Alexander Shaumyan is an accomplished and popular poet. His stated
goal as writer is to bring poetry back to life and shine light into
darkness. My goal with this interview is to shed light on the poet as
person and writer.
LJ for MBR: Thank you for taking time for this interview, Alexander.
Your history is so rich I barely know where to begin. You are a
prolific poet; each published book of poetry is different. Tell our
readers where you get your ideas.
Alexander: My ideas come from all over the place and sometimes in an
unusual way-sometimes certain words or images can trigger all sorts
associations in my mind. There was one time that I was sitting at a
bar, and this young guy was discussing buying a new car with a much
older bartender Dicky. And, as they were talking, Dicky said something
that really struck me. "As you get older," he said, "your drive goes
down." What he meant, of course, is that with age you don't after
things you desire with the same energy. But I saw a much broader and
deeper meaning in what he said, which prompted me to write my poem
"With Years". Then there was another time when I was in Kentucky and I
saw a man, walking down the street in a t-shirt that had a sign in
large letters "JUST BE HAPPY" and when I came up closer I saw another
sign in small letters that said: "I don't have a twin". This prompted
me to write a poem on how unique we really are. A lot of times my poems
come out of something that I may be reading at the time, the music that
I may be listening to, or some observation on popular culture or
political events. A simple conversation with someone can lead to a
poem. I once asked this guy how he was doing, and he started telling me
how he and his girlfriend were busy doing theatre performances. Our
superficial interaction led me to write my poem "A Spontaneous Idea for
a Poem or How Is Your Soul?"
LJ for MBR: What do you mean when you say you want to "bring poetry
back to life?"
Alexander: By "bringing poetry back" to life, I mean bringing
spontaneity and playfulness back to poetry. Poetry should be a living
thing-not something collecting dust on a shelf. There is nothing wrong
with studying and analyzing poetry but at some point we lose the
enjoyment of the art and its relevance to our lives. If I can wake
someone at a local bar with my poem, I feel that I've accomplished my
LJ for MBR: You were born in Russia. Somehow, the heart and spirit of
the motherland shines through in your poems. Have you visited Russia
since moving to the USA?
Alexander: I haven't visited Russia since I came to the United States
at the age of 13. A lot has changed since then. I would like to visit
Russia some time in the future. I still speak Russian with my parents
and do translations of Russian poets. I was surprised to be reunited
with my friend Alexandre Akoulitchev after 28 years. We went to school
together in Moscow until I left Russia in 1975. He's doing postdoctoral
research in molecular biology at Oxford University in England. I've
learned through him of Professor Gerald Smith, who teaches modern
Russian poetry and Russian emigre literature. He's familiar with my
work and teaches it in his seminar class.
LJ for MBR: Do you mind telling us about Shaumyan the man? That is,
your work outside of poetry? Your education? Why you love Kentucky?
Alexander: As you probably well know, most poets do not support
themselves through poetry. I graduated from Southern Connecticut State
University in 1985 with a degree in psychology. I was studying
counseling psychology for a while, but then got bored with it and
decided to take courses in German, French, Italian, and Spanish,
reading poetry in these languages. I always enjoyed the abstract and
studied mathematics. I would be helping math majors with their math
courses without having taken the courses myself. So I decided to take
math courses at SCSU, so that I could pursue graduate work in
mathematics. In the summer of 1996 I received a letter from Eastern
Kentucky University, inviting me to join their Master's program in
mathematics and offering me a teaching assistantship. EKU is in
Richmond, KY, the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, about 30 minutes from
Lexington. I fell in love with Kentucky's scenic landscapes, horses,
bourbon, and bluegrass music. Kentucky was a perfect place to write
poetry, with its slow-paced life and lack of pretense. After I finished
my Master's degree at EKU, I moved to Lexington where I studied at the
University of Kentucky for three. I wasn't worried about getting my
PhD, I just enjoyed the nightlife and my adventures there. Right now I
am an adjunct lecturer in mathematics at SCSU and Gateway Community
LJ for MBR: Many of your poems speak to pacifism. Is there one specific
catalyst for that belief, or a world full of reasons?
Alexander: When I went to college, there was a student group at SCSU
called Students for Peace in 1980s, who were concerned with anti-war
and environmental issues. Though I wasn't officially part of any group,
I did identify with many of their causes. I was also inspired by the
Beat poets of the 1950s-Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlighetti, Gregory
Corso, Kenneth Patchen-who were involved in social issues and the
anti-war movement. I've come to the conclusion that wars are created by
fear. I had an interesting conversation about with my Kenyan friend
Allan Kimani, who inspired me to write my poem "Love and Fear".
LJ for MBR: No interview with Shaumyan would be complete without
eliciting your comments on love, in all its facets. Do you write from
life experience? Dreams?
Alexander: To live life fully is to love. When I write a poem to some
woman, real or imagined, it is an expression of love. Love is creating
beauty and sharing it with others. My love poetry is based partly on
experience and partly on imagination. I wrote this poem "For Aimee"
just to cheer this girl up. Some of my love poems are playful, some are
more serious expressions of longing and loss. Love is about trust and
being spontaneous. Losing one's sense of self-worth to try to win
someone's affections isn't love. I've learned that well through many
LJ for MBR: You read poetry by many writers around the world. Who do
you most envy or admire?
Alexander: If I were to pick one poet that I admire most, it would be
the German poet Heinrich Heine. He wrote some of his best poetry during
the last years of his life-lying paralyzed, partly blind and heavily
sedated on his "mattress grave". He produced some of the world's best
lyrical and satirical verse, which made him plenty of friends and
enemies. He fought till the very end, while living in exile in France.
LJ for MBR: If your aspirations as a poet could be fulfilled tomorrow,
what would that scenario be?
Alexander: Yes, I can see it now. I get an offer from a major
publishing house and my books hit all the major bookstores. I'm smiling
thinking about it. It could happen.
LJ for MBR: Is there any question you wish I had asked, or any bit of
information you'd like to share with our readers?
Alexander: I originally started out as a painter and would draw and
paint as a child. It is only later in my 20s that I turned to poetry. I
always got impatient with painting, often abandoning my work to start
something new. I found poetry to be a perfect medium for my changing
moods. I could also carry poems in my pocket and share them with
friends and strangers. I would go to open mikes and read and carry
copies of my manuscripts with me. Pretty soon people began to see that
I had something to say.
LJ for MBR: Thank you for your time, Alexander.
Readers who wish to see a generous sampling of Mr. Shaumyan's poetry
should check his website on AuthorsDen.