An Ode to Armenian Poetry

Q&A with Susan Barba

As many of you know, April is National Poetry Month. However, it is also Armenian History Month; I interviewed Godine author Susan Barba who is an Armenian-American poet whose book, Fair Sun focuses on family history and the genocide. Godine published Fair Sun in 2017 and Barba’s next collection, geode, will also be published by Godine.

The interview focuses on what it means to Barba to be a bicultural poet and the status of women in the poetry world, among other topics. It was insightful to get a look at Barba’s thoughts behind some of the issues plaguing female authors today. —Shadin Al-Dossari (Sales and Marketing Intern)

First off, what inspires your poetry?

Curiosity first and foremost — intellectual, sensorial, emotional. It could be one or many disparate prompts — research, reading, art, movies, music, a phrase that comes  into my mind, something overheard, a physical experience, immersion in the natural world, sudden bodily knowledge, digestion of a previously unknown concept or phenomenon — a direct and clear engagement with the world that is connected with the impulse to create, to respond, to take the inchoate and give it form. Then as I write, one poem inspires another, gaps appear in the growing work, and the idea of the poems themselves forming a book begins to develop. A seed that gives way to a seedling, to a plant with many branchings, and eventual flowering, metaphor upon metaphor.

As an Armenian-American woman, how do you balance your dual cultural identity in your poetry?

I don’t think the verb balance comes into it at all. It’s not about identity per se but what being Armenian-American means to me, which is the direct experience of growing up with a grandfather who survived the Genocide, witnessed the murder of his entire family, and was driven from his home permanently. These were stories I grew up hearing and felt compelled to share. Equally it means being connected to an ancient culture and people, having a longer sense of history. It means speaking and understanding another language, feeling bifurcated by language and, remarkably, freed by this bifurcation, feeling language itself to be a malleable medium, a separate reality even.

Can you talk a little bit about linguistic choice as a bicultural poet, specifically as hinted at in “Talking Cure,” for example. Your poetry is in English, but when poetry is translated from a different language, in your opinion is anything lost in translation?

Perhaps my answer above touches on the first part of this question, but to respond to “Talking Cure” specifically — here I had psychoanalysis in mind, but the poem does allude to how linguistic choice is infinite, especially once you start introducing other languages, other ways of talking. To answer your second question, yes, of course things will be lost in translation — the words themselves — but meaning is there regardless. It’s a matter of whether the sound can carry, and the deeper meaning that individual words convey, which is the chiming of sound and sense together. Despite what’s lost in translation, there is so much to be gained, with good translations, that I think our focus should be on the gain, not the loss.

Fair Sun won the Anahid Literary Award. What did this honor mean to you given the presence of Armenia in your poetry?

It’s a great honor, especially because I admire so much the writers who have received it in the past, including Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian, Atom Egoyan, and others. As a student of Armenian, I’ve felt connected to Armenian studies for some time in a scholarly sense, but receiving this award meant to me the inclusion in a literary tradition, the sense that my writing was a contribution to this tradition, that I’d been read, understood, and welcomed in. Finally, I feel it as a great responsibility.

What does the title “Fair Sun”mean to you and this collection as a whole?

The title Fair Sun comes from an acrostic poem by the medieval Armenian poet Nerses Shnorhali, the first two lines of which I quote in the book’s epigram. This poem begins “First light, fair sun.” My grandfather would always recite these lines, and he’d ask me, “why is the sun fair?” and answer himself, “because it shines down equally on everyone.” This idea of a common humanity, a common mortality, and a common dwelling on earth was rooted deeply in me at a young age.

Why did you choose to write “Andranik” in a non-traditional way (in terms of poetic structure)? Do you ever have a feeling of collective memory for something you didn’t experience, but others have?

To answer the first question, in “Andranik” I wanted to avoid finding symbolic equivalents, to avoid figurative language altogether. I wanted the poem to be testimony, transcription of what transpired. The Armenian poet Eghishe Charents’s poem “Mahvan Desil” (Vision of Death) was a model for me, as was Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Holocaust. Above all, I wanted my grandfather’s voice, his way of speaking, his presentation of his story to be preserved, shaped and edited, but his. Which relates to the second question, yes, I suppose in fact, this poem is ours, neither his nor mine alone, which means a collaboration has taken place even after his death, and in this way, and in the repeated readings of this poem, that collective memory is real and alive and continues, just as it does in the psyches and DNA of survivors and their descendants. Of course this goes for all people who have suffered and endured individual and collective traumas, not the Armenians alone.

In these particularly turbulent social and political times, what role does poetry play in expression?

I think poetry slows us down because it is so compacted and compressed. It also has so many tools at its disposal. It can be expressive, but it can also be mimetic, hermetic, performative. Unlike this interview where my words are supposed to be descriptive only, conveying information invisibly, poetry enacts meaning. That’s quite powerful I think and it makes us pay attention to language in a way we’re not accustomed to doing in our everyday lives. We might find answers there, or we might find the relief of complication, of nuance, or simply other words, not the worn-out ones that have lost their communicative power or that further divide us.

Some of the best poets are women. How far do you feel women have come in the poetry world? Do you think they are viewed as equal to men?

I read an excellent article by Diane Purkiss in the Times Literary Supplement recently that emphasized how many early women writers there were, in the English tradition, contemporaries of Milton and Shakespeare whose names are likely unknown to us still, and how these poets have been repeatedly introduced into the canon, but only through excerpts of their work, in order to represent the place of early women in society, essentially for their sociological interest. Purkiss writes, “Women writers of the early modern period have been introduced, and reintroduced, and introduced again, as if the mainstream early modernists were deaf, or very forgetful, elderly uncles.” Obviously this issue is not at all limited to early modern poetry, but I find it a good example of the general problem of reception for women, for poets of color, for any “minority” not included in the “imagined universality” of the canon that so many poets are contesting, and undoubtedly having some success in changing, one hopes, permanently.

Your next book of poetry is going to be published by David R. Godine Publisher. Can you give us an idea of what themes you are going to tackle in this collection? How is this new work different than your first collection?

Yes, the title, geode, should give you a sense of the book, whose subject is the earth in time, from deep time to our time. It’s quite different from Fair Sun. There are not many poems in this new book that are written in the first person, and yet it is a deeply personal book, not in the sense of identity but in the larger sense of being a body, a human body, on this earth. It is a book about this bone-deep, mineral sense of home, being made of the same matter as the planet; it is an ode to and an elegy for the earth.