Interlitq’s Interview Series:
Author of History of Forgetfulness
DG: Like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, who published their first collections of poetry later in life—at forty and forty-four, respectively—you released History of Forgetfulness, at a point where most poets would’ve perhaps already released two or three titles. Given the serious nature of your topic, what would’ve been lost had you attempted to write this book earlier, and how did your experiences ultimately help make this the cohesive, engaging, yet entertaining work that it is?
SM: First, the journey to publish a poetry book in the U.S. is a crapshoot nightmare. You probably have a better chance of hitting the jackpot in Vegas than getting a publisher to notice your unsolicited manuscript or win a “first book” competition. For two decades, I kept resubmitting my manuscript. It was a finalist to four prestigious awards: the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. It was always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Hence, I didn’t release a book in my thirties or forties because I kept making U-turns when I hit dead-end streets, and I was too stubborn to self-publish. The silver lining was this: in the span of 20 years, I kept sending steady stream of poems to various journals, and a good number got published. I kept finetuning orphaned poems with my writing group. Otherwise, I rearranged poems or added newer ones to the manuscript. Since I experienced the Lebanese Civil War in my preteens, the focus of my manuscript remained consistent: to chronicle the war from the lens of a child and use the recollection of an adult.
DG: Which poem in the collection is your favorite, why, and was it composed earlier or later in the writing process?
SM: It’s like asking a teacher to pick his favorite student. Every student has the likelihood to surprise you and become your favorite on any given day. Having said that, the title of the book, History of Forgetfulness, comes from a poem that I wrote in 2010. It’s situated toward the end of the book. Oddly, it’s a poem that does not take place in Beirut. As a whole, it captures the beginning stages of my mother’s battle with dementia in America. The poem feels misplaced. It pulls readers out of the mayhem of Beirut and places them in Mama’s car somewhere in Los Angeles. It is a poem that captures the reluctant loss of memory, a compact scenic hopscotch of a woman who forgets the mundane, humdrum of life. Yet, the last three lines capture the essence of the poem and the book: “She can’t sleep at night / because when she closes her eyes, / she remembers everything.” It gives me goose bumps every time I read the poem because it captures the genesis of my mother’s journey into the bleak world of dementia. An early reading of the poem at the Skylight Bookstore can be seen on YouTube.
DG: Is there a poem whose composition presented particular challenges, perhaps because of the events surrounding them, perhaps also because of your own memory—what you remembered and what you couldn’t remember?
SM: The first poem of the book is entitled “Educating the Son.” It was written circa 2005 when I was writing my dissertation under the guidance of Dr. Timothy Steele, who is considered one of the major New Formalist practitioners. Influenced by his attention to meter, I wrote this particular poem in iambic tetrameter like Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” or Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Both the form and subject matter created a number of challenges. It was the summer of 2004 when I started writing the first draft. At that time, I had converted the garage of my parents’ house into my working and sleeping quarters. I was cooped up in a space with no AC during the midsummer heatwave in Pasadena. Delirium set in as I tried to untangle the meter of the poem. The form controlled the storytelling. The image of the boy working at a morgue appeared unexpectedly. Buried deep in biblical undertones, he demanded my full attention as he struggled with the question of life and death. The poem ends with a twisted homage to Luke 24:5, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And the reverberating answer is, He lives.
DG: In the poem, “Bibliophile,” the speaker recalls a father breaking his wife’s tooth “with the spine of a book.” It’s a dramatic, yet at the same time calm scene, as the mother has “goosebumps but no signs of quiver.” At the end, the speaker wants to scream “I hate your fuckin’ books!” It doesn’t happen. They say never to equate the speaker with the poet, but in this case, the challenge is more formidable. How “personal” is this poem and what were those books the father so enjoyed?
SM: First, I must say, my reverence for books comes from my father. He created an atmosphere full of Armenian and English books in our Beirut apartment. In Father’s personal library, you might’ve found Siamanto’s book of poems squeezed next to a novel by Somerset Maugham. I grew up in a world without daytime TV or videogames, and boredom was king. I turned to books because they were there.
Before writing this poem, I remember seeing the famous quote by Bertolt Brecht on a bookmark: “Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.” It dawned on me that I can manipulate Brecht statement into something truly violent, a situation where a book actually becomes a weapon of a hungry man, my father, who victimizes my mother in the kitchen. As a child, I had witnessed my father turning over the kitchen table in a state of rage. I remember my mother’s shocking silence. I was too young to understand the root of my father’s rage. I could only predict, and I do so in the poem. Yet, Brecht allowed me to use an object—a weaponry—of reverence in our home as the means to victimize a loved one.
DG: There are two poems in this collection, “Lord’s Prayer: Age 8,” and “Lord’s Prayer: Age 28,” both in the first part of the book, but separated by some pages; with respect to the former, it’s a work full of highly original images, reflected in the fearful imagination of an eight year old, while the latter is equally powerful, and yet it remains fearful while also attempting to project a sense of strength that comes with adulthood. Can you talk about these works, and also how growing up in a warzone affected your personal and creative development in later years?
SM: These are coded poems, loaded with the burden of trauma. Growing up in a war-torn city, children became the scapegoat of adult frustration and fear. Rewriting the Lord’s Prayer was an attempt to give these scarred children the sacred power to protest.
I migrated to America at the age of 12. The trauma of war didn’t miraculously dissipate in the Promised Land. Wearing Levi’s and Nike didn’t magically erase the scars. During my formative years, I avoided writing about the war. I was derailed by the poems of Charles Bukowski—like every crazed poet in Los Angeles. Then, I took Ron Koertge’s poetry classes at Pasadena City College, which provided two important tools to shape my writing. First, he kept repeating, “Make each line of your poem filmable.” And I realized: “What’s more cinematic than war?” Second, a subtle seismic shift occurred when the poet La Loca visited Koertge’s class. After I shared one of my poems, she suggested I read The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano. Reading Galeano’s work made all the difference. I realized the scars that I have collected as a child can blossom into poems. Stephen King said, “That’s all history is, after all, scar tissue.”
DG: Women, along with the nurturing qualities of motherhood, are a frequent theme in your work. In “The City of Lost Children,” the narrator speaks of the woman’s skirt as a safe haven from the danger and violence of his surroundings. In “The Sniper as Cupid,” on the other hand, it’s the man saving the woman. Along with a discussion of those poems, what were the differences, if any, in how men dealt with the conflict as opposed to women?
SM: The poem “The City of Lost Children” reminds the reader the absurdity of going to school during a civil war. “Boys couldn’t / play in the same playground as girls.” Yet, as we were hiding in shelters, and bombs were destroying our city, the wall between girls and boys detonated. In the subterranean world, children collectively hid to stay alive. We played, ate, and slept together on the concrete floor of the shelter. Mothers and fathers sat on blankets, played pinochle, drank Armenian coffee, and told racy jokes to pass time. Above ground, when bombings ceased, we returned to our old ways. Fathers went to work. Mothers pretended to be dutiful wives. Teachers divided boys and girls in separate playgrounds or kept them seated apart in classrooms. This was a failed experiment that made us crave the opposite sex even more.
“The Sniper as Cupid” pays homage to that failed experiment. Under the most unlikely circumstance, a sniper becomes the catalyst to blossom love. Unfortunately, the fastest way to erase gender differences is to create a war. When a community is under attack, the walls between men and women dissipates quickly because the struggle to stay alive transcends gender differences.
DG: Have you traveled to Lebanon in recent years? If so, how has it changed since the events you describe in the book? If not, would you like to visit?
SM: I left Lebanon in 1979 and traveled back 22 years later, in the summer, before 9/11. After 15 years of war, Beirut exuded a sense of rejuvenation and resiliency. The bloody period between 1975 to 1990 seemed lost in the collective memory of the people. Bakeries and seafront cafés were back in business. The beaches looked crowded. Taxis honked their horns incessantly. Patchy buildings with shrapnel-ridden balconies were the only reminders of the past. I visited my neighborhood, the apartment building of my childhood, my school, my father’s grocery store, the railroad bridge, the church, the mosque … places that reappear in my poems. I also visited Bsharri, the birth village and the final resting place of Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese-American poet. This was a pilgrimage of sorts, to see the paintings and the handwritten manuscripts in his museum. As a poet, I feel a strange affinity to Gibran because he also left Lebanon at the age of 12 and immigrated to the United States. The first section of my book starts with a quote by the poet: “If the other person injures you, you may forget the injury; / but if you injure him, you will always remember.”
DG: You’re the principal at St. Gregory Alfred & Marguerite Hovsepian School. How does your work in this capacity inform your creative life?
SM: It helps that I work at a school where creativity reigns supreme. It also helps that I teach language arts and writing to the 8th grade graduating class. At least one period a day, I am in the classroom reading my favorites: Saroyan, de Saint-Exupéry, Cisneros, Nikki Grimes, Bukowski, and Bashō. Poetic expression lives in our classroom. My students are familiar with contemporary Armenian-American poets who we consider our friends. We memorize and recite poems by Aram Saroyan, Gregory Djanikian, Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian, David Kherdian, Lola Koundakjian, Lory Bedikian, Alan Semerdjian, Alene Terzian-Zeitounian, Arminé Iknadossian, Nancy Agabian, Arthur Kayzakian, Alina Gregorian, Arto Vaun, and Tina Demirdjian. When I assign writing prompts, I write with them. They see me writing on the white board; they witness my struggles. I keep writing, erasing, and rewriting. They point out my grammatical mistakes, clumsy line breaks, unnecessary wordiness. We listen to jazz as we scribble words. They get irritated with me; I get irritated with them. We argue; we laugh. We watch strange movies together. I repeat Ron Koertge’s mantra: “Make each line of your writing cinematic.” They listen. They don’t listen. It’s the best job in the world for a writer.
DG: You’re a board member for the International Armenian Literary Alliance. Can you talk about this organization, some of its upcoming projects, and your involvement in it?
SM: The International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA) has been one of the great blessings in my life. It’s been so rewarding to work with a group of like-minded individuals who love the arts and literature. Under the leadership of Olivia Katrandjian, we have created an alliance that celebrates writers. We foster the development and distribution of Armenian literature in the English language. Last summer, I had the pleasure of directing our inaugural Mentorship program. We paired 11 accomplished mentors with 11 magnificent mentees. Alan Semerdjian also spearheaded our inaugural Young Armenian Poets Awards, an annual contest that recognizes and provides a platform for exciting new Armenian writers between the ages of 14-18. Both events will return in 2022. Nancy Agabian & JP Der Boghossian are planning a Queer Armenian Literature event in 2022. Since we work closely with the Armenian Institute in London, we can foresee several collaborations with them.
Most importantly, please become a member of IALA. The annual membership gains you access to craft talks, panels, workshops, mentoring programs, and peer feedback groups. Since we recently attained our 501c3 charitable status, your donations will be tax deductible. You will find all the membership information by clicking here.
DG: What can we expect going forward—are you thinking about new poems?
I have most of the poems ready for my next two manuscript. History of Forgetfulness is the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume will chronicle my family’s challenges and mishaps in America as immigrants. These are the early years in the “Promised Land.” Again, the poems are viewed using the lens of a child and the recollection of an adult. Finally, the third volume will deal with the perpetual question of homelessness or being uprooted. Hopefully, the journey to find a publisher for these books will become easier now that I have my first book in circulation. Finally, I cannot thank Isabelle Kenyon enough, the editor at Fly on the Wall Press, for taking a chance on my work. I never thought my first book would be published in the United Kingdom. I guess the British like to take risks in literature. Without a doubt, I have been fortunate.
About Shahé Mankerian
Shahé Mankerian is the principal of St. Gregory Hovsepian School in Pasadena and the director of mentorship at the International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA). He has been the co-director of the Los Angeles Writing Project. He is also the recipient of the Los Angeles Music Center’s BRAVO Award, which recognizes teachers for innovation in arts education. His debut poetry collection, History of Forgetfulness, was published by Fly on the Wall Press, on October 22, 2021. The manuscript has been a finalist at the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.