Sunday, December 04, 2011

After All, Who Remembers the Armenian-American Poets?

by Shahé Mankerian

Last night, I had a long, heartfelt conversation with Ms. Lola Koundakjian, the curator and the producer of The Armenian Poetry Project based in New York, the most substantial online poetry bank committed to perpetuate and celebrate the works of the Armenian poet. The reason for my call was simple. I wanted to know if she was aware of any Armenian-American poet that had penetrated the hub of all literary publications, the Norton Anthology of the English Literature.

Why the Norton Anthology? Because The Norton Anthology of English Literature has remained the sine qua non of college textbooks since it first appeared in 1962, setting the agenda for the study of English Literature in this country and beyond. Its editors, therefore, hold one of the most powerful posts in the world of letters, and are symbolically seen as arbiters of the canon. Simply put, if Norton publishes it, the writer becomes a household name.

I had done my homework before calling Lola. I had checked all the Norton and even Oxford editions that I had kept since my college days and failed to find a single Armenian name in any of the indexes. Let me retract, in the Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006), my eyes were titillated when I saw the name Lyn Hejinian. A name can’t be more Armenian than “Hejinian,” I thought, but this excitement was short lived. I was familiar with Ms. Hejinian’s work. Many years ago, I had purchased all her poetry books from the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco because her name made my heart beat with pride. Later, much to my dismay, I discovered Ms. Hejinian’s origins were Irish, and she had the fortune or misfortune of borrowing her Armenianess from her first husband.

Let me confess, I so wished to have misread the names of the greats like Daniel Berrigan as Daniel Berrigian or the famous Romanian poet John Balaban as John Balabanian. Lola tells me to breathe. She emails me with a list of noteworthy publications that have included Gregory Djanikian’s poems. The list includes: Best American Poems 2000 (Scribner, 2000), Poetry Daily: 366 Poems (Sourcebooks, 2003), Anthologies: 180 More (Random House, 2005) edited by Billy Collins, Good Poems for Hard Times (Viking, 2005). This is an impressive list, but it’s no Norton Anthology, I am tempted to write back.

This reminds me, I like to discuss the pentagon of the Armenian-American poets of the second half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. The names of these magnificent five dominate the Armenian-American poetry section of my home library— and libraries and bookstores around the country. The names trickle down as follows: Diana Der Hovanessian, David Kherdian, Aram Saroyan, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Djanikian.

For the last fifty years, these are the names that have squeezed themselves into a predominant position in the American poetry scene. The best poetry journals and magazines have published these names extensively both nationally and internationally. Each poet has published several poetry books by a major publishing house or a major university press. These names carry with them an impressive list of major poetry prizes. Their voices have broadcasted or have been televised; some have cracked the New York Times best-selling list; and some have found their temporary nest in the syllabi of college professors. Time is too short to talk about each poet separately, but remember these names because they have paved the way for a new generation of Armenian-American poets, like Arpine Grenier-Konyalian, Tina Demirdjian, Lola Koundakjian, Armine Iknadossian, Alene Terzian, and today’s top-prize winner Lory Bedikian. By the way, Armenian female poets dominate the Armenian-American poetry scene of the 21st century.

On my recent visit to Chicago, I made a point of visiting the multi-million dollar library of the Poetry Foundation. In this beautiful structure dedicated solely to the art of poetry, with two stories of wall-to-wall shelves full of verse, I became the typical Diasporan Armenian. I neglected the entire Beat Poets’ section; I overlooked rows dedicated to Byron; I even managed to bypass the Bukowski corner. My mission was to find the pentagon, and much to my relief, they were all there: the aging copies of Der Hovanessian, the slanted Kherdians, minimalistic Saroyan, a noticeable collection of Balakian, and my puny but dear selection of Djanikians. These were my Armenian poets, shoulder to shoulder, with the best of them.

So what if no one remembers the Armenian-American poets of the last fifty years. So what if they never make it to print on the thin sheets of the Norton Anthology. So what if they never get invited to major festivals. So what if they never win the Pulitzer or the Nobel. These are our modern day troubadours, who breathe and speak about our Armenianess in the most trite language in the world, English.

They are marginalized. Their books might be forgotten in a dusty, dark corner of a used bookstore, but they came before us. They tasted, smelled, felt, saw, and witnessed better than most of us. And if no one remembers, then the hell with them. Poets write to stir up the soul for a brief moment, and then like a candlewick burn, burn, burn, until the soul or the poet is put out.

Los Angeles
November 22, 2011

This introduction was written in honor of Lory Bedikian, the winner of the 2010 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, for her manuscript, The Book of Lamenting. It was read at her book event in Glendale. 

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