Conducted by Rebekah Presson Mosby
NL: Did your family come through Ellis Island?
BALAKIAN: My mother’s family came through Ellis Island. My grandmother was an Armenian genocide survivor who survived a death march from her home in Diarbekir, which today is in Turkey. In 1915, it was a multicultural city of Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and with a heavy Armenian historic presence. Nearly everyone in her family, from 2-year-old neices and nephews to her 75-year-old parents, was murdered by the Turkish gendarmes on Aug. 1, 1915. She and her two infant daughters, and her first husband, were put on a death march, which she and her two little girls survived. She spent some time in Aleppo, Syria, after the genocide, when World War I was still going on, and was finally able to come to the United States in the spring of 1920. So, yes, Ellis Island is an important place on the epic map in my family history.
NL: I was struck by something you said once about how you started out as a nature poet and then you became more engaged by politics; I’m getting the feeling that, even though your poem “Ellis Island,” from June-tree, is informed by your family history, you’re trying to move back into the natural world more often. Is that true?
BALAKIAN: I started writing in the 1970s with a strong sense of an American tradition that had to do with the natural world and also the psychological and spiritual dimensions that the natural world. I’ve never fully left that love and sense of the mystery of nature. Yes, at a certain point, the voice of history became increasingly important to my work and, in my case, family history, the history of the Armenian genocide, the diasporan experience coming out of the genocide, became important parts of my writing. But the sensuous thrill of nature has always been alive for me, even in some of these darker poems. I don’t feel like I’ve ever left that world. I like to fuse as many layers of reality as possible. So, history and the natural world can always mingle and should mingle.
NL: One poem in which you do a tremendous amount of layering is the one about visiting Anne Frank’s home.
BALAKIAN: Yeah, a poem called “Lowlands.”
NL: That goes from your daughter to Anne Frank, to the natural world, to history . . .
BALAKIAN: To a 17th-century Dutch painting in the lowlands and to my son’s treatment for leukemia (he’s four years away from that now) . . . to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I believe that the expansiveness of contemporary life is a challenge, and, as a poet, one wants to embrace and incorporate as much as one can in a lyric poem. When I can find the right links, the right hook-ins, the right ways to shift and slide and move or jump and juggle and leap, I like to. More and more in my newer poems I like those processes of quick-paced movement and exploration.
. . . On my book tour in Amsterdam
an Indonesian journalist asked me how
genital contact could bring a President down.
Histerica Passio dragged our quarry down.
“Isn’t that Yeats?” she asked. We giggled but just kept
the tape going. Through the window the canals shined
like they were varnished,
and I could see the lines beginning to form in front
of the Anne Frank House already at 8:30.
The charm of the brown brick
like something out of Vermeer—an absurdity,
as if it were a gloss
on the idea of Jews hiding out in the suffocating dark.
A girl your daughter’s age menstruating there.
NL: When you make a poem that combines all those disparate elements, does it in some way make the world more clear or comprehensible to you?
BALAKIAN: I always want a poem to bring some degree of illumination, and in that sense, clarity is important to the bigger vision one hopes his or her poem can engage in. So, clarity in one sense. One wants those moments of illumination, of deeper insight, perhaps of epiphany, if one can use that word. I’m always striving to open things up to more complexity and to the finer threads and filaments that take us to new places. So I suppose I hope the poem can do both, simultaneously: be clear, have illumination, but also be complex and multi-layered and really allow us to experience some things that don’t have answers but that keep unfolding with more questions. You open one window and you find a room and it has another window and you want to go there and keep opening the next window and keep going on that journey.
NL: On a more practical level, does connecting your son to a pile of leaves or your daughter to Anne Frank—does that help you make a clearer connection with them or understand them better?
BALAKIAN: That is part of the metaphoric process of poetry. And yes, I think that you do add more expansiveness to your understanding of what it is you’re exploring. While I wouldn’t want to make any simplistic connections between Anne Frank and my daughter in this poem, I feel that the poem is making bridges between the things that may have seemed disparate before I came to writing the poem.
NL: You deal on a more-or-less daily basis with some difficult issues. You’re involved with trying to bring the Armenian genocide to the light of day. Your son has been very ill. Does writing about these things help you personally in any way? What goals might you have?
BALAKIAN: Just a footnote on my son. He’s fine, and he’s almost four years out of his leukemia, but he did go through—we all went through—a tough period when he was first diagnosed and had to go through treatment. Thank God—knock on wood—thank God for modern science.
NL: Can art help us wrestle with difficult issues?
BALAKIAN: I think it can as long as one is faithful to the materials and not to the abstract concepts. I’m not much interested in abstract concepts, and I don’t write poems for social justice; I don’t write poems for unloading my feelings of whatever trauma or whatever might be my son’s health issues. I feel that in some way, Nietzsche was right when he said that poets are the worst of all people because they’ll exploit anything and everything for their art. I hope Nietzsche didn’t mean it in a callous way . . . a simplistic way . . . or a crassly exploitative way. As a poet I want to have my antennae always hooked into things that have significance, that matter, that are necessary and that in some way belong to me—that I can make a legitimate claim to. I don’t want those issues to be writing the poem, but I want them to feed it and fuel it for the larger engagement with the materials and the consciousness that I, as a poet, am always pursuing.
NL: What is it that you want the poem to do, then?
BALAKIAN: To go back to Yeats’ old notion—poems aren’t about things, but they embody things. I want to create a poem that is able to embody the complexity of life and the experience of being in the world in this particular time and place and moment. I want to find the most authentic and, for me, lush and sensuous language I can, and bring that language to bear on some of the edgy realities that I think are essential to charting the human experience in our time. That’s what I want the poem to do.
NL: So you’re looking to put the language at the service of the idea.
BALAKIAN: Everything has to proceed through the language; poetry must begin there, in the words of creating sounds, of rhythm, of music. Poetry, when it’s working right, embodies the energies, the frequencies, the dynamisms of a culture and of a moment and of the human experience. So you want to find the energy in your language that can go out there and make those new road maps for our age. And you want those road maps to continue to be alive for people to travel down after you’re gone. That’s what art’s for I think.
I was running
in a drizzle
with the morning paper.
When I told her
I was hungry, she said,
in the grocery store
a man is standing
to his ankles in blood,
the babies in East Orange
by the machinery
on this long road.
—from “The History of Armenia”
NL: ”The History of Armenia“ is a good example of what you were talking about, about using language in a lush and voluptuous way to talk about history. To be honest, I think this is almost a language poem. I’m not sure I understand what’s going on; but I like the way it sounds, and it’s very moving. It’s a dream, I take it.
BALAKIAN: It’s really a poem conceived of as what today is more professionally called “post-traumatic stress syndrome” (Those were not words I had in my vocabulary then). It’s a poem about trauma and the aftermath of genocide, and it suggests something that Faulkner once said: “The past isn’t over; it isn’t even past.” I think I felt that way when I was working on this poem. I wanted some way to get hold of my grandmother’s genocide-survivor experience and the trauma she carried with her for her entire life: a trauma she rarely spoke about openly. I knew that I couldn’t return in any concrete sense, to Anatolia, to the Armenian provinces of Turkey in 1915. So I wanted to bring the whole thing here, to the place where I knew my grandmother in the 1950s, in this case, East Orange, New Jersey, when the Eisenhower superhighways were going up. You’re right, there’s a dream sense about the poem, as if my grandmother were appearing to me in the sort of traumatic space, which is at once in time and once frozen out of time. I imagine the trauma of genocide recreated in the new world, with me in the picture trying to touch some of that experience through the poem. That’s why it has a surrealistic kind of displacement to it.
NL: When you start a poem like this, I assume you start with images you got directly from your grandmother. Then, does your imagination take over or what happens after that?
BALAKIAN: In this case, the concept of the poem is an invention, but the setting of the poem, is based on the details of my own childhood with my grandmother in East Orange on a given Saturday afternoon. We might go get the paper at the corner drug store and then she would take me down to watch the great highway being built, with its bulldozers and steam hammers and other machines that fascinated me. In that sense, it has its autobiographical setting, but then the poem moves to a symbolic place, a place that involves trauma and genocide-survivor experience.
NL: You’ve done so much work on behalf of genocide recognition. Do you feel at this point like it happened to you?
BALAKIAN: I suppose. As we immerse ourselves in our work, we get close to the experience in certain psychological and symbolic and imaginative ways. Certainly, in writing my memoir, Black Dog of Fate, I spent so much time doing archival reading and doing research about the genocide and repositioning, situating myself in the landscape in some Armenian provinces of Eastern Turkey at the beginning of the century, that I felt a—sensual and textural closeness to the place and the event. I don’t think one could ever say it feels like it is happening to one. That would assume too much—the sacred horror that the victims and survivors went through can never be known by somebody who wasn’t there. But we carry it on psychologically, symbolically, with language, with consciousness, with scholarship, with art. In my case, I am certainly a legacy to this century’s first genocide. Yes.
NL: There’s a certain level of anger you need in order to deal with this. Is that true?
BALAKIAN: The issue that haunts Armenians on the planet in this time is the persistent denial by the Turkish government of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians who were living on their historic homeland—the century’s first genocide—by the Young Turk government in 1915. The Turkish government today is engaged in a wholesale propaganda campaign to censor the story of the Armenian genocide and prevent its recognition. It is a bizarre situation; and the world is, I think, enraged at the Turkish government for its moral depravity on this issue. As the Turkish historian Tanar Akcum has said, Turkish society needs therapy so it can come to terms with its past. The Turkish government and much of the society it has socialized become hysterical when they are confronted with the crimes of their past. (This is one reason Turkey has one of the worst human-rights records today.)
They want to blame the victims for the past and then falsify the past. So this is a tragic situation. It engages one at deep ethical, personal and moral levels. So some of my work has sent me out into a broader political, civic arena of a kind that I never imagined when I was a young nature poet in New Jersey. But I am engaged in it now, and it’s gratifying to see how much progress has been made on this front and how receptive the world is to wanting this history to find its formal, mainstream place in the annals of world history.
NL: Do you see your political work—or perhaps all your other work—as an aside to your work as a poet? Or is it simply an integrated part of the whole?
BALAKIAN: I feel that my life as a poet has its own energy and engine, and the elements of one art are always being pursued in the artistic domain. As I said, poetry should never be a vehicle for polemical ideas. In that way, I compartmentalize the two worlds. I can be part of the polis. I can be in the civic space. I can be a worker for human rights and international, ethical issues and issues surrounding genocide—not only the Armenian genocide but the holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian genocide—they all matter to me. I can be in those places without having them sit on my art. There are many writers who travel back and forth between those zones. I don’t feel that it makes one schizophrenic but rather a bigger person in the sense that it opens up one’s imagination. It’s true that one has to be careful about keeping things in order in that larger universe.
NL: What’s the order though? That’s what I want to know.
BALAKIAN: Oh, I don’t mean that in the sense of priority.
NL: Lack of chaos . . .
BALAKIAN: That’s important. Some chaos, some order. When one is pursuing the artistic materials of one’s poetry,
one should be pursuing the artistic materials of one’s poetry and not spending time using the poem as a megaphone. When I want a megaphone, I have plenty; I can go out to public forums and speak. I do speak out there in the civic space, and that’s good. When I come back and work on my art, I’m involved with the materials that belong to that craft. I find that they fuel each other in a positive way, that the public and civic space can be a good thing for my art as long as I am alert to the necessary demarcations I need to make when separating the worlds.
NL: Presumably, like all poets, you think you’re getting better; I just wonder what you’re doing differently that maybe you’re more excited about.
BALAKIAN: I’ve enjoyed what for me has become a more expansive lyric poem—a lyric poem that has more layers, that enables me to shift among seemingly disparate domains of experience, and yet bring those domains together. I find the multi-layered poem exciting because we live in a culture in which there are fast-paced connections being made, and I like to see the poem become an embodiment of that multi-layered experience. I mean, not only the simplistic sense that this is happening now or it’s a daily world but the sense that we can move among history, Dutch still-life painting of the 17th century, Anne Frank, a child with leukemia in 1998 and the Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton scandal. All those things can be part of a flowing and connecting and vibrant lyric poem, as in the poem earlier, “Lowlands.” That excites me and challenges me, and I want to keep pushing in that direction.
NL: Your ability to handle all that material in one poem, such as “Lowlands,” is that a result of having written for so many years or is it a result of being a different person now?
BALAKIAN: The two go together. That is, we are different people as we evolve; and the challenge to keep changing and moving to the next place, as a writer, has to be central to your creative juices. At the same time, you want continuity in your sensibility, and you want to believe in the kind of important threads that run through your work. One wants to be pushing one’s craft, the idea of one’s form, the complexity of one’s language; but if you’re not also pursuing your own growth, your inner growth, then you’re not pushing it to the bigger place. So it’s always about bringing together the aesthetic with the moral, if you will, or the spiritual—the inner growth. I think it was the Catholic Bishop Peale who once said, “Commitment without discernment is mere idolatry and discernment without commitment is mere effeteism.” As a poet, I want to bring those two together. I want to keep commitment and discernment as intertwined as possible.