The spiritual . . . exists parallel to the processes of matter . . .
and is operated through special, unfamiliar eternal spiritual
forces that are beyond the limits of consciousness.
— M. Rosenthal
(from the Dictionary of Philosophy)
The formal presentation of Sona Van’s new collection of poetry, fourth in its kind and symbolically titled A Bird Called Zara, took place on July 19, 2011, in Yerevan. The attending intellectuals, especially the literary critics, spoke with great admiration about their first impressions of the author and the book’s merits. There yet will be many more responses to the book. It is impossible not to witness Sona Van’s human and brightly creative character that emerges with new approaches toward her own art from the pages of the volume, however this time with much more lucidity and with psychologically intuitive, semantically unique images, enriched by emotionally exposed poetic lines that always gaze straightforwardly into the eyes of the reader. The following conversation doesn’t do justice to this brilliant poet of verslibre and the multilayered nuances of her world vision. Perhaps it is possible to grasp virtually, at least in a general way, the poet’s inmost thoughts about the world and the Armenian, which she continuously gives birth to in new volumes that bear the painful throbbing of such labor.
“The Poet, the Glue of the Cosmos”
Samvel Smbatyan: “When I was little / my father used to call me “Princess” / and I was certain / that I would grow up / to be a queen.” Dear Sona, these lines are from your poem. The well-known literary critic David Gasparyan has called you the “queen of Armenian poetry.” How is this not the materialization of your dream? So what if it’s only in the world of poetry? It is a matter of luck to be crowned as queen, as in all successful marriages, but being the “queen of Armenian poetry” is a sign of talent. As someone who has already become a beloved poet, whose word is highly valued, do you think that the poem has a concrete mission? Generally speaking, what do you expect from poetry today?
Sona Van: I feel proud and obliged in response to the critic’s comparison, and I would like to immediately add that literature is not an abstract value in our days of chaos, but a reality between a parent and a child, a real ethic system, through which people’s souls may link. The poem is that semitransparent membrane, which unites the outer and inner worlds. Confucius even said: “There will be a time, when language will bend and the word will lose its true meaning. Man won’t be able to transfer his knowledge and thoughts to another man.” Our time already contains such a threat. Now is the time for the intellectual to focus on this issue. Unfortunately even the best poet is incapable of becoming a politician, because the political arena requires a sense of realism and cold rationalism, whereas the poet is prone to hyperbolize. The astute politician has always consulted with the poet who stood by his side, who saw with his sixth sense the danger imperceptible to the ordinary eye, and who could prevent it with his often prophetic instinct or guide the way. The writer is the bearer of society’s collective consciousness, wisdom and pain. He is the society’s sensory system, and it is simply naivety and imprudence to not make use of that virtue.
SS: You have been living in the United States, the birthplace of feminism, for over thirty years. How do you relate to this idea of equality between genders, women’s power in the household, in the public and political arenas?
SV: As an Armenian woman, a mother, and a poet, my essence is incompatible with that “ism,” which contains an element of aggression. Feminism is not a movement for gender equality, but it is a new proposal for inequality, granting woman a status that would be higher than man’s. In the Creator’s mind, men and women are different, but they complete one another. There is no side that’s most important in this equation. Feminism is a tendency to masculanize women and it raises the issue of independence, but I think that there is no better or charming condition for a woman than being in dependence from her beloved man. I can’t imagine a much more natural posture for a woman than the one where she is leaning slightly over a dependable shoulder and resting her weak foot. I would like to see more women in politics, but not feminists. I would like to see women who are feminine, who can enter debates, who can fight, but who are also ready to concede. It would be good if the couple in a marriage knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths without the ego’s intervention. Studies show that the woman is the pillar of the family, but this doesn’t pertain to every woman. The one who rules is someone who is more mature and whose decisions are more adequate and established by experience and wisdom. Usually in the case of equal intellectual capacity, the woman makes the best decisions in the short-run, when time is an issue, but in the long-run, when there is time to weigh things up, it is the man whose decisions are more accurate.
“What Should I Do with a Whole Eternity?”
SS: The composer Meruzhan Simonyan once introduced you, very convincingly, as someone who singularly embodies the woman’s multiplicity and totality, a virtue that our society needed for a long time, bestowing upon you the image of “femme fatale.” And David Gasparyan has called you Sappho, queen of poetry. I sense that both instances underscore the great individuality, uniqueness and personality necessary for changing the lives of people in a society that has lost its faith and values.
SV: I am grateful for trusting me, again, especially because Sappho represents the longevity of a poetic character, and in general, a condition that presumes certain formality and protocol, which fascinates me, but also scares me a little. I do think that the influence or transformation that you mentioned is possible through the divine creative word, and there is no other sphere of greater power. Christ performed all of his miracles through the word and not his “chair” or position. He preached the kingdom of love and not of power. All the other forms of rule instill fear in me -they operate on a mechanism founded on someone’s dignity and humiliation, while the poet’s desire is to preserve the humanity of man and to give him back his dignity. Women’s power can be useful in the sense that, if applied in a right way, it can return the power of feminine love and perhaps even put an end to the bloody wars, because as someone who creates a child, a mother could never plan her son’s death, even if she were to gain lands. The woman is most prone to negotiations and sacrifice, in order to preserve the life that she has created; she is not useful in any other way. It would be desirable to see a politically and intellectually competent man standing next to the woman today, someone who would complete and guide her, if need be, because even though the woman is right when making quick decisions, it is the man who (statistically) makes the more provident decisions in the long-run.
SS: It seems that you are bringing us back to patriarchy, meanwhile having a queen is something to be proud of for the parent nation. There were more than a dozen queens who ruled Old Armenia, and we have had Armenian women who were married to foreign kings and became queens in foreign countries.
SV: I too would feel very proud if in the near future our country would have a female leader, and even today I already see women politicians who are the equals of and sometimes excel their male counterparts in their philosophy of putting the needs of homeland before personal gain, in their intellect, farsightedness, and other capabilities. I am personally not interested in politics due to my poetic nature, because the word (that I worship so much) has lost its creative meaning in politics. The politician’s ambition to get reelected makes him mangle, bend the word, making it ambiguous and equivocal. The poet has found himself before the problem of returning the word to its real heaven-the poetic line, from where the Savior pronounced the words, “Let there be light,” and there was light. We only need to return the microphone to someone who is capable of such a truth, and we will have a miracle again. I am someone who believes in the kingdom fairy tale and I have a large collection of crowns in my American home. Every morning, when I wake up, I wear one of them over my tussled hair and move toward the smell of coffee. My papers are as always scattered all over the kitchen table. This is my world, where I always feel as a queen.
SS: Your collections of poems have been translated into many languages by the most prominent literary figures of those nations. Using this occasion, I want to congratulate you with the Russian translation of your book The Bird Called Zara, which was translated by the greatest contemporary Russian poet Yevgeny Rein. Joseph Brodsky had considered Rein his mentor and this would have been a cause for pride for any writer. It has been widely acknowledged that language has the power to conquer, because it disseminates culture, art and everything else, including thought and ideology (“In the beginning there was the Word”). The English and French translations of your poems are in progress. You too know several languages. What is the most poetic language in your opinion? Do you know English? Do you write in that language?
SV: I write in English purely out of necessity or when I try to view the poetic “object” from a distance by estranging it. At other times the subject of my inspiration is so strictly American that it simply seems false to express it in the Armenian language. Every poet thinks of his mother tongue as the most poetic language, but if we were talking not in terms of philology but in terms of tonality and how to express the truth, then the most poetic language is the language of the Bible: it is written with such rich and accurate tonality that even what made no sense for the “beginner” believer, it still sounded true to him. For me, this is the pinnacle of the poetic line. In other words, the language of the Bible is the most poetic language, because it accurately and truthfully transmits the golden words of the Armenian language-the foundation of all the languages of civilization.
“The Energy of the Soil Is Transmitted to the Cosmos, the Light of God-to the Soul”
SS: Sona, do you think that poetry has a mission to save the soul? What is the poet’s ultimate dream? And as a psychologist, please tell me what is the role of religion and literature? What is the artist’s function in this regard? I am also curious to know, how are talented artists different from one another?
SV: Both religion and literature serve the evolution and sublimation of the soul, however they achieve that in different ways. The former proposes to free oneself from wants, opening up space for the light of God, whereas the latter attains sublimation more effortlessly, by “doing nothing,” through a joyful knowledge. The gifted poet “unknowingly” peregrinates between word and silence, memory and amnesia, knowledge and ignorance, and may put the reader in the aura of sublimation, saving him from the chains of solitude. The poem saves our souls from boredom, it saves our senses from rust, becoming the muscle that elevates the soul and holds it up, extracting us from the sediment of instinct, and from the inertia of habitual situations. The good writer brings the reader closer to life even if he writes about death. Man is a creature between the cosmos and the gravity of earth, he is the bearer of transformation, transmitting the energy of the earth to the universe, the light of God to the soul. The main strength of the artist is his conception, his philosophy, frankness, and individual style. Behind everything is the mind. Picasso said (and I am paraphrasing): “I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I think.” The power of art is not in its end, but in the strain of the endeavor, disruption and negation, which in itself originates the process of thought. A good artist is capable of converting that into emotion. An artist differs from another artist by the uniqueness of his inner “poetic machine,” the mechanism of his soul’s work, the way that he digs into memory. The writer observes the exterior world and simultaneously excavates his inner world, while trying to juxtapose them through the senses in another dimension.
SS: There is also the opposite-the impeded image. Some artists intentionally go for that difficulty, trying to be complicated and imperceptible, thinking that it’s good. Your writing is simple and accessible, what often misleads the reader who is unable to percieve the depth of your work immediately. How do your relate to the difficulty of the text? Please explain what “Ingenuity is always simple” means to you.
SV: It is important to know the reason for the intended difficulty. If it is done by a true poet and is aimed at generating a new aesthetic or a new nuance of emotion, which wouldn’t be possible without that difficulty, then I certainly accept it. The line doesn’t surrender so easily to the poet’s will. Why shouldn’t it be difficult for the perceiver as well? But the question is elsewhere—what is the purpose for such a complication? Is it to merely make it seem difficult, to cover up something insignificant, to shock the reader? Then, of course, the reason might also be the reader’s unpreparedness. After all, it is not easy to fully “digest” a poem in its entirety and the reader must have some kind of a spiritual and mental reservoir, an imagination and intuitive thought. I won’t exclude also the fact that it may be the writer’s complicated nature. I would like to quote Nietzsche here: “Those who are deep and know the depth of their thought, strive for simplicity, purity, perceptibility, but those who lack that depth and simply try to simulate it, strive for ambiguity or mystery . . .” Whether difficult or simple, good literature is the kind of literature that shows the true path, gives hope, warms up and comforts the reader, tapping on his shoulder in a friendly way and saying: “Tomorrow will be better.” Bad literature unpleasantly jolts the reader in our time that’s already full of distress.
“The Tendency of the Voice’s Evolution”
SS: The ambiguity that you mentioned is present in your poems as well. The element of mystery always throbs in your poetry, evoked by patterns of contradiction and, it is hard to tell, perhaps they are branches of the same tree. You often avoid direct questions. Nonetheless, the reader can’t find the “areal” of the real roots of your creative credo. Though there are many conversations with the divinities of the Holy Trinity in your poems, and they always alternate each other through the power of art, and sometimes even identify with one another, but in the end it is not easy to understand how your relationship with God is constructed. As a reader, what kind of poetry do you like, what’s closest to your soul? Where is your point of view? Is there something that stays constant and invariable when you look up into the sky?
SV: My point of view in that respect is, first of all, my lack of knowledge about heaven, the limitations of my mind and knowledge, and most of all my deference to the unknown and the mysterious. Yes, there is one thing that never changes. It is God, as higher reason, and man, as a rational being with his eyes upon God and all His creations that we call life. It is nearly impossible to circumvent thinking about God, but I have inner apprehensions and fear of being distasteful in regards to writing directly about that. There are things that are best left in silence. When you expose your soul and your faith, you are inevitably putting the other into a state of soul-searching, which is a rather indelicate thing to do. I repeat, the relationship that you mentioned above is entirely based on the deference for all that, which I am not in power to experience through human or poetic senses. As a poet, I am truly happy when I succeed in creating such an aura that embodies the ritualization of my deference. Reckoning my unknowing, my human limitations, which I adore nonetheless, I draw the glorification edge of the border with which my Creator and I separate from the rest — He is the greatest mystery, the origination and process of everything that surrounds us. My goal is to create with words a space, a virtual state, in which God’s existence would seem possible and real. As a reader I am more interested in the unpredictability of the poetic line, the kind of poem with unexpected allegorical images that allows for expansion and revision of my attitude toward life, man, and the phenomenon of the poem in general, the limits of its possibilities and potential. I am most attracted to poems that appear to not assert, but quite the opposite — collapse my current viewpoint and expectation of what a poem should be. I am often heading toward a “non-poetic” line in order to understand its potential, to see what will come out of it, ignoring completely the immediate perception of the poem’s form, style and structure.
“So They [Only] Call Me A Poet”
SS: Your in-depth analysis of the phenomenon of word-value as a poet-psychologist has nearly covered all the pages allocated to us, however I wanted to ask you about our present-day Armenian reality (and not only that). So I will try to be concise: six years ago, you and your husband, the writer and doctor Nubar Janoyan, founded the literary-cultural journal Narcissus as part of a benevolent mission. Apart from this, the two of you have also sustained and stimulated the promotion of literary life in Armenia . . .
SV: I don’t consider it benevolent if I am doing something, like the publication of Narcissus, in my own home-my homeland, although benevolence in its manifestation has to become the guide of the contemporary citizen’s way of thinking and behavior. A person is rich as long as he can improve someone else’s life. To paraphrase my colleague’s, co-founder of Narcissus, Vahan Vardanyan’s words: “We are responsible not only for truth, but also beauty.” The following pronouncement by candidate of historical sciences Levon Sargsyan at the closing ceremony of Golden Apricot sounds like a recapitulation of that same idea: “Material things are created for the service of the soul and beauty.” Let’s live with this consciousness. As to my and my husband’s activities—they are actions prompted by the soul and out of a sentiment of concern and responsibility. It resonates with that same idea formulated by Vardanyan and Sargsyan.
SS: And to conclude, Sona, would you please read a poem from your newly launched book? Perhaps the poem that has prompted the title of the book, because I think when you take a collection of works into your hand, the first most natural impulse is to find and read the “eponymous” poem. It is as if one is able to find the key to the solution of artistic problems posed during the creative process, while trying to impatiently discover the author’s intimate “secret.” Is that a true observation?
SV: The collection of poems was titled A Bird Called Zara as a biographical validation of those days when I was left immobile (I had broken my leg and was bedridden for six months). Zara would dutifully visit me during those days, perch on my window sill, sing and then grow silent and wait for an answer as if. In my solitude, she became the bearer of news from the outside world, my witness to the possibility of movement and flight, and she brought nature close to my bed. The bird in itself is a poetical creature, even a biblical symbol that gave man trust in the Universe and God, since according to the Scriptures it attains things without effort. Like the poet, it observes the world, perched on a branch, sometimes singing and sometimes keeping silent. I will leave the other parallels to the reader.
“A Bird Called Zara”
(or . . . happiness)
It’s the last day of summer
I need to hurry and come up with a name
for the impatient bird with patterns
joyfully hitting against the walls of my pelvis
— Don’t go out . . . Zara!
the evil wind
like the mill’s second stone unseen
grinds everything on the asphalt
then scatters it all in the air
. . . autumn, the toothless witch of the woods
autumn, that step-mother
don’t go out . . . Zara!