Monday, February 05, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Diana Arterian

Diana Arterian is the author of Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, 2017), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press, 2017), Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), and co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2016). A Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, her creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Banff Centre, Caldera, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo, and her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Asymptote, BOMBBlack Warrior Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Born and raised in Arizona, she currently resides in Los Angeles where she is a doctoral candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. 

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book-length poetry manuscript, Playing Monster :: Seiche (just out of 1913 Press), has changed my life in that it is a kind of memoir in verse. To have a life story—or at least a childhood story and its reverberations into events from adulthood—out in the world and available to strangers to read, consider, and respond to is thrilling and a little terrifying. Thus far those responses have been with keen understanding of my intentions, and often in ways that are thought-provoking for me. Playing Monster :: Seiche has also given those close to me greater insight into my past. My first chapbook, Death Centos, came out from Ugly Duckling in 2013. It was accepted in 2011, which was right after I finished my MFA, only a few journal publication credits to my name. As someone who recognized UDP’s valuable contributions to publishing, it was immensely affirming to me at a time when I was mostly getting rejections and muddling through the beginnings of an understanding of my creative work. These two works are different in that Death Centos is entirely found-text/conceptual, and Playing Monster :: Seiche has only a handful of found-text pieces. The chapbook was a kind of peering into the unknown of death, seeing what those at its precipice might be able to tell us (whether on a death-bed or killed by a governmental power), while the full-length book is trying to hold multiple tethers through first-person poems regarding abuse and violence. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think, like so many, I started penning some unsteady verse as an angst-ridden teenager. The page was a place to set my feelings. And poetry to me, more than other genres at that time, was a space to explore the messiest of feelings without the strictures of narrative or greater meaning beyond teenage solipsism. It also doesn’t involve the consistency of journaling, or garner the attention of a prying sibling’s eye. My siblings and I read each other’s diaries all-too-often in my house when we were growing up—we’re all experienced heart-shaped lock pickers by now. I have since deeply embraced nonfiction, particularly autotheory, too. Fiction and plays continue to elude me, but you can’t have everything.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
This largely depends on what is happening in my personal life, and the path of the work. If I am enjoying some quietude—which feels rare these days—I can indeed return to my desk daily and pen work. This can come like a torrent, if I’m lucky. More often than not those torrents come with the daily practice, reminding your mind and body that this is the time to write. Right now things feel particularly hectic, so my writing involves me scribbling on any paper I can find, throwing it in a drawer, and hoping I will be able to stitch it together later. Another manuscript-in-progress, which I’ll address farther down, has involved an incredible amount of notes and research. I have written out chronologies and family trees, filled notebooks. It’s a lot. The poems in Playing Monster :: Seiche did indeed come quickly, as they were two prongs of the same life story, and written with a spare quality that is simultaneously difficult and quick. Once you get in the rhythm of that mode, your diction becomes exacting, and it flows out. 

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m always working on a manuscript from the get-go. Years ago, I tried to buck the book-length poem. It is difficult to place one or two poems in a journal when they are a small fragment of a larger picture. This used to feel more important to me than it does today. Despite my best efforts, I fell back into the long poem. I find myself in remarkably happy company of so many poets (more and more, it seems) who are writing book-length work, work where the poems are making something greater through accretion. This is not to denigrate the power or importance of poems that operate as discrete pieces, but I have found I am not often that kind of poet.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Having the ability to proclaim, This is my art, and I hope it is for you, is roughly how I feel when I read. I have done readings before a group of strangers, and it is amazing when some of those strangers have suddenly shifted out of strangers into those connected to you. I have only read from Playing Monster :: Seiche at my book launch so far, so I’m curious how it will land elsewhere. Writing can feel like a lonely life, so that public engagement is often vitally important to me. I’m also a curator of a reading series, and organizing readings is an immense joy—particularly when so many people (readers and audience members alike) respond with gratitude for the labor of assembling performers for the community. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Generally theories of trauma and witness circle me, and I’m trying to learn to get used to those ghosts rather than shoo them away. As far as I can tell, they will continue to define my writing—at least for the next few manuscripts on the horizon. The concern that dogs Playing Monster :: Seiche, and made me consider abandoning any attempts at publication for a while, is the idea that it is a painful story. Why publish something as difficult as the reality of profound child abuse and, later, stalking? The cycle that so many of us artists remain within seems to be that pain/trauma leads to artistic production. While I hope to quit that circuit, somehow, though the means to do so haven’t revealed themselves to me—yet. 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? 
Writers, no matter the form, are attempting to shine a light on what is important to them, what has inspired creative production (rage, alienation, joy, etc.). That is an incredibly urgent role, as it gives us insight into the events in people’s lives, even if only obliquely. It gives us an understanding of those different than us, those similar us. It is a means for connection, as well as a reflection of our current moment. 

One of the greatest benefits of being a poet in the United States is you have relatively free reign in your form with little impact on your income. This is largely because only a small percentage make serious money on our craft. We are also a small subculture and generally considered weird (in a good way, to me). Not being deeply entwined within the capitalist system gives us a lot of freedom—though of course financial restriction is no small constraint. But the lack of concern about not getting a big book deal or saying something that will alienate a huge fan base gives us a lot of liberty. Many of us lean into that. That said, I give deep bows to the writers who, when they are given the attention that reaches outside the literary community, use it to inform people about the issues most important to them and of which many may be ignorant. Perhaps one of the most famous is when last year Lin-Manuel Miranda (who I consider to be a writer) made a plea to Congress regarding Puerto Rico’s financial struggles. More recently I’ve seen Viet Thanh Nguyen and Robin Coste Lewis (among many others) use their fame as means to raise awareness about the danger of travel bans or nuances of brain injury.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with someone who is generous enough to provide me editorial notes is a joy. This is often not only faculty, but those I have the honor of calling my friends. It feels thoroughly essential most of the time. I am a flexible writer and eager to see another’s responses to my work. I’m also an editor at Noemi Press, so as a person with some practice in the editorial process and methods I find it telling that the work I need to do to finish a manuscript still eludes me. Smart, objective eyes can make a work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I have a phrase I return to a lot: Honor your limits. I’m not sure if it was given to me or my mind proffered it up. I think, as someone who is a serial over-worker, it is hard advice to heed. Also, in terms of creative and life work: Follow the heat. Don’t let that which feels exciting grow cold! Pursue it at breakneck speed, if you can. These can read as opposing prompts, but you can do both, I think.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving between genres is indeed one that feels uncomplicated, and my best mornings involve a little of each. I think the appeal is that, while they all seem to turn on the same curiosity within me, they do so differently. When I begin to feel sapped with my poetry, say, I can pull out pages from my critical work. It’s a means of letting my brain remain engaged without becoming exhausted. Beyond this, each provides an alternative method of grappling with the issues I want to write about—they can operate so differently, and thus provide similarly different tools to turn those concerns over and over.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Usually my weekdays start early with some exercise and a few other things before I prepare a cup of tea and sit at my desk. Once there, I work for as many hours as I can until snacks aren’t enough to sustain me, my brain is tired, and I’m ready for a break. This usually lasts about four hours, give or take. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? 
My bookshelf. I have so many new books to read, and this often helps. If those works throw me deeper into despair (which happens now and then), I return to the books that have inspired me time and again. Also discussions with those friends who are incredible writers and thinkers—often if I chat with one or two of them for an afternoon I’m all lit up again. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
They say your olfactory senses are the most deeply connected to memory, but this feels a little hard to pin down—usually it’s clear only when some random scent wafts my way. Pine needles in the sun certainly remind me of Arizona, as we had a pine tree in our yard. Overall, it’s probably any number of laundry detergents I have used/have been used on my clothing from childhood. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My creative endeavors do certainly come from other literature, but current events and social interaction feed a lot of it, too. The other forms are valuable in ways that are perhaps less clear to me in terms of art production, but I interact with them a lot (particularly nature, music, and visual art).

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Maggie Nelson was my mentor during my MFA, which was a total gift of fate. Her patience, thoughtfulness, and overall approach to editing my work has been undeniably important. Her writing, and her ability to move between scholarship and hybrid writing is of course something so many of us aspire to emulate. Alice Notley’s work, particularly The Descent of Alette, made me completely rethink how poetry can operate on a grand scale, and it remains one of my desert island books. Gwendolyn Brooks’ writing, which only relatively recently found its way to me, has similarly given me paradigm-shifting insight into the power of form, the line, and diction. I want to avoid giving all the names of those within my expanding tribe of poet friends, so many of whom have ascended in remarkable and deserving ways. But our conversations, their work, and the work we do for each other is essential.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Complete my dissertation and my doctorate! That may feel a bit too much of a goal based in reality (and likely). Otherwise to fully learn a second language. I am (shamefully) a monoglot, with only a smattering of abilities in a couple languages to get by when I travel. 

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Certainly a librarian or someone who does archival work—what includes books and history. Trying to preserve in order to open up access to knowledge and information. I sometimes pine for this line of work, still. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I began my college career as a classical violinist, only to soon suffer from severe repetitive motion injuries. I had to leave music school, and picked up random classes at the university that appealed to me for one reason or another—including an introduction to poetry class. I got the bug.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? 
I think “great” is a hard term to wrap my head around in some ways (perhaps because it holds so many meanings). The most recent book of poetry I’ve read that floored me is CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death—like Conrad’s other works it is immensely exposing and miraculous and invites you to challenge yourself as a poet and art creator. I think it may be my favorite work of his, second only to Book of Frank. I wrote my responses to your questions while on a plane, so I finally had the time to sit and watch Birdman, which has been on my list a long while. I love Iñárritu’s films. They’re gorgeous and horrible—an unflinching eye on who we are when we’re alone and when we’re with others, with a flash of the phantasmagorical only once you’ve forgotten it exists in the worlds he creates.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Currently my poems are a manuscript about the Roman historical figure Agrippina the Younger. She was empress for a time, and used her son Nero as a prosthetic to allow her total control of the empire when he was later the Emperor. She did a lot of manipulating and (some argue) murdering and fucking to get herself to that position of power. While Agrippina was undoubtedly an important person in the history of Rome, there isn’t much about her life in the Ancient Roman historical documents, and often those historians were biased against her. I am trying to consider the events of her life, known and unknown, as well as my own experiences trying to research someone as elusive as herself. There is a lot of play in Agrippina’s biographical gaps, and the first-person pieces are hybrid bits about me moving around in Rome trying to locate different places and objects to see her more clearly.


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