Interview with Laurel Johnson of Midwest Book Review
MBR Bookwatch, December 2003

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 goal.

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 College.

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 romantic disillusionments.

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.

Laurel Johnson