Interview with Peter Balakian

by Ann van Buren

Katonah Poetry Series is happy to present poet Peter Balakian as its featured reader on Sunday June 3rd, 2018. Balakian’s poetry volumes include Ozone Journal (2016), which won the Pulitzer Prize, Ziggurat (2010), June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000 (2001), Dyer’s Thistle (1996), Sad Days of Light (1993) and Father Fisheye: Poems (1979). A prolific writer, Balakian has written several books of prose as well. He is probably best known for his memoir, Black Dog of Fate, a coming of age narrative that tells the parallel stories of the author’s 1950s upbringing in suburban New Jersey alongside his family’s repressed experiences of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917. The book won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir, and was a best book of the year for the New York Times, the LA Times, and Publisher’s WeeklyVise and Shadow: Selected Essays on Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture is an engaging and scholarly book that offers insights into the lives of several artists, Hart Crane and Arshille Gorky among them. In it, Balakian explores the intersection of artists’ personal experiences, historical events, and artistic expression. The book also includes essays on the poem’s relationship to history and discussions of poetic form which give readers a deeper understanding of the poet’s work and the breadth of his imagination. Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and director of creative writing at Colgate University, where he also leads an annual writing workshop each June.

Peter Balakian interview with Ann Van Buren

AvB: How would you discuss the evolution of your style over the years?

PB: I’ve come to call the form I’ve pursued in the past 30 years “writing horizontal.” It’s an orientation, a way of opening up space in the poem– both linguistically and conceptually. The horizontal poem, I felt, could still hold on to some verticality of the conceit’s self-reflexiveness, that is, the idea that the germ at the beginning of the poem can unfurl in ways that can be surprising and still connected to a source. But horizontalness allowed for more space and sequential movement and also for more nuanced feeling and perception that could skitter along mental wires and optical alleyways. It was liberating to play more with splicing and shifting in ways that advanced a larger consciousness of the poem, a spaciousness that meant more opportunities for movement—the music of rhythm could glide into the image in unsettling ways. My recent long poems “A Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” and “Ozone Journal” are multi-sequenced, multi-sectioned long poems and predicated on these notions of space and movement. I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of the modern long poem which has its origins in Whitman.

AvB: You’ve written about the silence of repressed trauma in your family in your memoir Black Dog of Fate. How do you tackle this as a writer?

PB: Writing about repressed trauma is challenging because it forces a writer into probing what’s been left out or unsaid. But the unspoken is also an expression that finds its form in different kinds of symbolic ways and for me the challenge in writing about the unspoken trauma of the Armenian Genocide in my family was to decode those symbolic expressions of the painful past. Once I could isolate those moments of leaked trauma and the painful past, I could begin to find my own language to capture it. From this perspective an interesting poetics can emerge, and I hope that inflects my memoir.

AvB: As the world faces its biggest refugee crisis, are poets addressing this? Has this gotten into your own writing?

PB: We live in a moment when we have a president who has undermined our core values as a democracy with his assaults on immigrants, refugees, and immigration. It is difficult for many Americans, I think, to understand Mr. Trump’s ignorance about both world history and American history. His attitudes and values contribute to the current anguished situation of refugees around the world. In that context, I would say that one of the best new books of poems that deal with the plight of refugees and immigrants is Javier Zamora’s recent book Unaccompanied. I recommend it to all readers. My own poem “Ellis Island,” in my New and Selected Poems,  deals with a vision of my grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island in 1920. The poem is a kind of lyrical invocation of the strangeness of that threshold of crossing over to a new place while the taint of death saturation still dominates the refugee’s mind.

AvB: What role has history played in your imagination?

PB: History has been an animating force for my imagination, whether that history is the American Revolution, World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Armenian Genocide. Some of my poems also have been attuned to traumatic events and episodes of mass violence such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, or civil rights violence.

The poem has the capacity to absorb anything, of course that is why it remains one of the most profound and resilient forces of linguistic power and knowledge. Anyone reading W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, or Robert Hayden, for example, will find interesting ways in which poems have taken on the residue and filaments of history. I explore this more in a recent essay, “The Poem as History,” in my collection Vise and Shadow.  I’ve been interested in creating a kind of poem that can capture some filaments of traumatic histories, and I’ve been interested in capturing some aspects of traumatic memory as it’s been transmitted across generations. “The History of Armenia,” was an early poem of mine that got hold of this process of traumatic memory that was passed down across generations. These aren’t the only things I write about, of course, but they have gotten into my work over the years.

Copyright, Peter Balakian