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[Laughing] Well, thank goodness there are some
accessible poets, and since you said that, indulge
me, if you will, one more question around this
subject of accessibility. You said in an interview
with Rattle Magazine awhile back that
dishonesty or backing away from the truth, whether
it's out of a sense of political correctness or fear
of offending someone, or moral censorship, is the
reason there is so much obscure poetry. Doesn't it
follow, then, that publishing obscure poetry rewards
Stephen Dobyns: There are different kinds of
obscure poetry. One kind exists because the poet has
an idea of his poem in his mind, and then he puts it
on the page, and it's obscure because it's
referencing material the poet knows that's not
accessible to the reader.
what you call, in
Best Words, Best Order,
"the poet's propensity for self-deception."
Stephen Dobyns: That's right. If I'm writing a
poem, I want it to be finished, I want it to work,
and I want it to be liked. There are arguments and
sound structures within the poem which I am
attempting to pull off in some way, and when I do
them, I can say to myself, This works. This is
good. This is finished. Many times when I say
that, however, I'm simply wrong. I've confused the
poem that exists in my imagination with the poem that
exists presently on the page.
haven't learned everything.
I haven't learned half of everything.
And then there's the kind of obscurity that's created
by a writer who wants to set himself off as
intelligent, so his poetry has a lot of thunder and
lightning, and you expect some substance behind it,
but it's not there. It's just thunder and lightning.
Many of us, maybe all of us, are afraid to be
thought less intelligent than we are or wish we were,
and we can be hesitant to put down our ideas,
frankly, for fear that someone will say So what?
or That's not very smart. But 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. Some poems clearly can take a number of
readings, but it seems to me that you also have to
give the reader some reason to read the poem. If
someone gives me a four-page very obscure poem, that
poem needs to haveand right awaysome
reason to read it. If I know the writers' other
works, I might pursue it. Otherwise, there has to be
something right at the beginning that draws me into
In other obscure poems, the complexity of the idea is
just difficult to work out. You can see this, say, in
Wallace Stevens, who has poems that are extremely
difficult, but if you know how to read Wallace
Stevens, I mean if you develop a context by reading
his other work, you can come to some understanding of
Stevens, and some of the poems, even the difficult
ones, become very clear.
Another kind of obscure poetry which is either
language poetry or post-modern poetryit goes
under a number of idiotic termssays that
meaning is not possible or is based on the premise
that meaning is not possible, that human beings
cannot communicate with one another, or that meaning
itself is simply passé. They'd say that even the
idea that you can communicate the idea of yourself as
a human being is impossible, and so poets writing out
of that philosophy actually work to thwart meaning;
they work consciously to make sure there's no
connection in meaning from line 1 to line 2 to line
TCR: Not a bad
problem to have—being "one of those accessible
poets," but why are we reading more and more
obscure poems in major poetry publications.
Stephen Dobyns: Some editors believe in that
kind of work. Donald Revell and his wife, Claudia
Keelan, take their ideas from the critic, Marjorie
Perloff. Perloff argues that meaning is not possible,
that it cannot be communicated, and so Revell, in his
editingI think he edited the Denver
Quarterly for a whiletended to include
post-modernist poems within that magazine, poems that
were very difficult to understand. In many cases,
even the word 'understand' is the wrong word because
they're not written to be understood. What you see in
them is that language does not communicate, and
that's their intention, so these editors choose poems
that reflect their aesthetic position.
Jorie Graham has edited an issue of Ploughshares.
She believes in a very dense and obscure,
non-analytical poetry. She believes more than that,
but she likes that kind of poetryextremely
obscure poetryand that's the kind of poetry she
published in that issue.
TCR: You may know that Steve Kowit,
in his article "The Mystique of the Difficult
Poem," quotes Jorie Graham's defense of
obscure poetry. Let me read what she says
about one of the poems in an issue of
Best American Poetry she edited:
the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my
impulse to resolve it into 'sense' of a rational
kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my
irritable reaching after fact, my desire for
resolution, graspable meaning, ownership. It
resisted. It compelled me to let go. The frontal,
grasping motion frustrated, my intuition was forced
awake. I felt myself having to 'listen' with other
parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced
back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw it
was the resistance of the poemits occlusion,
or difficultythat was healing me, forcing me to
privilege my heart
That's almost orgasmic, and I fail to see how it
defends the publication of obscure poetry.
Stephen Dobyns: If you look through history,
there are periods in which that type of poetry has
been popularthe late symbolist period of the
1890's, for instance. In the early twentieth
century, you had absolutely impossibly obscure
poetrythe Russian Symbolists, the French
Symbolists, the German Symbolists. What's worth
noting about that poetry is that it is completely
forgotten at this point, although there are a few
examples by people whom we still think of as major
poets, especially amongst the Russians. I'd say you
certainly don't want a poem that is completely
accessible in one reading, but it seems to me that a
poem has to make a link with the reader in some way.
Obviously a poem is just words on a page, but in that those words
accumulate to project powerful feeling and sometimes secondary
feelings, they are metaphors
for those feelings.
remember your saying that a writer must have gall and
humility. I'd say the more obscure your poetry is,
the more gall you need, but I know that isn't want
you meant. [Laughing]
Stephen Dobyns: You have to have gall in order
to follow the ideas in the poem no matter what, to
use your imagination, to do things that seem to be
without precedent. And you need the humility to say
that just because you do these things doesn't mean
you're a hotshot. You're still attempting to
communicate; you're still existing in some kind of
relationship with the reader, but you have to be
willing to put anything on the page. You can't censor
yourself. I mean if you want to write a poem about
having sex with a sheep
I mean, if that's what
comes out, what you do is write the damn poem, or you
choose not to write the poem, but you don't turn the
sheep into some more politically correct animal.
Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. [Laughing] How many
poems do we have about Hollywood starlets that were
Stephen Dobyns: [Laughing]
That probably makes this a good time to change the
subject. Bashing the
M.F.A. program and the pricey workshop has become a
popular pastime. Some would even say the poetry
professionals have created their own little industry
out of them. You've been involved in both, so talk
for just a minute to give us your take on what's
going on there.
Stephen Dobyns: There's a huge amount of very lousy
poetry in M.F.A. programs where poems tend to be
self-censored and very tame. When writers are writing
in order to be liked, they make vanilla poems. Then
there are a whole lot of people teaching in M.F.A.
programs who don't have the credibility as
poets. Maybe they've published some poems, maybe
they've even published a small book of poems,
but even if they're charming human beings, they
may not have sufficient knowledge about the medium to
give them credibility as teachers.
I was thinking just yesterday about how many people
have come out of these damned M.F.A. programs. I mean
between Master of Fine Arts Programs, undergraduate
majors, Masters programs, and PhD's, you probably
have several thousandsay five thousand people
in these programs throughout the country right now,
and then you have the people who graduated last year
and the year before that, and immediately you have
50,000 people who have come through these programs.
There are probably a million people out there right
now with their pens raised ready to put down some
absolutely horrible line. I'm not sure the benefit of
it. And maybe there is a tremendous benefit.
If they read as well as write, that's a great
benefit. But if they write without reading, they're
wasting time. They should go dig a ditch.
TCR: As a
teacher in an M.F.A. program, are you expected to use
your muscle to champion the manuscripts of your
Stephen Dobyns: I've never done that. If I
had a manuscript and I thought it was really
tremendous in some way, I might try and push it
forward, but I don't really know to whom I'd push it
TCR: I can't
see you involved in cronyism at that level, but can
you honestly say the poetry professional doesn't
control how we are writing, who gets published, and
who gets the prizes, and that it's in their own best
interest to see that nothing changes that?
Stephen Dobyns: I think there is some of that,
but there are so many people not within that
cronyism, that it doesn't mean a great deal. The
Pulitzer Prize, you know, tends to be controlled by
people with very strong aesthetics, and there are
other prizes that are controlled by people who really
want power. Some of them live in a very political
worldone where you're constantly doing favors
and expecting to get something back. Those people
believe that if they can generate the correct spin
around them, they will have the life. I'm not sure
whether they expect their poems to have life after
they die or not. Maybe they don't care.
I've been struck, too, by the number of people
whose ambition is not necessarily to become
significant writers, but to get jobs teaching
creative writing so they can settle down to a
comfortable middle-class academic life and get
published with enough regularity to meet requirements
for merit raises and the needs of tenure and promotions, but what they're primarily
interested in, is comfort.
It's hard to write out of such a groove. Get to
be thirty-five, an assistant or associate professor
at some state university, married with kids, and a
new Toyota, and your poems are going to start losing
trying to deal with the world, to understand it in some way, to pass
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?
TCR: ...but if
you have to be in a hostile world and wrought by pain
to get poems, doesn't that presume that you're poems
are going to be autobiographical?
Stephen Dobyns: All poems are autobiographical.
Although Simic's poems are not autobiographical in a
way that we can immediately identify, all of my poems
are autobiographical, even when events or the
narrative within a poem may be something that has
never happened or couldn't possibly happen. Even
though the whole poem is not autobiographical, it
will have details or parts of a narrative that
actually happened to me, and I've written poems where
everything in the poem is something I've experienced,
something I saw, but mostly I don't write poems
out of direct experience; I'm not interested in
of genres, I'm going to say I'm not qualified to talk
about your novels, but I don't want to ignore them
either, so I'd just say to anyone contemplating
reading a Dobyns novel, read three pages and it's
immediately apparent that this guy is also a poet.
The language is incredibly poetic. The images jump
off the pages, and speaking of images, you said
somewhere that Chekhov wouldn't draw attention to his
images by making them louder and bloodier; he'd
intensify the image of a pool of blood by putting a
white boiled potato in the middle of it. You
certainly learned that lesson. If the image of a boy
floating face down in his school's swimming pool
isn't shock enough to begin
Boy in the Water,
you have a kitten pacing from shoulder blade to
shoulder blade on that boy's back, the only part
of him that's out of the water. So there's your
Stephen Dobyns: The boiled potato in a pool of
blood comes from a Chekhov story called "The
Murderers," and the boiled potato brings that
pool of blood off the page and makes it memorable.
TCR: So does
your kitten, and
The Church of Dead Girls
opens with a jaw-dropping image, and you never let
up. I don't know how to talk about what you're
doing there technically or what it takes to keep up
that pace and that kind of tension, but these are
stunning psychological thrillers.
Stephen Dobyns: It's just good luck on revision.
You pursue the story and find a way of telling it,
even if it's a non-genre story. Obviously anything
you publish has to have a reason within it to make
the reader want to read it.
TCR: I know I've mentioned only two of your
twenty-one novels, and you've alluded very briefly to
Eating Naked, your first book of
short stories, some of which have already been
variously recognized for excellence, but what I want
to talk about here is
Best Words, Best Order.
I had the great good luck of having that book
recommended to me when I first began writing poetry,
and I never get tired of recommending it to others or
of saying that it's the best book ever written about
poetry. It establishes, realistically, how monumental
the poet's job is. It's about technique, but it's
easy to read, and a reminder that the poem's true aim
is craft and communication. Besides all that, it's a
history of contemporary poetry, and I think it's a
given that anybody serious about poetry would want to
read it over and over again. While I'm tripping over
all these superlatives, let me also mention that
Macmillan published a second edition last April.
What's different about the new edition?
Stephen Dobyns: The only difference is that it
has three new essays at the end. One's on beauty;
one's on the use of time, and one's on discursive and
you talk extensively about metaphor, that the whole
poem is a metaphor, and just awhile ago you mentioned
that sound can be a metaphor, too. Would you expound
on that whole discussion of metaphor for TCR readers
who may not have read
Best Words, Best Order?
Stephen Dobyns: Obviously a poem is just words
on a page, but in that those words accumulate to
project powerful feeling and sometimes secondary
feelings, they are metaphors for those feelings. They
are not the feelings; they are creating a story,
which may or may not be true, or a series of images
which are imagined, the total effect of which is to
create some kind of emotion, so their metaphor is
expressive of some kind of human feeling. Beyond
that, they can also be expressive of an idea. They
attempt to identify one moment of time, and they are
a metaphor for that time. They are a metaphor for
another human sensibility, and the sound is a
metaphor, too. In the first line of Yeats's
"Leda and the Swan,"
A sudden blow: the great wings beating stilled,
the very ba bop ba bop ba bop bop bop ba bop noise of
that is the sound of an oversized swan leaping upon
some poor girl. You could not use soft words or a
very quiet rhythm for that. You need that sound.
It's reflective; it's a metaphor for the thing
write poems to find out why I write them.
All poems have some narrative: either they are
directly narrative or there is an implied narrative.
Somebody is sitting on a couch whining about his love
affair. Behind that is the narrative of that love
affair about which you know only a little piece.
A narrative occurs even in Keats's "Ode to a
Nightingale." We are aware of a man in April
around midnight standing out in the woods listening
to this bird sing, and that's a very small narrative
of a guy walking out there and listening, and then he
says things within that poem that make you realize
that his attention on the subject of death has been
affected by the fact that he took care of his brother
Tom who was dying of TB, and then his mother died of
TB, and so, if you know Keats's life, you can see
within that poem his concern, his uncertainty about
the fact that he might get TB. Well, that's the
implicit narrative within that poem, and it leads you
to the emotional moment.
Any poem that's not an epic poem or a narrative poem
like "Casey at the Bat" is moving toward
some kind of emotional moment. You can look at a
lyric poem that has an emotional moment that has very
little narrative or a narrative poem that has that
emotional moment, and the similarity between them is
in terms of that emotional moment. It's a kind of
emotional crescendo; the information in the poem
builds up to this turn or this thing, this emotional
And usually that happens at the end of the poem. I
don't know if you could do it at the beginning of the
poem, but I suspect you could. The biggest moment in
"Leda and the Swan" is when that damned
swan comes flapping out of the air and jumps on that
poor girl, and we see the rape that exists over eight
lines, and then Yeats moves away from the rape to
this larger subject:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
He's talking about the fall of Troy, and Leda gives
birth to a couple of eggs, and one of them becomes
Helen of Troy, and then we have the whole thing. And
did she know this was going to happen?
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Zeus can see the future. Was there a moment that she
had a vision of the future as well? And the poem
obviously ends with that question: "Did she put
on his knowledge with his power?" And you know
the whole of that poem is a metaphor for a series of
ideas and emotions. It's a metaphor because anything
that's invented (to oversimplify) is a metaphor for
the series of ideas which led to that invention.
Think about one of Merwin's Asian figures:
That's a metaphor saying something about the nature
of human lifeobviously that life is like a
candle flame. What happens to a candle flame? Wind
coming. Well, there's a missing piece of information
in that metaphor: life is to a candle flame as wind
, and it's not said what that piece of
information is, but we understand it. When we think
of that metaphor, it takes only an eighth of a second
to realize the wind relates to death. The word death
is never used in that metaphor, and we have to ask
ourselves that riddle. What is to life as wind is to
candle flame? All of that is automatic in our minds.
We're not even aware that we're doing it, but we
suddenly have that sense that Merwin's talking about
death, even though death is never mentioned.
TCR: And the
lyric moment happens when the reader is struck with
when he gets it.
Stephen Dobyns: Exactly.
TCR: That reference to
"awareness" makes me want to ask if any one
poem or group of poems in your whole body of work
sent you on a whole different course?
Stephen Dobyns: I don't think so. The books, as
we've said, are different from one another, and in
the writing of the different books, you know, there
is some point where I'd have an idea that took over
and became the dominating idea or the dominating idea
for the next book.
TCR: You've just hit on what, for
me, is the character and the genius of your books and
something I don't often see when I read multiple
books by the same poet. What seems to me is usually
the case is that a poet takes all the poems he's
written since the last book and comes up with
arbitrary headings for groupings that somehow allow
him to squeeze them all in. That's clearly not the
case with Stephen Dobyns, and we're going to look at
the development of Stephen Dobyns and the Stephen
Dobyns poem book by book. I hope this is teaser
enough to encourage TCR readers to come back for that
discussion. Can I impose on you to read some poems for
us in that discussion, too?
Stephen Dobyns: Sure.*
*You can now read
Part II of this interview with Stephen Dobyns
Ginger Murchison assists Thomas Lux
in directing Georgia Tech's POETRY at TECH, one of
the country's most energetic poetry programs. A 2003
Pushcart Nominee, she has published poems in several
magazines and journals, the most recent being The
Atlanta Review, and her poems appear in a dozen
anthologies. Married, and the mother of two,
she lives and works in Atlanta but escapes as often
as possible to her second home on Florida's Sanibel
Island. She is Associate Managing Editor of The