Peter Balakian: Using poetry to shed light on the worst of memories, including genocide

From his grandmother beginning at an early age, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Balakian heard occasional hints of a darker family history set in Armenia. And he began to explore a past that remains fought over to this day, the expulsion and killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. Many members of Balakian’s family died. Others, like his grandmother and aunts, survived after a horrific flight on foot.

Balakian would write about these events in history titled “The Burning Tigris” and in a family memoir, “Black Dog of Fate.”

“One of the reasons for my writing “Black Dog of Fate” was to try to make sense of growing up in a family in which a traumatic history was really repressed. It wasn’t spoken about. It was silenced. And yet the leakages that I experienced as a kid growing up in affluent suburbia were beguiling and weird and strange, and they stayed with me,” Peter Balakian said in an interview with PBS.

“I began writing poems with a kind of passion, and I never stopped. I was working my way as a young guy in his 20s writing lyric poems. And around the mid to late 1970s, for various reasons, the news of history started percolating in me,” Balakian said.

“And I started understanding more of the big picture of my own family’s historical experience as genocide survivors. The poem in its unique form, its form of compressed language and particular kinds of probe images, I like to call them, or incisive, compressed image language, is capable of going to history and its aftermath in ways that no other literary form can,” the poet added.

“Who drowned waiting in the reeds of the Ararat plain? There, the sky is cochineal. There, the chapel windows open to raw umber and twisted goats. There, the obsidian glistens and the hawks eat out your eyes.”

Many Armenians, including Balakian’s grandmother, fled into what is today Syria. Most were killed or starved to death along the way. In 2009, just before the civil war began, Balakian joined a “60 Minutes” crew in Syria for a report on their fate.

“It was extraordinary then to be there. Looking back at it now, I feel like it’s a dream. But for me, it was also exciting to be there, because there’s a very rich Armenian culture and community in Aleppo and a gorgeous church. And so all that was a kind of connecting with a diasporan culture,” Peter Balakian said.

“And then when the war started, when the war began to just destroy all of this, I would look on, on the screens and on the TV images and the computer images with pain and disbelief that, just in the little case of Armenian cultural life there, churches that were hundreds of years old were gone. Whole communities were disbanded. And if that was true just for the smaller Armenian population of Syria, we all knew what was happening to the broad Syrian population,” he added.

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