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
Poems read during the interview (in streaming audio):
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.
TCR: 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 afterin my case, in the aftermath of a
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
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
PB: Or "Geese Flying over Hamilton,
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.