Shahe Mankerian: poet, teacher, and playwright
Poet/playwright Shahé Mankerian spent his formative years in Beirut, Lebanon. After migrating to the United States, he received his graduate degree in English from California State University, Los Angeles. In 2003, he won both the Erika Mumford Prize and the Daniel Varoujan Award from the New England Poetry Club.
Edifice Wrecked nominated his poem “She’s Hiding My Keys” for the 2004 Pushcart Prize. In 2005, his play Vort (Worm) was adapted into a short film; it premiered at the Silver Lake Film Festival spring of 2006. Recently, his play “Little Armenia” debuted at Hollywood’s prestigious Fountain Theatre.
dg:How did your childhood in Beirut and eventual immigration to Los Angeles shape you as a poet and a person?
sh:With all its turmoil and the unrest of the civil war, I couldn’t ask for a better childhood. My brother and I explored the streets of this amazing city called Beirut, and at times, I guess we saw things that we weren’t supposed to see as children. I’m even glad that the schools were closed most of the time; it gave me the chance to subconsciously take mental photographs of the war torn city. In retrospect, coming to Los Angeles was also a blessing, because it gave me the needed distance to remember the past. I guess the city of Beirut gave my writing that foreign accent. It allowed me to say things with my own rhythm. Juxtaposed against the landscape of L.A., Beirut provided me with metaphors.
dg:How old were you when you began to write? What have been the major ‘A HA’ moments of your creative journey?
sh:I started writing when I was probably six or seven years old. As soon as I discovered the Armenian alphabet and the Armenian stories in my reading book, I created my own stories on any piece of discarded paper. I had many “A HA” moments along the way. I saw my first play in Beirut, when I was probably seven years old. It was a play by Jacques Hagopian, a famous Armenian poet. I went to the theatre with my parents and witnessed for the first time my parents crying. I didn’t really understand what was going on that stage, but whatever it was it had moved my parents to tears. I remember wanting to write plays so that I can play with the emotion of adults, especially those who hardly ever showed any emotions.
The Beatles gave me a lot of “A HA” moments. Lennon and McCartney taught me how to woo girls with words. When I first came to America, I was 12, and my English was limited. In order to impress my middle school crushes, I experimented by stealing my favorite lines from Beatle songs and attaching them all together; I ended up creating my own poems. A trick, I am afraid to say, hardly ever worked with girls.
I kept journals throughout high school. However, another “A HA” moment came at Pasadena City College. I took a class with Ron Koertge. He kept repeating the line “Show, don’t tell.” I took his class 4 or 5 semesters in a row in order to understand what he really meant. His workshops changed my sappy high school writings into more substantial sappiness.
Finally, at Cal State Los Angeles, when I started working on my masters in English with a creative writing emphasis in poetry, Professors Timothy Steele and Jun Liu challenged me to explore my childhood years in Lebanon. They kept pushing me to explore various types of poetic forms. They shaped my initial poems about Lebanon.
dg: What motivates you as a writer?
sh:I’m motivated when I know I have a story to tell. The challenge is to tell it within a short space with the most precise selection of words. I am often stimulated visually. Most of the time, events or people provide that motivation.
Small writing workshops motivate me as well; I’m obligated to bring in new work every time we meet.
dg: I understand you are a playwright as well as a poet. Do you find that these two mediums influence one another? (If yes, how?)
sh:They definitely do influence one another. Both mediums deal with playful words. I do tend to use dialogue or direct quotes in my poetry. It allows the poem to breathe utilizing different voices. Also, when I write plays, I am very concise with the dialogue of my characters. When they “overspeak,” they tend to say less interesting things. I am greatly influenced by the poetic language of Tennessee Williams and Lorca. Again, it’s all about word choice. Both in my poems and plays, I also enjoy sporadic pauses. It’s like using a stanza or a sentence break to create a silence, thus a tension. Sometimes the slow revelation of words creates a prolonged striptease on paper.
dg:You are a teacher of poetry to both middle and junior high school students. How do you feel your occupation influences your writing? Creative direction?
sh:Teaching is about getting the other excited. It’s not about the self. My job is to get my students to enjoy reading and writing. I don’t have time to think about my writing when I’m in the classroom; it’s all about them. Once a year, I write a play for them. However, these plays are not about my journey as a writer. These plays celebrate the talents of my students. Does my occupation influence my writing? Sometimes. However, my students are better poets than I am. They are fearless when it comes to playing or experimenting with words.
dg:What are your thoughts about being one of the 31 poets who appeared in the GV6 The Odyssey: Poets, Passion and Poetry documentary? In what way do you think this documentary will help non-poets understand poetry?
sh:It was a great honor to be in the GV6 the Odyssey. There were so many incredible poets in the bunch. Bob Bryan, the director, believed that poetry provides remedy to the soul. He created this documentary to educate the young. I hope educators in our mundane world of “No Child Left Behind” push forward the importance of reading, writing, and reciting poetry. I don’t know if non-poets will understand poetry after seeing this documentary, but I definitely know children will get it. While watching the documentary, it would be interesting if a classroom full of students ask the teacher to turn off the poetic babble so that they can actually write poetry.
dg:Who would you consider to be your greatest literary influences?
sh:William Saroyan. He celebrated the lives of Armenian immigrant families in California. He chose simple words to tell complicated stories.
dg:You have published a book of poems titled Children of Honey. Have you other books available or do you have a new book in the works? Where do you expect to be featuring this year?
sh:It’s been over 15 years since I wrote the poems in Children of Honey. I have a couple of manuscripts waiting for the right home or publisher. I’m in no rush. It’s more important to focus on writing than publishing. On the other hand, I regularly send my work out to journals and e-zines. Most of the time I get rejection slips, but sometimes when the moon is just right…