Writer, poet, and English professor Christopher Bakken’s love affair with Greece — its myths, food, history, and people — are evident in his new poetry collection.
Christopher Bakken loves for Greece
Author and Poet Christopher Bakken fell in love with Greece more than 30 years ago. Read his story.
Meet Christopher Bakken
Several years ago, I had the privilege to meet Author and Poet Christopher Bakken at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, where he read from his book, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table. There, I witnessed his love and passion for Greece. I recall that everyone chuckled when he introduced himself a “Hellenized barbarian”, but the event culminated with him being cheered as a true philHellene.
Christopher, 48, was born and raised in rural Martinsville, near Madison, WI. Of Swiss and Norwegian descent, he comes from a long line of dairy farmers. Perhaps that’s where he gets his fascination for cheese? He’s been writing as long as he can recall. His first love was poetry.
“Poetry doesn’t much pay the bills, so I pursued a Ph.D. and have embraced a career as a teacher of literature. That means I still get to make my living in words.”
By day, he is the Frederick F. Seely Professor of English & Department Chair at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. The rest of the time, he is an avid writer — including lyrical essays, and food and travel writing — a foodie, a family man, and a philHellene.
He lived in Greece from 1992-1994. After completing his MFA in Poetry at Columbia University, he got a job teaching at Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, to help pay off his student loans.
“I lived in a building in the suburb of Pylea, with a view of Thessaloniki stretching out to the sea; on a clear day, I could see Mt. Olympus from my living room. My first book, After Greece, is centered on the two years I lived there, traveling Greece by motorcycle and re-orienting myself in a new language and culture.”
Since that time, Christopher has returned to Greece at least once a year, although during the years he was writing Honey, Octopus, Olives, he traveled to Greece two-to-three times a year to do research and lead study tours. He said he’s probably been to Greece 30 times.
I asked Christopher if he could explain just what was it about Greece that captured him so.
“That’s like asking someone why they fell in love. Who can explain that? First, I fell in love with the country’s sublime physical beauty, spending my weekends roaming about in Halkidiki and on various islands. I was already in love with Greece’s ancient past, but it was modern Greece that really moved me: the way people moved and spoke and survived. And of course how they ate. It’s safe to say my way into Greek culture was through Greek food.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak about Honey, Olives, Octopus, because I was introduced to Christopher through this book. It’s not only a fascinating look at the historical and cultural origins of Greek food and hospitality, but it also identifies some food traditions that are in danger of extinction. This city girl walked away with a fervent desire to stomp grapes and pick olives. Take a read and you’ll see why.
The award-winning writer and poet has written countless essays, and contributed to several anthologies. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest and is program director of “Writing Workshops in Greece: Thessaloniki and Thasos.” There are a few seats left in Christopher’s food and travel writing (and cooking) workshop this summer on Thasos. Email for details. Eternity & Oranges is Christopher’s fifth published book.
Greece is at the forefront of this collection, though some of the poems are inspired by Italy and the Balkans as well — the people and customs bear some likeness. Many have opined that it is the connection of the Mediterranean — the people of this region come from the same core, and are actually quite similar.
“My poems reflect 30 years of engagement with Greece; I write as a philHellenist, and also a Hellenized barbarian.”
The poems in Eternity & Oranges evoke myths, history, love and loss, ancient art, and more. Christopher’s words evoke haunting images of the sea, the sun, ancient figures, tales, and modern woes. The line between ancient and modern is erased, as he connects them in a way that only a poet can. Through Christopher’s words, we feel his love for his adopted country, where his soul certainly lives. As I read this work, I sense that being away from Greece, for him, is akin to torture. His heart beats in Greece — at the seashore, among the ghosts of ancient gods and heroes, breathing in the sea air, and this storied country, in all of its wonder.
Eternity & Oranges is available at Amazon.
By: Christopher Bakken
Series: Pitt Poetry Series
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition (February 29, 2016)