Using poetry to shed light on the worst of memories, including genocide

JOHN YANG: Now: how a writer is coming to terms with his family's own traumatic past, and how his use of poetry's distinct style helps him grapple with history.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

And we should warn you, viewers may find some of the images disturbing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Balakian grew up amid the security and postwar economic boom of New Jersey's suburban American life. He played football and worked as a stock boy in Manhattan. He also early on became a reader and writer of poetry.

PETER BALAKIAN, Winner, 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: "The day comes in strips of yellow glass over trees. When I tell you the day is a poem, I'm only talking to you and only the sky is listening."

JEFFREY BROWN: It would lead to encounters with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and over the years seven collections. The latest, "Ozone Journal," just won the Pulitzer Prize.

But from his grandmother beginning at an early age, Balakian heard occasional hints of a darker family history set in Armenia. And he began to explore a past that remains fought over to this day, the expulsion and killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. Many members of Balakian's family died. Others, like his grandmother and aunts, survived after a horrific flight on foot.

Balakian would write about these events in history titled "The Burning Tigris" and in a family memoir, "Black Dog of Fate."

PETER BALAKIAN: One of the reasons for my writing "Black Dog of Fate" was to try to make sense of growing up in a family in which a traumatic history was really repressed. It wasn't spoken about. It was silenced.

And yet the leakages that I experienced as a kid growing up in affluent suburbia were beguiling and weird and strange, and they stayed with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leakages as in like little hints or stories, things you would over hear?

PETER BALAKIAN: Sure, things I would overhear, even my grandmother's kind of weird dreams and folk tales which would drift on to me.

You pick up things and you didn't know where to put them. They were almost deracinated. So, in adult life I came to look back at those — at those fragments and encoded messages of a traumatic history. And it really drove me, in part at least, to work on what became a memoir, a coming of age story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did it work with poetry? Were you discovering poetry at the same time you were sort of discovering this history?

PETER BALAKIAN: Poetry came first.

It was an immersion for me as a college student in the early 1970s. I began writing poems with a kind of passion, and I never stopped. I was working my way as a young guy in his 20s writing lyric poems. And around the mid to late 1970s, for various reasons, the news of history started percolating in me.

And I started understanding more of the big picture of my own family's historical experience as genocide survivors. The poem in its unique form, its form of compressed language and particular kinds of probe images, I like to call them, or incisive, compressed image language, is capable of going to history and its aftermath in ways that no other literary form can.

"Who drowned waiting in the reeds of the Ararat plain? There, the sky is cochineal. There, the chapel windows open to raw umber and twisted goats. There, the obsidian glistens and the hawks eat out your eyes."

JEFFREY BROWN: Many Armenians, including Balakian's grandmother, fled into what is today Syria. Most were killed or starved to death along the way.

PETER BALAKIAN: As many as 450,000 Armenians died here.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2009, just before the civil war began, Balakian joined a "60 Minutes" crew in Syria for a report on their fate.

PETER BALAKIAN: Evidence comes in many forms. It comes in photographs, it comes in texts and telegrams. And it also comes in bone.

It was extraordinary then to be there. Looking back at it now, I feel like it's a dream. But for me, it was also exciting to be there, because there's a very rich Armenian culture and community in Aleppo and a gorgeous church. And so all that was a kind of connecting with a diasporan culture.

And then when the war started, when the war began to just destroy all of this, I would look on, on the screens and on the TV images and the computer images with pain and disbelief that, just in the little case of Armenian cultural life there, churches that were hundreds of years old were gone. Whole communities were disbanded.

And if that was true just for the smaller Armenian population of Syria, we all knew what was happening to the broad Syrian population.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Peter Balakian, congratulations. Thank you.

PETER BALAKIAN: Thank you.

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