A generation separates the Armenian-American poets Peter Balakian and Susan Barba, yet their stories have striking similarities. Both grew up hearing about grandparents who survived the Armenian Genocide, which claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million people during WWI. Balakian only heard bits and pieces from his maternal grandmother’s past. the only adult survivor in his family of a death march orchestrated by the Ottoman government. Barba’s grandfather was more open about the atrocities he witnessed.
Balakian and Barba (GRS’12) will read their work on Thursday, February 18 at 7:30 p.m. during this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Virtual Reading.
The stories of loss and survival of their grandparents and the Armenian diaspora at large have occupied a prominent place in the work of every writer. Bakalian Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Ozone Journal (University of Chicago Press, 2015) recounts the experience of the lecturer exhuming the bones of the victims of the Armenian genocide in the Syrian desert with a team of television journalists in 2009. The poet’s memoirs in 1997, Black dog of fate, revisits his childhood and the tacit losses suffered by his maternal grandmother. He also wrote the non-fiction book The Tiger on Fire: the Armenian Genocide and the American Response, and was one of the translators of a first-person account of his great-uncle Girgoris Balakian, Armenian Golgotha: A Memory of the Armenian Genocide.
âIn the late 1970s, I started writing poems that engaged a story that preceded my life,â says Balakian. “This story animated me in large part thanks to my knowledge of my grandmother’s experience of the Armenian Genocide survivor story, an experience which had been passed on to me in various indirect ways or through veiled gestures. such as the tales and dreams of my grandmother. “
In “Andranik”, the poem which forms the central section of Barba’s first collection, beautiful sun (David R. Godine, 2017), the speaker (her grandfather) describes seeing her father being murdered by a group of Kurds, who took away his clothes, leaving nothing behind.
âFrom an early age I remember telling him stories about his survival, and hearing these horrific and brutal stories was part of my daily existence, but so were his stories about the homeland he had lost. , folk tales, poems and writings. he knew by heart, âsays Barba.
âThe Armenian Genocide of 1915 involved deadly cultural forces that the modern world is still trying to understand,â said Robert Pinsky, distinguished professor William Fairfield Warren, professor of English at the College of Arts and Sciences and three-time American Poet Laureate. “Peter Balakian’s poems and prose are recognized as the most appreciated understanding of these forces in the English language, an understanding that spans from the specific origins of Anatolia to recent American and world history.”
In his own generation, Pinsky says, Barba âextends Armenian history and the legacy of the genocide into new personal terrain.
âHis work, like that of Balakian, has a special relationship with the field of literature: a first preparatory step for the massacre was an attempt to bring together and remove intellectuals, writers, teachers – everyone from literacy. in the targeted ethnic group. . ”
Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar professor of humanities at Colgate University, has written seven collections of poetry. He says all kinds of stories – not just the Armenian Diaspora – have interested him as a poet, including World War II, the AIDS epidemic and New York City in the aftermath of September 11.
âPoets should write about what stirs their imagination and what makes language emerge from it,â says Balakian. âI have been drawn to certain realities and stories for many reasons. These human stories and dilemmas are rich in meaning and complexity, and they stimulate my imagination. ”
He cites the long literary tradition of poets who have sailed through history “for its depth and meaning”, dating back to Homer and Virgil and including contemporary poets like Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott (Hon.’93) and Pinsky.
His own poems are known for their ability to blend the personal and the political. âThe personal intersection with the historical or social event generates a particular energy, perhaps more depth of feeling,â he says. He takes seriously the role poets play in civic life, whether through their work or through their activism, advocating for change. âWriters respond to language first, but they step into the civic realm when they need to do what they feel obligated to do,â he says.
Outspoken critic of the Trump presidency – a poet described in an interview as “mired in corruption, incompetence and astonishing attacks on democratic institutions and norms” – Balakian was a 2020 founding member of a group called Writers Against Trump, now called Writers for Democratic Action, which has over 2,000 members. âYou don’t have to write about politics to be part of the organization,â he says.
Balakian says he would like the role of poetry in civic life to be more important than it currently is. “I think Americans might find more common ground and imagination if they read poems as part of their life, like they watch movies or television or read the news.”
Barba’s poems also address pressing social issues. His latest collection, geode (Black Sparrow Press, 2020) is a meditation on the environment, the climate crisis, and man’s relationship to the natural world. The poems, writes poet Rosanna Warren, who taught Barba at BU, are “a strange mixture of delicacy and terror”. Barba says she hopes readers feel a sense of urgency in the reading geode, “Because this is what I felt while writing the poems – that there was not a moment to waste, and although this urgency creates great anguish, I hope it is not only the urgency and the anguish that remain with the readersâ¦ in the end, I wanted the book to be an ode to the Earth, not an elegy.
Growing up, says Barba, she dreamed of being an archaeologist or a biologist. It wasn’t until after her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth, taking classes with poets Tom Sleigh and Cleopatra Mathis, that she set her sights on poetry.
She says she finds inspiration in unpredictable places.
“Sometimes it is generated by an encounter with beauty, in art or in nature, an impulse to praise, and sometimes it is generated by confusion, anger, an impulse to protest or to cry or to understand something, âsaid Barba. It often starts with a picture, a piece, a word or a phrase, a fact that I have to archive in my memory, and for that I have to weave it into what is already there, like a bird building a nest, to create this thing done.
A hit poem, she says, is a poem “alive, that you feel, that makes your neurotransmitters buzz, that makes serotonin pump through your body.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, which will be held virtually on Zoom, will take place tonight, Thursday, February 18, at 7 p.m. ET. The event is free and open to the public. Find more information and register here. The readings will be followed by a Q&A.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Reading series was created by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
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