Diana Der Hovanessian

Community Celebrates the Legacy of Diana Der Hovanessian

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ARLINGTON, Mass. — While science expands our understanding of our environment and the universe, poetry, since time immemorial, has nurtured the minds, souls and imagination of humanity with universal ideals. For more than five decades, Armenians in general and the Armenian-American community in particular had the fortune of enjoying in their midst the impressive career, “a rare and enormous talent,” poet Diana Der Hovanessian.

Diana Der Hovanessian

On Sunday, November 4 at 3 p.m., the Armenian Cultural Foundation and the New England Poetry Club in collaboration with eight Boston area cultural organizations: Amaras Art Alliance, Armenian General Benevolent Union – New England, Armenian International Women’s Association, Armenian Museum of America, The Friends of the Longfellow House, Hamazkaine Armenian Cultural and Educational Society, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research and Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada will pay tribute to the life and literary legacy of Diana Der Hovanessian.

Born in Worcester, the oldest Armenian community in America, Diana Der Hovanessian, grew up in a traditional Armenian family, including her grandparents, until age 5. The youngest of three daughters and a son born to John Der Hovanessian and Mariam Israelian, her paternal grandparents were originally from Tadem, Kharpert, Western Armenia, while her maternal grandparents were from Worcester. Her parents’ families, on both sides, were wiped out during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Diana’s upbringing shaped her early life as her family prospered and helped waves of Armenian immigrants to find work and attend school.

Reading in general and recitation of poetry were integral parts of the Der Hovanessian family culture. Diana’s first exposure to poetry came through the words of the martyred Armenian poets Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto. Her father recited their poems in Armenian, while her mother acquainted her with American and English poetry by literary giants such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All of the Der Hovanessian children, according to Diana, were not only encouraged but “expected to write poems for gifts for special days.”

To further her education, she attended Boston University, where she obtained an A.B. in literature. Later as a graduate student at Harvard she studied with Robert Lowell. Concurrently she worked as a journalist for the Medford Mercury. Later in New York City, she was a writer for the Associated Press and then for a young people’s weekly news magazine called Young America.

Moving to Cambridge, Mass., where she lived for the rest of her life, Diana began writing and publishing poems in various newspapers and magazines. Over the years more than 25 books of her poetry and translations were published, including How to Choose Your Past, Songs of Bread, Songs of Salt, and Dancing at the Monastery. She taught American literature, poetry, and translation, and also conducted poetry workshops in various academic institutions, including her alma mater Boston University, Stetson University, Bard College, Columbia University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Yerevan State University, Armenia.

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At the same time Diana was a visiting poet in Massachusetts schools and worked as visiting faculty and writer-in-residence at various universities in the United States. She was Fulbright professor of American poetry at the Yerevan State University in Armenia in 1994 and 1999. Diana served on the governing boards of the Poetry Society of America, and the Columbia University Translation Center. Garrison Keillor has read poems from her books on his “Writer’s Almanac” program on National Public Radio.

During her illustrious career, serving on the boards of many literary and cultural organizations, Diana made major contributions to the development of literature, poetry in particular. These associations included the Massachusetts Council on Arts, and Humanities; the International Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists Association; the Poetry Society of America; Boston University Collegium of Distinguished Alumni; and the Writers Union of Armenia. Diana also served on the editorial board of several literary and academic journals, such Ararat Literary Quarterly, and the Armenian Review.

As a member, and later president, of the New England Poetry Club, founded in 1915 by Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and Conrad Aiken in Cambridge, Diana served with distinction. She transformed the Club from being “insular and provincial, with meetings held at the Brahmin enclaves of Beacon Hill and the Harvard Faculty Club” into a more open and vibrant society by inviting poets of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, such as Andrei Voznesenky and Yevgeni Yevtushenko, scores of South American and Latin American poets, as well as prominent American poets, among them Robert Creeley, X. J. Kennedy, and Robert Pinsky. During her tenure spanning over three decades, in addition to her administrative duties and recognition of the outstanding work of poets, younger ones in particular, she initiated in 2006 the Daniel Varoujan Award, in memory of the prolific Armenian poet martyred during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Later, in her honor, the Club established the Der Hovanessian Awards for translation works from any language, authored by someone other than the translator. For the past decades over fifty promising young poets have received awards. As president of the New England Poetry Club. she also initiated and presided over the popular summer poetry reading festivals at the Longfellow House in Cambridge.

Diana’s interest in translating Armenian poetry, nurtured by her father from an early age, blossomed decades later, making a major literary legacy unmatched in English-language Armenian diaspora literature. The first attempts were a set of Armenian sharakans (hymns) for a Boston Pops concert conducted by Rouben Gregorian, a close friend of her father’s. The second consisted of a set of six pieces for a lecture on Daniel Varoujan her father was giving. Encouraged by positive reactions, Diana submitted them to her editor, who to her surprise took the whole batch. Shortly after, an invitation from the Christian Science Monitor to launch a page of international poems marked the beginning of Diana’s translation work. Her first works included pieces by Vahan Terian, followed by Nahapet Kouchak, the Armenian minstral Sayat Nova, tenth-century theologian Gregory of Narek, and then a long list nineteenth and twentieth century Armenian poets.

Today Diana’s translated works by over 200 Armenian poets, appear in 10 volumes of anthologies as well as in volumes dedicated to individual poets such as Varoujan, Kouchak, Tekeyan, and Emin. In her 2005 anthology, The Other Voice, Diana dedicated an entire volume to her translation of poems by Armenian women writers, beginning with old lullabies and magic chants and continuing through the ages to contemporary works. Her Anthology of Armenian Poetry, edited and translated with Marzbed Margossian, won the Anahid Award from the Columbia University Armenian Center.

In addition to the Armenian, Diana also translated works by Russian, Romanian, and Arab poets such as Anna Akhtamova, Maria Banus, Nizar Qabbani, Abd al-Razzaq and Abu al-Wahid.

Diana’s poems, exceeding a thousand, have appeared in over one hundred literary journals and magazines, among them Agni, American Poetry Review, Ararat, Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, Partisan, Prairie Schooner, Nation, Kroonk, and the Armenian Review, and in anthologies such as Against Forgetting, Women on War, On Prejudice, Finding Home, Leading Contemporary Poets, Orpheus and Company, Identity Lessons, Voices of Conscience, and Two Worlds Walking, select number of Diana’s works, in three volumes, have been translated into Armenian, and also into Russian, French, and Greek.

Perhaps unknown to many, Diana, wrote a number of plays. Two — “The Secret of Survival” and “Growing Up Armenian” — in 1984 and 1985 were produced on many college campuses, telling the Armenian story with poetry and music. The Secret of Survival with Michael Kermoyan (and later with Vahan Khanzadian) was also performed in the early 1990s to raise relief funds for victims of the December 1988 earthquake in Armenia. Both pieces are built around themes of Armenian American history and identity.

Decades of impressive literary output, scholarly work, academic accomplishments, and service to the literary culture in the United States brought praise from prominent writers and institutions. Specifically her contributions were recognized by some of thirty-four institutions and publication, and won her their highest awards, among them the prestigious PEN/Columbia Translation Award (1979), Paterson Poetry Prize (1998), Prairie Schooner, George Herbert Award of the World Order of Narrative Poets, Writers Union of Armenia, The PEN-New England GOLDEN PEN Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award (2009), and the Armenian Writers Union Award.

More specifically prominent American, Russian, and Armenian literary figures such as John Updike, D. M. Thomas, William Saroyan, F. D. Reeve, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Peter Viereck, and Andrei Voznesensky praised Diana. The London Times Literary Supplement referred to Diana as “a brilliant poet who has opened up a new world to the English reader.”

The event on November 4 at 3 p.m. will be held at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (441 Mystic Street, Arlington). The keynote speakers include award-winning poet and educator, Dr. Vivian Shipley, a member of the University of Kentucky Hall of Distinguished Alumni and Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor at Southern Connecticut State University and Dr. Askold Melnyczuk Professor of English and MFA Graduate Program Director, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts Boston. Other speakers will include Dr. Robert Mirak, ACF president, Mary Buchinger, president of the New England Poetry Club, Maro Dalley, Diana’s daughter, and Dr. Barbara J. Merguerian, co-founder, Armenian International Women’s Association. The program, followed by a reception, will also include recitations of her works in English by Diana Der Hovanessian, Marc Mamigonian and Regie Gibson and Ani Arakelian in Armenian.

For more information and details, contact the ACF office during office hours (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.).

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