2013 January

Verses About Winter

snowy hydrangea


The weather turned frigid in New York City this week. On my early morning walk, the spectacular Harlem sunrise viewed from Morningside Heights, which usually merits an appreciative pause, was little consolation as the dogs and I braced ourselves against the icy wind and rushed home. I pulled this poem from the archive in honor of  winter.





My sister and I listen at our parents’ door
to the radio announcer lists schools by town
alphabetically: Action, Andover, Arlington…
We’re waiting for Watertown. The snow falls
deeper, bowing the tall pine, burying
the swing set in the back yard.
The shovel’s scrape against the sidewalk
is sweet, and breath wets the wool scarf
over my mouth as I lift and throw
carving a path from our door.


The thin boy who loans me his sweater
says he loves me. He is the first man
I love. I would follow him up
a peak of ice with rope, crampons
and ax; instead a storm drives us
to a country inn where he signs
the register, I imagine, Mr. and Mrs.
Smith. His hands draw warmth into
my aching fingers. His hands are
strong, and I want to trust them.


I search for you on the back roads
of Hooksett, Penacook, Contoocook.
Headlights cut swaths of bright
falling snow. I share the road
with no one and trust nothing I see.
You appear like the ghost of an angel
as I round each bend: not the
wide-winged angel you taught me
to make in the snow, but bearing
the face of a lost child.


I want you strong and young again,
in summer hitting a home run
the boys chase into the woods.
“Trouble with the ticker,” you say
as we slow our pace for you
to adjust your muffler. I would
unfold the fist of pain,
stroke open palm and fingers,
and smooth the lines from the
forehead so like my own.


As I walk under trees lining the street,
they bend towards me like the curve
of ribs, bone white and luminous.
Even trash is made holy in the snow’s
ample arms. A woman walking a dog
in a plaid coat passes me on the corner.
I want to slide my boots into the prints
she cuts through the snow. I would
follow her down to the frozen river
and into another life.


I wish I could write this while you
sleep nearby, dreaming of things
you don’t remember. Hundreds of miles
from here you walk, shoulders hunched
against the cold. You are wishing me
beside you; I curse the empty bed and
the hours before your return. I would
take winter for a lover, that chill heart
slowing mine. What I know of love is
at once sweet and bitter with distance.


Nancy Kricorian

originally published in RAFT: A Journal of Armenian Poetry and Criticism, 1996

Extended Family: When Fictional Characters Show Up In Your Living Room



We hear that for many writers, the characters they create “come alive” during the writing process. But in what ways is that phrase more than a simple metaphor? And how is a writer supposed to manage the expanded household as it begins to fill up with progeny spilling over from the pages of a work in progress?

My third novel, All the Light There Was, which is set in the Armenian community of Paris during the Nazi Occupation, took ten years to research and write. In part I needed a decade because I had a great deal of research to do, but it was primarily due to the fact that I was juggling a few other jobs-running a household, raising two daughters (and it turns out that dealing with kids between the ages of eight to eighteen takes more space in your head than was necessary from zero to eight) and working for a women’s peace group trying to stop multiple U.S.-funded wars and occupations.

In order to recreate the atmosphere of the working class neighborhood of Belleville during the period the French refer to as Les Années Noires (The Dark Years), I read voluminously from histories, journals, collections of letters, and novels penned during and immediately after the war years. I went to Paris to tour the lycée that my narrator and protagonist Maral Pegorian had attended, and to interview octogenarian and nonagenarian Parisian Armenians who had lived through the war.

Through the research, several salient material details were impressed upon me again and again: during the Occupation ordinary people were hungry most of the time, during the four winters under Nazi rule Paris apartments were generally without heat, and Parisians were often in the dark both literally and metaphorically. Germany used France as its wartime breadbasket, making off with the lion’s share of French butter, milk, wheat, vegetables, fruit and meat. Food was rationed and even with ration tickets in hand shoppers were often unable to procure their due. Rutabagas and turnips, which had been used before the war as cattle fodder, were now a staple of French cuisine. The Germans also requisitioned French coal and other fuel, leaving Paris apartments unheated in winter. Nighttime blackouts meant the streets were dark and curfews often kept people in their homes after nightfall.

Once the bulk of the research was done, I disciplined myself to write two hours a day, five days a week, aiming for two pages a day. This schedule was mostly successful, except when one of the kids stayed home sick from school, or there was an emergency street demonstration.

While I was writing, I traveled back in time and across the ocean to Occupied Paris. I could not only hear the voices of my characters, but I could also feel the cold air seeping in the cracks around the window frames, and smell the dreaded rutabagas cooking in the kitchen. I fretted with Maral over her lack of bath soap, and shared the frustration of her cobbler father about his inability to get leather. But it wasn’t until the day that my husband asked me why we had seven jars of mustard in the pantry that I realized how deep this shared experience had gone.

It was true—there were seven jars of mustard in the pantry, and six jars of jam, along with more canned goods than we could eat in a winter. Without being conscious of what I was doing, I had stockpiled the foodstuffs that Maral’s family lacked in Paris in 1942. I had always thought of myself as spending hours living in the Pegorians’ world; what I hadn’t realized was that the characters had moved into my apartment. They were haunting our pantry, showing up in conversation through the Armenian proverbs I cadged from Maral’s father, and occupying my thoughts when I was supposed to be helping with the science fair poster. Once I became conscious of their presence as part of the family, I was better able to balance their demands with those of my real world children.

Ten years on, once the novel was completed, the manuscript handed over to my editor and the rest of the publishing team, the characters started to recede, and I missed them. But I’m glad too that they are soon heading out into the world and into the homes of my readers.

Now I’ve begun work on my next novel. It’s about an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I’m excited, but a little anxious, about what life will be like with them in the house.



Nancy Kricorian


The Artist as the Queen of Peas



When I was growing up, my mother, sister and I spent many an afternoon doing craft projects out of magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Family Circle. My mother also took a cake decorating class, and then shared her knowledge with me. (These skills were much appreciated when my own daughters were in grade school where I was known for Barbie birthday cakes and basketball cupcakes.) Remembering those afternoons, I pulled this poem from the archive.



The Artist as the Queen of Peas


It started with the cakes. I bought
tips, a tiny brush to clean them,
small jars of color, and the crisp
paper that twisted into sacks.
I practiced roses, leaves, festoons,
and the scrawl of “Happy Birthday.”
The first cake, a globe-shaped devil’s
food, was a hit at the missionary
conference. I iced it blue, and
smoothed on the continents in green,
sticking tiny flags into the countries
they represented. But it was sad
to see the cake disappear by the
forkful and the plate of crumbs.
I took photos of the others:
a heart-shaped cake for Valentine’s,
a chocolate sea bass for Father’s Day
(with maraschino cherry eyes),
the pineapple-layer turkey for my
vegetarian sister at Thanksgiving.

In the Christmas issue of Women’s
, I saw a gingerbread carousel:
there were reindeer instead of ponies.
Of course, you couldn’t eat it
because the icing dried rock hard,
but it looked lovely in the center
of the table, and could be stored
for future use. The next project
was a pasta Christmas tree: macaroni,
shells and bows glued to Styrofoam
and sprayed gold. After the apple-
head dolls, oranges imbedded with
cloves in the closets, star cookies
shellacked and hanging in
constellations, I wanted
something more, something grander.
For weeks I wondered how to create
food that would last, until, pushing
a cart down the grocery aisle, I rolled
past a pyramid of cans. It was easy
after that: I made self-portraits
with cans and jars of vegetables,
fruit and legumes, huge sculptures
of tin, glass and bright labels.
Now every major museum in the country
has a “Self-Portrait with Cling Peaches,”
or “The Artist as the Queen of Peas.”
They’re launching a major retrospective,
accompanied by a short film of my
lecture on “Culinary Art.” And I
owe it all to my mother, who taught
me everything I know about food.


Nancy Kricorian

Originally published in MISSISSIPPI REVIEW, Spring 1991

Leo Hamalian (1920-2003)



I’ve been thinking of Leo Hamalian lately. Perhaps it’s because the tenth anniversary of his passing is approaching. Or maybe it’s because as the launch of my third novel nears, I’m remembering my earliest professional publications. Leo was a distinguished and prolific writer, educator and editor. He served as the editor of ARARAT Literary Quarterly from 1972 until 2003. In 2001, I was invited to join a roster of speakers, including Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian and Peter Sourian, at a celebration of Leo’s career. Below are the words I offered at the time.


This is the scene. As I was driving my father’s car up Lincoln Street in Watertown, I, Nancy Kricorian, waved hello to a little neighborhood boy and somehow ran into a parked car. The parked car, it turned out, belonged to Paul Moushigian, who had graduated high school two years ahead of me. When the police officer got out of his cruiser to fill out the accident report he and Paul shook hands. They knew each other. The cop’s name was Eddie Bakarian. It turned out that Eddie Bakarian had gone to high school with my father, Eddie Kricorian. It was an Armenian thing. We’d be able to work it out.

What you might ask, does this anecdote have to do with Leo Hamalian? There is a circuitous connection. Because I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts in the Armenian community, I had learned from my father that when you needed anything—a fixture installed, a TV repaired, a summer job—you should contact an Armenian. Now, there were instances that this didn’t work out quite the way one hoped. There was the shady Armenian house painter that disappeared with all the money when only half the house had been painted, for example. But to counter this were dozens of happy stories, like the one involving the gracious Paul Moushigian and helpful Eddie Bakarian.

This is where we get to Leo Hamalian. When I was in the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, I decided to start sending my poems to literary magazines. That was the way you launched a literary career as a poet. Following my father’s dictum, the first place I sent my poems was ARARAT Literary Quarterly. I thought, surely, the Armenian journal would take my somewhat Armenian-themed work.

What I didn’t think to know was that the Armenian-American editor at the Armenian-American journal had a calling and devotion much greater than simply being nice to people with –ian at the end of their names. His calling was to continue and to nurture the highest traditions of Armenian-American literature and culture, and his devotion was to the writers who came to him, often, as I did, little knowing what a huge impact his spirit and intelligence would have on us. He didn’t just publish Armenian-American writers; he grew them. For me, he did so many kind deeds that I am embarrassed to list them. But rather than get all sentimental, I’ll read from two other writers of my generation who have their own saccharine things to say about Leo.

This from Michael Zadoorian, whose fabulous novel SECOND HAND was published to critical acclaim by W.W. Norton: “Leo Hamalian was one of the first people to believe in me as a fiction writer. Even when he had to reject stories that I submitted to ARARAT, Leo always had something kind to say. The fact that Leo treated me like a professional writer helped me to believe it myself.”

And this from Chris Bohjalian, the best-selling author of such excellent novels as the Oprah-anointed MIDWIVES: “One thing I will cherish about Leo is his monumental generosity. There are few human beings on this planet not related to me by marriage or blood who are as relentlessly supportive and encouraging of my work as a writer—and in fact of so very, very many writers.”

Thank you, Leo, from me and from all the other writers whose talents you have cherished and nurtured not because we were neighborhood kids or vaguely your cousins, but because of your commitment to something greater—the collective work you inspired in us all.


Nancy Kricorian

Speech from A Festive Tribute to Leo Hamalian Upon His 30th Anniversary as Editor of ARARAT Literary Quarterly (Sunday, October 28, 2001)