a conversation between Diana Arterian and Sheila Davies Sumner
“Death is, of course, the terrifying specter that haunts all of us, but I am not nearly as obsessed with it as many of my writer friends are.”
Sheila Davies Sumner: I've read your amazing Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) three times (& more to come). It’s invigorating, doleful, and funny all at once. And complex in a whole bunch of ways. So I'm going to start our conversation with a couple of questions which I hope aren’t too huge or too simple. But, I’m curious! –– because your little chapbook is having a profound half-life for me. Especially the opening quote, the last words from Jacques Arterian, your grandfather. Did the cento form choose you? Or did you find that particular form of poetics to fit your idea? What were the circumstances and the evolution?
Diana Arterian: Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm glad to hear you liked it. Strangely enough, my grandfather's last words were unknown to me until I had completed the manuscript. I was telling my older sister about Death Centos and she suggested I include them as they are quite remarkable. It didn't feel quite right to set him alongside historical figures/cults of personality, however, so I felt an epigraph was best. I realize this may be slightly misleading, making the reader think his last words guided or inspired the chapbook. Mostly, they are a kind of personal ephemera that I love and wanted to include.
The cento form came to me by a few different avenues. I had written "collage" poems in the past while in college, not really knowing what I was doing. I did a similar thing while earning my MFA, thinking I was inventing something. That old delusion! Then I learned of the cento from Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl, and realized what I was doing was basically an age-old form dating back to the 3rd century.
I should say, though, I'm technically warping the form, in which you gather quotations from a particular poet and place them together in a new poetic entity. So, taking last words of people before they die and calling the result a "cento" is a bit of a nod to the people who spoke, and what their iterations become when placed beside another's.
SDS: Yes, your grandfather’s words are remarkable. The epigraph works well because of its inclusiveness –– an ordinary man is brought into relationship with the historical and cult figures. Your grandfather’s dying words challenge the fear of death with its lively emotional opposite.
Death Centos is an exquisite work of minimalism. Intertextuality is right there on each page –– who said it and what they said. The poems read horizontally across the page; then a quarter turn of the book brings their sources pleasurably into view. Was there a lot of trial and error in the design work?
DA: The interior was actually done by my editor Linda Trimbath and was almost exactly as you see it when she sent me a draft. I may have asked for a font change, but the genius of where to put the names and to have them be slightly grey – all her idea. Ugly Duckling does incredible books and chapbooks. Natalia Porter did the beautiful cover as well as the special edition broadside. I was floored when I finally got both of these in-hand…
SDS: You have selected, across two centuries, the dying words of such disparate speakers as Archimedes, Emily Dickinson, and Jesse James. It seems like “warping the form” has allowed a recasting of last words into whole-sonic cloth. There’s this wonderful crosscurrent of undertones among the dead. I hear Death Centos as a ‘milestone’ text –– a staging of the last act of human life, with Death starring as muse, archetypal speaker and poet. Can you speak to this interpretation?
DA: A lovely and flattering reading! I don’t know that I was looking at it as complex an idea as that when writing these pieces. Part of me hopes to avoid any nostalgia surrounding death. The West’s interest in last words came about initially with the idea of a “good” Christian death in which the person would give final benedictions, words of wisdom, confessions, etc. Then as the public’s trust in the absolute nature of heaven began to wane, suddenly these last words gave us access to something else and perhaps more terrifying – a glimpse into the dark unknown of what comes after.
But of course last words are far more complicated than that and involve more of the body than we want to own up to. There are people heavily medicated on narcotics and hardly aware of their surroundings, even unable to really speak. Delirium and illness play perhaps more tangible roles than Death (capital D) itself in a lot of ways.
The last words of the condemned may give us more insight than the others in this regard, as they are often said by people who are lucid, aware they are going to die, and (in the case of the US death penalty) that they have a moment just before death to say something that will be kept on record.
But to respond to your specific idea, I think what was driving a lot of these were the aesthetics of how the phrases felt/sounded in proximity to one another, as well as the apparent “messages” they hoped to deliver and how that could be formed into a bit of an arc or full idea in conjunction with one another.
SDS: Death Centos is divided into ‘Last Words of the Dying’ and ‘Last Words of the Condemned’. It feels as though contrasting parameters and ethics apply to the act of dying. Each group carries different emotional charges and pressures around the pain, comfort, burden, and energy of death. What’s behind your decision for making this division?
DA: When I was writing the poems I was coming across last words of people whose governments/enemies/etc. executed, and they didn’t quite “fit” with the others. There was a different issue at stake in those words. As someone who is very much against the death penalty, it felt important to have those work in conjunction with one another and create portraits of sorts for different kinds of deaths the words seemed to illustrate. Mostly though, it was about reminding the reader of the humanity of condemned persons, even those who are most terrifying and damaged. Of course it is easier to merely vilify those who have done horrible acts of violence, but I have little interest in anything that is easy, particularly when it involves the objectification and oppression of persons (criminal or otherwise).
SDS: There’s a whole political dimension to your thinking that I hadn’t considered. It’s true that some of the people quoted in Death Centos were ethically or politically controversial, such as Saddam Hussein and Karla Faye Tucker. Because of your directive to underscore the humanity of condemned persons, it sounds like the writing of their verse-portraits was both more and less difficult.
DA: I suppose so. I am less likely to believe in a person’s being “evil.” This is an easy thing to think (and simultaneously difficult, I guess – to think that evil exists is no easy thing). This is to say that if you write off someone as “evil” it flattens the situation. To me it’s more likely that there is damage that caused the person to act out cruel acts, and I am curious about that damage in conjunction with their humanity. These poems allow that, I think. Some final words that were actually quite sinister take a different timbre depending on the context. So their lives, too, perhaps.
SDS: I read that hexameter verse was widely used in cento composition. Did you have a final set of verse schemes or metrical rules about how these last words would be joined into a poem? What guided or influenced you when fitting the cadences of quoted words into assembled couplets?
DA: Oh goodness, I wish I had the wherewithal to put this in hexameter! Really, form-wise, Death Centos is just an extended experiment of stitching. I tried to ensure a full line of sense-making thought from each phrase of last words would be in a single line or two, but that’s about as complicated as it got.
In terms of the couplets, that’s a good question. I think I had been reading a lot of books that use couplets, and it’s a nice little constraint when writing a cycle of work – I’ve since written an entire book in couplets. It gives the line a particular energy and also relief for the reader’s eye I am keen on, I suppose.
SDS: The ‘experiment of stitching’, reminds me of how the cento form is defined ––as “a patchwork text” or “a mosaic of phrases.” Returning to what you said earlier about “that old delusion”, I’m fascinated about your transition from collage to cento, losing one form but gaining another. Would you talk about the value and drawback of inventiveness when writing poetry?
DA: A demanding question! I think it is a common confusion, particularly of younger poets like myself, to believe we are inventing something or thinking of it for the first time when, in fact, it’s been done before (in this case with a rich history!). I remember getting it in my head to write out all the different English translation variations of the first line of Dante’s Inferno—only to find that Caroline Bergvall had done it some years before! In some ways to find that the path has been trod before is actually kind of heartening. It creates a kinship between yourself and people from the past or even contemporary writers.
I suppose the only drawback with inventiveness (as inventors of physical things would probably attest) is that you can invent some pretty horrible things. That said, it’s all the means by which you do more valuable things in the future. I think I’d be some kind of scrooge if I believed there to be any real drawback to inventiveness.
SDS: In my reading of Death Centos, the awareness of being extinguished is foremost, and the sensation of being on the verge of personal extinction is deeply felt. I think this is part of the resonant half-life in your work which concentrates the journey between our nonverbal condition as infants –– first sounds and syllables –– and our unique deathbed confessions. Species articulation is one of our few (it seems) laudable traits. To find personal words for this transitory moment between life and death, in the midst of one’s final breath or conscious moments –– that’s quite an accomplishment, one you bring subtle attention to.
DA: A beautiful articulation – thank you!
SDS: How did you come to write on the subject of death? What was your process behind organizing the selection of authors and last words?
DA: Honestly it was because I had heard the delirious last words of Stonewall Jackson while watching a Civil War documentary (“Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of trees”) and it was so powerful and affecting – in short, poetic – that I felt I should do some investigating to see what other last words were like. Of course not all of those I used are nearly as lyrical, but it was my entry point. Death is, of course, the terrifying specter that haunts all of us, but I am not nearly as obsessed with it as many of my writer friends are.
The organizing principle was mostly about the music the phrases allowed when close to one another. Every now and then I allowed something a bit more obvious (like the poem in which the last words are all those of authors).
SDS: Where is your work taking you now –– as a doctoral student at USC, and otherwise. What’s the shape of the poems you’re writing?
DA: I am in the thick of exam preparations right now, so sadly I haven’t had much time to write poems over the past few months. I’m working on (or, in any case, thinking about) a few manuscripts right now. I have my “creative” dissertation entitled Seiche which is a narrative collection of poems that also include found text and are about a polluted lake near my mother’s home, among many other things.
I also have a hybrid/book-length poem/lyric essay that I am most anxious to work on. I started it while earning my MFA but just had a round of really difficult but helpful workshops on a portion of it that has pointed me in an important direction. I’m also working translating poems by the deceased Afghani poet Nadia Anjuman which I really hope to finish this year.
Most recently there’s a short cycle I’ve done about Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s damningly driven mother and the many methods in which he tried to kill her and/or how the many historians of the time claim she died. The accounts are wild and varied, let me assure you. I think there will be a manuscript at the end of that, with personal experiences as well as explorations of historical events that happen in 30 seconds or less – that is the constraint I’m giving myself, anyway. The poems often dip into the fantastic and address violence against bodies.
So, a lot! I also co-run Ricochet Editions at USC, which is a thrilling creative endeavor, and recently became a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press. Publishing is something that is thoroughly exciting, demanding, and gratifying. I hope to continue working at it well beyond my time at USC.
Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Diana is a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, and creator and Managing Editor of Ricochet, a publisher of poetry and prose. Her own chapbook, Death Centos, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, TwoSerious Ladies and The Volta, among others.
Sheila Davies Sumner has an MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award. She is the Staff Writer for the Studio One Reading Series.