Perla Kantarjian, Poet, Editor, Journalist, Interviewed by David Garyan
October 1st, 2023
DG: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you come to embrace literature and is there anyone in particular who inspired you to do this?
PK: Well, creativity runs deep in my family. My grandfather was a poet in Armenian, my uncle writes English poetry, and my dad is a notable cinematographer and playwright in our Lebanese-Armenian community. So, you could say that the path of writing was something of an inherited birthright for me.
Words, their arrangements, and the emotions they could stir have fascinated me from a tender age. I took delight in the art of linguistic structure, observing how a solitary word placed beside another could ignite something in the emotional spectrum. English literature classes were my sanctuary during school, and I was fortunate to have English teachers who pushed me to explore my calling further.
As a teenager, I was honored with the “Best English Writer” title twice in high school, and I won a first-place award in an essay competition at my bachelor’s university, where I was (naturally) pursuing a BA in English Literature and Linguistics.
Yet, the turning point in my writing journey was having Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in our syllabus at my bachelor’s uni. That book, ugh! I wish I could read it for the first time again, and again. Nabokov’s playful manipulation of language, his fearless rule-breaking, and his daring experiments with storytelling left an indelible mark on my own writing. To this day, he’s my favorite writer, and one of my earliest inspirations.
DG: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? How do you feel about it today?
PK: Oh, I wish! I do remember a rather peculiar moment from my childhood though. Back in 2006, I was attending a summer school while the 2006 Lebanon War was unfolding. Amid all that chaos, we were given a simple task: painting a vase. But instead of just painting it, I felt this strange, inexplicable urge to write a poem about that vase. In retrospect, I think that was the moment when writing became a means of escape and a way to translate emotions for me. To my surprise, they actually published that poem in the summer school’s magazine, which felt like a little victory—and an origin point. In high school, I continued to explore my creative side, constantly contributing to the school’s magazine. I mean, I was around fourteen or fifteen at the time, but these early experiences were the seeds that took their PKtime in later sprouting. I’m grateful for always heeding the call of my muse, for my intuition loudly reminding me of what my true calling has always meant to be.
DG: What’s the first thing you ever published, and do you feel that your writing style has changed a great deal since then, or has it improved while remaining stylistically the same?
PK: My first-ever publication was indeed that vase poem I mentioned earlier. It marked a turning point in my writing journey. But if I were to pinpoint the real game-changer, I’d say it was “Daughter of Genocide,” the very first poem I submitted to a real publication, the Armenian Weekly’s literary corner, in 2020. They not only gave it a warm welcome but showered it with praise and support. It was a big moment for me, my first step into the wider world of poetry beyond those school magazines.
At the time, I was deeply immersed in journalism, working with Annahar Newspaper, chasing high-impact news and feature stories. But when “Daughter of Genocide” found its way into the literary realm, something shifted. It wasn’t just another AP-guidelined piece; it was poetry, and it resonated with people in a way that felt surreal. I started receiving heartfelt messages from readers who connected with it, and that’s when I knew I was onto something—something I wanted to pursue for a long, long time.
As for my writing style, it’s been on a journey of its own, definitely inspired by “Daughter of Genocide,” which I penned on the 105th remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. Though it’s only been three years, I’m in awe of how profoundly my writing has transformed. While the core essence remains, I’d say my writing has found a new, more refined melody, a rhythm that’s uniquely mine.
DG: A major accomplishment for you was gaining admission to the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing program as the 2021-22 Sonny Mehta Scholar, from which you recently graduated. Can you talk about how the program affected your development—both personally and creatively?
PK: To start, it’s important to emphasize that my acceptance into this program felt like more than just a personal achievement. It meant I was selected to carry the presence of both my home countries, along with the incredible legacy of the legendary Sonny Mehta. Landing in a medieval-era town surrounded by strangers from all corners of the globe, I was tasked with a rather intimidating mission: to write poems, share my raw emotions with these newfound companions, read their works, engage in literary discourse, and dive headfirst into the world of literary criticism. At first glance, it appeared demanding, even overwhelming, but there was an undeniable excitement in the air. I wanted my writing to embody Denise Levertov’s vision of being “valuable as human testimony and as aesthetic experience,” and to heed Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s golden advice to “think long thoughts in short sentences.”
The pressure and the unfamiliarity of it all catalyzed a transformation within me. It was the first time I found myself in such a setting; the only remotely similar experience was when I was awarded a residency with four other writers in Lebanon, where we all hailed from the same background and wrote about the emotional aftermath of the Beirut blast. But, in the UK, each person in the classroom and workshop contributed to my growth in a new way, awakening uncharted facets of myself and my writing.
I think being physically and emotionally distanced from familiar settings and faces really allowed me to detach from my writing and place it on the operating table. I zoomed in on its imperfections, quirks, and nuances, and I operated on it, striving for its optimal perfection (if such a thing exists).
DG: You have a fascinating multilingual background. Having Armenian heritage, but growing up in Lebanon, you’re a native speaker of both languages, along with English. Can you give us a word from either the Armenian or Arabic that has no English equivalent?
PK: Oh, there are so many expressions in Armenian, but lately I’ve really been strangely obsessed with the Arabic “ نعيمًا” (na’eeman). It’s one of my absolute favorite terms! A post-shower glow, a crisp haircut, a perfectly groomed beard—in the Arab world, each of these moments means it’s time to release the na’eemans, like there’s no tomorrow. But the thing is, it’s pretty hard to translate to English. In a sense, it’s sort of equal to “congrats on your shower!” Or “congrats on your new haircut!” Again, in a sense, but not really. The charm of na’eeman exudes more than just saying “looking fresh!” It’s even more than saying “congrats on your hygiene!” In fact, it’s a cultural bridge connecting the past and present, reminding us of the appreciation for cleanliness that our ancestors cherished. In the past, a bath was a luxurious venture, and a haircut, likewise, held a unique significance. In Lebanon, the term has evolved to be echoed in nail salons, tattoo parlors, and every spot that adds a fresh touch to appearances.
Derived from “na’eem,” which translates to paradise or bliss, this expression carries layers of meaning. It’s kind of like expressing a heartwarming wish to someone that their shower, bath, or visit to the hair salon was a rejuvenating journey—and it’s not just about hygiene. It’s about feeling invigorated and blessed with the simple, ancient act of cleansing. When someone naeemans you, it’s natural to respond with “الله ينعم عليك” (allah yen’am alayk, for males), or “الله ينعم عليك” (allah yen’am alayki, for females), which reciprocates the blessing. So yeah. It’s a pretty cool thing to add to your dictionary.
DG: Thinking about your multilingual background, along with the various other work you’ve done writing articles and copy, the most natural way to branch out at this point would be translation. The best poets, one might say, were also translators, mainly because they had access to the original world of authors most of us can only read in translation. Given that Arabic and especially Armenian literature has such untapped potential, have you considered this as a possible option?
The idea of translation has been lingering in the back of my mind for a while now. It just feels like the next logical adventure. Armenian poetry, in particular, has this magnetic pull for me. There are countless Armenian poets whose work I’d love to share with a broader audience through translation—names like Hamo Sahyan and Raffi immediately spring to mind. Also, amidst the ongoing cruelties and relentless attempts at ethnic cleansing of the Armenians in Artsakh, I’m convinced that these tragic events will give rise to a wealth of Armenian literature. It’s imperative that the English-speaking world goes beyond mere news pieces to truly understand the human experiences involved. So it would be an honor to make these voices and stories accessible, as pure truth is often found in literature, not news pieces.
DG: You were not far from the Port of Beirut when the explosion happened on August 4th, 2020. A poem called “The Afterfeel” came out of it. It’s now been four years. How has the country changed?
The country hasn’t changed, I feel. The people have changed. There’s always a lingering sense of numbness in the air, which tinges everything we do, all the choices we make. Personally, after the explosion, I’ve felt a wall come up between me and Lebanon. I feel like I always have the need to protect myself from it, which isn’t a nice feeling, given it’s where I was born and where my family and I have spent most of our lives. I try to capture this disconnect in my poem, “liz tells me OnlyFans pays in USD,” which was recently a runner up in the Arts University Bournemouth International Poetry Prize.
DG: You read submissions for Rusted Radishes—a literary and arts journal at the American University of Beirut. How long have you been engaged in this, and how, if at all, does looking at other people’s work affect your own?
I’ve been with Rusted Radishes for around three years now, and it’s been quite the experience. Engaging with other writers’ work is always something I love doing, and it’s really the only way to understand the importance of viewing one’s own work as an outsider looking in—and not just as the author. Only this way can a writer truly step into the shoes of the work itself, rather than remaining confined to the narrows of their own perspective.
DG: What’s next for you? Do you plan on returning to Europe?
Hmmm. I don’t really like to plan, I much prefer to flow with whatever strikes resonance. Especially that for a while now, I’ve been teetering on the edge, waking up each day and pondering, “What’s next?” and “What now?” So, I’ve been making a conscious effort to steer away from those questions and simply savor the unhurried pace of the present moment.
I have a few exciting publications coming up, and I’m just focused on doing what I love, being surrounded by like-minded individuals, and remaining open to whatever destiny has in store. Hope that includes publishing my debut collection (and hugging one of those fluffy pandas).
DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?
Right now, my plate is pretty full. I’m working on some freelance copywriting projects for various brands, fine-tuning my debut poetry collection, “BLOODWATERS,” and on the lookout for the perfect publisher to bring it to life. I’m also deeply engaged in one-on-one creative writing consultation sessions with several talented writers.
In terms of reading, I’m on “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” by Eimear McBride. Quite the read.
The Stillness That Follows
the scene unfolds
listen to the silence—
in the name of Glory.
the sacrifice has been performed—
the pomegranate slit in half.
a thin smear of blood
runs in the midst of the heart as though river
shouldering the awakening
of the let-down dead,
our earth has yet to soak up
the fallen bones and flesh—if she can.
in my dreams i hear the brittle splintering
of their somatic minerals; the calcium phosphate,
the collagen, the muscle tissue, all in their prime,
decomposing into food for the Empire
of their birthright.
each of the fallen thousands, entireties of
their existences, reduced
into their names and years,
turned keepsake, left to desiccate
but in the gentle Caucasian updraft, their seeds
now disperse over the mesocarp,
inner wall of the fruit,
and in a few years we will see them
putting forth shoots,
taking root in the ancestral
land once again,
this is Divine law.
Dedicated to the fallen heroes of the six weeks long war over the Armenian region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), launched by Azerbaijan and Turkey on the 27th of September, 2020.
About Perla Kantarjian
Perla Kantarjian is an award-winning Lebanese-Armenian writer, copywriter, journalist, editor, and educator based between Lebanon, England, and Armenia. Her writings have been published in over 50+ renowned journals and magazines, including The Rumpus, Electric Literature, AMBIT, Lucent Dreaming, and Black Warrior Review. Her work has also been awarded, placed, and recognized by Palette Poetry, Southbank Centre, The Poetry Society, Orison Books, Magma Poetry, Black Lawrence Press, and more, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Most notably, her surrealist poem, “Half Woman, Half Starlight” was selected by the founder of The Lunar Codex: Artists on the Moon project as one of the works by female literary artists to be placed in a time capsule, launched to the Moon and archived on its surface. She remains the only Lebanese and Armenian artist aboard the time capsule. Formerly a literature and journalist instructor at the International College in Beirut, Kantarjian was also a journalist for Annahar English and the co-founding executive editor of Carpe Diem, Annahar Newspaper’s literary segment, as well as a content writer for Bookstr. She also served as Creative Communications Director for BLACK LEMON, the first Web3 Lab and NFT Production House in the MENA. Currently, she is a submissions reader for Rusted Radishes – Beirut literary and arts journal at the American University of Beirut, an invited Creative Armenia Network member, and a member of the International Armenian Literary Alliance. She has her BA in English Studies (Literature and Linguistics) and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia as the 2021-22 Sonny Mehta Scholar.