Interview with Christopher Atamian
Christopher Atamian is a writer, filmmaker, poet, and contributor to this magazine. His new collection of poems, A Poet in Washington Heights, was just published. We asked him a few questions about this unusual work and its background.
February 27, 2018 | by Creative Armenia
A Poet in Washington Heights seems to be a taking of mortal account – of blessings, of memories, of the pleasures of a neighborhood, of what matters. And also, of what does not matter. What are the personal circumstances from which these poems emerged?
I lived in Washington Heights on and off from 2006 to 2017, at a time of great personal stress and despair: my mother whom I loved more than anyone in life had passed away (as had my father several years before), and my partner had left New York (and me). So Washington Heights, you are very right, in a way, represented a mortal taking stock, but also a re-emergence into life and light. It was also a fascinating place for me personally as I knew very little about the neighborhood apart from a few trips that I had taken on the Q4 bus line when I was a child with my Tante Angele. It is a very rich neighborhood culturally: the Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park and its cliffs are absolutely gorgeous, and also a bit more wild than stately Central Park or even Riverside Park are elsewhere. There is still an element of danger one senses walking in the park at late hours, as is true in some of the dicier parts of the neighborhood. And then there is the neighborhood’s incredible ethnic mix. The Heights was mainly Irish and Jewish (reformed) and Armenian until the 1970s' and '80's when white flight to the suburbs occurred, then large Dominican and Orthodox jewish communities moved in. It is traditional yet a bit funky – there is a sizable gay population as well. It represents an amazing clash and unity of cultures. So as a half Diasporan Armenian, I completely resonate with it. And there is also the fact of finding myself an outsider there when I first moved in – an outsider within my own native city, which I love.
Bucking convention, several of the poems rhyme. Why do you rhyme?
I’ve noticed in certain contemporary poets a devolution of style and corresponding impact – by this I mean on the reader and the world. Much of the original experimentation with style – with poets that I admire like Cummings or Mallarme, for example, were necessary for historical and literary reasons – the modern moment perhaps – but as with some branches of literary theory the pendulum in some cases has swung pretty far into the irrelevant and sometimes even the ugly. To me traditional rhyme is one of the things that makes poetry different from prose, and I enjoy playing with that musicality and rhythm. Of course rhyming in poetry as in song can seem facile at times—and in certain cases it is – but so what? Plus, why not buck a trend? Always better to be counter-cultural, even if it is in a pretty minor way. Edna St Vincent Millay is a poet who wrote traditional rhymes that I always adored. Emily Dickinson, Frost – it's all good.
"And yet and yet / I Think of Sarafian / Night and day." Nigoghos Sarafian — the Western Armenian writer born on a boat between Constantinople and Varna in 1905 — is mentioned twice in this collection. Explain why he is important.
Sarafian recorded and in a sense helped to save Diasporan Western Armenian existence and culture from becoming extinct or at least from taking one more step towards extinction – he did this for the young Armenians who grew up in the post-Genocidal communities in Syria and Lebanon, but also for two more generations of readers including myself. His language is gorgeous – Western Armenian as a zenith of linguistic and literary expression. And finally because of my own experience of not quite belonging to any one culture: American by birth, Armenian and Italian by heritage but of parents born in Lebanon and Switzerland; I never quite fit in as a child or adolescent in white American culture – I mean I was Caucasian and middle class, but I was not Anglo-Saxon, my parents did not read in English mainly or attend the theater or even watch much television – all acculturating activities. We spoke French at home and I was sent to a French school. And I did not grow up in an Armenian family – my mom was really the head of our household – so I found myself asking many of the same questions that Sarafian does about identity and assimilation – the guilt as well.
That is also one of the identifications with Sarafian's daily ventures into the Bois de Vincennes where he remakes the world. That is one of the greatest gifts Sarafian gave us – the ability to think and recreate and create entire worlds just with his (our) intellect and mind. I walk in parks all the time: I think there, I commune with nature and the sky and all the things that surround me.
What are your other poetic influences? One senses Leonard Cohen, too, in your blatant admixture of the horny with the divine.
Well you could do a lot worse than being compared to Leonard Cohen. Thank you! Hallelujah stands by itself as far as I'm concerned in terms of lyrics.
And you know, the Divine IS horny and vice versa – as the Hindu pantheon and religion well knew. And I feel that pre-Christian, pagan society knew this too.
So, the poets that I admire: Whitman, Ginsburg, Frank O’Hara, Cummings, among Americans; Rilke, Rumi, Pessoa, Mayakovsky, Seferis, Goethe, Baudelaire, and Cavafy, among European ports; Borges as well – but these are not necessarily the poets who influenced me the most. Those might include Edna St. Vincent Millay, Frost and Dickinson and some of the confessional poets in the line of Sexton, Plath and Snodgrass who influenced or reflected my own view of the world.
Ocean Vuong is a brilliant young poet whose language and imagery I find stunning, married as they are to such a strong sense of history and his own Vietnamese culture.
Three Wise Men: Murder on 187th Street tautly and humorously recounts the most dramatic and divisive incident in the history of the Armenian Diaspora. Could you inform the non-Armenian reader of that background of that murder? Given that you grew up in New York, do you have a personal connection to that story?
Well it refers to the murder of Archbishop Levon Tourian during the 1933 Christmas Services at Holy Cross Church in Washington Heights.
Tourian had decided to fly the Soviet Armenian flag along with others – this angered members of the Tashnag (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) party: they surrounded Tourian in the middle of the service and two of them stabbed him to death with large butter knives. It's a pretty dramatic and pretty awful part of our history. The rest of the poem refers to some of the goings on inside church parishes that everyone knows about but rarely discusses. I also wanted to try to show different viewpoints in a short amount of space.
Also when I first visited Holy Cross, it looked so plain and unimposing and yet something so dramatic had taken place here – I mean this great event in 20th century Armenian-American history that brought together these amazing currents of our culture – the Soviet and the Western; the Diasporan and the nationalist, the Ramagavar and the Tashnag, and in such spectacularly dramatic fashion.
When I went to visit the church for the first time, the bloody vestments were still there, just piled up in a box… that also shocked me.
Holy Cross Church in Washington Heights
The poem "Mixobarbarians" seems to target a certain brand of modern-day poseur, descendants perhaps of immigrants who had a very different kind of relationship with America. "Long gone are the days / of pledging allegiance to the flag." Explain the feelings behind this poem. Is it partly self-targeted?
I don't know if I agree with the word choice of poseur here. It is too strong. What I describe or react to in this poem is the following: a generation is at once confident – of its ability to straddle multiple cultures and identities, confident of itself at least outwardly; and more experimental culturally, sexually and otherwise; but one that is also less sure of any one aspect of its identity. This is a generation that is fragmented in so many ways: technology, globalism, multiculturalism, feminism, all the usual suspects have changed the way we see the world. Unless you are a complete idiot like Donald Trump you cannot blindly believe in an arbitrary set of historical narratives without realizing that these are to a large extent fabricated or invented.
Also, I grew up attending a French school where flags were not waved around on every occasion as they are in American culture. So I remember for example at Camp Nubar we would raise the Armenian and American flags every morning and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and I thought, "There they go again with the flags." The question today, it seems to me, is how do you pledge allegiance to many flags? Say your family comes from Korea and you spend half your time there, or say you are Native American? And I also think that the right to dissent should be honored, as with the NFL football players – even if it is not what I may particularly agree with. In any case, the poem is more about globalized identities and what those imply. And regardless of what you or I think – the poem reflects what is going on for a lot of the members of this generation.
THREE WISE MEN: MURDER ON 187TH STREET
Oh they knifed the Bishop dead!
He was a saint, a Godly man
A leader of our flock
The first man, a Ramgavar, said.
Oh they knifed the Bishop dead!
He deserved it, the bastard betrayed Gomitas
To the Turkish Secret Police, and let Smyrna burn
The second man, a Tashnag, said.
O they knifed the Bishop dead!
Who will sleep with my wife now
When I am too tired in bed?
The third man, no party affiliation, said.
You had better wash that altar clean
At Holy Cross Church in Washington Heights.
So much blood spilled, so much sin.
Mixobarbarians at the gate
Carrying take-out fusion
Diasporan specials, hold the curry
More kim chi please
Divided souls, fifth columnists
Guilt-ridden BMW stick shifters
One eye eastward the other West.
Long gone are the days
Of pledging allegiance to the flag.
Now Jansenists at heart