Marine Petrossian translated from Armenian with the author and Interviewed by Arthur Kayzakian

ԵՍ ՈՒԶՈՒՄ ԷԻ ԿԱՌՈՒՑԵԼ ՔԱՂԱՔ

Նրանց համար
ովքեր
տուն չունեն
նրանց համար
ովքեր
տուն ունեն
բայց հոգնել են արդեն
դրանից
եւ ուզում են
տուն չունենալ

Նրանց համար
ովքեր
կորցնելու
ոչինչ չունեն
արդեն
կամ էլ չեն ունեցել
երբեւէ
նաեւ նրանց համար
ովքեր
էնքան շատ բան ունեն
կորցնելու
որ հոգնել են արդեն
վախենալուց

Ես ուզում էի կառուցել
քաղաք
բոլորովին նոր
ու տարբեր
գոյություն ունեցած բոլոր
քաղաքներից

Բայց չեմ հասցնի
երեւի
դրա համար էլ
էսօր
նոր տարվա
նախօրեի
էս առավոտը
նստեցի ու գրեցի
էս
բանաստեղծությունը

I Wanted to Build a City

For those
who
have no home
for those
who
have a home
but have grown tired
of having one

For those
who
have nothing
to lose anymore
or have had nothing
to lose
ever
also for those
who
have many things
have so much
to lose
that they
are tired of carrying
the fear of loss

I wanted to build
a city
utterly new
and different
of all the cities that exist

But I am not sure
If I will have the time
for that
so I decided
to write
this poem down
on the last morning
before the New Year

ԱՆՁՐԵՎԸ ԳԱԼԻՍ Ա ՀԱՎԱՍԱՐ

Անձրեւը գալիս ա
հավասար
պուճուրների ու մեծերի վրա
երջանիկների ու դժբախտների
անձրեւը գալիս ա ամեն տեղ
անձրեւը գալիս ա միշտ
ես չկայի անձրեւը գալիս էր
էլեկտրականությունը դեռ չկար անձրեւը գալիս էր
մարդը դեռ մարդ էր ուտում անձրեւը գալիս էր
ես տեսնում եմ որ անձրեւը գալիս ա
անձրեւը չի տեսնում ինձ
իրա համար մեկ ա
ես ուրախ եմ թե տխուր
գայլերն ինձ կերան թե չէ
անձրեւը մարդուց էն կողմ ա
անձրեւը թքած ունի մարդու վրա
ինքը գալիս ա հավասար
պուճուրների ու մեծերի վրա
երջանիկների ու դժբախտների
ախմախների ու խելոքների վրա
սրիկաների ու ոչ սրիկաների

The Rain is Falling Evenly

The rain is falling
evenly
on little and big
the lucky and jinxed
the rain is falling everywhere
the rain is always falling
I was not born and the rain fell
there was no such a thing as electricity
and the rain fell
men were eating men
and the rain fell
I can see the rain fall
but the rain can not see me
for him it makes no difference
whether I am happy or sad
or if the wolves feasted on my flesh
the rain is on the other side of man
we are nothing to him
it falls down evenly
on little and big
the lucky and jinxed
on brainys and blockheads
scoundrels and non scoundrels

ՎԱՅՐԻ ՇՈՒՇԱՆՆԵՐԻ ՆՄԱՆ

Ես առաջ տուն ունեի հիմա տուն չունեմ
էս փողոցներն են իմ տունը
անձրեւ եկավ կանգնեցի ծառի տակ
ու սպասեցի որ անձրեւը վերջանար
հետո քայլում էի իմ համար աննպատակ
թաց մայթերով
ու մեքենաները սլանում էին կողքովս
ջուր շաղ տալով էս ու էն կողմ
ու թրջելով հագուստս
մութն ընկավ
մտա էս սրճարանը
ու հիմա նամակ եմ գրում քեզ
դեռ լավ չեմ հասկացել թե ինչի մասին
հա երեւի էն մասին որ հիմա ես տուն չունեմ
որովհետեւ ինձ տուն պետք չի
հիմա ես նման են վայրի շուշաններին
որոնց մասին ո՞վ էր ասել լավ չեմ հիշում
հա հիմա ես նման եմ վայրի շուշաններին
որովհետեւ գիտեմ որ էս նամակը դու չես կարդալու
կարդալու են ուրիշները

Like Wild Lilies

Once I had a house now a house I do not have
these streets are my home
rain fell I stood beneath a tree
and waited for the rain to stop
then I walked for myself pointlessly
along the wet sidewalks
cars were racing down the street
splashing water around
and wetting my clothes
the night fell
I slipped into a café
where I am now writing you this letter
of which I still do not understand what it’s about
ah yes it’s probably about how I have no house
because I do not need one
now I am like the wild lilies
someone was talking about them long ago
but I cannot remember clearly
yes now I am like the wild lilies
because I know that you will not read this letter
it will be read by others

Interview with Marine Petrossian

What are your poetic origins, influences, goals?

I can’t remember clearly how the decision to become a poet came to me. I was a schoolgirl, some 13-14 years old, and the decision was there. Well, it was not even a decision, but more a belief, a conviction. I was reading all days long and writing poems almost every day, but would not show them to anybody. Why? Because just writing poems does not make you a poet, you have to be able to create something unique to call yourself a poet—this was my conviction. Many years passed, I finished school, then university, and only in 1987, for the first time, I took my poems to be published and they appeared in Garoun literary magazine. In 1987 Armenia was yet a Soviet Republic, part of the Soviet Union, these were the years of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. Then Karabakh movement began in 1988—huge street demonstrations, rallies, marches, sit-ins, strikes—all unprecedented in late Soviet Union. Having started as a movement of solidarity with self-determination struggle of Armenians in Karabakh (then an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan), later the Karabakh movement became also a pro-democracy struggle against communist regime. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia declared its independence. In 1993, only two years later, my first book was published.

Thus the start of my literary life goes parallel to creation of new Armenia. The times were interesting— and also difficult. The transition from one social formation to another brought economic difficulties which were exacerbated by Karabakh war and Armenia’s blockade by Turkey. These were difficult years also for poets. In a country were until recently poetry books often had a print run of 50-100 thousand copies that were instantly sold, people suddenly stopped reading poetry. Maybe because reality was so harsh, poetry became to be seen as something irrelevant and the reader suddenly disappeared. And how were Armenian poets to respond to this? Some just stopped writing. Some stopped writing and entered politics. Some started to experiment, searching for new ways in poetry. Trying to create a conceptual framework for these experiments, I wrote an essay called “Antipoetry, or When the Poet does not Seek an Alibi”. In this essay I define antipoetry as poetry that does not look like poetry and challenges the prevailing notion of it. When poetry becomes too “poetical”, losing its connection with reality, it tries to be reborn as antipoetry, changing its language and “appearance”, trying new ways of relation with “raw” reality. In this essay—it was published in 2000 and aroused lively, often fierce discussions in Armenian literary circles—I analyze texts of Armen Shekoyan and Violet Grigoryan, two contemporary Armenian poets, as vivid examples of antipoetry as I define it. And when I look back to my books published since then, I see that the notion of antipoetry has strongly influenced also my own writing.

Since the publication of my first book in 1993, I have published another four poetry books in Armenia, 2 books in France, one in Argentina, as well as a co-authored poetry book in Catalonia. Presently, my main goal is to have broader reach to international readership. Last year, during my visit to New York for Writers Omi International Residency, I had several opportunities to read self-translations of my poems to American audience. The reaction was really warm. That gave me a great incentive and now I have a plan— to translate all of my best poems into English, to try to publish them in American periodicals and then try to have a book published in America.


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

To answer the question, first of all I want to clarify the relation of Armenian literature to the European one. We distinguish two main periods in Armenian literature: the Old & Medieval period of 5-17 centuries and the New period, starting in the 18th century. At least about Armenian literature of the New period we can state that it is actually a European literature—the same literary movements, the same logic of development.  But because politically Armenia was not part of Europe, its literature was not identified as European and was—and still is—unknown both in Europe and in the world at large. I mentioned above about Garoun magazine where my poems were first published. It was founded in 1967 in Soviet Armenia, in a period following so called Khrushchev’s Thaw, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were relaxed and it had become possible to translate and publish those western writers who were either completely under ban or at least not among the favorites in Stalin’s times. I remember when Allen Ginsberg’s poems appeared in Garoun magazine, in Armenian. They were something new and unprecedented and readers’ reaction was enthusiastic. Well, Soviet period is over long ago, there are no bans, no Iron Curtain. We are living in the era of Internet and open borders, I read American poets online, I often buy their books when I come to America, I sometimes meet them during readings, at literary festivals or residencies. Тhere are many good poets in America, there are many good poets also in Europe, in other parts of the world. At the same time, something seems to be wrong with poetry, something seems to be missing. I don’t mean in America, or in Europe, or in Armenia, I mean everywhere. There are good poets but their works do not stir big disputes, there are no big movements in poetry. I hope to see the day when this will change.


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?

I have mentioned above that Armenian poetry is terra incognita—unknown to the world— and your question confirms my statement. Naming Shiraz and Manouchian “world’s best-known 20th century authors” sounds a joke to me. Missak Manouchian is а famous French-Armenian resistance fighter, not an Armenian poet. As to poet Hovhannes Shiraz, yes, he was hugely popular once, and still is rather popular now in Armenia and Armenian diaspora—largely due to his patriotic verses and his very unique, kind of anarcho-bohemian, personality. But Shiraz is not really known in the world, in international literary context. Actually, the only Armenian poet who is truly known in the world is Gregory of Narek— Grigor Narekatsi— who lived in the 10th century and whose main work, “Book of lamentations”, is translated into many languages. The History of Armenian written poetry starts in the 5th century, when Armenian alphabet was created. Historian Moses of Khoren, in his famous “History of the Armenians” written in the 5th century, cites some poems which are even older—he says these texts were recited or sang in Goghtan region as stories about gods and heroes. Thus, Armenian poetry has history of at least 15 ages and poetry has always been the main genre in Armenian literature. And all this is almost entirely unknown to the world. Waiting for its Columbus.


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

I have named already Armen Shekoyan and Violet Grigoryan—my essay on antipoetry was about them.  In Shekoyan’s poems there is an amazing mix of lyricism with irony and satire, an incredible blend of Christian themes and documentary of everyday life—with real names and actual incidents mentioned. Violet Grigoryan’s first book of poetry published in 1991 made her popular and loved by everybody in Armenia. Then things changed—her later poems aroused a lot of fury, mainly because Violet was deliberately breaking the etiquette rules of what can and what cannot be written, particularly about sex and love. I would mention also Anahit Hayrapetyan, especially her series of poems written during pregnancy—surprising monologs with her baby yet to be born. Avetiq Mejlumyan is another very interesting poet, whose poems are brilliant plays with language.


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

The answer is very simple: translating and publishing Armenian poets, taking interviews, writing about them. You are already doing that. And it would be wonderful if other journals and presses would join the effort.


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?

Yes, it would be great pleasure for me to work with American poets on translation and promotion of Armenian poetry. My English is good, I know very well the Armenian literary landscape and I have rather rich experience of working on anthologies of Armenian poetry. I have selected the poems for anthologies published recently in France (Avis de recherche, Editions Parenthèses, 2006) and in Argentina (Un idioma también es un incendio, Alción Editora, 2013) and both were great success. I would be happy to take part in making an anthology of contemporary Armenian poetry to be published in USA.


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

I would repeat my statement above—Armenian poetry, having rich history of 15 ages, is terra incognita waiting for its Columbus. It is not an easy task to translate Armenian poetry—both ancient or contemporary—but it is worth trying.


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.)?

My last two books in Armenian—“Salad with Shots”, 2011 and “The Pistol has Fired”, 2014—marked a new period in my writing and also in my literary career. My main goal now is to make these poems available to international readership through translations and publications abroad. Last year my book was published in Buenos Aires by Audisea publishers, in Spanish. I was invited to the presentation of the book in the National Library of Argentina, the reception was rather warm and prominent newspaper Página/12 invited me to interview. Presently, I have prospects of having my book published in Russia. Also, I am intensively working on self-translation, to have soon enough poems in English to make a book. These are my main projects so far.


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?

Poetry plays a central role not only in Armenian literature, but in Armenian culture in general. It has been strong and vibrant even during the most difficult periods of our history. Its only problem is its “loneliness”, and it is artificial loneliness created by political circumstances. Are there ways to break this loneliness? I think, if a contemporary Armenian poet succeeds to become world known, interest towards his or her poetry could trigger interest also towards Armenian poetry as a whole, resulting in translations, publications, etc.

Why do I write poetry? Because it makes me strong and happy.


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

Actually, when translating my poems into English, I write them anew. When writing a poem, author chooses among all possible words— to have the best of all possible lines. If during translation you constrain yourself and use only exact equivalents of the words used in original text, you cannot have the best result. This is why I prefer to rewrite my poems in English, making substantial changes, if needed.

Of course there are significant differences between Armenian and English, but they are both Indo-European languages, which means that their similarities overwhelm the differences. Also, Armenian and English are languages of Christian culture, which means that in both of them there exists the ancient layer coming from the translations of the Bible. Bible is not a religious book for me, I see it as a book of poetry. I remember reading it over and over again during my school years, fascinated by charming strangeness of its poetics, and certainly it has influenced my writing. By the way, Bible translation was the first text ever written in Armenian, because when the Armenian alphabet was created in the fifth century, the first book translated into Armenian was the Bible. That is why, somewhere deep in the Armenian language, there exists a layer coming from the Biblical languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. And my self-translation experience tells me that this layer exists also in English language. To make more clear what I mean, I would like to bring just one example out of many. Recently while self-translating one of my poems into English, I wrote these lines: “In many waters / I always regain the feeling of happiness”. Then I asked myself: “Is it normal in English to say ‘many waters’? Maybe not? Maybe the literal translation of ‘shat djerer’ into ‘many waters’ would sound unnatural for an English speaker?” To find the answer, I made a search online and found out that the expression “many waters” is largely used also in English language and that most of the online citations were from the Bible, particularly from Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away”.


Can you tell us a certain poetic device, and how and why it brings emotion to the page?

I don’t think I ever have looked for poetic devices to bring emotion to the page; that is not my goal while writing poetry. During the process of writing, while choosing the words to be put one next to another, my main concern is to rule out falsity in my text. Minimalism is my working principle—I take out all the words that can be taken out. During my interview to Transcript – Europe’s online review of international writing, Jill McCoy, the interviewer, said my poems “call to mind something of the Imagist movement of Ezra Pound and other Anglophone poets working in the early part of the last century” and asked me if I “have a conscious attachment to this ‘group’?”. The question was a very interesting one—Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams are among my favorite poets, but before this question I had never thought about possible connection of my poetry with the Imagist movement. Directness, clarity and lack of rhetoric were among the defining qualities of Imagist poetry and if they are characteristic also for my poems—I hope they really are—well, I would be only glad to be called a 21st century representative of Imagist movement. At the same time, there is a feature in my poems, especially in those of the last period, which is not characteristic, as far as I know, for the Imagist movement. I often mention some documentary elements in my poems—a real name of a person or a place, a real event—and put them into imaginary, often impossible context, thus creating mix of documentary and fantasy, kind of “documentary surrealism”.

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