortem from her unfinished poetical authobiography “My name is the Odyssey”:
Aaaaaaaaa! This is the gang-war.
Grrrrreeks with big hats, I know, they called them republicas.
Square, biiiig, with long coats and cabardines, they had guns in their pockets, maybe
more gun inside. With their hands in their pockets they shot other Greeks and they walked fast as if in a great hurry or as if someone was chasing them.
I wanted -they did not let me, they said- to go out. Out I wanted. There I wanted. To the “It Is Forbidden”.
In our corner, Lambrou Katsoni and Boukouvalla, piles of eaten cats and famine corpses -they called them trash- parents and children.
I saw through the glass a bullet hitting my left hand palm, blood and the trash breathing. My mother was in the kitchen and my father I don’t even know where, I open the door and I go to the trash.
And there I saw, and I don’t give a dime if you don’t believe me, the most beautiful boy I had seen in my life. He was covered there, holding a machine gun, he had a short blond beard and long blond hair. His eyes…I don’t know to tell their colour. He looked like or was the Christ. “Go little girl, go”, he told me, “away from here. They will kill me”.
I took a deep breath to run fast.
“Bend so I can kiss you”, he told me.
I was already home.
The first man and the last I ever loved was an urban guerrilla”
Her teenage years were spent in down-town Athens of the post-Civil War monarchy, an era of strict censorship, police terror, and exile island camps filled with political prisoners. In “My name is the Odyssey” Gogou recalls one of the rare moments when she could express her indignation to the order of things alongside hundreds of other teenagers when the movie “The Blackboad Jungle” (1955) was screened in Pallas, Athens’s most prestigious cinema: “When the movie came to town, the movement of all the angry children from even the farthest neighbourhoods and from down-town Athens gathered […] when the song of the movie was heard, the famous “One two three o’ clock four o’clock rock”, half of the crowd light their lighters and the other half tore the velvet armchair of the so-aristocratic Pallas with razors. I did both”. It was the birth of the Teddy Boy tendency in Athens, which was soon to be ruthlessly repressed by the Law No.4000, which prescribed forced public humiliation by means of scalp shaving of “teddy-boys”.
A few years later Katerina Gogou, already working in theatre, graduated from high school and enrolled in a series of drama and dance schools of Athens. Within the strict censorship of the post-civil war monarchy, the only place she could make a living as an actress was the greek comedy industry, a major factor in social reproduction of statist, capitalist and patriarchal values at the time. The roles ascribed to Katerina by Finos Films, her employee company, were usually the secondary role of the naive domestic servant, or of the silly little sister, or of the undisciplined school pupil. Her most characteristic role was the one played in the “Beating came from Paradise” in 1959 where next to the regime’s favourite actress, Aliki Vouyouklaki, she played the incumbent rascal pupil that made her famous. Until the collapse of the colonels’ junta in 1974 she played in dozens of other block-buster comedies, always in the same range of roles. As Spyratou puts it, “the world of the cinema composed the capitalist ideal as a consumer society, where the positive heroes supported order within the limits of the traditional family and within the patriarchal state”. Despite performing a never ending series of female stereotypes, Katerina Gogou developed an acute radical perspective far removed from the nominal conservative feminists of the post-junta era who she mocked bitterly in an 1980 poem from the collection “Idionimo”:
“They shoot to kill.
- They are shooting in the air, they 2 cried
Then the small hole in front of the bus stop was filled with blood
- They are only plastic bullets, they said
Then he fell
- He has fainted, they cried.
Then he was motionless,
But they were already on their way. He was still,
But they had already taken the trolley-bus, and gone. Gone were they”
Katerina Gogou’s feminism was far removed from the official republican exercises in democratic progressiveness. Many of her early poems talked about a world greek society, including the late 1970s ideologically dominant left, ignored or wanted to ignore: prostitution. A large part of Katerina’s poetry was dedicated to a viral description of the dark side of Athens, in a way no one had dared articulate that far:
“Oily food in a plastic bawl in Acominatou street
outside the door, August
white like sheets the whores
40 degrees in shadow 4 o’clock p.m.
The legs open by themselves
Like dead oysters
The street is filled with coloured underwear
Pakistanis 3, anti-mosquito chemicals, limping women, snitches
And faggots injecting their breasts
Filled with carcinomas.
The street is filled
With destroyed fallopian tubes and discarded uteri
The belly is swollen
By useless sperm
- no child is conceived here
nothing is caught out of nothing
Magdalene and Vanou did the job
The money lenders and the saint of the neighbourhood are foul
First they get bribed and then they snitch on you
That’s the way it is
You have spread whores all across Metaxourgeio 4
Under the scorching sun with not a tree around – for shadow
Not even a stone wall – to lie against.
Enraged citizens 5
and religious groups have made a pact. They got organised.
They brought bottles
They will soak you. They will burn you, they say.
Like rats, they say.
Armoured vans filled with policemen
Impotent voyeurs, the doctors of the Vice Department
Crabs are taking a stroll all day on your brain
The whistle boys are the syphilis of your sleep
- whose side are they on.
Here we burn the witches. We fuck the whores.
A poster of Karamanlis
Your eyes a picture
Threads of handiwork
Bold wig, bruised nipples
And evictions are closing in around your hair and throat
They tie you hands and feet on the bed
You and us as well
The way and the tariff changes
The place and the name changes
In Larissa 40 degrees
Here at the cross, the sun” (from the collection Wooden Coat, 1982)
For Gogou, Spyratou writes, “prostitutes were not a social fact, they were a social formation and as such they were a necessary part of the reproduction of control: a woman must be a whore when the man demands it, and must prove she is not a whore in order to be a wife and a mother. In both cases it is the male imagery of femininity that must be satisfied”. As for her ideal woman figure, she was a revolutionary nonetheless, but a revolutionary unfit for the leftist heroicism of the republican era [Metapolitefsi]:
“She is dangerous – when god is bringing down the world with hail and rain she comes out on the streets without socks and whistles at the men she throws stones at the police cars and lies like a squirrel on trees lighting her cigarette with thunders.
The last time she was spotted at the same date and year in three different places – based on valid information the blown up bridge of Manhattan the delivery of weapons to anarchocommunist movements as well as the exportation of top secret state information are to be attributed to the same person. She is believed to be wearing a red or black military woolly jumper childish pearl ribbons in her hair with her hands in the pockets of a borrowed jacket.
Place of birth: unknown
Eye colour: unknown
Name: Sofia Viky Maria Olia Niki Anna Effie Argyro
Darius Darius. To all patrol cars Attention she is armed. Dangerous. Armed. Dangerous
Her name is Sofia Viky Maria Olia Niki Anna Effie Argyro
And she is Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful my god…”
(From the collection Idionimo, 1980)
The first collection of poems published by Gogou in 1978 “Three Clicks Left” is a vitriolic depiction of an Athens not proper to the leftist heroics and the republican thriumphism of the time. Gogou identified with the damned of the metropolis, with the lumpen fringe like no other writer or thinker had done before, causing an immediate adoption of the poetess by the newly born anarchist milieu of Exarcheia and beyond, a relation that developed into a mutual bond of trust and respect until the poetess’ death. The end of the 1970s was a time when the initial post-junta revolutionary chic was giving way to more substantial and contradictory urban cultures and movement, with many workers breaking free from the unions and the left, mass factory occupations, the first occupations of universities and a ferocious armed struggle against unpunished agents of the junta, with the far-right responding with bombs in cinemas, squares and leftist offices. It was this era with the increasing disillusionment of Athens radical youth with the classic leftist currents and the first experimental steps towards anarchism that the forgotten lumpen fringe of prostitutes, junkies, psychiatric patients, prisoners etc acquired a political importance of the “unrepresented” that would provide the moral basis of the 1980s anarchist movement. Gogou was a true prophet of this unexpected political and social development, and her poems got to be respected exactly for that:
“Our life is pen knives
in dirty blind alleys
rotten teeth faded out slogans
bass clothes cabinet
smell of piss antiseptics
and moulded sperm. Torn down posters.
Up and down. Up and down Patission 6
Our life is Patission.
Washing powder which does not pollute the sea
And Mitropanos 7 have entered our lives
Dexameni 8 has taken him from us too
Like those high ass ladies.
But we are still there.
All our lives hungry we travel
The same course.
Ridicule-loneliness-despair. And backwards.
OK. We don’t cry. We grew up.
Only when it rains
We suck secretly on our thumb. And we smoke.
Our life is
In set-up strikes
Snitches and patrol cars.
That’s why I tell you.
The next time they shoot us
Don’t run away. Count our strength.
Lets not sell our skin so cheeply, damn it!
Don’t. Its raining. Give me a fag”
At the final years of the 1970s Gogou re-engaged in cinema, this time however in radically different roles than the female stereotypes of her earlier career. Her new début was made in the ground-breaking film “The Heavy Melon” (1977), the first attempt of a greek social neo-realism, directed by her husband and father of her only daughter, Pavlos Tassios. The film describes the new urban working class composed of déclassé village petty owners. Gogou appears as a “by the piece” industrial worker who breaks the appointed work time limit for a minimal profit, and seeks refuge in love only to finds that it simply entraps her in more work of a domestic-patriarchal nature. For her role Gogou was awarded the best female actress award in the Salonica Film Festival. A few years later, in 1980, she will again perform in the big screen for “The Order” [Paragelia], again directed by Tassios. The film sought to depict the life of Nikos Koemtzis: on February 1973 after being released from prison, Koemtzis went to the music night club Neraida with friends, where his brother ordered from the orchestra to play a zeibekiko called “Vergoules” by the rebetis Marcos Vamvakaris. When other men stood up to dance as well [zeibekiko is a solo male dance from Asia Minor], the singer announced they should sit down as the song was “an order”, a fight ensued and Koemtzis stabbed to death three policemen thinking they were killing his brother. Koemtzis case became a celebrated issue in mid and late 1970s greece, representing a figure-out-of-time, a man obsessed with his honour in a society that was moving to an altogether different ethical code. The film featured a series of recitations of poem from “Three Clicks Left” by Gogou under the vanguard musical score of Kyriakos Sfetsas, the future director of the “Third Programme”, greece’s prestigious classical music state radio. The recital and musical score won the best music award in the Salonica Film Festival and was soon published in vinyl to become one of the musical fetishes of radical culture in the 1980s. It remains today one of the boldest attempts of combining poetry with music in greece. The best known poem recited during the film has direct political implications for the state of things in republican greece (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-UX7LwMTtw):
does not have the saddened colour
of the cloudy bimbo in her eyes.
She does not stroll abstractly and self-content
Shaking her hips in concert halls
And in frozen museums.
She is not the yellow cadres of “good” old times
And naphthalene in granny’s chests
Rosy ribbons and straw hats.
She does not open her legs with fake small laughers
A cow’s gaze rhythmic sighs
And assorted underwear.
Has the colour of Pakistanis, this loneliness
And she is counted inch by inch
Along with their pieces
In the bottom of the light-shaft.
She stands patiently queuing
Bournazi – Santa Barbara – Kokkinia
Touba –Stavroupoli – Kalamaria 9
Under all weathers
With a sweaty head.
She ejaculates screaming and smashes the front windows with chains
She occupies the means of production
She blows up private property
She is a Sunday visit in prison
Same step in the yard revolutionaries and penal prisoners
She is sold and bought minute by minute, breath by breath
In the slave markets of the earth – Kotzia 10 is near here
Wake up early.
Wake up to see it.
She is a whore in the rotten-houses
The german drill for conscripts
And the last
Endless miles of the national highway towards the centre
In the suspended meats from Bulgaria.
And when her blood clots and she can take no more
Of her kind being sold so cheaply
She dances barefoot on the tables a zeibekiko
Holding in her bruised blue hands
A well sharpened axe.
Our loneliness I say. Its our loneliness I am speaking about,
Is a axe in our hands
That over your heads is revolving revolving revolving revolving”
The same year, 1980, Gogou published her second poetic collection, “Idionimo”. The title of the collection referred to Law No.410/1976 which fortified the security forces against protesters and the regime itself against strikes etc. The law was dubbed “idionimo” by anarchists and leftists at the time, a word referring to the law passed in the late 1920s by the liberal PM Eleftherios Venizelos which ordered the expulsion of communists to barren island camps. In the poetical collection Gogou attacked the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) for treason of the struggle. The accusations came as the youth of the Party, KNE, had formed a special force, the Communist Youth for the Restoration of Order (KNAT rhyming with MAT, the riot police) used to brutally repressed any attempt of autonomy and anti-police violence during the first university occupation of 1979-1980. Anarchist magazines like “The rooster crows at dawn” at the time indicated that KNE actually tortured anarchists in special rooms of the Polytechnic. The 1979-1980 university occupations against the educational law No.815 was a sort of a greek May ’68, with the youth for the first time massively mocking communist and leftist orthodoxy, especially KNE and EKKE, the numerous Maoist Party that had already clashed with anarchists in 1977 in Exarcheia.
By 1980 Gogou was deeply involved in the sprouting anarchist culture of Exarcheia where the first Athens squat appeared on Valtetsiou street in 1981. Two years earlier, in 1979, Gogou played a central role in the big concert against police repression in Sporting, where many singers at the time took part. The concert was in demand for the immediate release of Philipos and Sofia Kiritsi, two anarchists imprisoned as terrorists by the regime. The Kiritsis affair was the first emblematic anarchist repression case, and played an important role in the creation of the milieu via the solidarity movement that arose for the liberation of the comrades. Naturally, the concert ended in riots with over 100 people arrested. It was the era of the great concert-riots which reached its climax during the spring 1980 concert of the “Police” in Sporting. It was the first rock concert in greece after the Rolling Stones concert during the junta had ended with the police entering the stage and beating the band manager after Mick Jagger threw carnations to the audience, an act deemed to be a conspiratory communist signal by the cops. During that warm night of March 1980, while all universities were occupied, 2,000 young people stormed the stadium with no tickets leading to extended clashes with the police across Patision and Aharnon avenues.
In 1982 Gogou publishes her third poem collection “Wooden overcoat” where her poetry acquired a personal touch, while in 1984 Gogou played in her last role for the film “Ostria –endgame” whose scenario she wrote herself. The film, again directed by Tassios, narrates the story of three couples who sold out their revolutionary ideas for petty-bourgeois comfort, a theme castigating the entire “generation of the Polytechnic” by then well entrenched in positions of power and exploitation.
In 1986, Gogou publishes her fourth poem collection “The Absentees” well known for the poem dedicated to the murdered anarchist transvestite Sonia:
“She bent her pale head with a sigh
and fell asleep
Above her the sky mountainous
Barren landscape –dark-
stones only and rocks not even rain…
Bride you with the plastered mouth red
Brocade hands melted handiwork
Around the fresh earth your girlfriends
Sad and over-painted
Making strange noises
As craving attention
In order to play in some film
Here this ring child poem
Word of Honour
This hour that the future-ones
Learn the eagle’s flight
This hour that your forehead
Reveals what is hidden
Always the same hour
That the RED KNIVES
Kill the Different ones…”
The red knives in the poem referred to the traditional communist policy against homosexuality deemed by the KKE “a bourgeois perversion that will disappear with the revolution”. The mid 1980s was a time of fierce gay liberation struggle in greece. Only a few years before, in 1979, the right wing government had proposed a law for the displacement of homosexuals to barren island camps. The law was overturned only by way of mass grassroots reaction as well as international pressure from intellectuals like Foucault and Guattari. The struggle against the displacement law was the cradle of the gay liberation movement of the 1980s mostly led the leftist group AKOA. The most militant part of the struggle however was played by transvestites (this was their self-referential term) who even clashed with riot police forces. Sonia was an anarchist transvestite closely related to Paola, the leading anarchist trans figure of the decade who published Kraximo [Heckling] a transvestite anarchist magazine that led her to numerous arrests. Sonia’s assassination and the abandonment of her brutalised naked corpse on desolate rocks on the Attiki coastline was a emblematic call to arms affair at the time.
Gogou herself was a consistent victim of police violence and arbitrariness. In 1986 she pressed charges against General Drosoyannis, the notorious Minister of Public Order of PASOK, after being brutally beaten by riot policemen during one of the numerous anarchist marches of the time. Gogou was on the Ministry’s constant suspect list, a fact only worsened by her friendship and comradeship with Katerina Iatropoulou, the leading prison abolition anarchist figure of the time. Gogou’s struggle against repression is best depicted in her poem “Some times”-the poet can been seen in this sequence from ‘The Order’ at the initial frames, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tqBikHT7FI&feature=related :
“Some times the door opens slowly and you enter.
You wear an all-white suite and linen shoes.
You bend, you tenderly put 72 coins in my palm and you leave.
I have stayed in the same position where you left me, so that you can find me again.
But a long time must have passed because my nails
Have grown long and my friends are scared of me.
Every day I cook potatoes.
I have lost my imagination.
And when I hear ‘Katerina’ I am scared
I think I have to denounce someone.
I have kept some newspaper clippings about a man they claimed was you.
I know the papers lie, because they say they shot you at the feet.
I know they never aim at the feet.
The mind is their target.
Hold it together, eh?”
In 1988, Katerina published her fifth book titled “The Month of Frozen Grapes”, a collection of 38 poems many of them consisting of a couple of verses, or even a single line. The collection reflected a time of ravaging psychological anguish that led Gogou in and out of clinics for the rest of her life. A characteristic poem (no.17) reads:
“I was a tree and I broke
They broke all my branches
Because there found refuge all the lost children
So as to play the hanged.”
Finally in 1990, Katerina published her last book “The Return Journey” which combined both her earlier political and social penetrating gaze and her existential angst. In one page of the book a hand-drawn box contains five names that marked the birth of the anarchist movement in greece, five men who died by police bullets, the urban guerrillas Kasimis, Tsoutsouvis and Prekas, the 15 year old boy Kaltezas shot by a cop in 1985 during the Polytechnic anniversary march, and Tsironis, the eccentric revolutionary doctor who had proclaimed his appartment a free state and shot down by special forces. The prose-poem above the drawing reads:
“The terror of the silent danger of the freezing silence that climbs the steps with proplasmatic faces, who slowly move in line. The hunted down knows. He has great pains behind the ears and deep in the stomach. The features change, he becomes younger, more handsome, he enters the final clash, he climbs gloriously to his god. All the more as the cause for his persecution included the justice of ever more people. He is no more in pain. Now terror sits on the shoulders of his hunters.
Now they will take aim.
Now they will murder.
Their human face took its form in conscious retreat. They will devour each other in eternal fire to eternity. The angels get ever more numerous”.
Katerina Gogou died on October 3 1993 at the age of 53 due to an overdose of pills and alcohol, the last among the triad of radical poet-singers (alongside Pavlos Sidiropoulos and Nikolas Asimos) to exit the changing stage of Exarcheia. Her funeral gathered thousands of people. A lost poem of Katerina unearthed and published in her recent biography reveals her unwavering commitment to anarchy:
“Don’t you stop me. I am dreaming.
We lived centuries of injustice bent over.
Centuries of loneliness.
Now don’t. Don’t you stop me.
Now and here, for ever and everywhere.
I am dreaming freedom.
The harmony of the universe.
Lets play. Knowledge is joy.
Its not school conscription.
I dream because I love.
Great dreams in the sky.
Workers with their own factories
Contributing to world chocolate making.
I dream because I KNOW and I CAN.
Banks give birth to “robbers”.
Prisons to “terrorists”.
Loneliness to “misfits”.
Products to “need”
Borders to armies.
All caused by property.
Violence gives birth to violence.
Don’t now. Don’t you stop me.
The time has come to reinstitute
the morally just as the ultimate praxis.
To make life into a poem.
And life into praxis.
It is a dream that I can I can I can
I love you
And you do not stop me nor am I dreaming. I live.
I reach my hands
To love to solidarity
As many times as it takes all over again.
I defend ANARCHY.
- 1. Gang-war [Symmoritopolemos] was the official monarchist term for the Civil War, current until the mid 1970s.
- 2. “They” [Autes] in feminine plural (Elles – fr) indicates the Movement of Democratic Women [Kinisi Dimokratikon Gynaikon], the most numerous women’s organisation at the time which after 1981 was recuperated into the Socialist State apparatus to provide the cadres of the Secretariat of Equality. The poem was written in 1980, the year when during the Polytechnic Uprising anniversary march, one worker and one student, Koumis and Kanellopoulou, were killed by the riot police forces (MAT) – the official stance of the socialist opposition was a complete cover-up of the incident.
- 3. Pakistanis where the first immigrant worker population in Athens well before the first wave of immigration in the 1990s. Pakistani workers in the mid 1970s organised one of the fiercest wildcat strikes, at a time where the movement for proletarian autonomy was at its high noon.
- 4. “Metaxourgeio”, the down-town Athens area south of Omonoia square, a devalued working class neighbourhood which slowly became a derelict district of collapsing houses, car garages and the main red-light zone of Athens. Despite some efforts to gentrification the area remains the same today.
- 5. "Enraged citizens” [aganaktismenoi polites] is a terms used until today by the media as a euphemism for fascist groups and para-state thugs.
- 6. Patission is the avenue joining Ano Patissia with Omonoia square passing next to the Polytechnic and the ASSOE university as well as to Athens’ major squares (Victoria, Amerikis, Kolliatsou) in between Patissia and Kypseli, the most densely populated areas of the metropolis. It is considered to be the “radical avenue” of the capital, the first to be affected by civil disturbances.
- 7. Mitropanos is a popular singer of working class origin identified with chain-smoking male proletarian culture, he was recuperated first in the post-junta left-wing republican music scene, and then in the music entertainment industry as a whole.
- 8. Dexameni, referring to the “arty square” of Kolonaki, the ruling class neighbourhood next to the Parliament was then a metonym for the bourgeois left.
- 9. proletarian neighbourhoods of Athens and Salonica at the time/ Kotzia is the city hall square of Athens where day-workers (builders etc) gathered before dawn to be picked by construction bosses.
- 10. proletarian neighbourhoods of Athens and Salonica at the time/ Kotzia is the city hall square of Athens where day-workers (builders etc) gathered before dawn to be picked by construction bosses.