Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re going to be talking about Sappho on stage. We’ve previously discussed Jane Montgomery Griffiths’s play, “Sappho…in 9 Fragments.” In this episode, we’re going to speak with some other performers who have played Sappho herself, or have been inspired by Sappho.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. Hello, Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: Hi, y’all.
EB: What poem do you have for us? I’m so excited.
AK: I’ve got a real short one for you, but it’s really nice. I’m gonna read Diane Rayor’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 118: “Come, divine lyre, speak to me / and sing!”
EB: Beautiful. I love it. And why did you choose this particular poem for this episode?
AK: Well, today’s episode, like you mentioned, is about performances of Sappho. And I liked this poem for this episode because it is kind of Sappho like reflecting on how she herself is a performer. She’s talking to her lyre, talking to her instrument. And in the translations, Diane mentions, in the notes, that we get this poem quoted by a Greek rhetorician named Hermogenes, from the second century CE, and he quotes the fragment and says that Sappho addresses her lyre, and then her lyre answers. So we don’t have the response from her lyre, but it sounds like this was a dialogue poem where Sappho talks and then her lyre speaks back, which is really cool to imagine.
LC: Ellie, I know that you’re so good at inserting, like, what you think would happen with Sappho. So what do you think that the lyre says back to her?
EB: Oh my god, what does the lyre say back to Sappho? I feel like–god, why do I, like, want to go sexual?
LC: Go sexual!
EB: The lyre’s like, “Strum me, Sappho.”
LC: Ooh, yeah.
EB: “Those fingers!”
AK: Oh, my god.
EB: I don’t know. Or pick, or plectrum, you know. “Play the plectrum on me.”
AK: Even if that’s not what the lyre would actually say, it’s what Sappho would say the lyre would say.
AK: The lyre’s like, “Change my strings! Please!”
EB: Yeah, and the lyre’s like, “I never said that to you. I don’t know why you’d write that. We’ve gone over this many times. I don’t like it when you talk to me like that.”
AK: It’s like, you know, modern workplace sexual harassment. It’s very bad. It’s like, you can’t just talk to your lyre that way.
EB: It’s not good.
AK: I definitely–it does inspire me, though. The next time I, you know, get up on stage, if we’re ever allowed to do that again, and play my guitar, I want to just like look at it and be like, “Come, divine guitar, speak to me / and sing!
EB: Yes. Well it feels very much like, what is it, “Come to me, my angel of music!” Phantom.
LC: We’re always able to bring it back to musical theater.
EB: Always. Did you know I’m writing and starring in an original–
LC: Oh my god, Ellie, tell me more! First time hearing about this.
AK: Is your guitar a character with a speaking role?
EB: It is now.
LC: And on that note, thank you so much, Alyse, but we’d best be getting on with the episode.
AK: Thanks for having me, guys.
EB: You’ve already heard from Jane Montgomery Griffiths and a bit from her play, “Sappho…in 9 Fragments,” on previous episodes. Here’s a little more background on how she wrote the play.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: So out of the blue, I got a request to write a one-woman show about Sappho for a quite well known TV actor. And I hadn’t written anything before. So I demured, and said, “No, this isn’t for me.” But the producer was incredibly persistent. And I’m extremely grateful, retrospectively, for her persistence. So, in four weeks, I had to write a one-woman show, round about 90 minutes, for this quite well known actor. Now unfortunately, the actress who was penciled to play her then got a TV role. And, so it went to another actress who said the play was absolutely unactable. And so, at this stage, we had advanced bookings, we had interviews on the radio with quite popular shows. And so the producer said to me, “Look, you used to be an actress, why don’t you play her?” I found myself cursing the fact that I had written a 90-minute monologue, because of course now I had to learn the thing. Look, I have to start off by saying, it is incredibly difficult to even conceive how to write a play about Sappho, because she is nothing but gaps. You know, we know that there were originally nine volumes of her work. Now we have just over 100 poems in fragmented form, and only a handful of complete poems. And we know nothing about her life story, apart from really, really spurious footnotes in history. Writing a play about her was incredibly difficult, initially. But then I started to weave together as many of the fragments as I could. By now, I could read Sappho in Ancient Greek. So I was working on my own translations. And I decided to do sort of a jazz riff between Sappho, who was a timeless character, and a contemporary version of Sappho, probably set–well, this is hard. From what we have, it seems as though this young woman called Atthis was Sappho’s great love. But, again, you know, we only have four poems that mention her name out of nine volumes of poetry, so who knows. But I decided to make Atthis a contemporary young woman. Really, I just drew on my experience as a young actor. So we had parallel stories. That’s the nine fragments. Every odd fragment was Sappho, analyzing the way that she’s been used and abused over the millennia. And every even fragment was the story of this young actress falling in love with a great “rien dame” of the theater. About 30% to 40% of the entire play was comprised of, actually, Sappho’s fragments, but woven surreptitiously into the narrative. Anyway, so that was the play. It was a big hit. It was picked up by a professional theatre company in Melbourne called Malthouse Theatre. So then it had an entirely new production. And again, I was playing the character. So from then on, it’s gone on to a production in Poland, a production round the UK and Canada. It’s been done on the radio. So it’s a funny, old beast. It sort of developed from nothing but a very persistent producer forcing me to do something I had no interest in, to being something which, frankly, has shaped my entire professional career. So I’m very grateful to Sappho.
EB: Earlier in the year, Alyse and I had the pleasure of speaking to Jade Esteban Estrada, who wrote “ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1,” in 2002, and performed it across the country. Jade told us a little bit about how he came up with the idea for the show. He had come across Sappho’s work after a bad breakup, and fell in love with her poetry. “ICONS” features Sappho, as well as other key queer figures from history, like Oscar Wilde and Alice B. Toklas. During our interview, we were lucky enough to hear Jade perform a bit from the play, as Sappho.
Jade Esteban Estrada: “Don’t you know who I am? Maybe you don’t recognize me. I lived on the Isle of Lesbos. History calls me the first lesbian. My name is Sappho. And Plato called me ‘The Tenth Muse.'”
LC: I just have the visual of Jade performing, as he did at our live event.
EB: As the beautiful Sappho, with the wig and all.
LC: As the beautiful Sappho. It was amazing.
EB: It’s so incredible. And Jade truly channels Sappho.
EB: So beautiful. When we talked to Jade, he told us a little bit more about what playing Sappho meant to him.
JEE: It was literally intense. Like having six kids, and going, “All my kids are great.” But your firstborn is always the one that’s resonant, you know. I would like, even before the show, putting Sappho’s lashes on and just whatever. I’d be like, “You know, screw everybody. I freakin’ love Sappho.” I have a memory of so much calm when I become her. I could be like, we didn’t have a good light rehearsal, or this guy doesn’t have an updated script, or people are still coming in the house because she’s first, right? So if people are going to be late, they’re going to run into her song, or her intro. But when I become her, there’s rhythm. There’s rhythm in her speech, and there’s peace. And there’s the softness. I always felt immense calm when I became Sappho. And I am–if I were to plop dead right now, I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to surrender my voice and my body and my creativity so that she can come and live in me for a little while.
LC: I mean, Sappho is everybody’s favorite, no?
EB: Of course. Sappho’s your favorite, Jade. I love–I mean, when we interviewed Jade, it is so interesting to see him transform and become Sappho. You can feel the comfortableness, you can feel the calm, you can feel, like he said, you can feel how grateful he is to channel her. And I just think it’s beautiful. And other people did as well. The show got great reviews, and Jade later added volumes 2 and 3. And it made a huge impact on each audience who saw it.
JEE: I have always seen myself particularly, in this work, as a channel, as utilizing what I believe my greatest gift is: to tell stories through a facility. Thank god in heaven, I had the privilege of having good training. I didn’t know what it was. We never–none of the people in my class knew what we were going to do in our show business careers. But I feel so grateful that I happened to come of age at a time where gay liberation was on the rise, Latino visibility was having a resurgence. And I was hungry to do something interesting to me. And what I found was, “Hey, I really identify with Sappho, or Oscar Wilde, or Harvey Milk.” So much, that I can surrender all of me. I can erase myself completely and become this woman who had this idea so long ago, and give myself to her completely. But I always loved submitting myself completely to the people I was honoring. I thought that my most important goal was to let these people walk out of this theater, having sat down with them, and had a conversation, in hopes that there could be some kind of understanding.
EB: I love what Jade says here. And I think it’s why it’s so important we do this episode on Sappho on stage. Because there is this, like, conversation that the performers have with an audience that can bring Sappho and all of these other historical figures into our mainstream consciousness. It’s where–theatre and art is where most people interact with history, besides in a history classroom.
LC: Yeah, it’s super important. And it’s the same reason we’re doing this podcast, right? Just generally, it’s because, you know, we can go and find information on Sappho, but like, we’re trying to bring her to life in this podcast. And all of these amazing people are trying to bring her to life on stage, including Maya Herbsman and Aimee Suzara, who are working on a new play about Sappho. Aimee is a playwright, poet, and educator. And Maya is the director. So we’ll hear from Maya first.
Maya Herbsman: And so in the winter of 2018, we had this festival that was really sort of dedicated to exploration, and we were doing different play readings. And I was looking for a play to read that would be in the public domain, so we could use it and wouldn’t have to worry about rights. And that was written by a woman, because so many classics that we’re familiar with are written by men. And, completely to my surprise and delight, I stumbled across this play called “Sappho: A Tragedy in Five Acts,” written by Estelle B. Lewis. Obviously, as a queer person, I was familiar with Sappho, though not deeply. And, so of course, was really excited about the chance to read the play. And so we got a group of actors together, had a couple folks in the room, and we read this play. And while it was really great that it was about Sappho, with all due respect to Estelle B. Lewis, it was a bit of a bummer. It was really straight-washed. Most of her queerness was completely sidestepped, it was just riddled with misogyny, and felt deeply problematic to me, but I was still so excited about the possibility. And so, from there, we talked as a company and decided this was a piece we were interested in moving forward with. And we partnered with an organization in San Francisco called the Queer Cultural Center, and asked if they knew anyone, any playwrights who might be a good fit for this type of project. And they recommended Amy to us. And so Amy and I met, and then we kept meeting. We decided to embark together on this multi-year development process of working from Estelle B. Lewis’s play, but really creating something totally new and different, driven by our own interests and our own identities as brown queer women.
Aimee Suzara: And one of the things I was really struck with was that Sappho’s original poetry was not in there. Also, in addition to all of the sort of questionable features, that choice was interesting, as well as the choice–which I know that you at Sweetbitter are very familiar with–the choice to go along with the myth of her throwing herself off of the cliff over a man, was chosen as an important narrative. And I was like, “Where’s the–where are her girlfriends? Or where are her loves in this?” I think that Maya and I were on the same page about–like, she was not troubled by my difficulty with, you know, just approaching the text like, “Why this?” you know. And I work with literature all the time, so I was like I could–I’m going to get through this. I’m going to find what inspires me about this. But what I think really inspired me was Sappho’s life, and Sappho’s story, and also this idea of a timeless poet, you know, who is a female, who, over centuries, has continued to be quoted and named. And, you know, despite the little that we have of her actual language, that we know that she was famous. We know that she influenced a lot of people, and became, you know, the material for a lot of people’s imaginations. When we went forward with the process, I said, “Can we do this? And can we do this? Like, can we change a lot of features?” And Maya was game. And, you know, definitely we were interested in allowing her to be gay, you know, allowing her to have her loves. You know, she talks about her loves, and it’s like, so essential that she has her loves.
LC: Make Sappho gay again! Yes!
EB: Thank you, Aimee and Maya. You beautiful, beautiful souls.
LC: But I mean, are we surprised?
EB: No. Not surprised at all. Knowing what we know from this podcast, wow, Sappho was straight-washed?
LC: My goodness.
EB: So surprised to hear these things. But we’re very, very happy that Maya and Aimee are rewriting. Maya and Aimee recently hosted a Zoom performance of an excerpt from the play with three actors. One plays Sappho as a woman of color slam poet, who’s talking back to Estelle Lewis, the original playwright behind “Sappho: A Tragedy in Five Acts,” and also talking with Malaya, a Filipina playwright who’s writing a new interpretation of her. Here’s a brief clip from a recent Zoom reading of the play, featuring Tiara Ellen as Sappho.
Tiara Ellen: “They want me to be theirs. But theirs I cannot be. A tragic poet who kills herself over a boy? For a woman, I could be driven over a cliff, I guess. But I have too much to live for. I am breaking the bounds of spoken word, of music, of art. I am a mother, a lover, a dancer, a singer, a skilled musician. I am The Tenth Muse, goddamnit! I’m already immortal. You playwrights, stop making me into your plaything.”
AS: All of my writing has a consciousness around context and representation and social justice, you know, to kind of throw a bunch of different themes around. But I definitely was asking, “Why now? What is it about Sappho, now, today?” You know, when we were in the midst of the pandemic and I was digging in with researching about Sappho, I also was haunted by knowing that representation is important right now. And, you know, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter with George Floyd’s killing and Breonna Taylor, and so some of that made its way into my free-writing and into my poetry. Well I felt like, I don’t know if we want to see another Sappho that is just another try on Sappho from Greece. You know, I feel like I want to write a character that I want to see, who is a strong poet, who is a mother, who is aging, who’s a woman of color. A lot of these are me talking about myself, in fact, so I could relate to many features. And I didn’t see discussion of her as a mother. There is nothing about her being a mother in the Estelle Lewis play, and very little when we talk about the mythology of Sappho as a mother. I’m a mother of a toddler now. It doesn’t jive with the sexiness of–I think people don’t–have a hard time equating. I remember, before I had my child, I was a lot more into my own personal persona as a performer, because I also was a spoken word performer. And, you know, I could relate to this performance element of the character that I’m writing of Sappho. And Sappho–why can’t we reconcile her mothering, with her being this poet who wrote erotic and beautiful poems, but also wrote a lot of other kinds of poems? You know, about life, and wrote about her daughter. Also, why can’t we reconcile her age? And me being someone in my 40s? You know, outing my age. Also, women experience feeling more invisible as we get older, and that we’re not allowed to be those out-in-the-public-eye people. So I really wanted to see somebody that I don’t get to see in Sappho. And then also, obviously, her queer relationships, her loves, and why does it have to be either she’s gay, or either she’s actually straight or, you know, what is bisexuality? That’s another conversation that Maya and I had. We don’t see representation in popular media or in theater that accurately can represent what that is, and what does that mean? I felt that she loved and was enamored and was consumed by her female loves. And maybe she had these relations with men. You know, she had a daughter, you know–I’m exploring that, you know. It doesn’t have to mean either/or, or she was, you know, living a lie, or, you know, all of the dramatic projections that we tend to put upon people who have loved different genders.
LC: We don’t have to choose!
EB: This entire episode is just Leesa screaming into her microphone.
LC: I’m sorry for the editing.
EB: But I do–I mean, I love what Aimee is saying there. And we have had listeners who have reached out and said, “As a bisexual woman, as a part of this queer community, that feels underrepresented or feels ignored or erased–that we as a podcast are saying, ‘We don’t know if Sappho was a lesbian, because we do not–‘”
LC: Well we know she was a Lesbian, like a capital “L” Lesbian.
LC: But it didn’t even exist. And I think this conversation is still happening all the time. And we get notes from people online saying that they don’t feel like they have a right to participate in Sappho, in the podcast. They’re like, “Oh, I’m bisexual, but.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, ‘but’?”
LC: One of the hosts is bisexual. This is your story, too. And, you know, bisexual is like, what the biggest part of the LGBTQ community–like it’s the most people, and they’re so excluded. So, I feel so strongly about this.
EB: But, as you should. As you should.
LC: But it’s really great, and it’s been really great diving into Sappho. And I hope that our bisexual listeners now have an arsenal to, like, go in and have these conversations with people who would use Sappho’s name to exclude them in the, I guess, sapphic community. Aimee has been finding a lot of inspiration in the fact that Sappho was also from an island, like her. Just a quick note, she does mention the recent terrorist attack in Atlanta in the upcoming clip.
AS: What just happened in Atlanta is important to recognize as part of the context of the world that we’re writing into and putting work into. I cannot ignore what’s happening in the world. What happens, you know, the fetishization of women’s bodies, of Asian women’s bodies, of, you know, the way that it’s impacted women of color, all of the current events regarding race and gender and violence, and how people have been dehumanized. I think it’s just very important to recognize as part of our context and what we produce work into. You know, I was struck with, you know, Lesbos as an island. And, you know, I did research on Lesbos itself, and saw the BBC documentary, I got to see it, I thought was like, you know, really helpful to get grounded. And, you know, my familiarity with islands in terms of my own other writing projects, and my interest as an educator, are islands that have been colonized and have undergone conquest, which islands have tended to be over time. My most familiar backgrounds would be the Philippines and Cuba, particularly, are two island locations that are in the mix. But I definitely found it important, for me, you know, in terms of my subject matter, is I’m always interested in the colonization of islands, the tendency for people to–in terms of through the gaze of the colonizer. And I think there’s some relation with how we’ve seen Sappho exoticized and, you know, her story keeps being rewritten, her identity keeps being changed. There’s something that’s there, that I’m exploring, being somebody who myself, I’m Filipino. I’ve written a lot about the ways in which Filipinos were seen and treated as savage, as uncivilized. And then you can even look at some parallels with other island cultures, as well, sort of the place that is in all of our imagination. You know, what has happened to many islands.
EB: Maya and Aimee’s plan is to start rehearsals for their show in December 2021 or January 2022, and have it start running in January or February 2022. So get your plane tickets to San Francisco now. I know I will be.
LC: Be right back, just booking my tickets.
EB: While Leesa’s getting those plane tickets, we’ll be right back after a quick word from our sponsors.
LC: We spoke to Vanessa Stovall, an independent scholar and musician. She first got interested in the Classics by watching “Sailor Moon.”
EB: Me too, and when I played Sailor Moon in the school yard.
LC: Ellie, you’re always just so gay. And then she discovered Sappho in middle school after reading Homer and not really digging his treatment of Helen. Same.
Vanessa Stovall: So I guess that was the other thing that drew me to Sappho, was figuring out she was a lyre player. At that point in middle school, I’d already been playing the harp for two or three years. So I was just like, “Oh, cool. Like, you know, this is my predecessor, like this ancient harpist. Great, perfect.” I didn’t even realize, like, a lot of her queer identity. I was just like, “Excellent. Like my musical master, this is perfect.” I’ve been a professional harpist since, pretty much, then being a teenager, that’s what I did for being able to afford Christmas presents for the fam. A long history with classical music, then kind of stopped in undergrad, because I was studying romanticism, actually, for a year. I like went on this whole romantic bent. And that was a lot of fun. But also I just like, disagreed with a lot of like big 19th century writers and philosophers, but also a lot of what they had to say about music and other things. And it was kind of frustrating. I like then kind of had a slump in the musical area for myself. And it wasn’t ’til I was finished with college, I got more into the folk scene, just like around the town I lived, which is very ironically called Olympia. I went to college at Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. Getting more into, like, the folk/blues/punk scene there. I was just like, “Oh, yeah, like, right, like, I can play folk harp, now. I can do like all these different types of things.” And then I interrupted that to go to grad school at Columbia. But it was actually my first year. I was very bored. And I was just like, “What, what is there? Where is interesting for me? What can I do?” And I was very lucky that I just happened to sit in on a talk that John Franklin was doing at University of Vermont, who studies the ancient lyre and its whole history. And he was giving a performance of both some of Sappho, but then also some of his lyrics from Euripides’s “Helen” that he had written stuff for. And I was just like, “Oh, this is great. Like, I love this.” But then I started asking him a bunch of questions about, like, more folk harp techniques, or like other ways in which he could have integrated that. And he was just like, “You should play the lyre!” He ended up doing a lyre camp in Tarquinia, in summer of 2019. There’s just this group called Euterpe, which is named after the muse of music. But for Sappho herself, like, I just think it’s great. She’s very easy to sing along to. She does a lot of fun stuff with her meter that’s sort of easy to just sort of apply your own melodies to, and your own harmonies and stuff. It reminds me a lot of the times of, like, I guess, like the queer version of, like, you know, that stereotypical guy on campus who would always be playing “Wonderwall,” like with his guitar. There’s just something nice about just being able to just sort of like, lie down, laze, like, strum out some chords, and just be like, you know, “I’m sad. Someone looked really fine the other day, she had flowers in her hair, I am depressed.” And I’m like, ugh, universal. I love this.
EB: I’m trying so hard not to be like, “This one time at lyre camp.” I also am like–
LC: Her stories would be way more fun, but also kind of similar to Alyson Hannigan’s. Let’s be real.
EB: Yes. It’s like, “Goddamnit, Mom, why didn’t you send me to lyre camp?” No, I love you, Mom. It’s okay. Did you ever go to theater camp or like a music camp, Leesa?
LC: Camps like that aren’t really so much of a thing in Australia. We do this thing where we stay with our parents over the summer. Because our parents actually get holidays. I know these are foreign concepts in America where you just send your kids away to camp and just like continue to work.
EB: Such a concept. No, well, for me it was–my mom was a stay-at-home mom. So she was always home with us. So for me, camp was like a luxury when I was in high school. Like I paid for it myself with the money that I had made from working at this fast food burger place. Because I was like, “I just really want to go to theater camp.”
EB: And so I like paid to go to theater camp for two weeks. And I vividly remember a gay theater boy playing “Wonderwall” on the steps. It was a theater camp at Fordham University in New York. So that was–that’s bringing back memories, Vanessa, bringing back memories.
LC: I mean, I’m just listening to those words, which is, “I’m sad. Someone looked fine the other day, I’m depressed.” And I just imagine you singing them, Ellie.
LC: Just you.
EB: “Everyone, listen. I’m sad.” Yeah, Vanessa really speaks to my soul. Vanessa also told us some really cool things about the importance of vowels in Ancient Greek song.
LC: Oh, Ellie. Ellie, you live for this!
EB: I truly do. Hit me with those vowels, Vanessa.
VS: Yeah, there’s a lot of this, like, idea of vowels sort of holding a lot of the sounds of the gods. A lot of the intimations of calling out to the gods can bring in a lot of different types of sounds. And like, we hear that with a lot of the words like “aei,” which is “forever,” or the words for singing “aiden” or “aidos” for the singer. And so there is this lot of, like, stretching and sort of theorizing about what the vowels represent. And that was something I really loved as I was writing at the start of the pandemic, because like–especially the Greek alphabet, like it starts and ends in these very big vowel sounds. I want to play with that, especially thinking about consonants and how those come to be, and how much consonants and vowels also play and stick with our memories in different ways. And I think that’s a very key point in music. We love our lyrics. We love the words that they can give us, but there’s also sort of this concept of the voice, and being able to speak with that voice and with that authority. I think that often comes from vowels, in a lot of ways. Like I sort of said in my piece, my first sounds are vowels. We don’t, you know, pop out just like enunciating all these different things because we don’t know language yet. Vowels are very, you know–we hear vowels from other animals, we hear vowels from all around the natural world. And so I think there’s also this idea, this broader sort of concept of sympathy. Yeah, that’s what the Stoics always believed. The sort of concept of sympathy, which a lot of folks don’t like looking at when they talk about the Stoics, because I think a lot of folks think of it as, like, very woo-woo-y in different ways. But like, no, the Stoics believed in this idea of cosmic sympathy, that we all sort of feel together and understand each other in different ways. And so, I think vowels are a very big key and central part of that. I think that also goes back to like a lot of more Ancient Greek religious ideas, too, about being more connected with nature makes you more connected with the gods. But also in–I think that’s like one of the main appeals of the aulos, the instrument that’s directly opposite of the lyre and the kithara on barbiton. The aulos is known as the mourning instrument. It’s the instrument of lamentation. It’s the instrument that is also, at times, supposed to sound a lot like a woman wailing. And so it’s–you have this, like, long, drawn out–it’s like a very sad bagpipe, is sort of the best way I would describe its sound. But it’s awesome. I love it. Whereas you have, like, the lyre, with all of its lovely, fine shadings and articulation. So I think there’s an interesting element of sort of vowels and consonants that also plays in the instruments themselves, and how we respond to them.
EB: It was just making me think about acapella, because, you know, like, I’ve done acapella for my whole life.
EB: When you arrange an acapella song, if you want it to be quiet, you use an “m,” like, “mmm.” And if you want it to be like a little louder you use an “ooh.” And the “aahs” in acapella, like, that’s when you do the big end chorus and you have everyone on a high chord like, “Aaaaah!” Like so, I completely–it makes a lot of sense. Yeah, it makes sense to me. You know, the Greeks have been doing it forever, and we’re just copying the Greeks, you know.
LC: Completely. And now you can add this to your gerund conversation.
EB: Exactly. Me arranging a Beyoncé song is just, you know, the same as Sappho using an “ah” in a Greek song.
LC: You’re exactly the same. Exactly the same. So, Vanessa told us this beautiful story about writing a poem using a Sappho translation for her best friend.
VS: One of my closest friends whose name is Forever Moon–they’re great, they’re amazing. They’re a sex educator in Washington State. And for a time, right as I was sort of coming into my own queer identity in college, Forever and I started living together. We were just roommates. We weren’t really friends before then, we just sort of knew each other. And then I was teaching for a Classics course, actually, at Evergreen, that got to go abroad. And so I was very excited to sort of, like, go out and be in Greece and Italy for the first time, and really learning more. And I’d been learning Ancient Greek at this point, too. And just really getting to, like, soak in a lot of what I loved studying. I remember just like thinking and feeling of just like, “Wow, I really miss this person that I live with, which I did not expect and like, dang.” And so while I was there, while we were on the island of Crete, we did a pottery workshop, and we were able to just use a lot of, like, different molds of a lot of Minoan artifacts and vases to imprint our own pieces. So I made Forever a little moon pendant, and on the back of it I had asked the potter how to say “forever” in modern Greek, because I didn’t know. And so I was like, “Cool. Okay, yeah, nice. Like ‘panta,’ ever, like, ‘gia.'” I was like, “I guess that means ‘for.'” I don’t know, modern Greek. I should. And so I carved that sort of into the back for them. And I made it in the shape of a crescent moon, since their last name is Moon. But I felt really awkward about it. I was like, “This is weird. Like, let me just give you this weird like little pendant I made.” I felt awkward until I got back home, finally, and was like unpacking my things, and they just kind of kicked my door open and was just like, “Hi. Don’t leave again. We’re friends now.” And I was like, “Oh, cool. Dope. Here. I made you a pendant.” And so we became a lot, lot closer.
LC: This is how I behave.
EB: You’re like, “I love you so much. Here’s a pendant.”
LC: How many gifts have I sent you?
EB: I’ve gotten so many gifts from you. It’s great. I mean, as a friend of yours, it’s nice. It’s a nice level of intimacy to–and I feel like also as queer women, or just women in general, I always love being, like, super intimate with my friends.
LC: Yeah, I just–when she was telling this story, I was just like, “Oh my god, I feel so seen. So great.” Other people do awkward shit, too. I love it!
VS: And so I got this idea to write–or rewrite–a Sappho poem, and just present it live without telling Forever, which was a fun thing. And so I wrote this poem called “SAPPHO FRAGMENT #45 (with an addendum).” That just took Fragment 45, which is very short. It’s just three words, “as thelet ummes.” And then the addendum was, I just put “gia panta” on it. So it’s this like very ancient, Aeolic Greek and this modern Greek just mashed up together. And I took those five words, and each five of them, I defined them in different ways to just very slowly, like, sort of hook in and talk about this arc of, like, Forever and I’s friendship growing, and like slowly becoming one.
LC: So Ellie, I know I sent you all these gifts, but I’m still waiting on your translation of one of Sappho’s poems for me, interwoven with your own poem and a song, or maybe that’s a job for Alyse. I don’t know. Maybe you can collaborate on that together, I’m not sure.
EB: Alyse and I will pull it together.
LC: Thank you.
EB: It’ll be your finale gift.
LC: Thank you.
EB: It’s just so beautiful. I love–I love friends. I love friendship. And I love this, like, beautiful, beautifully intimate thing between two people.
LC: And I think it’s great for Sappho, too, because it feels like, you know, of course, some of the people Sappho wrote about were her lovers, but I think primarily, like a lot of what Sappho wrote about was friendship, and like that intimacy, and it doesn’t have to be about sex.
VS: I got a really cool opportunity to be a part of an acoustic archaeology exhibit in Berlin. But that’s when I composed the piece “(a lunar tune),” which was on my Medium, which I have the long commentary and talked about. But it’s a sequel to “SAPPHO FRAGMENT #45 (with an addendum),” which is why I had to write a commentary. ‘Cause I was like, “Right, I guess none of you guys knew, or were present, for this other poem that I wrote that was very long.” But it was nice because I got to use a much more informed, classical sort of perspective than I have in the past, to talk about music and sort of space and my own philosophies around what I think tuning is and how it relates to life. But also just, like, friendship, and I finally got to end it with Sappho 34. I was like, “My Greek’s good enough now! All right, I can write this.” So, that’s the long tale of it all. “Asteres men amfi kalan selannan / aps apekruptoisi faennon eithos / oppota plethoisa malista lampe / yan // (arguria).” Which is: “Stars around the blooming moon / Slip back their luminescing forms whenever / In her fullness her light pours forth on / The earth // (silvery).”
EB: What a beautiful way to wrap up this episode about Sappho and how Sappho can be performed. I just love this idea of the stars and the moon together. I’m trying not to do too much musical theater, but, you know, stars and the moon.
LC: I know, I know. I was there.
LC: Yes, we are very sorry, everyone. You’re not sorry. You love this.
EB: We’re not sorry.
LC: You’re still here. It’s Episode 11. You’re still here.
EB: You’re still here.
LC: You know what you’re in for.
EB: I just love how there’s so many different ways to interpret Sappho. There’s so many ways to create art from Sappho. And Vanessa is one great example, and all of the other performers and artists we’ve talked to in this episode, and in episodes prior to this episode. It excites me that Sappho is still quite relevant today, and can continue to share.
LC: Yeah, and think about what’s to come. We get a lot of visual art on social media, from people who are just, like, drawing Sappho, or drawing things that inspire them about Sappho. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to show them on a podcast, but check us out on social media. We usually repost them. She just continues to inspire people, you know, 2,500 years later, it’s amazing.
EB: Until next time, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Tracey Walters: It would be nice for Sappho to move beyond the stuffiness of Classics–the classicists’ circle. Sorry. Classicists.
Vanessa Stovall: But the main sort of, like, underlying hook, if you want, which is like, there’s some horrors in this house. Like I’m like, we see, like finally, the hetaira, they’ve come into the oikos, like the place they’re not actually supposed to be.
Marguerite Johnson: And so, I think it’s really empowering to see Aboriginal Australians taking active control of what is such a white, elite tradition.
Katherine Blouin: We cannot pretend like what we do is disconnected from today’s world. And that’s why our disciplines are not colonial products.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our final episode of season one will be released on the 22nd of April. We are also hosting a live season wrap-up, which is going to be so much fun, on the 24th of April, featuring Kristin Russo from Buffering the Vampire Slayer; Liv Albert from our very amazing holiday special and Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!, of course; Leigh Pfeffer from History Is Gay; and a performance on the lyre from Vanessa Stovall, who you heard on this episode. You can purchase tickets online, and we would love to see you there. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 118.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon by going to www.patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you so much for new patron this week, Laurie. We’re so grateful for your support. As always, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Music is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. A special thanks to Jade Esteban Estrada, Maya Herbsman, Aimee Suzara, and Vanessa Stovall for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section. You can read Vanessa’s whole poem, “(a lunar tune),” on Medium. We’ll post a link in the show notes.
EB: And now, Fragment 118.