The Cortland Review


Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns on Poetry: Choosing the work over the life, and "trying to pass to some other kind of level below the surface."

Paul Hamill

Saint Brendan Reports To The Monks Of Iona. A world of sea and land, soft mornings, and gildings of glory.

Leslie McGrath

T'ang, Textures and Texas in Dick Allen's, The Day Before.

Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. He is the acclaimed author of Best Words, Best Order, now in its second edition by Macmillan in 2003. His newest book, The Porcupine's Kisses (Penguin, 2002), is his eleventh book of poems, and Eating Naked (Henry Holt & Company, 2001), is his first volume of short stories. His twenty-one novels, among them the highly-lauded psychological thrillers, Boy in the Water and The Church of Dead Girls (both from Henry Holt & Company), have been translated into more than twenty languages. He is, additionally, a regular contributing writer for the San Diego Reader.

Dobyns has been awarded a Guggenheim, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and numerous prizes, including Pushcart Prizes and prizes from Poetry and the American Poetry Review. Showing how easily he moves from one genre to another, Dobyns has had poems selected by Best American Poems, two of the stories in Eating Naked have been selected for Best American Short Stories, two of his novels have become movies, and Best Words, Best Order ranks on everybody's list among the finest books ever written about poetry. He teaches and lives with his wife and daughter in Boston.

Stephen Dobyns on Poetry - Interview




It's National Poetry Month, and I'm speaking with Stephen Dobyns, who is about to conclude his semester as the H. Bruce McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech.

Whether he's writing prose or poetry, Dobyns is a story-teller par excellence, and whether he's writing about courage or cowardice, the raucous or the spiritual, the meek or the menacing, whether his character is Orpheus or a Sad Sack getting a thrill in a topless bar, Dobyns' poems are funny, full of testosterone, and profoundly human. At first glance, they appear casual in that they start simply enough, but they pick up speed and hurtle the reader forward just the way life does. He is witty, imaginative, sometimes shocking, and always wildly original.

Dobyns is so forthcoming and generous with his responses during the interview, what follows is a course in poetry, and for that reason, TCR presents it in two parts: Part I (below) discusses poetry in general, but always as it stacks up against Dobyns' own philosophy about what poetry is and is supposed to do, and Part II (to be presented in Issue 26) is an exploration into his particular body of work—the progression of Stephen Dobyns and the Stephen Dobyns poem book by book.

—Ginger Murchison


Audio clips from the interview:

Rhythm borrowed from music
On Philip Larkin
Following your idea
Defining one's self
Invention of metaphor (Merwin's Asian figures)
Sound as metaphor (Yeats' "Leda and the Swan")


Stephen Dobyns On Poetry The Interview

TCR: The Georgia Tech Community and Atlanta, both of whom have benefited from your work here, will miss you, so I'm going to try to ask the questions they'd ask, and they'd want to know more about you, so describe Stephen Dobyns as a twelve-year-old. What about him would have predicted he'd be a writer?

Stephen Dobyns: I'm not sure anything would have predicted that. I read a lot, though at that time I probably read science fiction and mysteries. I was a good writer then, although I didn't have any sense of it. There were writing exercises I had to do in grade school, and the teacher would read them out loud—something I took as a punishment rather than as flattering—but she or he would be struck by them, and then, I think, in the 7th grade—the 6th grade was in East Lansing, Michigan, and the 7th grade was in Arlington, Virginia—I started reading stuff that was, I suppose, more adult. I remember looking through the school library for another science fiction book, and I found Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, which struck me as a science fiction title, and it led me to reading Steinbeck, and from there, Hemingway.

Do you remember what you were reading the first time you thought I can do that?

Stephen Dobyns: I don't think I ever thought that. What I felt was I wanted to do that. When I was 15 or 16, the poetry I knew was mostly what was taught in high school and junior high school. It tended to be nineteenth-century poetry and, whatever my feelings were, I remember liking Browning's "To His Last Duchess," but I had no sense of its being something that I could do or wanted to do. The language was too different from my own.

About that time, though, they started reading poetry to jazz, and I was very struck by that. There was one album of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman; there were other albums of Ferlinghetti and Rexroth reading, and then an album of Langston Hughes reading, and I started reading poetry and thinking I wanted to write it.

So music was the hook. I know you're very deliberate about the rhythm of the line. I've seen you tap out the lines with your foot or finger while you read.

Stephen Dobyns: That's true. My father had been a musician and had gone to Julliard to study piano, but he left there to go to graduate school at Columbia in music. He didn't like teaching high school music and went into other work, but there was music in the house a lot; he was musical, my mother was musical, my brother plays various instruments, my son plays various instruments. Many times I've gotten rhythms from music, not necessarily transposing the rhythm of a song into the poem, but I keep taking it into consideration. I remember a poem that I wrote in graduate school in Iowa—probably about 1965 or so. The first line was:

You pick up your purse, I speak, you smile,   

and that ba bop ba ba bop ba bop ba bop struck me as a straightforward rock and roll rhythm.

I guess that's what you meant when you said you listen to music to steal.

Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. Mostly it's not a clear-cut transition from one to the other, but I listen and think how I could do something like that.

Taking into account the magnitude of your work and the excellence of it, regardless of what genre you're in, suggests that you are driven to write. Explain what drives you.

Stephen Dobyns: I suppose there's a need to translate my experience of the world into language. Things are most palpable to me in language. Obviously, we live within time, and time is constantly going by, and a poem or anything you write, really, attempts to freeze a moment of time. I've always felt a need to do that as well... something I saw, something I experienced. The poem is not necessarily directly about that experience, but it is a metaphor for it, and, too, there's the pleasure of putting the words together, of trying to articulate things in a particular manner, whether it be in the complexity of image or the complexity of sound. That's always a task: to see if you can do that.

After all these poems and all these books, it's still a task?

Stephen Dobyns: Sure. I haven't learned everything. I haven't learned half of everything.

Maybe that's why I don't see you involved in a lot of self-promotion. It seems as if you write, going where the writing takes you, without getting caught up in self-importance. I respect that.

Stephen Dobyns: I don't believe in self-promotion much. I think you choose either the work or the life. There certainly are poets who choose the life, who are into self-promotion, and that's what they are.

You can't allow yourself to be hesitant in a poem. You have to think what the poem needs, and you have to be frank with it.

TCR: Who or what is Stephen Dobyns? Can you define him?

Stephen Dobyns: I think something can only be defined when it's settled. I see the work as changing, see the books as different from one another, so it would be hard for me to make a definition. Also, I'm not sure I want that consciousness of myself. One of the things I try to avoid is self-parody, and if I were to sit down and try to define myself, it would seem an immediate limitation. Language is always a diminishment of what it's attempting to describe, and thinking of the critical terms we know, all those which are critic-based are, for the most part, a diminishment of an idea.

Charlie Simic is a poet I admire and whose work is very consistent. In the almost forty years of poetry that we have from him, while there are certainly changes within Simic, they are very slight changes, and you can always recognize a Simic poem, so I suppose it might be easier for someone like Simic to define what he is doing. I am working within the genre of poetry, and that permits me a lot of room, whether it be the prose poem or a very traditional poem or different kinds of free verse poems.

TCR: That's pretty evident in the range of the work you've published. I will get more into the work, but for now I'm going to make a personal observation, and I look forward to your correcting me if I'm wrong, but socially you are very quiet and seemingly much more inclined to listen than to jump into the argument, yet your poems are full of opinion, they are visceral, raucous, and speak in a voice that is anything but reticent, and one that seems to come quite naturally, so what happens when you pick up the pen? Whose voice are we hearing in the poems?

Stephen Dobyns: It's my voice. I can be argumentative when I need to be, but I once heard a guy at a meeting say that when he felt inclined to talk, he asked himself: Why am I saying this? Do I need to say it? Do I need to say it now? That made me realize that a lot of human speech is jockeying for position, and so before I speak, I want to know if I'm trying to reflect some credit on myself. That sometimes makes me more reticent than I might otherwise be. I don't want to use my speech to set me off or see that other people are impressed by me. That's just smoke and mirrors.

TCR: That shows a huge respect for the language and for other people, and it speaks again to your unwillingness to self-promotion. I'm awed at that kind of generosity. I'm also in awe that you can write in so many genres at once and move, apparently easily, back and forth between them. Even Faulkner, you know, described himself as a failed poet. He said:

Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

If I remember right, that's not the way you did it. I think you wrote poetry first, then novels, then short stories, but comment, if you will, on how you keep all of that on your desk at the same time and move so easily between them.

Stephen Dobyns: They're all different ways of using my mind. The first things I wrote—I was in high school—were little short story things, little descriptive paragraph things. I also did some journalism in high school, and then in college I wrote some poems and some fiction and took a playwriting class and tried to write some plays. Obviously, I wrote papers in college and afterward began working as a general assignment reporter for the Detroit News, and since about 1995, I've been writing feature stories for the San Diego Reader.

They're all just different ways of trying to describe experience. I guess I would agree with Faulkner. A lot of novelists whom we think of as major novelists also wrote poems: Joyce and Hemingway have poems as well—pretty bad poems.

I hadn't taken short stories seriously for a long time because I didn't think I could do them, but I read stories by Chekhov, the writer I probably admire more than any other, and I read other stories, certainly, but once I started writing short stories—the ones that finally came out in the book Eating Naked—I saw that they came out of me much the same way poems do. I mean, I write poems to find out why I write them, whereas, with the novel, I have certain ideas and put those down in notes and continue to build those notes until I have a sense of the whole novel, and then I outline those notes and have character sketches and all kinds of stuff. There's still a lot of discovery in the novel, but I have a sense before I begin of the curve of that novel—the beginning, middle, and end.

Language is always a diminishment of what it's attempting to describe, and thinking of the critical terms we know, all those which are critic-based are, for the most part,
a diminishment of an idea.

TCR: Speaking of discovery, you said once that you've written the same poem over and over, not so that the reader would ever recognize it, but that you keep looking at the same thing over and over. Would you speak to that? What are you after?

Stephen Dobyns: One of the writers I admire most is the poet Philip Larkin, and I think often of his work. He is absolutely tenacious in following a subject; he's like someone who turns over rocks to study the bugs that exist underneath, and the human experience is like that, which is obviously a pessimistic view, but it's one, nevertheless, that reflects in Larkin. It goes back to the question of what it is to be a human being, to look closely enough to come to some kind of answer. Our mood is changing all the time, and our psychology is slightly changing or modifying, so I might look at something and come up with one thing and look at the same thing a week later and come up with something else. The answers are like things that exist around it. You define the space of something by occupying the space around it like a mold. You keep coming at it from different directions.

I'm trying to deal with the world, to understand it in some way, to pass to some other kind of level below its surface. The question—it's been said—that exists in every work of art, poetry or fiction and, I suppose, maybe even in music and painting, is the question How does one live? A writer addresses that question again and again, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

TCR: So, like Larkin, even after you've written the poem one way, you keep walking around the same subject, exploring what it means from some other place, another place in time and so another place in your mind.

Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. This is something I read in Yeats's autobiography when I was 22. Yeats wrote two autobiographies, really. There was one that was not published for many, many years called The First Draft, but in the other one, the one actually called Autobiography, he says that we tend to write about the same things all our lives, that the subject matter we have as young adults is the subject matter we have as old adults, and I thought—at 22—that that was an absolutely horrible idea, yet as time goes by, I feel it certainly is true. We have concerns as human beings, primary concerns that exist all our lives. Since we change during our lives and our insight also changes, we approach those concerns differently over a period of, say, forty years, but they're the same concerns.

TCR: I guess it's that looking back and looking back again that elicits the truth of things, and you do get to the truth, but not just the truth of the idea. You get to the truth of the reader, and that lends an incredibly human element to your work. I'd suspect that even people who don't particularly like your work respect your willingness to face up to the hard fact of your (and our) humanness, but I can't help wondering if that kind of honesty isn't possible only in a perceived world. Do you think we can stand a view of ourselves that's that honest?

Stephen Dobyns: I think we can. It's hard because we are obviously always in motion, and we don't necessarily stop and focus on what we are doing. Psychoanalysis, or seeing a therapist can lead us to a deeper sense of ourselves, but one doesn't need that. One can find that through an experience or one can find it through reading. Look at a novel like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The depths of character that come out of that book are very enlightening, and they're enlightening because we realize that people around us also have that complexity of character as do we ourselves, that we have a conscious mind that is looking around us and taking in the stuff around us, and then we have an unconscious mind that's doing the same thing but which is much harder to have any sense of. I mean we see it in the effects of its actions rather than in its causes. There are plenty of people who don't like my work. I was dismissed just the other day as "one of those accessible poets."

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© 2004 The Cortland Review