Art in Conversation: Diana Raab & Pablo Neruda are in love
On September 1, 2022
To say Diana Raab and Pablo Neruda fell in love might be hyperbolic, but when read together their words reveal a connection between them. Raab became obsessed with Neruda’s poetry after a friend gifted her a collection of the Chilean poet’s work. Her latest chapbook, An Imaginary Affair: Poems Whispered to Neruda, entangles the two poets in conversations about, as Raab put it, “love, death, life’s simple pleasures, and everything in between.” From poem to poem, Raab explores these themes with writing that is deeply personal, sensual, and ripe with imagery. At times she speaks directly to Neruda, addressing him as “Dear Pablo” while at others she writes “after poems”—words born from thematic conversations between the two poets’ words.
For our first in the Art in Conversation series, founding editor Brandon Arvesen sat down with Diana Raab to uncover her inspiration, process, and purpose behind whispering words to Pablo Neruda.
Brandon Arvesen: Where did this conversation with Neruda begin?
Diana Raab: One thing that I do when I'm starting to fall in love with a poet is I read. I read all their work and I check out their history. What I often find is that I usually have a lot in common with them as beginning writers. With Neruda, and it seems like a few of the writers I really admire, I recognized that we both had early childhood trauma. When I fall in love with a poet, I get to know their background and then their poetry resonates with me even more. I feel this deep connection, which is what happened between me and him.
BA: What's your process? How did you start writing poems in response to, or to, Pablo?
DR: My process for writing poetry usually starts with an image, a feeling, or a thought. I come up with the title and then I see where the poem goes from there. In terms of Neruda, my gut was really responding to his poems, and I thought, "Well, how can I share with the universe this feeling? I began writing a few “after poems” then decided to put a collection together in this way.
BA: Is there a difference in approach when you're writing to him versus writing in response to something he wrote?
DR: That's a great question. When I'm writing, "Dear Pablo," I'm really responding to every line and emotion in his poem. If I'm doing an “after poem,” the subject of my poem might not be like the subject of his. I might go off on a tangent.
BA: The final page of An Imaginary Affair lists which of Neruda’s poems you are conversing with for each poem in your collection. Do you think it's important that your reader accesses these notes and engage with Neruda’s poetry?
DR: That's a fantastic question. I was in discussion with my publisher before we published the book. In my original manuscript, I mentioned which of Neruda's poems I was responding to at the top of the page. My editor wanted my poems to be totally independent. So, they chose to list the poems in the note section at the back of the book. The publisher wanted my poems to be honored first, and then to go back, as opposed to putting all the focus on Neruda. In the end, I believe their instinct was correct.
BA: When you composed your poems’ style, cadence, lines, or rhythms, were there certain elements of Neruda’s you were trying to pull out and put into your own work?
DR: It was all subconscious. I never thought: "This is what's going to happen. This is how this poem is going to unfold." I’ve often confessed to going into a trance when I write poetry. I often look back and say, "Whoa, who wrote that?"
BA: That is a conversation. Listening to someone and responding is genuinely more conversational than listening to someone and emulating.
BA: Is there a poem to point readers to that is most emblematic of the conversation you’re having with Pablo Neruda? One that captures the back-and-forth dialogue?
DR: I think “Why Are You Sad?” Is a really good example because I'm responding directly to Neruda’s poem, “Leaning Into The Afternoons.”
BA: You really entangle yourselves together in that poem. You write directly to him, “Come back to me—bear witness/ to who I am, who I will be with you…” It's so much of a conversation. Confessional, a little bit, but conversational all the same.
DR: There was definite sadness in “Leaning Into The Afternoons.” I picked out an emotion that felt strong in that poem and responded to it. He began the poem with: "I cast my sad nets/ toward your oceanic eyes./ There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames..." I mean, he’s just so sad in that poem.
BA: And you’re searching for the why?
DR: He explains what he's feeling. All the while the birds are here, and the stars are there, and Pablo won’t say what’s made him feel this way. Why is he feeling these emotions? What happened before he wrote this poem? I think all writing, whether it's poetry or prose, has a potential to heal. And clearly, he turned to poetry to heal, to transform, and to understand. And that's why we all turn to creativity. Poetry allows the reader to get a snapshot of the poet’s feelings or images that are immediate. Poetry keeps you in the moment. It reminds you to be mindful. It really makes us pay attention to all the details in our universe.
BA: Like talking to someone you really care about or really love? Or that engaged conversation when we put our phones down and lock in. When it's just you and me having this conversation.
BA: When you imagine readers gain access to your collection of poetry and dive into it, what's your hope within the scope of the conversation you're having with Neruda? What do you want them to get out of the entanglement between the two of you?
DR: I want them to appreciate my poetry and his poetry and the link between our words. I want them to see how we really do address similar subjects in a different era. I hope readers see that we're not writing about different things across the years. The same things were written about in the 1600s, 1700s, the 1800s, 1900s! In other words, we are dealing with the same issues: love, death, war, peace, nature, etc. We're all writing about the same stuff; it's just our perspective and the time that changes. I think I'm trying to give the message that even though I was born quite a few years after Neruda, he and I are pondering the same issues.
An Imaginary Affair: Poems Whispered to Neruda is out now from Finishing Line Press and is available in hardcover and paperback. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.