Diana Der- Hovanessian is the president of the venerable literary organization: The New England Poetry Club. Based in Cambridge, Mass., it was founded by Amy Lowell, Robert Frost and Conrad Aiken almost ninety years ago. Lowell's vision was to bring well-known poets to large audiences. In the 1960's through the 1980's the club became insular and provincial, with meetings held at the Brahmin enclaves of Beacon Hill and the Harvard Faculty Club. Der-Hovanessian changed this by inviting Russian poets such as: Andrei Voznesenky and Yevtushenko to read at the club. And since then scores of South American and Latin American Poets have visited and read there, as well as prominent American poets such as: Robert Creeley, X.J. Kennedy, Robert Pinsky, and many others. I spoke to Diana Der- Hovanessian on my Somerville Community Access TV show: Poet To Poet/Writer To Writer.
Doug Holder: How did you become involved with the club?
Diana Der-Hovanessian: I joined it when Victor Howes was running things. He asked me to be secretary. I said " I don't do shorthand." (laughs) He said: " No...No. Not that kind of secretary." So for eight years he had me do programming. I became president in 1980. It's been a long time
we are due for another election!
DH: Amy Lowell started the club. She was quite an eccentric character, wasn't she?
DDH: When I first went into the club we had people who actually knew her. They had interesting stories about the early days. She started the club in 1915, when she came back from England. She was under the influence of Imagists, like Ezra Pound. But Robert Frost and a group of Formalist poets took it away from her. Frost, who was the second or third president , got into big fights with the Imagists, in those days.
DH: Lowell's goal was to reach a large audience through poetry and poetry readings. Has this been your goal?
DDH: This vision of expansion had stopped for awhile when I came around. I felt like we should expand. Now we bring in name poets to make it more exciting. We also have our own members read. We also have free workshops for members.
DH: What is the mission of the Club?
DDH: To expand poetry. To bring people into the art. To show off the best. To be a forum for an exchange of ideas.
DH: Can you talk a bit about the poets who have read for you over the years?
DDH: We had an Irish festival some years ago with the help of Seamus Heaney, who is on our board. He brought a lot of poets from Ireland, like: Evan Boland. Some of the Club's other readers over the years have been: Robert Lowell, Robert Creeley Stanley Kunitz, James Merrill, to name just a few.
DH: Did you have a relationship with the Beat poets?
DDH: We did sponsor a reading by Allen Ginsberg. Once I went to the airport to meet a visiting poet, and Ginsberg was there with him. Ginsberg was wearing a tie. He told me that he was dressed up for the Club. I told him that he didn't have to do it. He turned his tie over and said" Brooks Brothers. I got it at Good Will."
DH: What do you think of the Slam poets and the Hip-Hoppers?
DDH: We had a program for them at the Boston Globe Book Festival. There was someone on the Globe who wanted it: Patricia Smith. I thought it was fun. I love the fact that they memorize their poems. I envy them. I could do that when I was young.
DH: Your are a respected poet in your own right. I believe you are a Fulbright Scholar, and have written extensively about the Armenian Holocaust. Can you talk about your education, and early influences?
DDH: I've been a Fulbright Scholar twice. I went to Boston University as an undergraduate. I studied with Robert Lowell at Harvard. I took his last workshop. It was really great. They said he wouldn't show up. But he did. He was there every single week. It was one hour of teaching poetry, and one hour of going over student poems.
I completed nine volumes of translations from the Armenian. I have always been interested in the Armenian Holocaust. When the Turks started the genocide against the Armenians in 1915 they started by murdering the leaders. You wouldn't think that poets were the leaders. But they started out by killing two hundred poets.
DH: How did you start the Longfellow House readings in Cambridge?
DDH: Erica Mumford was a board member. She and I were walking down Brattle St.. We looked over at the Longfellow House and said" Wouldn't this be a perfect place for a reading." We walked in and said: " Don't you want poetry too?" ( they had concerts) And they replied:" Sure, if you want to do it." And that's how it started. It's been going on for almost twenty five years now.
DH: Any plans for the 90th anniversary?
DDH: Depends on the funding. We want to bring our Golden Rose prize winners together for a big celebration. We are the oldest reading series in the country.