IALA x h-pem | o white
March 19, 2021 - September 23, 2021
“o white” stages the fraught encounter between an Armenian diasporan and a US census form — a form whose standardized options erase the complexities of SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) identity. The author writes, “As I pick up my #2 pencil, I’m left with 5 full moons to choose from. / None of them represent me.” Given the absence of nuanced modes of identification, the US Census Bureau has found that without a MENA (Middle Eastern or North African) option, census-takers who would otherwise check this category have to default to “white” — despite the chasms of difference that separates their lived experience from the experiences that accrue to whiteness. “o white” deftly captures the anxieties surrounding this lacuna, confronting the erasure of what Nelli Sargsyan calls “racially ambiguous diasporic belonging.” The poem proposes that the only choice within this classificatory system is the choice to opt out: “for the next time you see none of the zeros filled in.”
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Mashinka Firunts Hakopian.
As I pick up my #2 pencil, I’m left with 5 full moons to choose from.
None of them represent me, I circle what is most “appropriate.”
White, compiling myself with genocidal colonizers hiding behind the name of my country’s religion, the first nation to accept Jesus as their savior.
Dismissing my 1.5 million ancestors,
5,000 18/19 year old martyrs.
Succumbing to the prioritization of oil over human life, propaganda, gaslighting, mocking, injustice, human rights violations, & blood money.
As idolized politicians camouflage their support through fraudulent systems, our hearts become vegan at the hopes of one day being recognized.
The history of Noah’s descendants being re-“written” while the silence that prevailed bomb shelters for 45 days lingers,
waiting for what once was.
As these words drip from a demoralized diaspora’s lips,
the juice from our pomegranate veins seep,
our black bushy unibrow(s) mending the bridges between our ancestors that we never got to do.
With mustard seed faith
we thumbtack our “unanswered” prayers to the front of our skulls.
we mournfully tread with cynicism as omnipotent as Ararat.
The same way you, unapologetically, fund terrorists who value my head, if beheaded, at $100, while indigenous Armenians come to a point where no word in the English vocabulary describes our emotions.
I’m unapologetic Amerikkkan school system,
for the next time you see none of the zeros filled in.
Pasadena High School
15 years old
Any additional references or recommendations? We would love to hear your suggestions!
At h-pem we are thrilled to finally share the results of IALA’s (International Armenian Literary Alliance) Young Armenian Poets Awards!
Huge congratulations to the following poets (Listed in alphabetical order), whose works have been selected by IALA’s exceptional judges, as the winners and honorable mention for the 2021 poetry contest.
- Sarkis Anthony Antonyan: “I Meet the Gravedigger Burying a Soldier from Artsakh”
- Sofia Demirdjian-Lara: “I See You in the Jacarandas”
- Lucine Ekizian: “Go Light on the Sweetness”
- Natalie Abadjian: “o white” (Honorable mention)
We are proud to host the special publication of your work on our website!
Thanks to IALA’s vision, you can now add a new feather to your creative accomplishments and develop your potential for lasting fulfillment. Through your originality and creativity, you have each made a significant contribution to raising awareness about the undercurrents and connections that join us as Armenians.
“If poetry can reveal the heart of a people, then poetry written by some of the youngest amongst us can present that heart in the most honest and unadulterated way,” writes IALA Advisory Board Member Alan Semerdjian.
Enjoy Semerdjian’s unique window into the world seen through the eyes of IALA’s young contestants, then check out their winning entries by following the links at the bottom.
We hope our IALA x h-pem collaboration inspires readers to appreciate and care for fledgling poets — they invite us all to reconnect with the parameters of identity and belonging that sustain and surround us, each in their own personal and thoughtful approach.
“I Meet the Gravedigger Burying a Soldier from Artsakh" is a moving lament for a soldier who has died in the Artsakh conflict. Its power comes from the poet’s delicate handling of language, phrasing, an eschewal of hyperbole. One of the most striking images describes the speaker’s yearning to give the ability of speech back to the stricken warrior: "How is this the resolution of/an incomplete history? I have removed my voice box/and placed it/on your heart." It depicts a poignant communitarian gesture, a giving to the lifeless body a voice, a continued narrative. Also impressive are the opening lines of the poem which describe the speaker’s willingness to shield the fallen soldier by metaphorically staving off what will disturb him: “Please, let me swallow the rain/to save this soil. He needs a good home, a dry cavern/to sleep.” And finally, the tone of the poem, the understatement, the delicacy of utterance, indicts the ravages of war itself without diatribe or homily.
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Gregory Djanikian
“Go Light on the Sweetness” shines in its subtlety. Rendered with vivid imagery, the flower — “Encompassing millions of / Beginnings, endings, / And middles” — becomes a vibrant symbol of memory, of the struggle between history and amnesia, of the compelling juxtaposition between the absence of remembering and the presence of not forgetting. Characteristic of the Armenian experience, that juxtaposition is universally human. By asking, “Does the honey cause a paucity of flavor?” the writer summons a flower’s sweet nectar to toggle between presence and absence; in this case, the presence of honey subtracts flavor. What does it mean, then, when expectations collapse, when the natural order evaporates like the steam rising from hot water? To that tension, the writer responds, “My moral compass spins as / I pour in the sweetness,” evoking a disorientation all too familiar throughout the past year-and-a-half of death, destruction, and deception. All that remains is the in-between. We’re caught in a nebulous space, an origin point between polarities that force us to find footing on the continuum of an uncertain world. And maybe that’s where we must take root — acculturating “in both worlds.” It is this noteworthy sense of subtlety and soul that makes “Go Light on the Sweetness” a disquieting and imaginative interrogation of the in-between.
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Raffi Wartanian
The power and lift of this moving poem built off of a meditation on a Jacaranda Tree, as noted in its title, seem to come from the writer’s ability to risk sentimentality without being sentimental while simultaneously pushing abstraction without alienating the reader. We’re told the examination of the lost loved one in the poem, as brought on by the proximity of the tree, transports the speaker into “the closet of a dream” where “I am a bird / In another life / By your side.” Like William Carlos Williams’ lengthier “Asphodel” and H.D. 's more economical “Pear Tree,” the work is deftly sewn together both imagistically and musically and spins the initial conceit to welcome in a multitude of concerns. It has much to say about the nature of longing and loss, two notions that feel, acutely, Armenian and also indicative of the human condition. This is a terrifically-crafted achievement of the imagination.
Commentary provided by YAPA judging director Alan Semerdjian.
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