From a Newtown Literary contributor: Alan Semerdijan
Writer Alan Semerdjian’s work was featured in issue #17 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing and his answers are below. For more from Alan, check out his poetry collection In the Architecture of Bone, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram. You can also find music by Alan at alansemerdjian.com and Bandcamp, which features his recent spoken word collaboration called The Serpent and The Crane, a haunting assemblage of poems set to extemporaneous music focusing on the complexities surrounding the Armenian Genocide.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
Woodside, diversity, the architecture of my youth, sending paper airplanes out the balcony down 60th Street all the way to Roosevelt, unraveling languages like gifts.
How does Queens influence your writing?
Well . . . these days, I live a few miles east of it, but it always moves in my blood. Many of the snapshots from my full-length collection were born from memories of my childhood here. Queens was the immigrant destination for my family, the landing pad, and the place we took off from, as well. It's filled with contradictions and always surprises. In this way, it is a kind of poetry in and of itself and teaches by example.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
I have to say this kind of thing happens often . . . not the reading of many things (I'm a slow reader) but the laughing or crying or deep movement when I'm actually in it. Just finished Zadie Smith's Intimations, which are stunningly beautiful essays, open-palmed and instinctive. I also just began Peter Balakian's latest poetry collection No Sign and Ted Chiang's imaginative and artful short stories. Peter's work is extremely personal for me as he's a friend and mentor of sorts for many years now.
What inspires you? Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your poems featured in the journal?
Some of the seeds for the poems in the journal were planted a while back. This is sort of how I work. I draft up a few lines in a notes app or mumble voice recordings (these have become my new notebooks over the years) and then re-enter them later on and view them through a new lens as I extend them and piece them together. The great quieting that happened just below the ruckus of 2020 brought these to the surface, I think. So the poem about leaving my parents' home with my child, the waving at them, their lift into the sky, all of it carries new weight in the present, even though lines for that one were written before March of 2020, when we were all thinking of mortality in a different way (maybe). The "War" poem too . . . and "The Need" . . . they walk away from their old selves and step proudly into a new and proper ambiguity.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
It used to be long and intensive immersions into the work. Lots of reading on the front end to whet the palette, so to speak, and then diving into the generative work. I used to really enjoy being alone in busy spaces like diners, bars, subways, cafes, etc. to make and shape the work, but then I became a parent and that was the end of being alone. These days, I write whenever I can, which is typically late at night when the family is asleep. Deadlines are huge for me as well. I need to work towards something. Also, I rely, weirdly, on conversations with friends to get ideas going and to fall into a zone. Conversations with someone we trust can calibrate us for creative work. I've come to really lean on them in these complicated times.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
As a public school teacher for the past 25 years, I'm in the classroom a lot . . . even in the summer. This means I'm thinking and talking about writing even when I'm not actually doing it. I'm also a professional musician/songwriter, so chances are I'm doing something related to that aspect of my work as well. I'm not sure what music will look like when we come out of this pandemic, but I can't imagine it leaving my life. In terms of hobbies and that kind of thing, I like going for short runs and the occasional deep stretch. I'm also a huge fan of basketball and the Knicks, who have been so terrible as of late that my love for them borders on some kind of epic dysfunction.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I have finished and then finished again and again my second full-length manuscript of poems, which is currently called The Birds & Other Flying Things. The collection reads now like a "selected poems since my first book" and needs to carve out a vision for itself if it is ever going to make its way into the world with a proper publisher. It's getting clearer though . . . it's this idea of the ephemeral, how things appear and reappear, and how the idea can really apply to so much of our love, to our familial, ancestral, and imaginative lives. About sixty percent of the poems in the collection are published, which is no small thing, I guess. The book is all I think about these days aside from education's role in making the world a more equitable and healthier place. I'm also archiving old music and finding new audiences for my grandfather, Simon Samsonian's art. He was a cubist-impressionist painter and Armenian Genocide survivor. The existing works that aren't already with collectors or in galleries or museums blow me away each time I spend time with them. We'll see where all this leads.