February 2003

Peter Balakian


Peter Balakian
Peter Balakian is the author of five books of poems, most recently June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000 (Harper Collins, 2001). His other books include 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 widely in American magazines and journals such as The Nation, Antaeus, Partisan Review, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review; and in numerous anthologies.
Peter Balakian is also the author of the acclaimed memoir Black Dog of Fate, which won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and is now in its twentieth printing. Balakian is the recipient of many prizes and awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Anahit Literary Prize, and the New Jersey Council of Humanities Book Award. Balakian has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows including ABC World News Tonight, The Charlie Rose Show, Terry Gross's "Fresh Air," C-Span, CNN Evening News, and Leonard Lopate's New York and Co. He is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities in the department of English at Colgate University.

Poems read during the interview (in streaming audio):

The Tree
Ellis Island
Rock 'n' Roll

The Interview with Peter Balakian   

This interview was recorded by telephone March 12-13, 2001, with Christopher Jones in New York City for The Cortland Review and Peter Balakian at his home in upstate New York.  Balakian's new collection of poems, June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000, had just been released by HarperCollins.

: Are you getting anxious to garden up there this time of year?

Peter Balakian: We have a couple of feet of snow up here. I think I'd just like to see the ground! It's been the worst March I've ever seen.

TCR: Well, then let's talk about the new book. Maybe we can start by reflecting on the experience of putting a "selected" volume together.

PB: I think a new and selected poems allows one to see what one's done over a decent period of time, and it seems to me a natural instinct to want to create a retrospective, if you will, of the stuff you want to show anyway! I liken it to a painter's having a retrospective show with new work. And it seemed the right time for me: twenty six years of work and a desire to show the best of it, letting as much cohesion and continuity show itself through the poems over four books and new work.

TCR: How about the title, June-tree? In one of the poems you have a tree in June bursting open with bees—a key metaphor for the collection, right?

PB: Yes, the metaphor of tree and fruit and life. Poems called "The Tree" ( ) and "Photosynthesis" also embody the metaphoric vibes of the title and its relationship to literature, and to writing, and to imagination.

(Adding, with a laugh)

And since June is my birth month, it seemed to make sense.

TCR: Let's talk more specifically about your experience going back over the earlier collections, namely Father Fisheye and Sad Days. What did you think looking back over those 26 years? Were there some cringes or unexpected surprises? Did you set out to redo as much as you did or did that come up later?

PB: I'm a compulsive reviser. I'm always revising work. The revisions weren't anything that was planned for this particular book. It's something I do. I go back to see how a poem can be better. If a poem can realize itself a bit more fully, I keep pushing it.

TCR: You certainly can see that across the collections, even in earlier books. You often plucked out former poems and put them in a new context.

PB: That's right. I see my work as evolving. Whitman, Yeats, and Auden, for example, worked that way.

TCR: As you look back, do you see any influences that really stick out, maybe influenced you in an undeniable way?

PB: No, not really.

TCR: Nobody hovering in the early stuff? Roethke, Williams, Yeats?

PB: Looking back to my early poems, I think I was coming out of a pretty American tradition that begins with Whitman and Dickinson. My sense of American free verse and probably my interest in the natural world came from those 19th century places. And maybe some older places, too, like the Bible and some Armenian poets. I read a lot in translation as well. I don't know, though. Many things swirl around in one. My tastes are pretty eclectic and international. As a young writer, Neruda interested me as much as the 10th century Armenian poet Gregory of Nareg. So if you can put that together with Whitman and Dickinson, you have a piece of my globe.

TCR: As you went back over the poetry, did you have thoughts about the memoir, Black Dog of Fate? Has writing prose informed the poetry and vice versa?

PB: I think writing prose in a sustained way has been positive. You naturally bring your denser poetic rhythms, your denser lyric rhythms to your prose, but then writing prose gets you to flatten those a little. The fusion of the two can be vitalizing and can open doors to new linguistic strategies and concepts.

TCR: How about from the perspective of reaching broader audiences and new readers?. Obviously both the memoir and the poetry seek out, I think, a cultural and public voice as well as a private voice.

PB: It goes without saying, unfortunately, that poetry is much too marginal and, therefore, hasn't found its place in the mainstream. I was shocked that my memoir could reach so many people so quickly. In one week in May, 1997, the memoir outsold all of my books of poems together. My books of poems have been through several editions, so they don't sell badly, but prose is a very different ballgame.

TCR: Let me ask you about two of your contemporaries. You dedicate this volume to the poets Bruce Smith and Jack Wheatcroft?

PB: In a world as small and intense as poetry, one's comrades are dearer than ever. Every writer should be so lucky to have writer friends who have been loyal from the start. Jack Wheatcroft, the poet and novelist, was my teacher at Bucknell Uninversity, where I was an undergradute. He introduced me to poetry and writing and made the whole process come alive for me. Bruce Smith and I met in 1974 at Dwight Englewood School in Englewood, New Jersey, where we were both teaching English and coaching football. We were just starting to send out our poems to literary magazines, and we started our own literary magazine in 1975: the Graham House Review, which we published for the next twenty years, and in that period produced some amazing issues.

It's important to have readers that you trust and who will give you honest opinions and good ideas. Bruce and Jack have always been nurturing but critical.

TCR: You mentioned the natural world. It's always struck me that the metaphor of fishing has been an important one for you. And I threw gardening out there earlier on purpose. Plants, trees, natural things, even "thing-ness" have all been a vital part of your work.

PB: That's right. I grew up in New Jersey, a state that's rimmed with ocean, and I spent some time every summer of my childhood at the Jersey shore: Spring Lake, Belmar, Barnegat Light were some of those places. Being around water is a primal and primary experience for me. It has so many resonances and meanings. I love the mixing of marsh, ocean, inlet; it's a landscape of big nature, of quiet nature, and a place where one can explore an inner terrain—psychological and spiritual places.

TCR: Did your father take you fishing?

PB: Not a great deal. But we got a kick out of doing it now and then. Neither of us were much good at it! My son is really good at it. When I take him, he's always the one scooping up the fish. It was not so much hooking fish, but the being there that excited me, although I threw my share of lines into the water. For me, though, it was more the interaction between human and nature in that spot where land meets water. That's an interesting place: where land and water meet, where all the marine life becomes apparent; it's a place of blending and merging, volatile and vital. All of that interests my imagination. It's a starting place.

TCR: You spend a good deal of your time now in a pretty landlocked area.

PB: There is water around here, but I need to get to the ocean. Now I spend as much time as I can on the eastern tip of Long Island, at my brother's place, where I hide out to work.

TCR: Your poetic life has always been intertwined with your family. You really began your body of work as a child, if you will, discovering your family's Armenian history. And now you're at a point where your son and daughters are in your poems. Can you reflect on how your poetry has been tied up with your family life.

PB: Writers draw insight and human experience from the richest human dramas they can find. If one can get hold of it in the right way, the family is a source of rich human drama. It all goes back to Greek tragedy and epic poetry. My interest in my family's experience has been about history. I've been interested in their experience with the Armenian genocide and the trauma that has followed. At some point in one's life, children and family mature your mind and broaden your perspective.

TCR: Certain images, though, in your poems really stand out in this regard. In the poem "The Oriental Rug," the image of your daughter playing on an Oriental rug is intertwined with yourself as a child on similar rugs.

PB: Well, that's actually me on the rug as a boy. But I dedicated the poem to her because of the idea of passing the artifact on from one generation to the next.

TCR: That's really what I'm getting at: the poetry as a kind of telling, a passing on. Your poetry deals with that telling in the beginning, and now you are in a position of passing on.

PB: I think, in certain instances, one is aware of the tree, and the tree with its new branches, and the effect of those branches on the trunk.

TCR: I wanted to ask you, if I could, about your spiritual life. You write a good bit on the natural world, as we've talked about. You come from an Armenian Christian family, and you've written in your memoir about the fascination you had as a boy with Judaism. Where are you now?

PB: Well, I don't have any denominational strictures. I believe that a spiritual dimension matters, that the spiritual domain of existence matters. As secular as our culture is, I believe in a zone of spiritual reality and consciousness. I don't want to be confined by the material and simplistic rational world, and I never have. I've always had an affinity for some sense of the visionary human experience.

TCR: We've spoken about local place, about New Jersey, the landscape and natural world; now, I want to move to the notion of distance, the other end of the spectrum, if you will. How has the notion of exile been an important idea for your writing?

PB: I think for a poet like me, exile may be better translated into the word diaspora since I was born and raised in the United States and am as American as apple pie in many ways. I do think exile—well, I won't disavow it since exile and diaspora overlap—but I really think diaspora suggests one's inheritance of the condition of dispersion, of dispersal, of people of who have been sent out of their homeland and native place through catastrophic events, in this case, the Armenian genocide.

And so to inherit the diasporan condition has a potentially rich effect on the imagination. It allows one to live in the domain of two cultures, sometimes simultaneously. I've written a poem which deals with some of my feelings and my understanding of that called "American Dreaming," which is an exploration of double identity or, perhaps, double consciousness in a way that's a little different than what W.E.B. DuBois meant. So I think that the diasporan condition is fueled by a sense of displacement, and a sense of coming after—in my case, in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.

Coming in the aftermath, one is a receiver of a large history, and I think of that reception as often having to do with the transmission of trauma across generations, something that both my memoir and my poetry have wrestled with. I think that the receiving and transmission of trauma across generations is powerful and important and gives a poet imaginative ranges that he might not otherwise have.

 Peter Balakian reads his poem, "Ellis Island"  

TCR: Working with this idea of receiving news, your poems often have a glimpse or a flash of news from the outside world—say, what Nolan Ryan is being paid, for example—and I wonder how you think about and see that metaphor. I'm thinking of a poem such as "The Morning News."

PB: Or "Geese Flying over Hamilton, NY."

TCR: Yes, right, or "End of the Reagan Era." In writing from a place like upstate New York with the diasporan sensibility you just mentioned, is the news important to you?

PB: As a poet I'm always interested in the parameters of consciousness in our particular time. One thing that defines those parameters is our way of receiving the news. Here in this privileged first-world country, extraordinary messages are coming to us all the time, messages about things that are often disastrous, happening both in our own country and around the world. For me, it's a way of exploring how consciousness is formed and how we deal with this wired, high-tech age in which so much can be transmitted so quickly.

TCR:...even going back to the Armenian poet, Siamanto and his book of poems based on the letters that your grandfather wrote.

PB: Yes, Bloody News From My Friend, which I co-translated, is a book of poems that deals with the Turkish massacres of the Armenians of the Adana province in 1909. My grandfather was there in the killing fields doing medical relief work, and he wrote letters back home to his parents in Constantinople about what he was experiencing. His friend Siamanto got hold of the letters and wrote a cycle of poems from them.

You could say that he was responding to receiving the news.

 Peter Balakian reads his poem, "Rock 'n' Roll"  

TCR: Let's talk a little about some of the revisions. I always think of "The Claim" as one of your central poems, yet you revised it for June-tree. How do you see that poem now as opposed to when it first came out in Sad Days of Light? Do you see it as a central work?

PB: It was important to me, in many ways, because of my interest in experimenting with form. Even though the collage or mult-textual poem, if you will, has its roots in modernism, "The Waste Land," "Paterson," Cantos," etc., I wanted to do something different with this document.

"The Claim" is a human rights lawsuit that my grandmother filed with the U. S. State Department upon her arrival in the United States. She was suing the Turkish government for crimes against humanity in the perpetration of the Armenian genocide. She lost her entire family in August of 1915 in the city of Diarbekir (today southeastern Turkey), when the Turkish gendarmes deported and massacred her brothers and sisters, her parents, her nieces and nephews. All her family's properties and holdings were confiscated or destroyed.

My grandmother, a 25 year-old widow, had the presence of mind to make a legal statement about the crime of race murder, or genocide, as it would come to be called. The document mattered to me for these reasons, but the challenge was to do something with it formally as poetry. I was interested in splicing and weaving a document with a personal lyric. How can you take a document and push it into a lyric and push the lyric into it. So I'm interested in breaking down the boundaries between genres and text as much as I can. I didn't revise it much at all—just clipped a few words here and there.

TCR: You seem to me to have clipped little pieces across a lot different places for the new collection. I had always thought of your work as very tight and sparse to begin with, but when I look back at the early poems, I was really struck by how you'd had left the key image and tried to cut and cul—clip you call it. Is that how you see it? A couple of the poems I was thinking of were "Thoreau" and "Night Fishing."

PB: Those were big cuts. I wanted to get to the core of them. So the idea was to find the core and then let the core stand. They were lyrical engagements that still interested me, so I didn't want to throw them out. I felt that with revision they would better realize their potential.

TCR: In "Winter Revival" you actually combined several earlier poems in one.

PB: I had written a group of poems that used winter landscapes. I thought bringing these six together, or rather pieces of them, into one lyric might better realize what I was after.

TCR: You've mentioned the metaphor of painting several times. I know from your work and the memoir that the decorative arts—the visual arts—are important to you. They were important to your family when you were growing up and also part of your imagination. How do you see your work as "like a painter's"?

PB: I began painting with oil and acrlylics on canvas in college, and I studied art history seriously. I practically had another major in it. I thought even of going on to study art history. The visual arts have always been part of my view of things. I collect antique rugs and some early American furniture. I find sensuality of artifacts very much alive. My poem "The Oriental Rug" is probably my most extensive meditation on an artifact, but the visual arts are important to many of my poems. I have a poem called "Last Days Painting" which deals with a poet's goodbye to his painting studio.

TCR: Do you want to talk about your political activities? I was going to ask you about the U.S. government's action in relation to Turkey last fall. [NOTE: The U.S. Congress almost condemned the Turkish Government for denying the Armenian genocide, but then backed away after pressure from the Clinton Administration.]

PB: I've been involved with a discourse, a movement in some sense, to recover the history of the Armenian genocide. The Armenian genocide is a landmark event in modern history that was lost until the last part of the 20th century. The Turkish government has been engaged in a propaganda campaign to stop the representation of the Armenian genocide in all forms. It's an obscene story of the perpetrator and its legacy denying the Armenian genocide by coercing and blackmailing governments around the world to collude with them. It's an important ethical issue. If governments can censor the truth of history through power politics as Turkey has tried to do with the Armenian genocide, we're all in trouble.

In the Fall of 2000, Congress wanted to pass a simple resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide, and after weeks of pressure from the Turkish government, President Clinton caved in to the pressure and demanded that the resolution not go up for a vote—even though the resolution had the votes to pass. So, in the end, the resolution was tabled. That's corruption—a serious problem.

I guess my strongest feeling is that an artist should be a whole working person, and if life leads him into the political arena as it has lead me, then he should take it up. The struggle for holding onto the memory of the Armenian genocide, which I wrote about in Black Dog of Fate, has propelled me into the civic space. I've given readings on Capitol Hill; I've spent time with senators and congressman. My work with friends and colleagues like Robert Jay Lifton and Elie Wiesel has been very rewarding. I've had the privelidge to work with scholars and intellectuals in many fields on political, ethical, and human-rights issues. Political activism broadens you, makes your world bigger, and that's always good for writing.

In some fundamental way, however, it is always necessary to keep aesthetic issues free from polemics and simple politics. Poetry should never be editorial. Poetry must be faithful to the richness of language, poetic form, and the complexity of experience. But the political sphere should deepen a writer and make his or her work larger, richer, and morally resonant.



Peter Balakian: Interview
Copyright © 2003 The Cortland Review Issue 22The Cortland Review