By Aram Arkun
HAMILTON, N.Y. – Peter Balakian won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in April of this year, and the reaction has been overwhelming for him. The prolific author of non-fiction and poetry, a professor and chair holder at Colgate University, won the prize for his most recent collection of poems, titled Ozone Journal.
Balakian was not expecting such an award. This was in part because, unlike other prizes, the Pulitzer has a very tightly controlled process preventing leaks. Last week, he said, “It came out of the blue for me. My publisher knew nothing. I knew nothing. When I started getting text messages around 3:30 Central Time, because I was at the University of Illinois central campus, I didn’t know what people were texting about. I was actually texting back question marks. I thought to myself something nice must have happened. I won a grant or something. The last thing on my mind was the world of prizes.”
The Pulitzer is America’s most prestigious prize for artistic and intellectual achievement. It includes a monetary award of $10,000, but it is the recognition and attention that it brings which is most important. Balakian reflected, “I think prizes don’t affect your work. You are just so happy to be at your desk continuing your work.” On the other hand, he said, “It does amplify one’s visibility. It is valuable for me as a writer in a non-commercial art — poetry. If the prizes bring attention in general to the more complex lyric arts, that is a good thing for society. I think American society needs to be more plugged into poetry and the other lyric arts.”
The reaction has been so great for Balakian that it will take him some weeks to respond to the hundreds of messages from around the world that he has received within the span of one week. Armenians in Armenia and many other countries have written expressing how heartening it is that the voice of an Armenian is being recognized, especially in this period of particular tension over Artsakh.
He may very well be the first Armenian writer to win the prize after William Saroyan won it for drama 76 years ago, in 1940 (though other Armenians have won it in less purely literary fields like journalism more recently). There has been an ongoing appearance of Armenian representation in Balakian’s poetic work from the early days of his writings in the 1980s. His 1983 work, Sad Days of Light, was a book-length poem dealing with the Armenian Genocide survivor experience of his mother, and the Armenian memory of the past. It played an important role in voicing this subject in broader American cultural circles, and it has been reissued in the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, testifying to its acceptance as part of the American canon.
Certainly, many Armenians rate him very highly as a writer. Poet, biographer and critic Keith Garebian, for example, has written in World Literature Today that “Peter Balakian is the preeminent Armenian writer in English today, whether the genre is poetry, memoir, or history or cultural criticism.”
President Serzh Sargsyan of the Republic of Armenia congratulated Balakian on the same day the prize was announced, on April 19, stating, “This is a significant occasion for all Armenians worldwide, since after William Saroyan you are the second talented son of the Armenian people to have conquered this prestigious literary height thanks to your valuable work. The collection of poems, Ozone Journal, that touched upon the Armenian Genocide has become the logical continuation of your literary work.”
Balakian’s poetry has received much praise from contemporary American poets. David Wojahn, who is widely published and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, has written about it in Tikkun as follows: “Few American poets of the boomer generation have explored the interstices of public and personal history as deeply and urgently as has Balakian, and his significance as a poet of social consciousness is complemented by his work in other genres. . . . Balakian’s project of ‘writing horizontal’ attempts to find within the pitiless hubbub of contemporary consciousness those essential recollections (what Wordsworth termed ‘spots of time’) that are the sources of selfhood and to devise a new method for meaningfully confronting and memorializing the past.”
Balkian expressed this oeuvre: “In the last 25 years or so I have been evolving a poetics and a form that I have called ‘writing horizontal,’ and the idea here is to create a more spacious kind of poem that can ingest more layers of contemporary experience. I have tried to continue to push for a more expansive form for the poem — multi-sectioned and multi-sequenced long poems set in a particular cultural environment or moment, that have been able to take in, I hope, some of the pressing realities of the age we live in.”
Balakian stressed, he said, that “artists are inventing forms. We are not just writing about themes.”
Boston poet Keith Jones in Consequence Magazine has reviewed Ozone Journal, declaring: “Balakian is a master of the drifting, split-second mirage, the cinematic dissolve and cross-cut as well as the sculptural, statuesque moment chiseled out of consonant blends and an imagistic, jazzman’s ear for vowels. . . beautiful, haunting, plaintive, urgent, in our dying world’s age, these poems legislate a vital comportment to the demands of our shared present, timely and untimely both.”
Ozone Journal is the second volume of what Balakian hopes will be a trilogy of poetry. The first volume, Ziggurat, appeared in 2010, and now, Balakian said, he is working on the third. He is simultaneously working on a nonfiction book.
As he continues to create and publish, he concluded, “I think every book you write opens up new possibilities for more inventive language and imagination. And you want as a writer to keep following these openings, and hope that they keep taking you to new places. I hope that as a poet I can keep tapping into elements of human experience and contemporary culture that ring true, that have as much truth to them as one can hope one’s poems might yield.”