Leonardo P Alishan

Poet, translator, and educator Leonardo Paul Alishan was born on March 4, 1951, in Tehran, Iran, to Armenian parents Michael Alishan and Annette Nazloomian. On his father’s side of the family, he was related to Armenian priest, poet, and historian Ghevont Alishan (1820–1901), who created the first modern version of Armenia’s national flag and translated many Armenian folk songs. After immigrating to the United States for graduate school and a career in higher education, Alishan himself worked extensively on Iranian and Armenian literature alike, establishing himself as both a well-regarded scholar and a poet of Armenian letters. His published creative works include three collections of poetry (one published posthumously) and a book of short stories. He was a lifelong member of the Armenian Catholic Church. 

During his childhood, Alishan was close to his grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide: much of his later poetry would draw from the images and experiences that she had shared with him while he was growing up. Alishan also developed an early interest in literature and poetry that would persist for his entire career. In 1973, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Iran National University, then immigrated to the US and earned his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978. Immediately afterwards, he moved to Utah and joined the University of Utah as a Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature in the Middle Eastern Studies Department, a position that he held from 1978 through his retirement in 1997. 

Alishan’s identity as an Armenian Iranian American was central to his scholarship, teaching, and writing. As bibliographies of his work demonstrate, he wrote his own poetry in English and Persian, translated contemporaneous poets’ works from Armenian and Persian into English, wrote scholarship in English about Persian and Armenian-language works, and “dreamed” in Armenian (link). His creative work was also marked indelibly by his grandmother’s stories of the Armenian genocide and the complex feelings of guilt, grief, and anger that Alishan described inheriting from her and needing to share with the world. His second book of published poetry uses forms such as Japanese tanka, haiku, and senryu for their brevity and economy of expression. In interviews, Alishan reported that he was drawn to the way allusion could convey hints of larger stories about love, horror, inertia, and more. During his lifetime, Alishan won several major awards for his poetry, including the Academy of American Poets Award, the Christopher Morely Poetry Award, the Irving Writing Award, and the Atlanta Review International Merit Award. 

During his tenure in Utah, Alishan was also an accomplished scholar who wrote and published extensively about Iranian poets, writers, and literature, both contemporary and historical. While teaching at the University of Utah, he became known as one of the world’s foremost experts on the Armenian national epic “David of Sassoun.” He was voted the University’s most distinguished professor twice and received a competitive faculty fellow award in 1994-1995.

Alishan married Neli Assadourian on 1974 and the couple had three children before divorcing in 1993. Alishan then lived the remainder of his life with his ailing mother before he died a Salt Lake City house fire in January 2005. 

Work

Dancing Barefoot on Broken Glass, Utah State Archives record request
No More White Whales, Utah State Archives record request

Bibliography

Poetry Collections:
• Dead Man's Shadow: Collected Poems, Blind Owl Press (2010) – posthumous publication
• Through a Dewdrop, Open Letter Press (2000)
• Dancing Barefoot on Broken Glass, Ashod Press (1991)

Short stories:
• Free Fall: Collected Short Stories, Mazda Publishers (2010) – posthumous publication

Links

Obituary, Rozane Magazine
"With this Madness, What Art Could there Be?," The Nation
"The Restless World of Leonardo Alishan: A Burnt Offering on the Altar of Armenian Genocide," Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal