All images courtesy of Alina Gregorian.
I like to imagine Alina Gregorian teaching the Odyssey to her class of Merchant Mariners. She doesn’t teach them anymore, but she once told me she was sure they’d connect with the epic’s soldiers. Actually, I like to imagine Alina starting with the soldiers and then leading them to love the Odyssey’s myth and magic. In my wildest version of this fantasy, they have made figurines of the Sirens, Penelope, and Achilles, and are moving them about on a game board, making Vines on their iPhones. Much of what I love about Alina is her appreciation for play and her reverence for technology. I think of Alina on the Long Island Rail Road, on her way to teach these Merchant Mariners, taking streaky photos out the window, or making GIFs—smashing grass, gravel, and movement into pixelated rainbows.
I first met Alina at Hofstra University, and have had the privilege of watching her unique mind give itself over to creative impulse in the forms of poetry, story, photography, painting, translation, and video. She is an artist and an educator, a champion of other artists, and a community organizer with her reading series, “Triptych.” Her poetic work is delightful and puzzling, recalling her visual work in the way it organizes images three-dimensionally—she explains, “like furniture.” Her book Navigational Clouds is out this fall from Monk Books, and Flying Bark will be published next spring by Coconut Books.
Alina was kind enough to record some poems from these two books and another—Flags for Adjectives, which is comprised of poems in the form of dialogue. If she is rearranging set pieces in the first two, here she has cast the play and raised the curtain on the actors. There is tension and release between the unrhymed couplets and a sense of relation and misunderstanding between people. These are voices in a strange and colorful foreign country, working together or separately to make sense, or not.
Sarah Gerard When did you start writing poems for two voices?
Alina Gregorian I’ve been interested in dialogue since taking dramaturgy classes in college. I like incorporating dialogue in poems, even if it’s an abstract entity speaking. There’s this poem by Geoffrey G. O’Brien called “Two Philosophers,” which is made up of lines with quotations marks. The lines are not separated in the way that my poems are—they’re just placed together, like a puzzle, in a stanza—but you know there are only two voices responding to each other. I thought that was a great way to set up a scene. There’s a narrative even if it’s not quite understood.
SG I noticed in your poems, often, there’s a loss of balance—someone won’t answer a question directly, or will answer a question with a question, and the tone might seem to be affirmative, but then, logically, the pieces don’t fit together.
AG It’s interesting how, through conversation, you can answer a question or say something without necessarily saying it. I like poems that are affirmative or confident in what they’re doing, especially if the logic is part of a parallel universe. Maybe it is true that trees can fly! We just don’t know unless someone writes it.
SG Speaking of trees, I wanted to talk to you about place. Even within this jigsawed, off-kilter dialogue, a sort of homelike comfort emerges.
AG I do like the familiar, but I also really like the strange: the uncanny feeling when something should be familiar to you, but it seems like you’re looking at it for the first time. And place can be both familiar and strange. A lot of people identify with being from a certain place, and it’s fun trying to explore that through writing.
SG But for a while you were only writing about states you had never visited.
AG Those states appear from time to time in the dialogue poems, but they mostly belong to Navigational Clouds and also Flying Bark. I’m particularly interested in states I’ve never been to if they have a nice, pleasing name. I like state names like Arkansas, Nebraska, Utah, and Nevada. I’ve never been to the states I write about, and that’s part of the reason why I’m so attracted to them; I can imagine an environment in which something could happen in a state called Arkansas. And I have more freedom to imagine anything I want because there are no real memories to inhibit me.
SG Are the things you imagine happening in the state of Arkansas informed by your imagination, or by the sound of the name, or something else?
AG I mostly think of Americana and a made-up reality involving people and places in those states. I was very influenced by Twin Peaks, but also, prior to that, Sufjan Stevens. He has two albums based on states—one for Michigan and one for Illinois. He would incorporate facts. But they could be made up, too.
SG For you, it’s not only states, though. You talk about Russia and other Eastern European places. Germany, I think. And those seem to slide further into the political. At times you talk about flags, the borders of countries, brands versus the public domain, happiness as a kind of freedom.
AG They’re all so abstract. Like, what is “happiness”? I remember Ben Mirov told me he thought I was hinting toward a political statement with a line of mine, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. I never try to make political statements in my writing, though it sometimes happens without my knowing.
SG What does a flag mean to you?
AG A flag is a state of being and a representation of something intangible, yet it itself is tangible. I love what’s tangible. I love these objects. We’re so often presented with large tasks to tackle, these abstract concepts. Can you imagine if happiness and sadness were tangible objects? If you had to throw somebody a piece of sadness or throw them love? And all of a sudden they’re hit in the head by it, and it’s really intense! But in some ways, their intangibility saves us. We can protect ourselves. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to understand abstract concepts because they’re intangible. With a tangible object, you can hold onto it, or place it in your pocket, and it’s a visual representation of something you want it to mean, or that the state wants it to mean, or the country. That’s what flags are like to me.
SG You treat words in similar ways. You kind of lift them up from the structures of their grammar, turn them around, put them in places where they don’t belong.
AG It’s like moving furniture.
SG You use nouns as adjectives, for example. I’m trying to think of a certain case.
AG “I gave you Arkansas and you were afternoon.” It is sort of along those terms—the words themselves are abstract and concrete. If you splatter red paint on a canvas someone who sees it is not likely to say, “Well, that’s the color red,” and give you the Pantone number that references it. It just becomes visual. But the same thing happens with a word in a poem. Words can be visual, a quick grasp, like a screen grab, without having to represent meaning or context.
SG It does feel a lot more playful that way.
AG It does feel playful. It’s very liberating, actually, and it’s easier to read poems this way because of how you’re treating them. There’s a surface way you can read them, and then there’s the highly analytical way. Some poems might seem political to some people, but, on the other hand, they’re just made up of words.
SG Like writing poems in a language you don’t know.
AG Which is also a really fun thing to do. I am working on a collection of poems where I incorporate German words, which I choose at random from a German dictionary. I never look up what the meaning is, and if I do know the meaning I usually don’t use the word. The words sound really cool placed in English text, and they have additional meaning for me if I can use them as sounds.
SG And you’ve been writing poems recently in Armenian, haven’t you?
AG Well, I’ve been translating my own poems into Armenian. It sounds strange when I translate into Armenian because it is a language I reserve mostly for my family. It’s a very intimate language for me, whereas poetry in English is everything else. So it’s a new experience to hear my poems in Armenian.
SG In your dialogue poems, do you always imagine the voices being a man and a woman? Do you ever imagine two female voices?
AG That’s a good question, and when I read them aloud I usually try to do male/female, but only because the sounds are nicely juxtaposed that way. When I’m writing them, by myself, I don’t imagine gender at all. It’s just two abstract voices speaking. The epigraph for the manuscript [Flags for Adjectives] is from an Elizabeth Bishop poem called “Conversation”: “The tumult in the heart / keeps asking questions. / And then it stops and undertakes to answer / in the same tone of voice.” I like thinking about that quote with respect to the dialogue poems because the speakers could just be one person having a debate with herself in her mind, trying to convince herself of something. Or it could be an unconscious dialogue happening during a normal day to day. Or it could be two abstract voices, which is how I usually imagine them. Unlike plays, which usually clarify who the characters are and who’s speaking, these poems don’t have that and are completely removed from that restraint. It’s possible that, in some other galaxy, there are two or three or four voices, or two sounds that are riffing off one another.
SG One tone answering another.
AG Like an echo responding to an echo.
SG You write stories, too. How do you use dialogue in your stories?
AG I like Charles Dickens because he writes beautiful characters. When I write poems, I try to distance myself from specific characters, but stories give me an opportunity to really develop them. They feel crucial in stories, and they can be very colorful and zany. I rely on characters in stories more than I do on setting, or even on action. For me, what’s important is how a character responds to another character, an object, or the environment. Dialogue is important for me, and I enjoy seeing characters interact with one another. I feel, when I’m going through life, that the things that are happening to me, or things I do to others, or how others interact with each other, has little to do with place and more to do with who we are as people. Trying to illustrate a character can be very rewarding. You end up learning a lot about yourself.
SG What are the settings like in your stories?
AG One of the stories is set in an office building. I am very influenced by Kafka, where bureaucratic rules keep getting in the way of a character’s everyday tasks. I have a romanticized view of the office environment, partly because I haven’t had much experience of it firsthand. And I think about meetings as a place where you get to eat donuts, drink coffee, and bounce ideas back and forth with a mutual sense of comradery.
SG There are sort of bizarre, nonsensical laws affecting bodies in offices.
AG I know. The more Kafka I read, the better I feel about bizarre, nonsensical laws.
SG There should be a flag in every office.
AG There should only be one office per country. That would be like the government, though.
SG I think the problem with our government is that there are too many offices.
AG Too many offices, you’re right. And too many flags.