Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. She received her BA in English from the University of Massachusetts Lowell where she won the Jack Kerouac Creative Writing Scholarship, and received her MFA in poetry from NYU, where she was awarded a Global Research Initiative Fellowship to Florence, Italy. She is the recipient of additional fellowships from CantoMundo, Community of Writers, and the Fine Arts Work Center Summer Program. Her work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her book Ugly Music was chosen for the YesYes Books 2017 Pamet River Prize. Her poems can be found in Washington Square Review, Bennington Review, The Adroit Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Her heart is in Brooklyn.
Stephanie Trott: One of the early poems in your collection, “Re-Education,” speaks to the continuously growing but ever-existent work of women reclaiming our bodies in the face of harm, whether that’s at the claws of others or our own two hands. It’s something we’ve been doing for centuries and unfortunately an undertaking that will more than likely outlive us. Where do you see your responsibility as a poet in this continuing work, especially when the resolution is so far beyond what we might see realized in our own lifetimes?
Diannely Antigua: My responsibility as a poet lies in my being truthful to my story and truthful to what my body has experienced. I believe that’s the first step. It’s taken some time—years of therapy, maturing, and becoming a woman who’s learned to grapple with these traumatic experiences. The second part for me has been a reclamation of these events in the public practice of publishing these poems. The act of writing is my personal healing. I don’t believe everyone’s journey to healing needs to include an audience. However, having been silent for decades, part of my healing consists of bringing these private matters to the forefront. As we are seeing reflected in the media, one of the main issues is that victims of abuse haven’t been given the space to freely talk about their trauma. Poetry gives me that space, I give myself that space, and I feel fortunate that this book gives me that space as well.
In addition to reclaiming my experiences, I also have a responsibility to take care of my own body. In these poems I put the speaker’s body—which often is my body—in compromising situations, as a retelling of these traumatic events. As a general practice after writing these poems, I give myself adequate time to reckon with these emotions. By sharing my experiences through this book, especially with other women, I’m opening the door to these difficult conversations. My responsibility lies in the hope that people can see my book as just one example of this journey, and that they in turn can feel comfortable talking about their own stories and begin their process of healing, in whatever form feels best and healthy.
ST: Some of the non-English words you use in your poems are italicized, while others are featured in roman (plain face) typesetting; it seems that many authors who write in multiple languages favor the choice of one or the other, and I’m curious to learn why you write with both.
DA: I used to be in the camp of italicizing anything that wasn’t English. That was what I learned in my grammar class. Similarly, I grew up reading poems by Julia Alvarez, who would also italicize Spanish in her poetry. And then in my MFA program at NYU, another Latinx poet in my workshop asked me, “Why are you italicizing the Spanish words in your poems?” she explained how italicizing the Spanish words made them inferior to the English, marking them as other. It wasn’t until then that I began to understand. From that moment, I stopped italicizing the Spanish words in my poems. As someone who identifies as bilingual, I want to make sure that I always honor and respect my mother tongue.
The moments where the Spanish is italicized are moments of dialogue, and I stick to that very strictly. When someone is speaking, I always italicize regardless of the language; for instance, the poem “Misconception” has Spanish that’s italicized when my mother is singing a song from church that day. But in the first couplet of the poem that reads, “It was Sunday and my mother was washing dishes / after dinner, scraping con-con from the bottom / of the rice pot,” the con-con (which is Spanish for the crust that collects at the bottom of the rice pot and honestly one of my favorite things about making rice) is not italicized because it’s not dialogue. I want both languages to fit freely on the page just the same as they do on my tongue.
ST: I’m a big believer in the economy of language, and you completely had me at the at the line “You climb a mountain with two fingers” when describing the quiet but persistent pursuit of pleasure in a place that serves as its antithesis. Seven words tell us everything about that momentary physical endeavor, but also that which is more prolonged and internal. As you’re drafting, how do you balance showing with telling, shine with simplicity, glitter with grit?
DA: I think it comes with learning how to praise things. I’m so attracted to the mundane. It’s all over my poems. I talk about McDonald’s, I talk about burritos; it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s probably in this book. In the poem “Mistakes,” I write, “Today I texted a man I used to love and asked him out / for drinks, forgot to fill in my eyebrows / ate a bag of dill pickle chips and fell asleep. / There’s a music in this failure.” And I think that’s the idea, that there’s music in everything. There’s music in the mundane, there’s music in flowery language, too, and all of them have their place in poetry. I enjoy the high and the low, mixing them together. And I believe this literary practice of praise comes from being in the religious practice of praise. I was just a kid when I started reading the Bible, the Authorized King James Version. I was memorizing these scriptures, such high language for a child, but I was appreciating the way those words flowed, their cadence. I can still quote Psalm 23, and I’m sure it’ll stay with me until the day I die. It’s become a part of me, and I bring that to my poetry.
As you mentioned, there is a lot of grit in my work, probably because a lot of gritty things happened in my life against the backdrop of this glittery religious system. It’s a balance that comes naturally, trying to be both an earthly and spiritual being, to reckon with humanity and heaven in the same line.
My thesis advisor, Catherine Barnett, who also lovingly blurbed this book, described my poetry as a “dignified depravity.” Never throughout my entire time writing poems have I had someone describe my poetry, in just two words, exactly as it is. She said it so beautifully and precise that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
ST: There’s such a musicality to your work, as you said earlier, which at times references to or leads with work from other artists. Do you listen to anything before or while you write?
DA: It’s a combination. Sometimes, it just depends on whether I need music. The first poem in the book, “Self Portrait as Nostalgia,” was specifically written to music. A group of friends that I met at Community of Writers [at Squaw Valley] over the summer in 2016 decided to continue working together after our retreat. Each week one of us was responsible for coming up with a prompt. So, one week my friend, Bailey, gave us a song, “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi,” by French musician and composer Yann Tierson. It’s one of the songs in the French film Amélie. I hadn’t watched the movie, at least not yet, but Bailey sent a YouTube video of the song being played on piano. And I just fell in love with it. The prompt was to write a poem influenced by this music, so I intentionally wrote the poem while listening to it. That’s why the structure of the poem is scattered all over the page. I wanted it to represent the way hands move on a piano, the flow from one note to another. Initially, the song brought so many feelings of nostalgia and sadness. It was otherworldly how easily I felt led by the music.
Although I wouldn’t call myself a musician, my poetry has been heavily influenced by musical terminology. In church, I was the leader of the girls’ singing group and also started playing the flute when I was 11. So the language of music comes naturally to me because I was exposed to it at a young age. Similarly, the Bible speaks often of music. And biblical language just creeps into my poems anyway. Music is everywhere in this collection, even in the way I structured the book.
ST: What made you choose to section the collection based on a song’s structure (verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro)?
DA: First, I wanted to keep with the theme of music. That was part of it, but I guess in a less gimmicky way, it allowed me to develop a narrative, especially when it came to the bridge section. This section is a little bit different from all of the others. The bridge shifts the focus ever so slightly outward with poems about my grandmother, about religion, my culture, my Latinidad but outside of my immediate experiences. I wanted moments in the book that reached outside of the speaker’s psyche, establishing a historical place for these poems.
With the outro, I wanted it to be both dramatic but also reassuring. My book really should have a disclaimer or a trigger warning; I do write a lot about mental illness, suicide, physical abuse, sexual abuse . . . this is a heavy book. Because of this, I wanted the outro to reassure the reader that the speaker is, that I am, okay. For instance, in the poem “Variations on a Theme,” I try to explain these moments of acceptance, this learning to live, these moments of forgiving oneself in spite of and as a result of traumatic events. It was important that this poem fall somewhere at the end because of the journey needed to get to this point. I’ve gone through this journey, as debilitating and painful as it was, and I’m still here, truly a survivor. And I’m honoring that survival. I didn’t want to leave the reader in a completely dark place. I knew how necessary it is, that little bit of light.
ST: So many of our experiences—though unique to us—can be shared and empathetically claimed by others. But often the stories of our origin, where our families are from and what struggles led to our inevitable birth, are more complex. In your poem “Immigration Story,” you write about Elián González and close with the line “And I have never visited the island I’m from. / And I feel like a bitch. / Because all I did was read a story / and retell it on this page.” When others’ lived experiences are in some way a part of our history but not necessarily our own linear story, where do we get to claim kinship without claiming story?
DA: There’s a kinship in that there are similarities—our heritage, our ancestry—but I don’t share the journey of immigration. I was born here. However, my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents, have their own immigration stories. I do feel that our families’ and our ancestors’ lived experiences are passed on to us genetically (this is called epigenetics), especially when those experiences are traumatic and still shape our present world. Considering the current political climate of the United States, it’s hard not to be traumatized by what’s going on. Even though I am a U. S. citizen, there are people in my life who aren’t. I can’t claim the immigration story in the sense that I’ve lived it, but I can say that I’ve seen what an experience like that have on family.
It breaks my heart when I think about it, but I can never claim it as my own. I come to that conclusion at the end of the poem, where all I can do is retell the stories I’ve heard onto the page.
ST: Your collection had an early-release debut at this year’s AWP and sold out—congratulations! This speaks not only of the necessity for and strength of your work but also of the necessity for a writing community. Where do you work to support other writers, and how do you stay a part of it in a time when most of us are creating independently while staying connected through screens?
DA: I kind of live in poetry isolation, at least where I am geographically. I don’t feel as though I have an active poetry community here. It’s been a bit more challenging to find the diverse group of voices that is such an important part of my needs as a poet and individual.
So I’m having to look elsewhere for a community. And AWP is a beautiful place to support other writers and poets. And I was fortunate to have my book debut there. Even at the YesYes Books table, there was so much book love going on: “Sign my copy of your book!” and “No, no, sign my copy of your book!” My press siblings are such talented and compassionate humans and writers. I know attending AWP isn’t a possibility for everyone, and it’s definitely not a possibility for me every year, but it’s a great place to get a concentrated amount of support from my peers. We really do care about each other’s work and champion each other in a genuine way.
I do find that I interact and am able to support other writers online, more than anything else. Whether it’s a retweet of a poem written by a friend or former classmate, or encouraging each other to submit work to magazines or prizes, the Internet has been vital to my survival as a poet. I am still very much in contact with my cohort and other alums of NYU’s Creative Writing Program. We’re a very supportive group of writers, always willing to help propel each other forward.
I’d be remiss to not mention CantoMundo, which is a fantastic community of Latinx poets who have been such an essential part of my literary growth. I became a fellow last year and went to the retreat in New York, and this year I’ll be going again. It’s the tenth anniversary, actually, and I’m so honored that I’m going to be there to celebrate with them. We support each other not only in a literary way but also in an emotional way; a lot of our opening and closing circles have been cleansing. So many good tears. And dancing. Beautiful dancing. This community has been such safe space for me.
Community of Writers [At Squaw Valley] is another group that has lifted me up. Sharon Olds is part of the founding faculty and she’s worked hard to facilitate a space that truly feels like a family. As I mentioned, I still keep in contact with some of the fellows and have maintained ways in which to still generate work and provide feedback. Without these different groups of writers, I’d be so lost. I’m grateful to have so many generous people in my corner.
ST: As I’ve grown throughout my own life, my idea of home has changed dramatically. It used to be limited to the house I grew up in, where my parents still live, and to some extent it always will be. But I’ve moved a bit and collected people and things and memories along the way, and now home is more wherever I’m able to write and find something good to eat, where my partner is and where I can keep some of my books. It’s not limited to a coastline or a map’s boundaries. For you now, what, where, or who is home?
DA: I’ve definitely struggled with the idea of home throughout my life, which becomes evident in my poetry. Even in my bio, it says my heart’s in Brooklyn, but I don’t live in Brooklyn. I’ve found homes in places and people who have contributed to my growth at different moments in my life. My mother is home, automatically. Not necessarily the space in which she lives, but she herself is home. Through the years, I’ve had other places that I’ve considered home. As an undergraduate, I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain. My great-grandfather was also from Sevilla, so it was also an ancestral type of coming home. Sevilla raised me, I was twenty-one at the time, and I had never even been drunk before, I was still a virgin. Sevilla let me grow in ways that were impossible to do back in Massachusetts, the fog of the religious system settling over everything. I needed to get away from that, and Sevilla was the home to run to. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I felt a deep love for another city. It was a different part of my growth, an intellectual and literary growth. I still consider myself a poetry baby, but I really was then. I remember my first semester of my MFA workshopping the poem “Misconception,” and thinking, Okay, I can do poetry. NYU and New York quickly became a home for me, and along the way I found a home in other people. And I’ve found homes in partners that I’ve loved as they’ve cycled in and out of my life.
In the second section of “Diary Entry #14: Navigating,” I write, “I tell myself / I would do a lot of things / if only I were asked. To share / my bed with one person / I wouldn’t have to pack my bags / with toilet paper and soap.” This poem embodies the idea of being a wanderer, a vagabond, having to move different places to find a home. And I still think that I live in that space. As much as my mother is my home and she does live close by, there’s still a struggle to find something that truly feels like home. I don’t have a long term partner at the moment, but I would like to think that I wouldn’t need a partner to create a home. I’m in a transitional part of my life in which nothing is quite set in stone. My next home could be anywhere, which is a beautiful realization. The idea that I don’t belong to anything, or to a space, but I can enter and exit homes, metaphorical ones, as I wish—that is an empowering thought. Wherever I am is home. I’d like to get to the place where I genuinely believe that. But for now this book is a home, for these poems and for the part of me that at one point felt so neglected and discarded. There’s a home for them in this weird little book, and I built it.
ST: Where do you hope these poems will travel? Who they’ll reach? What effect they’ll have?
DA: Geographically, I think this book will travel to quite a few places, to the places I’ve loved—Spain, Italy, New York. And it will travel to the places where my loved ones choose to carry it. But more than anything, I’m hoping my book will be a catalyst for conversation (especially about sensitive topics, like mental health, physical and sexual abuse) where a conversation once felt impossible, because there was a time when I, too, felt those types of conversations were impossible.
I didn’t think that I could share these particular stories with anyone. I’ve been writing in journals since I was nine and that’s the only place where I kept these stories, and even then they were coded. Sometimes I would just use the pronoun he and I wouldn’t even name who the he was, but reading it I knew who it was. It was a way to protect myself from any type of retaliation.
Even within my own family, it’s allowed me to have a more open dialogue about particular events in my life and in our communal life. So far the results have been positive, but I know that might not always be the case with everyone. Maybe this book will be someone else’s home, too. That someone can find a kinship in these poems—the work, the words, the music of it, its ugliness and strangeness—that someone feels comfortable in that space. That would be the ideal effect, that someone says, I belong in here, I live in here, too.
ST: There are so many sayings that exist about ugliness, that it goes straight to the bone and it can’t describe something physical but rather a behavior or attitude. To you, what makes something ugly, and where—if it’s possible—is the reclamation of beauty?
DA: You have to define what beauty is. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does that mean ugliness is, too? Probably, to some extent. Ugliness, for me, has always been the opposite of something desirable, or at least what I learned was desirable. Depending on the period of my life, different things were desirable. If we’re talking about when I was eleven years old and still going to church, what was desirable was plainness. No makeup, no piercings, skirt basically to the floor and shirt past the elbows. That was beauty, that was what was revered. And then the opposite of that is everything that I’ve become. So, right now I am ugly in comparison to what I learned. And I love this ugliness that I have. It is something I’ve worked so hard for, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel that I’ve worked hard for the nose ring I wear or the MAC makeup I put on. I’ve worked hard for wearing ripped jeans and a dirty T-shirt. It’s such an ugly beauty, both of them so convoluted in their definitions and appearances in my brain. Everything is so braided into itself. And it truly always comes back to praise, what I want to revere in my life, and what I want to revere in these poems. And the things that I find in these poems to be the most beautiful are in fact gritty and ugly, unexpectedly beautiful. That’s my definition of ugly: unexpectedly beautiful.