Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. Her debut collection Ugly Music (YesYes Books, 2019) was the winner of the Pamet River Prize and a 2020 Whiting Award. Her poems can be found in Washington Square Review, Bennington Review, The Adroit Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere.
In March of 2020, during the COVID-19 crisis, Diannely did a phone interview with MUSEUM.
Interview with DIANNELY ANTIGUA:
In a conversation between Maya Angelou and Oprah, Ms. Angelou says, “If I’m going to do the most difficult and frightening thing, dying, is it possible that I could do something difficult and maybe seemingly impossible things that are good?” This led me to thinking about courage. How do you feel courage informs your work right now?
Well, I feel like I’d have to start at the beginning and talk about moments where I wasn’t as courageous as I am now. So I was raised just Pentecostal as a child. And there were certain topics that we weren’t really allowed to talk about, a lot of things were stigmatized, especially when it came to mental health. And I lived a very sheltered life. And the only way that I could really express myself and the things that I was thinking at the moment was in my journal. That was a space that I created for myself to be courageous, but to be kind of courageous all on my own. I didn’t voice these things to other people, they were just written down. And since then I’ve filled over 30 journals. I started writing when I was nine.
So I think that poetry allowed me to be courageous. And especially as I started developing my voice, it became more courageous than it had been prior to that. I feel like the work that I was reading at the time really helped give me permission to be more courageous in my work. I was reading a lot of Sharon Olds, who also grew up really religious, she grew up Calvinist. I was reading Melissa Broder who was very candid and blunt about mental health and sex, and just says the thing, which I really appreciate. But I think it was through reading these poets and then also my personal experience that I started to become more courageous in my work and started to take more risks when it came to my poetry and things that I decided to write about. Even reading my poems now, I am in a different place than I was when I first wrote those poems. That book has been in the making since 2015. And that was some time ago.
I can definitely sense how much I felt like I was pushing through some type of like curtain or veil to get to that moment. And I was pushing up against something that felt risky. And then these poems were born and my poetry. I do say the thing, and I say it like it is, and I talk about sex and sexuality, femininity, especially the female body, mental health, and religion, and all of the ways those things intersect. And I’m very bold in those ways. And it took a lot of time to get to that point. I would have never said the things that I’ve said in this book even just a few years ago. It has taken some time. I think that I’m growing more courageous with each poem. I think that I’ve put a lot into my work, a lot into myself, I should say. And doing that is courageous. And I let it be part of my healing journey, especially when it came to my depression and anxiety. Poetry has been really helpful for me in that way. And it’s been a tool to help discover things that may have been repressed prior, bringing them to the surface and allowing me to really learn from that. And I do think there’s a lot of courage in learning about yourself .
Do you still keep a diary?
It’s not quite the same. My diaries aren’t the way they used to be when I was younger. I would write just about every day and talk about who I was crushing on at the moment, talk about the Backstreet Boys. I would talk about what I ate that day. It was just whatever a nine year old wanted to write. And then obviously with time my writing matured and so did the topics that I talked about. But I think now the majority of the writing that is in these notebooks is kind of ideas for poems, notes that I take when I’m reading, or notes that I take if I’m at a reading and listening to other poets. I try to write it in my journal or write it in my phone and then put it into my journal.
But most importantly, what I keep in my journals right now are actually therapy notes. I’m a Virgo true and true. And it’s funny because my therapist, obviously, she takes notes throughout our session. But I also take notes. Which at times she’s had to say to me like, “Diannely, why don’t you just put down your pencil?” And I have to like relinquish control and put the pencil down and just do the personal work. And she writes everything down and then relays it to me afterwards. But my journals now are more just those therapy notes, which is in a way very diary-esque. It’s still confessional in the same way that a diary entry is, it’s just a little bit more organized. And I want to keep a record of that personal work, that personal growth that I’ve been doing.
I started therapy in 2012. And have been consistent with it and have seen basically the same therapist for most of that time except for when I lived in New York. But I feel like it’s so important for me to keep a record of it because I don’t go to therapy just thinking, “Oh, I’m going to talk to somebody about my problems and hopefully they’ll help me figure them out.” It’s like, “No, I’m doing this for myself. This is very important work. I’m trying to heal parts of myself that are really vulnerable.”
And I’m trying to be very serious about that. I feel very compelled to keep a record of everything so I can go back and learn from it.
I read that you were carrying around Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights?
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Where are you seeking out joy right now? And where are you finding it?
I feel like I’m finding a lot of joy in continuing the practice of reading poetry and the poets that I love. And then also poetry collections that were released around the time of the stay-at-home advisory. And really trying to promote those poets’ work through my Instagram and my Instagram stories, what I’m reading that day. And that’s bringing me a lot of joy—continuing to read. And I definitely have more time to do that. So that’s been good. Sadly, it has to be under these circumstances, but that’s something giving me a lot of joy.
And I’m also teaching a poetry workshop for high school students and it’s now virtual. And these students just impress me so much, the way that they talk about poetry and how they engage with one another. And that just brings me a lot of hope that poetry can continue to live on, even amidst a time like this, and that poetry is powerful. And it is an elective class, it’s a pass-fail class. So they don’t need to take this class.
But they wanted to remain in it. And they’ve been really engaged, and this is important for them. So that’s been bringing me a lot of joy. Just seeing other people find joy in poetry, so living through them in that way.
What was your original intention for Ugly Music? And in what ways do you feel the project may have turned into something else, or surprised you?
I think my original intention was just to write about my experiences with mental health, and also growing up really religious, and voicing those things that I wasn’t allowed to say back then. And then it ended up turning into just a celebration of music in a way as well. And that was really surprising to me. I do talk about music throughout the book, whether it’s a song, a musical term, and then the book itself is organized like a song. And I think that was the most surprising thing about the book. How literally the music just led me. And I wanted to organize the book in a way that followed the emotional twists and turns of the song. And then the outro at the end that can be sometimes quiet but still powerful. So I wanted to ride that frequency and that was the most surprising thing to me. And it came to me while I was listening to music while organizing the manuscript on my floor in my Brooklyn apartment at the time. I was listening to this song, and the song itself is actually called Outro, and it’s by, let me look it up, so I’m not just talking about it without naming the artist.
Is this the Amelie song?
No. So Amelie, a lot of that soundtrack influenced my book. But this particular song Outro is by M83. And I was just listening to it, it was on my playlist. I came to that particular artist through the show Versailles on Netflix, and just was really taken by it. And I was playing that while organizing my manuscript. And I was like, “Oh, Outro. Oh, okay.” But that was the last song in that album. And then I started thinking about like, “Well, why don’t I use that to organize my manuscript?” And honestly, if it weren’t for that song and listening to it while organizing my manuscript, it wouldn’t be the way that it is now. It wouldn’t have that flow that I’ve created. It would have been completely different. So that was probably one of the most surprising moments. It wasn’t in my original thought, though it makes a lot of sense. But it hadn’t really come to me yet. And in that moment, it did. It just led me in the right direction.
What is one lesson you learned recently? Or a lesson you’d already learned but returned to recently?
When it comes to poetry or just in general?
Not necessarily about poetry.
Funny enough, this has nothing to do with poetry. But I’ve been relearning how to properly use a knife. I work in the food industry, I’m a server, and I’m around chefs and sous-chefs all the time and I admire the way they are able to use a knife. That to me, that is art. I’m always mesmerized seeing them filet a fish or something like that, or just chop an onion. And one of my friends is a sous-chef there at the restaurant and he taught me how to properly cut an onion. And since then I’ve kind of forgotten. But now with the stay-at-home advisory, I’ve been cooking more meals, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to properly use a knife, how to make sure that I don’t leave my fingers out.
I almost feel like it relates to poetry in some way. And I’m not sure exactly how. But it’s just a returning to something that seems so basic but it’s also so important and crucial. Amidst this time, I think people are returning to art more and more than they have before. Whether it’s Netflix or books, or the Met for instance of offering virtual 360 tours of the museum.
People are really relying on art at the moment. And I feel this is also an art, it’s a culinary art, it’s a skill. And though not poetry-related, it’s something that I’m learning to embrace again. And how there’s just this practice of learning how to take care of yourself properly, learning how to make a meal that’s nutritional, that’s balanced. And I’m also trying to do that constantly as I’m taking care of my work, and my art, and the poetic side of my life—constantly trying to nurture those relationships. And even if the relationships are just with me and the poet on the page.
I’m finding this generation of really, really exceptional writers, who studied creative writing in institutions. I’m curious what your experience with this was.
Well, considering that I grew up so sheltered, pursuing an MFA and going to NYU, just being in New York City has been so important for both my creative work and also my personal growth. I needed desperately to get out of the bubble that I was in. And NYU and New York was the best place to do that. NYU has a lot of exceptional writers in their faculty, and I feel really honored to have worked with them. And even if I wanted to work with a particular poet and they didn’t work at NYU, they normally came through with a reading or teaching a master class, or something like that.
NYU opened so many doors for me. I’ve truly met the best poets in my life, like within my cohort. Their writing is exceptional and I can’t thank them enough for their generous feedback, otherwise Ugly Music would not exist without them. I think just like it takes a village to raise a child, I think it takes a village to write a book. You do not do it alone, it’s not something that you do by yourself, you need people to lean on and just support you, and to help you create the final product. At NYU my thesis advisor Catherine Barnett, and my classmates, they were that support. And they did provide that community for me.
I joke around and I say I feel like my whole life I’ve been looking for just another cult to become a part of. And I found the perfect cult, the poetry cult. And it just is. I follow it. I’m a firm believer in the power of poetry. And it’s truly my religion and it is something that I find to be so fulfilling in my life, and has brought me to some of the most wonderful people in the world, truly. And I don’t say that lightly
That’s so glowing. I love it. No criticism?
New York is a really tough place to live. I’m not going to lie. I did not sleep very much when I lived in New York. And I was doing a lot of work. I was a student, and then I was a graduate student advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences, working with undergraduate students. And then I was also interning at the Academy of American Poets, and at the same time trying to take care of myself. So I was doing a lot of things. And New York is not a cheap place to live, it’s really expensive. And that city, it’s not for everyone. I don’t think that my experience necessarily will serve everyone. It was very difficult. But I feel like even amidst all of that difficulty, it was important for me to do that.
And to this day I feel like I mourn the fact that I’m not in New York right now. It’s just that financially, after graduating, it didn’t work out for me. But I’m hoping that I can return in the future because New York helped write these poems. I was inspired by that city so much. And I want to return and continue to be inspired by the city. As far as with the NYU program, it is really, really wonderful, and I was lucky to get the funding that I did. They do offer everyone at least half tuition remission. So that’s good. But at the same time, I feel like, or I hope that someday in the future they can offer everyone full tuition remission.
And it is a larger program so it’s not going to be like BU, for instance, which offers a full ride. But then that has its drawbacks. At least when I was applying, it was a one calendar year program, which to me is pretty rushed. I wanted to spend more time with my writing. And NYU, a two academic year program, seemed to fit more with what I was looking for. I would have loved it if it was three years. There are some programs that are three years long. I think it probably would’ve been perfect if it was a little bit longer.
And is your cohort still your community?
Oh, yeah. We support each other from afar, whether it’s checking in on each other or sharing work. I think that we’ve still been able to keep in touch. I would love to do more. I wish that there wasn’t that distance between us anymore. I wish we were still just a subway ride away from each other, and we were able to meet regularly. But I’m using this time, especially being at home, to try to reconnect with my cohort. And even people that weren’t necessarily in my cohort but were still at NYU at the time. I made a lot of friends with people that were a year above me and a year below me. And they were also part of my community as well.
Which artists, of any genre, do you highly recommend?
Artists of any genre? Well, you did mention Ross Gay. So I would say especially now that you want to read something about joy and gratitude, Ross Gay is a master of delight. He just embraces that. And having met him in person, he just radiates that, and I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to meet him, and to have conversations with him. I would definitely recommend Ross Gay, especially The Book of Delights. And in a different genre, I’ve been listening to a lot of reggaetón recently.
Just as a way to, first of all, get my body moving and just a way to also celebrate the body that I have and that’s here at the moment. Obviously, I’ve been listening to a lot of J Balvin, and Nicky Jam, Bad Bunny, like those I can’t recommend enough. It’s great music to dance to, to clean to, to cook to. It’s just, it’s been keeping me sane in a lot of ways, and keeping me joyous, as much as I can be.
See more of Diannely Antigua’s work here.