Pondering Poetry of the Past and Present: A Discussion with Professor Poochigian

by Marcia Hunt


Poet and creative writing professor Aaron Poochigian read poems from his new book, “The American Divine,” which explores different kinds of religious experiences in the United States.


As Poochigian read his poems aloud, he created a rich, engaging environment -- something Monica Ferrell, who organized the event, attributed to his song-like writing style.


“Listening to you read those out loud, [the poems] were so sonically rich that I felt like I was listening to this really lush music,” Ferrell, a creative writing professor, said.


According to Poochigian, his writing adheres to imagism, the 20th-century poetry movement that encouraged writers to consider musical phrasing rather than poetic meter to craft their poems.


“I start with music; I’m an aural poet,” Poochigian said. “I start with a musical line and sonic motives. Then I build a poem out of the sound. I encourage students to experiment with different forms and sonic exercises.”


Poochigian, who has notably translated works by the Greek poet Sappho for Penguin Classics, also draws inspiration from his background in translation.


“As a translator, I'm serving as a medium, a spiritualist who is trying to get possessed by the spirit of these poets,” he said. “My original work is all about self-discovery. But I’ve noticed myself trying to get a vatic voice in my writing.”


According to Poochigian, vatic poets, like Walt Whitman, write like they are speaking from another time and place.


Poochigian enjoyed the challenge of making ancient poems readable for the modern audience. The obstacles he faced helped him curate his own style and exposed him to shameless expressions of emotion which he employs in his own work.


“Translating ancient works is tricky because you want to make them highly readable but you also want an archaic flavor,” he said. “I try to translate in contemporary language but drop an archaic word here or there. When I translated this sensual work, I wanted a more nuanced translation where I was able to talk about dirty things in funny, playful ways.”


Despite his immense passion for poetry, Poochigian didn’t always know he wanted to be a poet and instead, he believes poetry called out to him.


“When I was a freshman in college [at Columbia University] I had a religious experience taking a literature class,” he said. “We were looking at the opening line of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ [a Latin epic poem]. I didn’t know Latin but I saw these lines and suddenly the sky became clear and I was certain I was supposed to become a poet and study the classical languages.”


“I went on to graduate school to complete this classical education,” he added. “I wanted to be like the poets I liked, like John Milton and Percy Shelley. I went through the PhD program in Classics at the University of Minnesota. My goal all along was to become a poet.”

For poets in need of their own epiphanies, Poochigian encourages them to look to the past.

“There’s a book "Poetic Form and Poetic Meter” by Paul Fussell which is a great introduction to poetic form,” he said. “But mostly what I recommend is simply memorizing your favorite formal poems, like those by John Keats. Memorizing poems is such a good place to start. They become companions. You have them with you for the rest of your life.”

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