Balakian’s Lyric Voice Resounds in No Sign, His New Poetry Volume

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WATERTOWN — Armenians sometimes wonder if their voice is audible in the world, especially during times of crisis. In the realm of literature, and poetry in particular, there is no doubt that it is, with Pulitzer Prize winning poets like Peter Balakian. Balakian’s work places the Armenian experience on a level of universal significance, not leaving it isolated in the realm of ethnic or folk life, nor buried dead in history. At the age of seventy, he continues to produce prolifically. His newest volume of poetry, No Sign (University of Chicago Press, 2022), just published, is another masterful collection weaving together all sorts of elements of contemporary life, with an Armenian perspective and memory prominent.

Peter Balakian

This 85-page book is divided into four sections. The first contains a variety of poems flitting between the past and present, with Covid, the Vietnam War, world politics and the bitterness of history, including Armenian political disappointments, Arshile Gorky, various foods, beautiful flowers, and even the duduk making appearances. The poems of the second section all are named after various fruits, vegetables and foods, and are often palpably sensual in nature. They connect with various memories and experiences of the author, with deeper reverberations.

The third section of the book, unlike the other sections, is composed of a single longer poem bearing the same title as the eponymous volume. More complex than the other poems, with many parts, it is in the form of a dialogue between an estranged couple, with everything from the geological origins of the earth to current environmental dangers, Hiroshima, war, love and cinema questioned and discussed.

The final fourth section reverts to a medley of poems meditating on history and the present. The Armenian element is strongly present, with the statue of Anahit at the British Museum, Ani “the ruined city,” Hrant Dink, and Armenian Istanbul making their appearances.

Making Art

Balakian stated, “I have been at this art for a while now. It is my life’s work.” In addition to poetry, he is the author of four books of prose, including a memoir, nonfiction studies and a book of essays. However, he said, “The main river for me is the poetry river, and the others are tributaries off of it. I published my first poems in literary journals around 1974, and pretty much I published one book of poems every five years since 1979, give or take a year. I continue to work in nonfiction forms, especially in the essay, and I have been writing short political pieces in the past decade.”

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When asked whether he felt his approach or perspective as a poet may have changed over the years, he said, “I think that what marks a writer’s continued journey is the ongoing exploration of one’s medium, which is for the poet language. How does one as a poet continue to evolve as a maker of inventive forms and to continue to make language that is satisfying and challenging and that passes a writer’s personal test for growth? While your subjects and issues define you as a writer, it’s the language that is essential for your subjects to become art. I don’t want to comment on my work. Critics can do that, but for me, the continued pursuit of my art is the way I measure my own continuation as a poet.”

He further elaborated, declaring: “I think that continuing one’s work as an artist should embody one’s own evolution as a person and I find the complexity of human existence always demanding that pushes forward in one’s own approach to writing whether it be about human relationships, history, culture, the self. All of these preoccupations should lead one into deeper zones of thought and more inventive and realized language.  In my work over decades, I can only say that I hope the work reflects human growth and evolution. That is part of the life journey, so readers find different things in the works of writers as they experience a writer’s evolution. The main thing is to keep evolving.”

Balakian did have one caveat for readers, common to most authors. Everything in a poem has not necessarily happened to the poet. His works, though they may express intense personal emotion and often are narrated in the first person, are not autobiographies or memoirs. He said, “They are often complex fusions of personal and imagined experience. If a poem were a memoir, then the poet would have to tell the reader, this is autobiography in verse, but poems are fictions about the real. Often, my poems are very much embedded in history, in memory, in culture, so that they have my real reality in them, but everything in them is not an autobiographical experience; poems are works of imagination.”

His work is threaded with references to history, art, culture, politics, and Balakian said, “This is part of my writerly universe. I don’t think much about cultural references as difficult or not difficult, arcane or contemporary.” He noted that T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound created the new modern era of the poem as a container of culture, intertextuality, history, and so on. And the modern reader (“The Waste Land” was published in 1922) quickly understood that it was her or his job to unpack the poem.

Even with the Armenian material, unfamiliar to many, people can look them up he said, exclaiming: “It couldn’t be easier in the digital age. It is incredible. You can look up anything in two seconds and read about it, like the head of Anahit at the British Museum which is the subject of one of my poems in this book.”

He does, however, note sources in a Notes page when he has used something or relied on something specific from another text. There are six such notations for his long poem for “No Sign.”

Topics: poetry

Balakian identified one specific structural or formal evolution in his verse. While it is true that every book of poems will have a slightly different shape and kinetics given the poet’s evolution, he observed: “I think starting with ‘Ziggurat,’ which I began writing around 2003, I began to pursue this longer form of a multi-sectioned, multi-sequenced poem, and I find this very satisfying in that it allows me to pursue more openness, more space. I write about this in my essay called ‘Writing Horizontal.’ And this approach to poetry, to lyric language, is a more expansive way of telling a story while going to a deeper lyric place with language. The long poem has a rich tradition in American literature. I’m trying to push those boundaries. ‘A Train/Ziggurat/Elegy’ and ‘Ozone Journal’ are now joined by the 45-section-long poem in my new book No Sign to make a kind of trilogy.”

The Armenian Element

Balakian has evinced from the very start of his career a special talent of turning even the smallest details of the Armenian experience into items of universal significance, let alone some of the magnificent yet fairly unknown Armenian cultural accomplishments.

Balakian confirmed that the Armenian heritage remains vital for him, asserting, “There continues to be an ongoing preoccupation with Armenian culture and memory and history in this book, as in my other books. As I continue to reencounter Armenian culture, my poems move in the new directions they do. I hope readers will find these both particular and universal. I continue to find rich layers of meaning as I explore the Armenian cultural realities.”

It is not just Armenia that remains an animating source of energy and inspiration for Balakian. His Armenian grandmother Nafina Aroosian — an Armenian Genocide survivor who was the only survivor along with her infant daughters of her large family in Diyarbekir — also returns to appear in several of the fruit and vegetable poems in section two of the book. She was the primary focus of his acclaimed memoir Black Dog of Fate.  In wonderment, Balakian said, “She just keeps bringing me meaning. My grandmother continues to bring me to places. That seems to be a fact of my life. “

Covid/Current Politics

As a writer, Balakian is attuned to all types of developments in society. He declared, “I am preoccupied with the fragility of the human species and the planet’s future.” The Covid pandemic affected him as a writer, and there are four poems in the first section of the book that touch upon it in one way or another. The rest of the poems were already finished in 2019 but he said he was able to slip these in at the end of the publication process.

For Balakian as a writer, the pandemic actually had a positive effect. He explained, “I felt very fortunate to be protected during the pandemic, because my job continued at Colgate University. I taught my classes on Zoom, as all of us did, so I was home, without any worries about job stability, though I, like everyone, was worried about my health. With the lockdown starting in March 2020 a thousand distractions all of a sudden disappeared from my life. You are not running to airports, running out to dinner with friends, or having dinners at your house and hosting guests. All this social life and travel stopped. This of course is a wonderful condition for a writer.” He was able to focus, think and write more poems and prose essays.

It is not only disease, war and climate change, mentioned in his new poems, that affects the future of humans. “I think one thing that is particularly grueling right now is to experience – in a way that may be more extreme than I have ever experienced in my life – the fragility of democracy. We have experienced unprecedented assaults on democracy during the Trump administration and we are experiencing the breakdowns of some democratic countries around the world and reversions to authoritarianism. We are seeing this now. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a brutal imperialist act of authoritarian aggression against a democratic country and it is devastating to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and also to democracy in a more global sense. It underscores this terrifying movement toward strongmen, authoritarianism and antidemocratic society,” exclaimed Balakian.

As a consequence, Balakian has tried to respond by becoming a founding member of the organization Writers for Democratic Action, which has around 3,000 members worldwide who are working hard for voter registration and in defense of democratic electoral procedures. He proclaimed, “It makes sense to be more activist in this way. I cherish the great parts of American democracy. You can’t take it for granted. You have to fight for it. It’s better to do what you can rather than sitting around, thinking this is so bad.”

No Sign is available through the University of Chicago Press website as well as through other major outlets.

Book Launch Poetry Reading for No Sign on March 23.

In celebration of No Sign, Balakian will participate in a Zoom conversation with Kathleen Ossip on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. EST. Ossip’s most recent book of poems, July, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2021, and her other works have also been selected for prominent prizes and awards. Click here to register.

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