Stelios Mormoris on Elevating Humanity through the Poetry of The Oculus [INTERVIEW]

Stelios Mormoris is a resident of Boston and Martha’s  Vineyard, Massachusetts, and formerly lived in Paris most  of his life, working as an executive in the beauty industry.  Stelios is currently Chief Executive Officer of Scent Beauty,  Inc. He studied architecture at Princeton University, where  he received his BA, and he received his MBA from INSEAD in  Fontainebleau, France. He has held positions on the boards  of the French Cultural Center of Boston, ACT-UP, Historic  New England, and The Fragrance Foundation. 

Stelios is also a contemporary artist, specializing in abstract oil painting: His interests range  from rugby to sailing to gardening, while continuing his  passion for reading and writing poetry. The Oculus is his  debut collection of poetry. 

James Morehead: Before talking about The Oculus, when did you first discover poetry and what do you love about the art form? 

Stelios Mormoris

Stelios Mormoris: “I first discovered poetry when I was a teenager and my mother left Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet on my bed, presumably for me to read. Days later she asked what I thought of it, it was interesting, my first introduction to literature with a very deep message. This is the time, by the way, of the 1960s social turbulence: the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, and I think she was just trying to teach me to not only read what I’m given in school, but to go out and read on my own. Afterwards I started discovering poets in the local library like Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats, and learning the classics. I was always fascinated by the beauty of the English language and how much it could wake the imagination, and just the clever ways in which language has a heightened elevated sense in the form of poetry.”

James: How do you shape an idea into a poem, how do your poems tend to start, and what feedback do you rely on during the revising and editing process? Perhaps use your poem The Trolley as an example to draw from. 

Stelios: “It’s very mysterious, actually, how a poem comes to fruition. Sometimes it’s from a line of poetry that enters my mind. Sometimes I plan a poem around a concept and then force myself to write about it even if it feels unnatural. Sometimes a poem is simply elicited by a memory of being somewhere.

“In the case of The Trolley, this is a poem written about someone in San Francisco, in a place I know well which is the top of Nob Hill. The poem starts out with this person, the speaker, per se, at the corner of California and Powell, which is at the top of Nob Hill, just waiting for a trolley. In my life I’ve stayed at hotels in the area, the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont, these are very beautiful hotels in San Francisco, and a place where my parents lived in the 50s before I was born. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, it’s interesting that as a poet when you speak to readers they automatically assume what you’re writing about is about you, but in this case, it’s about the speaker who’s waiting for a trolley. The poem is a very simple moment that Intensifies as you get into the mind of the person, his sense of anticipation of what the trolley will do, and where the trolley can take him. What’s interesting visually about this particular vantage point at the top of a hill is that it is so steep you can’t see what’s coming. You could hear what’s coming, but you can’t see what’s coming. The speaker is describing the sensation of the trolley approaching by the sound and by the feeling of the tracks. You realize the speaker at the end of the poem, the speaker is lost and is wanting a place to find belonging.” 

James: Several of the poems in this collection have visceral elements; in Death of an Argument you write:

"              You could not
rise airward, only disintegrate
inside the shoals' smashing
waves, whipped up figurines
of silver froth breaking
and repeating in the broken
link of the archipelago—
like our unfinished remarks.”

and in The Temper you write:

“Meanwhile, your blade would rotate
in the dark I kept you in, the steel light
intensifying on the turn then flattening
to glare, lingering long after it vanished.”

What draws you to these powerful images and what is your approach to capturing them so effectively in poetry? 

Stelios: “I think in those two cases I enjoy the art of metaphor. I push my imagination and linguistic construction to visualize something and then ask myself, what does the visualization really mean? In the case of Death of an Argument, the description of waves hitting rocks, and dissolving and breaking is a metaphor for an argument between two people who are intimate with each other. The crashing of the waves and the dissolution of the foam, the destruction and renewal, I liken to an endless argument. It’s ironic, I think, now that I’m speaking about a poem I call Death of an Argument because, in fact, I think the death never happened. I should have re-titled it eternal argument!

“And in The Temper, it was a conceit, an exaggerated metaphor of the speaker, speaking to his temper as if it’s a separate person. What I find cool about that poem is the speaker realizing that the temper has a mind of its own, that he can almost detach from. The ending lines that you described were also metaphorical, about the fact that the temper has a life of its own, and if you’re aware of that you can more or less control it, which is what the speaker is doing. The glare on the knife, being kind of this like repressed anger, is exemplified by this person’s own temper.”

James: You write beautifully about your mother in several of the poems, including The Apron which you’ll read later. How do you balance being true to the poetry and true to the people you are close to when crafting a poem? 

Stelios: “It was, I think, a risk to write something so personalized to start my poetry career. I decided in the case of my mother to create narratives around her. Of course, the truth is more boring than art, so nothing is perfectly true. All poets create a mural, if you will, that’s much more beautiful than the reality of what they have experienced. That said, in the third section of the book called Verdicts, the common theme is around my mother. She was a very creative, very mystical person, the person who introduced me to poetry, which was why I dedicated the book to her. In those poems, I was capturing the pathos of my mother and things I experienced with her. I was very conscious of not creating sentimental poems that were about self-pity or heartbreak. I let the visual description carry the weight of any emotion, which I think made the poems much more resonant and successful.” 

James: How do you approach form in your poetry? Do you start a poem having an idea of the form it will take or does the form come later? 

Stelios: “I love this question. Kristina Marie Darling, the wonderful editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press, described me as a neoclassical poet, which I suppose is an allusion to my sense of structure and form in a poem. But I am guilty of being, I think, a very aesthetic poet. I not only approach my work in terms of the beauty of the music, my sense of the rhyme and meter of a poem, but am also experimental. I love free verse, but most of my poems are structured visually on the page. In terms of the stanza, the length of the line, I aim for a certain aesthetic and harmony, a clustering of stanzas in a certain way. If you look through the book, I think most of the poems are calculated, they’re not just thrown on the page. Some are deliberately freeform, and some are clustered visually, and some even go so far as using rhyme and meter, which I’ve heard is like completely out of vogue these days.”

James: You also incorporate place into your poetry, from Kaiki Beach, to Tourists’ Paris, to Corrida, with rich imagery. One example from Corrida:

“The pregnant caesura
                   the toreador marches
        away from the
crumpled bull”

Stelios: “Corrida was written around 1998 after I had visited Spain. I wrote this poem, which is very ]disjointed visually on the page, to reflect a bull fight: visually intense, beautiful, and horrific at the same time.I’m very much a global citizen. I’m Greek, my parents grew up in New York and lived in Paris. I’ve lived between Europe and the United States my whole life. I’ve had the good fortune of living in different cultures. 

“A lot of the older poems happened to be about places where I work. I did derive a lot of inspiration from the sense of place. In the case of Tourists’ Paris, living as an expatriate in Paris, I wrote about the very clichéd experience that you witness in Paris. And in the case of Kaiki Beach, a very strange poem about a little island in Greece called Spetsus, I remember being there and seeing a woman looking completely lost and upset on the beach. I came up with this story of this woman who was not able to have children, who was trying to find herself. It was rooted in place, the trees, the smells, the sounds, the light, and so on. I find a lot of inspiration in the context of the place. In these types of poems the place is as important as a person.” 

James: I’ve asked multiple poets about their approach to ordering and organizing a collection. Many, including me, fill their family room floor with printed poems, to manipulate them in space. The Oculus is organized into three named sections. Talk about the process you went through to select and organize the poems in this collection. 

Stelios: “There’s the lyrical, emotional, intimate, isolated part of writing poetry, and refining and making poems perfect. Then I met Jeffrey Levine and Kristina Marie Darling  from Tupelo Press and they challenged me to create a book. It was very daunting – so how do I do this? I don’t think there was any logic when I started – this one is a good poem and this one’s less good – and then you’re left with a subset of your work. A famous poet talked about the narrative arc and I was asking myself, how do I organize the poems? And in order and clustering away where am I creating an arc?

“The first section is called Sentries, which are poems alerting you to danger or things that can go wrong in life, or things that can go right; smaller poems. The middle section Aureoles is about light and it is related to the theme of The Oculus. Those poems are mostly about places I’ve been to. The last section is Verdicts, with a common theme around my mother and the way memory shifts. There was a lot of thought that went into organizing and editing, and fortunately I had people to have intellectual debates, what do I keep, what don’t I keep? It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

James: As a first-time author of a poetry collection, when did you know you had a collection that was ready to be a published book? 

Stelios: “I didn’t know until I spoke to outside voices, like Kristina Marie Darling. One of my first professors in New York, Nancy Schoenberger, a terrific poet, encouraged me and said I have the makings of a book. I’m not the typical poet per se, meaning I went to an MFA program and spent my whole life writing. I started writing when I was a teenager, I was in creative writing programs in New York in the 80s, and I was doing some writing throughout my life. I was submitting work to literary reviews and getting acceptances, but I had another life as a businessman, a CEO of a company and doing many different things outside of the world of writing. I just didn’t focus on it. It was actually during COVID when everything stopped. I was at my home in Martha’s Vineyard, focused on writing and creating a book. I had the urge to express myself with a complete body of work and I made it happen.” 

James: What advice do you have for poets dreaming of having a poem selected for publication? 
Stelios: “My advice is to write poetry that comes from a place of truth. That doesn’t mean being autobiographical, but the poem needs to have things to say, and be authentic. I do believe in craft, being economical, being powerful, using active verbs. Poetry is not selfish, it’s generous to the reader, and in the great depths of imagination readers are moved by what you’re thinking and writing. Poetry is such a beautiful art form and I think poetry elevates humanity.”

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