Interview with Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn is the author of fourteen poetry collections, including the recently published What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, Different Hours. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College, and lives in Frostburg, Maryland with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd.
(Photo courtesy of Andrea Dunn) 

Interviewed by: John Amen

First off, I'm glad to be speaking with you. I’ve very much enjoyed spending time with your new Selected Poems collection. Let me start off by asking this: in reading through the volume, I’m struck that many of your poems emanate a kind of Zen quality; that is, it's almost as if you, or your speakers, are striving to observe and document “what is,” whether that content is related to interior experience or exterior phenomena—poet as observer. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

SD: That's interesting. I have not been referred to as a Zen poet. For me, when writing poems, I hope there is always a pursuit of both what is visible and what is less than visible. I love Paul Éluard's statement: "There is another world, and it is in this one." I've always thought of that as my job—close observation, yes, but the imagination always in the vicinity, helping out.

JA: That reminds me of something you mentioned in another interview in which you spoke about how important it is for you that the writing process involve a sense of discovery.

SD: My barometer for myself when I'm writing is that I'm not truly in my poem until I've actually startled myself, and if that doesn't occur, I'm probably working with my conventional work-a-day mind too much and for too long. For me, poems come alive when I start to say something that I didn't quite know I was capable of saying.

JA: I'm struck as I read through the poems that you seem to strive to comment directly on things. For example, you don't frequently use obvious metaphors or similes. Do you see these devices, to some extent, as constructs or barriers to direct experience and direct commentary?

SD: I was trained more or less as an imagist, and for a long time believed that poetry was written image after image, metaphor after metaphor. Then, at some point, I realized that I was writing much more discursively than that, that I was in the business of measuring and refining consciousness, and to accomplish this I needed to think and feel my way down the page. My sense now is that metaphor is something you reach for when you can no longer say whatever it is straight-out, when only analogue will do. There’s a great essay by Pavese in which he argues that the whole poem itself can be considered a metaphor, that something well-described is a likeness in and of itself. You don't have to keep working figure after figure. When I read that, it was enormously liberating, a validation of what I seemed to be doing in my poems. This is not to say that metaphors and similes aren't crucial to poetry; it is to say they need to arise out of necessity, not habit.

JA: Yeah, resisting that default orientation.

Not enough poems that I see are in dialogue with themselves. They don't question enough their claims and assertions, or are a little too in love with their original intention. They don't have turns, and therefore cut off possibilities of discovery. If all I’ve done is execute my original intention, then, for me, that's a failed poem.

JA:  Also, related to what you were saying about the use of metaphor and simile, I wanted to add that it seems to me that you use adjectives and adverbs pretty cautiously.

SD: I think that's true, although I'm getting more and more fond of adjectives lately, especially the way that good ones startle their nouns. I am a bit suspicious of adverbs, yes, which tend to slow things down a lot.

JA: When I first started reading your Selected Poems, it occurred to me that I’d love to interview you. I thought to myself: there are many questions I can ask, but first, let me just get clear, what is it about Stephen Dunn’s work that I find most compelling? Well, one thing is the presence of a kind of reflective humility and humor. In many of your poems there's an underlying sense of absurdity and mortality, humor regarding the transience of an individual life. And this doesn’t strike me as being morbid in the least. In fact, in a way, and I mean this as a compliment, you lean more towards the comedic that the tragic. I was just wondering how that strikes you.

SD: I don't know if this is really an answer to your question, but one of the things that I certainly don't want to do in poems is treat somber subjects somberly. I'm fond of Frost's notion that "if it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness." Also, I cut my literary teeth on Beckett and Pinter and Genet, that whole period in the 1960s when the absurd and the surreal just seemed like reasonable ways to approach the way things were. I think of Beckett, who has one of his characters say: "Nothing is as funny as unhappiness." The comedic and the tragic are almost always intertwined. But I suspect it's not particularly useful for one to know exactly how they play themselves out in one’s own work.

JA: To go in a slightly different direction: throughout your life you've taught creative writing at various universities. Do you enjoy teaching? Do you find that teaching writing has expanded or informed your own writing?

SD: I still teach at Richard Stockton College, where I have been for many years. I co-teach one course in the spring with a friend of mine. Yes, I have always enjoyed teaching. I’m not sure what effect it has had on my own writing. I suspect, if anything, it's made me a better editor, but I don't see how it has affected my work directly, except that my teaching schedule has allowed me some latitudes. I have more open time in the summers, that sort of thing. I think that's been the biggest advantage, to have afforded a good bit of time to write.

JA: Returning to the Selected Poems, there's a piece, one of the new ones, called "Abandon" (p. 182). This poem strikes me as a very moving and subtly humorous commentary on the human tendency to create and reside in comfort zones. I was wondering if you could comment on that particular poem?

SD: This poem actually represents an amalgam of experiences, although it seemingly deals with a singular one. I don't know about “comfort zones,” but maybe that's the right way to talk about it. It's about seeing art—and certainly we could find parallels in poetry today—in which everybody seems to be trying so hard to be unique. On any given day, there seems to be a kind of collective silliness going on, and so, the speaker in this poem yearns for art that he has loved in the past. His comfort zone, perhaps. And then he questions his own conservatism. I mean, even with the often silly stuff you see, the self-indulgent experimental stuff, you have to keep in mind that it might be paving the way for somebody authentic who will maybe make use of the same or similar methods, and actually do something that really matters. So, throughout the poem, the speaker is both asserting and challenging his own sense of art.

JA: I love the line on the bottom of page 182: "it was clear I needed to abandon the self I had brought with me, that inveterate spoilsport.”

SD: You can imagine some of the early surrealists, folks who had been trained classically—how they might have had to abandon some of their dearest, most fondly held notions. To violate our education—one of our great pleasures. As someone said, though, if you're going to do that you had better be sure that you've made the crime interesting.

JA: Included in the Selected Poems volume are some prose poems from Riffs and Reciprocities. In many of these pieces you seem to be working with various leaps and truncations and stylistic shifts. This differs, it seems, from many of your other poems which strike me as more evenly paced and cumulative in nature. I'm wondering how your writing experience was different with Riffs and Reciprocities than with other collections and if you were consciously striving to embrace different techniques and orientations?

SD: The experience was very different. I wrote those not as prose poems, though I don't mind them being called that, but more as prose paragraphs that were tangentially related. I thought of them as prose pairs. I would write one and see what it dictated as its companion. It was a way of working more openly with ideas. My criterion for myself was that I wanted to keep saying things that I had never said or had not heard other people say, and to try as best as I could to write great sentences. I also wanted to commit myself to writing pieces of a certain length—highly compressed, pithy paragraphs. What was different for me is that I wrote all of them in about a year, and they obsessed me totally; that is, I would be writing sentences in my sleep, which almost never happens when I work on poems. And then waking up to write them down.

JA:  So working with prose must really open up new possibilities for you.

SD:  Well, more than ever I was aware of the virtues of obsessiveness. There seemed no end to these little riffs on words, so I arbitrarily gave myself a date when I would stop and return to poems.

JA: Let's talk a little about the role of revision in your writing process. Also, I’m wondering if your work as an editor has been of assistance when it comes to polishing your own work?

SD: The latter is true, for sure. I'm an inveterate reviser. I'm just always doing that. In my lifetime, there have been a handful of poems that have been finished without much revision, but only a handful. I often go to Yaddo or McDowell in the summers and tend to generate a lot of work without worrying about completing it. Then I spend the next year refining those poems and getting them in shape. A fairly new experience that I’ve been having is revision as expansion. Most of us know about revision as an act of paring down. Several years ago, in looking at my work, I saw that I was kind of a page or page and a half kind of poet, which meant that I was thinking of closure around the same time in every poem. I started to confound that habit. By mid-poem, I might add a detail that the poem couldn't yet accommodate. That's especially proven to be an interesting and useful way of revising poems that seem too slight or thin; to add something, put an obstacle in. The artificial as another way to arrive at the genuine—an old story, really.

JA: What do you look for in a first draft? What kind of experience are you seeking, and what ends up determining for you that it's been a successful first draft, that you have something that you can definitely work with?

SD: I suspect that it differs from piece to piece, but maybe it's finding the voice of the poem. In one his essays, my friend, Dave Smith, talks about poems being written by our second selves, and when I can trip myself into that second self, which is where my voice lies, then I usually trust that I'm onto something. The other thing would be what I said before: that I wish to start saying something that in its phrasing and/or its claims is new to me, something I didn't know I knew, or half-knew. These days I tend to abandon poems where nothing like that has happened, whereas in the past, perhaps for the sake of just working, I would continue with the poem for a while. My sense now is that it's more useful for me to move to the next poem than continue fiddling with a piece that hasn't found its core or its locus of concern.

JA: Returning for a moment to the subject of revision, I guess that process of discovery that you mentioned a couple of times can continue while you’re revising.

SD: Well, in the initial stages of composition, you often allow what I would call unnecessary impulses to enter the poem. They can be useful, those impulses, but you don't actually know if they're necessary or unnecessary until you reach the end of the piece. So a large part of revision occurs in the actual course of writing—discovering what you're doing as you go, and finally keeping that which pertains and shedding that which doesn't.

JA: Related to the idea of necessary or unnecessary impulses, in another interview you talked about the need for a balance between restraint and extravagance.

SD: I allude to this in one of my poems, maybe in an essay too, that I think restraint is very important in poems, but if the poem hasn't taken on very much, if you're restrained about a small thing, then it’s not very desirable; restraint is for situations where there’s something bursting, a kind of emotional or intellectual largeness; otherwise, restraint is essentially wasted.

JA: Throughout this collection, you refer to or dedicate poems to various poets. I'd like to mention a few names and ask you how these poets' works have informed, inspired, or maybe impacted your own. Let me start with Wallace Stevens ("The House Was Quiet," 119). What kind of relationship have you had with his work?

SD: A rather profound one. He was a poet whom for many years I read pre-cognitively. That is, I didn't need to understand what he was doing. I loved being amidst those rhythms and that kind of wildness and stateliness. My poem is a play on his poem, "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm." I took what was going on in my own life at that time, a divorce in particular, and I adapted the poem for my own purposes.

JA: Allen Ginsberg ("Last Words," 166).

SD: Ginsberg is an interesting figure for me, his work habits and sense of poetics being so radically different from my own, and yet, who wouldn't be happy to have written "Howl” or "Kaddish"? Ginsberg is one of those important poets who, in my opinion, probably wrote more bad poems than anybody I can think of. All the “cock and balls” work and his sense that “the first thought is the best.” My first thought has almost never been my best thought. Nevertheless, he's someone I admire a great deal. When I heard, wherever I did, that "I'm tired and want to lie down" were his last words, I first connected them to my brother who was dying at the time, then they struck me by themselves with their simple eloquence. The poem ended up becoming somewhat of a Ginsberg tribute, though it didn't start that way. I had been collecting other great last words, and used some to leaven the deathiness of the poem. Finally, the poem became an accidental tribute to Ginsberg, and I left it that way. I was happy to be able to affirm a poet so very different from myself.

JA: A poet of extravagance, for sure.

SD: Yes, but in his best poems, a rather disciplined extravagance.

JA: How about Neruda ("Language: A Love Poem,” 170)?

SD: Neruda was important to me early on in a couple of ways. He has that poem, “I’m Explaining a Few Things.” There are a couple of lines: "and the blood of children ran through the streets/ like…" and then rather than reach for the dazzling simile, he repeats the earlier phrase: "children’s blood." That restraint, and how he couples it with extravagances elsewhere—that balance—has meant a lot to me.

JA: You mention Mark Strand in "The Answers" (p. 124).

Strand has a wonderful poem called "Elegy For My Father." One of the sections in that poem is called “Answers,” and the strategy is that he asks the father repeated questions: “Why did you travel?” “What did you wear?” “Who did you sleep with?” When he gets an answer, the strategy is to ask the same question again, in order to elicit a more essential answer, and that's the method or device I borrowed from Strand when I wrote those two "Answers" poems (124, 130).

JA: Moving to a different topic, you do occasionally mention political matters in your poems. I'm wondering if you would like to make any comment on the political state of affairs right now, including the
US economy, the election of a new president, various world affairs.

SD: Well, like many of us, I'm absolutely heartened by Obama and the shift in, if nothing else, tone, but I have a poem—I don't know if you've seen it, it was in the New Republic recently—called  "A Revolt." It’s a piece about the banking industry. That's about as direct a political poem as I am likely to write. What does Stevens say? Something like "reality exerts pressure on the imagination."  Even if you think of yourself as a lyric poet, the world presses in. What I'm saying is that to take on the political in poetry is not much different than responding to the weather. That said, the political poem is a very difficult poem to write, mostly because we know what we think about our subject before we begin.

JA: Kind of like a love poem.

SD: The danger is that you might not leave room for discovery, and fall into the perils of earnestness.

JA: And then the piece essentially becomes propagandistic.

SD: Yeah, you might just execute your preconceived ideas. You might write a tract instead of a poem.

JA: I’m wondering if you would speak a little about breakthroughs or significant milestones you have experienced with your writing. I'm not talking so much about awards or honors, but rather, about poems in which you have experienced a significant shift or embraced a new direction—pieces that, when you reflect on them, you’re pretty amazed you have actually written.

SD: Well, the one poem that seems to fall into that category for me is a long poem called "Loves," which is about five hundred lines long (and, speaking of revision, I wrote that poem in twenty-one straight days without revision); it was one of those “gift poems,”  a convergence I suppose of a long-considered subject with a right time in my life as a maker of poems to take it on. The other seemingly important occasions were, as I mentioned before, allowing my poems to range and talk more, essentially beginning with my fourth book Work and Love. And then learning how to discipline my discursiveness with William Carlos Williams' step-down three-line stanza—evident in my book Local Time and continuing into Between Angels, the first book that Norton published. In other words, my free verse was in the process of discovering its formalities. Also in Between Angels I attempted to flesh out abstractions such as "Loneliness," Tenderness," Emptiness," "Forgiveness," and so on—something I've continued to do in different ways for many years now.

JA: What are some ongoing challenges you face as a poet? Are there certain themes or memories or life experiences that remain difficult for you to write about, that you struggle to express?

SD: No, I tend to think that any subject you find yourself fearful of is one to take on, not to turn away from. But there are many things to write about, and appearances aside, I'm not terribly interested in my life's experiences. These days I think of subject matter as occasions to be interesting. It's useful to be a little bored with yourself if you're writing about self. I'm more interested in explorations of consciousness than I am in self-expression. The challenge for me has always been to make poems for myself that are for others.

JA: What are you working on now?

SD: I'm working on new poems. I have about twelve or thirteen new ones that I think have some merit.

JA: How do you see yourself continuing to evolve as a poet?

SD: I remember sort of worrying about this when I was starting out, that all the poets I admired seemed to be dying by the time they were fifty or fifty-two. That I've been able to push things forward for this long seems both fortunate and amazing. I'll let the poems themselves instruct me about what's next.

JA: You have that poem "Sixty"—

SD: Right. None of the males in the Dunn family lived beyond sixty, so it was quite startling to still be alive and writing poems at that age. And now, nine years later, I ain’t dead yet.

JA: It’s been a pleasure to engage with your work; and, of course, to speak with you today.

SD:  A pleasure for me too, though I'm reminded of Nicanor Parra's great poem that ends with "I take back everything I've said." Well, in this case, not everything.

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