KAREN KARSLYAN: POET, TRANSLATOR, MUSICIAN, NOVELIST, VISUAL ARTIST.

Karen Karslyan
Photo by Anoush Ajemyan Mkrtchyan

1) What are your poetic origins, influences, goals?

Treating register rolls as films, I drew cartoons profusely, in my early teens, longing to become an animator of Walt Disney’s caliber. Then it was Fidget, a rock band I co-established with Emil Petrosyan; then, in my late teens, it was Lege Artis, an experimental music project (see soundcloud.com/karslyan). I think this combination of experiences prepared a unique platform for poetry. But it was probably my fall in love that catapulted me straight into poetry. Madly and hopelessly in love with a girl, I resorted to writing poems to compensate for the shortage of outlets to burn the excess of love. That was a lot of bad poetry. But it was also a good school. For me poetry used to be just one of a thousand ways to express love, but then love became nothing more than one of a thousand ways to express poetry (as described in a poem of my transitional period, “Love at Every Sight”). This was a tendency toward using language not just as a medium, but exploring its richness as an object, an end in itself, sound/music. Language as a compendium of tender buttons.

I like experimenting with traditional forms and draw inspiration from avant-garde poetics. As part of my poetic influences, I would like to emphasize the works of Lewis Carol, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Daniil Kharms, Guillaume Apollinaire, Garcia Lorca, Paul Celan, John Ashbery, Aram Saroyan, Vagrich Bakhchanyan. The cinematographic language of Sergey Parajanov, Andrey Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alejandro Jodorowsky has also been an enormous source of inspiration for me.

What is your view on contemporary European and North American poetry?

It’s fascinating to see good old avant-garde remain in the forefront of both North American and European poetry in the 21st century, often by shapeshifting into such trends as uncreative writing, (post-)conceptual literature and Flarf. John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, CAConrad, as well as Greek multimedia avant-garde poet Demosthenes Agrafiotis are among the contemporary poets I enjoy reading.

Although I do not identify myself with or limit myself to any particular contemporary literary movements or schools, nevertheless, I like to incorporate their elements and techniques in my works.

3) Armenian poetry is an ancient tradition that has been written about by some of the world’s best-known 20th century authors, such as Hovhannes Shiraz and Missak Manouchian. Hovhannes Tumanyan also wrote movingly in the Armenian tradition. What in your opinion should US poets, particularly younger US poets know about the Armenian tradition?

As diverse as U.S. poets are, it would be hard to tell what they should or should not know. But I would like to dwell on what I find noteworthy. I am particularly fond of the folk poetic tradition as presented in hayrens, an Armenian poetic form popularly associated with secular content, love and erotic verse. It was an amazing phenomenon in the context of the strict religiosity that characterized the Armenian society in those days. I defined my first collection of poems, Գրողի ծոցը (Doomed to Spell, Inknagir, 2010) as a selection of 38 deformed hayrens that celebrate this beautiful medieval tradition and establish a dialogue with the 21st century poetry by deforming its strict poetic structure (a single stanza of four lines containing 15 syllables each). For instance, the last section of the collection is called “Gigantic Hayrens”, where some poems are as long as seven pages or have no line breaks at all.

I am also interested in the poetic tradition of Armenian ashoughs, commonly known as troubadours. I highly value the poetry of Sayat Nova, Armenian medieval ashough, who is internationally best known from Sergey Parajanov’s movie Sayat Nova (also known as The Color of Pomegranates). One of my works in progress is a collage using fragments of his poems and building an alternative narrative in a contemporary context.

It is a pity that the Armenian branch of the Futurist movement and many of its pioneers, particularly a very unique voice like Kara Darvish, remained largely in obscurity for many decades due to the harsh Soviet censorship and the ideology of socialist realism. Fortunately, Krikor Beledian, a French-Armenian poet, novelist and scholar, resurrected that fantastic page of the history of Armenian poetry in a voluminous research called “Armenian Futurism” in 2010.

4) Who are the most interesting new Armenian poets that we should know about and what is it about their work that makes them appealing?

There are a few poets whom I find quite noteworthy. In particular, Violet Griogoryan’s poetry is very colorful, playful, entertaining, and is rarely without irony. Her poetic language is rich and successfully reconciles elements of contemporary Armenian street parlance with those of Grabar, ancient Armenian, which has only survived as the liturgical language of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Emil Petrosyan is a prolific poet who emigrated to Russia and writes in Russian. He is one of very few contemporary Armenian poets who often escape conventional poetic boxes, experiment with form and content. I would also like to point out Tamar Boyadjian. Fragmentation of Western Armenian words and extraction of new meanings in her innovative poems with elements of concrete poetry are quite impressive. There are also other interesting voices, such as Marine Petrossian, Hasmik Simonyan, Tatev Chakhchakhyan, Avetik Mejlumyan, etc.

5) How can literary journals and presses in the United States – such as this one – help to spread the word about contemporary poetics of Armenia?

I believe translating their works, publishing them in journals and anthologies would be the way to go. Even though Armenia is a very small nation and its language is not widely spoken, the Armenian Diaspora is a powerful extension that could compensate the geographical insignificance and help spread the rich Armenian word and culture.

Anthologies of Armenian poetry are another way of promoting Armenian poetry in the United States. I believe a regional anthology that would feature poetry from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan (South Caucasus) would garner even greater interest and reach wider audiences.

6) Would you be willing to work with new American poets on promotion of Armenian poetry? Perhaps can you recommend another person or two that would be good to contact for this purpose?

I would love to contribute to the promotion of Armenian poetry outside Armenia’s narrow borders. And I know people and organizations that would be eager and capable to make a difference. Violet Grigoryan is the editor of Inknagir, an Armenian literary journal. I would also recommend contacting The First Armenian Literary Agency, an Armenian organization that was recently founded with the purpose of promoting Armenian literature abroad.

7) What advice/suggestions can you provide translators of Armenian poetry to American?

I can’t think of any peculiarity that makes translation of Armenian works into English a particularly different experience, considering that both languages are not too distant relatives. However, I believe that the translators should work with the authors to ensure accuracy or at least avoid misunderstanding. In my translating experience, I do the utmost to import as much from the original source as linguistically possible. My personal writing experience, my own occasional time-consuming struggles over a word or a phrase, help me appreciate the effort an author puts in every line. But, of course, there is no universal formula, since some works are literally untranslatable unless the translator takes liberties. Such is, for instance, Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Заклятие смехом” (“Incantation with Laughter”). I had to recreate it in Armenian by exploiting the peculiarities of the Armenian grammar, bending its rules, as well as the principles of word formation and vocabulary. I ended up creating two versions of the same poem, based on two different Armenian words for laughter.

8) Are you currently working on a new project/book right now? If so, is there anything you can tell us about your upcoming edition (poetics, influences, syntax, metaphors, etc.)?

There are several projects in progress: a collection of poems, translation, a short film, a novel, and a few other poetic projects. Currently, I am putting the finishing touches on my second collection of poems. The working title is The Dark Side of the Week. This is a book of poems that can see dreams. The so-called wakeful poems are followed by their own textual dreams (some of which may have been written prior to the poems the textual dream of which they are). Some poems are also textual dreams within textual dreams.

My Armenian translation of Charles Bernstein’s War Stories was published in Inknagir, an Armenian literary journal (http://inknagir.org/?p=4975). Inknagir is currently preparing the publication of Kathy Acker’s Lust in my Armenian translation; the book is expected to published in the fall of 2015.

I am also working on an experimental short film about the challenges that the Armenian language and its unique alphabet face in the context of lingual globalization.

After the second collection of poems, I am planning to resume my work on a novel about the collapse of the USSR and the early tumultuous period of Armenia’s independence. The novel is in Armenian and has been in progress for a few years now.

9) What is the future of Armenian poetry in your perspective? Also, can you tell us the main reason why you write poetry, and what it means to be an Armenian poet in the 21st century?

I believe Armenian poetry in translation has larger readership than the original. Even languages with larger numbers of speakers than Armenian face survival challenge in this globalized world, where English is predominant. Unlike Eastern Armenian, the official language of the Republic of Armenia, Western Armenian, exclusively spoken in the Diaspora, unfortunately, already faces extinction. The number of Armenians may be growing worldwide, but not that of Armenian speakers. Considering the current catastrophic rate of emigration from Armenia (largely due to rampant government corruption, failed electoral system, increasing poverty, and burgeoning oligarchy), as well as the slow but inevitable assimilation and loss of the native language abroad, the future of Armenian poetry written or read in Armenian doesn’t appear to be particularly bright for the time being. Things may drastically improve with the fall of the current puppet authoritarian regime that serves the interests of the good old KGB, rather than those of its own people.

As for the main reason why I write poetry, I like breaking the lines. Poetry is a kind of sublimation of the childish predilection for breaking things. I love poetry in cinematography, and I love cinematography in poetry. I often treat words like actors whom I audition and assign roles to play in my poems. Despite the rigorous selection process, many and sometimes all the word-actors can be kicked right out of the set. I often do multiple takes of the same scene. I often find myself obsessed more by words than the objects or the concepts they signify. In that sense, I am like an average Hollywood movie fan bewitched more by a Hollywood star than, say, the actual often more remarkable personality the star portrayed in a movie.

10) Do you learn anything new about language or the poem when you translate your own work from Armenian to American?

There is a saying: two heads are better than one. In the context of my writing process, it is transformed as ‘two languages are better than one.’ I am a bilingual poet. Translation rarely follows my writing process; it is a part of my writing process. Translating the poem while writing it is like showing a work in progress to a friend and getting valuable feedback. Though both English and Armenian are Indo-European languages, their grammars and vocabularies are distant enough to offer different perspectives on a given text. When I am particularly attracted to the Armenian syntax of a line I often feel tempted to borrow it for the English version despite the awkwardness and vice versa. And sometimes the English translation of an Armenian (or vice versa) word may offer additional layers of meaning, which may end up altering the course of the entire poem. So, translation of my own work not only helps me learn something new about my poems but is capable of rewriting them completely.

Ուռենիների այգում

Ճաքճքած շուրթերի թեփերը սոսափում են
Ուռենիների այգում
Անպարզահունչ ցածրաձայն աղաղակները
Մառախուղի զարդեղենն են
Քամին խմբագրում է նրա աչքերի չափերը
Նրա կոպերը ծառերի սաղարթներից ծանր են

Ամենաստորին հոսանքալարին թառած
Մին ճռվողում է սի բեմոլ
Հարդարում փետուրները ապա ցատկում դեպի
Ամենավերին հոսանքալարն ու կենակցում ֆայի հետ
Կործանելով երաժշտության ավանդական տեսության հիմքերը

Նրա շուրթերը ճաքճքել են երկրաշարժից
Հազարավոր բառեր մնացել են
Փլատակների տակ
Պոկվում են ու ընկնում
Պարարտացնելով ուռենիների այգին
Որտեղ ինչ-որ մեկի բլթակները
Հպվել էին իր բլթակներին
Ու ձայն չէին հանել

Willow Garden

Tr. by Erica Blunt and Arthur Kayzakian

The scurfs of chapped lips rustle
In the willow garden
Unintelligible faint cries
Are the jewelry of the fog
The wind edits the size of her eyes
Her eyelids are heavier than tree foliage

Perched on the lowest power line
E chirps the tone C sharp
E preens then feathers to the highest
Power line and mates with F
Destroying the foundations of traditional music theory

An earthquake has cracked her lips
Thousands of words stuck
Under the ruins
They crumble and fall
Fertilizing the garden of willows
Where someone’s earlobes
Had touched hers
Producing no sound

The Dark Side of the Week

Monnight
Tuesnight
Wednesnight
Thursnight
Frinight
Saturnight
Sunnight

Black Paper*

Poetry is dead
I killed it
Read an email
From a group of
Familiar American poets
I love it when they poke post-post-modern fun
At grandiose notions of the past

Zeus cleaved them into inferior males and females
When the superior androgynes tried to kill Him
After Nietzsche pronounced God dead
The latter drove him insane
Without producing any proof of
His own existence

Poets killing poetry
Subconscious claim to be Überpoets?

We are nihilistic thoughts
Occurring in non-existent God’s brain

Supersonic fighters
Shoot themselves down
By accelerating to top speed
And into the asses of the missiles they fired
War shatters to pieces
Peace is a collage made of those smithereens
My love has the shape not of heart
But fractured lines

Poetry is dead
They say

If poetry is dead
I am a necrophile

* During WWII, a Soviet official letter notifying of a soldier’s death had black margins. In Armenia, such letters were dubbed as ‘black paper.’

Intimate very

I was there
She was there
Three was a crowd

God got it
God got out
We got it going

e+1=0

l
ul
ful
iful
tiful
utiful
autiful
eautiful
autiful
utiful
tiful
iful
ful
ul
l

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