ARLINGTON, Mass. — On the afternoon of November 4, the award-winning late poet Diana Der Hovanessian was feted at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) by an enthusiastic audience of about 150 people in the manner that she would have appreciated: through poetry, family, food and friendship.
An array of people from Diana’s life as a friend, mother, aunt and fellow poet recited her poems while sharing stories about her warmth, hospitality and simultaneous love for her Armenian heritage and her cosmopolitan outlook.
Opening remarks were provided by ACF President Robert Mirak, who praised her for impeccable judgement and taste as a poet.
He also recalled that the ACF had honored her in that very room in 1999.
Der-Hovanessian, who during her life championed Armenian poetry, poems dear to her father — works by Daniel Varoujan, Vahan Tekeyan and Siamanto — as well as new poets, died in March at age 83.
She was the author of 30 books of poetry and translations, several plays, and twice was a Fulbright professor of American Poetry. She received awards from NEA, Poetry Society of America, PEN/Columbia Translation Center, National Writers Union, Armenian Writers Union, Paterson Poetry Center, Prairie Schooner, American Scholar, the Armenian Ministry of Culture, and many others too numerous to list. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Agni, Nation, the New York Times, CDM and the Paris Review. She was a graduate of Boston University and did graduate work at Harvard. She worked as a poet in the Massachusetts schools and frequently lectured on Armenian poetry in translation, and the literature of human rights at various universities both here and abroad.
The role of poetry, he explained, is to ask about feelings, understanding, “human to human, human to self and human to culture.”
Gibson later recited “Summer Street, Worcester” and “This Is for Zarif.” In the former, she captures her feelings as a child who could not speak English mixing with the neighborhood children in Worcester. In the latter, she paid homage to a mother who refused to give up information about her son during the Armenian Genocide even when tortured brutally.
Vivian Shipley, editor of the award-winning Connecticut Review, and Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor at Southern Connecticut State University, added yet another facet to Der Hovanessian.
“We had known each other for 40 years. She always insisted on cooking and made very elaborate meals. Diana understood that food was not just food but love,” she noted.
She also said that the late poet wanted to “raise her voice for all the people suffering who are persecuted.” She added, “We all walk in Diana’s light.”
Then, changing the narrative, she added that both she and Der Hovanessian were tremendous fans of Porsches. “We shared a love for speed and fast cars,” she said. “She had an impish sense of humor.”
Ani Arakelians, an Iranian-born Armenian computer programmer and business analyst who is in demand for her eloquent, soulful recitations of poetry in Armenian, recited four of Der Hovanessian’s poems that had been translated from English in Armenia.
Award winning writer and poet Askold Melnyczuk, founding editor of the Boston-based literary publication Agni and director of the Masters in Fine Arts Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, spoke about the late poet’s championing of the works of long-dead Armenian poets, whose names and sentiments were familiar to generations hundreds of years later and a continent away, “thanks to the genius of a Cantabrigian named Diana Der Hovanessian. … Diana was utterly of her time and [yet] carried lives from the past,” he said.
He stressed the importance of her particular skill, translating, suggesting that “good translators go unrecognized” but that “thanks to her, the New England Poetry Club become the most cosmopolitan” of its kind in the country.
“There are so many ways in which she was singular in the literary world,” he added.
The honoree’s daughter, Maro Dalley, looking striking like the late poet whose large photo was placed behind the dais, spoke of how Der Hovanessian was “just mommy to my sister and me.” She joked she thought as a child that banging on a typewriter and later on a computer keyboard at all hours of the night “was something all mommies do.”
She recited her poems “Daughter” and “At Twilight,” the latter about Der Hovanessian calling her daughters, Maro and Sona, home at twilight.
“Through them, we can still see with her eyes,” she said.
Historian, co-founder of the Armenian International Women’s Association and former editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Dr. Barbara Merguerian took to the stage to share memories of Der Hovanessian and also invited others to share memories of the poet.
She recalled that she first came across Der Hovanessian on the pages of the Christian Science Monitor and she invited her often to write for the Mirror-Spectator.
She recalled Der Hovanessian’s generosity when the late poet invited her to have lunch with her and William Saroyan when the late novelist was visiting her home in Cambridge.
“She was so open and so gracious,” Merguerian noted.
Later AIWA published her poetry collection The Other Voice: Armenian Women’s Poetry Through the Ages, in 2005.
“You couldn’t help respect who she was. Her loss is a tremendous one for so many of us,” she concluded.
Several people got up and spoke about her and how she had touched their loves, including her nephew, Anthony Pahigian.
In addition, a video clip was shown of a choral performance of her poem “Shifting the Sun,”set to music composed by Lee Kesselman.
In addition to the speakers, there were several tributes printed in the expanded program book, including from Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia and the board of the Writers’ Union of Armenia. All the poems recited were included in the booklet, as were biographical information about her, the extensive list of her publications as well as her awards.
The program was organized by the ACF, the New England Poetry Club, and co-sponsored by the Amaras Art Alliance, the New England chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, Armenian International Women’s Association, Armenian Museum of America, the Friends of the Longfellow House, Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, NAASR and the Tekeyan Cultural Association of the US and Canada.
A reception followed.