WATERTOWN, Mass.—Retirement is not an option for Helene Pilibosian. Not when you have been churning out prose for 60 years, and have edited newspapers, written stories, and cultivated the literary scene with unabashed loyalty.
Recently, Pilibosian addressed an enthusiastic crowd at NAASR with a presentation titled, “From Journalist to Poet and Memoirist.”
Her resume reads like a “Who’s Who,” with a host of published works in many esteemed publications, editorships, and reviews. Among the more prestigious was a first-place award from Writer’s Digest for her collection titled, “At Quarter Past Reality: New and Selected Poems.”
At an age when most people slide into inertia, Pilibosian continues to write books, submit poems to many competitions and magazines while working on three manuscripts and operating a publishing company called Ohan Press, a private family-run micro press.
Below is a question-and-answer session with Pilibosian.
Q: How did you get started in journalism?
A: My journalism career began in 1964 when I became the first woman editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and later served as a writer/editor there for many years, and joined as a casual proofreader in the Harvard University Publisher’s Office. Since 1983, I’ve been publishing books, some of which are my own writing. Others were written by my father-in-law or my father and translated by my husband [Hagop Sarkissian], who also wrote one of the books.
Q: Describe your involvement with the Armenian community.
A: Somewhat limited and now focused on the Armenian Memorial Church and National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). I’ve continued to help and enjoy my children and grandchildren as well as my husband’s extensive family. Parents on either side are deceased and were all affected by the Armenian Genocide.
Q: How do you spend your days? Is it all volunteer?
A: Still trying to get my writing into literary magazines. They usually don’t pay. So you might say this is voluntary in some way. The recognition means as much to me as money would. I also work at advertising and distributing my books, which has been very difficult in this recession.
Q: What got you started in writing and where has it taken you?
A: I actually started writing poetry when I was 19, influenced by a class in American literature. However, I dropped it for many years after that and only began writing occasional poems for Ararat Magazine before branching out to the American literary journals. In 1964, the business manager of Baikar Press asked me to edit the Mirror-Spectator. I learned a great deal about Armenian affairs as well as journalism because I had no training or experience in that field. It was simply my ability to write a decent article for publication that interested the people in charge. It’s taken me to starting my own micro press, which I call Ohan Press, after my father-in-law. Obviously, he is affectionately remembered.
Q: Of all the mediums, which do you prefer the most?
A: I love writing poetry and prose. When I get tired of one, I switch to the other. There’s also the side of me that writes memoirs, including my father’s: They Call Me Mustafa. My own came out a few years later. There’s been a great increase in the number of books published every year. Competition has been staggering. That’s why self-publishing is an option.
Q: Your idea of geriatrics? Where do you get your energy and inspiration to continuing pushing out copy?
A: I always have the idea I haven’t done enough or become known enough. So much thought and emotion seem to pour out of my mind that I must express it somehow. And since I have the setup, why not write and publish more? I manage to cover the cost of one book, then go on to the next. The personal satisfaction when I see that some prominent people and libraries have bought the book makes it worthwhile. As for inspiration, that comes from the people who have believed in me and make me believe in myself. As long as I can do the work, why should I let age stop me?
Q: What’s Ohan Press all about and how has it evolved?
A: I gathered my early poems about Armenians together in 1983. Many were based on interviews with my parents about their early life in the village of Ichmeh in Historic Armenia. I had avoided asking directly about genocide experiences because I knew they would be very painful to answer. I thought of publishing them myself to see what I could do with them. That book, Carvings from an Heirloom, sold well. And my husband Hagop added a few, some in Armenian and others in English. So we have a constant presence like a much-loved third child in our house. We both enjoy the work we have been trained to do.
Q: Your personal list of favorite Armenian writers in the diaspora?
A: I’ve enjoyed reading the works of many contemporary Armenian Americans like Diana Der Hovanessian, David Kherdian, and Peter Balakian. However, my first exposure to the writing of an Armenian American was Leon Surmelian’s book, I Ask You Ladies and Gentlemen, which was a best-seller when I was in high school. First impressions are seldom forgotten.
Q: What advice can you give to young, aspiring journalists and poets?
A: There is only one way to achieve even limited success in either field. That is to work and study constantly, except for some necessary free time for recreation. I emphasize this because without some social time, one tends to stagnate emotionally. I can certainly suggest travel in America or other countries to broaden the mind with previously unimagined vistas.
Q: Something about yourself that might surprise another?
A: My surprises have been written in my recent book, My Literary Profile: A Memoir. Also, graduating from Harvard University with a degree in humanities; two visits to Europe and Lebanon; various illnesses and a cardiac arrest; and a complete cure for depression.
Q: As a community, what can we do to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide?
A: We should have a number of unified commemorative activities throughout the giaspora and Armenia. These should involve explaining to the rest of the world what the Armenian Genocide was all about and the need for its recognition. Obviously, many of us feel this deeply.
Q: Future plans?
A: I have three manuscripts of poetry waiting for publication, along with some individual poems waiting to find themselves in magazines. If the crunch of the competition is too much, I may try to publish another one or two others.
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