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Gergory Djanikian


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Review  - Interview - Reading

Gregory Djanikian

Sailing to Lebanon              

                1957, after the Suez War

We were steaming northward, leaving
Alexandria behind us, the white city
receding, floating at the edge of the sea.

My sister and I were singing together,
"Day-ay-ay O...me wan' go home,"
something we'd heard on the radio
though we didn't know where home was
or if we'd ever see Stanley Bay again,
the minarets, the tram cars at Ramleh Station.

We wanted to be Harry Belafonte on a record,
we wanted to be in America
where everything might last for some time.

Our parents were talking in whispers.
Clouds were passing across the sun.
It was almost evening, we had never seen
the horizon as far away as it was.

In our small cabin with the port hole open
we could hear the sound of the ocean
lapping at the ship's side,
we were smelling the odor
of salt, iron, rust.

In a few days, we would be in Bhamdoun,
Dhour El Choueir, mountain towns
where we could stay a few weeks
looking for further passage.

Everything seemed on a rise and fall,
the sea was growing thicker.

Sometimes the fog was so heavy
the ship's horn would sound
and we'd be startled into laughter.

"It's the old man snoring," I'd say,
and we'd think of someone so fast asleep
he wakes up years later in a different country,
walking in a daze, singing
all the songs he's never known.

First Winter in America

I walked out into the January blizzard,
my breath froze into small clouds,
and ice was hanging from the trees.

The dunes were dreamy animals,
I heard shovels striking music.

White eyelashes, white mittens,
I thought I could become
whatever I touched.

A year before, in another language,
I held the desert in my hand,
I tasted the iridescent sea.

Now I stayed quiet, afraid
I would never see it again, the sky
shattered into a million pieces
and falling all around me.

I watched my mother inside
walking back and forth in her heavy coat,
and my sister rubbing her hands
to make some kind of spark.

I could imagine furnaces rumbling
all over America, heat rising
through the vents, parching the air.

And I stayed where I was,
someplace I had no name for,
not for the snow or my standing still
and watching it fall

beautiful wreckage
with hardly a sound.

Immigration Test

              Williamsport, PA, 1963

My father was studying Spanish,
had two feverish weeks to learn it.

Soy un plato de comida, he was repeating
like a school boy from his notebook,
walking around the kitchen table,
"I am a plate of food,"
tripping over the chairs.

Someone had made an error,
told the authorities he knew
one more lengua than he did.

My mother was reading her cookbooks,
imagining the vol au vent, the bouillabaisses
she would never serve in America.

"I am a piece of sunlight," my father was saying,
yo soy un pedazo de sol,
"there is no darkness I cannot eat."

Our visas were hanging in the balance,
it was life and death, it was
getting it down or being sent back,
and my sister listening to the radio
knew big girls shouldn't cry.

Once, I found him in the cellar
writing on the white-washed walls,
higo, granada, mango, fruits of his other life
that crossed idioms, hemispheres,
the dry orchards of Sinai, Sonora.

At the dinner table, no one could say a word
for fear of breaking the spell,
razing the strange house he'd been living in.

On the day he left for the big city,
I saw him under the full-leafed maple
reciting Verde, que te quiero verde,
as if he'd known it all his life,
as if he felt a green
more green now than any other.

        -from Dear Gravity


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Review  - Interview - Reading

"Sailing to Lebanon" is a poem of departure, from one's home as well as from one's "sense" of home, one's identity, the essential element that makes us who we are. Robert Frost defines home in his poem "The Death of the Hired Man" as "the place where when you have to go there, / they have to take you in." In "Sailing to Lebanon," Gregory Djanikian's definition is a little different, a bit more mysterious and, perhaps, dangerous. Think about home and what that word means to you. How do you define home? Is home a place, a person, an idea, a thing that can't be defined? Start your writing by simply listing various definitions/interpretations of "home." Then select one of these definitions and explore an instance you left it. Maybe you ran away from home. Maybe you ended a relationship with a friend. Maybe you abandoned your past for a more hopeful future. Were you leaving for good? What pushed you away? Who was with you? Did you know you were returning at the time or not? Did you ever return? And, as always, enjoy.


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Review  - Interview - Reading

Born in Alexandria, Egypt of Armenian parentage, Gregory Djanikian came to the United States when he was 8 years old and spent his boyhood in Williamsport, PA. He is a graduate of the Syracuse University writing program and is past Director of Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania where he was an undergraduate and where he now teaches poetry workshops. He is the author of six collections of poetry, The Man in the Middle, Falling Deeply into America, About Distance, Years Later, So I Will Till the Ground, and, most recently, Dear Gravity. He has been awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, two prizes from Poetry magazine (the Eunice Tietjens Prize, and Friends of Literature Prize), the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University, and multiple residencies at Yaddo.

His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, Boulevard, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies including Best American Poetry, Good Poems, American Places (Viking), Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem (Knopf), Seriously Funny (Georgia), Becoming Americas: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (Library of America), Poem in Your Pocket (The Academy of American Poets), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (Norton), 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House), among others.

He lives outside of Philadelphia, PA with his wife, artist Alysa Bennett.


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Review  - Interview - Reading

A Review of Gregory Djanikian's Dear Gravity by Al Filreis, first published at Jacket 2

The man in the middle, in the book The Man in the Middle, published thirty years ago this year (1984—a year before I first met this man in the middle), is a guy who managed to find his way out of the tower of Babel, despite the Babel of languages, French, Arabic, Armenian, broken English, buzzing in his ears from his immigrant refugee-ish elders. And somehow this perfectly reasonable guy, yet beset with the curse and the gift of the poet’s fate of having to sort through Babel’s myriad mixed meanings in order to find the dream of a “whole earth [that] had one language and one will”—this man was already the generous, kind, and superbly accommodating language maker we have come to know and admire and love. The poem I’ve been referring to, “The Tower of Babel,” ends with vintage Djanikian:

We build what we must. Yet, that towers be great

enough to reach a god, we must refine

the difficult architecture of a word.

We build what we must.  “Must” there seems an imperative; this man in the middle of langauges and cultures and sensibilities must build. He is what Wallace Stevens called “A Man Made out of Words.” That’s one reading of the line, but I prefer this:  One loves the world enough to accommodate the polyphony and confusions and mortal setbacks it hurls at one, and if one must build from those parts, well, one will, because they are the parts one is given.

Years Later there came Years Later, a book already of retrospect.  Also dedicated to Alysa, his beloved Lisa, and this time about her—her and him together and apart. The phone call from Arizona caused him to worry about her, but it turned out that he was the vulnerable one, the one scared of anything that might befall her.  He took her out on the porch on a starry night and tried to get her to see the constellations his  way, as if to constellate a whole story-bound mythic meaning for them both, but she—an artist too of course—makes her own meanings and at certain moments wants nothing of his.  He discovers a kind of gravity in a life’s lifelong love—love of Lisa—and the physics of traveling away are not Einsteinian but Newtonian: punishment for being an aging body in contact with the ground, suffering the weight of the tedium of days without her, even though those days were days of poems about her absence, and these are what became Years Later, and made it (the book), and them (the years) beautiful.  A handbook in verse for monogamy, loyalty, fidelity and crazy ongoing mystery & imagination.

Absence, it seemed, had to be plumbed further. But there was no bottom to the deprivations of the Armenian genocide. The traumatic events that gave rise to our man in the middle.  In the middle of blood legacy. In the middle of an alphabet of names of the mortified dead: Azniv, whose infant’s mouth was slit in the straw; Antranig, shod like a horse and tethered in his own pasture.  Given a familial origin in such losses, no wonder this disaporic American poet was “out in left field before the citizenship test.”  And no wonder it fell to him to correct his elders in their use of the new language he desperately wanted to learn and wield as a way of repressing the past. But in “So I Will Till the Ground” all the old hard-to-say words came floating back, the return of the bloody repressed, reminding him that his dream of a common language was a dream dreamed by the man in the middle of his first published poems—already then. The genocide had always made them.  In poems, given such annihilations of family and lineage, one builds what one must.

But now it’s time to come back to gravity—Dear Gravity (2014)—the actual weight of memory: of lessons in high school; or the 1972 Cutlass Supreme (still driven by the poet’s mother); swimming at Agami Beach in Egypt in 1955; that first winter in America; that scary pre-induction physical in Philly in 1971, when the draft was still very real and people—poets included—were dying in southeast Asia; and the sweet weight of memories: drinking beer on the summer porch.  In the end there’s always “Something Else” that reminds you how little you need the world in order to organize it and save it in a poem such as “Something Else.” Like the “river you hear / without listening”; like the stars you know organize themselves into stories even without the consent of your loved one; like all the absences that by now you’ve learned to make into presences.  Dear Gravity lets them befall you. If it’s finally not true that the whole earth would permit itself to speak in one language, you will keep making poems in which we can imagine just such a coherent dream.


Poems - Prompt - Bio - Review  - Interview - Reading

An Interview with Gregory Djanikian by Judy Woodruff, first published at PBS Newshour

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: an encore look at some Fourth of July

reflections from poet Gregory Djanikian. His directs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. His fifth and most recent volume of poetry is “So I Will Till the Ground.”

GREGORY DJANIKIAN: 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 would 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.”

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 have got my apron. I have got potato salad, macaroni, relish. I have 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 have 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.

          Click here to for an audio interview with Djanikian

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Gregory Djanikian

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