A warm glow filled Bucknell Hall on April 5 as family, friends and admirers of Peter Balakian '73 welcomed the poet back to his spiritual campus home, where he became the 13th Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters.
In presenting the award, President John Bravman offered special congratulations to Balakian, the first Bucknell graduate to be named a Weis Fellow. The biennial honor recognizes the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, non-fiction or biography. Previous recipients are Robert A. Caro, Edward Albee, John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove.
The Weis Fellow honor is the latest of many for Balakian, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other awards include the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir; the Presidential Medal and the Moves Khoranatsi Medal from the Republic of Armenia; a Guggenheim Fellowship; and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and director of creative writing at Colgate University.
But there was something special about this evening at his alma mater. Bucknell Hall is the home of the Stadler Center for Poetry, where Balakian spent many hours honing his art. Many of his relatives attended Bucknell and several came to the ceremony, including his mother, Arax Aroosian Balakian '48.
"It's most likely true that my family is here tonight all because my mother made a voyage from Newark to Montandon by train" to attend Bucknell as a young woman, he said with a smile.
Balakian reflected on his undergraduate years; shared stories of a family history shaped by the trauma of the Armenian genocide; and read selections from his work, including Ozone Journal, which won the 2016 Pulitzer.
"I came to Bucknell in September 1969 thinking I'd slide into the American college-boy experience," he recalled. "Then Vietnam sizzled the circuits of the campus." He quickly became consumed, he said, by a need to study the conflict and was greatly influenced by class readings, films and discussions. "To understand it all seemed vital to the survival of the nation, even the species — and certainly me."
During a moderated discussion with Professor Harold Schweizer, English, Balakian took questions from audience members, including a student who asked about his writing process as a Bucknell undergraduate.
"Thank God my buddy Jack was there to sit down with me. No matter how much I bothered him, we'd sit down and talk through drafts," the poet replied, referring to the late Professor of English Jack Wheatcroft '49. The young Balakian often met his mentor at an on-campus café, the Bison, to discuss his work — a "powerfully important process for learning," he noted.
"It's one of the great things about Bucknell ... the mentoring, that tutorial connection you can get with a teacher. It's worth your whole life."