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Published: Tue Jan 8 2019
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Yerevan on the Charles: An Homage to Diana Der-Hovanessian

The names one heard from poets coming of age in Boston in the last quarter of the twentieth century were Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Daniel Varoujan, Charles Olson, Eghishe Charents, John Wieners, and of course Siamanto. We were all aware of the heroic generation of Armenian modernists, martyred by the genocidal repression led by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and the Young Turks. Their tragic deaths forced us all to reflect on the importance of poetry in a time of crisis. We knew their poems and stories largely thanks to the genius of one person, a Cantabrigian by the name of Diana Der-Hovanessian.

The New England Poetry Club, which Diana presided over for decades, was founded by Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and Conrad Aiken in 1915. When I moved to New England in 1976 I wasn’t prepared for how seriously the region took its name. A starchy Yankee style still characterized literary Boston. Lowell and Bishop seemed to set a tone of louche formality—of high teas spiked with gin, and pregnant mumbling about Henry James in the shadow of Harvard’s towering William James Hall.

While Diana lived around the corner from the childhood homes of both ee cummings and Henry James, she proved a democratic and welcoming steward of traditions both local and international. Thanks to her, NEPC was perhaps the most cosmopolitan literary circle in town. At her home I met writers like Thomas Tranströmer and Yves Bonnefoy, as well as Richard Eberhardt and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was also where I met the poet Peter Balakian, who has assumed, among several mantles, that of literary ambassador for Armenia.

A person of great warmth, loyalty, and commitment to poetry, Diana often hid behind a persona that made her appear shy and slightly befuddled. But she had clearly taken James’s counsel to heart: she was a person on whom nothing was lost. There were so many ways in which Diana was singular in the literary world. Among other things, she never uttered a mean word about anyone.

For those of us with multiple literary identities, Diana’s loyalty to her heritage was both moving and encouraging. Diana showed the way. She honored her roots while nurturing the contemporary literary scene with passionate generosity, gentle humor, and an unwavering faith in the importance and power of poetry. We are all strengthened by her example.

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York TimesThe NationThe Partisan ReviewGrand StreetPloughsharesAGNIPoetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of PoetryLiterature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.

He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.

Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)

See him interviewed on New England Authors.

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