The resonance continues: From the constellation of Diana Arterian

Two black holes merge into one. Credit: the SXS Project.
Two black holes merge into one. Credit: the SXS Project. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

If you work with words anywhere within a thousand miles of Los Angeles, you're likely familiar with the extraordinary force of literary citizenship that radiates from poet, editor, scholar, and translator, Diana Arterian. Her generous presence here shimmers in a sequence of conversations compelled by the wonders of strangeness. How is it age-old questions spiral into new responses? How is it that from the crashing of steel triangles to supernovas, new resonances arise? From one week to the next, a silent mystery of the universe revealed?


Scientists recently shared with the world a sound of its making, the violent collision of two black holes more than a billion years ago. If you listen here, you might hear wind, a heartbeat, water. You might hear the inside of a shell:

Translation on a grand scale, infinitesimal galactic ripples into the human ear. Sound made not of matter (air, muscle, ocean, mineral), but of waves traveling through matter, "completely unimpeded, giving us a crystal clear view of the gravitational wave Universe." Waves made of irrevocable attraction, of explosive gravitational pull. 

The ancients might have called it Musica universalis, a theory of orbital resonance wherein each celestial body emits its own hum in an exquisitely proportioned universe, only physically imperceptible on Earth. Until—

These particular waves arrived from a distant galaxy by way of merging binary black hole systems, each moving at the velocity of light, a smash-up in which three solar masses disappeared. It took over two decades, billions of dollars, and several countries of scientists to construct the twin observatories capable of detecting the evidence. Located on opposite ends of a nation, shaped like massive letter L's, each structure houses instruments that take readings 16,000 times a second. Over a thousand names are listed as authors of the paper that reported the findings. Such is the resolve of a culture in pursuit of wonder.

Vision was not enough to see it; the most powerful telescope, insufficient. To uncover the existence of the previously imperceptible requires a newly imagined sense.

As poetry requires something other than direct transmission of communication. In her essay "Noise that Stays Noise," Cole Swensen distinguishes poetry from "other language uses and even other forms of literature," locating it as "the one place where noise is not only organized into information, but has value in remaining noise. The unassimilable has value because in a literary context, 'to assimilate' means 'to translate into another code,' yet poetry can endlessly incorporate, constitute, and instigate new codes because it can utilize language concretely."

The scientists who instigated new codes to translate into concrete human perception the wondrous phenomenon predicted by Einstein a century ago pinpoint gravitational waves as an unprecedented means for apprehending the universe. Precisely because gravitational waves do not assimilate into matter as they pass though it, as do electromagnetic waves, they are able to "carry information about their origins that is free of . . . distortion or alteration . . . as [they] travel through millions of light years of intergalactic space."

Just as poetry retains a certain degree of noise, causing us to prick up our ears to make sense of interference, so do gravitational waves reveal themselves through sound never before detected. We might not be able to see into the nature of space and time, but we're now able to hear rustles in its fabric. In translating their ancient cataclysmic language, we might discover the workings of gravity itself. Some say we'll be able to develop a theory of everything, one that unifies the full forces of nature. 

So do some forces pull us forward; so do some collisions engender entire universes of knowledge.


Diana Arterian: A Constellated Conversation

What projects are close to your heart these days?

Of course there is my translation project which, predominantly due to the consistent aid of friends, is in a state I am proud of, nearly done. I’m also deeply invested in a new book of poems about Agrippina the Younger, who is as compelling as she is inscrutable, mostly due to the lack of historical literature that survived the ages. My dissertation on trauma theory in contemporary poetry is certainly taking up the majority of my time, but it is a thoroughly exciting method of learning more about the poets I admire and how they trickle into my own work.

In addition to my putting a pen to my own pages, the projects I’ve been editing recently have provided me with so much—Douglas Kearney’s book Mess and Mess and (Noemi), Ryo Yamaguci's The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi), John Pluecker’s Ford Over (Noemi), Aichlee Bushnell’s Objects of Attention (Noemi), Erica Mena’s Featherbone (Ricochet), Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet), Arielle Greenberg’s Locally Made Panties (Ricochet), Keith Jones’ Fugue Meadow (Ricochet), Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg’s Bindle (Ricochet). The anthology Among Margins (Ricochet) is populated with some of the most intelligent and remarkable writers I can think of. Each of the books is rich, exciting, and surprising—it was an honor to have been able to work with their authors. 2015 was a busy year, as 2016 will continue to be (in a good way).

How did you come to translate Nadia Anjuman?

The origin story of this project is one that leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable, but the reason for this discomfort is also why I find the translation of Anjuman’s poetry into English to be so important. Rather than learning about this poet through her work, I found out about the tragedy of her early death after it was reported in English language news sources. Not long after, some people subsequently put a few rough translations of her poetry online. I do not read or understand Persian (my translations are done in collaboration with a native speaker, Marina Omar). Thus I could not simply find the poems and access Anjuman’s words directly. That said, it was clear to me through the rough translations that the poems were remarkable and deserved serious attention. The events surrounding Anjuman’s death made their way to news sources outside of Afghanistan because her poetry had made an impact on the population there. Yet those news sources focused less on Anjuman’s accomplishments and moreso on her death, disturbingly (though unsurprisingly) illustrating what many westerners are interested in when it comes to Afghanistan and the surrounding region: tragedy and violence. While the struggles of her life and how she ultimately died are undeniably important, I am working hard to give English readers the opportunity to access her brilliant writing—at the very least so those who cannot read Persian can know her powerful work rather than only the events of her life.

Where are some places you've wandered/traveled/voyaged, either in the real or in your imagination? How does location/region/time period inform your process? Where might you venture if it were possible?

I’m learning I’m somewhat of a homebody, if only because I like how I feel in my home and have a good work routine here. The places I would love to go often don’t feel possible due to my living on a shoestring (graduate student) budget, and/or simply because they are unsafe for me to travel without deep knowledge of the places/languages. I don’t say this as someone who is afraid of foreign lands and thinks them inherently dangerous or violent, but rather understand the (continued) historical practice of citizens of developed countries who feel they have the capacity to travel wherever they please with little regard for the circumstances of that place or what it means for their bodies to be present there.

Of all the places that feel unreachable to me for one reason or another, I would go to Herat. It is a city with a rich poetic history and is apparently very beautiful. It is and also Anjuman’s home—I could learn more of her life and environment first-hand. Afghanistan in general is a place that holds many beautiful buildings and historical sites, not to mention remarkable writers. It would be wonderful to travel there.

Is there a language you're drawn to, would like to know?

This question is hard to answer—if I were able to pick a superpower it would be to read/speak any language at any moment. I was bilingual in Spanish as a child, and lost the knowledge as I never studied it in school or on my own. It’s such an important language in the world, where I grew up (Arizona), and live (Los Angeles). At this point I can only understand, and often it must be words a child would know or care about: colors, animals, ways of describing pain.

I also deeply wish I knew German. My grandmother, while her family had been in Manhattan for a few generations, was German-American and bilingual (knowing several other languages, too). My mother’s household was intensely polylingual (Armenian, Assyrian, German, English) yet my grandparents only spoke to each other the language that overlapped between them: English. I lost those others in the generational divide.

Who/what are you reading/watching/compelled by right now?

I just finished reading and reviewing Mary Jo Bang’s The Last Two Seconds, which was thoroughly compelling and different from most books I pick up. Sarah Vap’s Viability is next in the review bunch, and I can’t wait to start it. I recently began Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island (eds. Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, Judy Yung) and finding it to be very powerful. There are so so many I want to read: Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil, King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes (trans. Stéphanie Benson), Benediction by Alice Notley, Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik (trans. Yvette Siegert), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, The Eternaut by Héctor Germán and Francisco Solano Lopez (trans. Erica Mena), Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, Dreams and Thunder by Zitkala-Ša, The Body by Jenny Boully, The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (trans. Sam Taylor), Drift by Caroline Bergvall, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And these are the books I don’t even own! I am constantly battling my ever-growing to-read pile both on my shelf and in my mind.

Beyond what falls between paper covers, I’ve been watching Twin Peaks for the first time with friends—we’re nearly done. It is right on the cusp of what I can psychologically tolerate in terms of terror. Sometimes it goes over the edge and I am freaked for days. Mostly I’m amazed at the characters and cues—that something as bizarre as this show was ever on network television in the U.S. I’ve also recently (re-)watched all of Rick and Morty, which is probably one of the most brilliant cartoons I’ve seen in a long time. It is 90s gold-era Simpsons level in its hilarity, darkness, and intelligence.

Would you like to share something here? Something you find crucial?

I would love to share one of Anjuman’s poems. It originally appeared in The Brooklyn Rail in an earlier iteration.


Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is a Doctoral Candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She holds an MFA in poetry from CalArts, where she was a Beutner Fellow. Diana is a Poetry Editor and Infidel Poetics Editor at Noemi Press, and a Managing Editor and founding member of Ricochet. Her work has been recognized with fellowships from Caldera, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She is the author of the chapbook Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2016), and her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, Circumference, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Los Angeles Review of Books, Two Serious Ladies, and The Volta, among others.



Caltech/MIT/LIG Laboratory, The Sound of Two Black Holes Colliding, February 11, 2016. Website of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), Supported by the National Science Foundation, Operated by Caltech and MIT. See also the page on gravitational waves titled: "Why Detect Them?"

Pallab Ghosh, Five Reasons Why Gravitational Waves Matter, video of the BBC News, February 11, 2016.

Cole Swensen, Noise that Stays Noise: Essays (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 9.