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Poet Celebrates Family Picnics and ‘Great Melting Pot’ of Language

July 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

GREGORY DJANIKIAN, Poet: My name is Gregory Djanikian, and I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Armenian parentage, and came to this country when I was 8 years old. I spent my boyhood in a small town in Pennsylvania, Williamsport, home of the little league, and my acculturation to this country occurred in some ways on the baseball fields of that town.

Now I live near Philadelphia, a city which saw the founding of this nation. I’d like to read a poem called “Immigrant Picnic,” which describes a July Fourth get-together of my immigrant family, who, with American families across the nation, contribute to the celebration of independence.

The poem also describes how we might contribute to that great melting pot that is the English language, that, for many of us who have come from different countries, our difficulties with American idioms often lead to unexpected syntactic constructions and surprising turns of phrase which enrich the language and by which we all are enriched.

'Immigrant Picnic'

'Immigrant Picnic'

It's the Fourth of July, the flags

are painting the town,

the plastic forks and knives

are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,

I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,

I've got a hat shaped

like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what's his pleasure

and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"

and then, "Hamburger, sure,

what's the big difference,"

as if he's really asking.

I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,

slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,

uncap the condiments. The paper napkins

are fluttering away like lost messages.

"You're running around," my mother says,

"like a chicken with its head loose."

"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,

loose and cut off being as far apart

as, say, son and daughter."

She gives me a quizzical look as though

I've been caught in some impropriety.

"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,

"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,

"you're both our children, so why worry?"

That's not the point I begin telling them,

and I'm comparing words to fish now,

like the ones in the sea at Port Said,

or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,

unrepentantly elusive, wild.

"Sonia," my father says to my mother,

"what the hell is he talking about?"

"He's on a ball," my mother says.

"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,

"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll..."

"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,

and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,

"let's have some fun," and launches

into a polka, twirling my mother

around and around like the happiest top,

and my uncle is shaking his head, saying

"You could grow nuts listening to us,"

and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai

burgeoning without end,

pecans in the South, the jumbled

flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,

wordless, confusing,

crowding out everything else.

GWEN IFILL: For more poems by Gregory Djanikian, to see and hear other poets, and to sign up for our poetry podcast, visit our Web site at PBS.org.