Raffi Wartanian never envisioned himself as a poet laureate.
When faced with applying, Wartanian pondered whether or not he fit the mold. His self-concept and how he painted the role in his mind didn’t match up at first; however, Wartanian’s doubts of not meeting the stature of such a position dissipated after he embraced himself as a true poet — one distinct facet of his identity — which made way for him to become the first poet laureate for the city of Glendale.
“Initially, I questioned myself. I printed the application and was looking at it, and I was like, Am I a poet? And can I be a poet laureate?” asked Wartanian, who has been working on a nonfiction book for years.
“That title seemed so profound. Poetry was just something I did because I loved it. … But when I read the application, the thing that excited me about it was this intersection between the arts and civics. I always loved that intersection and tried to bridge the two, and eventually, I just came to the conclusion that even if my poetry practice is
part of this bigger picture of
how I conceive of myself, that doesn’t mean that I should not apply.”
The poet laureate, as defined by the city, serves as an ambassador for Glendale’s rich culture and diversity, promoting the art of poetry.
Following a grassroots call from a Glendale resident, the request of then-Mayor Ardy Kassakhian, and the approval of the City Council, Glendale Library, Arts & Culture created the city’s poet laureate program and requested applications from resident poets. The selection panel comprised Arts & Culture Commissioner Sevana Zadorian, Los Angeles poet laureate Lynne Thompson, poet and founder of the Los Angeles Press Linda Ravenswood, and poet and instructor at Glendale Community College Julie Gamberg.
“We are thrilled to have Raffi Joe Wartanian serve as our city’s first poet laureate,” Kassakhian said. “Wartanian’s work reflects the diversity and intricacies of our city and residents. His experience as an educator and organizer, leading creative writing workshops for incarcerated writers, veterans and youth affected by war through ‘Letters for Peace,’ a conflict transformation workshop he created, make him a great first poet laureate for Glendale.”
Wartanian’s goal for his one-year term is simple — to be the first poet laureate of many and to remain authentically himself as he paves the path for those that come after him.
“I just want to do a great job as the poet laureate so I’m not the last,” Wartanian said. “I hope to do justice to the vision of this program, so that there’s a precedent and a groundwork for the next poet laureate and the one after that and so on for them to take it on, do it their own way and do it better.
“I also hope to bring myself, my love for the creative process, civic participation, engagement, community building, my love of culture, the arts and knowledge and really a spirit that poetry is for everybody to this role. As a teacher, I believe writing is for everybody, and creativity is for everybody.”
Wartanian currently teaches at the UCLA Writing Programs, and his work has received grant and fellowship support from the Fulbright Program, Humanity in Action and the Eurasia Partnership Foundation. In 2017, he collaborated with Abril Books, the Lakota People’s Law Project, and In His Shoes to launch “Days of Solidarity: Celebrating Armenian and Native American Survival” — a multiday performance and workshop that united Armenians and Indigenous people in Glendale. Additionally, Wartanian serves on the advisory board of the International Armenian Literary Alliance and advises the Tumanyan International Storytelling Festival.
Wartanian, a Glendale resident who was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, grew up in a household surrounded by art and music. The youngest of three, he found himself taking music lessons — following in the footsteps of his older siblings playing multiple instruments, including the guitar, oud and piano. His aunt was a classical pianist, and his mother decorated their family home with sculptures and paintings — infusing his childhood with creativity, a reality Wartanian said he was lucky to have built into his upbringing.
Poetry, creative writing and music — as a musician, composer, singer-songwriter and band member — are only a few outlets that feed Wartanian’s soul artistically. Other venues of expression for the poet have included acting and being in a comedy sketch group.
“The way I think about poetry is like a spoke on a wheel,” Wartanian said. “At the center of the wheel is the hub of creativity and then from that hub, there are these different spokes that represent the different ways that creativity manifests itself, whether it’s through poetry, music, dance, needlework, community programming or scientific research. I think creativity is present in all things, it doesn’t matter what discipline a person is in — they could be a car mechanic, butcher or gardener.”
Music in particular made an impression on him at an early age. Wartanian said his family would embark on an hourlong drive from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to attend Armenian Sunday school. On the road, he fondly recalls connecting with a radio program called “Beatle Brunch.”
“I remember listening to ‘Let It Be’ when I was quite young and it made me cry,” Wartanian said. “This was at the time when my sister, who is seven years older than me, was moving out to attend college. The song ‘Let It Be’ and the song ‘She’s Leaving Home’ — it was like, wow, these lyrics are literally describing my sister going off to college and it was so moving that this piece of art could capture this lived experience and the feeling of it or even just name the feeling and evoke the feeling in ways that didn’t even know I was experiencing, but was.”
After graduating from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University with a history degree, Wartanian traveled the world with a journal — a possession that allowed him to unleash his mind’s thoughts and inner poems on paper. Wartanian also earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.
Some of his experiences included bicycling across America, as well as from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, participating in a human rights fellowship in France, volunteering on a farm in Portugal and walking along Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
“I was basically living out of a backpack, and I kept a journal that I used to write poems to channel my creative juices,” Wartanian said. “That’s where poetry started to awaken in me, and from there, I started sharing them with other people.
“I felt like I was having a deep conversation with the world around me, because I was so far from home. Poetry became this tool that I could really try to make meaning of the world around me and engage with it.”
Since 2009, Wartanian said he has written about 160 works of poetry.
His poems have appeared in No Dear Magazine, h-pem, Ararat Magazine, Armenian Poetry Project and The Armenian Weekly and performed live with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and International Armenian Literary Alliance. His essays have been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Outside Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, among other publications.
In recent years, the longtime poet was reinspired by the medium, with the 2021 release of Lebanese Armenian poet Shahe Mankerian’s book on the Lebanese Civil War, “History of Forgetfulness.” Wartanian’s relatives became refugees in Lebanon after surviving the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s — a piece of personal history that bonded him with Mankerian’s writing.
“I was really excited to read it, because I felt like it was a poetic glimpse into these experiences that are unique to him as a writer, but also possesses a universality for people … especially my family who lived through that time period,” Wartanian said. “In a way, it became a glimpse into my own inheritance, and it really moved me to write and get back into poetry.”
Wartanian, who has lived in many cities in his lifetime, said he has found a sense of belonging and home in Glendale through the roots he and his family have planted there.
“I think Glendale is a place with a strong sense of community, which I really admire and at times wondered how I can find my own path and my own identity, especially because I so strongly identify with other places, too,” Wartanian said. “My son was born here, and we go to story time together at the local library, so these things have really tied me to Glendale and L.A. County.”
As part of his new responsibilities as poet laureate, Wartanian is partnering with the city to organize quarterly workshops, which will include inviting people — from all backgrounds, interests, levels of experience and ages — to develop poems, refine them and share them aloud. In the final quarter, at the conclusion of his term, the poems written from the workshops will be compiled and published in a book.
“We hope the workshops are spaces where the diversity of the city and the region can be celebrated and explored through poetry and culminate this with a book as an artifact that represents this year’s poetic expression through the poet laureate program,” Wartanian said.
“I hope that anything I share can be some sort of catalyst for others to embrace their own creativity and expressivity. I’m just paying it forward so that the next person can keep that momentum going.”
First published in the April 22 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.