Interviews

On the Origins of “They Tried to Bury Us, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds”

After the Families Belong Together protests this past weekend, we talk to Greek media scholar Alexandra Boutopoulou on the widely used phrase, “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” and its poetic origins.

Defend DACA Action, Oscar Grant Plaza (aka Frank Ogawa Plaza), Oakland, 45mm lens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Defend DACA Action, Oscar Grant Plaza (aka Frank Ogawa Plaza), Oakland, 45mm lens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This weekend, Families Belong Together protests erupted throughout the United States in response to the federal government’s new policy of separating children from their parents. This odious action has brought immigration issues to the forefront once more, and the protests come fresh off a Supreme Court decision to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban.

At protests throughout the country and online, many supporters raised the now well-known phrase: “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” The long history of this phrase can be traced, more recently, to Mexican activists who used it in support of the Ayotzinapa 43 — 43 students who were disappeared in Iguala, Mexico in 2013. The anger from that moment has been attributed to a larger sentiment of frustration in Mexico against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto.

Not directly referring to seeds, this person outside a voting booth in Mexico is wearing a shirt that references the Ayotzinapa 43.
Not directly referring to seeds, this person outside a voting booth in Mexico is wearing a shirt that references the Ayotzinapa 43. (via @Andalalucha)

During difficult times, the metaphor of seeds holds particular emotional sway. The idea that those who have suffered immensely might help bear the fruits of justice later on has taken on a global resonance, one that extends over time and space to movements in the United States and Mexico, as well as throughout many Latin American communities, recalling the suffering of the Ayotzinapa 43 and their families.

The curious history of this phrase dates back even further and farther. I sat down with Greek media scholar Alexandra Boutopoulou, who is a doctoral researcher of visual social media and digital culture at the University of Sheffield. While not a professional poetry critic, the combination of her BA in Literature with her social media expertise helped shed more light on the phrase’s origins.

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An Xiao Mina: It seems that this phrase originates with the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. Can you tell me more about the original poem?

Alexandra Boutopoulou: In 1978, Christianopoulos wrote a small couplet, which was included in the collection The Body and the Wormwood (1960–1993), translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The couplet reads:

what didn’t you do to bury me

but you forgot that I was a seed

Allegedly, these lines were addressed to the Greek literary community that had strongly criticized Christianopoulos’s poetry at the time. Be that as it may, the power of the couplet lies in its very capacity to put down roots and then to bloom worldwide, especially since its creator had barely ever left the Greek borders. Indeed, Christianopoulos has been often criticized for his so-called provincialism and deliberate confinement within the limited bounds of his country of birth.

AXM: How did Christianopoulos’s work reach the wider world?

AB: His work was introduced to the English-speaking world through translations by Kimon Friar in 1979 and/or Emeritus Professor Nicholas Kostis in 1995. Although not widely known, the poetry of Dinos Christianopoulos, with its sharp and cynical aphorisms on life and love, has established him in Greece both as a significant poet and a cult figure.

Dinos Christianopoulos is a nom de plume (his birth name is Konstantinos Dimitriadis), and he was born in Thessaloniki, Greece in 1931. He made his first appearance as a poet in 1949 with the poem “Biography,” published in Thessaloniki’s literary magazine Morfes (in Greek: Μορφές). By that time, he had already started using the surname ‘Christianopoulos,’ which translates from Greek as ‘the son of Christ.’ This particular surname choice reflected the variety of Christian themes that would appear later in his work. Christianopoulos studied literature at the University of Thessaloniki, where he earned his degree in 1955.

AXM: The language of his poem has influenced so many movements today. What were his influences, and how did they affect his writing and perspective?

AB: Christianopoulos’s poetry has been influenced by the world-acclaimed poets Constantine P. Cavafy and T.S Elliot and displays a very intense but at the same time simple and personal style. As critic John Taylor noted, “sometimes charming, sometimes brutal.” Its dominant themes are the torments of love, the erotic passion leading to loneliness, the occasional sexual relationships, but also a strong criticism of society with its stereotypes.

Christianopoulos’s poetic trajectory moves along the lines of what critic George Syrimis has noted as “remorseful confessions to provocative and outspoken exhibitionism, from self-disgust and humiliation to self-acceptance and dignity, from self-denial to self-indulgence and self-knowledge.”

Though Christianopoulos used Cavafy as a model for the poetic expression of his homosexuality, he moves beyond his mentor in terms of boldness and explicitness: his poems ooze corporal sensations, emotions, nights spent searching for lovers in the parks and bold chance encounters (as Taylor has pointed out).

AXM: Was he very well recognized in Greece?

AB: According to John Taylor, in 1958 he founded the critical literary journal Diagonal (in Greek: Διαγώνιος) which was published until 1983 and was a significant incubator for poets and writers of the time. In 1962, Christianopoulos launched Diagonal Publications, which published most of his own books. His intimate relationship with his native Thessaloniki — a literary topos in all senses of the word, reflected in his poetry — kept him spellbound, and Christianopoulos spent most of his life living there, making trips to Athens and mainland Greece only when necessary, mainly for professional reasons.

In January 2012, Dinos Christianopoulos was awarded the Grand State Prize for Literature, a prestigious prize by the Greek Ministry of Culture; however, he declined to receive it, stating:

Nor will I show up, nor will I stretch my hand to take it; I want neither their prizes, nor their money

He cited his own 1979 text “Enandion” (which translates from Greek as “Against”).

AXM: He rejected the award!

AB: Having always been controversial and unconventional, Christianopoulos made very clear through his poetry that he is against all awards because they diminish human dignity, something he expressed in the first issue of Diagonal. For Christianopoulos, giving an award means to recognize the value of somebody who is my inferior; and according to him, we should cast off the need to be approved by big bosses of any kind. Receiving an award means that I do accept intellectual bosses and, at some point, we should dismiss those bosses from our lives.

AXM: Why do you think this poem, in particular, has seemed to catch on in so many places?

AB: Indeed, these lines in particular have taken such a fascinating journey, reflecting the power of Christianopoulos’s “logos” (Greek word for word/reason/speech). Especially if one considers that the poet himself had never expressed any desire to travel and discover the world outside Greece, it is amazing to realize that his poetry has reached people living so far away.

An additional remix from reporter Tina Vasquez
An additional remix from reporter Tina Vasquez (via @TheTinaVasquez)

The quick answer would be that social media played a critical role in carrying the message around. But social media was just the vehicle; in essence, I believe that these particular lines work on two levels: on the surface, they have this obvious power and wit of their own — a strong statement of resilience and continuity.

But beneath the obvious, lies the “seed” of Christianopoulos’s controversial poetry; as the artist is ready to fight against those who try to “bury” him (as mentioned before, allegedly these lines were addressed to the Greek literary community that had strongly criticized Christanopoulos’s poetry), so are those who fight for their own place in the world.

An additional remix from Gabe Ortíz
An additional remix from Gabe Ortíz (via @TUSK81)

In recent years in the US, the immigrant rights movement has taken on the phrase in the face of rising government actions against immigrants at the border, within the US, and those seeking to come to the US. With the latest, most odious decision to separate children from their parents at the border, the urgency of these times has only grown.

From tiny seeds, we can expect mighty changes.

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