Poetic License Revoked
by Joel Yanofsky, Montréal Gazette, 20 November 2000
Poets aren't like you and me. So while it's true most of us have tried our hand at verse, most of us stop a month or two after our first failed love affair. This is, generally speaking, a good time to call it quits, listen to your guidance counsellor or mother and become, oh, I don't know, a dentist. But grownup poets, bless their anachronistic hearts, persevere, long after it is clear that no one, statistically speaking, will ever read them. They are also - aside from occasional suicidal bad examples like Sylvia Plath - optimists and visionaries. They keep dreaming up schemes to draw attention to their work.
Like Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky's plan to sell poetry in supermarkets, next to the cola and granola. Another plan put poems on buses. Poetry slams thrived in bars for a time, but were too stupid to take seriously. Ditto performance art.
But what we haven't had in a while is a good literary hoax. This is the story of such a hoax. It is also the story of Mel Heft, a recently retired Westmount dentist, who posed as a reclusive, celebrated Greek poet for a while and got his picture in a book and in the newspaper, which is all he really wanted in the first place.
Andreas Karavis is the poet in question. His biography is that of a humble fisherman from the island of Crete who has become a national treasure, celebrated for his spare but spirited view of the world. His biography is also a figment of the lively imagination of David Solway, a Hudson poet and Karavis's ostensible English translator.
A figment that keeps growing. Karavis's "work" has appeared in Matrix, The Antigonish Review and Atlantic magazine. A year ago, he was featured in an essay in a series in Books in Canada on Great Authors of Our Time. The essay was written by Solway.
Then, earlier this fall, two books by Karavis appeared in translation, published by Montreal's Vehicule Press. The first, Saracen Island, is a collection of poems, the second, An Andreas Karavis Companion, is a selection of letters, extracts and more poems from Karavis's notebooks. The translator and editor for both books is Solway.
The inside joke might have stayed inside if poet Carmine Starnino, in an article in this paper last month, hadn't raised doubts about Karavis's existence and referred to Solway's "translations" in quotation marks. A photo of Karavis - the same one that appears in both Vehicule books - ran with the article and with the caption "Andreas Karavis, according to David Solway."
The gig finally seemed to be up, except it wasn't. A week later, a letter from Solway appeared in The Gazette claiming Starnino was misinformed, that Karavis had been in Montreal last month at an official reception hosted by the Greek consulate, and that he, Solway, had been photographed with Karavis. Another letter, from travel writer and Grecophile Fred Reed, added to the confusion by stating that Karavis, who he had met once, wasn't of Greek but Turkish descent. In a third letter, Barabara Joannides claimed her husband met Karavis several times.
Every piece of investigative journalism - which this isn't but it is as close as a book reviewer like me is likely to get - needs a reliable inside source. Starnino was mine. If this story were at all like Watergate - and, all right, it isn't - Starnino would be the John Dean of the tale, only swarthier. One of the things he failed to mention in his thought-provoking but coy Gazette article was that he has not only known about this hoax from the start, but is responsible for setting it in motion.
It was Starnino who first had the idea to take Solway's Karavis poems to the editor of Books in Canada, which he did without Solway's knowledge. "In the beginning, this was never meant to be a hoax," Starnino explained. "Solway had these poems and didn't know what to do with them and so I sent them off."
Starnino also confirmed the fact that letter writers Joannides and Reed are Solway's sister and good friend respectively. There's more: he hinted that the man photographed posing as Karavis is Solway's dentist.
Tracking down a dentist, even a retired one, doesn't require Woodward and Bernstein doggedness. Heft's old office number is in the phone book. I called and talked to his receptionist, Mimi, on the phone. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Me: I'm calling to talk to Dr. Heft about Andreas Karavis. Do you know anything about this story?
Mimi: No I don't.
Me: Did you recognize Dr. Heft's picture in the newspaper?
Mimi: Yes, I did. But I'm busy on another line.
Before she hung up, Mimi gave me her old boss's home number.
The Dentist From Westmount
For a man trying to perpetrate a hoax, Dr. Heft has one problem - he can't stop laughing. When he returned my message, he still couldn't decide who he was going to be for the interview, dentist or poet, so he settled on being both simultaneously.
"You are talking to Karavis's double," he said. "We are very close. I have his spirit within me."
Unfortunately, he doesn't have Karavis's knowledge of Greek. At last month's reception and book launch, several people addressed Heft in Greek. He had one phrase memorized for the occasion, "I am Andreas Karavis. Who are you?"
He also said Solway did not talk him into this. "A while ago, David wanted a picture of me and anybody who wants a picture of me is immediately a friend. My picture appears in the inside pages of the two books. I was promised the cover. I almost resent it."
When he remembered to, Heft also vehemently objected to this whole thing being called a hoax. "Whoever started the vicious rumour that I don't exist should be punished. It is damaging to my reputation as a poet - and a dentist," he said, forgetting himself - or selves - again and laughing.
The Poet From Hudson
All my sources told me Solway would deny everything. Instead, he confessed before I even asked a question. Over the phone, he read me a dazzingly erudite three-page letter explaining his reasons for adopting the persona of Karavis. It was as if Nixon had dropped by the Washington Post after the first few Watergate stories and spilled his guts. Where's the fun in that?
Solway also acknowledged things are getting weird. Fred Reed, for instance, insists, even in private, that Karavis exists. There have been occasions, too, where Solway's wife admitted to him she felt like a bigamist. His son worried that his father was losing the borders of his personality.
But Solway feels fine now, even rejuvenated. Karavis has given him a new voice and a new way to write poems.
"There is a personal dimension to all of this," Solway said, quoting from his letter. "I realized a few years back that as a Canadian who resisted the national drift to sameness and tameness, I would probably never manage to acquire the respect and notice of my countrymen I feel is my due. Unless I set about reinventing myself as someone else, preferably someone exotic and mysterious...
"It should be obvious that had I published these poems in a book issued under my own name the most I could have expected is a brief reclame followed by oblivion."
The curious thing is that for a man who has successfully perpetrated a hoax, Solway, unlike his dentist, wasn't laughing much. He takes all this very seriously, including his mystical connection to Karavis. In fact, Solway called me back four times after our interview, the last time to explore the possibility of denying his non-denial. Maybe it was the hoax, he seemed to be suggesting, that was the hoax. Maybe, he was pulling my leg.
Starnino, an unabashed Solway acoloyte who believes Solway is one of the best poets around, had warned me about this possibility earlier. "David is very protective of Karavis. He doesn't want to see him get rumpled."
Starnino also speculated about why Karavis has become so real to Solway: "This guy Karavis started out, like David, on the outskirts of Greek literature, unread, unloved and then he suddenly became embraced. I think David sees himself that way. There is an element of wishful thinking in David's invented story of Karavis - the majestic figure who's in every anthology, whose poems are memorized by schoolchildren."
The irony is that Karavis is now being lionized, while Solway has been mainly ignored. (In his Gazette article, Starnino made a convincing argument that Karavis was a better poet.) The hoax has evolved into a kind of highbrow practical joke - international conferences on Karavis are being planned and a long article is being prepared for a major American academic journal.
"I have been getting more publicity in the last month than I've gotten in my whole life," Solway admitted. "So one can say, in a sense, that even though I was here, I didn't exist."
And maybe he doesn't. (Come to think of it, Carmine Starnino sounds a little like a made-up name, too.) Meanwhile, Heft, the dentist, definitely is here and when I talked to him last he was still claiming to be Karavis, sort of: "I like seeing Solway adopt some of my feelings, my sensitivies. He's picked up things from me."
A typical poet, he also has a vision of the future. "I see more fame for me and Karavis," he said. "And more pictures. I hope to make the cover of one of David's books."