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STEPHEN DUNN - MARCH 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Stephen Dunn
Philip Dacey interviews his friend Stephen Dunn and discusses Rilke, T.S. Eliot, and New Jersey.

John Kinsella
Sleep's Zeitgeber: The next installment in John Kinsella's fast-paced and exclusive autobiography series.

David Kennedy
The Days of '49: Whether you remember the era or not, David Kennedy reviews the book by Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie.

Stephen Dunn

Stephen DunnStephen Dunn is the author of ten collections of poetry, including Loosestrife (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, 1996), New & Selected Poems: 1974-1994, Landscape at the End of the Century, Between Angels, all from W.W. Norton. Local Time was a winner of the National Poetry Series in 1986. His books published with Carnegie-Mellon University Press are Not Dancing, Work and Love, Circus of Needs, and Full of Lust and Good Usage. Looking for Holes in the Ceiling was published by The University of Massachusetts Press. A new collection Different Hours is forthcoming from Norton in 2000. He is a Trustee Fellow in the Arts, and Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey. This is his first online appearance.

Click to hear DeWayne Rail's greeting Philip Dacey's RealAudio Introduction

Interview with Stephen Dunn

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Philip Dacey
: Let’s start with your origins and influences. Family first. Are there any relatives you feel your life as a poet derives from in some way?

Stephen Dunn: Well, we had no artists or thinkers in our family. My maternal grandfather, who lived with us, was the only reader in the family. Though we had no books in the house, he borrowed one almost every day from the lending library and—with a bottle of gin by his side—would read it before he fell asleep in his chair. He had arthritis, and it was his way of getting to sleep. He also was a wonderful storyteller, a Jew who had been in the merchant marines and ended up as a theatrical agent. I may have learned from him that reading and story telling were valuable.

PD: Any other relatives?

SD: My father may be most responsible for, if not my poetry, then the creation of my inner life. I won't tell his story again—I've told it in print several times—but he lived a noble lie that ruined his life, a lie that I alone was privy to. He was my introduction to ambivalence and moral complexity. My mother may have contributed to my ability to keep going in the face of uncertainty and neglect. She loved me unconditionally, and I've learned that such love breeds a kind of confidence, however wrongheaded, that things will turn out all right for you. A new poem called "Optimism" addresses that phenomenon.

PD: What artist, not a poet, has meant a lot to you?

SD: Dostoyevsky was the first writer to wholly take over my consciousness: The Brothers Karamazov when I was around 19 or so. I felt that so much of my suppressed erotic, intellectual, and spiritual life had been addressed. Before him, Jean Shepherd, a brilliant talker, who had a radio show in New York. As a teenager, I'd listen to him tell stories every night from 10 to 11. I loved his humor and his narrative timing and—again—his ability to articulate thoughts that you'd thought but wouldn't say out loud. All of this relates, I suppose, to my quietness and shyness as a boy. And I guess Salinger and Maugham—I read everything they wrote in my early to mid teens. Moody, sensitive guys. I suspect they flattered my sense of myself. They certainly persuaded me that literature had an intimate connection with my life, but they were more influences than guides. I never thought I'd be a writer, no less a poet, and didn't learn how to take myself seriously as one until my late twenties.

PD: If not a writer, what did you think you'd be?

SD: Because I was an athlete and could write a little, I thought maybe I could be a sports reporter. I entertained that notion toward the end of my undergraduate days, and in my senior year I took a journalism course, but it was nothing that I pursued with any commitment. In the army at Fort Jackson, I did do sports reporting for the regimental newspaper. And when I got out of the army—I was 23 or so—my mother arranged an interview for me with the editor of the Flint Journal, in Michigan. She had gone to high school with him. It worked, and I was offered a job as a cub reporter, but I turned it down. If I can remember correctly, it was because I felt awkward about asking questions to strangers. After that, I answered an ad in The New York Times for a writer and ended up writing brochures for Nabisco. So you see that when I said I never thought I'd be a writer, I meant a poet or a novelist.

PD: Well, you’re definitely a writer: I count at least a dozen books. How would you account for your steadiness of commitment and productivity over decades?

SD: Some combination of luck and selfishness. Perhaps one lucky factor is that, ever since my first book, I've always had a publisher. What that's meant is I've been able to get on to the next thing, that manuscripts haven't backed up as they have for so many of my friends. And I suppose the luckiest is that, in fact, there has been a next thing to get to, that I've been able to push my work forward, or so it seems. I've had a fairly stable home life and job life, and from the beginning I always claimed my time and space for writing. Perhaps some aspects of family life have suffered because of that, but I never thought I was making a choice. Once I started to write poems seriously, that's what I most wanted to do, and I suppose I've demonstrated why it's difficult to be married to an artist. But I feel that the poetry—and I hope my wife and children feel this too (I'm afraid to ask)—has contributed to the quality of life that we've had. Perhaps I shouldn't be trusted on this subject.

PD: Do you feel like a New Jersey poet after all your years there, or is the association more accidental than not?

SD: More accidental. All my landscapes, all the localities in my poems, provide occasions for exploring and discovering various concerns of mine: desire, loss, joy, disappointment, otherness, the impingement of the larger world on my little world—the usual stuff. The politics of such. The sentience and ambiguousness of it. Explorations, in other words, in search of attitudes. In the course of such explorations, if I happen to deliver qualities and aspects of New Jersey, that's all to the good. Similarly, one doesn't try to become an American poet. One is because of circumstance and because he finds himself speaking a certain idiom peculiar to his situation and time. I do admit, however, that in Loosestrife I made somewhat of a conscious effort to include indigenous details, but if I had thought I was mostly providing local color, I would have abandoned those poems.

PD: What advice for such longevity would you give to younger poets who intend to be in it for the long haul like yourself?

SD: To keep at it and be as dedicated as other artists. Poetry doesn't reveal its secrets to the occasional poet. Be as committed as, say, a violinist or a ballerina would be. No shortcuts. Young poets may be the only would-be artists I know who actually believe they might be able to pull something off because they have strong feelings about it and who are not embarrassed when they hit false notes. Finally, you must be a little driven, and what you're doing must be crucial to you in order not to be defeated by the likely neglect that awaits you, the lack of rewards, and the fact that, by and large, your culture doesn't take you seriously.

PD: You advise the young to "keep at it." Does that mean you're more of a democrat than T.S. Eliot who felt there should be fewer poets writing fewer poems?

SD: No, I'm more of an existentialist than he is. I think everyone should have the freedom to ruin his own life, that it's not my job to close off the possibilities. Let anyone who wishes keep at it until the work and the world instruct him one way or another. Besides, I tend to like people who like poetry. At the very least, those who try their hand at it tend to become better readers.

PD: Would you elaborate on "existentialist" as it applies to your own work?

SD: I was a history major in college and also read a good amount of philosophy and became especially enamored of the existentialist writers. It's very possible that nothing has made as much compelling sense to me since. I was very attracted to Sartre's notion that existence precedes essence and that we are alone in the universe and whatever meaning there might be was ours to create. As I think of it now, a kind of poet's credo, no? A free verse poet's credo? At any rate, though I've long abandoned the notion of living any kind of coherent life, I've mostly tried to behave according to that thinking. Misbehave, too. No excuses, ever.

PD: Isn’t writing a way to achieve coherence in one’s life?

SD: Life is sloppy, but some semblance of order and coherence is possible in one's work; that's what I'd say right off. But to address the idea of a coherent life, I'll cite the beginning of one of my prose pairs, "Principles."

It is always good to take the always out. I had them once, the usual shall's and shall not's. But I'd get variously obese with life, and they couldn't hold me in. Nor could I do honor to them, they were so easily disappointed. I believed of course that one should always keep a promise. But I learned—so I could still feel decent, I suppose—to take the always out. It is always good to take the always out.

No, I once thought I could live a life that would hold up to scrutiny. A life of admirable consistency. Life, itself, confounded that. But I do think that in our poems and in our stories we can offer those momentary stays against confusion. We can create coherencies out of the raw stuff of life, the chaos of it, the fraughtness of it. Credible fictions that for awhile seduce us and others into acceptance of them. Versions of a life, not a life. Yes, if we do them well enough they may well indeed constitute a life, especially after we're gone.

PD: Define a Steve Dunn poem.

SD: I don't think I write one kind of poem. If I were to be reductive, however, I might say it's a poem in which I want to exhibit a constant presence of mind in service of how it feels to be alive, a poem that tries to think its way down the page, finding its textures and rhythms as it goes, a poem that "at its best" might be a "holiday of the mind," to borrow Valery's phrase.

PD: Am I right not to associate you with any group or school of poets and to see such independence reflected in your line, "it's bad taste to want to agree with many people"?

SD: Yes, I think you're right. I don't belong to any particular grouping, but I would like to agree with many people. I just can't. I think one of my early motivations for writing was that other people's versions of experience didn't gel with my own. It was a gesture toward sanity to try to get the world right for myself. I've since learned that if you get it right for yourself, it often has resonance for others. They're the ones I'd like to be in my club, a club, by the way, that would never meet.



PD: So you don’t deliberately tack away from what’s current?

SD: We really don't choose the poems we write. They come to us. I can't take any credit for independence, and maybe the relative lack of early critical attention helped me in this regard. No strong critic defined a Stephen Dunn poem. Had that occurred, who knows? I might have believed what was said and have seen myself as a writer of a particular stamp. I might have written, say, deep image poems for the rest of my life.

PD: You take on ambitious projects with some regularity: "The Snowmass Cycle," for example, or "Loves," or your book of prose pairs, Riffs and Reciprocities, to name just a few. Donald Hall has encouraged such ambition in poets, opposing it to writing one MacPoem after another. What are your thoughts on poetry and ambition?

SD: I see nothing wrong with being ambitious after the fact, that is, after the poem is finished, to wish for it a place in the world. Ambition during composition is usually deadly unless it's ambition for that which the poem might do and where it might go—ambition for how much of the world and experience it can be equal to. My motives for writing the longer poems were, initially at least, to see if I could. But the more one works long, the more one sees that he has different problems to solve, more effects to orchestrate, more rhythms to sustain and vary. Such poems have tested me in ways smaller poems haven't, and that is part of the compositional fun. They've allowed me to find different ways to structure meaning. To now and then give yourself tasks which require you to be better than yourself is, I guess, a form of ambition. If it is, I am ambitious in that regard: to do what you can't—how all artists keep themselves interested in their art.

PD: Hall’s position seems to leave out following one’s stray impulses in a Stafford-like way.

SD: Frank Lloyd Wright stated, "The small house is the architect's greatest challenge." It seems to me that one can be ambitious indeed for the short poem as well. As for Stafford's notions, I think it's good to create a mass of work, to not always worry about writing the important poem. I love having notebooks of failed poems from which to borrow. I liked, for a long while, thinking of writing as a kind of practice, as a generative act, but, to me now, such working habits are better left for the young. I no longer consciously want to work on a trivial poem. I write enough of them unconsciously.

PD: Say a little more about writing as a kind of practice, as a generative act.

SD: Starting out, and for many years, I was happy just to be writing, and I'd try to finish whatever I had started. In pianist's terms, I was getting my fingers nimble, practicing my scales. Also I was made free by my relative ignorance of what a good poem was. I didn't have a lot to stop me. None of that is possible for me anymore. For better or worse, I feel I'm playing in Carnegie Hall.

PD: Rilke says we must choose happiness or art. Would you agree?

SD: I tend to distrust either/or constructions. I remember Auden concluding his poem "September 1, 1939" with "We must love each other or die." He later changed it to "We must love one another and die." I'm an "and" person. "And" always seems closer to the truth, but happiness, of course, is a fraught word. My poem "Happiness" begins, "A state we must dare not enter/with hopes of staying." Nevertheless, though I don't live for happiness, I do live for good work and good loving and good friendship and have had, over the years, the pleasures that devolve from those things. And naturally I've had their attendant corollaries too: disappointment, loss, failure. It's so hard to tell the truth about a lived life! You can be sure this very moment that I'm telling you less than half the story. Fernando Pessoa says "Life would be unbearable if we made ourselves conscious of it." Well, I'm one who has tried to make himself conscious of it, so it's very hard to talk about things like happiness without ambivalence. Terrible things are happening in Kosovo. Terrible things are happening down the street. How do I claim my pleasures while the world is such an awful place? It's amazing isn't it, the complexities we can live with? I have loved and been loved, I've been a gambler and an athlete, I have wonderful children and a wife I love to whom I've been married for 35 years. It would be a lie to say I must choose between happiness and art. I can live with many things. Just to admit that I've been married for 35 years means that I've experienced joy and diminution and quiet evenings and tumultuous evenings and betrayal and dishonesty and tenderness and withholdings and forgiveness and cowardice and boredom and friendship—the list could go on. Ands.

PD: Do you, nevertheless, see the pursuit of art as requiring sacrifices?

SD: The sacrifice one makes for art is distance: to live more outside one's life than in it. It's simply an occupational hazard. There's no choice involved in it. By the way, the epigraph to my forthcoming book is "I regret only my economies." It's from Reynolds Price.

PD: I'm sure the readers of this interview would like to know a little more about that forthcoming book.

SD: It's called Different Hours, and Norton will publish it in the fall of 2000. I'm not sure what I can say about it, but after I read from it recently, a poet came up to me, shook my hand, and said, "Mortality: a poet's best friend." I think that might give some idea of its tenor and concerns.

PD: Has your approach to the writing of poems, your method, changed over the decades?

SD: Yes, it's changed quite a bit. The first significant changes started to occur, I think, with my fourth book, Work and Love, in the early 80's. Around that time my long flirtation with the surreal, which had started to wane a few years earlier, came to pretty much of an end. I found myself inclined more toward a more direct treatment of subject, heightened, if you will, by tone, by stance, and I found myself writing poems that were a little more discursive. With my next book, Not Dancing, I used that three-line, step-down stanza (modeled after Williams's) as a way to discipline and harness that inclination. I also think that with Work and Love I started to write my own poems, and perhaps before that book it could be said I was writing the poems that were being written at the time. Most fundamentally, I think the change had to do with realizing (with the help of Pavese) that poems didn't have to be image-driven, metaphor-driven, that the entire poem might constitute a metaphor so that one could think his way through a poem without worrying that he wasn't writing dazzling images. As you might imagine, this discovery went against my poetic education.

PD: And more recently?

SD: More recently, I suppose, I've been refining how to write the poem of mind. I've tried for a poem of clear surfaces in service, I hope, of the elusive, the difficult to say. Somewhere over the last ten or fifteen years, I also tapped into my philosophical tendencies, have learned to argue with myself as I go, to assert then doubt a claim, to compose dialectically. I often make discoveries by resisting the available language of a subject. In short, I think I've learned how to "find" the poem I'm writing by resisting where it wants to go and/or resisting my initial impulses for it.

PD: When you speak of writing a poem by resisting where it wants to go, I think of Lowell's favorite way to revise—inserting into a line a "not" that completely reverses the meaning. Would you elaborate on writing by resisting?

SD: I didn't know the Lowell tactic, but I like it. I've done something similar as an exercise, which is to look at a poem I've written that doesn't seem to be working and write a poem against it, taking a different point of view. Often that's proved effective. But I suspect that "writing by resisting," as you call it, has more to do with habit of mind than anything else. When I say or assert something, I almost immediately hear and start to entertain its opposite. It's not anything I'm proud of—it occasionally has lead to inaction, impotence—but it does lead to kind of measuring and refining. So it comes out of a certain philosophical predisposition which has behind it some familiarity with the history of ideas. Thus the immediate doubt that what I've just said can hold up. I feel this way even when I'm being descriptive. Hasn't someone described this better? If I resist my first foray, won't I likely offer something a little more accurate? That's why surprising myself is so important. It's the only good reason I have for keeping what I've just written.

PD: As a writer do you have one particular person you turn to regularly to vet your new work before you submit it to public view?

SD: I show a few people my poems, but the one significant person is Lawrence Raab. Over the last 18 years or so, he's seen almost everything I've written and has held it to high, exacting standards. He has a wonderful, severe intelligence, and because I know he is disposed to me and my work, I'm able to listen to his criticisms. I also know how not to listen to him. Of course it helps that he's a very good poet and that I admire his work. He will not let me get away with easy effects or old gestures. He's been invaluable.

PD: Some poets have other poets they read to get their creative juices flowing, to begin their time at the writing desk. Do you have such a poet?

SD: No, I don't have one such poet. Various poets over the years have haunted and galvanized my work: Frost and Stevens and Roethke, in particular, and in recent years, Andrade, Herbert, Szymborska. But a typical way for me to get started these days is from a line or sentence or paragraph from my notebook. All year long I fill my notebook with pithy material from what I've been reading. More often than not, it will be from prose rather than from poetry. I use such lines as points of departure, but I also begin poems from nowhere. Just sit in my room and see what comes. My criterion for myself is that I'm not in my poem until the first moment I surprise myself.

PD: Why get started from prose rather than from poetry? Is there a contrarian impulse in you—like being member of a club that never meets, or finding a poem by resisting it? Does the prose serve to resist poetry and, therefore, give you the edge you need?

SD: Hmmm. Provocative. I must think about that. Lois would certainly be in accord with your word "contrarian." She says that whenever a new thing is suggested to me, I always say "No" to it. Then I'll often reconsider and come around. But to deal with the specifics of your question, I don't think it's a resistance to poetry or a way of tricking myself into the writing of it. I think it has to do with reading a lot of contemporary poetry and not wanting to borrow or steal from my peers, though I don't mind borrowing from my distant predecessors, and I do. I feel that much freer borrowing from non-fiction writers and philosophers and novelists. So my notebook tends to get filled up more with prose. There may be more complicated reasons, but I don't know what they are.

PD: How does Riffs and Reciprocities fit into what you’re saying here?

SD: The prose pairs, I think, permitted me to be more overtly philosophical and ideational. I feel that the paragraph form gave me essayistic latitude, and the formal aspect of composing in pairs permitted me to have several ideas and claims rub up against and perhaps confound or elucidate each other.

PD: If you could be known for only one poem of yours, which one would it be? Why?

SD: A very tough question. Maybe "The Snowmass Cycle," though to be known by it would not, I think, provide an entrée into my broader work. I'm fond of it because it's a poem that has a certain contemplative energy to it and seems wholly "found," in the discovery sense of that word. I don't think there's a moment in it that I could have anticipated before the act of composition. But I have a new one called "A Postmortem Guide" which would be its rival.

PD: I assume "A Postmortem Guide" will be in the forthcoming book. Why is the poem so important to you?

SD: Yes, it will be the last poem in the book. Maybe why it's important to me is because I think that, throughout, I navigate right on the edge between what might be called sincerity and invention of self with an eye toward blending them, though in the act of composition, I was conscious of nothing that I just said. The poem offers something like a stylized retrospective of a life that feels at once insightful to me and true and yet amusing in its stance toward itself. I don't know—the kind of poem that might have behind it Pessoa's notion that "to pretend is to know oneself." But of course I'm only saying this because I'm trying to answer your question. To anyone else I'd say, "read the poem."

PD: Some issues as poet for you in the past, I know, have been abstraction, fictiveness, and closure. Do you have any new thoughts on any or all of those?

SD: In fact, I have a new essay coming out in the AWP Magazine entitled "Experience, Imagination, and the Poet as Fictionist." I won't go into my argument here, but I will say that, because I've most often composed poems in the first person, it's been crucial for me to think of myself as a fictionist as opposed to someone who's just eliciting what's happened to him. I use the vehicle of the first person to help make credible what might be the experience of others or some conflation of my own experiences glazed by the imagination. At all cost, I try to avoid the solipsisms of the untransformed self. I never discuss my own life without a mask. And there's often a mask beneath that mask. In fact, I have some notes toward an essay that will be called "Degrees of Fidelity" which will try to speak to this issue.

PD: And the other two issues?

SD: As for closure and abstraction, nothing new really. I still like the click at the end of the poem that feels syntactically right but which doesn't lock the door. And I love to find strategies for getting away with the abstract, which of course is one way for the mind to be outside of its subject, pointing to its locus of concern while it simultaneously muses, say, about a walk in the park. A real art to that, one that I've always been trying to master.

PD: I connect you to Walt Whitman—his intimacy with his reader, when he says, "I won't tell everyone, but I'll tell you," and your confessions of secrets to readers, including confessing you're holding something back. Do I make sense?

SD: I hesitate to compare myself with Whitman for obvious reasons, but also because he is exuberant where I am, by degree, restrained, but I understand your question as having to do with presentation of self and narrative tactics. Whitman, of course, is sly in his relation to the reader, and his first-person self wishes to be as much everyman as it wishes to be individual. As I say in one of my prose pairs, "I admire Whitman's ego, capacious but not big." He used himself emblematically. I, too, wish to effect an intimacy that will make my concerns feel like the reader's, but, as you know, I've eschewed the vatic stance and voice. Almost everything I say in a poem is more calculated—the poet posing as the man it is useful to be at that moment of the poem. All my "confessed secrets," I hope, are kindred gestures to the lives of others, but also are tactics facilitating permissible ways to say the unsayable. Poetry is, in large part, manipulation and seduction.

PD: What’s been the effect of teaching on your writing?

SD: I suppose that all the years of bringing an editorial eye to students' work has, in some measure, helped me to bring the same hard eye to my own work. At least, it couldn't have hurt. Perhaps I'm a more acute editor because of the years of teaching. Moreover, my life as a college teacher—though I teach at a state college and have a relatively high course load—mostly has been good for my poetry, even beyond having summers free. I am tenured, due to strange administrative fiat, in the Art department. This is due to an odd tenure quota that the college has. The Literature department, which I was in initially and for which I still offer my creative writing courses, was over the quota. As a result, I have no exact responsibilities to either the Art or Literature departments and haven't been to a departmental meeting in 20 years. In a sense, I'm my own department. Also, because I've proved myself to be rather incompetent on committees, I've served on very few. This has all translated into writing time.

PD: What books do you have on your nightstand?

SD: At present, Octavio Paz's The Double Flame: Love & Eroticism and Gina Berriault's wonderful collection of stories, Women in their Beds, and Zbigniew Herbert's The King of the Ants: Mythological Essays.

PD: As the reader turns from this interview to go read or re-read some of your poems, what advice do you have for him or her?

SD: Trust the poems more than anything I've said here. Of all my utterances, they come closest to what I've meant to say.


Philip Dacey Philip Dacey 's sixth and seventh books were published in April, The Deathbed Playboy (Eastern Washington University Press) and The Paramour of the Moving Air (Quarterly Review of Literature). He's currently completing a book-length sequence of poems about Thomas Eakins.

Stephen Dunn interviewed by Philip Dacey
TCR March 2000 Feature

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