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"Asking people to recite lines from a Classic poem in their language serves as a sort of ice-breaker. "
An Interview with Aaron Poochigian:
A poet who has chosen poetry for “better or worse”. 
Interviewed by Elham Nosrati 
July 8, 2019

This week we have had the pleasure of interviewing a poet who has chosen poetry for “better or worse”.  Aaron Poochigian has a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and along with a MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. He initially started as a translator when his translation from Sappho, Stung With Love, was published by Penguin Classics in 2009.  Later in 2012 his first poetry collection, The Cosmic Purr was published by Able Muse Press which brought him the 2016 Able Muse Poetry Prize. Aaron’s poetry has been published in distinguished journals such as The Guardian, POETRY and The Times Literary Supplement.

Q1: When did you decide to become a poet?

I didn’t decide to become a poet. I was compelled to become one by a religious experience. In the field of Classics they call this sort of summons a “poetic initiation.” Hesiod has a vision of the Muses atop Mt. Helicon, Archilochus is given a lyre in exchange for a cow by the Muses, and Callimachus is told by the Muses to “keep his cows fat and his poems slender.” I didn’t see any Muses but, in the first semester of my freshman year of college, while looking at a Humanities textbook, I experienced an altered state while reading the opening lines of Vergil’s epic the Aeneid:

 

Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris. . .

 

“I sing of arms and the man who first from the shores of Troy. . .”

 

                                                                               (Aeneid Book Book 1, Line 1 )

 

The sky become more blue, and everything became clear—including that I should spend my life writing poetry. For better or worse, through poverty and greater poverty, I have remained true to that experience.

Q2: Do you think that reading poetry can help us to be a better version of ourselves?

I do. I am given to despair. Regularly now, when I am feeling inconsolable, I re-read these lines from Vergil’s Aeneid in which the hero Aeneas consoles his companions after a devastating storm at sea:

 

O socii—neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum—
O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem

 

“O my companions—we are not inexperienced in miseries.

You who have suffered worse misfortunes,

A god will grant an end to these present ones as well.”

 

                                                             (Aeneid Book 1, Lines 198-199)

 

These lines make me “a better version of myself” in that they retrieve me from despair. They set me back on my feet again. I get back in the ring and take another swing.

 

In terms of pursuing goals, these other lines in Italian, spoken by Vergil to Dante in the Inferno, have always been “improving” to me:

 

Omai convien che tu così ti spoltre,”

disse ‘l maestro; “ché, seggendo in piuma,

in fama non si vien, né sotto coltre;

 

sanza la qual chi sua vita consuma,

cotal vestigio in terra di sé lascia,

qual fummo in aere e in acqua la schiuma.”

 

“’Now is the time to cast off laziness,’ my master said.

‘No one reaches fame by lying about in a featherbed

or snuggling under down comforters.

 

Without fame, a person who spends his time

on earth leaves only such a mark

as smoke does on air or foam on water.’”

 

                                                      (Inferno Canto 24, Lines 46-51)

 

This sharp reproof from Vergil moves me me to get back to work, especially when I am tired or otherwise distracted.

 

 So, in sum, yes, I do think that reading poetry can help us to be a better version of ourselves.

Q3: Do you read from poets across the globe? If yes, in which ways it has influenced you?

I am a very Western poet—I have learned Latin and Ancient Greek—two fundamental languages in the Western tradition. That is my “home” tradition. Poetry from the East is fascinating to me in the way that foreign things can be fascinating. I read, for example, lots of Chinese poetry. I dote on the “Book of Songs” (Shijing) and the work of Wang Wei, Li Bai and Tu Fu, but I have only a dilletante’s appreciation for them.

 

My study of Chinese poetry has influenced me, however, by giving me concrete examples of poetry that “shows” instead of “tells.” I am particularly fond of imagistic Chinese poetry that eschews abstractions. Here is a poem by Wang Wei:

 

In a Retreat among Bamboos

 

Alone I am sitting under close bamboos,

Playing on my lute, singing without words.

Who can hear me in this thicket?

Bright and friendly comes the moon.

                                               (translated by Witter Brynner)

 

So simple, so powerful. The feeling of the “numinous,” difficult to capture, is evoked only through description, a question and imagery.

Q4: Do you think that poetry improves our mutual understanding?

I do believe that poetry, and all literature, works to exercise our capacity for empathy. In my experience, inhabiting well-developed characters in literature does encourage empathy for real people in real life. The “other” (whether they be immigrants, visitors or whatever) is less foreign to me because I have read widely.

 

Additionally, a knowledge of poetry from other cultures shows a respect for those cultures. I have endeared myself to Chinese speakers by knowing Li Bai and to Irish people by asking whether they prefer Heaney or Yeats. Asking people to recite lines from a Classic poem in their language serves as a sort of ice-breaker. Once our mutual appreciation for a particular poem has been established, we can then proceed about other subjects with respect for one another.

Q5: Do you have a favorite piece of your own poetry that you read frequently? Please tell us about it. 

Currently, my favorite poem to read is “Hush Now,” a dream-poem that contains a dream-song:

 

Hush Now 

 

Soon as the shift to darkness in the sky

left me alone to my own dark lanai

I must have slipped off somewhere wild since, wan

and long-haired, with a cowgirl flannel on,

this chick was crooning, like a lullaby,

lyrics about a whole world gone awry:

    

Hush, little pretty, hush. There, there.

Day is done, and night has won,

and Ending Times is everywhere. 

 

Don’t cry, don’t cry. Ten years of drought:

the plow is rust; the harvest, dust. 

There’s nothing left to fret about. 

 

Wolves long ago got through the fence,

circled the fold and, as of old,

done massacred the innocents. 

 

It’s peaceful now: the mockingbird 

that trilled before don’t sing no more.

Papa’s been gone for months. No word. 

 

Hush, little pretty, hush. There, there.

Day is done, and night has won,

and Ending Times is everywhere. 

 

She blew a kiss, dissolved, and there was dawn,

smog-red—a credible phenomenon.

Steel mesh immured, buzz, buzz, a frantic fly.

Whorled sirens were approaching.

                                                        Hush-a-bye.

 

          (first published in The Able Muse Review)

 

When I read this poem for an event at Beyond Baroque, an ambulance passed, serendipitously, with its siren on just as I read the line “Whorled sirens were approaching.” The audience was amazed, and the coincidence seemed more than a coincidence. After reading it as my final poem at another event, the emcee, a friend of mine, got up and said, “Well, that was frightening.” This poem always elicits a strong reaction from the audience.

For Goodreads: 

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