Poochigian interview in The Grand Forks Herald
Ms. Paulette Tobin asked me great questions about my Aratus and my work in general:
Published March 25, 2012, 11:22 PM
Grand Forks native, Writers Conference author writes poetry, translates from ancient Greek and Latin
In a world constantly looking for newer, faster and better, poet and Grand Forks native Aaron Poochigian translates the works of the ancients from Greek and Latin to English to find truths undiminished by thousands of years.
Consider “Phaenomena,” written by Aratus, who lived from about 310 to 240 B.C., just after the death of Alexander the Great.After the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” the “Phaenomena” was the most widely read poem in the ancient world.A practical manual in verse, “Phaenomena” taught readers to identify constellations and predict weather. It explained the relationship between celestial phenomena and such human affairs as agriculture and navigation.Yet, despite its importance, no English edition suitable for students and general readers had been available for decades. That is, until Poochigian’s translation (called “lively” in at least one critique) was published in 2010.
“Things like the stars, and the behavior of animals are important through the ages,” said Poochigian, who will be one of seven visiting authors at the UND Writers Conference, which starts Tuesday. “When I read (from my work) in New York, I remind people of things they no longer see, like the constellations, because of light pollution.”“Phaenomena” represents the human desire to get ahead, for people to know what they need to know and to predict the future. Just as in Aratus’ time, people today want help in knowing what stocks in which to invest, when to plant their crops and when it’s likely to rain.“Aratus provides that kind of information before there were weather men and financial advisers,” Poochigian said.‘Restless years’Born in Grand Forks, Poochigian grew up next to University Park, the son of a college professor — Donald Poochigian, who’s still teaching at UND — and now-retired high school teacher Toni Poochigian. He remembers biking to Valley Dairy, running to UND Memorial Union to play arcade games and attending the Writers Conference as a youth.
As an adolescent, he had some “restless years,” during which point it became clear to him that he should travel around a bit. Afterward, he attended Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.“I knew when I was 18 that I was going to spend the rest of my life writing poetry,” he said. “I didn’t realize how foolish that was. I was 18.”His literary heroes, John Milton and Alfred Lord Tennyson, had had classical educations, so Poochigian said he thought he would get one, too. After traveling and studying in Greece and earning a Ph.D., he worked at universities in Utah and Virginia. Then when the economy collapsed, he took what little money he had and decided to “wait it out” in New York City. He lives in a tenement building in Chinatown and does his writing at a place called Paragraph: Space for Writers.“I’m trying to make my life exclusively as a writer. I’m still as foolish as I was when I was 18,” he said.Romans to ArabsFoolish? Maybe. But Poochigian’s work — his first book of original poetry is called “The Cosmic Purr” — and his translations have gotten plenty of attention.“Aaron Poochigian’s lively translation (of ‘Phaenomena’) makes accessible one of the most influential poets of antiquity,” wrote Stephen Harrison, professor of Latin literature and fellow and tutor in classics, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.“Phaenomena” was famous when it was new, translated into Latin by Ovid and Cicero, quoted by St. Paul in the New Testament, and was one of the few Greek poems translated in Arabic. For a good 300 to 400 years, it was the handiest guide to the stars available.
It also had a great deal of information about the weather, the seasons and behavior of animals and what it meant.“Aratus assumes the reader is a farmer, and he talks about predicting changes in the weather through farm animals from cows and goats to the smallest animals like mice,” Poochigian said.Poochigian said there was a debate among scholars about Aratus and “Phaenomena.” Some say Aratus was just showing off and that “Phaenomena” was written mainly as a literary tour de force. Others maintain that it was intended as a practical manual. Poochigian is in the later group.“He wants to persuade the reader that we are living in an ordered cosmos. So in a sense, it is an argument for intelligent design of the universe, that these signs are consistent every year and every season.”A farmers’ guideBecause Aratus assumed the Earth was the center of the universe, there were things that didn’t fit. For instance, he never was able to explain the inconsistent movement of the planets, as you can read in lines 281 to 283 of “Phaenomena.”“I cower before erratic motion — Give me power to speak of fixed signs and consistent things.”
Aratus’ poem fell out of favor with Western civilization with the Copernican revolution, when it was acknowledged that the earth revolved around the sun. Then in 1603, German lawyer and cartographer Johann Bayer published “Uranometria,” an illustrated star map, which made it much easier to check the constellations than it was to read Aratus.“Many of the animal signs hold up,” Poochigian said, “in that some animals do have a super sense. Dogs can hear and smell beyond the threshold of humans, and birds can sense pressure changes in the weather before we can.”Poochigian said he’s interested in talking about these ideas of Aratus with a North Dakota and Minnesota audience, where he thinks they will resonate.“I think the closest thing to Aratus in English literature would be a Farmer’s Almanac,” he said.