We are proud to (belatedly) present Diannely Antigua, our featured artist of April!
Diannely Antigua is a Dominican-American poet and educator born and raised in Massachusetts. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, where she won the Jack Kerouac Creative Writing Scholarship. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University and an Associate Poetry Editor for BOAAT. A Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Bodega Poetry Contest, her work appears or is forthcoming in Bodega, Day One, Vinyl, Rust + Moth, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.
Read a conversation between Diannely and Features Editor Nicholas Nichols below.
What is it about the poet, in their mood, that makes them “off” enough to write a poem?
Maybe it’s not every poet, but for me, my writing style and what drives me is this feeling of being unsatisfied, or things not being quite right. When I’m feeling good, I’m super busy, I’m running errands. But if I’m feeling a bit off, the world is a bit slower. And I have to take my time, and that’s when I really start thinking about poems. I start thinking about the world in a different way. The world freezes, but the world only freezes for me. And that is the space in which I function best as a poet. It’s probably because I started writing when I was nine, in a journal; I was writing these really personal things. And I think that's what drives some people to write, either something they’re upset about – growing pains, pressure in class, or if something bad happened that day – just heightened moments of feeling “not quite right” or “on top of the world, but in a scary way.”
That’s interesting. I like to think of this quote from Bob Kaufman, “Loneliness gains you discovery.” What do you think about the trope of the lonely artist?
I think that we are lonely people, or at least that I’m a lonely person, but not so much that I don’t have people that I hang out with, or that I don’t have friends: It’s more of an inner loneliness that I carry with me, regardless of whether I’m in a coffee shop by myself or in a coffee shop with a bunch of friends. I carry an inner loneliness (maybe other poets feel this as well but I only want to speak for myself here) I feel that I’m always in this weird lonely space. But it probably stems from feeling misunderstood in some ways. Even though, among the poetry community, we do feel understood, we understand that no one quite understands us, and that binds us together in a community. You know, I might not understand another person’s poem, or that person’s version of loneliness, but the fact that we’re both feeling something, in the same space or on the page, that’s what makes us a community. But it’s also about the work that you do individually, whether you’re alone at a desk or spacing out a little while in the company of friends, I think that’s a little inner work that needs to be done, and sometimes that can feel lonely.
In what sense does poetry fill you? How does art fulfill you?
For me, there’s definitely a joy in it, but I’m just going back to that inner work I do in writing. Though the subject matter of the poem may not be joyous, there’s a kind of euphoria at the end of writing a poem that’s just – I don’t get it at any other time – it only happens when I finish a poem. That’s how poetry fulfills me, there’s an intense work being done. It can be in a short space, like a sonnet, it can be in 14 lines, but there’s so much intensity packed in those 14 lines that at the end of it, it’s just like this breath you can let go of, and I’m in a different space when I finish. It’s euphoric, although sometimes it can be a little sad depending on the subject matter. But that’s how poetry fulfills me, I’ve accomplished something, and I can see it on the page. That’s important, to feel like I’ve made something.
There’s a quote by June Jordan that I really enjoy: “The first function of poetry is to tell the truth, to learn how to do that, to find what you really feel and what you really think.” In reference to that quote, did you find your truth and what did that process look like?
Have I found my truth and what does that process look like? I guess that, going back to when I was younger and the process of keeping of a journal, diary-writing, I think that writing has always equated truth. And it’s inescapable, when I’m writing, I can’t escape the truth. It’s very much there and apparent in every way, and that’s just how I’ve trained myself with writing. When I was writing, any time that my pen or pencil was hitting the page, that was because I was writing in my journal. And that was a place where I found it safe to be true to myself. I felt this intense need to be honest on the page because I grew up in a system where it was very difficult to be myself, and the space that a diary gave me was very much a safe haven, or a place where I wouldn’t be judged at all by what I had to say. And now, I’m a little more fearless. The things that I want to say, my truth, I’m not really afraid to say them anymore. So I don’t really journal as much as I did before because I think that my poems are just well-crafted journal entries. And I guess I lean on that to be my truth and the process of writing things down, has always been to produce truth. And I haven’t escaped that, I don’t want to, it’s just been that habit of “writing equals truth,” always.
Where are you from?
So I’m from Massachusetts, I was born and raised there, my family was really really religious, and it got to a point where we were in a system that was very controlling. And not that I think all religious systems are the same – because they’re not –
Which religion? If you feel comfortable answering that.
Of course. We referred to ourselves as non-denominational Christians, though the closest thing you could probably reference it to was Pentecostal, and again I say this only because this was my personal experience, not that all Christian churches are the same, or even Pentecostal churches, I respect everyone’s journey and their personal beliefs. And I guess I say that because I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m trying to take away anyone’s experience with religion. Although I grapple with faith, it’s something that stems from having been in a very organized and rigid system where almost all aspects of our lives were controlled. We could only listen to certain types of music, we had a dress code – I only wore skirts for an entire decade of my life – and I went to school at the church, we didn’t go to public school – so we were very much immersed in that system, and when I was younger I really enjoyed it, but as I got older it started to feel very much like a prison – and that’s why journal writing was extremely important to me. Otherwise I don’t have any idea how I would have survived that. I needed a space where I didn’t feel judged.
To add on that, the system had a lot of young people at one point, but all of them ended up leaving, and some of them got involved in questionable things later on just because they were coming from a very sheltered environment. When they were finally released into the world, it was really difficult for them. I can kind of relate it to Rumspringa, with Amish teenagers, it was very much like that for some people. For me it was more like a slow fade, and it was really difficult trying to navigate for a while, especially since my family was still involved for a few more years and I wasn’t. And now my family’s isn’t either, although they’re still religious and still go to church. But it’s not that same church, there’s not that pressure or control like the other church before. I’m sorry, that went somewhere.
No, it’s alright, we’re here to go places. I’m interested in your poem, “Diary Entry #1: Revisitation”, I really enjoyed that poem, particularly because we’re talking about God, I immediately jumped back and revisited that poem, where you said “God is / a nice guy.” Um, particularly, I love the fact that you enjamb the line at “God is” and create that tension, that’s where the stanza ends, and then leaps into the next stanza, “a nice guy, he suspects nothing.” And I really liked the irony of that line, that he suspects nothing because he knows everything. So speaking into the Judeo-Christian faith – this is a lofty question, but we’re going there – is God a merciful master?
Blame Gwendolyn Brooks, I was recently reading “The Preacher: Ruminates Behind The Sermon” and thought, Hm, this would be a good question.
I think that it’s a really complicated question. Growing up in church, we were very much taught about God’s wrath, and there was a lot of emphasis on that, but it was also counteracted with “he can be merciful, he can forgive”, but I guess in my church more emphasis was put on his wrath, that if we didn’t do things right, that we were going to Hell, so on and so forth. And I guess having that initial foundation of this demeanor, and thinking now, How do I think about God, is he a merciful master?
That’s a really complicated question with no “yes” or “no” answer. I mean, the premise of the question, makes me feel like I’m owned, that I’m not free at all, and that’s a problem, and I forget what book of the Bible it’s in or what verse it is in, but it talks about being a love slave and putting your ear to the doorpost, we talked about this all the time – like, if a slave really loved his master, he would stay and serve him for the rest of his life, and I think that’s the idea of, being God’s love slave, so he can basically brand you as his own, and you’ll serve him forever. For me, I don’t think that’s a merciful thing to do. I don’t think masters are merciful. If they were merciful, they would be a friend, a, you know, something that’s not “master.” Maybe it’s just that word that I don’t like, maybe if the word were, “shepherd,” I would be like, okay, yes, he is guiding us. So I think it’s really complicated, and that in itself, the duality of being a “merciful master,” is complicated. He can have mercy at times, but more importantly I don’t think I want to be owned.
[Ed. note: the referenced line appears in Exodus 21:5-6 and Deuteronomy 15:17.]
I think I’m very interested in, there was this video that popped up in we are mitú and the video was talking about complications in the Latino community, talking about Latinx… what does it mean to be Afro-Latinx today? What does it mean to be a proud Afro-Latinx woman?
Well I guess I’m going to speak for myself here, what it means to me, and I guess talk a tiny bit about my journey to accepting being Afro-Latina. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that there’s just so much internalized racism. It was really difficult growing up having to grapple with that and hating my brownness and hating my hair because it wasn’t straight, just really curly, an afro, and it was really difficult getting to a point where I could accept that. It definitely took a while for me to be a proud Afro-Latina. I think it started with accepting the Spanish language a bit more. I grew up in a bilingual household but English was my first language. I didn’t really speak much Spanish at home. Even though my mother would speak Spanish to me, I would reply in English.
When I got to college, during my undergraduate career, I decided to minor in Spanish. That was a really important step for me in my journey of getting out of this internalized racism bubble that I was in and later I ended up going to Spain and I felt very much involved with the culture especially knowing that my great grandfather came from Spain, from Seville where I had visited. It was one step of a pilgrimage that I wanted to complete. I haven’t been to the D.R. yet, and I want to go to the D.R., and I also want to go to Africa and visit that part of my ancestry. It’s important for me to accept all of those places as a part of me. I remember being taught not to be ashamed of the African side of me and that’s just so wrong and sad because I’m not just Latina, I’m Afro-Latina, that’s important for me to accept and for me to embrace too. I don’t just want to say I accept it, I embrace it. And it’s enriched my life.
Even too, my curly hair journey (that I could talk about for hours) but I did a big chop and I chopped all of my relaxed hair off when I got back from Spain and I was like “I’m not doing this anymore.” And I started this curly hair journey and I met these amazing people and these beautiful women with beautiful afros and I started learning how to take care of my own hair too. By learning how to take care of my hair, I started to learn how to love myself. That sounds really really cheesy, but embracing the Spanish language and then later my hair, those have been two really important things in my journey, and yeah I don’t know if you asked something else and I went somewhere and I don’t know what happened.
No, that’s okay. So you do know Spanish?
Yeah, I’m bilingual to the point where I can carry a conversation, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking Spanish, for instance, conducting business in Spanish, that makes me really nervous. I can have a conversation with someone about food or interests but outside of that I feel my vocabulary is limited. I also hate conjugating verbs. That’s the worst thing. I’m weak at that, especially when it comes to the future tense or the subjunctive, I fuck that up all the time. I’m definitely better than where I was before and that is a victory in itself.
Okay. Now, do you now being Afro-Latina – having, would you say, the full comfortability with Spanish – has the Latina side of you ever come in question by other Latinos, Latinas or Latinx people, and what have you done to encourage yourself and to rebuilt yourself to being able to say no, I have right to this heritage?
I think they are not quite sure if I’m Latina or not. They don’t really know unless they hear my last name, that kind of gives it away. But they just think that I’m black and that’s it. Or mixed race. Technically I am mixed race, I am black, I’m all of those things, but it’s really important that they know all of who I am, not just my afro, they’re like oh yeah, she’s black. But I also speak Spanish and my family comes from the Caribbean and Spain. That needs to be acknowledged.
I guess the way that I’ve solidified that with them is just saying, “hey, this is who I am, I am also all of this too.” I normally do that right off the bat if someone’s kind of confused. I get a lot of “what are you?” (what does that question even mean?) I hate that. But I try to make sure that I school them right away. And not only do I have to do that with other Latinx but also with the rest of the world, constantly having to identify myself to people. It can be both an empowering but also not quite so empowering moment. Since I’m not white, I need to constantly identify myself. Why can’t I just be a human today? Why do I constantly have to explain myself to people? That’s a hard place to be in, but at the same time it is important that all of my identities and all of my ancestry is accounted for. I’m insulted when people feel like they can invade my space for a moment just to ask me “what I am” or something. That’s not cool. But if someone is genuinely curious and wants to have a conversation with me, I can do that. At the same time, there needs to be respect. I’m also human, just like them, regardless of what race they are.
Why do you think it’s so easy for the arts to be turned away? Why do you think poetry isn’t valued by the people? Why do you think any time there’s a shift in power to what could be considered fascist, what could be considered overpowering to overreaching – why is it that an oppressive government always goes after the arts?
It kind of parallels what I said earlier about me writing because I was in a system that was really controlling. At that was my small rebellion, to create, and that’s the power that art holds, it can be wild, you can say anything. It can’t be regulated. I think that’s why when there is a new regime, that’s what they go after. They can’t regulate it in any other way other than to destroy it. Poetry and politics have been there forever. I don’t really write political poems, but I’m thinking of it in terms of Pablo Neruda, you know what I mean? There were amazing poets that voiced their opinions through their poetry and were later killed for it. The new regime is afraid of what we could say, of what we could potentially show. That’s why they want to get rid of it, that’s why they want to destroy it. Because we hold a kind of power that they can’t control unless it’s completely obliterated.
I’m gonna lighten up the mood, just a little bit. What’s the most stereotypical Dominican thing you do?
I dance bachata on the subway platform. I think that’s the most Dominican thing that I do regularly. I do it all the time. It’s impossible not to, if I listen it on my phone, or if I hear it in a passing car, I will automatically dance to it, my body will just move to that music automatically. I have no say over it, my body just does the thing.
Gotchu. This is a “versus” question, so be prepared. One of these has to go. Arroz con habichuelas or concón?
Oh fuck. I would get rid of the concón, honestly. The concon is really good, but concón is a byproduct of having made arroz, and if you end up not getting concón with the arroz then whatever, but like arroz con habichuelas has to stay. I need that at every meal, with meat and then plantains. Concón I can live without, I don’t need that. Though it’s fucking delicious, but no. I need my standard.
Tostones or mofongo?
These are tough questions. You’re not lightening the mood. You’re asking tougher questions. I think I would have to go with tostones because I love the texture and the salt. They are crispy and hot when you get them out of the pan. Yeah, that’s legit. And you can eat tostones with anything. You can dip them in your food. I ordered tostones the other day and it came with this garlic puree. I was like fuck, this is great. Tostones all the way.
This is going to be the last funny one. When you’re sick, Vicks VapoRub and Sprite, or sancocho?
Oh my god, no! This is the hardest question that you’ve asked me. Oh my god. The thing about Vicks VapoRub is that it feels so fucking good, and literally, when I’m sick and I can’t breathe, I need that shit on my chest. And I remember my mom would rub it on my chest for me when I was really little and I would be like “Mami, I can’t breathe.” And it was just such a nice feeling. Sprite is great, but I think I grew up more with Ginger ale. Ginger ale was the shit, and it didn’t even matter if I had a cold or if I had a stomach bug, it was always ginger ale when I was sick. I needed it for some reason. And then sancocho, I don’t know what I would do without sancocho. I haven’t had it in a while, but it has so much good shit in there. It can have platanos, and it can have yucca, pork, chicken, it can have all sorts of fucking different meats in there, and it’s served with a side of rice, and it’s just amazing. I think I’m gonna go for the sancocho. I’m hungry, I get hungry. The Vicks VapoRub has to go unfortunately, because the sancocho is life.
I love how these questions are harder for you. And I lied, I’m gonna ask another one. If you had to share the last slice of Dominican cake with a writer that you love who would it be?
That’s so cute. I have two people that I’m thinking of, and maybe I’ll narrow it down. It would be amazing to share a slice of Dominican cake with Junot Díaz, we would love it. We would laugh about it, we would lick the plate. It would be fun to eat a slice of Dominican cake with another Dominican, but at the same the time I’m thinking of Sharon Olds and how she would probably talk about how amazing it is in her sweet voice and make all these mannerisms. She’s just a goddess and so kind and she would appreciate every fucking bite, I know she would. And you know, I’m gonna pick Sharon Olds because she probably hasn’t eaten as much Dominican cake as Junot Díaz and I wanna give her that experience.
Fair enough. Cultural diffusion, cultural diffusion. So we brought up Ms. Olds, we brought us Sharon. If you could talk a little bit about your experience being at NYU for the master’s program, and in particular if you can discuss how being in the program has influenced you as a writer and as a person.
Oh wow, I could sit here and say so many different things, but I think I’ll start with Sharon because that’s where I last was. So, Sharon Olds, just considering her poetry and how she writes about everything. She has no shame. She will write about the pope’s penis. And I’m like yes, I love it. Or write these poems about her father, or her “Ode to a Tampon”, she’s amazing. I had her for my first semester workshop and I really needed to be in that class my first year because I needed to feel as though anything that I wrote about was okay. And because chances were Sharon had already written about it. She has already paved the way for these types of poems, especially when it comes to female sexuality. She has just been the pioneer and she made me feel unafraid to write about everything and to really embrace it. Especially considering that she came from a Calvinist background, and that was a difficult for her, and I could relate to her on that level, and her poetry. While at NYU, it was the first time I ever wrote about church experiences. I had never written a poem about church before until I got there. I took that first church poem to office hours with Sharon Olds and she said encouraging things about it and gave me some good feedback. I truly needed that, and now I write a lot of poems about church. I explore that topic a lot, and I’m not afraid to write about it. She gave me permission to do certain things.
And then the program as a whole, my cohort is amazing. Every single person is so talented, and everyone writes so differently. There’s one poet, he’s basically a scholar of T.S. Eliot, he knows everything about T.S. Eliot, he’s always talking about him, and a lot of his work is influenced by him, and he actually has an M.A. in Modern Literature. But amazing. And then, there is another poet who is more experimental, and her poems are scattered all over the page, and they’re vulnerable, and they go to these strange beautiful places and I admire that about her work. Everyone’s so different and I needed to be exposed to all of that because I hadn’t had that opportunity before. When I got my undergraduate degree in English, there was a writing option, but there wasn’t a creative writing degree at the time, and the community wasn’t as strong there. So I felt a bit lost, but when I got to NYU, I felt very much a part of the community and that I could learn from everyone. And that’s been so valuable.
Quoting one of Sharon’s poems, “Ode to the Hymen”, there’s a line, “how many places in the body were made to be destroyed once?” And then it makes me think of your poem, “Diary Entry #16: Dysmorphia” This stanza:
I think it was
my vagina’s fault, the space in between us,
the pink angel in my anus, how it spoke
like a donkey, a dream-speak before it died.
That’s when my lover made me bleed
for the second time, in his car by the Triana Bridge.
This idea of female sexuality being embraced, Was it necessarily Sharon Olds that got you to speak about female sexuality because it appears in your work regularly. Also, the way that the female body is presented in your work that’s reminiscent of Sharon is this violence, this perpetrated violence upon you either by language or by physical violence or by religion, and then it feels like the work is this reclamation, this retaking of what is your sexuality, this retaking of the mind, this retaking of the womb, this retaking of the pussy, of the vagina. Can you speak more on to how Sharon inspired you to write about sexuality and if she is the inspiration behind that poem, or what was inspiration behind that?
Behind this particular poem or in general?
Okay, I definitely feel like Sharon Olds influenced me to feel more comfortable writing about sexuality especially since it was something that was very taboo for me growing up. We were not supposed to talk about sex. You were supposed to save yourself for marriage and there was a dating order and you would go on chaperoned dates but you weren’t allowed to touch the other person. You know? So for me, sexuality has been very much of a discovery and I think for Sharon Olds as well. I like following the journey within her poems, when she talks about losing her virginity and then also later on reading poems about her and her marriage and how she expressed her sexuality then, in those poems. That’s very much had an influence on me and I’ve felt more comfortable with writing about my own sexual experiences.
This particular poem, to speak more about these diary entry poems, they’re actually collage poems that I write using diaries from past. So Diary Entry #16: Dysmorphia comes from my 16th journal. I just collect lines from that particular journal, and I use that as my material in order to write poems. I can manipulate the lines however I want to in the sense that I can change pronouns, I can make verbs past tense, I can cut up the lines, but my end goal is to produce a poem that doesn’t necessarily tell a narrative truth or autobiographical truth, but one that holds some type of emotional truth. Just considering some of my own life experiences, a lot of times sexuality is in relation to trauma and violence. So, that does come up in my poems a lot. And I think the act of writing them and also rewriting what I’ve already written, and appropriating my own language is a way to reclaim that, and to reclaim my sexuality and my body as my own.
Interestingly enough you said that it’s never about an autobiographical truth, it’s more about an emotional truth. Where does the poet end and the narrator begin?
In my own work?
In your own work, yeah.
Outside of these diary entry poems, my poems are very much autobiographical. Though again, I kind of skim the surface of truth in these diary entry poems. I can read some of these poems and be say this is basically what happened, but I change some of it. Even “Dysmorphia” and the mention of the Triana Bridge, I know that memory, I have it in my head, and not that it happened that way at all, but to me it holds all of the emotional truth from that occurrence, though it has nothing to necessarily do with how the poem plays out. Your original question was where does the poet begin and the narrator end, or…?
We can broaden the question if you like. In poetry alone, where do you feel is the line where the poet ends and narrator begins. Where is that line drawn, how is that line drawn?
And the difference between poet and narrator being, like just narrating a life and the poet creating something out of it, is that what you’re suggesting?
I think they’re next door neighbors, poet and narrator. Especially for me, because I started writing fiction before I started writing poetry. I was very much about writing a narrative and telling a story. And then I got really involved in personal writing and memoir writing. I was writing a memoir for a while in my undergrad, but I was also using poetry as a companion to the memoir. I think they live side by side. More recently, I’ve been trying to step away from things that are too narrative, or things that are too close to me in the sense that I’ve given myself more permission to play, to change things, to imagine things rather than just sticking to truth or the actual story. When the poem needs to go elsewhere, the poet needs to take it there regardless of what the actual story was, and it needs to be in service of the poem. If I’m writing the poem, I’m not just telling the story to a friend at a café. The poet doesn’t need to be there at the café telling the story to a friend.
But the poet needs to be there if it’s time to write a poem, and sometimes telling a story exactly as it was is not in service to the actual poem. And that’s where the line – what’s going to be better for the poem, the truth or taking it somewhere else. And sometimes for me, depending on what the story is, I think I need to stick to the truth because it’s a story I’m particularly close to. But if I’m not attached so much to the story, I let myself go somewhere else. A lot of the time when I go somewhere else, I actually discover something that I didn’t think was there before. A hidden truth. That’s an interesting place to be in, when you end up writing about something that you’ve never written about but you have felt it the whole time. You’re like, “fuck, I can’t believe I just wrote about that, but that’s true.” You know?