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Diana Arterian in Conversation with Vi Khi Nao

Vi Khi Nao interviews Diana Arterian.

Vi Khi Nao: You are known as a scholar, memoirist, poet, lyricist, collagist, violinist, and investigative reporter, and more. What talent would you not want to possess, Diana?

Diana Arterian: It’s fun to see this list. Each of these trace a personal lineage that goes way back, and will hopefully push me forward, too. I’m hard-pressed to think of a talent I wouldn’t want to possess, in large part because I have found them to be assets that give me access to opportunities for personal growth, and for the comprehension of that which is outside myself. Perhaps, if this can be considered a talent, I would not want to have the ability for cold remove and lack of sympathy. That, it seems, closes off, rather than opens up, understanding.

VKN: To borrow words from your translated work of Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, are you content in this chaos? In our era of Black Lives Matter, high obesity rates, our perverse prison system, our culture of misogyny?

DA: I appreciate your taking the time to read my translations—Anjuman’s work feels so urgent now, more than ever. I think she was pushing toward the absurd in that poem, trying to conjure a feeling that is impossible considering her, or her speaker’s, situation. I think that as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual woman with a good deal of education who lives in a city, there is a dangerous potential for my contentment during our current chaotic moment. The violence of the 45th administration, escalating Islamophobia, the explicit embracing of white supremacy—these all seem to have been a source of activation rather than complacency for those who have otherwise indeed remained content, including myself. Personally, this often feels like a delirium, however, and I do periodically have to “step away”, so to speak, for a day or two in order to steel myself and return to the fray of protests, phone calls, news reading, etc.

VKN: How do you step away, Diana? And, what kind of space does your soul occupy when you do so?

DA: In large part it involves merely scanning the headlines, or avoiding them altogether. I realise my ability to do so underscores a luxury many do not have. I am trying, daily, to locate nourishing practices that are more than merely “stepping away”, but it is a difficult task. Like for so many others, these days are defined by survival rather than healing for me. So the space my soul occupies is one that feels like panting off at the side of a marathon, before trudging forward again.

VKN: The domestic violence Anjuman experienced with her own husband (that led to her death) shares similarities with domestic violence your family experiences(d) with your own family. When you translate her work, do you feel that her brilliance paves a path for you to employ broader brushstrokes as you explore your own history with violence? Not just a general violence, but domestic violence?

DA: This is a compelling question, and gives insight into an aspect of this work I had not considered before (strange how the obvious connections can elude one). Predominantly, my interest in translating Anjuman’s poetry had more to do with the fact she is, potentially, a direct point of contact with a figure the Western media and American government have time and again trotted out as a reason for military intervention. We so rarely hear anything from Afghan women directly. I cannot pretend to know very much about her daily life from her poems. It does seem clear she endured domestic violence, as do so many women and children (among others) all over the world. I learned early on, her verse operates through the lineage of Persian poetry, which is long and rich, and often includes persona poems. So trying to peer into her life through her verse would ultimately involve more projection than recognition. In my discussions and writings on Anjuman, I have attempted to make her work the primary subject, rather than her death. The latter seems to be this lightning rod of interest for so many when her poetry has an electricity of its own.

VKN: If you were to compare her poetry with your current collection from 1913 Press, Playing Monster :: Seiche, what similarity do you share with her, and what is the one major difference between her work and yours (neglecting the obvious: hers in Persian/Dari, yours in English)?

DA: Our similarities are we are both women poets trying to create art at a time when, to varying degrees, it can be difficult (in my case) or potentially deadly (in hers, under Taliban rule). I think about Audre Lorde writing, “For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive”. Anjuman and I, simply by being in female bodies on this earth, both endured the reality of those structures, and have worked to engage our feelings through the written word. The differences are largely the works and environments in which we developed our art, and the stakes. While I certainly have read a good deal of Persian and Sufi poetry and have written in strict poetic form, it did not define my work in the way that Anjuman’s was defined. The city where Anjuman lived, Herat, has an incredible history of poets that goes back centuries. Her writing engages with that lineage directly. During Taliban rule, her art production was one that was illegal and could lead to her death—this is a reality I can only imagine as it is so outside my own experience. My current work, more than anything else, is due to the Western heritage of the Confessional poem, with the “I” representing myself.

 VKN: If she were alive and you were to do a reading with her, where in the States would you manifest that reading? What kind of experience would your current scholarly investigation beg of her and the world? And, if you were to create a conference together, what kind of material/idea would you discuss with her before an American audience?

DA: This question feels almost painful to answer because of the grief at its impossibility, but I’m grateful for it. I think having her read in Washington, D.C. is the most apt place, largely because it is a site where so many politicians have made deadly and manipulative decisions about the trajectory of her country for decades. It is where her voice needs to be heard the most (if only the politicians might show up!). I don’t think I can ask anything else of Anjuman beyond what she has already given through her poetry. But what I can ask of the world is to try to heed the voices of those who seem to be a consistent source of fear—the voices of the unknown, such as Anjuman herself for so many Anglo Westerners. If she and I were to create a conference, I would love to discuss the poetry that she found the most powerful and impactful to her and her work, both ancient and new.

VKN: If you were to add another reader, which poet/writer do you think you and she would select? What kind of emotional and intellectual landscape would you like to curate for your audience? I view this is a kind of human collage or mixtape, hobbies of yours, you are hypothetically developing…

DA: Indeed—I love this avenue of thinking. While the obvious answer might be another writer or thinker from the Middle East, perhaps Yusef Komunyakaa or Viet Thanh Nguyen—both of whom have had their lives defined in different degrees by the last American generation’s martial conflict in ways that similarly feels boundlessly damaging and horrifying.

VKN: In your artistic and scholarly work with poetry and trauma, what is the most prudent thing you have garnered/learned from your research? Do you think trauma is conducive to making great art? Does a soul require it? Pain/tragedy is a great generator of great art, but what kind of experiential machine do we need as artists to make great art without resorting to pain or trauma?

DA: This very question has been hounding me as of late, and I hope to pen something about it soon. I think my research regarding the trauma/poetry linkage taught me most of all about myself, and how my traumas manifest themselves—as well as the richness of the texts I selected for my dissertation chapters. I sincerely hope, above all else, that trauma is not necessary for art. I think of Maggie Nelson’s epigraph from Pascal in Bluets: “And it were true, we do not think all philosophy is worth one hour of pain”. Personally I would halt all suffering if I were bestowed with that power—even at the cost of art. Art can be a powerful and an exacting tool against oppressive systems, but often at great expense to the artist themselves (either prior to, during, or following artistic production). I wish I knew of an opening into great art without pain, but thus far that falls outside my own experience. My work feels so deeply entwined with my pain at times. I think, to begin, we must fight mythologising the aura surrounding the pain/great art link—the idea one must suffer for art as that is what endures after the artist is long dead, or has an impact on a larger community. I fence with this idea a lot. Is an artist’s short life, full of suffering, per se, worth the “sacrifice” for a painting that profoundly touches someone two centuries later? Has the impact that Rilke describes in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” where the viewer realizes she must change her life? I don’t know. Perhaps different methods of engaging with artistic production with joy as the source of inspiration early on in an artist’s life (so, for many, the workshop) can be a starting place.

VKN: What makes you joyful, Diana? What is joyful to you?  If you were to create art from that place, would you use another art form to chisel it into form? Or would you stick to just language?

DA: I think what is often the most joyful for me is moments of repose, which feel few and far between currently. I try to engage in joyful reading of authors past and present, go out into the world and enjoy the beauty of the local landscape. Playing games and chatting with people I trust in my bones. It might be difficult for me to write from a place of joy (nature poetry, say). Perhaps from a different form altogether (sculpture? gardening?), and one that I didn’t share with others but kept entirely to myself.

VKN: You are an editor, too, yes? You have edited/are editing the works of many others. For Noemi Press, you edited Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I am currently reading. (The award-winning book will be released in January 2018.) As I read, I try to imagine your invisible hands over the text. Where things may have been omitted or added or rearranged. It’s like trying to ask a ghost to paint a portrait of itself using air. How do you edit? What system, method, or philosophy do you adhere to? And, when working with another editor on your own work, what do you hope for? The same approach you apply to the work of others? Are they symbiotic? What kind of conversation do you hope to achieve, arrive at?

DA: I did indeed edit Natalie’s forthcoming book—another impactful story of profound trauma. This was done with incredible guidance from Carmen Giménez Smith, Noemi’s publisher. One of the best pieces of advice Carmen gave me was to read the work as a harsh critic might. What lines wobble under that pitiless critic’s eye? That has been immensely helpful when reading and editing on a line-level. Above all, however, I love editing on a grander scale—moving pieces around and considering how, in the pieces’ new locations, different vibrations occur. The possibilities feel endless in a way that is often thrilling. My system involves printing the work and taking pencil to that paper through multiple readings, shuffling the pages, discussing these ideas with the author. Thus far I have been blessed with very kind poets who are willing to take or discard my ideas—but with consideration of my efforts. As a writer in the writer/editor relationship, I am flexible and excited by any suggestions. Ideally I think this relationship is indeed symbiotic. A good editorial eye can have profound impact on a work. Robin Coste Lewis has repeatedly mentioned how her editor at Knopf suggested she add lyrical first-person poems to surround the center titular piece in Voyage of the Sable Venus. How would that book have operated without those pieces? Robin is a genius, yet it hadn’t occurred to her as an editorial decision. That, if nothing else, is testament to the value of a great editor in the literary world.

VKN: Your Playing Monster :: Seiche is sparingly minimal. The violence of the white space is a testimony in itself which contrasts with your scholarly, essayistic work, which fills up space with such definitive prolixity. How do you move from one extreme to another? Is it difficult? Is it an intentional use of the diversity of forms and genres to shape the content of your modern soul, or is your art is born from being curious and investigative?

DA: My scholarship and poems and creative non-fiction all come from the same curious instinct—often my poetry and essays involve an archive. That said, the scholarship of my doctoral work began after drafts of Playing Monster and Seiche (when they were two distinct manuscripts) had been completed—but some years prior to their being woven together. CAConrad’s Book of Frank showed me the remarkable power of space in telling a narrative, and I embraced it fully when beginning to tell my own story of domestic violence and its overtones throughout a life.

VKN: What passage from Playing Monster :: Seiche makes you cringe? What makes you deliberately happy? And, what source contributes to your charged emotion?

DA: I think the pitching forward of the narrative in the book is a source of happiness, though the narrative itself is a bleak one. But the friends who have read the book thus far have almost all mentioned how it reads like a thriller, or a piece of noir. So that driving force translating to the reader certainly makes me deliberately happy. I don’t think much makes me cringe, really, perhaps because the book has existed in iterations for seven years or so. I suppose owning the fact that I was the favorite child of someone who harmed me and my family, and that I worked hard as a young child to earn that position. But largely the shame doesn’t belong to me, I don’t think—the shameful acts belong to others.

VKN: How do your siblings respond to your book? Did they contribute to its editorial direction? Did they help you shape the book?

DA: Their responses, along with my mother’s, were varied. Above all they showed incredible support of my writing out my version of our experiences. I often asked them questions about particular events, which they were more than willing to answer. Hearing our alternative memories shed some light on the impact of trauma on recall. I think for some family members it churned up that which they felt they had laid to rest, and for others allowed for recognition that was healing. They all, of course, were given the finished manuscript to read, and I asked permission to publish it as it is. I think all said they were moved and grateful for it, which means more than anything.

VKN: Do you like Arizona? You were born there and grew up there. What is your favorite place to read/write there? What does that space look like? Is it private?

DA: Perhaps unsurprisingly I have ambivalent feelings about Arizona. Growing up in a desert (albeit an urban part of it) is defining in many ways—knowing what to do if you come into contact with a rattlesnake, say, is information few in my social circles can claim. As a child I loved to climb on the roof to read (if its tiles weren’t hot enough to singe me), or splay myself on our couch.

VKN: I love that some of your work comes out into the world with trailers, visual forms trailing after literary and vice versa. They are quiet and exploratory and like a footnote, allowing the readers another slice of acute perceptivity into your work — The trailer for your Playing Monster :: Seiche is minimal like your poetic form for this body of work, but its visuality appears darker than your literary words. Was this intentional?

 DA: In truth the form for the most recent trailer had to do with limited resources and, for whatever reason, an idea that came to me, seemingly from nowhere. Perhaps it was my subconscious prodding me, as it harkens back to my childhood. The overhead projector—its sound is so evocative of my school classrooms from that time. Darkness, of course, is a requirement for the projector to illuminate clearly. Perhaps it’s a visual inversion of the book (dark/imagistic versus light/linguistic).

VKN: Will you break down a poem from your Playing Monster :: Seiche for the readers? (If you like, you can choose a poem or I can choose it for you). Where were you when you wrote it? Was it an easy birth? Or did you struggle? What went through you when you wrote it? And, how do you cope with its trauma/memories?

DA: Please pick a piece, if you’re willing!

VKN: Yes. Page 123 (“my father’s wife”).

DA: This is a poem written in large part as it was something my mother revealed to me only when I was writing the book. My mother was and is a private person, so her giving me insight into these events, and permission to write about them and publish them, is no small gift. These phone calls to my mother from my stepmother as she was beginning to recognize the increasingly dangerous space she was inhabiting as my father’s wife was unknown to me until I began asking questions. I was likely in my apartment in Los Angeles when I wrote it, at night. That’s when a lot of these poems happened, though I normally write poems in the morning. This particular piece was a relatively easy one to pen as it didn’t involve my pain, particularly. It means something to me as it shows my mother’s empathy, to a point—and her impulse to protect herself and our family. Also how women in danger try to reach out to each other, how danger connects people. I think grappling with trauma and memories, if they are from an early age, is a lifelong endeavor. This becomes more and more apparent to me the farther into life I go. Writing about them can feel healing at times, but the initial experience is like the lanceting of something rather than bandaging or suturing.

VKN: Sometimes to protect the people we love, we use silence. Sometimes, it’s about whistleblowing. When one struggles to know when to be courageous and when not to, what source of faith or intuition do you use to guide you through this liminal, undefined line? Where or how do you think your mother draws her wisdom for this?

DA: My mother’s wisdom is so profound, it is a consistent source of wonder to me. I think the fact that someone as intelligent, thoughtful, and fierce as herself was trapped in a disastrous and dangerous situation is telling. It illustrates how vulnerable anyone can be to abuse and violence. And she is someone who rarely stays silent (as a former legal academic, “whistleblowing” means a lot to her!). I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I remember one instance that illustrated her remarkable ability to call someone out without provoking a counterattack. We were at a family friend’s house. He stepped out of the room momentarily, at which point his dog pointed his nose at the coffee table at a bowl of nuts set there for us. Our host’s wife raised her hand as if she were to hit the dog—then she remembered where she was, and stopped. I was dumbstruck. My mother told the woman quietly, with a smile, “You were going to hit the dog.” As the woman attempted to object, my mother interrupted her, without anger—“You were.” And that was it. It was a very gentle and brief moment, but my mother’s deftness in saying, simply, “I see you” is something I can only hope to learn with time. Personally, when I am shocked into silence, I am trying to train myself into drawing from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and asking, “What did you say?” or “What do you mean?” So, turning it back to the person saying something stupefying for its boldness or dangerousness—rather than stewing about feeling powerless for hours or days after.

VKN: What an amazing parable. Thank you for sharing this anecdote with us, Diana. Just to show how subtlety is an important tool of transformation and acknowledgement as well. Just to show that one doesn’t need to knock someone over their head with a hammer to get one’s voice across. A tap on the shoulder or head will do. Your mother sounds so wonderful.

DA: My mother is indeed an incredible person, and the successes of myself and my siblings is due in large part to the fact that she was a remarkable parent despite extreme circumstances—it can make an enormous difference in an abusive household, especially in conjunction with eventual escape from the abuser (which is also due to her efforts). She would never own these facts, but they’re true.

VKN: The table of contents of Playing Monster :: Seiche reads like another poem. I read it as another poem. Did you intentionally stage/format it that way? Or did it emerge just like that — a poem born from the collection’s titles?

DA: You’re not the first person to tell me the table of contents reads as a kind of poem. It wasn’t intentional at all. The formatting was done by the remarkable designer Joseph Kaplan — he is the person to thank for the stage setting there. But this reminds me that perhaps I should read the table of contents at an event sometime.

VKN: That’s a great idea. Finally, I have one last question. Do you like pickled carrots? When I read your book, I thought a lot about how your work having gone through several stages of being fermented. Of being light as in an experience of having been aged. There is a sweetness of it and some sourness on the roof of your book’s tongue.

DA: I do love pickled things, particularly red onions and radishes. I’m glad this work has the feeling of aging and stewing over time, as that was certainly its process. The two books existed for several years apart, languishing in some ways, only to be invigorated by their being brought together within a single manuscript. I’m glad to hear, too, that this ultimately left you with a feeling of sweetness coupled with sourness, considering the book’s content that can, for so many, be emotionally exhausting. There is indeed a sweetness I tried to weave in there—the dynamic of my loving mother and siblings, who ultimately endured and thrived.


Diana Arterian is the author of Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, 2017), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press, 2017), Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), and co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2016). A Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, her creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Banff Centre, Caldera, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo, and her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Asymptote, BOMBBlack Warrior Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Born and raised in Arizona, she currently resides in Los Angeles where she is a doctoral candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khanh, Vietnam. She is the author, most recently, Umbilical Hospital, and of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 7th, 2017.