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By Way of Apology for Our Long Absence, We Give You a Treat! Poet, Professor and Fitness Guru: Stephanie Kartalopoulos

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Sweetly Disturbed's Poppycakes: Like me, you grew up in a Greek household where food was likely at least as much a language as the language itself. It represented so many things to us: comfort, love, health, forgiveness, a way to address stress. We began talking over our shared Greekness, poetry-love but also the fact that we both struggled with a weight problem. I recall specifically reading something you wrote about having to learn anew  about healthy eating and what it had meant and would now mean for you. Can you say more about that?
Stephanie Kartalopoulos: ...Well, when I first started thinking about 'healthy eating,' I was on a plane ride back to Missouri from my happiest "home"--Boston--after a weekend of visiting friends. I asked myself why I was in my 'happy place' and I felt lethargic, tired, and like I was dragging all the time instead of happy, energized, and full of life? A thought crept into my head that maybe as much as this cultural connection of food (...with comfort, or ease, or calm in the face of stress, or communion...) was true to my upbringing, there could be another truth: the "what" of food and the "how" of the body. This is purely beyond culture (which can be hard to really think about if you were raised very deeply embedded in the ways that your cultural background and your upbringing can help inform a sense of personal identity). This is biological and, to a degree, psychological. 
As I asked myself this question, I realized, at the same time, that "survival mode" in a very intense semester of coursework (my last for my doctoral program) meant eating to put my mind at ease enough to focus on intense reading, writing papers, studying for language exams, preparing doctoral exam reading lists, and grading my students' work. It didn't mean linking *what* I was eating to its *function* in my body's healthfulness. While this link didn't come in such an intense and articulate way in that moment, I knew on that airplane ride that it was worth seeing what would happen if I transformed food from culture & comfort into nutrition and a way of advocating for my body to function really quite well. So I decided to take a month "vacation" from the foods that had propelled me through my semester--mostly flour-based or sugar-based--and to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and foods that were as fresh and vibrant as possible.
One month turned into 13 months in which I lost a bit over 120 lbs. As I focused more and more on nutrition and how my body felt with the food that I was eating--as opposed to how body and spirit used to feel when I was eating first from a place of comfort--my understanding of food changed. It expanded. Its way of manifesting cultural values became as true as its way of catapulting biological, physical healthfulness. I found myself becoming more aware of how food was playing a role in my life in different moments. Was I celebrating something with a friend or loved one, or was it a holiday? Scott made a super special bourbon pecan pie for Thanksgiving? Great. A couple of bites would allow me to participate in the celebration but wouldn't affect me since I knew I wanted to be at the gym very early the next morning an intense spin class. A guy I met invited me out on a date? Wonderful! Exciting! An intense workout and a very clean, healthy eating plan earlier in the day would make sure that I feel a sense of immediate accomplishment and that I am thinking good enough thoughts about myself and what my body, mind, and spirit are capable of. I wouldn't need the glass (or two...let's admit it...) of wine on the date to calm me nerves. And if I could "have at it" for two spin classes, or an hour on the elliptical trainer and a free weights workout--and if I could find satisfaction in the spinach omelette I made for lunch--then I didn't have to depend on whether or not this guy liked me enough to give me a hug, or whether his body language gave me the "hey I really want to see you again" message. 
While I may have lost a whole person's flesh, really, I gained a new person's coping mechanisms for life. 
SD: Loathe as I am to admit it, due to our distant geography, we primarily keep in touch through social media.  Periodically, you post the same quote from Jorrie Graham. What inspires the draw to that particular passage?
SK:...The quote reads like this: "This is the force of faith. Nobody gets what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed." And it comes from her poem "Prayer," which opens her poetry collection NEVER. I love that poem, and that quote, in particular.
The deeper and deeper that that poem has settled inside me, the more it's revealed something that seems so true to me: a lot of times we seem to look at wholeness or purity through nostalgia. We have to "return" to an innocence from childhood, or a picture of innocence and honesty that we believe we had and lost. Or our ideas of happiness, fulness, and wholeness look in our minds awfully similar to many memories we have had of times that we last felt a freedom in our spirit. But what if happiness, joy, innocence, wholeness, etc. don't look like any one memory, age, or time from our lives in particular? What if the moment we encounter that feeling it is recognizable to us--not because it feels like the way we felt that other time...five years ago...way back when..., but because the feeling itself is entirely unadorned, straight-forward, free, and recognizable to us because we invite that feeling into our experience of the present moment without obligation or nostalgia? 
I think this is where change comes in and where wholeness comes in. I think change needs to come in our mindsets and expectations. Instead of requiring wholeness to look, feel, sound, smell like anything we know, we can instead invite it to come into our space in its own way. We can choose to believe that, if we are without expectation, as happiness and fulfillment arrive in our present moment and if we are fully living in the present, we have access to freedom and joy. And satisfaction. And we can find ourselves so filled up with the experience of that that there is no need for urgency, or worry, or disappointment. 
I post this quote a lot on social media when I want to give myself a gentle, caring reminder--and hopefully reach out to friends of mine who might be going through something stressful or worrisome--that freedom and joy and fulfillment are always within our reach. Wholeness and innocence are always accessible.
SDWhat is your first vivid memory of being drawn to poetry?  Do you recall how you discovered that was something that you wanted to do?

SK: The first poem I remember reading and taking seriously was Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife." I was assigned to "teach" that poem in class as part of my final project in my last year of my honors English class during my senior year of high school. I didn't quite know why it meant something to me, but it did. Almost a year later I found myself buying a book in which all of Anne Sexton's collections appeared, and I would sit in the hallway of my college dorm in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep just holding that book in my hands and then randomly reading poems. I think the moody, angsty 18 year old in me--so scared of the world and so convinced that I was just making mistake after mistake in my life--appreciated that someone could write all the "confessional" things that filled Sexton's poems and transform them into something beautiful and something that could reach forward about 40 years from their inception to touch the life of a girl sitting in a hallway in 1996. I knew I wanted to write poems when I read Sexton's work, but aside from writing these sad things in my journal where I unleashed all of my angst and the kind of confusion that comes with growing up and figuring out who you are, I didn't quite know what to do with it or what to do with myself.
A few years later, maybe around 1998 or 1999, I was in the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in the middle of Harvard Square and I reached out for Agha Shahid Ali's THE COUNTRY WITHOUT A POST OFFICE (it had recently been published and was on display in the store). When I opened the book and found the poem "Farewell," it was just so beautiful and filled me with so much emotion and such a strong, immediate response that for the first time I really understood what it meant to write poems, and why I wanted to write poems. I wanted someone else in some other bookstore to one day open a book, read one of my poems, and feel a little less alone, a little less misunderstood, a little more confident that fully experiencing life--in all of its highs and lows--was possible. I knew, as I read Shahid's work, that I wanted to write poems that built bridges between what they conveyed and the way people feel and experience their lives.
SD: I know that you run and teach a variety of fitness classes. Did you grow up with exercise as a focus?  
SK: Oh heavens no!!! When I first started shifting my ideas about food, I decided to get on a regular exercise routine. I started with what sounds like the "reasonable" thing people do--three days a week at the gym (I had also, at that point, recently joined a gym in my town). After a month of diligently going to the gym three days/week (which pretty much meant half an hour on the elliptical machine and then anywhere from 6-9 strength exercises that I learned from watching clips of exercise shows on youtube and on hulu.com that used free weights or even just body weight resistance), I turned this into 4 days/week at the gym and switched off between the elliptical machine and the exercise bike. After a month, I made this 5 days per week and (at least) one of those days had to be a group fitness classes. Fitness classes intimidated me so much--I was carrying on way too much weight, I was shy, I don't particularly enjoy being called out if I am doing something wrong--but I liked the exercise bike so I thought a spin class would be OK (I had a membership with an all-female gym in Boston, where I lived before I moved to Missouri, and I had some good experiences with spin classes there, so this seemed like an easy thing to include as part of a healthy gym "habit"--a way to lessen the intimidation through something I already knew to some extent).
Bit by bit, this way of adding fitness goals and challenges to what I had already been doing just sort of took a life on its own. I've challenged myself in new ways, again and again--I started taking this class called Body Flow, which is sort of a yoga, pilates, and tai chi mix--as a counterpoint to all of the cardio I was doing. I started running to add self-directed fitness, and I began running half-marathons. I even got certified to teach Body Flow and have been teaching a few classes per week for the last year. Last fall I completed my first marathon. Over the last month and a half I have started to get serious about weight training and strength routines in my workouts. For the next year, I am focused on gaining speed in my running and not completing half-marathons like I have for the last 2 years but really pushing my pace to meet specific time goals in my running. I've also found my way into a regular yoga practice and have enjoyed getting deeper and deeper into that. Who knows what is next. 
I've done all of this myself. I think everyone's different, but I tend to be propelled by the goals that feel right to me--whatever just "feels right" or somehow seems to stick in that deep happy place that houses my gut instincts. Some people were brought up with fitness and athleticism as part of their goals and ways of living. I had to filter through whole worlds of possible goals and find the ones that seem right to me--and then find a way of sticking to them. Sometimes that's meant posting facebook status updates related to gym/running/Body Flow/yoga--the accountability that comes from telling people what you are doing and what you are going to do can be a really great motivator. Other times it's meant paying registration fees for a half marathon months in advance so that every time I try to get lazy and whiny and stay on my sofa instead of go for a run I look at a confirmation message in my e-mail account and I remember that I spent all this money for a race I want to run. I can't run all those miles without taking my training run. And other times it's meant budgeting money, when I am feeling like my finances are tight, down to the penny to make sure that I can afford the yoga class I said I wanted to go to--and then reminding myself, when I am faced with a super special treat at the grocery store, that I chose yoga over that thing I am holding in my hand. And then again, if I am exhausted on a Monday afternoon, reminding myself that I chose to schedule my time and money to make my favorite yoga class possible and that how I feel now is really nothing compared to what in head, heart, and body that yoga class will give me access to--whether I am energized, exhausted, cheerful, or grumpy.
SD:  Discipline. In all modes of your life, you rock it.  I struggle with it. The way you wear it looks so easy on you. Is it?  Do you ever just "not feel like it?'
How do you muster up the muster up?
SK: Discipline is a killer, and I can get so lazy and so incredibly Undisciplined it's ridiculous. Inside me there is just a lazy kid who wants to flop around on the sofa and watch movies and eat oreos. (Seriously. I love oreo cookies. I can't buy a package of them because half of it will be gone within a few hours. And I am not joking.) But I am also very aware that there are so many things I dream about and want to achieve in this world and that no one is responsible for manifesting that except me. If I am responsible, then I have to make it happen. I'm allowed to grumble and whine my whole way through if I want to, but it doesn't mean that I can allow myself to not do something. There is no magic fairy to wave a wand. There are no ruby slippers for me to click three times. There's no genie in a bottle. 
...and there is no instruction manual. There's no good or bad way to get something done or to achieve some goal, there' only what I learn from what I am doing. Sometimes those lessons have meant recovering from running injuries. Other times they have meant feeling the regret that comes with those days where I have indulged my inner lazy kid and not gone for a run. (Let me tell you: regret, for me, means that I whine more and I feel sorry for myself more. It's not a pretty picture. I can be such a baby. It's not the version of myself that I would want anyone looking at a match.com dating profile of me to possibly see.) And sometimes it's meant--especially since I have come to realize just how horribly certain foods make my stomach feel (I try to keep to as clean as possible and as "paleo" as possible a nutrition plan) even though so many of these foods can taste so damn good--living through the horrible agony that comes in the couple of days after eating something I shouldn't. 
But the "lessons" have also meant making regular plans with a friend (who I met through the gym) for 7 AM Wednesday morning intervals workouts and making an amazing "she's part of my entire life" friend from someone who I originally knew just through a fitness context. They've also meant the feeling and reward that comes with crossing the finish line at the end of not only a half-marathon but a route I created for a Saturday morning run and just feeling that immediate sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching a goal for that moment in time. Or sticking crow pose for longer than the last time I tried it in a yoga class. The lessons go both ways. We have to somehow find a way of capturing the lessons so that we can refer to them in the future when we are faced with decisions to make.
Thank you, Stephanie for all of the time and care taken to give us a most thoughtful interview. 

 

 

Stephanie Kartalopoulos is a poet, professor, runner, yogi, and certified Les Mills Body Flow fitness instructor who lives in the Midwest. Her poems appear in national literary journals that include Phoebe, Harpur Palate, Columbia, 32 Poems, and Barn Owl Review, among others. Stephanie just completed a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and will begin teaching at Kansas State University in August, 2013. She has two cats, entirely too many books on her shelves, three big pots perfect for making winter soups, two much-loved yoga mats, six half-marathon finisher medals, and one full marathon finisher medal.