By Aram Arkun
HAMILTON, N.Y. — Poet, memoirist and academic Peter Balakian has been in constant motion over the last few years, and particularly in 2015. He has crisscrossed the globe, engaging with Armenian communities in disparate places like Sydney, Buenos Aires, Aleppo, and Diyarbakir. He has published two new books this year in different genres: Ozone Journal, a volume of poetry, and Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art and Culture. He recently reflected on what this all meant personally, as well as the broader significance of the Genocide centennial commemorations.
“I think that it is fair to say that the world coverage of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide was singular and perhaps even beyond our expectations. That the New York Times would cover the Armenian Genocide with three days of two-page spreads with full color images and focus on the ethical problems of Turkish denialism really does represent a decisive move forward” in the history of the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Balakian said. He found this emblematic of the general world response, with coverage of declarations by Pope Francis, the pop culture Kardashian sisters, and various world governments amplifying the “adamant outcry about the degree of injustice that still exists in the aftermath of this large human rights crime.”
“I think that the issues are more bare and open than they have ever been,” he continued. “There is an opportunity for the Armenian community to pursue the impunity problem with Turkey, in perhaps new ways that are more creative and have more world support than before.
In 2015, Balakian gave more than 25 lectures. He took this, he said, as “a sign that the mainstream institutions want this history to be front and center on their college campuses. I’m sure this is true for many others in our field who were on campuses this year. I think it is due to an evolution and growth in the discourse that has come into its own. … Our historical past has been solidly situated in an academic, cultural and global discourse, and the issue of Turkish impunity and Turkish denialism is seen clearly as an ethical problem that needs to be dealt with properly. There is world community engagement and concern about this in a way that there never has been before.” He exclaimed that in the perspective of the course of the last 90 years, this is a really dramatic change, and although it is unclear how the next chapters will unfold, it seems that Armenians are in the strongest place they have been in decades.
His international travels over the past few years, Balakian said, “created a very rich perspective for me as a person and as a writer. I have been able to see a great deal and listen to a lot of voices.” His trips to Turkey, he continued, “have let me see the complexity of life in Turkey and gain a sense of the progressive voices which are working hard for democracy and intellectual honesty, and I’ve had a rich and rewarding time with fellow Turkish and Kurdish writers While this has been an affirmative encounter, he continued, “in traveling to eastern Turkey/Historic Armenia, I’ve had to stare at the ruins of our ancient civilization; it’s hard to take in. It’s bitter-sweet, because you also acquire a great deal of knowledge in going there; you can see, feel and smell the great buildings of the Armenian past, and you can feel the beauty and achievement of Armenian culture, and the landscape where Armenians lived.”
One of the outcomes of his trips was creative productivity. In addition to fueling his own writing, he and Dr. Rachel Goshgarian, assistant professor at Lafayette College, organized a symposium at Columbia University in February 2015 after their inspiring journey to the medieval city of Ani together in May 2014.
In the United States, Balakian said he feels that Armenian-Americans have been resourceful and creative in many ways. “There is a lot of cultural vitality in the Armenian-American scene. However, there needs to be more unity, and, from my perspective as a writer and a scholar, more backing of cultural institutions and funding of culture. We need to build museums, think tanks, translation centers, and be really aggressive about bringing out culture into the mainstream. This can’t be done without money and organization,” he said.
Balakian bemoaned the absence of literary and cultural publications, however. He said, “I think Ararat [the quarterly published by the Armenian General Benevolent Union until recently] was a really important journal for decades. It did so much to define and nurture Armenian talent, and I think Armenian Forum was a wonderful journal, though it could not stay afloat for long. I think we need good journals for Armenian literature and culture. It takes care, money and some thought, but this is a good time for thinking about such a project.”
Balakian writes in English, not in Armenian, and he is an American poet, yet he also considers it an organic continuity to call himself an Armenian diasporan poet and writer. He said, “My immersion in Armenian culture and history has had a big impact on my imagination and on my literary forms and my language, which is English; but meanings and materials, significations and tropes are inflected by my Armenian sensibility and preoccupations; the same is true, I’m sure for visual artists and composers. In my poems there are fusions of Armenian iconography and imagery and culture with my American poetics and form. In the 1970s, I wrote poems that dealt with Armenian memory and the lost world of Anatolia in the wake of the Genocide, and my grandmother was the voice of the transmission of trauma across generations. In the 1980s I found myself embedding threads and pieces of Armenian culture into my poems.”
For example, in 1987, a poem of his appeared in Poetry Magazine with a whole stanza devoted to the Armenian medieval miniaturist Toros Roslin. While Balakian says he does not know what American readers made of this, he hoped they would go and do what T. S. Eliot urged his readers to do — look it up.
He said, “It is a way of bringing the Armenian tradition into the American tradition, and creating a richer form. In various new poems, there are Armenian elements twined throughout various landscapes. I hope readers will read my new poem ‘Near the Border,’ which deals with Armenian diasporic and transnational complexities.” In a feature spread of Balakian’s poems in the prestigious German literary journal Neue Rundschau, Balakian’s work was introduced with the heading “Peter Balakian, Armenien 2015.” “I guess that’s one way the outside world sees me,” he said.
Aside from feeling part of the Armenian literary tradition, Balakian also ended up as part of a literary tradition in his own family. He said, “As time unfolds and you explore the other writers of your family, in my case three of them across three generations — my great-uncle Grigoris Balakian the bishop, my aunt Anna Balakian, the scholar of French poetry, and my aunt Nona Balakian, New York Times book review critic and writer — you find that there are some interesting preoccupations and passions that seem to have continued across generations.”
In his last two books of poems Balakian has been able to push his form further. He said about many of the poems in his new book Ozone Journal, “I’m interested in pursuing the shifting perspectives and the jolts in consciousness as the mind takes in the wired and discordant realities of our contemporary culture and I’m interested in bringing landscapes of difficulty and violence into an expansive form.” The poems in this volume shift from the Native American pueblos of New Mexico to inner city Detroit, to the slums of Nairobi, and to the border of Turkey with Armenia at the Kars-Gumri line.
Ozone Journal includes a long 55-section eponymous poem framed by two sections of lyric poems. Balakian’s persona in these poems engages with various places and explores self and cultural location. Some of the poems reflect, through invented lenses, Balakian’s life experiences and the lives of family members while exploring the idea of diaspora and connections with historical pasts with a sense of the perpetual motion of the self. The threads of Armenian cultural realities are ever-present here. For example, “Ozone Journal” begins with the persona digging bones out of the Syrian desert with a television crew, with whom he is filming a segment on the Armenian Genocide, and the rest of the poem is a flashback from that present. Balakian said, “It deals with the complexity of life in the 1980s in New York City as AIDS becomes a crisis and the beginning of awareness of environmental erosion and climate change become another kind of crisis.” It is the second work in a trilogy. The first was “A Train — Ziggurat Elegy” (2010), which dealt with New York both in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then with a memory of New York culture in the 1970s.
Both poems have some dimensions of a love poem interwoven in them, and incorporate many complex allusions. Balakian explained that, “My long poem poetics is tied to a collage form of lyric segments that create threads as they unspool through the poem. My hope is that the reader will find the intended ways that the threads weave themselves together.”
Balakian feels that “every poet hopes readers will read a poem first for its texture and energy and its language rhythms that draw the reader in. However, I, like many poets, still work out of the assumptions of early literary modernism, that the poem should be an intellectual challenge for the reader, as well as something that the reader will enjoy.”
He hopes that Armenian readers who have been raised on an Armenian poetic tradition continue in the US to remain connected to the great art of poetry, because poetry “poetry is the animating force of all literature;it is language at its most compressed, searing, primal and elemental; remember that the poem takes us back to song and chant and prayer, and dithyramb,” back to the beginning of the human voice.
Along with poetry, Balakian is a master of the essay form. His new collection Vise and Shadow includes essays written between 1988 and 2012, some of which have been expanded and revised. Like his poems, the essays move from one cultural and geographical zone to another, but all deal with the power and the meaning of the lyric imagination as expressed in various domains. The essays deal with poetry, art, film and music (song lyrics). Several concern Armenian writers, artists or topics: Siamanto, Yeshishe Charents, Arshile Gorky, and Elia Kazan’s film “America, America.” Others explore issues that are important for the Armenian experience, such as poetry as witness to violence, collage and modern poetic form, the literary rock of Bob Dylan.
He pointed out that “America, America” “has been a misunderstood film, and a misrepresented film.” Though most of the movie examines anti-Greek and anti-Armenian violence in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, in particular the Hamidian massacres of Armenians, it is popularized on American television as a movie about the American immigrant story. Only the last 15 or 20 minutes of the film take places in the US.
Balakian said, “It is original and edgy and groundbreaking as a film. The film is very autobiographical. It is almost a memoir, in which [writer and director Elia] Kazan tells the story of his Greek family’s harsh journey out of Turkey and in doing so tells the history of Greeks and Armenians under Ottoman rule. Kazan states in the opening of the film that that Greeks and Armenians were a colonized people. The film was completely ahead of the grain of the world at that time. It is valuable and important as a work of art and as a work of history. Kazan called it his favorite film.”
Balakian’s chapter in Vise and Shadow examines the myths in understanding of this film, and its strange reception, which perhaps was due to various political reasons at the time. He will be screening a brief excerpt from the film and discussing it at a free 7 p.m. December 1 lecture sponsored by the Tekeyan Cultural Association and Facing History and Ourselves. The lecture, cosponsored by the Armenian Museum of America, with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, will take place at the museum.
Looking back on his career, Balakian said, “I’m incredibly grateful to the Armenian readership for its embrace of my books over the years. It’s spiritually important for writers to know that readers are engaged in their work. It’s important that Armenians in America and elsewhere continue to embrace their culture and to pass it on to the next generation. Intellectual and artistic work is at the core of our culture, it’s how we stay together, how we have conversations about who we are and where we’re going; it connects past and present. The Armenian cultural present is as rich as it’s ever been. There are so many terrific writers, artists, and scholars out there.”