Poet Of The Week

Alan Semerdjian

     March 12–18, 2018

Writer, musician and educator Alan Semerdjian’s poems and other writings have appeared over the years in many publications and anthologies including Adbusters, Diagram and the Brooklyn Rail. He is the author of a chapbook of poems titled An Improvised Device (Lock n Load Press, 2005) and the full-length book In the Architecture of Bone (GenPop Books, 2009). His songs have appeared in television and film and have been charted on CMJ. Semerdjian earned his MFA at Goddard College in 2002. He currently resides in New York City’s East Village and teaches English at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park. In addition to working on a second collection of poems and contributing a song for the New Haven–CT installment of the “I Matter” Project, he has recorded an album of his poetry and the work of seminal Armenian and Armenian-American poets read over the music of guitarist/composer Aram Bajakian. The collaboration is set for release in the spring of 2018. “After Brooklyn” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, published last spring.

Author photo by Rob Goldman

After Brooklyn

Macie will have graduated into a tornado
of new reconciliations including the leveling
of proper instincts (cradle, volcano) and mauve
lipstick sunsets (beaten quaggy) minus the roofs.

There will be time again for sweeping, imagining
without hiccup or hesitation. There will be
music in the streets, Coronas, Ghost’s howl,
a bandana like a former planet on the kitchen table.

Oliver’s poems will attempt to mean again. Urgent
and true, his evening and his neighbor’s evening
will be closer to one. Someone will intimate the purr
of irony, and poof. It will turn (like sin) into wild honey.

—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

While “After Brooklyn” is a take on what happens after the glow of Brooklyn hipness fades, its imagistic foundation is shaped by the past and, more specifically, something like Smith St circa the late ’90s before the fancy clothing stores and expensive restaurants. That’s where we land. The made-up characters are born anew post-apocalypse. There’s a hint of sci-fi in the transformation and a fairy tale–like finish to the dream. While there is no fixed meter and only an internal rhyme here and there, there is a calming sensibility for me in the almost symmetrical quatrains … as if some kind of balance is restored in the force perhaps.

What are you working on right now?

I’m mixing I guess what will be an album’s worth of … I don’t know … spoken word it may be called after all is said and done? I read aloud poems of mine and poems written by other writers over the incredible guitar work of Aram Bajakian. Many people know him from his time spent touring with Lou Reed and playing leads in his band, but his solo work is adventurous and stellar, as is his work with his wife in a project called Dalava. Two of the poems I didn’t write are by mentors (Diana Der-Hovanessian, who recently passed away, and Peter Balakian) and two were written by poets who perished in the Armenian Genocide (Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto). The project was partially funded by the Armenian General Benevolent Union and for us it’s an attempt to raise awareness for the atrocities committed in one of the twentieth century’s darkest rooms. It’s a haunting ghost, this project … and something that Aram and I had to explore because of our familial ties to the Genocide. We can’t wait to share it with the world.

What’s a good day for you?

Lately, it’s hard to answer this question with anything other than time spent with my son. He’s almost three as I’m writing this and making up poems here and there. One that blew me away recently was written on the Williamsburg Bridge. The family commutes to and from work and day care via car and often we leave and come home with not much light around us. Seeing the East River on a particularly dark night, Nico came up with, “Daddy, when the darkness melts, we will see the sky and the water,” and everything pretty much got silent for a beautiful while.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Teaching. I got a job at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies middle school on Court and Baltic in the late ’90s and slept at my friends’ homes for a while in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace till I settled into a walk-up with another dear friend on 5th Ave and 7th St. I might still be teaching there if I didn’t get a gig caretaking (in exchange for rent) at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in Suffolk County, Long Island. Time spent living in a museum is its own story for another day.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

The neighborhoods I lived in back then were on the verge of “blowing up” in a real estate sense. Things were happening economically, but I didn’t know it. My head was buried in the work with the kids and I was blessed to be able to come home from a reading or a gig to find decent affordable meals during which I could actually have authentic and unaffected conversations with business owners or waitstaff or neighbors on the street or what have you. People were bracing themselves for the Big Change, though. It was evident back then.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

A formative experience I can recall—and this is sort of a strange one, I guess—is the first time I saw these older men playing backgammon on those pedestrian walkways alongside Ocean Parkway near Gravesend where my partner is from. I think I was on my way to a gig at Vox Pop, was it? I forget. They felt so familiar to me … so Old World … and I felt at home in a weird way. I mean … these men transported me to my mother’s roots in Cairo and my father’s roots in Syria. They were license to bring the other home right here. And Brooklyn was the conduit. It’s like there was a sign up there: “You’re in Brooklyn. Feel free to bring your other here.” All was wonderful in the world with these men and their congregation around dice and checkers and board.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

A poetry community is all about listening for me. I was making more music while I was living in Brooklyn, actually, and I’ve only begun to discover Brooklyn’s wonderful poetry scene over the last decade or so. I love Unnameable Books and discovered it through my old friend David Kirschenbaum’s Boog City events some time ago. A great place for hearing words surrounded by words. Manhattan always had Bowery Poetry Club and before that a bunch of smaller spaces. The Poetry Project was always a favorite, as is Nuyorican. I love the New Year’s Day readings in Manhattan … those are fun, though listening deeply gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. Manhattan shouts. Brooklyn listens. I’m generalizing here, but there is a point, I think. And Berl’s is just terrific … a real treasure. I spoke to Farrah and Jared some time ago about how wonderful the vibe is there and how I want to curate a series pairing inventive local songwriters with inventive poets who may share a similar aesthetic in some way. It would be a “words and song” type of affair and in the round. Maybe if they’re reading this, we’ll get in touch and rekindle the idea.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I did a poetry festival many years back in the Catskills during which I performed with D. Nurkse. If my memory serves me correctly, he played flute on stage with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and myself. The music was special, but what was more special was the introduction to his work and his mind. I really appreciate the meditative qualities in his work. Walt Whitman, whose childhood home I lived in and took care of for some time, is probably the most important Brooklyn poet for me and the one whose work I know best. When I saw strangers climbing over the fence of the State Historic Site at 2 AM to drop off flowers and personal manuscripts while I was living in the kitchen wing of his old family home, I knew that I had to investigate further. More recently I’ve discovered Monica McClure’s work and returned to Vijay Seshadri as well. I love his poem “Werewolf in Brooklyn.” Do you know that one?

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Peter Balakian was probably my first poetry mentor. I earned a fellowship to attend the Chenango Valley Writers’ Conference when I was eighteen or nineteen two years in a row on a recommendation from an uncle (“You’re a young Armenian poet … go find Balakian”) and met him there for the first time. Unknowingly, he gave me permission to explore identity and history, which was huge for someone trying to avoid just that. We maintained a friendship and mentorship that continues to this day. Other mentors throughout the years include Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams when I kept dreaming in images in my young twenties, Juliana Spahr, Michael Klein, Elena Georgiou and the incredibly fierce writers I met at Goddard College in my early thirties, the West Coast surrealist and interstellar sojourner Will Alexander, Diana Der-Hovanessian for her heart, Yevgeny Yevtushenko for his scope, and the peers with whom I’ve grown and am growing who know who they are. I’m thankful each time we get together and play with words. There are musicians too who are terrific poets in the context of the song. David Bazan is one of them. A monster writer. I’ve been wrapped up in his poetry for the past two years. Him and Bill Callahan. I’m all over the place when it comes to mentors and influences. Really looking for warm abstractionists mostly. People who are idiosyncratic and hard to explain but easy to love.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and found myself swept away in her deft handling of what it means to be human and alive in our time. I have a secret crush on her, I think, and have read everything I could find. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is huge and essential for classroom work and studying the architecture of division. Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human is also important in that conversation but from another angle. A few days ago, I just read Chen Chen’s “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” and was blown away by the strength and beauty and imagination. I think this is an exciting time for poetry even though the genre feels like it’s not being read as much or reconciling new reductionist variations of itself, etc. Everything changes. I get it. I just love the fact that I have access to such daring and strange work and that my understanding of what poetry is—the stuff I grew up on and was taught as poetry—is exploding and reassembling itself before my eyes on a monthly basis. I just wish I had more time to read and only read.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I feel guilty saying this but I haven’t fully read Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh yet. It’s a sort of seminal work for the work I do, has cultural weight and significance for Armenian studies, etc. for obvious reasons. A few of my peers—Armenian-American artists here around the city—started it last summer with the intention to have a public discussion but I got distracted with educator stuff and daddyhood. It’s a bit of a beast, but I will finish it someday. Perhaps this summer. I’ve been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works for about two years now … a few pages a week. I’m about halfway through it. I relate to his nerdy mind and the places it is wont to go. I also buy the Best American Poetry series from time to time and only read a few poems from each book. I’m not sure why this happens … but I have a feeling I know what that’s all about. My partner bought me Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, but I haven’t cracked that one open yet. Waiting for the right time. Maybe on the next musical tour I set up.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

Lots of questions here. In general, I read a few things at once … and when class is in session, those few things are often pedagogical in nature and involve student work. I read lots of student work, actually. Essays, stories, poems, beginnings of novels, journal work. That’s mostly my September–June. I live in those worlds pretty heavily. We respond to each other and think on the page together. A full-length novel and a few other texts will follow me along during that time as well—typically things geared for adults—some of these will get read and put back on the bookshelf. Summer is when I’m constantly in a book. Even if I’m doing a mini-tour alone with my guitar up the coast, I’m reading in the in-between. It’s like I’m cast adrift and when late August comes I see the shoreline and start paddling back with all the treasures I’ve found. I used to be a frenetic note-taker. These days it’s this odd “should I?/should I not?” indecision that leaves me underlining something here and there and making a mental note of something I should go back to but hardly ever do. There are a lot of stars on the page. I don’t live in the books as much these days. They’re more like hotels. I have a little overnight bag, but that’s about it. This is directly a result of becoming a parent and relationship commitments and parents getting older, etc. Mid-life? There’s a gent I see at the coffee shop every morning who is a few years younger than me and in another field completely. Friendly, insightful. He always has a book in hand and reads about one per week. I’ve started a story about him called “The Imaginary Reader.” I hardly ever write fiction and never publish it, but this one feels so visceral and alive that I may have to finish it and share it with others. The premise is that he is not really a person but a figment of my imagination … someone who does the thing I always want to do but don’t have enough time for. I’m guessing some readers may relate.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I haven’t written a sestina that I’m happy with before. I mean I haven’t written an epic in dactylic hexameter either, but I’m not sure I want to do that. I really want to write a sestina someday that someone will call beautiful.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

These days, I’m stealing writing time whenever I can get it. I write in between periods at school, in the car, late at night when the world is asleep. Deadlines mean everything. I love writing in cafés I’ve never visited before. The newness there with the familiar territory of my mind and screen/notebook is a nice commingling affair. I like spaces that have a dim hum in the background for writing: diners, cafés, bars, etc. A supremely quiet space is too loud for me.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I named some bookstores before, but I don’t think that’s what you’re after here. I love the folly and history of Coney Island and its almost sullen edge, the circle around the Pavilion Theater (is it still called that?) in Park Slope, Red Hook on a rainy night en route to Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie, the ride on the Belt near Gravesend and Bay Ridge when you remember that Brooklyn is part of an island, Court St in the Cobble Hill area. All of the bridges that connect Brooklyn to Manhattan. The moment you see them all in one swooping shot when crossing is my favorite.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate in between and the hesitation,
And what I’ll make of zenith stand downs you will etch in passing
For every indecisive me as good is a bad bad you.

Why Brooklyn?

Even though I was born in Queens and grew up on Long Island and spent some time upstate and am currently living in Manhattan waiting to move, Brooklyn, in a way, felt the most like home while I was in it. Maybe that’s why. Or maybe not.