The Inspiration Behind Ziggurat, A Collection of Poems Concerning 9/11

Cambria Litsey


Maroon-News: What was the inspiration behind Ziggurat?

Peter Balakian: Some of the origins of the book reside in my having been a mail-runner for a steamship company in lower Manhattan in the late 60s and early 70s; it was my summer job when I was in high school and college. As I ran mail around the city, I watched for several years the World Trade Towers being built. I delivered mail to the North Tower when the first 49 floors were opened for business in ’71, and the rest of the building was still under construction as I rode the elevator.

When the Towers were destroyed, I began to dream back to that time when I saw them going up. I got interested in their absence by remembering their construction and their presence – and the various realities the Towers embodied culturally and personally. But the poems are not memoir or autobiography, they are works of imagination, so the personal ties are just starting points.

M-N: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection, or one that you think particularly encapsulates what 9/11 meant to you?

PB: No, but there are several poems that view the event through various lenses. “Going to Zero” deals with the immediate aftermath; some of the “World Trade Center/Mail Runner” poems remem­ber the Towers from the early 70s and the long poem “A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy” deals with – among other things – the construction of the towers through personal and other forms of historical memory.

M-N: Did you see this project as more of a means of personal expression or as an opportunity to reach out to those affected by 9/11?

PB: No, I had no 9/11 audience in mind. A poet, like a fiction writer or non-fiction writer, is always engaged in telling kinds of stories through the form he or she works in. I wanted to explore certain realities through the kind of language and idioms I work in.

M-N: Why did you choose to publish Ziggurat at the time you did? When did you decide to write it?

PB: When a publisher decides to publish your book, the publisher sets the publication date, then it’s out of any author’s hands. I began working on Ziggurat around 2003 and finished it about six years later. It came out in 2010.

Contact Cambria Litsey at [email protected].