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NPR Arts & Life

Activist, Professor, Historian — Now A Poetry Pulitzer Prize Winner

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Peter Balakian won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry this week for his collection of his own journals. He may be best known as an activist and historian of the Armenian genocide, including a highly praised memoir, "Black Dog Of Fate," but Peter Balakian has written poetry since 1980. He also teaches English at Colgate University. And he joins us now from Hamilton, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us and congratulations.

PETER BALAKIAN: Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: Can I get you to read the poem "Here And Now?"

BALAKIAN: Sure. (Reading) Here and now - the day comes in strips of yellow glass over trees. When I tell you the day is a poem, I'm only talking to you and only the sky is listening. The sky is listening. The sky is as hopeful as I am, walking into the pomegranate seeds of the wind that whips up the seawall. If you want the poem to take on everything, walk into a hackberry tree, then walk out beyond the seawall. I'm not far from a room where Van Gogh was a patient, his head on a pillow, hearing the Mistral careen off the seawall, hearing the Fauvist leaves pelt the sarcophagi. Here and now, the air of the tepidarium kissed my jaw, and pigeons ghosting in the blue loved me for a second before the wind broke branches and guttered into the river. What questions can I ask you? How will the sky answer the wind? The dawn isn't heartbreaking. The world isn't full of love.

SIMON: That last line really got to me. I think it's the first poem I've read where I'm told what should be the obvious - that the world isn't full of love. You sometimes think of poems, though, as assuring us that we sweep out all the badness and misery, and somehow it ends.

BALAKIAN: Well, I mean, I think poems also are our most intense confronters of the harsh realities. You know, and I tried to try to go to those places as much as I can without, of course, wanting to eschew the other dimensions of beauty and love that are also very much a part of our experience.

SIMON: You've just won the Pulitzer Prize. And you're what we call a well-known public intellectual. Can a man make a living writing poetry in 2016?

BALAKIAN: Well, if you mean a living just on writing the lyric poem, every poet I know does have a day job. And I can say, teaching at Colgate University has been just a blessing. It's been a beautiful day job.

SIMON: Do you learn things from your students that may wind up in a poem?

BALAKIAN: One always learns things from one's students. They bring you news of the present. They bring you ideas about the world that can be full of surprise and revelation, even. So it is a great gift to have a day job in which you constantly engage young and dynamic minds.

SIMON: Peter Balakian, who this week won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Thanks so much for being with us.

BALAKIAN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.