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Poetics, Proximity, and Trauma on World Poetry Day

“Tender and cruel, the pathos in here animates me and the writing hunts me. And so I gratefully surrender.”  — Lily Hoang


The words above inform the writing of Diana Arterian, a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at USC Dornsife and author of the poetry collection Playing Monster :: Seiche. Arterian’s dissertation analyzes the ways in which four contemporary poets grapple with “relayed trauma,” a term that she explains here: Watch Diana explain by downloading the clip.

In recognition of World Poetry Day (March 21), we delve deeper into Arterian’s work.

What is relayed trauma? For Arterian, it is the phenomenon in which somebody receives traumatic information from a secondary source. The recipients of relayed trauma are disturbed, yet at a distance. They experience its effects through an intermediary with whom they are deeply connected (for example, through romantic entanglement, heritage, family, or otherwise). Trauma may be relayed through direct communication, the discovery of documents, or ghosts.

Ghosts, you say?

Actually, yes. One of the works Arterian studies in her dissertation is Zong!, a book of poetry by M. NourbeSe Philip—co-written with a ghost (Setaey Adamu Boateng). According to Arterian, Philip draws upon a particular court document to give readers access to a remarkable and disturbing event. In 1781, the captain of a ship named Zong decided to throw 143 enslaved Atlantic Africans overboard so that the ship’s owners could claim insurance for the loss of ‘goods.’ Drawing on court records of the incident, Philip creates a “collage-like poetic text composed from bits of the original document and the words of ghosts, be it slaver or enslaved.”

“If a member of the Black diaspora learns of this event, what recourse does she have to exorcize her horror?” is just one of the questions Diana poses. Because all of the parties involved are dead, because all of the enslaved people on the Zong never had any record of their experiences written down in the archive, Philip engages with the ghosts in order to interrogate the event itself and understand what took place. Arterian argues that understanding the effect of relayed trauma can close the distance between personal and political trauma.