August 26, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsRemembrancesWriting


Note: Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. This week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Diannely Antigua about her book Ugly Music, which won the Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books. Here she shares how poetry is like prayer, the importance of keeping a diary from a young age, and the influences that shaped her poems, which “together…are harmonious in their cacophony, depraved in some regards, but still undeniable in their melody.” She also reminds us to pay attention to the everyday things that can shape our craft, or as she eloquently states, to give space to that “unspeakable beauty in a perfectly diced onion.” Her words brought me joy, and I know they will for you too. -Rosebud Ben-Oni


Rosebud Ben-Oni: Let’s start with the various “Diary Entry” poems scattered throughout the collection, which are filled with confessions, desires and self-revelations on sexuality, family, romances and the body as music, as discord; these poems don’t (seemingly) follow chronological order, beginning with “#9: Undoing” (“For a few minutes, I want a white girl’s symphony, to live/ the Mamma Mia soundtrack/ and wear the pink lace dress.”) and ending with “#17: Ibiza” (“I put on my woman/skin, the red short skirt.”) Can you speak on the scattering of these through the collection?

Diannely Antigua: To truly understand the “Diary Entry” poems, it’s important to note how they were crafted. Since I was nine years old, I’ve filled over 36 journals with musings about life, love, depression, and at times even Jesus. Now decades later, I’ve begun to recycle and reuse these musings, collecting language from these journals to then use as material to build poems. The corresponding number of each “Diary Entry” poem doesn’t follow any sequential logic, but rather identifies the source of the original language. “Diary Entry #9: Undoing,” for instance, was written from language collected from my 9thjournal. Somewhere within those pages, I mentioned the Mamma Mia soundtrack, my dog’s death, an anxiety attack. Resurrected in a new form, these words now tell a different story or one adjacent to the previous that focuses more on the emotional truth rather than the factual truth. It is a strangeness that is both playful and haunting.

Although not organized chronologically, the “Diary Entry” poems were precisely placed to guide the reader along, revealing little breadcrumbs of information with each new entry. The reader needs to be well acquainted with the “sort of virgin” in “Diary Entry #9: Undoing,” then the speaker who is “pregnant in the purple dress” in “Diary Entry #1: Testimony,” before being able to fully understand the speaker in “Diary Entry #17: Ibiza” who doesn’t “need permission to have sex with [herself] in the ocean.”

RB: Poets often are curious on how other poets break up their collections into sections. Ugly Music is broken up like the parts of a song with segments entitled Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Outro. How did you decide which poems belong to each segment, and how does it all tie into the title of Ugly Music?

DA: Every aspect of this book has been influenced by music. Even personally, I came to poetry through song. I was a singer before I was ever a poet, and this book has been my way of reclaiming that music. The poem that opens the collection “Self-Portrait as Nostalgia” was written to the song “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après midi” by French composer and musician Yann Tiersen. Truly from the first page, music has been the driving force.

I wanted to continue this musical focus by shaping the narrative much like a song. Each Verse mimicked a pulsating crescendo falling into the echo of each Chorus, while the Bridge allowed me to change the tempo of the narrative. Here, the poems resembled chord variations, a shift to exploring themes that were outside of the speaker’s psyche—dictatorships, immigration, terrorism. This section placed the speaker within a historical context, illustrating a collective trauma.

Finally, the Outro was a place for poems of painful victories: “There is a song on the radio/when I finally apologize//to myself” (“Variations on a Theme”) and “It’s not beautiful, but// it’s beautiful, you want to tell them.” (“When I Try to Explain”). After poems about suicide, psych wards, and abuse, I wanted to end the collection with some sense of triumph, no matter how small. Together, the poems in Ugly Music are harmonious in their cacophony, depraved in some regards, but still undeniable in their melody.

RB: In so many of the poems, the speaker is searching for her father, searching for the words to speak to him, for what he has left behind in her life in his disappearance, even as he reemerges in “Misconception,” where he tenderly feeds her “seconds” but “twenty-six years too late” while her mother is “still cleaning up/his mess. Still saying, // Yes, bella, I enjoyed it.” And then again in “After Reading Sharon Olds,” the speaker reveals that she wishes to tell him that “I lost my virginity to a man/ with his name, let the whole of his letters enter me.” There is a strange, painful triumph, too, at least for me in “Diary Entry #22” where the speaker declares: “I’m trying to be my own father with a shotgun/… I am the father. A death/ brings people closer together.” Ultimately, what does the father symbolize for the collection as a whole?

DA: The father symbolizes the unattainable affection, the love most desired, and the love most feared. There are many fathers and father figures in this book: biological father, stepfather, God the Father, pastor, and at times even the lover. It’s impossible for the speaker to recount the stories of her life without these men as stated in “Self-Portrait as Nostalgia:” “If I could imagine/ a childhood without him, / I would. / The boy /or the father. / It doesn’t matter.”

Throughout the collection, the father has an omnipotent hold on the speaker through his presence, his absence, and his violence. He becomes the embodiment of power. And the collection follows a journey to reclaim that power, or at least an attempt to stare that power in the face, point an accusatory finger in his direction. But it’s a whirlwind of acceptance and aversion as blatantly stated in the poem “When I Try to Explain”: “Someone said daddy issues/ and you said fuck you but wrote it down// anyway.” The speaker is caught in a world of needing a father, but never the one(s) she has ultimately been given. “Diary Entry #22: Vows” is not a full emergence from underneath the influence of fathers, but rather a step toward learning how to father one’s self, protect, and provide.

RB: Is the body itself a form of music for you as a poet?

DA: Absolutely. Bodies are instruments, the way they move, the way they sing without ever uttering a word. One poem that illustrates this musicality of the body is “Diary Entry #1: Revisitation” whose last line was the inspiration for the title of the book: “You’ll fall on the world/ like an ugly music.” I imagine that even after death our bodies keep chanting something.

RB: What was the most difficult poem for you to write?

Each poem presents a different type of difficulty, either regarding craft or subject matter. “Golden Shovel with Solstice” was more challenging considering the form of this particular Golden Shovel that uses Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool.” The Golden Shovel, devised by Terrance Hayes, implements lines from Brooks’s poems such that when the last word of each line is read in order, it should read just like her original poem. Ultimately, this poetic constraint proved to be a laborious yet liberating practice.

As far as difficulty writing a poem due to subject, “Variations on a Theme” was especially so. It demands a lot of emotional work from the poet and the reader as the poem progresses from dark humor, to sadness, anxiety, danger, then to self-compassion and forgiveness. The speaker doesn’t shy away from saying: “Listen, // I’m a stupid whore and I’m sorry. / I tried to hang myself and // I’m sorry.” I don’t deny my close relationship to the speaker—she is pieces of me organized on a page in a slightly more presentable way. This poem was indeed written as an apology to her, to myself, which was one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

RB: What does community mean to you? How do you balance it with the solitary nature of writing?

DA: I remember growing up in a Pentecostal church, the congregation would pray together as a group at least twice throughout a service. I can almost recall how palpable the energy was, all of the voices speaking in other tongues at once, more than 50 pairs of hands lifted. Outside of church, we were always encouraged to have our own individual “prayer lives.” I prayed at home when I woke up, then again before every meal, then once more before bed. Those times were for me, to connect with something greater than I was, when my small voice was all that filled a room. Poetry is much like prayer. I think it requires both community and solitude. I commune with other poets through their work, on the page, through email, Twitter even. And it gives me the power to then commune with myself, to bring my own words to the page. I would be lost without my poetry church.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

DA: I will never stop reading the poets that have shaped me: Sharon Olds, Ross Gay, Catherine Barnett, Ada Limón, to name a few. Most recently, I read all of Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s What Runs Over while at the beach one afternoon. This memoir written in verse balances violence and tenderness with unparalleled grace. Currently, I’m halfway through Brandon Melendez’s book Gold That Frames the Mirror,whose storytelling captivated me from the first page. I must confess, I’ve been keeping his book in my server apron at work and will sneakily read a poem or two between waiting tables.

RB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

DA: Right now, I am focusing on promoting the book and traveling for readings, all while still trying to write individual poems. It’s a good week when I have an idea. It’s a good month when I’ve turned that idea into a couplet. I’m trying to be patient with myself. A second collection will happen when poetry wills it.

In the meantime, I’m finally learning how to properly use a knife. I tell you, there is unspeakable beauty in a perfectly diced onion.