Diana Der Hovanessian

Memorializing the Joy of Diana

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By Sonia I. Ketchian

It was cousin Leo Sarkisian who invited this neophyte graduate student of the Harvard Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures to the reception by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) at Harvard’s Harkness Commons. Among the initial founders of NAASR, Leo introduced me to several members: Manoog Young, Karen Bedrosian, Thomas Amirian with his daughter Adrianne, and Diana Der Hovanessian.

Sometime later, Leo and Diana’s joint letter published in the New York Times deplored the denial of the Genocide. Diana had signed her married name. In fact, Leo told me they had written several letters over the years with Diana alternating between her maiden and married names.

Leo was active in many just causes, as were Diana and her dad, John Senior. In fact, Diana later told me that her dad was very proud of and dearly loved his biological son John, Jr., and appreciated Leo as his “spiritual son.” Our friendship thrived on mutual admiration of Leo and his dedication to truth and justice.

I remember strikingly beautiful Diana wearing a sleeveless ivory-colored fitted dress and hair just below chin-line and her handsome husband Jim Dalley hosting exciting gatherings of intellectuals, and especially writers and poets, at their hospitable Cambridge home. Their cute little daughters Maro and Sona, sister Helen, brother John, Jr. enhanced the hospitality. With John Jr. at the helm and Diana participating at times, the younger persons were playing poetry and poet guessing games. There, among many others, I was to meet acclaimed Armenian poets over the years: Maro Markarian and Gevork Emin. The brilliant intellectual Edmond Azadian, an admirer of Maro’s poetry, drove her there. Edmond’s vast erudition in Armenian and other literatures and poetry enhanced the general discussion. Only later did I learn that Russian poet Anna Akhmatova had translated Maro’s poetry, which was when I was able to invite Maro to participate in the Akhmatova Centennial Conference at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy that I organized and coordinated courtesy of The Rockefeller Foundation and The Harvard Russian Research Center. Another of the fine poets I met at Diana’s home later was Gevork Emin whom Andrei Voznesensky translated. Diana always treated me as a friend of the family, but our true tie was literature, and poetry in particular.

Learning a few years later of my special interest in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Diana urged me to prepare several literal translations of the poems for her to transform into English poems to be read on public radio. The choice of poems was mine. We met at her home with several sheets of my literally translated poems. I read the poems in Russian for Diana to follow my translations, and to meld the visual English pieces into artistic verse, remaining as close as possible to the meaning, rhythm, sounds, melody, and devices as possible. In February, 1972 at the WGBH Radio (Boston) studio on Jean Harper’s program, “The Poet Speaks,” I read my chosen poems by Akhmatova in Russian and Diana recited her superb verse translations of the poems based on my literal translations from the Russian. Diana heard our reading rebroadcasted several more times on WGBH.

Anna Akhmatova

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My interest in Akhmatova, who was vilified in the Soviet Union by the censors and authorities, but loved by the discerning people, had been ignited in a survey of 20th-century Russian literature course by Prof. Joseph Manson, who proclaimed this poet as the “greatest living Russian poet.” I was fortunate to find the two-volume emigre edition that dared include her banned poem named “Imitation of the Armenian.” Aware that in the Russian tradition an acknowledged “imitation” was based on the work of another without being a strict translation, I went about asking all the local literature scholars and persons conversant with Armenian literature to identify the source without results until one day, climbing the stairs of Widener Library, I beheld Prof. Kevork Bardakjian. Before the first line of my English translation of Akhmatova’s first line left my lips, he began reciting the great Hovhannes Tumanian’s quatrain in Armenian. I shared this find with Diana who crafted her own version that she recited for the first time at Voznesensky’s reading at Harvard.

Whenever possible we would attend Diana’s spectacular inspired readings in the Boston area and many of the receptions that followed. Nonetheless mostly we phoned each other, yes, enjoying our most edifying conversations on poetry and poets. After I discussed reading Akhmatova’s own short “Memoirs” of her friendship with painter Amadeo Modigliani in Paris in 1910-1912, Diana wrote her artistic poem “Modigliani” for the Christian Science Monitor, where she complained to me, they had left out the dedication to me since it was I who had told her about the friendship, but in republication in the Armenian newspapers she made certain the dedication was not left out, so I proudly have it now.

At the Boston Globe Book Fair (October 1976) that Diana organized superbly for many years I read the Armenian original of a few poems (I remember reciting in Eastern Armenian and Russian translation Gevork Emin’s short poem, “Walnut Tree”) and Diana read her beautiful English translation.

In 1989, Diana’s newest book of poetry, About Time: Poems, inspired me to write an article on it, “Rereading Diana Der Hovanessian’s About Time: Poems,” which was published in the Armenian Weekly (March 4, 1989); the Armenian Mirror-Spectator (March 11, 1989).

Twice I reviewed Diana’s books, The Other Voice: Armenian Women’s Poetry Through the Ages and The Second Question.

Diana mentioned the title of her forthcoming book, The Second Question, over the phone that she was sending to me, adding, “I thank your mother in my book” (Mother Bertha Nakshian Ketchian had died in 1990), I recalled immediately our phone conversation of a few years ago. I had shared with Diana that whenever mother, a Genocide survivor, met an Armenian, her first question was “Where are you from?” and the second would be “How did you survive?” Diana transformed these words artistically to portray her Genocide survivor grandmother. She further urged me to review that volume because Louisiana Literature was interested. It was reprinted in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, on March 7, 2009.

When I invited F.D. Reeve, who had met Akhmatova in 1962 during his visit to the Soviet Union as aide and interpreter to poet Robert Frost (F.D. Reeve, Robert Frost in Russia, Atlantic Little-Brown, 1964; Zephyr Press, 2001), to speak at the Harvard Russian Research Center, I invited Diana to meet her fellow American poet. Diana graciously suggested gathering a few close friends after his presentation at her Cambridge home nearby. I remember Edie Haber and Katherine O’Connor came to Diana’s. As I was leaving, Diana kept repeating to me, “Thank you, what a favor, what a favor.” As I was escorting Franklin and his wife Ellen across the Yard, Franklin surprised me, “Thank you for bringing me back to Russian.” He asked about my completed book manuscript on Akhmatova, I told him Sam Driver had read it and wrote to me it was “the most critically profound work on Akhmatova to date.” Asking about my translation of the quoted verse in my manuscript, Franklin offered to turn my literal translations into verse so that his name could help me.

Having met one of the leading Russian poets, Bella Akhmadulina, during my research in Moscow, we invited Bella and her husband Boris Messerer to dinner at our home in Belmont where we introduced them to fellow poets Diana and F. D. Reeve. Diana and Franklin’s cooperation blossomed in the New England Poetry Club, as did Franklin’s with Bella and Boris. Franklin decided to translate some of Bella’s poems so I sent him the manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Poetic Craft of Bella Akhmadulina, to aid his choices. In fact, three of my book’s chapters are graced by epigraphs from Diana’s poetry.

Another time I remember Diana asking me to go with her to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to translate (it was an emergency) into literal English several short poems for Andrei Voznesensky that she would transpose into poetry for his upcoming reading. In the tiny room (servants’ quarters?) of that famous luxurious Boston hotel where Voznesensky faced us cramped in a chair, Diana and I sitting on the bed translated the short pieces so the two poets could present them to their waiting audience.

A few years ago, Diana invited me to her place to meet a friend of hers from Armenia. She didn’t elaborate. It turned out, her guest was a known talented young writer, Artsvi Bakhchinyan, who had interviewed Diana and many others on their life and works. Later I was to read with pleasure his article on Diana. She had recommended that he interview me as well. I am usually reluctant to write about myself. I hesitated so Artsvi graciously gave me a form for me to fill out to send to him. I never did. Diana may have been disappointed, but she never reprimanded me. (He has since become a regular contributor to the Mirror-Spectator.)

Ours was thus a friendship about poets and poetry that Diana lived and breathed, discussions of the past, including the tragic past that haunted us, the present, and attending Diana’s stimulating readings in the Boston area. To the very end, when I used to call Diana to chat on matters of mutual interest, poetry remained paramount in our unending conversations. Ours remained a friendship founded on poetry.

And how the great poet Diana Der Hovanessian is missed! Her poetry lives on.

(Sonia I. Ketchian is at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.)

 

 

 

 

 

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