Known primarily for her books of poetry (such as The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, and the Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, The California Poem), Eleni Sikelianos is also a writer of hybrid memoir, who plays with the intersections of memory, artifact, image, and imagination in her work. During my last semester at the University of Arizona this fall, I struggled with structuring a book out of fragmented lyric essays and read Sikelianos’ latest work, You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek), hoping to find inspiration in its experimental form. In this magical olio of scraps, myth, dreams, and narrative, Sikelianos traces the life of her exotic dancer grandmother, and inevitably her family’s complex lineage. On so many levels pertaining to the exploration of collective memory and archive, the book gave me hope for the future of what I consider the most exciting genre, near limitless, shifting and transforming with every new voice. That’s what was on my mind when I reached out to her to talk about breaking nonfiction rules and creating new ones.
Nina Boutsikaris: A big question in nonfiction is, how do we talk about a thing, invoke something specific about it, in a way that sends light through just the right fractal? Eleni, how did you begin writing this very diverse and textured folio? What came first? How did it progress?
Eleni Sikelianos: It’s hard to know what came first, because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I think I could say that I’ve been working on these family histories my whole life, and certainly they are some of the interior elements—my personal furniture—that pushed me to be a writer, and shaped my psychic household. I remember trying to write a poem about my grandmother as long ago as twenty-seven years ago. She appears again in a long poem in 2001 (The California Poem), and in my last book, too. That may be part of why these family histories come out in such “diverse and textured folio[s]”—they come from the fabric of my life. Some writers would aim to distill that and simplify it into a more coherent, mono-tonal narrative (which has its own power, to be sure), but that is not how I feel the world.