- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
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 July 25 , 2003 

Anti-Poetry: Street rhythms deafen the eternal in contemporary artist's work

People's poet: Shekoyan challenges convention with his street style .

As freedom of artistic expression toddles its way toward maturity in Armenia, philosophical clashes arise between traditionalists and those inclined to break barriers.

The clash between the familiar (and therefore the accepted) and the uneasy unexpected finds expression in art and in literature: Some bookstores stopped selling a new Armenian novel because it was deemed too racy.

In the world of poetry, Armen Shekoyan is also challenging tradition.

Shekoyan is the only poet whose work is being published in newspapers (originally in "Aravot" and now "Haikakan Zhamanak").

His second book of verses "Hotel Yerevan" came out in July, after first being printed in the daily newspapers.

And while he may be gaining an unexpected audience through the newspapers, he is getting expected criticism from literary circles, where his style is largely disregarded as something less than literature.

Armenian intellectual circles have worked within their own universe where only eternal topics of ideological orientation or conformed ethics are allowed to exist. "Literature" must be full of invented images, to aim at aesthetic perfection, to look for new shapes and to be written in language acceptable to literary mores.

It is not a universe that allows room for evolution, and in the case of poetry, much new work ends up being read only by other poets.

The vehicle of newspapers has made Shekoyan an exception, as he is now read by layers of society that include lovers of literature as well as those who haven't read a poem since they were students.

Shekoyan does not look for new shapes, as far as all the shapes are impoverished. Nor does he touch upon everlasting themes as far as eternities also have their end.

He is, though, infusing personal application into contemporary, impersonal attitudes and conventions.

"I am neither dashnak, nor revanchist, I am neither democrat nor fascist, but these processes affect us, because we want to live as human beings," he says.

In his writing he mixes lofty style with colloquial forms and street language.

His literary manner, mixing jargon with traditional styles and even sometimes Old Armenian (Grabar) gives some defiance to the uncertainty and unfairness of the Armenia life (morality is alien to him, but is typical for Armenian literature).

Such as:

"Where Mouse Valod became a cop and Bear Valod became a beggar; where the flat-footed became a person and NA deputy and he has a rich repatriate wife, cell phone and mandate."

And: "We are not here to whine because of our brother's betrayal"

". . . my tears are still streaming down by themselves . . ."

"I am getting satisfied with my shaky self assurance."

For centuries, poets have held a revered position. And they themselves encourage such respect. Armenian poet Paruir Sevak even wrote a poem referring to himself as "God's Secretary." While such praise has subsided in Western countries, in Armenia poets still consider themselves among the Chosen.

Armenians have revered their poets as the chosen of God. And in their turn, poets and self-enamored dilettantes have reacted with divine rhythms and eternal, other-worldly themes and language.

But Shekoyan maintains that all the people are equal and he disdains concepts of everlasting things or ideas. He takes an egalitarian approach whether the subject is street prostitutes, football or political elections. And in all of it, irony is a featured instrument.

Condensing the history of Armenia in the past 10 years, he wrote:

"… Cool lads, who entered

And the rest demand procedure.

The rest, who stand on the street
Are in business and are called

The rest, who are called cops
For years
Are on the same streets
Making business…"

The most often used manner of Shekoyan is transforming classic poetry texts into modern parodies. For instance, in his pervious book Shekoyan took Goethe's verse "The Rose":

"A little boy saw a 600 (Mercedes)
he saw 600 in the yard

. . . a boy said I will drive you 600,

you 600 standing in the yard.

600 replied, I will stand you up

because I am 600 of Kond's (a poor district in Yerevan) bastard."

He gives a similar treatment to Vahan Teryan's line concerning the everlasting homeland: "Assyrians were our enemies, and there is a valley where no stone standing." Shekoyan took the verse and applied it to his childhood yard, considering neighboring Krivoj (crooked) yard as hostile one, where recently Grigor Lusavorich's church has been built: "Krivoj was our enemy, and there is a church on its place now and there is no stone standing."

Shekoyan published "Yerevan Hotel" after the poems first appeared in newspapers.

And Teryan's verse, reflecting the tragedy of the last century -- "Am I the last poet, the last singer of my country?" - Shekoyan turns into a contemporary comment using singer Tata.

"Are you the last poet, Simonyan Tata?" So, he "anoints" singer Tata the poet, who is representative of the intelligentsia's hated genre, rabiz, and delivers another blow to reigning fossilized conceptions of poetry.

He called a previous book "Anti-Poetry", which describes his new style.

Shekoyan is 50 years old, and before he adopted the "anti-poetry" style, he published nine books written in "poetry". In his last book, in his "Anti-Poetry" poem, he says that his talent has disappeared and "no skilled speech therapist can bring it back".

References to common places in Yerevan might never draw the attention of classical poets, but are the foundation for "anti-poetry". Nor would Shekoyan's language find a place in the market of intelligentsia literature.

It is anti-poetry, when the artist goes to Yerevan bingo with Pavarotti and Domingo but "the one, who shouted bingo was our lost brother Carreras sitting in the first row".

And anti-poetry is political irony in which the poet's target is the President and fraud in the recent presidential elections: "I would have elected Geghamyan (damn, I love his big heart) but I've elected Robert for 5000 drams".

And anti-poetry is mocking political enmity: "I can be like Charents and Marshak but I can't reconcile Vano and Arshak (representative of former authorities Vano Siradeghyan and opposition deputy Arshak Sadoyan)".

And the biggest anti-poetry is his "Yerevan Hotel" poem in which appear the names of 846 people. The peculiarity of all people, mentioned there, is that "they know me".

The poem filled two pages of "Haikakan Zhamanak" newspaper. One of the poem's characters prepared a feast for the author afterwards; another writer took offense because his name was not included. That issue of the newspaper became very popular, as many people, including the literary community, were looking for their names in the poem.

The poem links an ex-President with a Russian poet, with thieves and intellectuals, drivers and his book sponsor, and so on.

Slogans of revolutions, liberty, fraternity and equality, which have never been put into practice, are realized in "Yerevan Hotel". While reading the poem one can notice only for a moment that all those people with their enmities, religious, political and social contradictions became equal and became reconciled with each other and fraternized in the love of Shekoyan.

"I love you and this life until the president interposes his veto," the poet writes.

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