Red, White, and Gray
Curtis Fox: This podcast is one of several produced by The Poetry Foundation. Another is the Poetry Magazine Podcast, which comes out at the beginning of each month. On the Poetry Magazine Podcast, the editors of the magazine listen to and talk about a few poems in the current issue. In the July podcast, Anthony Madrid reads some limericks in the tradition of Edward Lear.
There was an old person from Burnside and his garden was good til his fern died.
He threw it a funeral and said play a tune or I’ll sink in despair since my fern died.
Curtis Fox: You can subscribe to The Poetry Magazine Podcast in the iTunes store, and please leave a comment while you’re there. It helps get the word out. This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, July 1 2015. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, red white and gray. As holidays go, the 4th of July is a fairly straight forward, uncontroversial American holiday. Some of us put out the flag, many of us barbecue, and then when the sun finally goes down we watch the fireworks or set off our own. On this podcast, we’re going to hear two poems about the 4th of July that complicate the holiday some what. The first is by Gregory Djanikian a poet who was born in Alexandria, Egypt and who now lives in Philadelphia where he joins me now. Greg, like I said you were born in Egypt, but you come from an Armenian family. When did your family come to the US and why?
Gregory Djanikian: We came in 1957, and it was after the 1956 Suez war. We were Armenians living in Egypt, and when the war occurred and during the war, Nasser began nationalizing non-Arab concerns. My father decided that perhaps we should leave the country if we were able to. By some magic and miracle, we did. We were able to leave and came to the United States.
Curtis Fox: Where in the United States did your family move to?
Gregory Djanikian: We actually moved to Williamsport Pennsylvania, a town of about 35,000 people in Pennsylvania. Home of the little league. The reason why we moved there was because my father who was looking for a job found a sponsor in Williamsport Pennsylvania, a person who had a steel concern. My father was in the steel business in Egypt, and he worked for him for a good while.
Curtis Fox: I don’t know about you, but I’m somebody who’s always a bit uncomfortable around fervent displays of patriotism. The exception is when I see immigrants in this country put out the flag. I find that the patriotism of immigrants is immensely moving because they feel at home in this country. That makes me proud of this country when I see that. What was your family’s attitude towards America and American patriotism.
Gregory Djanikian: I can speak probably only for myself. I thought it was great. When I first moved to Williamsport I was about eight, maybe eight and a half. It was the first time actually that I had a sense of freedom. And I don’t mean freedom in a philosophical sense, I mean quite literally a palpable sense of freedom because it was the first time I could walk out of the house and walk downtown by myself, ride my bicycle on the streets. It was really wonderful and engaging and livening. I found it fascinating that I could do all these things that I was not able to do in the large city in Alexandria, which made Williamsport for me a lovely and rich town. it became very exotic for me. I just loved it.
Curtis Fox: The poem you’re going to read is called “Immigrant Picnic”, which was published in Poetry Magazine in July of 1999. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest this poem is autobiographical. This is straight out of your experience I’m guessing.
Gregory Djanikian: Yes, it is autobiographical. The funny syntactical construction come right out the mouth of my father and mother.
Curtis Fox: We’re going to hear those in just a second. Anything else you want to say about this poem before we read it?
Gregory Djanikian: Yes. The poem itself is about the 4th of July but it’s also about language itself. You talked about immigrants, I think language is very very important for immigrants who have come to this country. Especially the American language. It seems so open to us. Patriotism in the sense is also love of one’s fellow countryman and person. I think the way we can contribute, immigrants, the way we contribute to the American language makes us really a part of the culture and society. We can call through the language, because we add to it, we can call our country our own. I think language gives us that enlivening notion.
Curtis Fox: Okay, let’s hear your poem. Here’s Gregor Djanikian reading “Immigrant Picnic”.
It's the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.
And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,
I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I've got a hat shaped
like the state of Pennsylvania.
I ask my father what's his pleasure
and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"
and then, "Hamburger, sure,
what's the big difference,"
as if he's really asking.
I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins
are fluttering away like lost messages.
"You're running around," my mother says,
"like a chicken with its head loose."
"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,
loose and cut off being as far apart
as, say, son and daughter."
She gives me a quizzical look as though
I've been caught in some impropriety.
"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,
"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,
"you're both our children, so why worry?"
That's not the point I begin telling them,
and I'm comparing words to fish now,
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.
"Sonia," my father says to my mother,
"what the hell is he talking about?"
"He's on a ball," my mother says.
"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,
"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll...."
"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,
"let's have some fun," and launches
into a polka, twirling my mother
around and around like the happiest top,
and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
"You could grow nuts listening to us,"
and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
crowding out everything else.
Curtis Fox: That was “Immigrant Picnic”. Greg, it sounds like your family in tis poem at least is having an awfully good time.
Gregory Djanikian: They are having an awfully good time. Whenever we do get together, it’s quite a social event. I think all immigrants, perhaps, have this experience. The Armenians especially. The great feasts we prepare are not only food feasts, but they’re really a gathering, a social experience.
Curtis Fox: You mentioned earlier your experience of freedom when you came as a boy to the United States, to Pennsylvania. What about now? Your view of patriotism? It’s a very personal question actually, so forgive me if I’m intruding. But how has your sense of your country developed and changed over time as you’ve matured and become more politically sophisticated?
Gregory Djanikian: Certainly patriotism can have awful connotations. You can be a patriot and you can say love the country or leave it. But what I find living here in the United States is this offer by the country to be at the center and to actually dislike the country in different ways and through that dislike, to be able to effect change in wonderful ways. I’m thrilled that, yes I can love many things about the United States, but I can also choose not to love it. That choice is really something quite fabulous.
Curtis Fox: What are your plans for this 4th of July?
Gregory Djanikian: I’m going to spend it with my mother who is 91 years old, and my sister. We’re going to have a barbecue.
Curtis Fox: So the tradition continues!
Gregory Djanikian: The tradition continues.
Curtis Fox: Thanks so much Greg.
Gregory Djanikian: Thank you.
Curtis Fox: You can read a generous sampling of Gregory Djanikian’s poetry up on our website. His latest book is Dear Gravity published by Carnegie Mellon. Next up, another 4th of July poem that does something very different with the holiday. It’s by John Brehm, a poet and freelance writer who has lived all over the place, but who joins me now from his home in Portland. John, your poems tend to be colloquial and often very funny. The one you’re about to read is colloquial in it’s diction but it makes no attempt at humor. It’s called “Fourth of July”. Do you remember what prompted you to write this poem.
John Brehm: Yes, I lived in Brooklyn when I wrote this poem. I wrote it a while ago, I’m pretty sure it was 2003. But it was not long after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had gotten underway. And I had seen the towers fall at 9/11. The city was still vibrating from those events. 4th of July has never been my favourite holiday, and that particular year it struck me as strange and incongruous and abrasive to see people enjoy watching things explode in the sky. Particularly in the context of the wars and the bombings that you could watch on TV. It was that combination of things that sparked this particular poem. You’re right, it’s unlike much of my other work in that it’s a pretty serious, intense, not funny poem.
Curtis Fox: You said the 4th has never been your favourite holiday. Why not?
John Brehm: Just the noise and the crowds. I tend to be kind of an introvert and sensitive to noise. I think also particularly on that 4th of July it was the awareness that the United States has been more or less continuously at war since it’s inception. Somehow rockets in the sky as a celebration of that seemed both fitting in one way and disturbing in another. It was that sense of the explosions, the noise and the crowds and all that stuff just kind of bothers me.
Curtis Fox: Bothers most of the dogs in the country as well I would think.
John Brehm: Yeah, I’m with the dogs.
Curtis Fox: Okay, here’s John Brehm reading “Fourth of July”
Freedom is a rocket,
isn’t it, bursting
parkloads of hot
or into the cities
of our enemies
without whom we
though they are
America I see now
is the soldier
who said I saw
burning on my
chest and tried
to brush it off with
my right hand
but my arm
America is no
other than this
the hand gone
that might have
put it out, the skies
afire with our history.
Curtis Fox: There’s a truly terrifying image embedded in this poem; a soldier sees something burning on his chest and when he tries to brush it off he realizes one of his arms are missing. That’s horrifying. Where did that image come from? It sounds like a nightmare.
John Brehm: That was the impetuous to write the poem. I was watching PBS News Hour and they were interviewing soldiers in a military hospital. This very young guy was talking about his injuries and he said exactly that, and he said it in this very matter of fact way. The horror of that just struck me. He had run over an IED and blown up the vehicle he was in, but he didn’t realize he had lost his arm until he tried to put out this fire that was on his chest. The horror of that struck me as being emblematic in some way of the whole war. Seeing that sparked the poem and then the other images kind of coalesced around that.
Curtis Fox: You wrote: “America is no other than this moment, the burning ribcage, the hand gone that might have put it out, the skies afire with our history.” The poem seems to be replacing the normally happy image of fireworks with a brutal image of violence. There’s really a feeling of indictment in this poem.
John Brehm: Yeah, at the time I was really feeling it because the wars had just started and I had participated in the protest against the invasion of Iraq in New York. That whole thing just got steamrolled. I was feeling a lot of anger about that. It’s kind of an overstatement, “America is no other than this moment”, but it’s intentionally, or emotionally, charged so that … It’s a bit of an overstatement, you can’t reduce the entire country to that particular moment but at the time that’s how it felt. I wouldn’t write this poem on this 4th of July, it’s not a feeling that’s persistent across time. But at that moment it felt like the right thing to say. So it’s true for that moment, but not true in any broader sense I guess I wouldn’t say.
Curtis Fox: It’s not secret to say American poets tend to veer left on the political statement. Fervent patriotism is often suspect on the left, I would say. What about you? What sort of feelings do you have for this country above and beyond this poem? What sort of 4th of July poem would you write today, for example?
John Brehm: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I would feel impelled to write one today. But I read an article by Glen Greenwald, the journalist who helped break the Edward Snowden story, he now lives in Brazil I think but he’s lived all over. One of the things he said was that if you asked people around the world what is the greatest threat to world peace, overwhelmingly they will say the United States. Living in this country, we’re insulated from that perspective and encouraged to think quite otherwise. But the rest of the world sees us as a very potent threat. My feelings about this country are mixed; they’re not entirely negative, but certainly the endless wars that we seem to be engaged in are troubling. So that’s definitely part of my consciousness when I think about this country. Obviously there are wonderful things about this country, and many people in it who are trying to do good work and are doing good work. Yeah, it’s mixed. But I’m definitely aware of the damage that this country is doing around the world.
Curtis Fox: Thanks so much, John.
John Brehm: Thank you very much.
Curtis Fox: You can read “Fourth of July” and many more poems by John Brehm on our website. His latest book which includes “Fourth of July” is called Help Is On The Way. You can find this podcast in the iTunes store and on SoundCloud where you can link to it on your Facebook feed. Or let us know directly what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.