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


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TCR: [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 dishonesty?

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.

TCR: That's 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.

I 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 have—and right away—some 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 it.

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 poetry—it goes under a number of idiotic terms—says 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 3, etc.

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 editing—I think he edited the Denver Quarterly for a while—tended 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 poetry—extremely obscure poetry—and 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 The 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 poem—its occlusion, or difficulty—that 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 popular—the late symbolist period of the 1890's, for instance. In the early twentieth century, you had absolutely impossibly obscure poetry—the 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.

TCR: I 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.

TCR: [Laughing] …a Hollywood starlet?

Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. [Laughing] How many poems do we have about Hollywood starlets that were originally sheep?

TCR: Uh…a dissertation subject?

Stephen Dobyns: [Laughing]

TCR: [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.

phen 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 thousand—say 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 M.F.A. students?

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 forward. [Laughing]

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 world—one 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 their flame.

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?

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 memoir.

TCR: Speaking 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 boiled potato.

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 non-discursive language.

TCR: In Best Words, 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 it's describing.

I 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 crescendo.

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:   

candle flame
wind coming

That's a metaphor saying something about the nature of human life—obviously 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 is to…, 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 awareness… when he gets it.

phen 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.*

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*You can now read Part II of this interview with Stephen Dobyns in our Issue 26.

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 Cortland Review.



© 2004 The Cortland Review