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.

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