Poetry Series Closes with Armenian Author Greg Djanikian

Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Peter Balakian introduced the third and final poet to visit Colgate in conjunction with the 2013 Spring Poetry Series last Wednesday, April 3. Greg Djanikian, who was greeted by loud applause in the Lawrence Hall’s Ho Lecture Room, is famous for his focus on the way in which the Armenian genocide impacted the poet’s family and cultural heritage as well as its effect on his own life of migration first to Egypt and then America. Balakian, whose work also uses familial history to explore the Armenian genocide and cross-cultural exploration, introduced Djanikian’s prose and poetry as “electric energy” and able to “bring sight to insight.” Djanikian, thanking the crowd of students and faculty for their attendance, explained that he writes to “give those who died without the power to share their stories the ability to live within his works.”

Djanikian’s five books of poems draw inspiration from his childhood in Alexandria, Egypt where he was influenced by grandparents who had fled the violence of Armenia in the early 20th century. His poetry’s descriptions of diaspora relocation and American nostalgia weave together comedy, grief and dislocation as they attempt to come to terms with genocide and its repercussions on a nation. Djanikian’s collections of poetry, “The Man in the Middle,” “Falling Deeply in America,” “About Distance,” “Years Later,” and “So I Will Till the Ground” have appeared in numerous journals including “The American Poetry Review,” “Boulevard,” “The Georgia Review,” “Iowa Review,” “Poetry” and “The Southern Review,”as well as in many anthologies. The acclaimed poet currently directs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Reading from his most recent work, “So I Will Till the Ground,” Djanikian explained that the writing process for this book of poetry “consumed him” as he struggled to grasp the necessary language to write about the enormity and violence of genocide. The author’s poems discussed a range of compelling and distressing topics, including the dangerous roads taken by deported families, the impossibility of understanding inhumane actions and the feelings of revulsion engendered by gruesome recounts of genocide. Djanikian’s sonorous voice also chronicled more positive topics, such as his family’s movement through Armenia, Alexandria and America, in the poems, “Pyramids of Giza” and “Alexandria: the City of Languages.” Both poems, which took place around 1955, describe the author as a young boy who is enchanted by stories of American vacuum cleaners and New York autumn leaves as well as the familiar, luscious smells and sounds of his youth in Cairo.

Describing his family’s Armenian rituals in their home in Egypt, such as the unrolling of rugs in the fall and listening to his grandfather’s stories while bathing, Djanikian balanced his own memories with the silence of Armenian genocide victims. However, Djanikian expertly weaves these echoes of a lost people with the comforts and growing pains that accompanied his own, new life in America to create a portrait of his past and future life. From an encounter with a January blizzard in “First Winter in America” to a description of a teenage sexual experience with a first girlfriend during Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, Djanikian’s poetry successfully explores how a person molds their own identity with the “weight of genealogy and blood” pushing against them.