Wednesday, June 24, 2020

First Generation Krikor der Hohannesian

First Generation
Krikor der Hohannesian
Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres Press, 2020
93 p.
ISBN 9781948017817

Review by David P. Miller

djamangeen gar ooo chagar: an Armenian invocation, the introduction to storytelling, sits quietly on the cover and title page of First Generation. “A long time ago there was and there wasn’t.” The almost insupportable tensions between the death and life of a people and culture, the reality of genocide and the viciousness of denial, infuse Krikor der Hohannesian’s first full-length collection of poems. It is dedicated to Armenag Nazar, “who fled Turkish Armenia in 1910 to escape the Armenian genocide along with his wife Gulenia and four young children, one of whom was to become my mother.“  At least in part, these poems are his attempt “to slide beneath the shield of that which he kept to himself.” Vivid paintings by the abstract expressionist Garabed Der Hohannesian (1908-1992), the poet’s father, serve as cover art and as introductions to the book’s sections (see

Although the poems aren’t in a strictly chronological sequence, there is movement from the poet’s youth into adulthood and later age. This is intertwined with the complexities of bringing a partially suppressed heritage to light, more fully realizing it, and striving to carry it forward. Part One, The Bearer, begins with “our first naked thrust / into a blue and eerie world” (“Entrance”). As the child grows, he begins to hear “the stories… Zeitun, / Musa Dagh—strange sounding names / not easily rolled off the tongue.” This poem, “Death March: Deir al-Zor,” shows us something of the boy’s struggles to grip the past, paralleling his difficulties with place names. With time, his knowledge deepens; he speaks to his grandparents in retrospect:

Now, nene, I understand that which
as a boy I could not comprehend. [ … ]

It was told that many, knowing their fate,
threw their babies into the amniotic waters of
the Euphrates, then joined prayerful hands
to leap in behind [ … ]

It was told that others, half-crazed by thirst and hunger,
too paralyzed to resist, submitted like docile sheep
to the cruelest sexual perversions. [ … ]

Now, mairig,
the words we could never share.

In this section, der Hohannesian intertwines memories of his childhood with muted hints that came from his elders. In “The Attic” he finds “crazed sepias / of austere gentlemen / in over-starched high collars / and ladies bedecked / in lacy d├ęcolletage.” These curiosities reverberate with what the living both show and hide: “Old Armenian men, hunched / on cane-backed chairs, / drinking Turkish coffee in dim, / smoke-blue cafes – sotto voce / exchanges punctuated / by a knowing nod or /arched eyebrow [ … ] eyes now and / then misting over …” (“The Secret”). The loving bond between him and his grandfather does much to catalyze his emerging consciousness, particularly as he watches his grandfather write:

a river of discourse
flowing in strange, squiggly-looking characters
of Armenian script. I was awash

in his serenity, basked in his aura,
smelled the sweetness of his presence,
wishing to spend the rest of my life
in that room. (“The Birth of a Poet”)

The final poem of the first section recounts the poet’s night visits to a local cemetery. Although he can’t account for his fascination to skeptical friends, or even to himself – and although the place isn’t clearly identified with his ancestry – he can’t help but ask of the stones, “alive with family sagas,” the question “Who were you?” (“Requiescat in Pace”).

In Part Two, Passages, we see the adult der Hohannesian’s full-blown awareness of the genocide perpetrated and its continuing resonances in daily living. Despite an inherited sense of Armenia as “a corpse veiled … a derelict of history best forgotten,” the poet’s generation took on the burden of making the history manifest:

To us

fell the task of giving voice to the ineffable –
to erase the shame that murders the psyche [ … ]
We scour freighter manifests
for clues, badger Congress for acknowledgement,
devour memoirs of survivors, thirsting to know
as our forebears thirsted at Deir-al-Zor. (“The Stain”)

This is an emotionally contradictory burden to bear, however, as several poems in this section attest. “Passage to Ararat” witnesses the struggle of a friend whose father renounced his Armenian heritage, even to the point of ridicule: “he chose / anglophilia, changed his name, / became an English dandy [ … ] Worse yet, / the mocking of his forebears as ‘quirky’ / and besides, ‘the language was impossible.’” The friend’s return to his origins therefore means acting against his father. In Yerevan he tosses “a yellow rose / into the burning oil, your tears / a cascade down your cheeks / like snowmelt from the slopes / of Ararat.” The poet himself is torn over the possibility of return, conflicted over what he may claim: “I fear the ghosts. I fear mourning / what was never mine, the grief / that belongs not to me but to those / who gave up their birthright” (“The Cherry Tree”).

And yet grief is certainly his. In “Hear the Wind Blow,” written in memory of the poet and steelworker John Beecher, der Hohannesian sets his friend’s fate during the McCarthy era against the hell of polluted factory towns during that period. The deaths of seventy from the notorious Donora smog of 1948 – “gagged on smog from steel / and zinc plants, the inversion of air, / the trapped poisons without a breath / of wind to purge the valley” – find an echo in the unspecified “accident” which ended Beecher’s work in the mills. “Old Man John the Melter,” though he “stood tall for steely men … was blackballed / in the witch hunts of the 1950’s / for not signing a loyalty oath.” Even more stark, perhaps, is the eruption of heartache chronicled in “Soul Brother.” After three days of celebrating the life of a deceased friend with food, drink, and music, the inevitable arrives:

The day-after tears – not the choked back kind but
full-bore gushing – finally swamped me
like a rogue wave. I am lost,
marooned on an isle of mourning.

Part Three, The Eternal Flame, opens with a poem that poses one of the book’s central questions: “What do you do / with the weight of the unspeakable, / the grief which you could not lift?” (“What Do You Do?”). First Generation takes a great step toward making this weight both speakable and spoken, and many of the poems in this final section address the question how to move forward with the knowledge the poet bears.

“Walking Toward the Edge” grapples with the burden of a lack all the more devastating for having no particular shape: “How do you measure silence, / its vacuum of sound, dead air / absent before the storm?  / What happened to the Armenians? ” In reply to someone’s well-meant but inadequate advice – “’You need to grieve,” she says” – the poet replies that the conditions for grief have been undermined.  The possibility of achieving grief feels liberating, but the reality is illusory:

How does one grieve absence,
its nothingness? I have walked
toward the edge many times,
excitement in my step [ … ] Yet
a hesitation as I near,
the fear that I will no longer
recognize myself, that I am
staring at death, the paradox
of its comfort.

The devastating realization is that grief is “the cold ash / from a fire that never burned.”

Nevertheless, der Hohannesian is able to express some of the marvels of his own life. In “These Hands,” he takes a look at those extremities so often taken for granted, and how they bear the deep traces of a long life with guitar playing, holding newborns, planting roses, dancing with speech, and, of course, writing. He sees “Wrinkles / like wind-blown ripples on desert sand, / veins the blue-gray of the river, / knurled knuckles, nails ridged like bark …” – eloquent, elegant marks of aging.

In the book’s final part, we also return to der Hohannesian’s family, with elegies for his parents. “Saying Goodbye” concentrates our attention on the final scene in his father’s hospital room. These last moments are burdened with “the unsaid” that “shall stay unsaid … It can’t be helped in the few hours left.” The continuing trauma of genocide is felt even here: he arranges for cremation because “Mother didn’t believe in funerals – / after all, none of the 1.5 million / dispatched by the Ottomans were so graced. / She was two years old and had survived.” “Requiem” begins with the death of his “dear Mother – last of those from home,” and develops toward an unexpected, perpetual vengeance. The slaughtered Armenians cannot be eradicated, despite rumors that “Osman’s descendants intend to plow under / all vestiges, once and for all to silence the screams”:

Anatolian breezes
will forever betray them, bearing bone dust
and blood motes into every fissure and crevice
where Armenians once lived.

Where you, Mother, once lived.

“How long does the spirit linger / in dust motes dancing / in cones of sunlight / before it is all forgotten?” This key question is from “To the Author of my Epitaph,” the book’s concluding poem. In First Generation, Krikor der Hohannesian presents us with a deeply vested inheritance, intertwined not only with sorrow but also with friendships, love, and the possibility of realizing joy. He takes the essential risk involved in any bold creative act: asserting his voice against the inevitability of disappearance we all share. We should pay attention, with gratitude.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Interview with Somerville's Stephanie Scherpf, Executive Director of the Center for Arts at the Armory

I was lucky to catch up with Stephanie Scherpf, the director of the Center for Arts at the Armory on Highland in Somerville. I have attended many events there, ranging from theatre, music, and poetry. A good friend of mine Gloria Mindock, founder of the Cervena Barva Press has a small studio there where she sells books, conducts workshops, and hosts readings. Timothy Gager and I held some of our Somerville News Writers Festival events there a decade ago. It has been a vibrant center for the arts, here--in the--Paris of New England--for years now.

How has the armory adjusted to the new social distancing culture?

COVID-19 has impacted the Center for Arts at the Armory in every way. Events in our main hall and Cafe came to a halt as of March 13, 2020. Our Cafe stopped operating and we had to furlough event and Cafe staff. Administrative staff have been working from home during this period. Only our Operations Manager, Joe Botsch, goes into the building on a regular basis. Our Board has taken up weekly Zoom meetings and we also conduct staff meetings either by phone or video chat. There are a few other tenants in the Armory building who have continued to use their spaces during this period but many have remained closed. Admittedly the current situation is challenging for us as social distancing is the antithesis of what the Armory is all about as an inclusive and accessible public space for people to commune through the arts, culture and community. Donation to Arts at the Armory can be made here:

On your website you have a statement about the killing of George Floyd. What role does the arts have in fighting racism?

The Arts have the power to illuminate social justice issues, to make visible the invisible, to communicate our stories and to bring diverse peoples together to reflect on shared concerns about race, culture, identity, equity and justice. The Arts are also our hope, our weapon and our medicine. The type of arts, cultural and community programming found at the Armory promotes an exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture in order to foster understanding, admiration and support. This type of programming can combat racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-immigrant hostility and xenophobia, and ultimately build a sense of global community by giving voice to diverse artistic and cultural expression.

What programs have you recently presented? Do you find Zoom an adequate medium for presentation?

So far we presented “Saturday at the Armory” on May 30th from 10-5pm, which was a free event livestreamed on Instagram. The concept behind this was to feature programming that one might find on a typical Saturday at the Armory. A lot of the presenters were part of groups that use our Cafe space for events--like New England Poetry Club and Somerville Songwriter Sessions.  

We’re also getting ready to do a virtual fundraising gala on July 30th. 

So far we have only used Zoom for our internal meetings. 

Have you opened the physical space at the Armory yet?

We are planning to open our Cafe back up in early-mid July. We are rebooting with a new concept--ROOTED: Armory Cafe & Farmstand. ROOTED will build on relationships we have with local farms and vendors that participate in our Somerville Winter Farmers Market. Our mission will be to source locally as much as possible, supporting our local farms and businesses and also providing our community with access to farm fresh produce and gourmet grocery products. We will also accept SNAP (food stamps) payments and offer outdoor seating for up to 20 people in accordance with our zoning. ROOTED will offer a new menu, initially available for takeout and online ordering, featuring our locally sourced products. 

Opening up the main hall is more complex. First Somerville needs to reach Phase 3 of MA’s Reopening Plan. Then we need to see what’s possible to do inside the hall in such a way that follows guidelines and is also financially viable. We provide the space--we don’t host our own events so it will be a question of whether or not the groups and individuals who book us think it is worth it to do an in-person event and run the risk of whether or not people will feel comfortable enough to attend. 

Do you think your mission statement has changed?

Interesting question! I started in my role in September. A few months in, I realized that our operative mission statement does not adequately represent what we do. Thus I have proposed the following mission statement, which needs to be adopted by our Board, ideally through some type of strategic planning process: The mission of Arts at the Armory is to provide free and affordably-priced space for arts, cultural and community events and programming, and thereby bring diverse audiences together, enrich and transform lives, and promote the creative economy. I don’t think that mission statement has changed because of COVID-19. We remain committed to being able to reopen when it is safe to do so as an accessible space for arts, cultural and community events and programming, and to bringing diverse audiences together, enriching and transforming lives, and promoting the creative economy. ROOTED is focused more on the community and creative economy aspects of our mission, and it will allow us to generate much-needed revenue so that we can operate in the short-term.