Peter Balakian ‘73 becomes 13th Janet Weis Fellow

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Peter Balakian ’73 became the first University graduate to be awarded the Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters on April 5 in Bucknell Hall.

Haley Mullen, Assistant News Editor

Peter Balakian ’73 was awarded the 13th Janet Weis Fellowship in Contemporary Letters in Bucknell Hall on April 5, making him the first University graduate to receive the honor. Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities in the department of English and director of the creative writing program at Colgate University. The author of seven books of poems, Balakian won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his most recent collection, “Ozone Journal.”

Students, faculty, community members, and Balakian’s family watched as University President John Bravman granted Balakian the award.

“This fellowship is awarded biennially to individuals who identify the finest crafts of writing in creative writing, fiction, and nonfiction,” Bravman said. Past recipients of this honor include Robert A. Caro, Tom Wolfe, and Toni Morrison. The fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, an author, civic leader, and trustee emerita of the University.

After receiving his award, Balakian read from his latest publications including “Ozone Journal” and “Black Dog of Fate.” Between excerpts from these works, Balakian shared stories of his childhood and family history. He led the audience in a round of applause for his mother, the daughter of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and a member of University Class of 1948.

“My mother packed her trunk and got on a train and six hours later, she was here. So I want to celebrate that moment because clearly that started something in our family. Seventy years after she started here, and after many graduations and her crashing my party for Allen Ginsberg at my house she is here, and I want us to give her a hand,” Balakian said.

Balakian discussed his experiences at the University which contributed to his evolution and success as a writer. Balakian began his university experience as a member of the football team as well as the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. However, he explained how he soon found different interests within “realities other than football and frats,” which he claimed, “all started for me in history class as professor John Kirkman brought us into the roots of America’s greatest and ongoing sins.” Through his classes and discussions with professors such as Kirkman, Balakian said he found himself, “hooked on the power of ideas and the language that drives them” as he immersed himself in the anti-Vietnam war efforts. He claimed the resistance efforts “sizzled on the circuits of the campus” and he “felt history was buzzing in the humble classrooms in Coleman Hall.”

“I was surprised by the level of activism he described on the University’s campus. At one point, he mentioned how the quad was full of students striking in opposition to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. That must have been awesome to be a part of!” Jackson Pierce-Felker ’18 said. “People were sort of fired up immediately after the [Trump] election, but I feel like since then, we haven’t really rallied around anything to the same extent.”

Balakian also spoke on the ranging inspirations of his poetry, from sports, as seen in his reading of his poem “Joe Louis’s Fist” to art, which he illustrated in his reading of his piece, “Here and Now,” which was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. He was then joined by Professor of English Harold Schweizer for a moderated discussion on the details of his work and writing process.

During the question and answer segment which concluded the ceremony, Balakian was asked how he continues to find the drive to write.

“Just keep going and keep reading. Whatever menu you need to serve your hunger and your imagination and your love as a poet is what you need. The community I found was with my mentors here, sitting in the Bison in the 60s.”

 

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