Podcast • October 28, 2010
Click to listen to Peter Balakian’s reading and conversation with Chris (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Peter Balakian has made “the aftermath of catastrophe” his poetic terrain. He is doubtless best known for his prose ...
Peter Balakian has made “the aftermath of catastrophe” his poetic terrain. He is doubtless best known for his prose memoir of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Inspired by his grandmother’s strange shards of stories and nightmare visions, Balakian’s celebrated Black Dog of Fate (1997) is a classic account of repressed memory among survivors of the Turkish slaughter, and of resurgent memory and activism among diaspora Armenians born in America — near Tenafly, New Jersey, in Peter’s case.
But Peter Balakian seems to have been hooked on poetry even before he understood his family’s history. And his new collection Ziggurat widens the frame of his fascination back to ancient times in Mesopotamia, and up to the 9.11 attack on Lower Manhattan (where Peter Balakian was a teenage mail runner) and the US war in Iraq.
The Ziggurat of his title was the very type of the monumental tower in the ancient world — most famously the Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur, in what is now Iraq, excavated in the 1920’s by England’s Sir Leonard Wooley.
The longest poem in Peter Balakian’s new book is a 43-section lyric in which four strands emerge: A protagonist on the A-train subway heading south under Manhattan is reading Wooley’s history of Ur, recalling his own erstwhile messenger’s intimate knowledge of the alleys and elevators of Wall Street, and reflecting on the news that a former student, now an ABC News correspondent, has been struck and very nearly obliterated by an IED in Iraq.
Peter Balakian has assigned himself a sort of test, he suggests, to see how well his long lyric sequence can weave those four strands of experience: the A-train, long-gone Sumerian glory, an insider’s haunted memory of the Twin Towers, and the explosion of Iraq. Balakian is working an American tradition of longer lyrics that includes Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”; William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”; and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Ears better tuned than mine will probably hear New York echoes of Frank O’Hara as well.
With thanks again to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street in Harvard Square for turning a store into a studio, in support of our continuing series with people “committing poetry” in our times.
Podcast • April 2, 2010
Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ted Bogosian. (28 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Ted Bogosian is one of those uncommon journalists and filmmakers for whom the stark truth of the matter is all that ...
Ted Bogosian is one of those uncommon journalists and filmmakers for whom the stark truth of the matter is all that counts. Truth at the far pole from truthiness. Emotional truth. Historical truth. Negotiable truth, which is to say: politically useful truth. Truth so awful sometimes that most of us — whether victims, perps or bystanders — would just as soon turn away.
In James Der Derian’s “global media” class at Brown, Ted Bogosian is speaking about the PBS documentary that made him famous in 1988: An Armenian Journey was the first, and almost the last, network television treatment in America of the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915. We’re talking as well about the the suddenly hot pursuit of pedophile priests in the Catholic church. Also about Errol Morris’s “feel-bad masterpiece,” the almost unwatched S.O.P., a film search through interviews and reenactments for the truth of Abu Ghraib. And about Kathryn Bigelow’s best-picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, yet another box-office bomb about the American war in Iraq.
TB: Being Armenian requires a different standard of truth telling. What’s in your DNA is this business of overcoming denial… The first thing in my life I remember is standing in my backyard in New Jersey, watching my grandmother, who was a survivor of the genocide, making a pile of rocks and telling me, in her broken English, that “nothing mattered.” And for her to be saying that to a 3-year-old boy, based on what she had witnessed, started my journey toward making that film 30 years later, which was about all the apocryphal stories and all the real stories I had heard growing up. I had to decide for myself which ones were true. And when I did, I had to figure out a way to relate those truths to the world. So I think it’s different for Armenians and for other ethnic groups trying to overcome similar denials.
CL: In other words, truth hounds don’t just happen.
TB: There has to be a powerful momentum, an irresistible force, pushing you in that direction. Otherwise it’s too easy to take the path of least resistance.
Ted Bogosian’s story of his own motivation could be construed as ethnic determinism or something stranger: a rationale for ethnic revenge by journalism. But I think we’re scratching at a subtler puzzle that popped up as a surprise here: what are the journalistic motives that seem to be bred in the bone, or in the family histories that drive a lifetime of the most urgent professional curiosity?