interview issue 32

Peter Balakian on No Sign

by Madison Whatley

Peter Balakian is the author of several collections of poetry, including Ozone Journal (2015), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Ziggurat (2010), which wrestles with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11. Gulf Stream Managing Editor, Madison Whatley, met with him in Miami to discuss his latest book, No Sign (2022). Their conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Balakian reading at Lannan Poetry Series, 2017.

Madison Whatley: You’ve been teaching at Colgate for over 40 years. So how does your community there support you? Or fuel your writing. 

Peter Balakian: An interesting question. I say the same thing over and over— I feel very fortunate to be at an institution that has been so nurturing of my work and of the work of writers and scholars. Colgate is a place that really gets behind intellectual work and artistic work in many ways, both in the human way of colleagues and administrators who believe in the importance of all intellectual work, but also with resources, too, so that when you need to do research, when you need to travel—all of it, the whole package. It’s been a very beautiful place to work and write my books. I will say that while Colgate is a classic American campus in the Northeast with early 19th-century buildings, it’s far from an urban center. And the upside of that for a writer is that there are very few distractions. You feel like you’re in a very special space where there is silence and solitude when you want it. I’m an urban person in many ways, but I have benefited from the rural campus culture for my writing. 

MW: What is your personal process for writing about difficult topics like suffering and grief, and what do you do to find joy when you need it? 

PB: It’s important. My friends and I who write about dark histories and traumatic events note that you have to be a well-grounded person to do it. You must have an affirmative view of life, and the most important things always remain— in my case, a loving family and very supportive friends and colleagues. But with those friends and colleagues and family, we cook, we pour wine, we gather to enjoy life, to watch films. It’s very important to have a good, rich community. For me, I’m a former athlete, so working out every day is just part of life; it keeps you feeling good and keeps your body in the world and the body and mind connected. And then have your passions and hobbies, whether it’s following the New York Yankees or collecting antique textiles, whatever it is, those things also keep your head. I’m very involved in the visual art world. I’m interested in contemporary art, and I have friends who are artists. I’m always hunting down beautiful pieces. All those things help make life affirmative. 

MW: Speaking of visual art, did you get to pick this cover? 

PB: I did, yeah. That Ellsworth Kelly piece seemed like it had the right tone to me for this book. 

MW: What would you say defines a love poem? 

PB: Of course, there’s a limitation to using single-word rubrics for poems, but the love poem is foundational to the entire history of the lyric, from Sappho to the present, so every writer’s engagement with the notion of love will be different. But for me, the sensuality of things in the world is often connected to the emotional depth and feeling for the other with whom you’re intimate, so the world and inner life blur and blend in my general orientation towards the love poem. 

MW: What was your process for formatting the books? The book, putting it into sections? 

PB: Well, this is the third in my trilogy of 45-section multi-sequence long poems that started in my 2010 book, Ziggurat, with a poem called “A-Train/Ziggurat/ Elegy.” It continued in my last book, Ozone Journal, with a long poem, also entitled “Ozone Journal.” Now, it’s continued in this book, No Sign, with a 45-section-long poem titled “No Sign.” The long poem is at the center of the four-sectioned book. The two sections that preceded and the section that follow it all have, in my mind, an imaginative and linguistic logic or shape. I think that books of poems should be shaped as carefully and fastidiously as any other literary form. A lot goes into making those poems come together in ways that are connected, that are in conversation, and that work in some way in a sequential echo chamber. 

MW: Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to title poems? 

PB: Titles, to me, emerge organically out of my preoccupation and immersion with the thing I’m pursuing in the poem: the subject, the issue, the place, the object, whatever it is. 

MW: I listened to your guest episode on The Literary Life with Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Miami Book Fair, so I wanted to know if you could tell me more about the group that you mentioned in that conversation, Writers for Democratic Action. 

PB: Yeah, and Mitch is a steering committee member with me for Writers for Democratic Action. We are a community of about 12 to 15 of us, who are the steering committee and the founding committee, and then there are over 3,000 members worldwide of Writers for Democratic Action. And we’re very proud of that. We began in the summer of 2020. In particular, the important writer and activist, and voice of the 1960s, Todd Gitlin, was really the founder of the idea. Todd called me one day after we met in another group, and he said, “What do you think about getting a few writers together and just working for this election?” because the fate of the nation is at stake, meaning that we have to stop Donald Trump from staying in Washington, D.C. I said to Todd, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s just do something.” Within a couple of weeks, the two of us had assembled an amazing group of writers. You can find out who they all are on our website. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so that’s why I don’t want to mention names. But there’s such a wonderful group of brilliant writers and committed public intellectuals who want to work for democracy. And so, the first iteration of this group was Writers Against Trump. After the election of November 2020, we reconvened and created a new name, Writers for Democratic Action. Our goal is to work through cultural venues. Mitchell Kaplan has been an inspiration to us all because he’s such a cultural force and he has brought to us such a knowledge of bookselling and the power and importance of the independent bookstore. 

We have tried to capitalize on Mitchell’s knowledge and network of independent booksellers to create, among other things, venues for people to register to vote at bookstores and through bookstores. Our project for the 2022 midterms was called Book the Vote, and we all feel pretty heartened by the results. Not that we can take any credit for anything. We don’t know anything about the impact of our work. We’re just out there doing what we can, you know. But we feel good. I think our biggest mission is to educate the general public about foundational values and institutions of democracy and to be an activist force in getting people out to vote. Those are two of our focuses. 

MW: What are you watching, reading, or listening to right now? 

PB: I’m reading Jim Carroll, also a founding member of Writers for Democratic Action, an amazing voice, and writer of fiction and nonfiction. I’m reading his memoir called, The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul. He’s a former priest, and that’s an extraordinary piece of work. I highly recommend The Truth at the Heart of the Lie. It deals with the pedophilia scandal among other things. I’m also reading an old British classic, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.  

I found Olivia Coleman and my good friend Ed Harris, among others, in the film, The Lost Daughter, to be a very moving piece of work based on an Elena Ferrante novel and Ferrante’s series. I also recommend another Ferrante story, My Brilliant Friend, as one of the great streaming movies of the last couple of years. It‘s about two young women coming of age in Naples.  I think her probing of female friendship is really rich and powerful.  

On the lighter side of things, sometimes when you need that break from a lot of heavy stuff, Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the story of a woman comedian coming of age in a very male-dominated business in the late 50s and early 60s set on the Upper West Side in New York City, where I have family roots. I just find that a delightful show, and I really admire the work she does among the other actors in that cast. 

MW: Good ones. Thank you. 

Peter Balakian is the author of several collections of poetry, including Ozone Journal (2015), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Ziggurat (2010), which wrestles with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11; and June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000. He earned a BA from Bucknell University, an MA from New York University, and a Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University.

Madison Whatley is a South Florida poet with an MFA from Florida International University and the Managing Editor at Gulf Stream Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Variant Literature, FreezeRay Poetry, and Cola Literary Review. She is on Instagram @hawttymadison.