|Bedikian and Archila. Source: araratmagazine.org. Photo by Lory Bedikian|
Attendance was relatively low - about twelve people - but the audience's welcoming of Archila and Bedikian was warm and generous. Speaking of this audience after the reading, Bedikian stated that the crowd had had nothing but good things to say to them, that each one of them was dedicated to their own poetry practice, and that despite the small audience, they sold more books than usual.
Each of the poets, also a married couple, brought their own published book. Archila's book, The Art of Exile, was published in 2009 by Bilingual Press and introduced by none other than Yusef Komunyakaa. Bedikian's book, The Book of Lamenting, was published in 2011 by Anhinga Press. She won the 2010 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for this book.
The couple has visited North County San Diego before. In June of 2009, on the heels of his book's publication, Archila was hosted by the Sunset Poets at the Flying Bridge Cafe in Oceanside.
Both wordsmiths are diaspora poets. Archila was born in El Salvador during its Civil War and he and his family fled to the United States where they received political asylum after arriving. Archila explained during his reading that upon coming of age he attempted to return to El Salvador to live but found that he was a stranger in his country of birth. And at the same time, he felt like an exile in the United States.
Bedikian is Armenian. Her parents are from Syria and Lebanon.She was born in San Francisco and raised in Cupertino, California. Archila and Bedikian attended the University of Oregon and completed MFA degrees in Creative Writing simultaneously. Presently, Bedikian hosts poetry workshops and Archila is a high school English teacher.
Archila, who took the mic first, read poems from both his last book, The Art of Exile, and from his next book, which will be published in 2015. Both poets discussed the contexts of their poems as they coursed through their own readings. Archila, who discussed his sense of non-belonging from both the land of his birth El Salvador and the land of his vocation as a poet, the United States said that, finally, he has discovered that for him the only homeland is poetry and language itself. To this effect, he shared the epigraph to The Art of Exile: "Language is the only homeland," uttered by Czeslaw Milosz.
In the selection of poems that Archila shared that afternoon, we see into the complex soul of a speaker whose poetry conveys a profound breadth of thematic richness and the power of imagination. In "Radio," the speaker recalls listening to radio transmissions of Pablo Neruda reading poetry as a child in a village in war-ravaged El Salvador. The poem evokes for the speaker not just the ability of poetry to humanize hell on earth but also the repressed pain of a child who wonders where and what his father is doing.
In "Duke Ellington, Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1974," the Poetic Genius creates a make-believe world where the jazz master acts as grade school teacher in a third-world classroom. The theme of art as redemptive force is suggested as the imaginary school teacher Ellington sweeps his students away from the weight of war through jazz. Additionally, in this poem Ellington takes on the figure of the loving father for this classroom of children orphaned by war. As their teacher, Ellington shares his passion for music, his knowledge of the excitement and possibilities of life. In the second to last stanza, the speaker utters: "He could be my grandfather,/ black boy from Chalatenango---/indigo-blue family/ from the Caribbean through Honduras."
Moving on to Bedikian and The Book of Lamenting, the collection is structured in four parts. Part one is based on the one and only trip that Bedikian's family took during the poet's life with her family of origin. The family went to Lebanon when Bedikian's father got wind that his oldest brother was on his deathbed. To Bedikian's pleasant surprise, her dying uncle was a poet. Bedikian shared with the audience how the uncle showed his family handwritten poems on papers so old that it was burnished, smooth, and soft.
"Beyond the Mouth" and "Prayer for my Immigrant Relatives," just two of the poems performed by Bedikian, illustrate a compassionate, critical speaker with powerful knack for image and metaphor. In "Beyond the Mouth," doves are a vivid and intricate metaphor for unspoken familial pain and for the violent silence of the subtly hurtful interactions common in large family gatherings. The power of the metaphor is its own seductive beauty. The second stanza says, "At night when my aunts and uncles sleep/ the birds comb their feathers, sharpen their beaks." While this first poem is compassionately critical of the speaker's relatives, "Prayer for my Immigrant Relatives" is compassionate only.
In the poem, Bedikian reminds the common reader of the vicissitudes and vagaries of being uprooted and moving entire lives to new lands - the immigrant experience. At each humiliation, each setback immigrants, like Bedikian's relatives, experienced, the speaker calls for patience for them, for the memory of their love for home. In the last lines, though, the speaker realizes that the most important thing for these new immigrants is not nostalgia for home as spiritual sustenance but the good news that they made it safe to their new home: "At night, when the worry beads are held / in one palm and a cigarette lit in the other.../ remind them of the phone call back home saying, / We arrived. Yes, thank God we made it, we are here."
After their respective readings, the featured poets remained to enjoy the open mic poetry reading where about a half-dozen Sunset Poets shared two poems each.