EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of Asbarez’s ongoing partnership with Yerevan Magazine, we present an interview with author Peter Balakian that was published in the January/February issue of the magazine. The interview also appeared in Asbarez’s Genocide Special Issue, published on April 24.
Peter Balakian is undeniably one of the prominent authors whose literary work, which includes six books of poems, numerous essays, non-fiction books and a memoir, have influenced and transformed literary, cultural, political, social, and psychological understanding of the issues surrounding memory and historical trauma. Among one of such recent references is an entry in a book entitled Fifty Key Thinkers in Genocide Studies. The author of the entry, Holocaust scholar Paul Bartrop, noted that Balakian’s work helped open up the field or began discourse that has to do with memory, history, and trauma. For the critics and experts, his works strongly demonstrate the importance of literary imagination and its ability to embody the darker aspects of history.
INTERVIEW LIANNA ZAKHARIAN
PHOTO TANYA KECHICHIAN
Little can be added to the information about the author who has a best-selling memoir (Black Dog of Fate), translated an important Armenian Genocide survivor memoir by his great-uncle Grigoris Balakian (Armenian Golgotha), wrote about the history of his people (The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response), and as one of the prominent poets in America, reflected on his entire life’s experiences and emotions. In addition, knowing his professionally meticulous linguistic approach, it was somewhat anticipated, and he confirmed, that he would be very cautious when it comes to interviews, because as he stated, “I believe that in oral conversation we are not as precise and accurate as we need to be.”
The Balakians live in Hamilton, a rural college town in the center of New York State in a landscape that is defined by rolling pastures and small dairy farms. The nearest city is Syracuse, which is in about fifty miles northwest. Hamilton is a typical New England country town with its large town green zone and a big white clapboard inn at one end. Its architecture is a display of American history from late Federal brick, Greek classical revival, high Victorian and Queen Ann houses, and a variety of modern houses. It has a traditional feel but with a bustling college campus that gives the town some sophistication.
Colgate University is one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. It’s an elite liberal arts college with a superb student body and a great faculty. “It’s been a good place to be for me as a writer and a teacher for the past thirty years,” explains Balakian. Peter’s wife, Helen Kebabian, is the director of the Office of Government, Foundation, and Corporate Relations at the University. They live in a three-story house made of local stone. Built in 1828, it’s a historic house that was once part of the Underground Railroad. The fugitive slave quarters are still intact on the third floor of the house in the walled off area behind Balakian’s own study. “To have that human rights history in my own space is always a powerful thing. History is never past,” he says as he positions himself at his desk, with his vast library as a backdrop. “There are almost ten thousand books here. It’s too much. I have to get rid of some,” he says with a sigh.
LIANNA ZAKHARIAN: Teaching is a big part of your life. What do you teach and how do you manage to write while you are teaching?
PETER BALAKIAN: I teach a variety of courses at Colgate. I am the Director of Creative Writing Program, which is a thriving and dynamic program within our English Department. I teach creative writing workshops in poetry and courses in American literature, mostly 19th and 20th century poetry. And I teach one course a year called Modern Genocide for our core curriculum program; and this course is an honors course for advanced students. It deals with the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust as the two templates for modern genocide, but students can and do work on later genocides of the 20th century. For me, the key has always been to keep writing through it all. Even on the days I’m teaching, getting to my desk for an hour or two keeps whatever book I’m working on moving. It’s always a juggling act, writing and teaching. Teaching, of course, involves meeting with students regularly and also being part of the university and the department, which is a whole universe of institutional obligations. The key is to still be moving with and in your work when the semester ends so you can shift into a higher gear. People think we professors have the summer and holiday vacations off. That’s unimaginable.
L.Z.: A writer and a poet needs a variety of experiences. Do you have time to travel?
P.B.: My life has gotten more complicated in the past fifteen years, especially after Black Dog of Fate and The Burning Tigris came out and were translated into various languages. I’ve been asked to lecture around the world and give papers and readings at conferences. This has all been good and rewarding, but it adds another dimension to how many things one can juggle. I’m trying to find a balance between international travel, conferences, readings, lecture tours, teaching and writing, and being with family and friends. One good thing is that grading papers and exams on long international flights is very effective; there are no distractions, no interruptions. In recent years, being in Greece, Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Argentina, across Europe, in Armenia and across the U.S. and Canada has been energizing and has taught me a lot about the global complexity of Armenian culture and a good deal about other cultures. And, it’s good for my writing.
L.Z.: You have just come back from France, how did it go?
P.B.: I was part of a week-long festival that the French National Center for the Book put on for Armenian writers. It was superbly done. There were 20 of us from around the world. A number of writers from the Republic of Armenia, some from France, and other parts of Europe, Argentina, and Viken Berberian and I were the two from the U.S.A. We did a couple of readings or panel discussions in Marseilles, Valence, Avignon, Lyon, and Paris.
L.Z.: Why did the French government do this?
P.B.: They have a deep feeling about Armenian history and culture and a sense of the long historical ties between the two cultures. And, they wanted to celebrate Armenia’s 20th anniversary this way. It was a joy to see a government embrace the Armenian voice, to reach out to the literature of Armenian culture. There was no fear of the Armenian intellectual voice as there is in the U.S., where the issue of the Armenian Genocide is a source of anxiety to our government because of Turkey. The French, like most of the world, are far beyond that – what else can one call it – immaturity. It would be nice if our government could learn something from the French in this respect. It was a special trip, and for me, it was particularly important, having translated with Aris Sevag my great uncle’s genocide memoir, Armenian Golgotha, to go to one of the six churches he built in Marseilles when he was the Bishop of Southern France in the 1930s, and open the festival with talk about him and his work.
L.Z.: You write about tremendously tragic events. In addition, the writer’s job in general requires long hours of sitting. How do you balance your daily life, or as one of your articles is entitled “How a Poet Writes History without Going Mad?”
P.B.: You have to keep the spirit happy while you are writing about complicated dark issues. I have my own rituals and working out is always part of my day. As a kid and a teenager, football, basketball, and baseball dominated my life. Keeping the body moving every day is a good counter-force to the sedentary life of a writer. You work out some of the inner stuff that writers struggle with and you clear your head. I watch a lot of Yankee games and hang out with my family and friends at every break I can take. Helen and I and our Colgate friends think nothing of driving an hour to north Syracuse to a great Chinese restaurant on a sub zero night for some popping Szechuan food and camaraderie with our writer friends in Syracuse. I also collect antique rugs and post World War II art. And music is also essential whether it’s Telemann and Bach, Miles Davis or Bob Dylan. Beauty helps keep the spirit happy.
L.Z.: It was a difficult shift for a poet to start writing about the darker era of our nation. How did it change you personally writing Black Dog of Fate?
P.B.: It took me about seven years to write the memoir because, as a poet, my language and my literary style and orientation were not defined by narrative storytelling. So, I had to sort of teach myself how to write in a new genre, and you can’t do that overnight. I was working in my own cave, trying to figure out modes of storytelling about a family, its history, and my own coming of age and personal journey into a dark history that was never spoken about openly in my family. I spent a lot of time thinking about form and narrative and its relationship to lyric language, which is the place I work from as a poet.
L.Z.: How did you respond to being in the public more often?
P.B.: It was interesting to be on television and radio and in front of larger audiences. It wasn’t just about me and my book and that kind of thing, it was gratifying to be able to discuss the larger history of the Armenian Genocide. It was also challenging and not always fun to have to deal with Turkish nationalists who would come out to my events to deny history.
L.Z.: Did you get a lot of resistance from that group?
P.B.: In the late 1990s, when I was on the road with Black Dog of Fate, the Turkish nationalists would come out and protest and sometimes be disruptive by passing out leaflets of Turkish state propaganda. Nothing ever violent, just disruptive. What was most disturbing, in a psychological and ethical sense, was not to hear any voices from the Turkish world that were thoughtful, reflective, and empathic. And then that changed, happily, by the early 2000s: there emerged a group of Turkish scholars, like Tanner Akçam, Fatma Muge Gocek, Ragip Zarakolu, Elif Shafak, and others, who were also bravely struggling for the same kinds of truth and acknowledgments from their country concerning the Armenian past and other taboos inside Turkey. It became clear to many of us that Turkey had layers of progressive people and forces and that the nationalists did not really own Turkey. There has been much growth toward genuine intellectual critique in Turkey, but still it’s a giant struggle and just last November, the Turkish government imprisoned dozens of intellectuals and journalists including my Turkish publisher, the brave and trail-blazing Ragip Zarakolu. This is a tragedy, and I hope the world can help Turkey see that.
L.Z.: Do you think there is a general change of attitudes in Turkey?
P.B.: I think that progressive Turkish scholars, intellectuals and human rights activists were always there, but they didn’t have much civic space inside their own country or enough access to forums in the U.S.A. and Europe. They were overshadowed by the militant ultra-nationalists. But, in the past 15 years, these progressives were able to be heard outside of Turkey and they came of age and became more public. And historical works on the Armenian genocide by Taner Akçam, for example, were translated into English and made a big impact. This made it possible for somebody like Hrant Dink to emerge inside Turkey and start the work he started. Even though he was cut down by the Turkish deep-state, his work is alive and the doors he opened are still open, and people are walking through them.
L.Z.: Why did the Black Dog of Fate gain such popularity among larger audiences?
P.B.: I never expected that the book would be well-received, I mean, one just really writes a book because one’s haunted and goaded by a story that one wants to tell, needs to tell. The primary urge is to make language and tell a story and to realize your materials in the richest aesthetic terms possible. After that it’s a roulette game, you never know what will reach the world and be received. When Black Dog of Fate got such an immediate affirmative response, I was delighted and surprised. A prose book gets you into the public more than poetry does, which is too bad because poetry should be in the center of all things.
L.Z.: How can you define contemporary American literary scene? Is there a community of writers in the U.S.?
P.B.: The U.S. is an enormous multicultural society with many vital literary scenes. It’s almost too much to fully take in, so writers find their own literary subcultures and communities. Some of them are defined by the region, like the writers of the American South, that has a strong sense of regional identity, or certain kind of writers who consider themselves New England writers, or writers of the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest. And these subcultures and communities can be defined by various dimensions that include aesthetic values, cultural identities, notions of genre, etc. Personally, I have my community of writers and artists in my backyard, around the country, and the world. I am in New York City frequently. My community of writers and film and visual artists and actors make my life much richer and better in this otherwise quite solitary work. I feel blessed by such friendships.”
L.Z.: What are your plans for the future and what are you currently working on?
P.B.: My recent book of poems, Ziggurat, was published in the fall of 2010 by University of Chicago Press and got an affirmative response. I did an National Public Radio (NPR) interview for it on September 11, 2010 because some of the book deals with the aftermath of 9/11. I’m currently working on a new book of poems, and a book of my essays that I have been collecting over the past 20 years or so. Some of the essays are on Charents and Gorky and American figures, like the poets Theodore Roethke and Hart Crane; others are on issues in poetry and poetics, film and painting and music.
L.Z.: Some of your poems have aspects of Japanese poetry with their observations of nature with subtle minimalist gems of description in them. What inspires you in your poetic work?
P.B.: Well, many things of course. Nature and the organic world is one of them. The impact of history is another, and painting, film, and the visual arts also inflect my work. But these dimensions often get entangled and layered in a given poem. In the poem “Flat Sky of Summer,” for example, a young boy is immersed in a book of art plates, and that immersion opens up into an explosion of imagination and in the end, after the boy has encountered European masters, he finds the Armenian palette and fragments of history. The poem goes for wild color and imaginative flight. I brought Toros Roslin into that. It ends with Toros Roslin and Gorky. It’s about, among other things, the power of color, and transformation of artifacts into perception. In Ziggurat, I have a series of poems that take off on Andy Warhol silk screens. .
L.Z.: Your poetry includes many sensual textures, just as your memoir does. You included a very sensual description of your family’s Sunday dinners in the chapter entitled “Tahn on Crabtree Lane” in your memoir Black Dog of Fate. Does your generation preserve these family rituals?
P.B.: Cuisine and cooking are very important to me. Recently, Saveur Magazine asked a group of American writers to write about the memorable meals of their lives. I wrote my piece about an Armenian feast with my family in the 1970s, in which a Bolsetsi family and a Tigranakertsi family brought their cuisines together. I made the point that such a feast would not have been possible without the Genocide and the ensuing Diaspora because these cultures would never meet in old Anatolia. And so the explosion of the sensuous Eastern Mediterranean seafood palate of mediya and fish plaki coming together with more Arabic dry, spicy cooking of Southeast Anatolia, including muhamara which is fundamentally Arabic, and slow baked lamb and vegetable stew. And, yes, we still gather around the dinner table as a family of generations. We still enjoy our family feasts.
L.Z.: It was a revelation to learn about your aunts in Black Dog of Fate, women who were so educated and well-known in the literary world.
P.B.: They are both dead now, my Aunt Nona died in 1991 and my Aunt Anna died in 1997. As you know, Nona was an editor at the New York Times Book Review for over forty years and Anna a leading scholar of French literature and a professor at NYU (New York University) for decades. I learned a lot from them and I wrote about some of those encounters and journeys in Black Dog of Fate. Their examples were very powerful because they were people for whom the world of literature was a way of life as well as a profession.
L.Z.: Do your children follow in your steps professionally?
P.B.: My daughter Sophia is 27 and she is doing her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, training to be an Africanist. Right now she is in Kenya where she is studying Swahili and beginning to think about her field work. My son James is almost 23, and at the moment he is in Washington D.C., working for the NGO (non-governmental organization) National Democratic Institute, which works on democratic elections worldwide. He is just out of college and this is his first job out of college. I’m proud of their passionate interests in progressive politics and the world of ideas and their commitments to social justice and economic fairness. At the moment, we live in a society that is very unfair to many of its good and hard-working citizens and they want to be part of helping change happen.
The intensity of tragic events that he describes, his poetic sensuality and subtle sensitivity conveyed a certain sense of vulnerability that made me wonder whether, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “Excessively honoring the dead,” he was doing “disservice to the living.” However, his healthy lifestyle, his rich intellectual, creative and social life, and his optimism proved otherwise. These are, apart from his talent, the reasons why Balakian’s works continue to fascinate and inspire readers worldwide.
Poet and nonfiction writer Peter Balakian was born on June 13, 1951 in Teaneck, New Jersey. He earned a B.A. from Bucknell University, an M.A. from New York University, and a Ph.D. from Brown University. He has taught at Colgate University since 1980 where he is currently Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities, and Director of Creative Writing. He was the first Director of Colgate’s Center for Ethics and World Societies. He is the author of six books of poems, most recently Ziggurat (2010), as well as June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000 (2001). The others are Father Fisheye (1979), Sad Days of Light (1983), Reply from Wilderness Island (1988), Dyer’s Thistle (1996), and several fine limited editions. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, such as The Nation, The New Republic, Antaeus, Agni, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Slate, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and in anthologies such as New Directions in Prose and Poetry, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, Poetry’s 75th Anniversary Issue (1987), The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, and the four-CD set Poetry On Record 1886-2006 (Shout Factory). Four fine limited editions (with illustration) of Balakian’s poems have been published by The Press of Appletree Alley (Lewisburg, PA). He is the author of the memoir Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Albrand Prize for memoir and a New York Times Notable Book, and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and a New York Times Notable Book and New York Times national best-seller. He is also the author of Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields (LSU, 1989). His essays have appeared in Art In America, American Poetry Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Quarterly, American Book Review, and Poetry. He is co-founder and co-editor with the poet Bruce Smith of the poetry magazine Graham House Review, which was published from 1976-1996, and is the co-translator of the book of poems Bloody News from My Friend by Siamanto. Balakian’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; Emily Clark Balch Prize for poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review 2007; Movses Khorenatsi Medal from the RA, 2007; Raphael Lemkin Prize, 2005, (best book in English on the subject of genocide and human rights); PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for Memoir, 1998; the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Book Award, 1998; Daniel Varoujan Prize, New England Poetry Club, 1986; Anahid Literary Prize, Columbia University Armenian Center, 1990. His works have been translated to Armenian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, French, Greek, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Turkish.