Peter Balakian: Forged by Fire, Shaped by Talent

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By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

Peter Balakian, whether he likes it or not, has become the unofficial chronicler and the narrator of the Armenian Genocide in the American mass media.

Balakian, a professor of English at Colgate University, was known as a first-rate poet by the non-Armenian community before he wrote The Black Dog of Fate, his autobiography, which garnered tremendous reviews — and sales — about a young boy’s desire to fit in and just be the same as everyone else, and finding about the horrific past of his family, survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

“Well, whatever chronicling I’ve done is the result of being a poet for whom the idea of the past is important and one of the domains of the past I’ve written about is the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian cultural past.”

He added, “The most important act of imagination is transformation. Transforming that history into a poetic language that has reach and depth and freshness has been the goal of my work and if I can engage that act of transformation, the history will have another life.”

“Both sides of my family had Genocide survivors, although in very different contexts. It has shaped my understanding of some of the possibilities for the imagination and some of the reaches  of poetry and prose,” he said.

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“I began writing poems in the early 1970s. As a young poet I was engaged with the natural world and the American landscape. After uncovering some aspects of the Genocide experience, my writing changed,” he explained.

“History became an important dimension  of my poems  and a force that became a shaper of the imagination,” he said. Balakian said that one of his early poems, “The History of Armenia,” deals with his grandmother’s survivor experience.. That poem, he said, “opened new possibilities about  of how to transform the past.”

That poem is now part of a new CD by Shout Factory titled “Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006.”

Past Expressed through Poetry

The nature of the past is such that it envelops the present, and deals with traumatic reverberations of the past for Balakian.

And it is not only historic works that add to one’s understanding of certain events in history. Once the event happens, it is over and our whole understanding of the event comes from what’s written about it, he explained.

Literature, he explained, “does much more than document the past, .it gives the historical event a much deeper and more interpretive and imaginative life to  events that are often hard to imagine.”

He added, “A work of literature creates a powerful form of exploration that offers interpretation and meaning and sensual palpability in language that is vivid and humanly engaging.

“The truth is that the event lives on more broadly and universally in literature than in any other form,” Balakian said, noting that film and visual arts also  belong to that category. “Catastrophic events like the Genocide or the Holocaust or the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda are more alive to readers  through artistic works than scholarly works,” he noted. “Of course scholarly works are indispensable.”

He also praised the poems of Siamanto, Taniel Varoujan, Charents and Tekeyan, which he deemed “essential” to a literary embodiment of, in this case the horrors of the ‘genocide period.’

He said he was recently re-reading many of the poems and was “overwhelmed at how very good they are.”

As for books by non-Armenians on genocide and the Holocaust, he praised the poems of Paul Celan, Dan Pagis and Nelly Sachs, and the prose of Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel.

Grigoris Balakian’s Legacy

Balakian said that the memoir of Grigoris Balakian, his great-uncle, which he and Aris Sevag translated and which was published in 2009 (Armenian Golgotha), is one of the most important non-fiction books on the Genocide, as it offers the first-hand point of view of someone who had been selected for execution on April 24, 1915, along with a whole host of Armenian community leaders.

Works on the Armenian Genocide are much more mainstream now, he said, cautioning however that it is still hard to sell a book on the subject in general. “The niche has opened up and there is awareness about it as an important chapter of history” he said.

Balakian said that he has just finished a new book of poems, Ziggurat, which will be out in September. He is also working on a book of essays on poetry, art and culture.

This month, of course, has been a particularly tough one for him. Not only is he touring various cities and speaking, he also inaugurated Genocide Awareness Week at Syracuse University, focusing on the topic of “The Armenian Genocide and Modernity.”

“The personal voice and the art of seeing have universal reach,” said Balakian about Golgotha, a book that has performed very well in terms of sales. “Our community needs to support writers and all artists,” he added.

“The arts and letters are the legacy of history and if we want our history to have a healthy life in the wider world, we need our community to place a high priority on culture and support it with financial backing. That goes for the making of films, museums, foundations for the arts, and so on,”  Balakian said.

Balakian  is the author of five books of poems, most recently June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000. 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 American magazines and journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, Antaeus, Partisan Review, Poetry and The Kenyon 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). Black Dog of Fate won the PEN/Albrand Prize for memoir and was a New York Times Notable Book. His other non-fiction book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book and a New York Times and national bestseller. He is also the author of Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields (LSU, 1989).

Balakian was born in Teaneck, NJ and grew up there and in Tenafly, NJ. He has taught at Colgate University since 1980 where he is currently Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the department of English, and director of Creative Writing. He was the first director of Colgate’s Center For Ethics and World Societies. 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 (with Nevart Yaghlian) of the book of poems Bloody News From My Friend by the Armenian poet Siamanto. 

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