Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Presents Poems on Campus

Photo by Giancarlo Sepulveda

The works of Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet Peter Balakian were read aloud on Wednesday by the writer himself, who chose five poems from his book, “Ozone Journal,” in the Trustees Pavilion at 4 p.m.  

Balakian’s poems offer a wide realm of geographical references in New Jersey, but his most profound works introduce a focus on his own personal experience with Armenian genocide in Syria.

Creative Writing Professor James Hoch welcomed Balakian to Ramapo for the poet’s third visit. Hoch also read the first two lines of the Balakian’s work, “Home.” The poem refers to Turkish prisons, images of Jewish cemeteries and Aleppo, Syria.

Concluding the reading, Balakian opened the floor to conversation and prompted a Q&A with the audience. Student Government Senator Ryan Greff, a freshman, asked:

“Is the world today friendlier or crueler to poets?”

Balakian answered, “America has created a culture of extraordinary infrastructures for writers, poets, fiction writers and creative non-fiction writers. In that way, America has been very [friendly] to writers. The writer’s relationship to the public is another issue.”

Literature Professor Edward Shannon also asked a question. Shannon asked if Balakian hopes his readers will “catch the allusions and historical nuggets” in his poem “Joe Luis’ Fist,” which addresses the impact of race relations dating back to the 1967 Detroit, MI riots.

Balakian responded, “I do think that the digital age allows readers to navigate really quickly.”

He added, “You can learn a lot from poems in addition to what they do as art.”

Senior Amanda Silverstein, who studies literature with a concentration in creative writing, called Balakian’s poetry reading an “eye opener.”

“His poems are something I'm not accustomed to reading, they're very different from other poems I have read so it was interesting to see how he structured each poem in comparison to other poets,” Silverstein said. “His poems take you to a ‘place,’ like most poems, but it's almost as if I am there, because he uses vivid detail in the simplest forms. It's the diction that he uses that really catches the eye; it's not the stereotypical poem one would read.”

“I encourage you to keep your community of friends intact, because it means a lot to have real, trusted comrades who can say, ‘Read this, take a go at it, critique it, crack it, mark it up…” Balakian said as he offered advice to writers in the audience.

Reflecting on her experience with Balakian’s poetry, junior literature major Alexis Diaz said, “the entire reading was very raw, emotional and influential.”

“As Balakian spoke about the different areas of Jersey I couldn't help but imagine myself in those exact locations,” Diaz continued. “Comparing his family's history with that of New Jersey's is extremely moving and appreciated. Being a New Jersey native, I appreciate his work very much, and it gives me a new perspective on our life and freedom here in the US.”

Balakian concluded the reading by signing copies of “Ozone Journal” and acquainting himself with Ramapo students who attended the event.