Editor’s Note: Famed Armenian-American poet and author Diana Der Hovanessian passed away on March 1 in Cambridge, Mass.
Der Hovanessian was twice a Fulbright professor of American Poetry and is the author of more than 25 books of poetry and translations.
Below is Der Hovanessian’s biography by Armenian-American author Nancy Kricorian, which was originally published in Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers (Heyday Books, 2007). The piece is republished with permission of the publisher.
Diana Der Hovanessian: Dispensing Grace
By Nancy Kricorian
Diana Der Hovanessian was born in Worcester, Mass., into an Armenian home that was filled with poetry, history, and fantastic tales, both real and imagined.
Her father, Hovaness (John) Der Hovanessian, a native of the village of Tadem in the Kharpert region of Western Armenia, had been the secretary and first lieutenant of Sepastatsi Unger Murad, the Armenian general. In the 1918 battle when Murad was killed and his famous horse Pegasus shot, Hovaness Der Hovanessian’s horse was also killed and he himself was shot in the forehead. The bullet was never removed and Diana remembers as a child climbing into her father’s lap to touch the spot where the bullet had entered.
After the founding of the first Armenian Republic Hovaness was sent by the government to study agronomy at Michigan State University. He traveled east on the Trans Siberian railroad and in Japan was put on a steamship to America by Diana Aghabeg Apkar, the Armenian woman diplomat for whom Diana was named. When Armenia was annexed by the Soviet Union, Hovaness stayed in the United States and became a part of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s “government in exile,” which entailed frequent traveling. While speaking at an Armenian community picnic in Worcester, Hovaness, described by Diana as handsome and charismatic, met Marian Israelyan, whom he later married.
Marian Israelyan’s parents, Hagop and Helen, were also natives of Tadem and knew the Der Hovanessians from there. Hagop Israelyan immigrated to the United States as a young boy, a trajectory recreated in the poem “charm against inertia”. After graduating from Lowell High School he worked in a Worcester wire mill by day and studied immigration law at night. On one of his trips home to Tadem, his parents persuaded him to marry a local orphan girl, their goal being to prevent him from marrying a non-Armenian as many young Armenian men in America were doing.
For the first four years of her life Diana lived in Worcester with her maternal grandparents in an apartment too small to house the whole family. Her parents and sister were in an apartment a few streets away. Diana describes her grandfather Hagop as “my favorite person in the world” who recounted the plays of Shakespeare on their afternoon walks and says that her grandmother Helen “told me Armenian folk tales.”
Eventually Diana’s parents bought a house and settled with their children in the suburbs of first Auburn and later Marlborough, Massachusetts. There were no other Armenians in either of these communities. To support his family, her father founded a dairy, the first in the state to homogenize milk. Diana says:
“It was a great childhood for a while: wandering in the woods, picking blackberries, blueberries, and climbing trees. But our house was on a highway, a busy highway. And one day in March when I was five, my sister and I were crossing the road we were hit by a car and she died. That changed everything. I kept waiting and waiting for her to come back.”
This traumatic experience is memorialized in the poem “white lamb, blue mulberry” as the poet stands before her sister’s grave in the Armenian section of the Hope Cemetery. Diana muses, “Perhaps writing poems was a way of talking to my sister. Writing poems was something we did at home anyway. My father wrote poems for us to recite in public when we were very little. Both parents went around reciting poems all the time. My father in Armenian and mother in English. And we were expected to give each other poems for our birthdays.”
As an undergraduate at Boston University, Diana majored in English. When her grandfather asked her what career her degree would prepare her for she told him she wanted to be a poet. He replied that the Armenians already had enough poets, but what they truly needed were journalists to tell their story.
Diana followed his advice. She worked at the student paper and after graduating took at job at the Medford Mercury, a local daily in a Boston suburb. She soon moved to New York where she started at the Associated Press as a messenger, eventually working her way up to Near East Editor at Young America.
In the meantime, she was writing poems and submitting them to magazines for publication. She married, moved back to the Boston area and was selected to participate in the last poetry class taught by Robert Lowell at Harvard.
When her father needed English versions of some poems by Daniel Varoujan for a lecture he was preparing, Diana provided them—and thus began her career as a translator.
Even though she was raised in a family that was steeped in Armenian culture, Diana says, “I didn’t become Armenian until I went to New York and sang in a chorus, and joined a dance group.”
As an adult—living away from her kin—Diana gravitated towards a group of young, politicized Armenians and began to feel consciously Armenian, an identity that increasingly informed her poetry.
Diana’s poems are filled with family stories, as well as references to Armenian history, proverbs and folk tales. Her poetry is also inhabited by the ghosts of the dead: her sister Sona, her grandparents, the poets Varoujan and Siamanto, and the countless Armenians who died during the mass deportations and executions of 1915-1922. The grandchild and child of survivors, Diana—who says there was very little talk of the Genocide in her household while she was growing up—has devoted much of her writing life to telling the story of her people.
Diana’s unique contribution to American and Armenian-American poetry comes not simply from her engagement with the large forces of history, but in the domestic detail and precise, empathetic observation that give her poetry its sense of intimacy and warmth – an intimacy that paradoxically amplifies the scope and scale of her voice. In poems such as “teaching a child to dance” and “at twilight” she writes from the point of view of a mother with tenderness and melancholy, balancing a specific and unique maternal regard with an underlying expanse of public, shared remembrance. In the poem about her sister, “white lamb, blue mulberry” she says, “This poem is my child,” and, in a sense, all her poems exist both as tightly held progeny and as wandering, independent expressions. In “angel in somerville” a bag lady is transformed into the poet and the poet herself is “a mother/feeding her children, dispensing grace” – a perfect example of how Diana transforms the impersonal public space of contemporary America and revisions it, through intensely personal imagining, into an almost Whitmanesque emotional vista.
Diana is an award-winning poet and translator, has been the President of the New England Poetry Club for more than twenty years, and is a revered lecturer and teacher. She has taught workshops at Boston University, Bard College, and Columbia University, among others. She has twice been the recipient of Fulbright Fellowships to teach at Yerevan State University in Armenia. Three volumes of her poetry have been translated into Armenian and published in Yerevan. Her poems have also been translated into Greek, French and Romanian.
Armenian poetry and American poetry are made richer by Diana Der Hovanessian, who continues to dispense grace with her words.
“Diana Der Hovanessian: Dispensing Grace” was originally published in Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers (Heyday Books, 2007). The Armenian Weekly will publish Der Hovanessian’s full obituary when it becomes available.