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Diana Der-Hovanessian

Gloria…Diana, write a little bio.

Diana…Well, when I told my grandfather I was going to be a poet. This was when I was in college and he asked me what I was studying and wanted to become. He said " Oh! We Armenians have too many poets. What we need are journalists to tell our story."

Gloria…And so, did you become a newspaper woman?

Diana… For awhile. I started out after school working on a Daily, the Medford Mercury. I really learned everything, police reporting, headline writing, page make-up. When I went to New York I worked in the beginning at the lowest rung of Associated Press, then at a young people's weekly news magazine called Young America. But you want to know about my poetry writing?

Gloria…When did that begin?

Diana…As children we heard a lot of poetry from both parents, my mother recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and my father, Armenian poets, whom I didn't appreciate at the time. We were encouraged, my sister, brother and I, to write poems too. We were expected to write poems for gifts for special days. Actually my sister was considered the poet in the family.

Gloria…Did you start translating early?

Diana…Heavens, no… My father would really be surprised at how much work I've done with Armenian poetry. When I was in college and already writing verse, a friend of the family came and asked me to translate a poem by Sylva Gaboudikian, the most famous woman poet in Armenia. I remember shocking the woman, after all I was a foolish teen-ager in love with Emily Dickinson etc and I said, Oh, this is so corny and obvious. The woman thought I was a horrible girl. She would have been surprised, and my father too at all the books of Armenian poetry I translated after the terrible teens! The poetry was so beautiful and it needed to be done by a poet, not by an academic. The early translations were all done by linguists who knew the language, but left out much of the soul and music.

Gloria…Your grandparents came from Armenia? Did you lose family members in the genocide?

Diana…My grandparents were here. My mother was born in Worcester. My father was there, was a young student at a French college in Mezere Kharpert and the priest told the boys, "Word has come that tomorrow we have to evacuate the school and leave for a few weeks."

My father decided not to wait, but leaped on his horse and went home that night. The next day the boys were probably all shot. He went home, found a gun and went into the hills looking for guerilla fighters to join. He eventually joined General Murad and fought in the battle that freed some of the country, the first Republic of Armenia. He was sent to the U.S. to study agriculture. That's what the young country needed.(It was an independent country until the Soviets took it over and he had nowhere to return.)

Gloria…And your mother was here?

Diana …Yes. Her father in 1915 was en route to Armenia to adopt his widowed brother's child but WWI started and he was turned back in England and never got to Armenia. All his family was wiped out. But in all my childhood he never told me this. I had to find out later.

Gloria…But you go to Armenia now. Is it to their old home?

Diana…No, that's in the possession of the Turks. I go to Yerevan.

Gloria…You've been a Fulbright professor of American poetry at Yerevan State University in 1994 and 1999. What did you teach your students about writing?

Diana…At Yerevan State University my lectures were on American poetry. And I found the students the brightest, most enthusiastic and best read young people in the world. Actually most of them were young women. And I have stayed friends with a number of them. Especially with three who worked for me, with me, gathering poems for my anthologies when summer came. One of them, Armineh, came to stay with me one summer and she came to all the New England Poetry programs.

Gloria…I want to ask you about New England Poetry Club. But have we finished with your Fulbright stays in Armenia?

Diana…You asked about teaching writing or conducting workshops in writing. I did that at the American University of Yerevan and also at the Brusov Institute. At the American University I had older students because it was an extension class.

Gloria…What poets did you introduce that they really liked. And you, what poets do you read and reread?

Diana…One of the interesting things, especially in 1994 was learning that they knew more about modern American poetry than their own. They had been deprived of Varoujan and Siamanto. They knew Walt Whitman but since the Communists did not have Narek the great theologian and poet on their reading requirements these kids did not know that Charents's cascading chants and list poems came not from Whitman but from Narek. When they were helping me translate I found that they had been deprived of the vocabulary of the Bible and church. They thought Hampartsoum meant a flower or a guy's name, not resurrection. And I, whose Armenian is absolutely punk found myself teaching …a little bit.

Gloria,..Where did you learn?

Diana…From a grandmother and from every course given in Armenian language and civilization at Harvard. And before that at Boston U.

Gloria.. Let's get back to NEPC. They have such wonderful programs, readings, contests. What is the biggest challenge of being president?

Diana…Well the time involved. It steals a lot of time from writing. I remember when I first became president we had James Merrill as the guest poet . He was sitting next to me at dinner and gave me the best compliment and best advice which I didn't take. He said. "Why are you doing this, Diana. You're a very good poet and you shouldn't take administrative jobs." And I said. "But I would never have met you if I hadn't."

I would be a better president if I were a better administrator or could delegate more efficiently or if we had someone to write grants…the club would be in a much better position. (So if someone reads this who wants to write grants for us. Please help!) What I have done is democratize the club. It used to be more of a literary circle of good poets who met at the Harvard Faculty Club for dinner to hear a guest poet afterwards. Actually Amy Lowell who founded the club wanted to bring big name poets to Boston and have large readings available to the public and I went back to that.

Gloria… You have 22 books of poetry and translations. Your 23rd, The Second Question from Sheep Meadow Press is due in January?

Diana ….It will probably be late. It's been at the press about three years.

Gloria…Do you want to say anything about it?

Diana…It has a section of my light verse... things such as For Women's Rib; Man might have been a lot wiser If Eve came first as supervisor.


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