Throughout a collection of poems about made-up, dreamed, stolen, and sought-after paintings, Arthur Kayzakian craftily explores themes of violence, loss, love, and dreamworlds in his debut The Book of Redacted Paintings (Black Lawrence Press, 2023), the inaugural recipient of the Black Lawrence immigrant writing series award.
The speaker, a varied persona of an “unknown” artist, examines the “small tortures,” including thoughts of suicide, offering hope to those who suffer from anxiety, depression, or complex PTSD when the thoughts no longer intrude. The book begins: “Today I haven’t thought about killing myself.” Coming full circle in its offering of hope in darkness and rediscovery after erasure, the book ends with a story of the historic painting Anna Walinska that was missing while Redacted Paintings was being written yet was found within months of the book’s publication. Through Kayzakian’s lens of lost, redacted, and recovered art as metaphors for the fragmentation and reclamation of one’s sense of home and identity in the shadow of war and displacement, the possibility of healing through connection with a community that can see what was previously hidden is within reach. The book demonstrates how to face our insignificance by way of offering something greater than ourselves.
I was honored to talk with Kayzakian via Zoom about his first book, its poetic lineage, his experimentation with visual poetry and inspiration for exploring the concept of ekphrastic erasure. He and I were colleagues in the MFA program at San Diego State University from 2014–2017, became good friends, and continue to workshop our poems together.
The Rumpus: During an interview earlier this year you said, “The redacted painting is a vehicle to talk about grievous subjects beautifully.” Can you expand on this? What is “ekphrasis erasure”? What inspired your use of this theme and phrase?
Arthur Kayzakian: It is a vehicle for grievous subjects, such as war, because paintings, semiotically as a cultural sign, they have loss in them because of all the tragic stories. What interests me about paintings is not just a painting itself but the story that came out of that, manifesting into that painting. Most of my poems are invented paintings. The only true stories would be of Arshile Gorky and Anna Walinska, those are the two I chose for this. There are so many other stories that I haven’t written about yet and that I need to know.
If you think about it, what soldier walks away unscathed? What person walks away unscathed from some kind of engagement? All engagements have an impact on you, whether it’s a wedding, a funeral, a friend, an event, war. And every time we walk away, there’s this removal of the actual event itself, but we’re left with the imprint of what happened.
Rumpus: When did you come to the title of your book?
Kayzakian: It was a combination of taking workshops with Brendan Constantine and a seminar I took with Kaveh Akbar. I raised this question during workshop: “How do we work with silence as a device in our poems?” I don’t know if that question spawned it or not, but that’s the question I had in mind going in.
Then we read an article by Solmaz Sharif, “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure,” and it was about erasure in the language of the state. That article really made an impact on me because it gave examples of things that are not finished, like hearing the mumbles of a prisoner through a wall when you can’t completely make out what they’re trying to say. That’s where poetry lives. It’s in the in-betweens. We talked about the weight something leaves after it’s been lifted. We read many essays on this. So that was one component.
The other component was that I really enjoyed Constantine’s play of language, his child-like magic, his child-like genius when he’s creating, and the way he runs his workshops really motivates me to write in that child-like state. And there were mentions of paintings in his work, and then also in Kaveh’s class, we looked at paintings with eyes crossed: their eyes were redacted from the painting. And then it came to me in the shower, I became obsessed with the weight that’s left after a painting is removed. And then the title came to me: The Book of Redacted Paintings.
Rumpus: Had you heard “redacted paintings” before?
Kayzakian: No, I just combined the idea of paintings being redacted. It just worked so well with war and migration. I wrote the chapbook, My Burning City. I thought, “Maybe the father poems from that collection can be this story of a boy whose painting of his father goes missing.” It just all came to me.
There was a workshop with Layli Long Soldier where she had us take a document and make a poem out of it, and I created this little image of my father through one of his photos that looked like a painting—that’s the “My Father Under the Stars” poem. I’ve been inspired by so many poets writing this book. I’ve been inspired by Diana Khoi Nguyen’s work. Long Soldier’s work. Akbar’s work, Constantine’s work. Ilya Kaminsky’s. His Deaf Republic gave me the idea of running with a narrative behind the scenes. I just combined my favorite poets, and I wrote this book.
Rumpus: Would you talk a little bit more about the poem “My Father Under the Stars”? I’m interested in this one because I don’t understand it. What is the number that’s repeated?
Kayzakian: I’m still trying to understand it. The number is my father’s green card number, resident alien card number. So, the prose block being faded out is an effect of his vanishing.
Rumpus: On page 20, is that silhouette [a shape with a faint black outline and white color, made from the image of a man’s figure, is in front of a block poem that fades out at the bottom] from the same photo?
Kayzakian: So that—I was literally inspired by Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost of. This took two days to do, and it took some arts and crafts on my part. I made a photocopy of the first poem, of the photograph itself. Then I cut his figure out of it, and I took what was cut and I made a prose block of the poem, and I photocopied it. That didn’t work as well as I planned. Finally, I took a JPEG of the photocopied image on Word and moved it on top of the prose block. It took a couple of days to get right.
Rumpus: How many times does this poem repeat throughout the collection?
Kayzakian: Three times. I purposely did it where you get segments of it until you get to the actual poem. If you continually see the poem showing up in different areas, it’s going to become familiar to you to a point where the ideas will finally grasp you; the magnitude of the situation will grasp you.
Rumpus: I wondered how you came to the epigraph you used by the Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian.
Kayzakian: Well, Kaveh Akbar is a major influence for me. The first time I read his poems I wanted to become a better writer. When I met and started talking to him, he introduced me to Garous Abdolmalekian. He wrote a book Lean Against This Late Hour, a dual language edition translated by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey. I dig the style: somber, heavy, sparse. Watch this line. Look at this poem. It’s called, “Necklace”: “Of the moon / all that’s left is a stain upon the window.” So, he has these really killer lines. This is just a fucking amazing book. I saw Akbar post that poem on Twitter and I ordered the book. The poem haunted me for weeks. It was because of that poem I started writing about paintings. It gave me the idea of a burglar stealing a painting. That was the beginning.
I started writing them in Constantine’s and Seema Reza’s workshops, Community Building Artworks (CBAW) workshops. I also participated in The Grind, run by Bull City Press. I must have written nearly seventy stolen painting poems. I really immersed myself into this characterization of what it must feel like, be like, look like, to be a stolen painting, what it sounds like, smells like. And then it all just came together from different angles. I had My Burning City and all these things that I’d been creating for the past ten years. And I was like, “Oh shit, this all fits; this is it.”
I would say the biggest advice I could give, if there is any suggestion, I would tell a student: “No matter what you’re writing, it’s not at a loss. It is never going to be a negative. It’s residual. Everything you do can and will somehow have a place for when you decide to put it together.”
Rumpus: When did you start experimenting with visual poetry?
Kayzakian: I started experimenting with visual poetry in Sherwin Bitsui’s form and theory course at San Diego State. He had us look at work by Native American poets. He brought up the idea of docupoetry, and that was my first iteration of what that might look like. We looked at Orlando White’s work and how he plays with language and with silence. We looked at work by Luci Tapahonso and the traditions of where storytelling came from. I made my first visual poem in his class. I think my MFA and the experience I had at San Diego State definitely is the foundation for all of this, working with Ilya Kaminsky, Sandra Alcosser, Sherwin Bitsui, and Blas Falconer.
Rumpus: I would love for you to talk a little bit about the connection between poetry and painting and when painting has limitations that poetry doesn’t or when poetry has limitations that painting does not.
Kayzakian: With poetry, you have to create the visual in your mind, you have to phenomenalize what it is that you’re seeing. I think that’s the relationship. I think they’re cousins. But I think that we as people are artworks ourselves, and I think we all underestimate each other. But it’s impossible for us not to, because so much of what we think and see is redacted from reality. Words are such a disservice to the entire potential of the mind the way it’s working inside you. Even our paintings are redacted from the paintings in our mind, and our words are redacted from what our thoughts are saying. So I don’t think we mean to underestimate. I just think that we have no choice but to underestimate each other. It’s a part of reality.
Rumpus: Could you tell us more about the poem “Nocturnal”?
Kaykazian: I play with night a lot. Night is such a mystical part of the day for me. Some kind of abduction occurs to us, a self leaves into a dream world, and I think the night allows that; it orchestrates the sleep world. A lot of things happen at night. A lot of things happened to me at night, you know, in my life. I got arrested at night. I ran away at night. I partied at night.
“Nocturnal” is a found poem made from one of my own poems. I wrote the original poem in Seema Reza’s CBAW workshop. It was a stream of consciousness writing. I was in the deep tissue of language, and I was just going. It was essentially about a cricket that I found in my sink, and I chose not to kill it. Usually, when I find crickets in my sink, I cup them with my hands, and then I take them outside and I let them go. And you can feel them bouncing around in your palms. At first, it’s a little disgusting, you’re a little freaked out, but then it’s cute because it’s basically kissing your palm while trying to escape. So then, I just let it go.
Rumpus: And then you write this message using single letters from the poem: “I am so tired of being unseen.”
Kayzakian: I call those ghost poems, ghost writing, when you allow the inner child of the poem to step forward. And I gray out the text to allow for that child to step forward. When you asked me earlier “where do you feel the most yourself and vulnerable,” it would have to be “Dear Reader” and that right there, that’s writing from the wound.
Rumpus: What is the wound that it’s speaking to?
Kayzakian: I think the wound is that we all can feel redacted at times. We’ve all had that feeling where we’ve felt unseen. I think that’s a big part of this book. Maybe what was taken away from us was attention. There are many things that can be taken away from us.
Rumpus: Do you feel that poetry helps you feel seen?
Kayzkian: Fuck yeah. Poetry is the place where I get to write this stuff. The page allows me to be seen; it just says yes.
Rumpus: Some of your poems speak to contemporary issues like home ownership, or lack of, and debt. Let me quote a line that I think speaks to the heart of the collection from your poem “Therapy”: “She prescribes me pills and breathing mantras anything / to keep me from falling through the paintings in my head.”
Kayzakian: I think a major influence was Bhanu Kapil. That whole poem came out of reading Kapil’s Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, where each title repeats as a therapeutic question and then there’s a poem. I started to write about this concept of falling through a painting in workshops. During the pandemic is when I really had a lot of time to myself to be able to write this. It was kind of like a lockdown residency. It was like a second MFA. I created a Facebook group called “Letters in Quarantine.” I was writing letters—already in the flow and the juice—so by the time I got into these workshops, I was already well-oiled to start writing. I remember Kapil writing about a painting about a bird, and I started to imagine a world where you fall through paintings. So, I wrote different iterations, many. And that’s the version that made it into the book. I wrote poems and poems and poems, but I managed to put it into just one line.
Rumpus: There was another quote I wanted to ask about; at the end of “Therapy” you write, “before we go she asks what is your relationship with night / letters written in exile i say my executed friends.” I know you’ve lost a lot of people in your life, and I wondered what that line meant to you.
Kayzakian: I have a cousin that might have been executed in Armenia. A couple of people I know that could have died because of executions. I took poetic license in that. That [phrase] was a tribute to all the friends I’ve lost to car accidents, being killed, dying, OD’ing, and so forth.
And actually, that line is the gateway into the next book that I’m writing, which is about a boy who watches everyone in his community get lined up and shot. I’m still working out the details. But it kind of plays into that because that’s what would happen in Iran, you either joined the army or you got executed.
Rumpus: I had a question about the year 1979, the year of the main painting. What is the significance of that year?
Kayzakian: That is the year Ayatollah Khomeini came, right before the Revolution, where the Shah got exiled, and Khomeini took over. My father stayed behind in Iran when we came to the U.S. in 1980. So it plays on history, reality, and fantasy. I use poetic license to mesh those three.
Rumpus: When did your father rejoin your family?
Kayzakian: He rejoined us in 1980 or ’81, one year after. Psychologically, as a child, a lot of this book came out of that one-year absence of my father—the feeling of abandonment, even though my father didn’t really abandon me. I did feel his absence, though, while he was not with us.
Rumpus: How old were you?
Kayzakian: I was four years old.
Rumpus: Speaking of immigration, you won the Immigrant Writer’s Award for this book. Some artists, including Gorky and yourself, have left their home countries due to war, forced migration. Would you be willing to speak to that, and what it means to you in terms of the community that supported this book, the award that it won, what your hopes for it are?
Kayzakian: You know, given my history and what’s happened, there was an article in the Mirror Spectator written by Arpi Sarafian. She wrote that my book is an indictment of all wars and all displacements, which I think was beautiful. And I think that’s why it’s so important for this book to be the Inaugural Immigrant Writing Series book because it means so much to me that it speaks for and sets the tone for what the Immigrant Series can bring. It means a lot to me for it to be chosen for that and for it to be part of that series, to write about war and to write about pain. It’s got concept, it’s got painting, it’s got poetry, it’s got war, it’s got displacement, it’s got the life of an immigrant. It has all the ingredients that Black Lawrence felt was needed for it to be the Inaugural Immigrant Writing Series selection. It means the world to me.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Anna Walinska. You end your collection with a poem about her missing portrait by the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. You also have other poems about his tragic and influential life and art, and you end on a letter from Rosina. Was that a real letter?
Kayzakian: I read an article in Hyperallergic: essentially, they interviewed Rosina Rubin, who had been looking for the lost painting of her aunt, Anna Walinska, and that’s where I read that Walinska sold her own portrait for rent because she was broke. I wrote that poem because I was inspired by it. But Rosina mentioned to me that they found the painting and they brought it back, which is amazing. It’s a nice conclusion to that story. Rosina and I talked about celebrating by doing a museum reading in New York.
Rumpus: How did you feel when you found out that the painting was found in the summer of 2023? Did your collection change history?
Kayzakian: I wondered if it was my collection or the article, or maybe it was a manifestation of both from the universe. But it’s ironic. It leaves the book ironic but true because the painting was missing at the time that I wrote it.
Rumpus: What did writing this book teach you?
Kayzakian: It taught me process and practice and how to create the next book. It taught me how courageous I am, really, you know, to be able to write about this stuff.
I think what makes a work of art stand out is if the artist is not afraid to reveal themselves in it. It’s not just behind this canvas, but they really come out, like, “Okay, this is what’s going on. I’m also going to inflect things of my personal life into this, my personal visions, my personal desires, and most importantly, my personal hauntings.”
Author photograph by Andy Smith