Interview with Gregory Djanikian
Born in Alexandria, Egypt of Armenian parentage, Gregory Djanikian came to the United States when he was 8 years old and spent his boyhood in Williamsport, PA. He is a graduate of the Syracuse University writing program and, for many years, was the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania which he attended as an undergraduate. He is the author of seven collections of poetry, The Man in the Middle, Falling Deeply into America, About Distance, Years Later, So I Will Till the Ground, Dear Gravity, and, most recently, Sojourners of the In-Between. He has been awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, two prizes from Poetry magazine (the Eunice Tietjens Prize, and Friends of Literature Prize), the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University, and multiple residencies at Yaddo.
Gregory Djanikian will present his work via a special Zoom reading and will be introduced by Billy Collins for the Katonah Poetry Series on Sunday, January 31, 2021 at 4PM. The Zoom link to register for the reading will be posted on the home page.
Ann van Buren: Hi! Thank you for joining me in this virtual interview for the Katonah Poetry Series. So many people’s lives and homes have shifted in 2020, and it’s good that we can communicate online. However, this new way of being makes me wonder how it is affecting our sense of place, our sense of home.
Your poems are filled with memories of early childhood and the sense of wonder associated with one’s childhood home. Do you think it is possible to feel that another place is home, a place other than the home or homes we occupied during our early early childhood years?
Gregory Djanikian: Well, I suppose it depends upon what crucial experiences you’ve had in those places. I’m sure that you can have the notion of home in many different places as long those experiences become sacred in your life. I think that’s very key and crucial. Landscapes can be beautiful, places can be beautiful, but if, in some way, you’re not incredibly invested in the place then I think the home might be temporary, or you feel it as temporary.
Ann van Buren: I like that. Home is a place where you’ve had a sacred experience.
Gregory Djanikian: I think it’s true. I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and I’ve written a lot about it. I lived there for only eight years— and who knows, three of those eight years I was pre-conscious— but things happened there that have stayed with me for a long, long, time. Not that I consider Alexandria my home at the moment. I did go back, in 1975, and felt a stranger there, partly because I lost my Arabic. Without being able to speak and write and read Arabic, I did not feel part of Alexandria as I used to. I felt a stranger. I suppose language is very important to what you think of home. Nonetheless, those experiences remain with me and I like mining them.
Ann van Buren: Do you speak Armenian, and is there still an Armenian community in Alexandria?
Gregory Djanikian: Oh yes, there is an Armenian community and yes I speak Armenian with my mother and my sister.
Ann van Buren: Part of our family is Armenian, and we’ve always wanted to go to visit. There is the story of the genocide, a kindly British diplomat, and the eventual emigration to New York.
Gregory Djanikian: The voyages are interesting—the emigrations and the diasporas that people endure— but sometimes it turns out quite well.
Ann van Buren: Yes, it can. Many people come to this country because they are fleeing one thing or another. Your poetry amazes me, in that you make us feel the humor, love, and beauty of life despite what is going on underneath. I love that about your work. You buoy our spirits!
I wonder if you have seen changes in the immigrant experience, if the sense of possibility is diminishing, and if you have seen that reflected in your students’ writing.
Gregory Djanikian: I don’t know whether I’ve seen it in my classroom. I’ve taught poetry workshops at University of Pennsylvania, and the people who are there have taken the course as an elective. It’s not required, and I think they’re invested in poetry as such and really need to write poetry. Maybe there is the need to express themselves as immigrants, though most of the time the people that I’ve taught have been second generation students so I haven’t caught that sense of being an immigrant and writing oneself into a country that one has adopted. I think it depends upon where you’ve come from. If you’ve migrated for non exigent reasons, I think your situation within your adopted county might be different than if you’ve escaped the country. I’m thinking, for instance, of Ocean Vuong. He has amazing books and writes sometimes of despair and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s embracing. But his situation might be different, for instance, from the work of someone who has come from another country without this kind of despair and without the Vietnam war as being an oppressive past reminder.
Ann van Buren: Yes, the war and all of the other trauma in his life as well.
Gregory Djanikian: Yes. The father. His notion of himself. Trying to find who he is.
Ann van Buren: Terrance Hayes wrote that “Trouble is one of the ways we discover the complexities of the soul.” I’m wondering how your past hardships have informed the way that you deal with the difficulties we face, as a nation and as a world, today.
Gregory Djanikian: Well, I have to say that although, as a family, we did leave Egypt because of political necessities—there was the Suez War and my father’s business was nationalized and there was no place for us to be in that country—but I was too young to know the difficulties of what was happening. I’ve been very lucky, because when I came to this country—maybe this is where the humor and buoyancy comes from— I just loved it! I loved being where I was. I loved the kind of freedom, not in a general sense but in the palpable way, of being able to walk out of my house and being able to ride my bicycle on the streets of Williamsport, PA. This was something I wasn’t able to do before. I’ve been lucky in that way. Hardships might be coming. I certainly have had other hardships, but I feel very lucky to be who I am and the life that I’ve led. I can’t say that any particular experience has had this kind of oppressive influence on me so that I’ve fallen into trouble or despair. It doesn’t mean that I can’t empathize with those who have. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry at injustice and inhumanity and the cataclysms that I see. Well that’s what imagination does. It allows you to empathize with other people’s consciousness and experience, even though you haven’t had that same experience.
Ann van Buren: Your poem “Armenian Pastoral, 1915” may be an example of that empathy. In it, you alert us to a terrible situation. But maybe there is something about your disposition or the way that you fell into life in Pennsylvania during childhood that kept you from identifying with that trauma.
Gregory Djanikian: I don’t identify with that trauma in such a way that it debilitates me. When I was writing the Armenian Genocide poems in So I Will Till the Ground I was deeply empathetic, so much so that I was moved to tears as I wrote. But poetry, for me, is a way of trying to find different aspects of any kind of experience. It’s a way of trying to find oneself into a place or situation. It is a way of seeing what the happiness-es of that situation are, even though sadness-es accrue. Maybe it is in my nature; but I think that one just has to balance things. I can’t tilt from one side to another.
Ann van Buren: I so appreciate this! I see this balance throughout your work, especially in the poems, “Immigrant Picnic” and “How I Learned English.” In the latter, there’s physical pain and ridicule as well, but you’re this happy figure who pulls through.
Gregory Djanikian: Yes, some would say I’m a little naïve! But you know, I’ve always been struck by the notion of being alive. It’s always made me wonder—the sheer I am-ness, the presence of being in this world that has thrown us into being. I can’t for the life of me understand it, and that’s why I write poetry— to try to understand it. I’ve always felt that notion of wonder. I think it comes through in my poems, the notion of the wonder that’s life, the presence of being in the here and now.
Ann van Buren: I’m reminded of your poem “My Grandmother’s Rugs” and how evocative it is of that kind of memory and feeling that we all have for certain moments in our life experience where we see all the colors in the world. You do bring these wondrous experiences into the current light, through poetry.
While much of your work is narrative, it also moves into a more lyrical and meditative space. I am thinking of poems from your most recent book, Sojourners of the In-Between, a collection which begins with the clamor of life, as in the poem “Music Making,” but moves into a more meditative space, as in the poem “Reconstitution, Dispersions,” where you go beyond the borders of nations and people and imagine the oneness of all things. The poem moves away from historical and cultural attachment and, like Whitman, you become connected to the atoms of our being. You use nature as a metaphor for our lives and find eternity in what lives and dies in a forest in that it’s all part of a cycle. You express this beautifully, as “The alphabet of matter/transposing itself into different guises”.
Can you talk about this distinctive sense of self in time and space? It seems that, in your language and thought, you are going beyond the borders you mentioned in “Armenian Pastoral, 1915,” where you also use the metaphor of alphabets and ask:
how long would it have to go on then
beginning with A and spilling over
into all the alphabets
before mother sister father child
could wear the same faces in any language
be cut from the same tongue.
You’re talking about the literal alphabet in the earlier poem, and your recent work talks about the alphabet of being.
Gregory Djanikian: Thank you, by the way, for making me Whitmanian! That’s quite lovely. I don’t deserve that, he’s one of my favorite poets.
Ann van Buren: I’m reminded of Whitman because of the joy and the sadness— you encompass both with great breadth.
Gregory Djanikian: You’ve read carefully because indeed, Sojourners of the In-Between is a very different book for me. It moves away from “I” centeredness and narrative and becomes more meditative. Why does it do that? I suppose because I’m struck now by my mortality. So I’m trying to figure out what my sense of life is, given that in 5, 10, 15, 20 years that will come to an end. So I’m trying to find ways of connecting with the earth, with the world, with others, that are less specific, less narrative bound, and more general. I’m trying to find the interconnectivity of things on a very, very basic level. That’s why I love talking about atoms and I love talking about how we’re composed of atoms and how when we die these atoms will disperse and find their way into other things. It strikes me as incredible, and here’s the wonder coming back, that we’re breathing the same oxygen that perhaps Caesar breathed! There’s an interconnectivity that’s astounding to me. When I die, someone may be breathing in my atoms, which gives me a different sense of my life and our life here on earth. I like that meditative quality. I think it eases me and it allows me to reconcile myself with whatever will come.
Ann van Buren: It also makes one think about karma, doesn’t it, and what we are breathing in and what we are exhaling. It’s a reminder that what we breathe out is a potential disturbance in somebody’s future or something that could be wonderful.
Gregory Djanikian: That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I like that; a disturbance in someone’s life or a palliative. Indeed. Yeah! That’s how I feel. I hope it will not be a disturbance!
The other thing I really tried to get across in Sojourners is the mysteriousness of life that I keep feeling now. There’s something elusive about life itself that we try, we long, to understand, long to put our finger on, but we never quite do. That mystery is actually refreshing. Using your term, it makes us buoyant. I love a mystery, and I think the great mystery of course, is our life here.
Ann van Buren: I’ve been thinking about language in this way, and how the hair’s breath of difference in a word or the addition or absence of a word in a sentence affects the whole meaning. This feeling of searching and trying to grasp the essence of life itself is much like writing poetry.
Gregory Djanikian: Yes. I’m sure you’ve had this experience— where you’re trying to find the right word or the right phrase, and you never quite come to it. You start the poem and you have this grand idea, this grand feeling, and by the poem’s end you’re almost there, you’ve almost achieved it, but that’s what leads you to the next poem and the next because you haven’t gotten it. That’s how I feel about living; I haven’t quite gotten it yet and I never will probably. That’s the elusiveness of one’s life. It’s also the meaning of one’s life and the longing, the desire to go on.
Ann van Buren: That’s beautiful!
So, in addition to writing, you have had a very distinguished career as the director of the creative writing program at U Penn and you’ve also mentioned that you had mentors in Daniel Hoffman and Philip Booth. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about some of the teachers in your life. I’m also interested in the Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program, sponsored by the Adroit Journal.
Gregory Djanikian: Oh, Yeah! The scholar’s program came out of left field. It was started by a former student of mine, Peter Laberge, who now is in the NYU Creative Writing program; he’s very good. I was so stunned by this! He said, you know, you’ve influenced my writing so much and other people’s writings as well, so I want to do something for you. I want this scholarship program to exist with your name on it. I was so dumbfounded. It’s so lovely! It’s a program that gives power to many people, six poets a year, young poets who are just starting out. It gives a boost to their careers.
As far as my mentors go, I’ve had quite a lucky time with them. They’ve been always supportive. I remember a freshman English teacher, it wasn’t Dan Hoffman, it was Gerald Myers, someone who was fresh from graduate school. He was a poet and I went to him because I was writing poetry which was very florid and I didn’t have a sense of a contemporary voice. I was deep into 19th century or early 20th century voices. My mother, when in Alexandria, used to recite poetry to me and my sister—Tennyson and Arnold and a lot of French poetry because she went to a French school. That 19th Century language stayed with me for a long time. I wanted to write poetry so I went to my teacher, who was exceedingly generous with his time. He took me to breakfast every Saturday morning, if you can believe that. And he said you know, Greg, poetry doesn’t have to sound like poetry to be poetry so what I want you to do is read William Stafford, Robert Bly, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath. He gave me Donald Hall; people I’d never heard of before. I was eighteen, what did I know? And he gave me formal exercises. He told me to write five lines of iambic pentameter and in the third line substitute a spondee in the third foot for the iamb and in the fourth line use an anapest—things like that. I really got a formal grounding from him. Then Dan, who turned out to be a wonderful friend after a while, Dan Hoffman was a notable poet and I was sort of struck that he was alive and roaming the halls at Penn! I had never seen a real live poet before, someone that had published and was famous. Anyway, I tried to get into his workshop a couple of times and couldn’t because my poems weren’t good enough I think, and then the third time, I was accepted. That was quite wonderful to me, crossing the threshold into this magnificent world of poetry which changed my life.
Philip Booth was a marvelous teacher as well. Very low key, but very, very acute.
Ann van Buren: And so both of them were at U. Penn?
Gregory Djanikian: Philip Booth was at Syracuse, where I did my graduate training. He and W.D. Snodgrass were there.
Ann van Buren: What a coincidence that they both ended up in Maine, where I am now!
Gregory Djanikian: I know. And they had stories about Robert Lowell, who was also there. They sometimes palled around together.
Ann van Buren: And Richard Eberhart, who was also poet laureate, was here in Maine. Once we “gammed” with him—tied up our boat to his and several others. We all jumped from boat to boat, drinking along the way! Eberhart had a tiny replica of a steamboat, as I recall. Very quirky and fun!
Gregory Djanikian: Sounds like John Cheever’s story, “The Swimmer,” about the person who swims from his house to all the houses in the neighborhood by going pool to pool.
Ann van Buren: Oh that’s great! It’s like that, yeah!
Well, let’s hope that poets and readers will all be able to get together in person, soon. Meanwhile, is there anything you would like the audience of the Katonah Poetry Series to ponder as we continue to read your work and as we gather, virtually, on Sunday, October 4th?
Gregory Djanikian: To ponder…let’s see…I guess that I hope the people reading my poems have as much fun as I had writing them. I hope they have fun when they are reading the humorous poems, the ones that have that sense of laughter about them; but I also hope that they find the sense of joy about life that the poems present. Donald Hall said that poetry is an “interior person talking to another interior person”. I’ve always said that poetry, for me, is really one of the most vibrant connections between one person and another person. I hope that will be in evidence when people read my work.