Philip Dacey: Lets 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
andwith a bottle of gin by his sidewould 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 againI've told it in print several
timesbut 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
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 andagainhis 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 MaughamI 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
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 armyI was 23 or somy 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, youre 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 poetryand 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
worldthe 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: Isnt writing a way to achieve
coherence in ones 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 learnedso I could still feel decent, I supposeto
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 dont deliberately tack away
from whats 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
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 goambition 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'thow all artists keep themselves
interested in their art.
PD: Halls position seems to leave out
following ones 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
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 friendshipthe 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
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
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
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 reviseinserting
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
ofit occasionally has lead to inaction, impotencebut 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
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
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 youlike 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 youre 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 knowthe 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 Whitmanhis
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
calculatedthe 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: Whats been the effect of teaching on
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 teacherthough I teach at a state college
and have a relatively high course loadmostly 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
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 '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
TCR March 2000 Feature