Sylvia Kantaris (1936-2021)

Sylvia Kantaris (1936-2021)

Philip Gross pays tribute to his friend, the poet Sylvia Kantaris, who has died at the age of 85:

“Sylvia Kantaris was never one to be contained by definitions – not even now, with the announcement of her death at the age of 85. With a pride in her working class Peak District roots, travelling the world with (her husband's) Greek name, she studied and lived for a decade in Australia, publishing her first collection there, before settling in the far west of Cornwall in 1974. She balanced a doctorate in French Surrealism with a wry, pugnacious common sense; she could switch into Derbyshire accent at a moment's notice to deflate any hint of poetic pretension. At the same time, she could end a poem with an image of memorable sensitivity, and her creative reclamations of her family history are shot through with affection and respect.

“She was a feminist writer whose ‘tenth muse’, in her poem of that name, was lumpishly, exasperatingly male; the robust erotic charge that powered her poetry from the start had no truck with sentiment or romance. Her later collection Lad’s Love laid bare the most personal of material, a middle-aged woman’s affair with a much younger man, with surprising tenderness and wit. As with her bare-knuckled engagement across sexual battle-lines with poet and novelist D.M.Thomas in their collaboration News From the Front, the wide-world issues of politics and impending nuclear destruction are always there to give perspective to the personal.

“That book and a later, quite differently-charged collaboration with myself in The Air Mines of Mistila led some women writer friends to ask ‘Why do you do it (and how), this writing with men?’ Her answer, in an article in Stand magazine, still bears rereading in this later age of gender politics, for its honesty, generosity and confidence. For myself, it was a gift: the discovery that true creative collaboration, the kind that breeds its own dynamic beyond what either partner might have planned, comes not from like-mindedness but the holding of vital differences in tension… whether that of a combat sport, or of a dance. Part of that dance was the ability to move back and forth between roles, with her writing the male with as much conviction as the female part.

“Though she lost all appetite for the public world of poetry – nothing of hers was published in this millennium – she was always a writer, not least in her lively, and preferably handwritten, correspondence with her writer friends. (Much of this is in the archives of Exeter University.) Word has it that there are unpublished poems. As always with Sylvia, there may be surprises to come.”


Sylvia Kantaris (1936-2021)

Sylvia Kantaris was born in the Derbyshire Peak District. After studying French at the University of Bristol, she moved to Australia in 1962, where she was a Tutor in French at the University of Queensland while studying for her MA and PhD, both on French Surrealism. She lived in Helston, Cornwall, for the next 50 years. She tutored for the Open University and for the University of Exeter’s Extra-Mural Department; was Cornwall's first Writer in the Community in 1986; and published many essays on Dada and French Surrealism. She published seven book-length collections of poetry, including three with Bloodaxe.

Her first book, Time & Motion (1975), was published in Australia under the name Sylvia Kantarizis, but she contracted her then husband’s Greek name to Kantaris for her later UK publications. This was followed by The Tenth Muse (Peterloo Poets, 1983), News from the Front, with D.M. Thomas (Arc, 1983) and The Sea at the Door (Secker & Warburg, 1985). Her Bloodaxe titles were The Air Mines of Mistila, with Philip Gross (1988), which was a Poetry Book Society Choice; Dirty Washing: New & Selected Poems (1989); and Lad's Love (1993).

Wikipedia and other sources claim that a final collection, Lost Property, was published by Bloodaxe in 1998, but while scheduled at the time this was never delivered and never published. Her literary papers are held in the archives of the University of Exeter, which awarded her an honorary DLitt in recognition of her literary achievements in 1989. More information on her life and work can be found at

Her son, Geoffrey Kantaris, Professor of Latin American Culture at the University of Cambridge, kindly provided this update:

“Perhaps the only pertinent and brief thing I could say about her final years as a ‘clandestine’ poet, is that she continued to write abundantly (her house is full of papers and scraps of poems) but, as you know, she lost interest in publishing, as if the writing had been a compulsion for which the desire to be a public persona became less and less relevant. She has left a manuscript she regarded as complete. She also wrote hundreds of letters well into the ephemeral age of email. She did regularly give permission for anthologies and translations of her poetry, and was still giving these out up to her recent illness. You may know that the University of Exeter already has a number of her papers (which they asked for and she sent them as a result of her Honorary Doctor of Letters), especially correspondence with other major poets. I guess I'll see what can be salvaged from what she left and if they are interested in "completing" their collection. Her kind of relationship to the materiality of pen and paper is a fast-dying mode of poiesis.”

Sylvia Kantaris, born Grindleford, Derbyshire, 9 January 1936; died, Hayle, Cornwall, 19 November 2021

[01 December 2021]

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